The Lady Vanished
“She was right here, father. ”
“I believe you, Adrian.”
“What am I going to do? Her father entrusted me to care for her-“
”He is not due for three more days, Adrian. We yet have time.”
“And if we don’t find her…?”
“Let’s not dwell on what may not be,” his father said.
Adrian sighed, accepting the advice as practical, if unhelpful.
He found a note on a knife blade stuck in his door.
If you wish to save the girl, come to Farspire.
Bring a purse of one thousand gold coins, and nothing else.
He showed the note to his father.
“Farspire? No one goes there. It is forbidden.”
”It’s a city of sorcery, Adrian. Have you not paid attention in your studies?”
“If Farspire were mentioned, then no, but I don’t think it was.”
“I can’t allow you to go.”
“If it’s where they have her, then I have no choice.”
His father looked at him.
He loves her, he realized. And that had its own complications.
He began pacing.
There was no way to talk Adrian out of it; he had a set look to his face that his father knew all too well. Nothing short of imprisonment would stop him, and he would not hold his son prisoner.
Love will do that on its own…
His father repressed the smile, despite the danger his son would face.
“Very well, then. I’ll send your brother with you.”
“You say you won’t allow me to go, and now you risk both of us?”
His father sighed.
“No, Adrian, I would see you return from your folly intact, and your brother is the better of you at fighting.”
The boy’s eyes flashed.
“For the moment,” his father chuckled, holding up appeasing hands.
Adrian grinned despite himself, and when his father turned away again to address him, he rushed him, tried to tackle him from behind, but the old man scooped him up as he would a small dog, and carried Adrian under one arm, and tossed him out over the threshold.
“Go, fool boy,” his father said, laughing.
Adrian took off.
“Next time!” he called over his shoulder.
Not if I can help it…his father would never admit it, but it had taken all his strength.
Mizzle shrouded the city, giving the lights the glow of halos in ancient paintings, but there was nothing holy here.
The sorcerers had been content to live in peace in Farspire, after being purged from their ancestral lands by frequent attacks.
They set up novelty shops of fortune, and apothecaries, and became healers, tailors, quilters, jewelry makers, smiths, millers and midwives, their powers latent, their lives peaceful, until a man no longer content to hide came to the fore among them after generations of peace, and urged them to take their rightful place.
Along with his wife, they ascended to the throne through dark magic and bloodshed. Lines of succession and descendants were abruptly, mysteriously severed, and the people saw the inevitable coming, unable to escape.
In morbid fear and abject terror, they took the harness of their new burdens, and when they could no longer pay in crops, coin and cattle, they paid in children, virgins, and sacrifice.
No one had come to stand against the sorcerers, and Farspire became a blighted land.
The brothers took the last ferry.
The black river water gurgled in protest beneath the ferryman’s sure paddling, unerring in his directions, even in the wet darkness.
Adrian morbidly looked for bodies, but didn’t see any.
His brother was in the back of the boat, shivering and muttering curses.
Adrian heard the word ‘fool’ emphasized quite a few times, but didn’t know if his brother meant himself, or Adrian. He didn’t ask.
“Aidan, why do you think they took her?”
“I have no idea, Adrian; she was in your care.”
Adrian didn’t say anything more.
“Do you have the bag?” Aidan asked.
“Yes, it’s right over there…”
“Over …over…”Adrian looked about.
“I don’t see it, Adrian. Did you leave it on the shore?”
“No! I put it over there with the rest of our things, right on top.”
“It’s not there now.”
“Hey!” Adrian shouted to the ferryman, “Did you see the brown leather bag I put on here? It had gold latches.”
“I saw it.”
“Where is it?”
“What do you mean ‘it’s gone?’ ”
Aidan stood up and pulled his knife. “It means he made it disappear…sorcery.”
Oh no! No, no, no!
“Who are you?” Adrian asked.
The ferryman turned and smiled at them, and his long paddle turned into a rowan staff, his simple clothes into a robe etched in runes, his curly black hair became a long ponytail of white down the middle of his back, and his swarthy face, now cerulean, was limned with white whiskers.
“My name is Sharvan. I am the guardian of the Sacred Tree, and the ferryman to the city you now enter.”
He gestured expansively with the staff, and the mizzle disappeared to reveal a city of marble and spires, minarets and gemstones, towers and temples, and in the middle of it sat the tallest structure, a spire like an ornate staff driven into the heart of the earth, carved all over with ancient symbols that shifted and scrolled down its length, ever changing, casting spells day and night, unceasing, flaring with eldritch light when the power in them ignited.
The hairs on the boys’ arms and the nape of their necks stood on edge at the sheer touch of dark magic that permeated the air.
“Welcome, gentlemen, to Farspire!”
Gianere was hungry; they’d starved her deliberately to weaken her magic.
She languished on the bars looking out the window at the lights of Farspire, appearing almost magical as they twisted and swirled and flared in an intricate dance of spell weaving, the runes in a freefall of arcane words and symbols as water cascades down a dam wall.
The guards passed by the barred door like mute shades of the underworld, grim and full of dread purpose; they would not be distracted, persuaded or seduced by such as her.
And so she had no choice.
Had she not sighed and turned from the window, she would have seen the ferry round the bend, and two young men sitting in it, being paddled by the ferryman of Farspire, sure of stroke and current, unerring in his path.
She would have seen it pass Farspire itself, and head toward the very tower where she was held in light shackles, on an island full of wet, uncertain gravel, surrounded by creatures that moved just under the surface of its murky moat waters.
And she would have doubtless recognized Adrian and Aedan.
Instead, she sat against the stone wall, out of tears, out of good memories, out of thoughts of hope, and slept.
Sharvan looked amused.
“Sit down, Aidan. You’ll throw the boat off-balance, and we’ll all end up in the river.
“It’s night, and the water’s cold. And the river’s inhabitants don’t like being disturbed either. They could wake up angry, or…hungry.”
Aidan put the knife away, and sat, feeling somewhat foolish; the man had made a bag of gold disappear. What could he do to a man?
“Don’t worry, gentlemen,” the ferryman said, restoring his previous appearance. “The gold is with the one who asked for it. I’m but the messenger.”
“How do we know he’ll keep his word?” said Adrian.
“You don’t, but I can tell you that normally, he does.”
“That doesn’t make me feel better.”
“Good. That wasn’t my intention.”
Adrian bristled, but said no more.
“So where are we going?”
“The man who has your gold will see you in the morning. I’m to take you to the best inn of Farspire, and see you safely squared away, and then I return to my ferry. You will not see me again until your departure.”
“That could not be soon enough,” said Aidan.
His transformation now complete, the ferryman smiled, and made swirled eddies in the water with his paddle again, and said no more.
The servant girl entered his room to remove the remains of his meal.
“Drissa, how long have you been in my service?”
“Since I was ten, Master Halim.”
“Have I been a good master?”
“Then why did you steal from me?”
Drissa looked up, her eyes wide.
“Master? I-I-I wouldn’t…I never…”
Halim’s laughter boomed.
“Calm yourself, child. I was having a joke at your expense.”
Drissa forced herself to smile, but was torn between fainting and putting the knife he’d cut his meat with into his fat neck.
“A solid jest, master.”
“Indeed,” he growled, his meaty hand circling her passing waist.
She tried to sidestep, but he clutched at her servant’s apron, and the knot held fast.
Drissa cursed her thoroughness.
“Master, please, I must return to kitchen duties…”
Halim made a mock-sad face, his lips pouting, like a child not getting his way. His lips glistened with spittle and grease that dribbled unnoticed down his chins.
“Must you? But I have other appetites, dear girl, that have not been sated.”
He pulled her hard onto his lap.
He smeared grease on her cheek with his lips, murmured something lewd, and she took the knife and stuck him quickly in the leg.
Suddenly standing up, he tumbled her from his lap in a heap to the floor.
“Something stuck me! I swear, wench, if you stuck me…”
“I did not, master…the knife was in my grasp, but—
“Begone!” He backhanded her and sent her sprawling, her cheek stinging with pain.
She managed to contain her rage, because it was better by far than the shame of having to bed him; never in the history of slaughter did a pig so need killing.
As she scurried out the door, her shuddering changing from revulsion to relief, another servant entered carrying a message.
Halim turned his bleary gaze on the boy, beckoned him over, and the boy handed him the message, bowed, and all but ran from the room.
As Halim chuckled in amusement, the folds of his robe bounced on his rounded belly: Keep them on their toes, all day if required, all night if you desire.
His father’s words on the proper way to deal with servants, who after awhile would tend to develop a familiar way if not checked.
Reading the message, he rolled his eyes.
Here so soon? And with his brother?
He would meet with them in the morning, as he’d promised.
Whether or not he’d send his latest prize back with them remained to be seen.
I may well add them to my collection…
In the morning, the guard entered and left a tray that contained a plate of steaming, unrecognizable food, and a pitcher of tepid, but clean, water.
Gianere, starving, ate without pausing to savor.
The food burned her mouth, and the water, which tasted like heaven mixed with sediment, cooled it and restored her somewhat.
A thin guard had taken over morning duties for her cage, as she called it.
He wasn’t much taller or bigger than she was, but he had the keys, and she didn’t.
Unlike the walking golems that watched her at night, this one liked to taunt his prisoners.
“Word has it in the courts, little brat, that your ransom’s being paid by a young gentleman.”
She looked up at that. “Adrian?”
“What do I care what name he goes by.” The guard spat brown tobacco spit into her cage, in her general direction, and chuckled when she flinched from it.
He didn’t say more, and went about his duties, leaving her in an agony of curiosity.
In the early afternoon, footsteps approached her cage, and Gianere stood up in anticipation, daring to smile, but not daring to indulge her happiness until they were on their way home.
Instead, the guards carried a beaten boy between them, head hanging, feet dragging the floor, hair matted with blood.
The door creaked open, and they tossed the boy like refuse onto the stone floor, where he moaned at a fresh pain that shot through his body with the impact, landing face down.
Gianere gasped, her hands over her mouth, and then ran over to him, her hands in his clothing, struggling with his weight.
“Adrian? By the crown of heaven…!”
Finally, she rolled him over.
“Adrian? Adrian, wake up!”
Smoothing his hair from his face, she saw it wasn’t Adrian.
He opened his good eye. “Gi…Gianere?”
“Yes, yes, it’s me. It’s me, Aidan.”
She stroked his forehead, his head in her lap, her tears blurry and dripping, mixing with the blood on his face, which she cleaned with some part her dress she managed to bunch in her hand.
“It’s all right, Aidan. You’re all right…”
“Liar,” he croaked at her, through a broken- toothed smile.
Her magic was too weak…too weak…
“Aidan, where’s…where’s Adrian?”
She gave Aidan some of the tepid water, pouring it into his mouth from the pitcher.
He swallowed eagerly, some of it dribbled from the corner, pink with blood.
Again, the broken -toothed smile, but he coughed as some of the water went down the wrong way, and spattered them both with it.
“Sorry…” he rasped.
“Adrian?” she prompted. “Where is he?”
And as Gianere’s heart soared into a blue panacea, Aidan’s head lolled to the side, and he plummeted into a sweet, sleeping blackness.
They stood before Halim, who couldn’t sit straight for all his girth, so he leaned forward, putting his right elbow on his right knee and his chins in his hand, and tried to look intense.
He just looked like an overly curious toad, but Adrian and Aedan gave him due deference all the same.
“You have your gold,” Adrian said. “All we want is Gianere.”
“Why? What do you mean ‘why?’ It’s what you promised if we paid the ransom.”
Aedan, standing slightly behind Adrian, noticed the guards subtly shifting position.
“Forget it, Adrian.”
“He has no intentions of handing her over.”
Adrian cast a quick look about and saw the movement, and without a word bolted for the door.
The guards were fast, but not fast enough. Adrian shoved two of them out of the way as Aedan’s sword flashed among the rest, keeping them at bay for just long enough.
He dared not look back, though he heard Aedan cry out as fists pummeled him, heard the clang of his sword against the marble, and the roar of the king to stop him.
The guards wore light armor, but it still slowed them down, and Adrian was naturally fleet.
But he didn’t know his way around.
As he turned a corner he saw a serving girl, walking slowly, weeping into her hands.
He ran, but slowed as he approached; she was preoccupied with her grief, but when she heard his footsteps she turned, startled.
“My name’s Adrian; the king took my brother captive, and I need to find help. The guards are chasing me, and in a moment they’ll sound the alarm. I need to get out.” “
“I can get you out through the kitchens.”
“I’m in your debt…”
“Drissa. We must move quickly.”
“Thank you, Drissa. I’m Adrian.”
“Adrian, then. Let’s go.”
She managed to slip Adrian a loaf of warm bread before the kitchen matron spotted her and bellowed for her to get back to work.
“Good luck, Adrian.”
Adrian slipped quietly out into the late morning air.
The kitchen was located by a small stream that was an offshoot of the river, convenient for washing dishes and people, and catching fish when it was required.
Adrian, hearing the clamor of approaching horses, took off.
He managed, somehow to protect the bread as he crossed, and had just made the stand of trees on the opposite bank when the riders came, quickly searching the kitchen and the bank he’d just left.
“He’s crossed,” said one of the men.
“Did you see him?”
“No, but if he’s not here, there’s no other explanation.”
“Let’s cross, then. The king wants him…”
“I’m not. We have his brother, who’s actually next-in-line for the throne. His da will pay handsome enough.
“I suppose so…”
“Hey, you want to get wet chasing a wild goose, you go right ahead. I’m for the castle; I’ll tell the king he got away.”
“He might kill you, then.”
“Don’t care; sick of serving him anyway. No raise in pay, hardly a day off…” the rest of it was lost in the sound of hoof beats.
Adrian heard the comment across the river’s murmur; this king, it seemed, was not well loved.
He might be able to use that to his advantage.
For now, he headed for the only place he could think of where he knew anyone; he went to see Sharvan.
“I told you, Halim, to keep a sorcerer near; he would’ve been able to trail the boy. Now, you have no way of knowing where he went.”
“And I told you, Makil, I would trust no magic so near the throne.”
Makil snorted. “You rule over a kingdom of magic! Dark magic, at that, and you don’t use it to crush your enemies, and you suspect it might be used against you. Isn’t that foolish?”
Halim’s eyebrows rose at the rash tone of the question, and his gaze smoldered.
“Am I yet alive, brother?” Halim said, the expression on his face demanding an answer.
“Most assuredly, Halim, you are alive.”
“Then my decision is not foolish, is it?”
Makil dropped his eyes, but only briefly. It would be enough; Halim would get no more.
“No, Halim, it is not foolish. Yet the boy is gone.”
Halim heaved himself out of his throne, trying not to groan.
“It’s a small matter; he’s nowhere to hide, and I’ve an ally in the ferryman, so if he shows up, Sharvan will tell me.”
Makil shuddered at the mention of the ferryman; the man was too mercurial, too mysterious. No one knew where he came from, and no one could remember him not being the ferryman, not even the very oldest citizens of Farspire, yet he never seemed to age.
Makil knew that Sharvan spied for Halim; news traveled on a river. So did merchants, soldiers, slaves, and people of means. He also kept a log of who took his ferry, and traded information with Halim in return for hot meals, shelter, and gold.
Makil often thought about killing him, but he had magic, and might in some way be able to tell Halim who did it. That would mean his head would join the spinning skulls arcing against the sky, or his body skewered on a pole, or a barbed hook, to swing and rot in the wind, his eyes the claimed prize of the boldest crow, the swiftest raven.
My dear brother, you are deluded. I must find a way to get you to see the ferryman for who he really is…
As soon as I find that out for myself.
Sharvan was just coming to shore from a trip when Adrian got to the pier.
“Hail, young traveler! Your business is here is done?”
“Sadly, no. And I’ve nowhere to turn. Halim sought to imprison us as well. He has my brother; they were beating him as I ran. I don’t know if he’s still alive…and I don’t know what to do.”
Sharvan tied the boat off, let the oar turn into his rowan staff, but changed nothing else, and approached Adrian.
“You place great trust in strangers, Adrian.”
“Out of all the strange things here, you’re the one I met first.”
“Indeed. If I tell you how to break him out, I commit treason, and if I do it for you, it will come at a price.”
“I’ve more gold…”
Sharvan shook his head.
“That may not be what I ask of you. If I agree to help you, the price may come later, and it may not be gold. I myself don’t know what it might be until I need it, but I need to know now if you’re willing to pay.”
“I’m not next in line for the throne, but my brother and I, and Geniere, will be in your debt.”
“None of you may find it a good spot. Just so we’re clear, I can exact my price from you when needed?”
“Yes, Sharvan. You have my word.”
“Place your hand on the staff.”
“What do I say?”
Sharvan told him.
“I, Prince Adrian of Kailan, give my word to Sharvan, the Guardian of the Sacred Tree, to pay his price for the freedom of my brother, and the princess Geniere, be it in this world, or the next.”
The staff flashed with light, and the ember colored runes of Adrian’s oath slithered down the staff toward its end, and faded.
“Our bargain is sealed, young traveler. Your brother and your lady will be with you at evensong. I suggest you take the ferry and start home tonight.”
Adrian nodded, pushing away the anxiety of the deal he’d just made with an unknown man of mysterious powers.
“Don’t look so stricken, Adrian.”
Adrian gave him a nervous smile.
“Come,” Sharvan said, turning Adrian from the pier and patting his back, “I’ll buy you lunch.”
They walked into the inn, bright and boisterous in the rare patch of sun, and as if a choir had gathered to sing in the village square, the alarum bells pealed from the steeples and towers of Farspire.