Chapter 3: Lonely Tower
Rain pelted the shuttered windows of the tower and seeped through the thatched roof. Fat drops fell with annoying regularity into the assortment of buckets and pans set out to catch them. Whenever I’d suggested to Master Balthazar that we take time to re-thatch the roof, he dismissed me in a huff insisting that a Master Mage had better things to do than fix a leaky roof. As often as it rained along this stretch of the Isadora coast, I could think of nothing more important that a proper roof to keep a Mage’s tower warm and dry.
As I pushed open one of the shutters to dump a nearly full bucket, I caught sight of the muddy road that wound its way through the endless moor and up to my master’s tower. In the distance I could make out the drenched column of riders plodding sluggishly through the muck towards us; above them flew the black and red banner of the Duke of High Glen.
“Unity preserves us,” I muttered as I dropped the bucket out the window and hobbled off to my Master’s sleeping chambers. Since our return to the tower three days prior, my Master had spent much of his time abed; the working in the meadow had taken quite a lot out of the weathered ancient.
“Master,” I called insistently as I pounded on his chamber door. “Master … it’s the Duke … he …”
“Is coming up the road, and nearly here,” came the groggy answer from behind the closed door, “I am well aware of that Kerri, I foresaw his arriving when I meditated yesterday. It was inevitable really, given the trail I left for them.”
“You could have said something,” I muttered sourly.
“Why,” he asked as he opened the door, “it would only have caused you to worry unnecessarily.”
Before I could answer he pushed passed me and stomped towards the stairs, “I think I shall entertain our guests in my workroom; that should provide the most impressive reception.” Then he turned and eyed me apologetically, “You know that I view you more as a daughter than merely an apprentice, and I do not stand on the formalities of the Master/ Apprentice relationship, however in light of whom or guest are …”
“I understand Master,” I smiled knowingly. “I won’t disappoint you.”
“Good lass,” he nodded.
Suddenly Uriel appeared; jumping down from the top of a linen cupboard. “Unity, where should I hide him,” I asked feeling more than a little panicked. The thought of what the Duke might do should he find Uriel made me shudder.
“Most certainly not,” Balthazar replied, “His Grace is seeking a dragon not a cat.” Then he turned his gaze to Uriel, “Won’t you join me in my workroom young Sky Lord, I would value your company.”
Uriel looked once at me and then back to my Master, but did not otherwise move.
“No, my friend you need not fear for her,” he spoke to Uriel as part of a conversation I wasn’t wholly privy to, “As my apprentice, Kerri was under my protection long before she became your Companion; what is mine I fervently defend. Trust me, even in my week state; I am a far more formidable mage than any that rides with the Duke. He will not trifle with Master Mage Balthazar of the Light.”
Without another word of encouragement for Balthazar, Uriel sprang past the ancient and bounded up the stairs. A satisfied nod caused my Master’s old grey head to bod merrily.
“Oh, I nearly forgot,” he paused after taking only three steps up the stairs, “do you still ware the amulet I gave you.”
His question stunned me; I‘d never taken the amulet off since the day he gave it to me. “You said it had a spell of protection woven into it,” I supplied as I pulled the carved disk on the leather thong from under my tunic.
Balthazar smiled with pleasure, “so it does, my child … so it does. Please bring the Duke and his entourage up to my workroom as soon as they arrive.”
“Of course Master.”
When the insistent knock came at the front door I waited through a slow count of ten before answering. ‘I am one of the Seven Masters,’ Balthazar had once told me, ‘do not scurry to answer my door like a frightened mouse; wait and answer with the dignity that my position affords me.’ I hoped this instruction applied just as well to the Duke as it did to others who came seeking an audience with the Magus of Light. When I opened the door, the Duke’s Sargent-at-Arms stood stiff as a marble statue on the other side; the man’s clothes were soaked through and rain streamed in rivulets down his battle scared face. I opened myself to the Unanimity and Light as I searched the man’s essence; the glow of the Unanimity shimmered within him with earth being the predominate force.
“His Grace, The Duke of High Glen is here to see Master Balthazar,” he intoned formally.
“Master Balthazar is busy in his workroom,” I answered, “may I be of assistance?”
“Step aside Roland,” one of the men standing behind the Sargent barked. “If I wanted the assistance of a snot-nosed whelp I would have remained in High Glen.” Moments later the Duke himself stood bristling before me. While the Sargent’s essence glowed with the pleasantness of earth, the Duke’s essence swirled with a distressing mixture of shadow and an even darker power that I had never encountered before; it made me almost nauseous to be near him.
“I am not a man known for great patience, girl,” he grunted as he shoved his way past me, “You can either escort me to your master or I can order my men to tear this place apart until they find him.” He turned and glared at me with hate filled eyes, “the choice is yours.”
“Right this way, Your Grace,” I answered with a bow before leading the Duke, his Sargent-at-arms, and a third man up the winding stairs that led to Balthazar’s workroom.
I knocked reverently on the heavy oak door at the top of the stairs. “Enter,” came the soft answer from within. I opened the door slowly, as if I dreaded what lay beyond it; a certain amount of theatrics came as part and partial to a mage’s craft.
“His Grace, The Duke of High Glen to see you Master,” I gave the formal introduction as I bowed before Balthazar.
“Very good Kerri, thank you,” his face was a mask of indifference as he turned from his work table to great his guests, but his eyes twinkled with mischief. “Your Grace,” he greeted the Duke with only the slightest incline of his head; the Master of Light bowed only before The Unanimity. “How may I be of service to you?” Balthazar continued as he rose from his stool.
“My tracker, Crog, detected dragon magic,” the Duke indicated the third man in the room as the tracker. “We followed it to a meadow seven days ride from here,” the Duke paused as his eyes scanned the workroom, taking in the wonders of its contents.
I remembered with awe and fondness the first time I’d stepped through the oaken door of Balthazar’s workroom; tombs and scroll lined the shelves and littered my master’s work tables, jars containing every manor of oddity and specimens filled the gaps between books and ringed the room on a high shelf. Curiosities and artifacts of antiquity from every corner of creation lay scattered about like discarded children’s toys, and the scent of exotic spices and strong tea tied the whole atmosphere together. The décor of Balthazar’s workroom was the physical summation of a lifetime of scholarly pursuits laid open to the eye, like the pages of an old book, for any visitor with wisdom to read. The sense of wonder I felt upon entering this place hadn’t lessened any over the five years I’d spent as Balthazar’s apprentice.
“A powerful working of magic occurred in the meadow,” the Duke continued when he had his wits about again. “The residue left behind by it fouled my trackers senses for three and a half days, but when he found the trail again it brought us here … to your tower.”
The Duke took several determined steps towards my Master, but then halted as if he thought better of rashly approaching a man of such power, “Why would a trail of dragon magic lead us here Balthazar,” he asked lightly.
“I’m sorry your journey was for naught Your Grace,” Balthazar replied casually. “To me child,” he beckoned me forward and I obediently came to his side. “Show His Grace the amulet,” he instructed.
I swallowed hard before pulling the disk from under my bodice and allowing it to fall back against the course fabric. Why I suddenly felt fear I couldn’t say.
“Here is your source of Dragon magic,” Balthazar dismissed, “The amulet is made from a dragon’s scale; I gave it to the girl as a toke when I took her as my apprentice.”
“You do realize, Master Balthazar” an evil smile curled the corners of the Dukes mouth as he spoke, “that possession of dragon artifacts or dragon parts by a commoner is strictly forbidden by law.” Then he held is gloved hand out towards me and his sick smile broadened, “the amulet if you please.”
Before I could respond I found my Master had inserted himself between me and the Duke. Balthazar seemed physically larger than usual and the power of his presence more ominous than I’d ever know it before. The tension in the room, which had been a low hum up until now, suddenly increased dramatically.
“I am no mere commoner, Your Grace,” he replied in a deep voice that rippled with the power of the Unanimity, “I am Balthazar, Master of the Light and one of the Seven Master Magi.”
“Are you suggesting that you are above the law, Master Magi,” the Sergeant-at-arms inquired. These were the first words the man had spoken since I first encountered him, statue stiff and soaking wet, at the front door.
“Quite to the contrary, I am bound by an older and much higher law that you or the Duke will ever know,” Balthazar’s voice continued to vibrate with power as he spoke, “I am bound by the laws of the Unanimity.”
“Yes of course,” the Duke acknowledged reluctantly, “but the girl …”
“Is bound to me,” Balthazar cut the Duke off in mid-sentence, “by a most ancient and scared of oaths … an oath spoken before the High Alter of Unity and sealed with blood and the giving of a token. She is no simple girl, she is Apprentice to the Master of Light, and as such she is afforded a measure of my status.”
After several tense moments of silence the Duke conceded defeat. “Check and mate; the day is yours Balthazar, but be warned. The arrival of dragons within my boarders and the gathering of The Seven did not go unnoticed,” he paused and pointed a shaking finger at Balthazar, “You and the other Master Magi are up to something and when I find out what that something is, I’ll have that ancient grey head of yours on a pike in front of my palace … Master of Light or not!”
With that the trio, led by the Duke, stormed from the workroom. I watched them from the tower window as the company receded back along the muddy road across the moor. As they departed, the very structure of the tower itself seemed to breathe a sigh of relief. The danger had passed, for now, but I had a strange suspicion that we hadn’t seen the last of the Duke. I felt a warm softness rubbing against my arm and looked down to find Uriel standing on the table beside me. I reached towards him reverently and stroked his long sleek back. His purring vibrated up my arm like a river’s current, filling every corner of my being as it soothed away the growing sense of distress that gathered in my heart.