Adhémar, king of Neroche, nodded to himself over the thought, though he suspected that nothing so exciting would actually come to pass. He was out for a simple jaunt along his northern borders, not a pitched battle. Indeed, it had been so long since he’d encountered any trouble that it seemed that the only thing he did with his sword these days was prop it up at his elbow at supper. It was a pity, truly. He came from a long line of superior warriors. And he had to admit, quite modestly, that he had inherited more than his fair share of prowess. It wasn’t something he made mention of overmuch; his reign spoke for itself. No disasters since he’d taken the crown fourteen years earlier, no wars with neighboring kingdoms, no real trouble with the menace in the north. That sort of peace was a fine accomplishment, though it had robbed him of as many exploits to brag of as he would have liked. At least there was nothing of a disastrous nature for some bold-tongued bard to use to entertain those less respectful of a king’s burden. Aye, it was a good life, Adhémar looked about him in satisfaction. He was surrounded by his most elite guardsmen, each of them equal to an entire garrison of a lesser king. His castle, Tor Neroche, hovered on the sheer side of a mountain behind him like a fearsome bird of prey. Even kings of other lands shivered a bit when they rode beneath the shadows of those battlements. And who could blame them? It was impressive in the extreme.
And there were the more personal particulars to consider. Adhémar turned to those with a decent amount of enthusiasm. He examined himself, looking for flaws. It was difficult to find many, though he was surely more critical of himself than he was of anyone else. He was young, for a king of Neroche; he was handsome, based on reports by others he knew to be perfectly impartial; and his entire life had been full of might, magic, and many other kings wishing they could be him. And now to be out and about, savoring the first days of what promised to be a glorious autumn, knowing that the seasons would stretch out ahead of him in as fine a manner as they trailed off behind him. He listened to the jingle of tack and the low conversings of his men and knew deep in his heart that today would be yet another day that would pass peacefully and quietly into the splendor that was his reign. And then, quite suddenly, things changed. There was the sound of a slap. Adhémar turned around in his saddle to find the man behind him looking quite surprised to see an arrow sticking out of his chest.
The man met Adhémar’s eyes. “My liege,” he said before he slid oft his horse and fell to the ground. He did not move again. Adhémar turned to face the assault. It came, somewhat surprisingly, from a bit of forest to the north of the road. Adhémar cursed as he spurred his horse forward. Surely someone could have warned him about this. There were mages aplenty in his kingdom and one in particular whose duty it was to see that their northern borders were secure. There would be words later, to be sure. But for now he would do what he did best, and that would be to intimidate and terrify his foes with his sheer presence alone.
That and the Sword of Neroche, the king’s sword that had struck fear into the hearts of innumerable enemies in the past, Adhémar drew his sword with a flourish. It blazed with a bloodred magelight that sent his enemies scattering. Adhémar bellowed his war cry and followed, with his men hard on his heels. They cut through the enemy easily, soon leaving the ground littered with the bodies of the fallen. Adhémar paused on the far side of the glade and examined the corpses from his vantage point atop his horse. The lads before him weren’t precisely of the sort he was accustomed to encountering. Indeed, he suspected that they weren’t precisely human. He found himself hoping, with a desperation that never found home in his breast, that he was imagining what he was seeing. He watched his men finish up their work of death, then resheathed his sword and nodded to his captain to move on. The men made their way up the small hillock to the road, looking over their shoulders uneasily.
Adhémar normally wouldn’t have admitted that he understood such looks, but he could not lie and say he did not. There was something fell about these creatures, fell and foul and not of this world. And here he’d thought that pesky black mage to the north had been contained. Obviously not. He looked over his shoulder for one last quick count of the dead. He counted two score. But apparently that wasn’t all. Adhémar watched, openmouthed, as from those trees stepped one last something that was definitely not a man. Adhémar’s captain checked his horse and started back toward the creature. Adhémar called him off.
If this spoil belonged to anyone, it was to the king. Adhémar wheeled his horse around and urged it forward, but despite its training, the horse reared with fear. Adhémar, despite his training, lost his seat and landed on the ground in an undignified sprawl. He scrambled back up to his feet with a curse. He twitched aside his finely wrought cloak and drew his sword. The magelight shone forth brilliantly. Then it went out. A blinding headache struck him at the same time. Adhémar reeled, but managed to shake his head hard enough to clear it. He took a minute to look at his sword in astonishment.
This was beginning to smell like a disaster. He drew his sleeve across his eyes, trying to wipe away the sudden sweat. Damnation, would the indignities never end this day? He resheathed the sword with a curse, then drew it forth again with a flourish. Nothing. Not even a flicker. He took the sword and banged it with enthusiasm against its scabbard. Dull as stone. He spat out a spell or two, but before he could wait to see if they were going to take effect, his enemy had taken him by a gnarled, four-fingered hand and flung him across the clearing. Adhémar sat up, looked around blearily, then realized that he was no longer holding on to his sword. He looked around frantically for it, then saw a shadow fall over him.
He realized that the creature who had thrown him across the clearing was standing above him with its sword raised, preparing to plunge it through Adhémar’s chest. Then the creature paused. His face, gnarled in the same manner as his hands, wore what might have been termed a look of surprise. Then he slowly began to tip forward. Adhémar rolled out of the way before the creature crashed to the ground. There was a sword hilt sticking out of his back. A hand pulled him to his feet and shoved his blade back at him. Adhémar nodded his thanks and resheathed his useless sword. The headache and that unsettling weakness were receding so quickly, he almost wondered if he’d imagined both. It was with an unwholesome sense of relief that he put the whole episode behind him.
Well, except for the discovery that his sword was now apparently quite useless for anything more than carving enemies in twain. He walked swiftly back to his horse. All was not well in the kingdom and he knew just whom to blame. And he would be about that blaming the moment he returned to the palace. He swung up onto his horse’s back, then nodded for his company to return back to the keep. Someone would need to come back to see to the corpses. Perhaps then he would have answers as to what sort of creatures they had been and who had spawned them. He looked around him to make certain no one was watching him, then drew his sword halfway from its scabbard. Still nothing but a sword. He waited for it to speak to him, to answer to the kingship in his blood.
The sword was silent. He, on the other hand, was certainly not. He cursed as he led his company swiftly back to the castle. He swore as he thundered through the gates, dismounted at the front doors, and strode angrily through the hallways, up and down flights of stairs, and finally up the long circular stairway that led to the tower chamber where his youngest brother was supposed to be diligently working on affairs of the realm. Adhémar suspected that he might instead be working his way through the king’s collection of fine, sour wine. Adhémar burst into the chamber without knocking. He allowed himself a cursory glace about for piles of empty wine bottles, but to his disappointment, found none. What he did find, though, was the sort of semi-organized clutter he’d come to expect from his brother. There was an enormous hearth to Adhémar’s right with two chairs in front of it, straining to bear up under the weight of books and clothing they’d been burdened with. Straight ahead was a long table, likewise littered with other kinds of wizardly things: papers, scrolls, pots of unidentifiable substances.
Adhémar supposed they couldn’t be helped, but it seemed all foolishness to him. He found his brother standing behind the table, looking out the window. Adhémar cleared his throat loudly as he crossed the chamber, then slapped his hands on the table. His younger brother, Miach, turned around. “Aye?” Adhémar frowned. His brother looked enough like him that he should have been handsome. He had the same dark hair, the same enviable form, even the same flawless facial features. Today, however, Miach was just not attractive. His hair looked as if he’d been trying to pull it out all night, he hadn’t shaved, and his eyes were almost crossed. And they were red, Adhémar scowled.
“Miach, your eyes are so bloodshot, I can scarce determine their color. What have you been doing, perfecting a new spell to cause painful rashes on annoying ambassadors?” “Nay,” Miach said gravely. “Just the usual business.” Adhémar grunted. He had, quite honestly, little idea what the usual business was. Spells, puttering, muttering; who knew? His brother was archmage of the realm, which Adhémar had always suspected was something of a courtesy title. Indeed, if he were to be completely honest, he had begun to suspect that quite a few things were merely courtesy. Or at least he had until that morning. Adhémar drew his sword and threw it down upon Miach’s work-table. “Fix that.
” “I beg your pardon?” “It doesn’t work anymore,” Adhémar said, irritated. He glared at his brother. “Did you see nothing of the battle this morning? Don’t you have some sort of glass you peep in to see what transpires in the realm? ” “I might,” Miach said, “but I was concentrating on other things.” Adhémar thrust our his finger and pointed at his sword. “Then perhaps you might take a moment and concentrate on this.” Miach looked at the sword, clearly puzzled. “Is there something amiss with it? ” “The magelight vanished!” Adhémar exclaimed. “Bloody hell, Miach, are you up here napping? Well, obviously not because you look terrible. But since you weren’t watching me as you should have been, let me tell you what happened. We were assaulted by something.
Many somethings, of a kind I’ve never seen before. My sword worked for a moment or two, then ceased.” “Ceased?” Miach echoed in surprise. “It was as if it had never had any magic in it at all.” “Indeed?” Miach reached out to pick up the sword. “How did that” Adhémar snatched up the sword before his brother could touch it. “I’ll keep it, thank you just the same.” Miach frowned. “Adhémar, I don’t want your sword. I only wanted to see if it would speak to me.
” “Well, it’s not going to, so don’t bother.” “I think” “Don’t think,” Adhémar said briskly. “Remedy. I can’t guide the bloody realm without the power of this sword, and I can tell you with certainty that there is no power left in it.” “Adhémar,” Miach said evenly, “let me see the damned sword. You can hold on to it, if you don’t trust me. ” “A king can never be too careful,” Adhémar muttered, as he held his sword out to his brother. Point first, of course. There were limits to his trust. Miach looked at it, ran his fingers along the flat of the blade, then frowned.
“I sense nothing.” “I told you so. ” Miach raised his eyebrows briefly. “So you did.” He looked at his brother. “What of you? Have you lost your magic as well? ” Adhémar thought back to the spells he’d cast as the creature had attacked him. He’d left the scene of battle too quickly to determine if they’d taken effect or not, but he wasn’t about to admit as much. Who knew how closely and with what relish Miach might want to examine that? “I’m having an off day,” Adhémar said stiffly. “Nothing more. ” “Here,” Miach said, taking an taper and putting it on his table.
“Light that.” Adhémar drew himself up. “Too simple.” “Then it shouldn’t be too hard for you.” Adhémar glared at his brother briefly, then spat out a spell. He waited. There was nothing. “Try it a different way,” Miach suggested. “Call the fire instead.” Adhémar hadn’t done the like since his sixth year, when his mother had taken him aside and begun to teach him the rudiments of magic.
It had come easily to him, but that was to be expected. He had been the chosen heir to the throne, after all. He now closed his eyes and blocked out the faint sounds of castle life, his brother’s breathing, his own heartbeat. There, in the deepest, stillest part of his being, he called the fire. It came, a single flicker that he let grow until it filled his entire mind. He opened his eyes and willed it to come forth around the wick. Nothing, not even a puff of smoke. “An aberration,” Adhémar said, but even he had to admit that this did not bode well. “Let me understand this,” Miach said slowly. “Your sword has no magic, you apparently have no magic, and you have no idea why either has happened.
” “That would sum it up quite nicely,” Adhémar said curtly. “Now, fix it all and come to me in the hall when you’ve managed it. I’m going to find a mug of ale.” He turned, walked through the doorway, slammed the door behind him, and stomped down the steps. Actually he suspected it might take several mugs of ale to erase the memories of the day he’d just had. Best to be about it before things became worse. Miach looked at the closed door for a moment or two before he bowed his head and blew out his breath. This was an unexpected turn of events, but not an unanticipated one. He had been archmage of the realm for fourteen years now, having taken on those duties when Adhémar had taken the throne, upon the deaths of their parents. In that fourteen years, he had constantly maintained the less visible defenses against the north, passing a great deal of his time and spending a great deal of his strength to keep Lothar, the black mage of Wychweald, at bay.
Those defenses had been constantly tested, constantly under siege of one kind or another. Until the previous year. It was as if the world outside the realm of Neroche had suddenly fallen asleep. His spells of protection and defense had gone untouched, untested, untroubled. He’d known it could not last and was not meant to last. Perhaps the assault had begun, and in a way he hadn’t foreseen. But what to do now? He was quite certain Adhémar’s sword hadn’t given up its magic on its own, and that Adhémar hadn’t lost his just as a matter of course. If a spell had been cast upon the king, the king had magic enough to sense it. Or at least he should have. Miach considered that for a moment or two.
Adhémar was the king and as such possessed the mantle that went with such kingship. Yet perhaps he’d spent so many years not using his magic for more desperate purposes than to hasten the souring of his favorite wine that he’d lost the ability of it, a bit like a man who lost his strength because he sat upon his backside with his feet up and never lifted anything heavier than a fork. But to have had the sword lose its power as well? Miach rose and began to pace. There had been no spell laid upon the blade that he could discern, but perhaps there was more at work than he could see. Perhaps Adhémar had been stripped of his magic in the same way. But why? And by whom? He was very familiar with the smell of Lothar’s magic and this had no stench of that kind. Miach paced until the chamber ceased to provide him with room enough to truly aid him in his thinking. He descended the stairs and began to wander about the castle. He tramped about restlessly until he found himself standing in the great hall. It was a place made to impress, with enormous hearths on three sides and a raised dais at the back.
Countless kings of Neroche had sat at that table on that dais, comfortable in the magic they possessed. In the beginning of the realm, the magic had been the king’s and his alone. The first pair of kings of Neroche had guarded the realm by virtue of their own power. In time, the kings had either had enough power in and of themselves, or they had found other means to augment that power. The Sword of Neroche had been endowed with a bit of magic itself, but it had always been dependent on the king. That had changed eventually. It had been the grandson of King Harold the Brave who had looked upon his posterity, considered the queen who had left him for one of Lothar’s sons, and decided that the only way to assure the safety of the kingdom was to imbue his sword with all of his power. He did, chose his least objectionable son as king, and made his magically gifted nephew archmage as a balance. It had been the Sword of Neroche, from that time on, that had carried most of the king’s magic, folded into the steel of its blade. Miach looked down at the floor and rubbed the back of his neck.
Of course, he had magic of his own, more than he had ever admitted to his brothers, more than even he had suspected when he’d become the archmage. But he knew, in a deep, uncompromising way that reached down into his bones, that it would take all the magic he could muster, as well as all the king could draw from the Sword of Neroche, to keep Lothar at bay should he mount an all-out attack. Unless there was another way. He heard the faint hint of a song. He looked around him, startled, but the great hall was empty. He frowned, then resumed his contemplation of the floor. Again, he heard the whisper of a song. He realized, quite suddenly, where the music was coming from. He looked up slowly until his eyes fastened on a sword, hanging above the enormous hearth at the end of the great hall. The Sword of Angesand.
Miach crossed slowly over to the dais, stepped up, and walked around behind the king’s high table. He looked up, finding that it was impossible not to do so. The sword was hanging well out of reach, so he was forced to fetch a chair. He pulled the sword down and looked at it. The Sword of Angesand, fashioned by Mehar of Angesand, queen of Neroche, and laced with enough magic to make even the most strong-stomached of souls quake. Miach held the sword aloft, but saw nothing but firelight flickering along the polished steel, firelight that revealed the tracery of leaves and flowers along the blade. All the things that Queen Mehar loved… It whispered the echo of the song he’d heard, then it fell silent. Miach looked at the blade. If the Sword of Neroche was unresponsive, was it possible the Sword of Angesand might not be? Could not a soul be found to awaken its magic? If a wielder could be found, perhaps it would be enough to keep Lothar curbed until Miach could solve the mystery of Adhémar and his sword.