Yes, I have met Hralf Saga-Hewer. And who might you be?
Very well, then. If Mr. Manxome has directed you to me, I suppose I must answer your questions.
No, I did not enjoy it.
How did we meet? On company business, of course. Mr. Manxome required an item, and hired a firm with the uncouth name of Bounty Snare to acquire it for us. Hralf was a member of the team they sent.
And then? What do you mean, and then?
I am a busy man, Mr.—no, no, you needn’t speak with Mr. Manxome.
I suppose you will not be satisfied with anything less than the whole sorry tale. Very well, then.
As you surely know, Manxome House is the largest printer of broadsheets here in Caskendia. As such, we print screeds, sermons, cautionary tales, news items, and other, ah, persuasive materials. And there was a time, many years ago, when we were but the second largest. Mr. Manxome was not content to remain second largest, and so was ever on the watch for ways to improve our standing; and in due course discovered the whereabouts of certain relic, an inkstone. Ink mixed on this stone was said to have special properties in the area of, ah, persuasion. You can see why Manxome House would be interested in such an item.
The first I learned of it was when Mr. Manxome called me into his office one day.
“Yes, Mr. Manxome?”
“Ah, Priskella. Mr. Palantir, this is Mr. Priskella. He’ll be accompanying you.”
I looked from Mr. Manxome to the tall elf in the guest chair, and back again.
“I beg your pardon, sir?” I said.
Mr. Manxome waved his cigar at me.
“Nothing to worry about, Priskella. Mr. Palantir leads a team that is going to acquire a certain item for me. You’re going along to look out for our company interests. Mr. Palantir will make sure you have everything you need.”
I believe I may have blinked several times. I could not argue the point; Mr. Manxome is most demanding. One either falls in with his wishes or falls out with him. But his guest had an alarming look about him.
I am in no way prejudiced against elves, you understand. Many of our best clients are of the elvish race; they have an air and a distinction about them that can but heighten our reputation as a firm.
But this Palantir, he had a shopworn look about him. He wasn’t dirty, I do not mean to give the wrong impression. But he bore scars on his hands and face like a common mercenary, and I have never met another elf with a broken nose. And his apparel! One is aware of armor and suchlike iron-mongery, but one does not expect to see it in a place of business, especially not armor such as this, armor bearing the signs of hard daily use.
“Might I know the nature of the task, sir?”
“Mr. Palantir will fill you in on the way. Can’t let Vorpal’s men get there ahead of us, can we? Off you go.”
“Yes, sir. This way, Mr. Palantir.”
I led the elf out of the building, a sense of foreboding burning in my stomach.
In the street we found an urchin holding two horses, both equipped with rather large saddlebags. I looked at Palantir in surprise.
“You expect me to ride that?”
“Where do you lodge?” he said, speaking for the first time. His tones, at least, were Elvish: calm and even. “We’ve provided the necessities for the journey, but I am sure you will want something warmer than you have on at present.”
“But how far are we going?”
“But—” I began. But Palantir pursed his lips and glanced at the urchin in a pointed way, and then round about the area. He was right; Mr. Manxome would not thank me for discussing his business in public.
And Mr. Manxome expected me to do this.
“Very well,” I sighed. He mounted his horse, and somehow I managed to clamber onto the back of the other, and off we went.
After a brief stop at my home, where I made a hasty bundle of some warm clothing and my spare pair of spectacles, Palantir led me to an inn on the north side of the city. I believe “inn” is the proper word; I do not frequent such establishments myself.
“Wait here,” he said in peremptory tones. I burned to correct him, but he had already entered, and emerged but a few moments later with a fop of a halfing and him.
Yes, I mean Hralf. All eight feet of him, from the mane on his head to the claws on his toes. Elves are common in Caskendia, and halflings are everywhere, but I had never seen anyone like this before. His mane was black and his fur was tawny. He wore a short leather kilt and a sack tied to his waist, and a wide leather strap that supported his sword and shield.
“Sarvalur, Hralf, this is Mr. Priskella,” said Palantir. “He represents the client. He’ll be joining us this trip.”
The halfing looked me up and down in the most familiar and insulting way possible.
“Seriously?” said the halfing.
The lion-thing regarded me somberly down his long, leonine snout, but said nothing until we were on the road north. Palantir and the halfling were riding ahead; Hralf came and walked beside me, easily keeping up with my horse. I suppose they couldn’t find a horse big enough to carry the brute.
“I do not know you, do I?” he said, in a voice like the rumble of approaching thunder.
“Certainly not,” I said sharply.
“Little men the same are all looking, their likenesses lacking the markings of heroes. But now you may know me!”
He struck a pose, looking off towards the far off mountains.
“Hralf am I, the Hewer of Sagas, Last of my People, the Lords of the Veldt!” Then, looking down at me (for even on foot his head was well above mine), he said, “Would you like to read one of my sagas?”, and handed me a stone tablet he seemed to have pulled out of thin air.
The tablet was so heavy it was all I could do to hold it on my saddle bow, and I do believe my horse gave me a reproachful look. It was covered with runes of a sort with which I was not familiar—and that was an astonishing thing, I may say, for Manxome House does business with all of the various peoples who reside in Caskendia, and I have long been acquainted with all their manners of writing.
“What script is this?” I exclaimed.
“The language of my people,” he said gravely. “I shall translate.”
At these words Palantir and the halfing began to ride faster, backs rigid.
The brute began chanting in a primitive, crude tongue, in a voice that escaped being a screech only by its subterranean depth. And after a bit he continued in the same barbarous way but in our own civilized tongue.
“Vast is the veldt and proud were the People, the Lords of that locus, the heroes of hunting! Far did they fare, behemoths to bother, blood and bones broken, ’til by plague they did perish!”
And then he looked at me expectantly.
“That is quite enough,” I said, for Mr. Manxome does not pay me to be chanted at by mere contractors.
But the beast paid me no heed! Instead he persisted, alternating between screeching in his own tongue and abusing mine. And so we went on, my limbs aching from the saddle, my ears aching from the saga, my fingers aching from the weight of the tablets he handed me—for when he completed reciting one tablet he took it from me, stowed it away somewhere, and handed me another.
At last I could take it no more, and instead of taking the next tablet I let it fall to the ground.
Or such was my intent, but Hralf caught it before it reached the level of my stirrup. He paused in his chanting, and bent over, and looked me in the eye.
“Do you mean to insult the memory of my people?” he rumbled, rudely pointing at me with an extended forefinger. As I focused on it, one long claw slowly emerged. Its tip glinted in the afternoon sun.
“Certainly not,” I managed after a time; for such, of course, would be beneath me.
And when I accepted the tablet, he resumed. “And so they advanced, the cheetahs in choir, vile and licentious, the vermin of veldt-land! A pox upon pussycats grown over large! The veldt-lords they smote them, they tore them like tissue, no cheetahs remained our homeland to harm!”
And so it continued as the sun neared its setting, tablet after tablet, my ears and my limbs equally numb, until Palantir and the halfling stopped in a clearing by the side of the road. Hralf completed the verse, ending with “—the marrow they munched!”, and followed them.
“Why are we stopping?” I said.
The halfling, Sarvalur, jerked his head at the sun. “Can’t travel in the dark. I mean, we could, but there’s no moon tonight.”
“We’re sleeping here?” I said in horror. There was nothing there, nothing at all, just weeds and dirt.
“If you’ve got an inn in your pocket I won’t turn it down,” he said. “Otherwise, what more could you ask for? It’s flat, there’s firewood and water nearby and the sky’s not too cloudy.”
I looked up.
“Clouds like that, could be rain by morning. It’s hard to say.” He raised an eyebrow. “If you’re worried about it, I suppose you could put your bedroll over yonder, under those trees. If you do, though, best look out for tree-octopuses.”
“Yeah, they love dark evergreens like those. They aren’t usually a problem, but sometimes, if they catch a whiff of a scent they like they’ll swarm.”
Palantir looked up from where he was building a campfire. “Sarvalur,” he said.
The halfling rolled his eyes. “Yeah, you’d better stay here by the fire with us,” he said.
I will not detail the indignities of that night, or indeed of most nights of our journey. It suffices to say that neither the company nor the accommodations were fit for anyone civilized. It is fixed immovably in my memory as the most unpleasant period in my life.
Once we were settled for the night, I demanded that Palantir explain the mission to me.
“Manxome has said nothing to you?”
“No.” In truth, I was so annoyed with Mr. Manxome that I did not even attempt to correct the elf’s disrespectful way of referring to him.
“Ah. Well, we are heading for the ruins of the ancient city of Carellia. The journey should take us a month or so.”
“I see,” I said. And may I say, I was not pleased to hear it. “And I presume we are going there to some purpose?”
“The last emperor of Carellia had an inkstone. Manxome wants us to find it and bring it back.”
The tall elf eyed me for a moment.
“He didn’t say. But it seems that ink mixed on this stone has special properties.”
“It seems that words written with that ink are more…effective…than usual.”
“Or printed,” I said softly.
“One would think.”
Palantir had no need to say more, for my mind was already whirling with the possibilities. A slogan here; a suggestion there; with such a tool Manxome House could quickly dominate the trade in Caskendia–and in the regions beyond, if Mr. Manxome so desired.
“I suppose the Emperor used it to issue commands to his subordinates,” I said.
“So it would seem.”
We both contemplated the campfire for a time.
“Tell me,” he said. “Have you any idea how your boss learned of this inkstone?”
“You would not think it to look at him,” I said proudly, “but he is a man of great learning. No doubt he found mention of it in some musty tome. He has a considerable collection, and is always acquiring more.”
Sarvalur snorted offensively. “I just hope we find it and get out alive,” he said. “We’re unlikely to make any other profit on this jaunt; Carellia’s got an evil reputation.”
“The city itself is safe enough, by all accounts,” said Palantir. “What’s left of it. But the palace is said to be cursed. If any have ventured there, none have returned to speak of it.”
“And that is where we are going?”
“Of course,” said Sarvalur. “Sure you don’t want to turn back?”
I thought of what lay ahead, and shuddered; and then thought of Mr. Manxome waiting behind, and shuddered again.
Over the weeks of our journey Palantir shared with me what little he knew of Carellia and its empire. By the campfire, that was; for my days were still occupied by Hralf and his interminable chanting. He seemed to have an endless supply of tablets in that sack of his, a feat for which I am quite unable to account.
It seems the Carellians regarded the emperor as little less than a god, for he ruled with the mandate of the august beings in the heavenlies. His merest wish was law, and disobedience was punishable by death. Any words written in vermilion ink, a shade sacrosanct to the emperor and used only by his hand, were required to be revered and honored as the very presence of the emperor himself.
“He sounds much like Mr. Manxome,” I said. “Tell me, who are these ‘august beings’ of which you speak?”
Palantir shrugged. “Nothing but names, nowadays,” he said.
We reached the ruins of Carellia in due course, having undergone great hardships; for I was forced to listen to Hralf’s preposterous chanting all the day and Sarvalur’s sordid tales of the team’s past exploits all the evening.
No, I shall not dignify them by relating them to you.
We encountered few folks on the way, for the year was waning; and for the latter half of our trek our way ran through untraveled waste lands.
Carellia was a bleak place: a vast mound of earth and stone, rising high from the plain just short of the wall of the northern mountains, and surrounded by the remains of a wall set with towers. Within the walls nothing remained but a rocky dirty waste, studded here and there by bits of masonry or the remains of some grand building. Far up the slope another wall ringed the peak of the mound, the tops of towers visible over its rim.
We stopped and made a camp just inside the outer wall.
“Just as I’d heard,” said Palantir. “There’s nothing much left of the city but the palace district. I wonder what’s keeping that from falling down?”
“Enchantments, probably. Curses. The usual,” said Sarvalur. For once he didn’t seem to be practicing on my lack of experience with such barbaric matters.
“It seems to have been quite a strong city,” I said. “I wonder why it was abandoned.”
“Legends say that there was a plague,” said Palantir. “The people fled, and feared to return.”
“Died of thirst, the way I heard it,” said the halfling. “Probably the water supply failed. Can’t have a city without water.”
“Oh, dear,” I thought, looking at my water bottle. “Mr. Manxome had best pay me well for this,” I thought, not for the first time!
That night I found it difficult to sleep. The ground was hard and stony, and the night air was filled with yips and other strange noises.
“Wild dogs,” said Hralf, who was keeping watch. “Cowardly canines, prideless and puny! Their strongest will quail before the last of the veldt-lords! They will not approach so long as I am here.”
I believe that was the only time I was ever glad of the beast-man’s presence.
The following day we ascended the mound, and found our way past the walls and into the palace grounds; which, indeed, were strangely intact: not unmarked by time, no, and the wood and cloth furnishings were long perished or in fragments, but the structures themselves were still recognizeably whole.
In time we came to the palace proper, a massive edifice fronting on a square that was at least a hundred yards deep and wide in proportion. And here, on the paving stones of that square, is where we found the bones, vast numbers of bones, much scattered by wind and weather but untouched by the teeth of animals.
Yes, bones. Bones mixed with bits of metal: buttons, jewelry, knives. I cannot begin to describe how many. Thousands, at least, many thousands of people died there, before the blank wall of the palace.
It was no wonder to me that no visitor is recorded as having dared to venture further.
I will not lower myself to the halfling’s level by relating all we saw, still less to embroider my tale with spurious adventure—for of threats, living or unliving, we saw none.
In time we came to the center of the palace, a once grand room in which stood the remains of the Lily Throne, a seat of alabaster and chalcedony once graced by the Emperor of the Carellians but now shattered by a fallen beam. And in the complex of rooms behind that throne we found a chamber looking out on what was surely a garden, a chamber in which the Emperor must have received his correspondence—for there we found the inkstone. A number of inkstones, rather, lying haphazard amid the shards of their carven wooden stands, and metal boxes containing the dust of vanished documents; but one in particular we found in a vault set into the wall, protected from the elements. Its stand was of intricately woven gold thread, and on its black surface was still to be seen a light tinge of vermilion.
Sarvalur packed them all gently away in a satchel, which he gave to Hralf to carry; and with that we were satisfied.
I do not say that one or two small objects were not secreted in one or another pouch on the way out, but in truth we did not linger. Not one of us, not even the halfling, wished to pass the night within the palace, or anywhere near its grim deposit of bones.
Hralf was oddly silent as we rode gingerly back across the square of death, and then out and down the through the scattered bits of stonework to our camp by the lower wall. I gave his silence no thought, save to count my blessings, nor did I pay any heed to his movements on watch, nor did I attend to the yips and whines of the wild dogs, for my head was filled with bones, oh so many bones.
I still see them in my dreams.
The next day we began our long journey home. I was huddled on my horse, worn and short of sleep, when Hralf came to walk beside me as was his repellent wont. He drew a tablet from the sack on his hip and handed it to me, and such was my fatigue that I took it with a sigh, regarding it not but instead looking off toward the distant horizon as I waited for his intolerable chanting to begin.
And at last I looked over to him, to catch some sign as to the cause of his unusual forebearance, and found him casting at me what I should call a look of eagerness were I to find it on any less brutish face.
He looked at me, and then at the tablet and then at me, and at last I looked down at it.
It looked different than the others. All of the tablets were much the same, you understand: roughly square, about the same size and weight, and covered with chiseled runes. But the lines of runes cut into this tablet were sharp and black, as though they had been colored. And so, I saw, they had been! Each chiseled mark had been filled with ink, carefully, ever so carefully, so that no ink blotted the smooth face of the tablet. I ran my eyes along what I now saw were columns of runes, down and down and over and down, from beginning to end, and when I reached the last one I returned to the beginning and started over.
Each rune was carved so neatly. Each rune had been so delicately blackened.
What they said, I did not know, but I was enthralled. How beautiful they were! How compelling! I could not tear my eyes away.
No, sir, I could not tear my eyes away.
What followed is not very clear in my mind. But I believe it was some hours before I heard Sarvalur, distantly, observe, “Hralf looks pleased with himself today. But at least he isn’t chanting.”
And then, moments later, Palantir: “Hralf! What have you done?”
They tried to take the tablet from me then, but I fought them, I think; and then I remember Hralf’s massive paw blocking my view of the runes, oh, for a very long time as it moved back and forth; and then the runes were gone and the tablet was pulled away, and I was given water, and I slept.
When I awoke I was surprised to find that it was broad daylight. Sarvalur was sitting by me, roasting a bit of meat over the fire.
“Why have we stopped?” I asked, for I was eager to be home.
“You had a bit of a fit, my friend.”
He nodded. “Something you picked up in Carellia, probably. But you’re going to be okay, now.”
He glanced away, and I saw Hralf and Palantir standing in the distance.
“Are they…are they arguing?”
“Nothing for you to worry about,” he said. “Nothing at all. We’re going to have a quiet trip back to Caskendia.”
Palantir rode beside me in Hralf’s place the next morning, and all of the rest of the trip; and there was no chanting, for which I was profoundly grateful.
There is nothing remarkable about the remainder of our journey, just dreary days followed by dreary uncivilized nights, until the last night we spent on the road. I woke up to a great roaring, and a knife at my throat. We had been taken by bandits, a horde of them. I was yanked out of my bedroll and bound hand and foot, and dumped next to Palantir and Sarvalur; Hralf lay near by, spitting and roaring, tangled in a vast net.
The bandits rifled our belongings and took what they liked, and then left us there, on the ground; and later, as he was cutting me loose, Sarvalur said, “Now, see, this is why I’m not an independent. Sure, we got robbed. But Manxome’s payment goes straight to Bounty Snare, and since you can’t expect three to hold off thirty we’ll still get paid. It’s in the contract.”
I was less sanguine—I know how Mr. Manxome regards failure.
But to my surprise he was all solicitude when we arrived at Manxome House, dirty and footsore, for the bandits had taken our horses. He sent us all to his home, to bathe and be well fed, and joined us himself at the end of the day to hear our tale.
Palantir spoke first, encompassing our efforts in but a few words; and then Mr. Manxome turned to me.
“Now, Priskella, I want to hear it from you. Leave nothing out.”
So I didn’t. I told him the whole sorry tale, from the first tablet to the last, and not failing to explain what that lackwit Hralf had done as we left Carellia. For I had worked it out during that long ride, oh, yes, I had. He had used the inkstone, and applied the ink to one of his tablets, and it had nearly been the death of me.
And then I stood, and turned to Hralf and said many harsh words about him, and his appalling ancestry, and his stupid, interminable sagas.
He rose to his full height long before I was done, and roared at me, shaking his fist, “BLOOD AND BONES BROKEN! Are you insulting the memory of my people?”
“No, you damned fool,” I said, “I am insulting every inch of YOU, from the claws on your toes to the tips of your stupid furry ears, you incompetent, illiterate, sack-brained excuse for a tomcat!”
And we stood there like that, staring at each other, him gasping with rage and disbelief, until Mr. Manxome said sternly, “All right, that’s enough.”
Palantir and Sarvalur exchanged glances, stone-faced, as Hralf stormed out of the room, chanting in that bass screech.
It is a moment that lives in my memory.
I resumed my seat, and said, calmly, “And so, Mr. Manxome, although I am sorry we lost the inkstone to the bandits, it’s just as well. We could not have safely made use of it.”
Mr. Manxome nodded. “Quite right,” he said to me. Then he looked at Palantir. “You did your best. I’ve already sent the remainder of your fee to Bounty Snare, along with a bonus for bringing Priskella here back safely.”
They nodded at me as they filed out of the room, and I do believe the halfling winked. I never saw them again, nor Hralf, except in my nightmares.
What do you mean, is that all? What else should there be?
Oh, the inkstone. Yes, of course.
After the team had gone Mr. Manxome said, “You’ve had a hard few months, Priskella. Go on home, now, and rest for a few days; you’ve earned it. And here’s a little something to help you relax.” And he handed me a book, bound in worn leather—an old book, clearly from his private collection. “Bring it back when you’ve finished it. Don’t take too long, mind; we’re about to have all the work we can handle.”
I took the book home, as instructed, and found it to be a collection of folk tales set in the days of Old Carellia.
They were most diverting, but one in particular caught my attention. In it, it said the Emperor had a miraculous inkstone that compelled obedience. He did not need to use it day-to-day, mind, for disobedience to the Emperor was unthinkable, and punishable by instant death. But still he had enemies, powerful men who worked against him in secret.
When his spies discerned such a one he would send that one a private missive, all in vermilion ink, to be delivered to that one’s hand alone, in seeming much as any other private imperial command. The one receiving it would send his people from him, and order that he not be disturbed on pain of pain, before opening it with all due ceremonies and obeisances, for such was the etiquette that revolved around such communications. But this missive would be written in ink mixed on the stone; and when at last, after some days of silence, the man’s servants would dare to intrude, they would find his body, sightless eyes fixed on the Emperor’s sacred words that proclaimed his treachery. A pyre would be prepared, and the dead one would be burned just as he had been found, shrouded in the black that marks traitors to the Lily Throne.
And I wondered whether, had I examined the wall of the palace that fronted that square of death, whether I would have found traces of vermilion.
Mr. Manxome called me into his office on my return to Manxome House the following week, and accepted the book from my hand with a sad smile.
“It seems that our friends at Vorpal Press have had a run of ill-luck,” he said. “Most of the regular staff were found dead in their printing room this morning.”
“Dead?” I said.
“Just lying there dead, so it seems. According to one of the folks who found them, they were all looking at a proof copy of a broadsheet.” He blew a smoke ring. “I have begun to wonder whether Old Man Vorpal was behind those bandits you ran into last week. But I don’t suppose we’ll ever know; Vorpal was among the dead, and the city guard torched the place to prevent whatever it was from spreading.”
Mr. Manxome shook his head. “It’s a sad thing,” he said. “This all could have been avoided if Vorpal were more of a scholar. I told him so myself, over dinner one night while you were gone. ‘Gally,’ I said, ‘It’s really a shame you’ve neglected the classics. Your ignorance will be the end of you some day.’ He laughed at me, called me a fool. Such a pity.”
What happened to the inkstone after that?
I have no idea. If there is any justice in the world then it was destroyed in the fire. And good riddance, I say.
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