TAKING THE BAIT



TAKING THE BAIT, by Jon Byrne:

Timalo glanced over his shoulder for what seemed the hundredth time, peering back through the rain-swept darkness to check they were not being followed.  And of course, like before there was no one.  His mind was playing tricks on him, just another reason why he should pack it all in and retire to his small cottage, as his wife of thirty-three years so often begged.  She was right; he was too old – too old to be stumbling through the forest in the dead of night in weather like this.

Jeddek, his companion, halted abruptly, causing Timalo to slam into the stock of the crossbow slung over his back.

‘What you stop for boy?  You trying to send me to my grave!’

‘I thought I heard something… through the trees to the left.’

With the wind howling through the packed trunks he considered it a miracle if the boy could hear his own words, but if nothing else, he’d learnt to trust his latest apprentice’s sense of hearing.  Timalo squinted as he stared into the gloom.  He could neither hear nor see anything, but that didn’t mean there was nothing there.

‘Keep going,’ Timalo said, pushing the boy forward, none too gently.  ‘The shadow-wolves couldn’t have picked up our scent so soon.  But we haven’t much time before they do.’

‘But we have the bait… you said the wolves would be no problem.’

‘Better not to hang around and find out.  From what I remember from the map, the tower shouldn’t be far now.’

They moved on, both of them straining their ears to hear anything above the whine of the wind.  Timalo was sodden, the coarse fabric of his tunic stuck to his back uncomfortably and his cloak felt twice as heavy as normal.  His feet were none too dry either; the swampy ground of the forest floor had succeeded in seeing to that.  What in the name of the Nine Gods had convinced him to undertake this dangerous, although admittedly lucrative job?  At sixty-one he must have been mad.  When he returned home he was retiring for good.  And this time, no amount of gold would change his mind.

When Jeddek stopped again a few minutes later, even Timalo’s tired ears could hear the howling.  The shadow-wolves were onto them.

‘Come on,’ he urged, hobbling forward.  ‘We don’t have much time.’

Jeddek was right on his heels as they pushed through the undergrowth, the branches whipping at their faces and snagging their cloaks.  After a moment Timalo paused, wiping the rain plastered hair from his eyes.  He gazed through the trees.

‘There!’ Jeddek exclaimed behind him.  ‘Just ahead, in that clearing.’

He took the boy’s word for it even though he could see nothing.  Only when they emerged from the trees did Timalo finally catch sight of it, illuminated by a bolt of lightning.  It stood massive and imposing some fifty paces further, on a small outcropping of rock partly surrounded by a lake.  Encircled by a high stone wall, it was dark and forbidding.  The Tower of Karridamus.

The first view nearly caused Timalo to turn back there and then.  There was something terrifying about the sight, as if the tower possessed some insidious power that he could almost feel.  But, he reflected when he could catch his breath, it was hardly surprising – Karridamus was a sorcerer.  And they were here to rob him.

A growl along the bank to their left caused a bolt of alarm to pierce his already shaky composure.  The first shadow-wolf.  GamuldenForest was notorious for these red-eyed carnivores that appeared from nowhere and attacked without fear.  But Timalo was ready.  With trembling fingers he reached into his pack, pulling out the poisoned meat and tossing it into the undergrowth where the sound had come from.  Following his lead, Jeddek did likewise.

‘Not all of it!’ Timalo said.  ‘Remember we still have to get out of here.’

They dashed forward alongside the rain-splattered water.  The baited meat seemed to have worked, Timalo heard the savage snarling behind them as the shadow-wolves fought over the scraps.  The two thieves did not waste the short respite.  They reached the edge of the surrounding wall, Jeddek throwing over the rope and grapnel.  Despite his age, Timalo found it easier climbing the ten-foot wall than he had feared, using the holes and cracks in the stone as footholds.  Jeddek followed quickly on his heels, both pausing briefly at the top.  On the inside wall snaked thick vines and the boy used these to quickly climb down to the small courtyard.  Timalo followed at a slower pace, cursing to himself as he nearly lost his footing and slipped.  Eventually he too reached the solid ground of the courtyard.  Above them loomed the unyielding stone of the tower, lit by the intermittent flash of lightning.  Timalo craned his neck upwards – only the very upper floors possessed windows, little more than arrow-slits.  No lights burned from any of them – the tower was deserted.  Of course, that was how it should be, the sorcerer was not supposed to be here.  He was known to be in Porrisa at a meeting of the Order of Endrünel – hence the timing of the theft.  No fool would dare make the attempt if the sorcerer was actually at home.

Jeddek drew his blade and Timalo waved at him impatiently to re-sheath it.  Stupid fool!  For what they had to do it was useless.  What did the boy think he could do against magic with a short-sword?

Timalo mounted the steps carefully, ever alert for danger, to be confronted by the thick, iron-bound door.  He paused at the top, fumbling in his pack for his lock-pick, knowing he had the expertise and sleight of hand to gain entrance.  He needn’t have bothered.  To his intense surprise the main door was unlocked.  He pushed it open slowly and peered inside.

The small entrance room was deserted.  A fire burned in the hearth next to the door, filling the space with a glow of warmth that slapped Timalo in the face at the same time as a fist of terror clamped tightly around his stomach.  If Karridamus was in Porrisa, why would a fire be burning?  Despite Daradin’s assurances that he lived alone, could the sorcerer have left someone to safeguard the tower while he was away?

At least Jeddek seemed to have no qualms, pushing past him, anxious to be inside and out of the rain.  His apprentice closed the door behind him, and dripping water onto the bare stone floor they both gasped in shock.

Through an archway was a much larger room, almost totally occupied by a long table.  Around it were arrayed finely carved chairs, with tall upholstered backs; a candelabrum burned in the middle and various tapestries hung from the walls, the dancing flames of another fire illuminating their bright, bold colours.  But it was the trays of food laid out that grabbed the two thieves’ attention.

The table was set out for a feast with at least enough food to feed a dozen men.  Platters of roasted meats; venison, beef and mutton, competed for space with plates of fried fish, eels in jelly and boiled lobster.  Trenchers of thick doughy bread supported steamed cabbage and leeks, buttered beans and grilled onions.  Bowls of fruit, spiced and honeyed, filled the remaining space on the table.  Goblets of amber coloured wine stood between the plates like solitary sentinels.  The delicious aroma of food was overwhelming and for a moment the two stared open-mouthed.

Jeddek was the first to react, giving a little squeal of joy before snatching a fistful of meat from the nearest plate.

‘Stop!’ Timalo hissed between clenched teeth.  ‘Don’t touch a thing!’

The warning drew Jeddek up short, the boy’s questioning look containing both surprise and fear.

‘There is something wrong.  The food may be poisoned – if it really exists at all.  Don’t forget where we are.  This could be nothing more than an elaborate illusion.’

It took a moment for the words to register.  Reluctantly Jeddek dropped the meat, his youthful face a mask of disappointment.

Timalo frowned as he looked closer.  He felt an irresistible hunger that hadn’t been there a few moments before, as if he hadn’t eaten in the last week.  It was like the food was subtly pulling him towards it – almost as if it wanted to be eaten.  The smell was mouth-watering, but despite looking real enough, he knew they couldn’t take the chance.  He was well aware that if the food was illusory then consuming it would place them under the sorcerer’s control – even if the magician himself was hundreds of miles away.

‘So what now?’ Jeddek whispered.

‘What we came for.  We look for the chest.’

‘But why all the food?’

Timalo didn’t reply right away as he had no ready answer.  The boy might not be the sharpest apprentice he’d ever had but even he’d probably worked it out.  Either the sorcerer was here and expecting a large party of guests, which considering the circumstances was unlikely, or else he had somehow anticipated their arrival – which meant they had failed in their task already.  Whatever way it was, the prospects were not good.

‘Let’s check upstairs.’

Timalo crossed the room quickly to the archway on the other side where a narrow stone staircase wound upwards like a corkscrew.  He trod quietly with the professionalism of an experienced house-breaker, his practised movements hiding the trembling of fear he felt in his limbs.  Jeddek hung back, seemingly reluctant to leave the warmth of the fire and the temptation of the feast.

After climbing far more steps than he considered possible Timalo emerged into another room, pausing first to check for any signs of danger.  To his acute relief it was unoccupied.  He found an oil-lamp in a small alcove in the wall and using his tinderbox and flint, both of which were thankfully dry, he lit it before peering around.  He moved cautiously, keeping to the shadows of the curved wall.  A long desk heaped with books, scrolls and manuscripts occupied much of the other side of the chamber.  It seemed all available space was given over to these writings.  They spilled piecemeal onto the floor and were piled on stools, boxes and chairs.  In addition, stacks of parchment were strewn everywhere as though a great wind had dispersed them across the room, although there was only one narrow window that was securely closed.  A large chart showing planets and stars covered the bare stone of one wall.  Timalo paused to look, staring at the obscure symbols and arcane writing scrawled across.  It meant nothing to him of course – he couldn’t read normal Massamic, let alone some sorcerer’s scribblings.

Only on his second inspection of the room did he find what he was looking for.  The chest stood buried beneath a mound of yellowed vellum on the other side of the desk.

A noise behind nearly caused him to physically jump into the air with fright.  Jeddek’s long face appeared from below, his pallor in the poor light making him look younger then his eighteen years and even more dim-witted.  Timalo threw the boy an irritated look.  ‘Where have you been all this time?  Make yourself useful.  Watch the stairway opposite.’

‘Where is the…?’

‘I don’t know!  No more fool questions, boy.  Just do as you’re told.’

Jeddek threw a sulky look that Timalo ignored.  Something felt very wrong.  The feeling he had experienced in the forest extended into the tower itself – the strong sensation that someone was watching them.  He turned several times to gaze around the wall behind him but saw nothing out of the ordinary.  Doing his best to cast these thoughts from his mind, he removed his lock-picking tools and bent down to examine the chest.

From his first cursory glance it looked like nothing out of the ordinary; the lock mechanism was mounted inside the chest in a vertical position with hidden bolts spreading to slide into the lid keeper.  Of course, some kind of trap was likely, and as he inserted the lock-pick and began to work, this was his major consideration.  After less than a minute his suspicions were confirmed.

Timalo worked steadily for nearly half-an hour, drops of sweat gathering on his brow.  He disarmed no less than three traps, the last threatening to release a cloud of poisonous gas that would have filled the room and killed everyone in it within seconds.  The lock was complex and it resisted his efforts for longer than he’d imagined, although so far he had detected no evidence of any magical ward.  This did not concern him unduly, he had the enchanted pick ready in case it was required, but it was the mechanical element of the lock that was proving trickier.

He was aware of the boy’s increasing impatience and agitation but he thrust it from his mind, along with his own fear, as he concentrated on what he did best.  Finally his skill paid off as the lock sprung open, releasing the bolts and allowing him to open the chest.

The book he was looking for was the first thing to greet him.  Lying on top of a blanket, he could smell the old leather and trace the arcane runes etched into the black cover with his fingers.  When he lifted it out of the chest it was heavier than expected.  He carefully examined the edge of the jacket in case there was some magical protection, but he detected nothing.  Nevertheless, he had to verify it was indeed the book they had come for before they could return to Pozanak.  With a quickening pulse he opened the first page.

There was a distinctive click and a small puff of smoke. Timalo winced at the acrid smell, half expecting the book to explode in his face but nothing else happened.  He held his breath for a second before relaxing again, squinting to examine the script.  The swirling letters on the ancient parchment meant nothing to him.

A howling from outside, easily audible above the wind, caused him to stiffen and look at Jeddek.  The boy’s face was stricken with terror.  Timalo came to his feet and in an instant was at the window.  He gazed out into the storm and the sight he saw illuminated in the flash of lightning caused his blood to freeze.

The tower was ringed by shadow-wolves, their red eyes shining like poppies in a field of darkness.  It was as though something in the tower was calling them.  He remembered the puff of smoke and groaned – he must have triggered a magical alarm or something similar.  Something that had summoned the wolves to prevent their escape.

‘How do we get out now?’ Jeddek said.

‘I don’t know, let me think for a moment!’ Timalo said.  ‘Go back downstairs.  Keep an eye on the door.  And remember, don’t eat the food.’

Jeddek disappeared without a word.  Timalo slumped into an armchair, the feeling of dread settling into his stomach like a heavy stone.  The baited meat they carried was not nearly enough to satisfy the snarling creatures baying for their blood outside.  They wouldn’t get ten paces from the wall of the tower without being ripped to pieces.  How would they escape?

With Jeddek downstairs he felt scared and alone, with only the howling of the wolves outside for company.

*

It was only when the dawn finally filtered through the thick, grime encrusted glass of the window that something approaching a plan of escape penetrated Timalo’s mind.  He had spent the last few hours of darkness in an uneasy half-sleep, his tired mind repeatedly going over their predicament.  Every time he’d woken, he had looked out of the window to check if the wolves were still there.  And of course they were, sitting patiently on the grass ringing the tower in ever increasing numbers.  He calculated they must number at least two hundred.   Somehow they were more intimidating now they had stopped howling, the silence outside intensifying the deadly danger that awaited them.  And this was not the only problem – the feeling of being watched had also persisted, making the small hairs on the back of his neck stand up.  It was as if the sorcerer was here, part of the very stone itself.  Altogether, it was not a pleasant feeling.

Nevertheless, despite the distractions, an old story had nagged away at his unconsciousness, a story regarding magicians and their illusions that a comrade-in-crime had recounted a few years ago.  He prayed the story was true but he had no means of knowing.  It was the only chance he could think of.

Timalo called for his apprentice who arrived a few moments later.  ‘Search every room for any hair belonging to the wizard.’

‘Hair…?’

‘Yes.  Any strand of hair or piece of old nail or skin.  Something directly connected to the sorcerer.  Something that could only have come from him.’

Jeddek looked confused but disappeared back downstairs.  Timalo began by examining around the desk and the stacked manuscripts.  Despite the clutter there was nothing that he could positively identify as coming directly from the wizard – nothing that without any shred of doubt had at one time been part of his body.  Then he saw the cloak hanging from a hook.

He found the hair almost immediately, a long white strand not dissimilar to his own and split at the end.  It was nestled along the hem of the collar, curling out from the ermine trimming and reaching at least a yard in length.  Excitement welled up in his throat.  It couldn’t belong to anyone but Karridamus.

At his call Jeddek appeared almost immediately.  Timalo held the hair up to show him but it seemed an age before a look of understanding finally crossed the boy’s face.

‘How will a hair help us against the wolves?’

‘It belongs to the sorcerer and therefore should be immune to any illusionary magic cast by him.  If the wolves are charmed by him and summoned here by his magic then this hair should prevent them attacking us.

‘Are you sure it will work?’

‘No, but I think so.  Anyway, we don’t have any other option.  Do you want to stay here until the sorcerer returns?’  Timalo turned away and shuffled quickly across the floor to retrieve the book, wrapping it carefully in the oilskin he carried before placing it in his pack.  The sound of a crossbow being loaded caused him to turn, spinning half around towards his young companion.

He gasped.  Jeddek was pointing the weapon directly at him.

‘Surprised aren’t you?’ Jeddek said, the half-inane look he normally wore gone to be replaced by something much more sinister.

‘What are you doing…?’

‘Shut up old man.  I’ve put up with enough of your whining.  Thought I was stupid, didn’t you?’

‘But…’

‘I said shut up!  Who’s the stupid one now?  Give me the bag.’

Timalo paused for a moment before doing as he asked, gently throwing the pack across to where the boy stood.  His mind was in turmoil.

‘That’s not all.  I will still need to get out of here and now it seems you have found a way.  Give me the hair.’

‘Why are you doing this?  Why are you betraying me?’

‘Betraying you – surely you jest.  Why should I feel any loyalty towards you?  Because you treated me as your unofficial slave these last few months?’

‘But you’re my apprentice,’ Timalo said, realising as he did how incredulous his voice sounded.  ‘This is unbelievable.  I taught you everything I know.’

‘Don’t make me laugh,’ Jeddek sneered.  ‘Everything you know.  Not much to show for a lifetime of petty thieving is it?  I’m a little more ambitious.  The gold I’ll earn for delivering this book is more than you’ve seen in your entire lifetime.’

Timalo turned away.  How could he have been so easily fooled – and by a boy a third of his age?

‘The hair.  No delays.  Give it to me now.’

With slumped shoulders Timalo relented.  He held out the hair and Jeddek snatched it quickly away, giving him no chance of seizing the crossbow from him.  The gleam of triumph on the boy’s face was too much to bear.  He slumped into the armchair as Jeddek disappeared.

Nevertheless, the moment the boy’s footsteps receded down the stairs, Timalo came to his feet.  He scuttled over to the window, staring out at the ring of shadow-wolves that waited patiently outside.  The sight of the savage beasts caused his heart to flutter.  With trembling fingers, he used his sleeve to clean some of the dirt from the window.

Jeddek appeared a few minutes later.  He was obviously not totally convinced the single hair Timalo had given him guaranteed his safety, because he had collected some of the food that decorated the table downstairs.  He tossed it around with a nervous fervour, before striding into the ring of wolves brandishing the hair in front of him.

He didn’t stand a chance.

Timalo gasped in horror as the wolves fell upon him, snarling and snapping at his throat.  The figure of his former apprentice was swamped by the black mass of fur as he was knocked from his feet.  He gave a piercing scream as the wolves tore him apart.

After a second or so, Timalo couldn’t watch anymore, turning away to slump against the cold stone of the wall.  With glazed eyes he stared down at the single white hair he clasped in his fist – the hair of the wizard.  There were still a few tricks he hadn’t taught his treacherous apprentice.

Now it was his turn.  The thought of braving the massed wolves outside made his stomach churn to slush, but what choice did he have?  A better chance than the boy, that was for sure, easily fooled by one of Timalo’s own hairs hastily substituted for the sorcerer’s.  The shock of the boy’s betrayal still lingered like a bad taste in his mouth, but it confirmed his wife’s opinion that his time thieving was at an end.  It was a hard thing for him to accept, and despite always being well endowed with his share of luck he prayed fervently that this hadn’t also ended.

He went downstairs, ignoring the remains of the feast that still littered the table.  Any consideration he may have given to using a burning torch to force a way through the wolves was put out of his mind as soon as he looked at the fire.  It burned exactly as before, having consumed none of the wood piled in the hearth.  Now any possible doubt was dispelled as his suspicions were confirmed.  It was all an illusion.

That would rule out using the food as well.  There was nothing else for it; he would have to rely on the hair alone.

The day was dry and overcast and the wind had dropped, nevertheless when he opened the main door of the tower to stand on the top step overlooking the small compound it was the deathly quiet that he first noticed.  It was as if the surrounding forest was holding its breath to see what would happen next.  The feeling of being watched was as strong as ever, but Timalo was becoming used to it now and in his fear he could almost dismiss it from his mind.  Almost but not quite – he could never entirely forget the presence of a sorcerer who, in body at least, was many hundreds of miles away.

In less than a dozen paces Timalo reached the main gate.  In the stillness he could almost be forgiven for thinking that the wolves had disappeared – lost interest now that one of the trespassers had been devoured.  Except that he knew it wasn’t true.  They were there all right, patiently waiting.  Waiting for him.

His fear was confirmed as he slid the bolt and opened the door.  He was greeted by the sight of a hundred pair of eyes, all staring impassively at him.  Panic welled up inside, threatening to overwhelm the composure he had forced, and he nearly slammed the door shut.  Instead, he took several faltering steps towards them.  Every pace was a force of will.

Feeling slightly ridiculous, he held the hair out in front of him, much as Jeddek had done.  To his amazement the wolves showed no reaction to his appearance.  The sight emboldened him and he stepped forward quickly, feeling his heart banging in his chest like the gong at prayer-time.  Timalo passed the first shadow-wolves who continued to sit staring at the gate as if he wasn’t there.

To his right he saw the remains of Jeddek, little more than ripped cloth covering a scattering of bones.  The boy had been torn limb from limb and the ground beneath was stained dark.  Timalo turned away, spying the battered shape of the backpack.  The pack containing the sorcerer’s book.

He changed direction towards it, stepping carefully around the grey bodies of the shadow-wolves.  A few seconds later he was there and crouching down next to it he could hardly believe his luck; apart from being a little trampled it was undamaged.  Less than a foot away a large shadow-wolf sat unmoved, Timalo could hear the hollow rasp of air as the beast breathed and smell the reek of corruption that emanated from its dark body.  The wolf flicked the bristle of hair that was its tail, narrowly missing his arm as he reached for the pack.

When his fingers touched the strap, it gave a low growl.  Timalo drew his hand back as if burned, but the creature made no further movement or sound.  He slowly reached for the pack again feeling almost sick with fear.

Suddenly all around him the shadow-wolves began howling.  Timalo dropped his hand and screwed his eyes shut, cowering like a whipped dog, expecting the wolves to pounce.  In all his life he had never been more terrified.

The long mournful cry echoed through the surrounding trees.  After a minute or so the wolves settled down into silence again.  Somehow he knew it had been a warning.

Timalo opened his eyes and shuffled slowly backwards.  The wolves continued to sit as if nothing had happened.

Before him lay the pack with the book he’d come to steal.  And it was denied to him.  He had no doubt what would happen if he chose to ignore the warning.  The fact he was still alive was enough, and he certainly had no desire to risk his life further.  If Timalo had learned anything from this debacle, it was never to steal from wizards – or to trust young, innocent looking apprentices.

As he moved cautiously towards the expanse of trees, he reflected that the experience had also taught him another valuable lesson.  It was finally time to start listening to the wise words of his wife.

 

 

THE END

________________________________________________________

Jon Byrne left his home near London at the end of the last century to travel overland to Asia and set up a hotel in India.  It was here that he spent a lot of time developing a fantasy world which as been the backdrop of all his fiction to date.  Since then he moved to Berlin where he now lives with his German wife and young daughter.  Like many people, he first became interested in epic fantasy after reading “The Lord of the Rings” as a child, and is currently finishing his third novel in between translating and teaching English.  “Taking the Bait” is his first published story.

 


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