Lawrence Watt-Evans: The Lure of the Basilisk

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Lawrence Watt-Evans


The Lure of the Basilisk

PROLOGUE

"I am weary of all this death and dying."

The speaker was a huge armor-clad figure almost seven feet in height, standing at the narrow mouth of a small cave near the top of a snowy and rubble-strewn hillside. Even from a distance an observer would have seen the fading light of the setting sun glinting a baleful red from his eyes, marking him as something other than human. He was speaking to a bent, crouching creature clad in tatters who stood inside the cave's mouth, at the edge of the impenetrable gloom of the interior, her face and form only faintly visible in the dim twilight. She was hunched and humpbacked, shriveled and bent with age. Her face was twisted and broken, her teeth gone, one of her golden eyes squinted horribly, yet she was plainly of the same race as the tall warrior.

"Death is everywhere;" the decrepit creature replied.

"I know that, Ao; I would it were not so." The hag addressed as Ao merely shrugged, and the warrior continued: "It makes life pointless-to know that I and all I know will die and pass away, as if I had never been." He paused briefly, then went on. "I wish that it were possible for me to perform some feat of cosmic significance, to change the nature of things, so that all would look back millennia from now and say, 'Garth did this.' I wish that I could alter the uncaring universe so that even the stars would respond to my passing, so that my life would not be insignificant."

Ao moved uncomfortably. "You are a lord and a warrior whose deeds will be recalled for a generation."

"I am known to a tiny corner of a single continent; and even there, as you yourself say, I will be remembered only for a century or two, an instant in the life of the world."

"What would you have of us, my sister and myself?"

"Is it possible for a mortal being to alter the way things are?"

"That, it is said, is the province of the gods; if the gods are the baseless myth some believe them, then it is the role of Fate and Chance."

Garth had apparently expected this reply; there was only the slightest pause before he said, "I would have it, then, that if I cannot change the world, at the least the world shall remember me. I would have it that my name shall be known as long as anything shall live, to the end of time. Can this be?" He stared at the misshapen hag, his usually expressionless face intent.

She gazed back impassively and answered slowly, "It is your desire that you be known throughout history, from now until the end of the world?"

"Yes."

"This can be done." Her tone seemed curiously reluctant.

"How?"

"Go to the village called Skelleth, and seek there the Forgotten King; submit yourself to him, obey him without fail, and what you have wished will be."

"How am I to find this king?"

"He is to be found in the King's Inn, clad in yellow rags."

"How long must I serve him?"

Ao drew a deep breath, paused, and said, "You weary us with your questions; we will answer no more." She turned and hobbled out of sight into the darkness of the cave, the darkness that concealed her sister Ta and their humble living facilities.

The warrior stood respectfully motionless as the oracle withdrew, then turned east, toward where the last rays of sunlight lit the iced-in port of Ordunin and the cold sea beyond, and started thoughtfully down the hillside.

CHAPTER ONE

The village of Skelleth was the northernmost limit of human civilization, a perpetually starving huddle of farmers and ice-cutters. It shrank with each succeeding ten-month winter. Its existence depended equally on the goats and hay of the farmers and on the declining trade in ice to cool the drinks of wealthy nobles to the south. This trade brought to the decaying community those many necessities they could not obtain from their own land, but was less each year as fewer of the ice-caravans survived the ravages of brigands and bankruptcy.

Although Skelleth was universally acknowledged as the limit of human civilization, both humans and civilization could be found further north. The humans, however, were either the goat-herding nomads of the plains and foothills or the barbaric hunters and trappers of the snow-covered mountains, who were all too fond of banditry and murder and could hardly be called examples of civilization; the civilization was that of the overmen of the Northern Waste, driven there by the Racial Wars of three centuries before, and they were most assuredly not human.

It was because of these last that the Baron of Skelleth had seen fit to make the North Gate the only portion of the crumbling city wall to be guarded, although none of Skelleth's meager trade passed through the North Gate, even the wild trappers preferring to use the more accessible gates to east and west on their rare trading expeditions. At any hour, night or day, one of Skelleth's three dozen men-at-arms could be found huddled over a watch-fire in the shelter of the one remaining wall of the fallen gatehouse-assuming that the man assigned had not deserted his post. This cold and unrewarding duty made a convenient punishment for any guard who chanced to run afoul of the moody Baron's whims, and so was usually the lot of the younger and more cheerful among the company, as the Baron was prone to consider it a mortal offense should anyone be happy when he himself was sunk in one of his frequent and incapacitating fits of black depression.

Thus it was that Arner, youngest and most daring of the guard, was ordered to stand twenty-four hours of guard duty without relief at this unattractive spot; and it was scarcely surprising that the youth should abandon his post and be asleep in his sweetheart's arms when, for the first time in memory, someone did approach Skelleth down the ancient Wasteland Road.

Thus it was that Garth rode into Skelleth unannounced and unopposed, astride his great black warbeast, past the wide ring of abandoned, ruined homes and streets into the inhabited portion, his steel helmet glinting in the morning sunlight, his crimson cloak draped loosely across his shoulders. His gaze was fixed straight ahead, ignoring the ragged handful of villagers who first stared and then ran as he appeared in their midst.

Although Garth's noseless, leathery-brown face and glaring red eyes were enough to evoke horror among humans, it was quite possible that some of the villagers did not even notice him at first but ran from his mount, thinking it some unnatural monster of the Waste. It stood five feet high at the shoulder and measured eighteen feet from nose to tail, its sleekfurred feline form so superbly muscled that the weight of its armored rider was as nothing to it. Its wide, padded paws made no more sound than any lesser cat's and its slender tail curled behind it like a panther's. Like its master, the warbeast did not spare so much as a glance from its golden slit-eyes or a twitch of its stubby whiskers for the terror-stricken townspeople, but strode smoothly on, unaffected, with the superb grace of its catlike kind, triangular ears flattened against its head. Its normal walk was as fast as a man's trot, and the relentless onward flow of that great black body moving in utter silence through the icy mud of the streets was as terrifying in itself as the three-inch fangs that gleamed from its jaw.

As the screams and shouts of the fleeting villagers increased, a faint frown touched Garth's thin-lipped mouth, though his gaze never wavered; this noisy reception was not what he wanted. He slid back his cloak, revealing the steely gray breastplate and black mail beneath, and slid his double-edged battle-axe from its place on the saddle, carrying it loosely in his left hand. His right hand still held the guide-handle of the beast's halter, a guide that was more a formality than a necessity for a well-trained warbeast. Garth knew that his mount was the finest product of Kirpa's breeding farms, the end result of a thousand years of magically assisted crossbreeding and careful selection. Still, he kept the handle in hand, preferring to trust no creature save himself.

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