Hugh Cook: The Witchlord and the Weaponmaster

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Hugh Cook The Witchlord and the Weaponmaster
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    The Witchlord and the Weaponmaster
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Sken-Pitilkin was so glad to be rid of his Yarglat charges for a few days that he went to the city gates to see the hunt ride out, just to make certain that Guest Gulkan and his brothers actually did quit the city.

They did.

There rode Guest Gulkan with his bodyguard Rolf Thelemite at his side, both drinking hard and halfway drunk already. Thelemite and his charge had both lashed themselves to their high and stylish lean-back saddles, by this precaution indicating that they planned to be truly stupendously intoxicated before the day was out.

Behind that pair of brawlers rode Eljuk Zala Gulkan. As the anointed heir of the Witchlord Onosh, the winestained Eljuk was properly entitled to ride at the emperor's side. But young Guest was ever jealous of his brother's privileges, wishing the heirship were his own. So, fearing his brother's surly anger, Eljuk hung back out of sight.

Eljuk looked miserably uncomfortable, since his groaning bones were mightily encumbered with amour, weighed down beneath a regular rustyard of iron plates interlaced with chain mail; his head was crowned with a helmet big enough for the boiling of a dog; a sword made for the slaughter of dragons was hauling at his side; and he could scarcely find space to sit in his saddle on account of all the spare amour and weaponry he had attached to it.

A stranger might have thought Eljuk fearful of bandits, but actually it was his dearly beloved brother Guest who stalked his nightmares. Guest had the temperament of a born regicide, patricide, fratricide and all-round homicide. So Eljuk had armored himself, and had armed himself mightily – but the weight of such protection would doom him to heatstroke on a hot day, or to death by suction should he find himself in a swamp, or (should the imperial hunting party encounter a blacksmith with a purse at the ready for the purchase of unwanted iron) to accidental disposal by way of sale.

While Eljuk feared Guest Gulkan, he lived in mortal dread of Rolf Thelemite. Rolf was a Rovac warrior, and the Rovac were a people so bloody in their predilections that the most ferocious of Yarglat barbarians was a cat-stroking pacifist by comparison. If Rolf Thelemite's account was to be believed (and Eljuk never doubted a word of it) then Rolf had personally slaughtered down three emperors, seven kings, nine dragons, eleven wizards, a neversh, a troll, five orcs, and thirty dozen assorted warriors and assassins.

Sken-Pitilkin personally thought this a mighty great amount for Rolf to have accomplished, seeing that he was barely 18 years of age, and had spent a full two of those brief years of his in Gendormargensis. But Eljuk took Rolf's every word to heart. Eljuk believed Rolf Thelemite when that Rovac warrior claimed that the golden serpent which he wore as an earring was a trophy which Rolf had torn from the head of the mighty Baron Farouk of Hexagon when that warlord had led an army of a million men against the city of Chi'ash-lan. Rolf said, further, that the intermittent and involuntary trembling of his lower lip was a consequence of flame- damage inflicted by a dragon, and that his habit of blinking quickly (as if he had grit in his eyes) was due to the effort of fighting off a sleeping spell which had been inflicted upon him by a wizard of Ebber.

Often, Rolf Thelemite described the gruesome death which he himself had inflicted upon that spell-casting wizard, and in his every description of that death he never neglected to leave out small but telling details, such as the succulent taste of the wizard's liver, or the manner in which a pariah dog had made off with the wizard's kidneys before Rolf could taste them also.

For his part, Guest Gulkan sometimes hinted to his brother Eljuk that he was taking practical lessons in cannibalism from his mercenary acquaintance.

Eljuk had once pleaded with his father to exile both Rolf Thelemite and Guest Gulkan, fearing that the pair of them would conspire together to encompass his murder. But the Witchlord had merely laughed.

Of course the Witchlord Onosh was no fool. Lord Onosh was ever conscious of Guest Gulkan's bloody temper and of his monstrous ambition. Which was why (unbeknownst to the world at large), Lord Onosh had bound Rolf Thelemite to the protection of both emperor and imperial heir; and (in equal secrecy) had further charged Morsh Bataar with the duty of bodyguarding Eljuk Zala.

Had Morsh Bataar's secret mission become public knowledge, it would have occasioned incredulous laughter from all and sundry, for it was generally believed that Morsh Bataar had been blighted by a dralkosh while still in his mother's womb.

It was said in Gendormargensis that Morsh Bataar was painfully slow of intellect, and this was the case. But while he was thick of voice and slow of mind, success seldom eluded him when he went to work on a problem. True, he was judicious in his choice of problems, for he was possessed of an uncommon degree of self-knowledge, and knew his limitations well.

Nevertheless -

Amongst those who are possessed of genius, there sometimes arises the conceit that genius is all. But for the practical purposes of life, there are other qualities of equal importance, and prime amongst them are patience, persistence, reliability and a sense of proportion, all of which Morsh Bataar possessed in good measure. These traits had helped make Morsh a master of the bow, which weapon he carried with him always, and practiced with on a daily basis.

In his intellect, Morsh Bataar might reasonably be likened to the snail. This most practical of beasts cannot dare to the heights of the eagle or challenge the hare in the sprint; but, given time, it will make its way over any obstacle, not excepting broken glass and razor blades.

Morsh was also uncommonly stable of temperament. He lived free of the black humors which afflicted Lord Onosh; free of the night terrors and daylight nervousness which unsettled Eljuk Zala; and free also of the drastic flux of anger and impulse which made his brother Guest such a trial to his elders.

In the capacity of bodyguard, Morsh Bataar rode behind the over-armored Eljuk Zala. Apart from his bow and a telescopic bamboo fishing rod, Morsh carried no weapons of note, believing Eljuk to be in possession of more than enough steel for the pair of them. Nor did Morsh bother himself with any nonsense of amour, for he thought the weather to be more of a threat to life than any rabble of bandits who might be encountered in the mountains.

Morsh Bataar was officially assigned to Eljuk Zala as a servant, and in truth he looked every bit the nondescript menial, since his burly body was hidden beneath layers of second-hand furs and his face was shadowed by a broad-brimmed hat the color of filth, a hat pierced by a full three dozen fancy fishing flies. He was mounted humbly on a shag pony, with a burdened baggage animal of like breed trailing behind him, and a spare mount bringing up the rear.

Behind this beggarly figure there rode a great and glorious warrior, the glitter of the sun sheening and shining on his amour and a falcon leashed and hooded on his gauntleted left wrist. This was Pelagius Zozimus, the emperor's master chef, who spied Sken-Pitilkin standing by the gate.

"Ho! Cousin!" cried Zozimus, leaning down from the height of his horse. "You're not hunting with us?"

"Get down from that horse, you old fool," said Sken-Pitilkin.

"You're a thousand years too old for such nonsense."

But Zozimus merely laughed at this accusation. The wizardly master chef was dressed for the hunt in glittering fish-scale amour which had been in his possession for the better part of a millennium; he was helmeted with silver and gold; he wore at his side a blade of Stokos steel which was sheathed in a scabbard bright with jade and opals; and he looked in his glory like one of the elven lords of legend come to life.

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