A Tale by Michael DeAngelo
Chapter Three: The Mad Wizard
The pair of men arrived at the outskirts of town just as the last sliver of daylight could be seen above the tall trees of the Grand Falmere. His legs sore from being left unused for so long, Frederic leaned upon his knees to get the blood flowing. As tired as his limbs were, he was certain that the horse’s body was spent. He thought he detected a bit of urgency in the merchant’s pace, but he hadn’t expected that they would arrive in Galden before nightfall.
Frederic realized that Olafur caught him looking his way, as though he was trying to size up why he had hurried them along.
“If there were members of the Ebon Hammer behind us, I’d sooner see old Buster a little tired than see us beset upon,” the merchant offered up.
Shrugging, Frederic nodded in understanding, but he held out his hands a moment later to placate the driver. “If they didn’t find me at Ellingsor, I suspect they swung around east to look for me closer to the coast. Even if they truly suspected I was here, I don’t think they would risk the ire of the elves of the Grand Falmere.”
“You might be right,” Olafur said. “And they’d be right to be cautious. The great forest has become a bit of a sanctuary to those elves who still live in Blacklehn. Fowler and his ilk believe they’ve chased all the elves out of the country, but they’ve just sent them all to one place. He might have caused himself even greater trouble going forward.”
Frederic tapped his knees and shook his head. “I can only hope that the elves understand that not all of us feel the same way our mad king does.”
“It seems we’ve had our fair share of those over the last century, doesn’t it?” the merchant said, thinking of the history of their country, and the dangers they endured because of it.
Before long, the wagon rolled a bit further up the hill and around a copse of trees, and the travelers spotted the tall tower that marked the border of the town.
“That’s it,” Olafur announced. “We’re here.”
Frederic stared at the spire for some time and realized that it wasn’t quite what he thought at first. “That’s not a wizard tower,” he surmised, with almost a childlike innocence.
“Just a mundane watchtower,” the merchant confirmed. “They store some winter grains in there from what I understand, though they once used it to protect them from invading barbarians when the town was first established long ago. Being able to see all the way down the hill was a great way to get word to their hunters to return to the town and prepare for an attack. They say that Galden has never been sieged.”
“But they no longer use the tower for guarding the town?”
Olafur shrugged. “More often than not, these days they rely on the elves for their support. Several of their allies can commune with animals, and they fly their birds into the sky. There’s no better vantage than hundreds of feet up in the air, wouldn’t you think?”
“That might be so,” Frederic agreed. “But the Ebon Hammer are no mere barbarians or bandits. If they were coming for Galden, I fear they would arrive here undetected.”
“Perhaps one or two would be able to sneak in under the cover of darkness, or in the surrounding forest, but they would be taking on a great risk of their own. Others have said that there are elves among the Grand Falmere who can speak to the trees.”
“I’ve heard the same of all of them,” Frederic said. He paused but finally nodded in agreement. “Perhaps if Galden is under the protection of the elves, they would be alright after all.”
“If only all of us could have such a safeguard,” Olafur mused.
The two of them crested the hill and passed by the old watchtower. As Frederic looked up to its pinnacle, he saw torchlight fill the windows. Whether it was to warn others of the town of the arrival of new visitors, or a planned point at night to have it serve as some sort of beacon, the warrior below could not be sure. Regardless, there were people in the tower, and they kept up with some sort of patrol, it seemed. Even without the assistance of the forest elves, the townsfolk could react to danger on their own.
As the visitors rolled on, they came to the border of the town, which had been marked by a long stretch of a post and rail fence. It seemed to go on in either direction—north or south—and curled around to the west. There were no gates fashioned at the road, and Frederic hummed to himself as the wagon rolled toward the two fence end points.
“You look as though you’re casting judgment upon this quaint little town,” Olafur teased.
Frederic lifted his hands as if to admit to such an assessment. “Dark days have made a cynic of me. I tend to look at everything with an eye on practicality, and not necessarily in the way that other people have considered them. With the world the way it is, I would have long ago turned these fences into a sturdy palisade, with a gate sealing off the road. Maybe a perch above the gates on the other side for a few archers to stand watch.” He pointed up above the empty space on the road, as though he were visualizing the completed project.
“It seems like a way to make a humble town feel like a prison,” Olafur said. Gone was his optimistic tone, as though a hint of the mirth that he’d shared with his companion had been infected by Frederic’s darker experiences.
The warrior shook his head. “You’re right. I have my own way of doing things, and they shouldn’t be considered as anyone else’s standards. Sometimes doing things to add security ends up making people feel a bit less safe. Besides, a palisade is only strong against a foolish or incompetent foe. A well-placed fire could bring the whole thing down, and if an enemy had siege weapons, it would fall before long.”
Olafur chortled. “My friend, if that is what passes as optimism for you, I fear you may be too far gone to rehabilitate.”
Although he knew the statement was made in jest, Frederic couldn’t help but feel that a spark of truth was there as well. After everything he’d endured over the past several years, he felt as though the parts of him that saw the good in people had diminished. Where he had once seen Blacklehn as a colorful, vibrant place, he now only saw things in shades of grey. Perhaps it was just the gloom of winter, he reflected. If he was able to make amends for what the Ebon Hammer had done, there was a chance that he would see those faded colors begin to return.
Lost in his thoughts as he was, he didn’t realize how quickly they had arrived at the town proper. While most of the houses were constructed closer to the forest’s edge, the common buildings were the ones that a visitor to Galden would happen upon first. A pair of them had their backs to the recent arrivals, but several more awaited on the opposite side of those first buildings. A ring of trodden dirt surrounded a circle of yellowed grass in the center of the town, and as Olafur urged Buster around it, he pointed toward the buildings and explained what they were.
“They’ve got a few of the trade buildings around here, just to ensure any visitors that do come through are wanting to spend their coin early on in their stay. Blacksmith, leatherworker, carpenter, tailor. This big building over here to our right is the town hall.” He drew the wagon to a stop, on the other side of the ringed pathway, letting the horse take a much-deserved rest. “I’ve got the stables over this way,” he pointed toward the south, “but if you head north along the other road, you’ll reach the inn. I suppose they thought better than to let ale and politics mix.”
Frederic realized that the merchant was tossing him from the cart, and he quickly gathered up his sword, and climbed down from the seat. He realized just how tired his legs were when he nearly wobbled from his feet, and he leaned upon the wagon for a few moments. Frederic was afforded a few more when Olafur stood and turned about, rummaging through his goods.
The merchant found what he was looking for and presented it as though he’d found some great treasure then. It was just an oblong carrot though, and Frederic surmised it was not a special treat for the trader, but his tired beast of burden.
Olafur confirmed his suspicion then, when he climbed off the wagon—struggling a little bit more than Frederic had, it seemed—and hobbled toward the horse. “Here you go, Buster,” he said, offering up the carrot.
The horse was hungry indeed and gobbled up the carrot in only a few bites. It nudged the merchant then, almost as though it was offering forgiveness for a hard ride to the town.
“When you get to the inn, make sure to order me an ale too. I have been talking on the road a fair deal longer than usual. I could certainly use a drink to wet my whistle.”
“I can do that for you,” Frederic replied. “I’ll see you there shortly.”
As the warrior walked away, passing between the buildings on the northern side of town, he listened to the merchant as he talked to the horse.
“There’s a good old lad. What do you think? Are you ready to turn in for the night?”
Frederic didn’t look back over his shoulder until he rounded the road as it curled west. He imagined that Buster was glad to be relieved of the burden of the cart, even though the bit and bridle kept him somewhat restricted. It didn’t seem to impair his eating though, and when he was done devouring the carrot, Olafur hurried along, hopping back into the driver’s seat with some effort.
The warrior found that when he’d lost sight of his unexpected companion, he felt a sting of loneliness that he was not anticipating. The town was cold and dark, though Olafur had insisted the people were not. But with winter upon Blacklehn, nobody wished to spend their time out in the cold.
Luckily, it seemed their mirth carried out into the streets anyway, for the closer Frederic drew to the tavern, the more boisterous it seemed the residents of the town became.
Before long, he stood at the entrance to the inn, watching as a quiet breeze sent the sign outside the building swaying back and forth. Illuminated by a nearby oil lamp post, the building’s name and its emblem were on full display.
“The Hardy Oak,” Frederic muttered. He nodded, as though he’d deemed the name worthy, and then he pushed the door open and hurried inside.
Though the music and lively energy inside never faltered, it was immediately apparent that a stranger to the town had arrived. Perhaps it was the sword at his hip, or perhaps it was the layer of grime that still stained his skin and his armor from where he had slathered mud upon his face and body, but he swore he heard whispers about his sudden presence.
Frederic cared not for the whispers, but he knew that he must have been a strange sight indeed, and that showing up in the winter, no less, was stranger yet. He waved to the onlookers, hoping that they would find him a little less threatening or dodgy if they knew he could be kind despite his weathered appearance.
He took up a spot at the bar a few moments later that were clear of the other patrons. He knew that he would have another guest beside him soon, but he also didn’t want to leave anyone feeling any more uncomfortable than necessary.
Frederic waited to see if he could gather the innkeeper’s attention. He was a sturdy fellow who shaved his head bald, but he had a thick mustache that had a few strands of grey among the darker chestnut hairs. The Hardy Oak was likely his establishment, and it was possible that the name of the place was shared with its owner. When the innkeeper looked toward the road-weary warrior, Frederic lifted two fingers to indicate he wanted a pair of drinks. The owner of the establishment arched his eyebrow, likely wondering if he was good for it.
“Just to be clear,” the warrior said, “I have a friend who is joining me here who will pay for these.”
The old barkeep folded his arms across his chest, and leaned back, as though he was seeing how much the stranger could test his patience. “Is that so? And who is your friend?”
“I traveled here with the merchant, Olafur,” Frederic explained. “He’s just taking his horse to the stables and he’ll be meeting me here afterward.”
“Ollie is here?” the innkeeper asked, his demeanor changed at once. “I thought we had seen the last of him before the winter.” He chuckled to himself and bent low to fetch two pewter tankards from under the counter. “You come bearing good news, so I’ll take that as a sign.”
He took the two tankards in one hand, and approached the rear of the inn then, where a trio of barrels sat on their sides on a stand. They looked no worse for wear, and Frederic was forced to reconsider his stance on the naming of the building. Perhaps the tavern built those tremendous barrels out of the trunk of a mighty tree, he mused.
A few moments later, the innkeeper arrived back at the bar, sliding the two filled tankards in front of the new arrival.
“I take it you’re not going to be leaving as soon as you’ve arrived here,” the bartender said. “Are you looking to rent a room?”
“That depends on whether or not you have a room to spare,” Frederic said. “And it depends on what you’re willing to accept as fair barter; I have no money.”
The innkeeper flashed a crooked grin. “You mean Ollie isn’t paying well for your protection?”
“Well, I think it was more an act of charity that he picked me up on the way here. I was at a farmhouse just west of Tiltham Forest and he spotted me walking. Something makes me think he knew he didn’t need a guard for his trip.” Frederic took a sip of his ale then, and looked down upon it, appreciative of the unfamiliar flavor.
“Well, if you’re planning on staying for a while, there’s certain to be a few tasks that you could help out with. Walther, our blacksmith, might need help with some of his tools, or even gathering wood. We’ve got a couple of farmers, Jacob and Cornelius, who might need help with their livestock. Or if you’re any good with a bow, I’m sure Sigor, our tanner would pay well for any wild game you could find in the woods. But, uh, you’ll probably want to talk to our headman, Merewin, before you do any of that. We’re friendly with the elves of the Grand Falmere, but it still might not be a great idea to hunt on lands that might be sacred to them.”
“There’s a good deal of work to be found here,” Frederic said.
“Aye,” the innkeeper said. “If you know where to look and you can be friendly with the folk. Probably wouldn’t hurt to clean yourself up before you go about introducing yourself, since you look like the wrong end of a happy pig,” he teased.
“Well with honeyed words like that to convince me, how could I refuse?”
The innkeeper couldn’t keep himself from laughing at that, and he leaned under the counter once more, that time producing an iron key.
“We’ll say the first night is on the house. I can have a water basin brought to your room, but your armor looks like it’s seen better days, and there might be a better way to tidy that up.” He paused to look at the patrons of the tavern, searching for one that he’d served one earlier that could have offered some help. When he found the one that he was looking for, he pointed her out. “Vaeri is a river elf from the forest who comes in here from time to time. Her people have an affinity with water—not just in the rivers and streams, but in the very air. I’d wager she could wash your armor in a few moments where a scrub would take an hour. You can tell her I’ll pay her, and all you’ve got to do is help me swap out the next barrel that is going to empty with a full one from the back.”
“I think that’s a suitable bargain,” Frederic said. “Before I meet her over there, I wanted to see if I could ask you something.”
“You can ask me whatever you want. That’s half the reason we get strangers that come into this town.”
Frederic took another gulp of his drink then, and looked about, as though he was trying to identify one of the other patrons who was in the Hardy Oak that night. “I’ve heard tell of someone who either lives in Galden, or close by. I thought maybe that tower was his when we were rolling into town. He’s eccentric, and has some acuity with magic, and—”
“Oh, you mean the mad wizard?” the bartender asked. “Yeah, we know him. He’s a bit of an odd duck, for certain. But he’s good to us so we try to treat him in kind. He has a room here that I keep available to him whenever he needs it, though he does happen to wander off for what seems like days before he comes back. I could ask one of our other regulars to see if they could check to see if he’s in.”
“I don’t want to be any more bother than I already have been,” the warrior stated. “You’ve already been too kind to me.”
“Nonsense,” the innkeeper said, waving off the other man’s humility. “Besides, it looks like you’ll have your opportunity to talk about getting your armor cleaned up sooner than we thought.”
“Another drink!” the elven maiden cried as she approached the bar again. “How much do I owe you, Roald?” she asked.
As she drew closer, Frederic looked her over. From the other side of the room, she looked like any other elven female he had come across, though admittedly there weren’t many. She had raven-black hair, angular features and a petite frame. But she also had a certain weariness in her eyes, even though it was hidden under a veneer of almost manic excitement. She wore a wild smile, as though nothing could take away a lasting exuberance. When she spoke, it was with a bristly voice unlike any Frederic had heard, least of all from an elf.
“Vaeri, we have a new visitor to the town. This is…” the bartender paused, realizing that he’d never handled any of the pleasantries. “My apologies. You’ve already got my name from this lovely lass. I’m Roald. But I never asked you for yours.”
“Frederic,” the warrior said, raising his ale tankard to salute his new companions.
“It’s a pleasure,” the barkeep said. “Vaeri, he’s going to be staying in town for a while, and I thought we could make sure he and his armor were cleaned up a bit.”
She leaned forward and hunched over, allowing the stranger to see a little further down her tunic. “And what’s in it for me?” she teased.
“Well for one,” Roald said, “your drink. Now don’t cause any trouble for him. He just got here; do you understand?” He looked to Frederic and shook his head. “I may have got you more than you bargained for. Vaeri can come on a little strong, but she’s harmless. I’ll go find out about your mad wizard.” He tapped his knuckles on the table to punctuate his promise to start the search.
As the bartender moved along, Vaeri inched closer to Frederic along her side of the bar. “So, are you looking to have your armor cleaned up while you’re still in it, or can we get it off of you?”
Frederic excelled at many things but understanding an elf maiden’s advances were not one of them. “I’m not wearing any other clothes but these.”
“I’m not sure which answer I just received,” she teased.
That extra little tantalization was just enough for the warrior to realize the maiden was flirting with him.
“Oh, I… That is, I’m married,” he said, showing the ring on his finger.
“I don’t see a wife anywhere nearby.”
Before Frederic could offer up a firmer protest, someone else’s voice rang out. “Vaeri?” the man spoke.
The maiden turned around, seeing the newly arrived merchant a dozen feet away, amongst all the boisterous folk in the tavern.
“Olafur?” she said, excitement abound in her voice.
He hobbled toward her then, and as he drew near, she spread her arms out wide. She wrapped them around his shoulders while he enclosed her in an embrace that started around her waist. As they came together, Olafur’s lips brushed against hers, and she closed her stormy eyes for what seemed like the first time since Frederic had seen her. Vaeri seemed to float there for a second, and when they parted, it seemed as though the merchant had tamed her somewhat.
“I didn’t think you were coming back before the winter ended,” she said.
“I wasn’t planning on it myself,” Olafur said. “But I thought to myself, ‘Galden is a fine enough place to wait out the cold of the rest of the year’.” He leaned to the side, seeing the warrior, who arched his eyebrow in curiosity. “I wasn’t interrupting anything now, was I?”
Frederic held up his hand for a moment, trying to ensure that nothing inappropriate was happening. He reached forth and grabbed the second tankard then, holding it out to Olafur, who gleefully accepted it.
“We were just seeing if Vaeri could help me clean up my armor since I’ve got it all caked in mud and grime from the road.” Still feeling tinges of the awkward discomfort in the air, he took a long sip of his drink.
The elf maiden danced her finger down Olafur’s chest then. “We were trying to come to an arrangement about whether or not I could get him out of those clothes.”
Frederic nearly choked on his ale then, and he sat forward to make sure it wouldn’t stain his armor further, or spill upon the floor.
“Were you now?” Olafur wondered.
“Of course, now that I know you’re in town…” she dallied.
“We’ll have to see if Roald has an extra room available,” the merchant insisted. “I don’t know if my leg will carry me into the grove on so cold a night.”
“I could keep you warm,” she said.
“I’m certain you could,” he teased right back. “If you don’t mind, love, I’d have a talk with Frederic. He’s new here, after all, and he might need to hear a few more details of the town that would help him while he’s visiting.”
She nodded, understanding that she was being dismissed. “Come find me when you’re done,” she said.
He indicated his understanding of that notion with another kiss before she walked away. He flashed his eyebrows at his newest companion once the two of them remained at that side of the bar.
“So, you met Vaeri,” Olafur said.
“I swear, I didn’t mean to do anything out of sorts,” Frederic assured.
The merchant chortled and shook his head. “You may not have, but I would have been surprised if she was on her best behavior.” He turned his head, seeing that the maiden had gone back to her spot in the tavern, flirting with other townsfolk then instead. “Vaeri is a nice enough lass—well, lass sounds a bit belittling. She’s seen much of this world, I’m certain. She’s older than anyone in this tavern, and she’s learned to live life to its fullest, we’ll say. Most days its hard to keep her satisfied with the typical ins and outs. Life moves a little too slow in the forest, so she comes here to quicken the pace.”
“That sounds a little unusual for an elf,” the warrior replied.
“Perhaps,” Olafur mused. “But your unexpected predicament leads us to a new dilemma for you. If Vaeri is meant to help you with your armor, we’ll have to find you a spare set of clothes. Galden’s tailor, Osti, might even have something in your size.”
“Yes, but as I’m having a hard time explaining to people this day, I don’t have any money,” Frederic maintained.
“Don’t worry about that,” Olafur said. “You’ll find that the people of this town are reasonable when it comes to barter. In fact, I was hoping you might be able to help me with a few things in the morning. I don’t know if you noticed it, but I shuffle more than walk, and doing that with a crate full of goods makes unloading my cart even more difficult.”
“Of course,” Frederic agreed. “It’s the least I could do for your help getting here. We were never going to experience any banditry on our way to Galden, so moving a few crates is fair trade.”
“No, I meant that I’d like to handle getting you some new clothes while you’re here in the town,” Olafur clarified. “You can’t wear your armor until it falls apart on you, and if it’s like any other room in this place, the one Roald gave you has a chest in it that matches your door’s key.”
“It’s strange seeing a place with such hospitality,” Frederic said. “I’ve seen Blacklehn’s darkest parts, and before today, you would have convinced me that they were all snuffing out the light.”
Olafur clapped him on the shoulder. “Don’t be caught off guard when the façade wears off. Every place has its shadows. Everyone has their demons.”
“There he is!” they heard then, as the innkeeper returned to the counter. “How have you been Olafur? I didn’t think we’d be seeing you before the end of the year.”
The merchant extended his arm and shook his friend’s hand. “It was a last-minute decision. To be honest, with the cold rolling in, all I could think of were the hot springs at the western rise. The chill has been taking a toll on me.”
“Funny you should mention it,” Roald said. “I was just looking for the mad wizard for this one you found. Walther said the last time he saw him, he was heading to the springs himself. But that was a day ago, it seems.”
“He’s always wandering off on his little escapades,” Olafur said. “You might not see him for another day or so,” he added, looking to the new arrival.
“Does he always do this?” Frederic wondered. “Even though Galden seems a fine place, the rest of Blacklehn still surrounds it, and there’s all sorts of manner to run into trouble there.”
The bartender and the merchant shared a laugh then.
“If there’s one thing the man you’re looking for doesn’t care about, it’s trouble,” Olafur insisted.
“There’s a good chance he’s not the one finding it,” Roald added. “He’s making it.”
Frederic blew out an anxious sigh as he considered his reasons for racing to Galden. “I know he’s a wizard, but it’s still possible something could go wrong out there. Olafur, he’s the only one I’ve heard about who can give me the answers that I need.”
“What’s that all about?” Roald asked.
The merchant looked at his new companion and bobbed his head. “There’s some personal issues that we’re trying to work out. But the good news is that you don’t have to worry about anything, Frederic. If there’s one person who you’ll never have to worry about, it’s Bixby Alladocious.”