Companion of Mages

© July 1988

Triad sat as usual behind his polished mahogany desk, drumming his fingers, waiting for Kallisti to respond to his summons. As soon as she opened the door, he started:

“Listen Kallisti, I’ve got a very important visitor coming to stay this afternoon. I’d like you to join us for dinner and escort him – you know the sort of thing…”

“Oh yes?” she replied, raising one eyebrow suspiciously.

“You’ve got that seductive red dress I bought for you a few days ago. I haven’t seen you wear it yet, so why not make this a special occasion?” he winked suggestively.

“Very well.” she sighed. “He had better be nice.” she added, heading for the door again. Triad smiled but remained silent. The afternoon passed in a whirl of preparation. She was finally ready just before dinner and as instructed arrived dressed – or almost dressed – in the red, backless halter-dress, open to her navel. The material was fine enough to be virtually transparent. Although Kallisti was not averse to showing off her assets when required, even she felt somewhat under-dressed for the occasion!

“Ah my dear Kallisti, let me introduce you to Barre. He has come all the way from Zethus – he is a Mage of the Black Rose.” Triad rose to his feet as she was shown into his study. The man was a short, pudgy, toad like man whom Kallisti took an instant dislike to him. His credentials were impressive – The Order of the Black Rose was dedicated to preserving law and order in the whole of Mardona. Of all the branches of the Order, it was said that the Mages held the most power.

“G-goodness me,” Barre stuttered as she curtsied to him, showing him a generous amount of cleavage. “I did not realise you, had such b-b-beauty in Urswell. I thought we had the lion’s share in Z-Z-Zethus.” he kissed her hand. She tried not to flinch at his touch – hot, sweaty and clammy. The odour that surrounded him was like stale boiled cabbage. This was not going to be a terribly enjoyable evening, she thought to herself.

“You’re not serious!” Kallisti hissed furiously some time later after dinner. They were relaxing on the verandah of Triad’s country house, high up in the hills to the north of Urswell, overlooking the town and the sea beyond. The sun had set behind the high, purple mountains to the west, and the lanterns hung from the ceiling beams were attracting hoards of flying insects. Each would flutter around the light, until one would fly too close and fall to the ground, crisped by the flames. Triad studied her coldly.

“I need favours from him. This is very important Kallisti, the most important thing I have ever asked you to do. I need his influence and ear in the Order – my old contact died last year as you well remember. I need a mage.”

“But he’s revolting!” she complained, shivering and hugging herself even though it was far from cold.

“In that case I’m sure he’d appreciate you’re attentions a lot more. After all it can’t be often he has the chance to be ‘entertained’ by a woman as beautiful as you.”

“Don’t try that on with me.” she glared at him darkly. “Can’t you get one of you’re contacts in the brothels to do this? Why me?”

“Why are you, being so fussy? Surely you weren’t so choosy before I took you on? That must explain why you were so thin an ill-looking.” Triad narrowed his eyes at her. She scowled and looked away. He was deliberately reminding her of the depths she had been driven to do after her father had thrown her out.

“I took you in Kallisti, if it hadn’t been for me, you’d still be on those streets down there, earning a pittance and slowly killing yourself in the process.”

“Alright, alright, there’s no need to lay it on with a trowel. I know what you’ve done for me, and I’m truly grateful – but you surely can’t ask me to do this. I’ll do anything else…”

“This is what I require of you. I’ve brought you to where you are today. I’ve given you everything you have. I can just as easily take it all away again, and then you would be back on the streets. Is that what you really want?”

Kallisti drooped her head in submission. She shook it, her throat refusing to form a word.

“Good that is settled then, and just in time, here comes our guest back. I hope it was nothing to do with my chef’s cooking?”

“Oh no, n-n-nothing like that. It is this blasted heat. I will never get used to it. Where I come from, the weather is cooler than this, even at the height of s-s-summer.”

“I’m sure it is. Well, if you young things will excuse me, this old man is feeling his age and must turn in. I’m sure Kallisti will be able to keep you amused for the rest of the evening.” Triad smiled to the toad-like Barre and excused himself.

“Well, I m-m-must admit to being rather tired myself. All this t-travelling about is very wearing on a body.”

“Mm, I suppose it must be.” Kallisti replied, not looking at him. “I would have thought that you Mages would have been able to fly about from place to place rather than have to travel around like normal people.”

“Ah dear me no. If only that were t-true. I can use a spell to fly if I wish, but it is a very difficult a t-t-tiring one to hold for any length of t-time. It is easier in the long run to use normal means.”

“Oh, I see. Well if you, don’t mind I’ll say g-goodnight.” She ground her teeth as she realised she was picking up his stutter. He kissed her hand again and stroked her cheek.

“My, you are b-beautiful.” he said softly. She swallowed hard and looked down at the ground, hoping he would take it to be bashfulness rather than nausea. Stepping backwards away from him, she left, clenching her fists in frustration.

It was not long after, that she found herself standing bare-foot in her night-gown outside the visitor’s bed chamber. Triad’s words rang in her ears: “I’ve given you everything you have. I can just as easily take it all away again…” Taking a deep breath, she gently pushed open the door and went in.

Barre was sitting up in bed, his chest bare, displaying rolls of glistening pale flesh. Kallisti closed her eyes for a moment. She heard his gasp of surprise, followed by the creak of the bed as he rose out of it. She opened her eyes again and was rewarded with the sight of him standing before her, completely naked. A shiver ran down her spine. She allowed his hands to move over her shoulders and down to her breasts. Then with a slight tug, he pulled her night-gown off her shoulders. It whispered over her skin and fell to the floor at her feet.

“Oh my g-goodness!” Barre gasped, his breath coming in short pants. His hands reached out for her again. She cringed at his touch, his sweaty hands, moving over her smooth skin, revolted her. She closed her eyes and began to imagine it was someone else rather than the loathsome Barre. It was useless. Even through her closed lids, she could ‘see’ him drooling over her. She opened her eyes just in time to see him moisten his lips and begin to move toward her.

“NO!” she protested, driven finally beyond endurance. Barre glanced at her, but continued to grope her. “Get off me you disgusting toad!” she lashed out at him, chopping at his hands cupping her breasts. Her foot instinctively came up to kick his groin before she could bring herself under control, and before she knew what had happened, Barre was falling to the floor. She watched in horror as his head crashed against the chest at the foot of the bed.

He remained motionless where he fell, blood seeping from the gash on his head. Kallisti stood frozen in fear, her hand outstretched as if to try to halt his fall. Finally she broke the spell and gathering up her night-gown, she bent over the still form, testing the pulse. There was none.

“Oh holy Dravidi!” she groaned, sinking to her knees in despair. “Triad will crucify me for this!” She glanced round, thinking desperately. Hurriedly, she searched through his belongings, removing all the money and valuables she found. In amongst them, she found his Mage seal, his symbol of authority, alongside two scrolls and a very plain looking dagger. Quickly, she put all these into a pouch and after snuffing out all the candles, slipped quietly out again.

There was quite a crowd near the marsh gates. They were all waiting for the guards to open the gates. It was just before dawn and the sky in the east, away out to sea was growing lighter by the second. It would not be long before a new sun was born from the furnaces hidden by the sea, at the edge of the world.

The crowd was composed of the usual cross-section of travellers, merchants with mules and wagons; nobles in fine carriages; mercenary warriors on horseback, alone or in pairs; pilgrims on foot or donkey; assorted travelling tradesmen and one man standing aloof from the rest. He was dressed in the flaming scarlet cloak that singled him out as one of the roving storytellers, a Sagabard. He carried on his back the instrument and symbol of his profession, a Lubor. It was a stringed instrument with a drum-like sound box, a cross between a tabor and a lute.

One other stood apart from the rest. Dressed in a long, hooded grey cloak, it was impossible to see any feature under the hood. Only when the gates opened and the crowd surged forward could anything be seen of the cloaked figure – long slim legs appearing for an instant as the cloak flapped open, only to be quickly drawn closed again.

There were two guards on duty at the gate, one standing on either side as the group of travellers filled through. They spared only a cursory glance at whoever passed between them. When the Sagabard reached them, they bowed their heads a fraction in respect. He nodded to them and swept through. Just behind him came the cloaked figure. The older of the guards, a grizzled veteran, barred the way.

“What is the matter?” came a female voice from under the hood.

“Ah, I see. Where is is you are heading Miss?” the guard nodded his head. “Would you mind removing your hood?”

“I’m…” the girl began. Sighing, she pulled the hood back. Kallisti knew now that her leaving Urswell would now get back to Triad. She had hoped to slip out unnoticed, but she had been in such a panic she had not been able to put together a good enough disguise. Under the cloak she carried a large pack containing most of her possessions, including her disguise materials.

“Is there something wrong here?” another voice intruded. The guard looked round at the newcomer. The Sagabard was glancing from Kallisti to the guard and back again. “This is my assistant. Is there anything the matter?”

The guard looked puzzled for an instant and then withdrew a step. He shook his head. “No Sir, there is nothing amiss here.” He nodded to Kallisti to pass. Letting herself breath again, she hurried past the guard and out of the town. The Sagabard was at her side suddenly. She looked at him properly for the first time. There was something vaguely familiar about him, but she could not place his face.

“Thank you for helping me.” she said, smiling fractionally. “But why?” The man smiled.

“No, I didn’t think you would recognise me again, especially dressed like this.” he replied. She frowned – he seemed to be talking nonsense, but then that was sometimes the way with these storytellers.

“Have I met you before?” she frowned, tipping her head to one side. He nodded then suddenly passed his hand over her face. She jumped at this sudden movement and in an instant a dagger was in her hand.

“Ah, that’s the Kallisti I remember!” he smiled, a twinkle in his eye.

“Deldus!” She gasped, her memory returning. “What the… You cast a spell on me!” she held the dagger up to him. Deldus raised his hands and stepped away.

“Whoa there… you’d better not let the guards see you threatening me like that.” He was still smiling though. “Where are you heading?”

“I – I don’t know.” she sighed. Backing down, she slipped the dagger back into the sheath on her thigh.

“Oh I see.” Deldus read behind her words. Come on, wherever you’re going it’ll be up this road, so let’s walk.” He fell in beside her as they followed the road out along the river, heading first south-west and then west towards the hills inland of Urswell. For some reason, she found herself telling Deldus all that had happened.

“Ouch!” he winced when she told him of Barre. “I can’t say I’ll miss him. I always thought him a corrupt, loathsome reptile, but the other Mages are not going to take too kindly to one of their number being killed, especially in a house like Triad’s. I’m afraid your old master is gong to be in for a rough time. He’ll have to explain what Barre was doing there in the first place, and then try to account for the way he died – I think you might have sealed his fate by taking Barre’s things though. I take it you’ve got his seal?”

Kallisti glanced at him sidelong. “Well…”

“Come on, remember what happened last time, you can’t lie to me.” he reached for her arm. She stepped away, out of his reach. He laughed. “My, you are quick. Alright, honest, no more tricks.” He held his palms out to her. Suddenly a white dove appeared on them. “Oops!” Deldus shrugged as the startled bird flew off. Kallisti tried her best not to smile.

They came to a stopping place where there were some logs placed where one might sit by the road. They were beginning to climb the low hills which would take them further inland. There were a couple of travellers here, sharing a snack and drink. Kallisti and Deldus stopped and she removed her cloak and opened her pack.

“Here, you had better have this then.” she handed him the seal.

“Good girl.” Deldus accepted it and in a flourish it had vanished.

“What about the rest of these things?” she showed him. Deldus looked them over, examining the scrolls.

“Hmm, these aren’t really of any use to you. They’re specialist mage scrolls. I’ll tell you what, I’ll swap them for ones you’ll find much more useful.”

Kallisti stared at him dumbfounded. “But these are stolen. I killed your colleague and robbed him!”

“So? They’re your’s now however you came by them. Out of you and Barre, I know who I’d prefer to have them.” he winked at her. She smiled and squeezed his hand. “Here, how about these in exchange?” He produced two scrolls in place of Kallisti’s. “This one will enable you to climb any surface like a spider. It makes your hands and feet grip like a spider’s claws. The second one will give you the ability to camouflage yourself so that you cannot be seen. I’m sure you’ll find them much more useful.” Kallisti’s eyes were wide with amazement.

“Really… you’re giving them to me.” she stuttered. “Oh yes, what’s the catch?” she narrowed her eyes at him, her lips forming into a thin line. Deldus smiled.

“Nothing at all, except…”

“Yes?” she glared at him.

“Keep me company while we travel.”

Kallisti scowled. “Really?”

Deldus nodded. “Really, and by the way, that dagger you took. It’s probably much more valuable that you expect…”

“I told you we would be alright. Trust me, I know this road like the back of my hand.” Deldus reassured Kallisti. She had been worrying him about a place to stay for the past hour. The day had been getting perceptibly darker, and as night descended, she had found the sounds coming from the forest frightening, even though it was a hundred yards from the road. “I would not have thought you would be scared of the dark in your profession – I would have thought you would welcome it.” Deldus encouraged her to talk.

“I know.” she glanced again at the shadows in the forest, her eyes wide and panic-filled. “I’ve never felt frightened like this before.” She moved closer to him, brushing against him as they walked towards the welcoming lights of the inn up ahead. “The dark never bothered me when I was at home – it was a friend I knew well, but out here…” she shivered and clutched his arm. Deldus smiled.

“Even the bravest can be daunted by the unknown. There is nothing out here that is anywhere near as dangerous as the animals your used to. You cope every day with the most dangerous creature the gods ever created.” Kallisti looked up at him, frowning in puzzlement.

“What do you mean?”

“Man – it’s the most dangerous animal in the world!”

“Oh yes, very deep.” Kallisti glanced at him sidelong.

The main room of the inn was dark and smoky. A fire burned sullenly in the grate in the middle of the long wall opposite the bar. There were several tables and benches in various corners of the bar room, but only a handful of people occupied them.

“This is more like it.” Kallisti relaxed visibly as they penetrated the smoke. Deldus chuckled quietly. they went over to where the innkeeper stood leaning on the bar. He gazed at them through one rheumy eye, grunting a welcome:

“Food, drink and a room?”

Deldus glanced at Kallisti. Her attention was elsewhere – a game of dice in one corner. “Behave!” he hissed to her. She glared at him for a second but reluctantly dragged her attention away from the money changing hands. The wine was sour, the bread was stale and the meat tough and stringy.

“You, think that’s the worst of it?” Deldus said over his cup of wine. “The bed will certainly have bugs and the innkeeper will charge us a fortune.”

“THE bed?” Kallisti eyed him suspiciously. Deldus sighed.

“Will you get it through to that tiny brain of your’s that I’m not interested in that. I’m your friend.” Kallisti lowered her gaze.

“Hey Sagabard, how’s about a story?” one of the other travellers called out across the room. Deldus raised his eyes heavenwards long-sufferingly.

“Very well, what would you have? The tale of Aslarn, last of the Griffins? Or the story of Ragnara and the magical Unicorn that guards the treasure? Or how about the mythical land of beautiful winged women, far to the east across the sea?” The audience shouted its choice and Deldus began to tell the tale, accompanying himself on the Lubor. Kallisti leaned back against the back wall and sipped her wine. The sound of Deldus’ voice and the Lubor was soothing and she was very tired. She had not slept the night before and they had come quite a long way today. Her eyelids were growing heavier and the sound of the bar room were slipping away as she gradually dozed off.

“Hey, sleepy head, why don’t you go to bed instead of sleeping here?” Deldus’ voice appeared from the haze of sleep.

“Mmm?” she mumbled, dopily opening her eyes. Deldus sat across from her again, smiling at the small pile of coins he had gathered from his storytelling.

“You’re tired, you ought to go to bed.”

“No, I’m okay really.” she insisted. Deldus shrugged. “Anyway, how come you are a Sagabard now? I thought you were a Mage?”

“I am. I’m also a quite a distinguished Sagabard, although few have connected the two identities. I’m called Delius when I’m working as a Sagabard.”

“But how can you be both?”

“I trained first as a Mage, then when I graduated, I joined the Sagabard school. Eventually, I graduated in that too.” he explained.

“But… Kallisti’s mind was waking up now. “But that takes years… both those things take years to do.” She gazed at him suddenly very suspicious. “How old are you?”

Deldus glanced around and gave a lopsided grin. “Probably a bit older that you would imagine me to be. You probably would never believe me anyway.” Kallisti scowled. “How old do you think I am?”

“About thirty-ish.”

“Mmm, that is about right.” He leaned towards her. “Would you believe me if I said I was nearer ninety?” Kallisti burst out laughing. “See, I told you so!”

“But that isn’t possible…” she protested. Deldus shrugged.

“Who is to say what is possible or impossible when you take magic into account.”

“But it isn’t natural?”

“Natural? What is natural? Is it natural for pearls to give off light that can be controlled by you? Is it natural that I can turn myself into a shadow…” suddenly Deldus vanished. All that remained was a barely discernible dark space where he had been sitting. He reappeared as suddenly as he had disappeared. “Magic is the manipulation of the forces of nature to achieve feats that are not possible except by distorting and transforming those forces to our own needs.”

As they were talking, the door from the road opened to let in four men, travellers by the way they were dressed. They headed straight for the inn-keeper. While one spoke to him, the others looked around at the occupants of the bar room. Kallisti gasped.

“What’s the matter?” Deldus asked her.

“Triad’s men!” she hissed, ducking low over the table to avoid their gaze.

“Don’t worry,” Deldus quickly glanced over his shoulder, “they won’t see you.”

“How can you be so sure?” she snapped. Then she saw his hand move in the air between her and the men. The men glanced at them both but did not take any notice.

“Natural forces used to produce unnatural results.” Deldus shrugged.

“This is serious.” Kallisti said. “Triad must have sent them out after me. Now what?”

“Well, what were you, planning to do anyway?”

“I – I don’t know.” she sighed. “I just had to get away, that’s all. I’m tired, I want to go to bed.”

“Your eyes look very puffy. I think it’s time you went. Come on.” he took her arm and lead her towards the stairs to the upper part of the inn. What they did not see was the eyes of one of the newcomers following them, watching their every move.

The bed was nothing more than a pile of rush matting in one corner of a dingy room. The single lamp cast a smokey, flickering light into the dark corners of the room. The single small window was shielded by a patched curtain to deaden the draughts from the ill-fitting shutters. Kallisti was to tired to notice any of this. Almost as soon as she lay on the coarse bedding, she was asleep. Deldus sat beside her and watched her sleep.

A while later, Deldus’ eyes were closed, but he was far from sleep. His senses were alert, heightened by the magical aura that hung about him like an ethereal cloak. The sound was faint and barely noticeable above the background noises from the bar-room. It was a slight scrape of metal against stone from out beyond the window. It was close by yet faint, as if muffled.

Deldus opened his eyes and turned his head toward the window. He twisted his head from side to side to locate the sound, but it did not repeat itself. Just to make sure, he quietly moved over to the curtain. Lifting a corner, he could perceive the deep darkness outside through the cracks and gaps in the shutters.

The flimsy wood shattered as a large gauntleted hand crashed through and grasped his throat. The violence was so sudden that Deldus failed to react for a split second and in that time he was lifted from his feet by the immensely strong arm and pulled toward the window.

Just as suddenly, the door burst open, letting a flood of light into the room. Kallisti woke with a start, but before she could move, a dark-clad figure leapt on her. Her sleep fogged brain did not fully register the situation but reacted instinctively. At a word, the pearl at her throat exploded with light, surprising her attacker. With a grunt of effort, she pitched him off her and rolled away, scrabbling to get her feet under her. Before she knew how it got there, a dagger was in her hand. Her surprise was, of necessity, short lived – survival being far more urgent.

Her attacker was crouched about to spring. In one smooth movement, she ducked to one side and threw the dagger. Her attacker gave one gasping cry as the dagger caught him at the base of his throat, just below his larynx. He toppled forward, blood gushing from the fatal wound. Kallisti turned toward the door, just in time to see another figure silhouetted in the light. The silhouette seemed familiar, but the weight suddenly appearing in her hand made her glance down. The dagger was again in her hand! She looked at her first attacker. He lay on his side, staring at the wall, his throat slashed and pumping blood. The dagger in her hand retained a few drops of his blood.

A loud crash alerted her to the predicament Deldus was in by the window. He was still caught by the giant of a man who leaned in the window, and was barely conscious. He vice-like grip of the man’s gauntleted hands were crushing the life out of the mage so quickly that he had been unable to even cast a spell for his own protection. Ignoring the threat from the figure in the doorway, Kallisti leapt to Deldus’ side. The man’s hands were protected by the metal gauntlets, but his upper arms were enclosed in leather sleeves. She slashed down with all her might, a vicious snarl on her face. The razor sharp dagger cut into the tough leather and she was rewarded by a shout of pain from the dark, bearded man. The knife bit deep, but not deep enough for all it did was enrage the giant, who increased the pressure on Deldus’ throat.

Deldus was gripping the man’s wrists, his eyes bulging and his face purple. Suddenly, the man began to scream in pain. He released Deldus, shaking his hands wildly. The metal around his wrists, where Deldus had grasped them was glowing red hot. As he struggled to free them, the glow spread and intensified until his hands were encased in semi-molten metal. He pulled himself back out of the window. A loud crash followed as he toppled off the edge of the roof on which he had been balanced.

Deldus collapsed to the floor, massaging his bruised neck. Kallisti turned once again to the door. The figure had gone, but she suddenly realised why it had been so familiar – Zandros! Triad had sent his master thief and assassin out after her.

“Are you alright?” she knelt beside Deldus, keeping an eye on the door all the while. Deldus nodded.

“As well as can be expected after being half-strangled.” he croaked.

“It was Zandros.”

“And friends! I don’t think it would be a wise idea for us to stay here any longer. I would imagine he and the other one will be preparing something not particularly pleasant for us.”

“Will you, be alright to travel?”

“I’ll be fine, what’s a little strangulation between friends. Come on, we’ll make a start right away.” He got to his feet, a little shaky at first.

“The window.” Kallisti quickly gathered up her belongings and made for the window. Deldus shook his head but followed her anyway.

The road was dark ahead, and dark behind, but the light from Kallisti’s pearl lit the area around them with a soft glow.

“So, now where do we go?” she said, wearily following the tall dark figure of Deldus.

“Well, I’m heading for Zethus. Would you, care to join me?” He looked sidelong at her.

“Zethus…” Kallisti pondered the name. “What is there in Zethus for me?”

“You’ll be surprised my dear Kallisti, you’ll be surprised.” Deldus replied.

Kallisti smiled and picked up her pace, catching up with him. The road stretched on into the dark…