The priest’s words buzzed in Tomlin's mind. All of thy contemporaries chose the oral examination. Very well, thou hast chosen a task. Our thoughts and prayers go with thee. Follow the river. Use the lesser ford at Saint Weldon’s. Locating thy prize is easy, but wisdom is not cheap and walking the valley is another tale. Remember, anything that breathes might be disturbed from rest in the Gray Tower’s Valley.
From atop the short wall around Saint Weldon’s Shrine, Tomlin gazed into the fog shrouded valley. Like a weapon thrust home by a crippled assassin, the tower protruded up through predawn mists. The parapet about the conical crown of the invalid bastion clutched at gray tendrils that writhed about, aimless and uncaring. Compared to the spotless Chapel of Martyr’s Cavern, the tower promised a slovenly welcome. The unkempt sight disquieted Tomlin’s eye and his stomach.
Gray coast-moss grew down from the parapet, drizzling towards earth. Water glistened on the mossy shroud and dripped a careless drool from toothless battlements into a dry moat.
A piece of debris let go from high among mold stained roof tiles and gathered speed, inducing other bits to tumble down the side of the leaning keep. Emerald and red beryl flashed their fires in a cascade of dusty pebbles and disappeared, their final rest hidden by the fortress’ wall. Their dusty trail joined the fog and drifted about The Tower.
The young student warrior-priest looked back from hill’s crest, back at his camp, back at safety and friends. They waved. He acknowledged their love.
Irene smiled and said. "Thou mayest still choose the teachers and their tricks.”
"I'll take the woods and her tricks," Tomlin said and thought, to be free of Irene and of the constant prattle of her tongue I would gladly face a dragon-demon while standing in iced waters.She’s as persistent as a badger.
From behind golden eyes like twin harvest moons surrounded by a golden cloud, Irene sighed. She hugged Tomlin and whispered, “I’ll pray for thee; thou of the bold bow and swift sword, thou the tall tanned one of molten movement and calm courage.”
“And I you,” said Tomlin. With the shapely Irene in his arms, the muscles in his face quivered but his tongue stilled behind clenched teeth. He thought, Oh, to return with a potion to repulse the quasi-poetic Lady Irene. She is comely but her words never cease.
Irene blew kisses and smiled. She waved, “God’s Speed, Noble One.”
Tomlin’s mind returned to his task. The Mentors all agreed. The fourth of the original copies of The Book is in The Gray Tower. If the task is easy enough for a student, why hasn’t it been retrieved by now? The Wisdom Council performed The Rite of the Dead over me before I left. Why did they let me go?
Tomlin looked at the smiling Irene who waved again. He thought, If I survive, if I pass the ordeal, I can name my posting; away from Irene, God willing. Self, why have you chosen certain battle? Self, t’is not for glory, nor power but to prevent being sucked soulless by the words of the mindless Irene. Better a faithful trollop than righteousness like the Lady Irene’s.
He pulled an arrow from his quiver, laid it across his bow, and nocked it. He held both in place with a schooled hand and checked that the draw of his sword and dagger were both free and smooth. The walking began. Good footing allowed a swift descent to the river and a quick, if noisy, crossing at the ford. The finding was indeed without effort. The Tower remained in sight between massive oak branches.
Only a few mushrooms among carpets of rich green ground moss greeted Tomlin under the oaks near the water; not much else grew there. He saw no trail nor disturbance of the meager vegetation. Folds of gray fog wandered between the trees clotting along his selected path in ghostly mounds taller than the oaks, and now and then a small number of ancient pines. Their cones crunched under his boots. They seemed to float on a sea of acorns.
“The Priest said that the dark energy of this place boils up from The Nether,” he sighed, and muttering to himself he pulled his cape back freeing bare arms to the cold.
The air stank. To the east, the sun broke the horizon. But its golden light was wasted on the tower. A pale parody of the radiance that shone from the sunrise gilded the gray walls with shadow.
If a faint sound had not warned Tomlin, the wolf would have torn open his neck. But he dodged, the leap missed, and the wolf snatched only the collar from his cape.
Tomlin drew his bow and shot the wolf in its gaping mouth. His arrow stuck out the back of the thing’s head. But the wolf scrambled back up to all four feet and snapped the arrow with powerful jaws. The creature chewed and spat, dropping the arrow’s remains to the ground.
The creature crouched and leaped again. Tomlin met its attack pinning distended jaws together with his sword and hacking at its neck with his dagger. Blood flew. The wolf’s body eventually loosened from its head and flopped to earth clawing and twitching.
With the bone rings of its neck littering the ground, the head bit and bit again seeking in vain his guarded fist. Tomlin pinned the demon’s skull to the ground with his sword and hacked its wolf’s head to pieces with his long jeweled dagger. Nose, tongue, and eyes still sought him but without success.
Bloody bits of wolf-flesh quivered on the ground. The dust drank up the blood. With a fading howl the segmented wolf-demon stilled. Its torso stiffened into death. The carcass became rot and stank as if exposed to the sun a week instead of a moment.
Tomlin’s knees trembled. His arms ached. He gagged and coughed.
“Bring more,” he bellowed into still air. When he walked he staggered, and pain coursed down the nerves in his arms and legs.
With a disquiet that lingered, the priest's words recalled other fears. Apparitions that speak are the more deadly. Casting spells of comfort and temptation they are able to weaken or misguide your heart’s courage.
Tomlin knelt and cleaned his weapons with handfuls of moss and dirt. He still quivered but spoke aloud, clear and quick, “I can do all things from the power of The Book...”
A voice cajoled from the fog, a female form with long wavy hair. “Indeed; words are but airborne and spit laden boast. It is thy sword, Noble One, which stilled Le Fenire. Boast of that, Slayer of the Demon-Wolf King. Flesh and blood hath killed a spirit. Swell with pride.”
Tomlin blinked and blinked again. Was she here or there? No, her image was indeed double; the first more distinct and clothed in palest green muslin, the second a nude's refection as if in a still pond. The two did not always move at the same time but always stopped commingled or adjacent.
“What are you?” Tomlin said.
Two voices merged; the result said, “A maiden. Are you weak of eye, Bold One?” Then one voice, “Or are you weak from eyeing?” The bare image touched its breast.
“Why are you looking over there? I stand here.” The first voice seemed puzzled and the naked image moved to overlay the clothed; then the clothed overwhelmed it.
Tomlin could not help his words, they came forth of themselves, “Strange vision; you are a maiden you say? Weird maiden, how stand you here and there?” he pointed.
The single image frowned. One voice replied, “A drunkard's dream.” Two voices continued with a wink and grin from the single image, “and the better to fill thy eye.”
The priest seemed to speak behind Tomlin‘s ear, Near the tower one might glimpse a spirit.
A deep throb passed through the ground; the tower shone with dull greens and blues from within. Their strange fire became fingers of rust colored smoke. Their image played along the underside of a fog bank that curled up from the river.
“The Old One plays,” the maiden laughed in her strange blended voice. “He seeks a warrior to do his bidding. Your victory catches his eye; as it did mine. Let us walk to the fortress. He has wine. Some days he will share.”
Tree roots overgrown by moss slipped beneath Tomlin’s feet. He fell twice into the stream. The maiden trod lightly; sand and slick mud supported her. Even water supported her step. Tomlin sunk half way to his knees and climbed from ooze both rising and sinking in the muddy sand.
“Here; walk here,” the maiden motioned.
He walked where she pointed. Mud became sand mixed with rounded creek rocks. They grew to cobble stone size and soon he walked upon a pavement that sparkled aquamarine
“What is your name?” the question slipped from Tomlin’s lips even as sweat dripped from his brow.
“Barrel? Like beer barrel?” Tomlin said and smiled.
“No, fool. Beryl. I am Reade Beryl, serf of the Gray Tower. I am named for a red gemstone not unlike those on which thou treadest.” She smiled. The Other winked as well.
“You call me ‘thou?’ And I but now know only your name. You presume much.” Tomlin frowned as he spoke.
“Thou callest me ‘you?’ But I know thee, Tomlin of Martyr’s Cavern. I address thee as I wish.” She turned and half bowed. With her bodice drooping she said, “Thou. Thou, oh Tomlin, thou. Oh, and thou do be pleased to look...more.” She stood laughing and skipped a step and laughed some more.
Tomlin blushed and clutched the rose-quartz talisman that hung about his neck. “Please yourself...” Tomlin sputtered, “You...you...” The Rose Crux bled warm pink light between his fingers. Self control returned.
Reade walked ahead, treading lightly along. A black opal hung from her neck on a tiny iron chain. A breeze, the tower’s breath, chilled and Beryl pulled her cloak over her head. Warm brown curls surrounded her face and spilled from her hood. Strong brown eyes glanced at Tomlin from a pale face.
In darkening shade their path dropped with the stream and followed its bank. “This way is often hidden by water. The Old One’s magic holds it forth when he wills.” Beryl glanced up at drooping vines draped with coast-moss. “If the water were at its usual height we would move yonder among those, hand over hand.”
A hundred royal strides ahead their walkway reentered what sunlight penetrated the fog. But a moss covered, vine-tangled twilight waited.
Tomlin froze. A pair of yellow eyes stared from high among moss and vine. The snake coiled about a limb and followed his every movement. With an arrow notched, lean Tomlin gave a second thought and trotted on.
Beryl ran ahead and moved as if she owned the wood. Catching up, Tomlin pulled her by the hand and ran for high ground and dim sunlight.
Beryl pulled loose, “I may call thee ‘thou’ but I own me. Not thou.” Coils of gray wormy serpent fell and wrapped about her. She screamed only once for her breath would not draw. Her face reddened.
Tomlin loosed two arrows that thudded home into snake coils. When he raised his bow again, the serpent struck. In dodging Tomlin fell; his cape punctured by a fang as long as his arm. Impaled on a tree the torn garment choked him.
Beryl made a sign with her fingers and went limp. A cold red fire burned consuming fang and tree but not Tomlin and his tattered cape. Tomlin fell free. and deep emerald. But black opal pebbles that lay dusted about supported his step, for the cobbles themselves shifted. Did the woman scatter the dust?
He avoided the second snake strike by jumping among the creature’s coils. The thing followed his every move but could not strike the student warrior-priest. A third near miss filled the thing’s mouth with its own rotten flank.
The maiden is surely a sorceress. Even so, I must free her, thought Tomlin.
Tomlin yelled prayers and hacked the worm with his sword. Hiding, dodging, and slipping away when it struck, he opened and widened a wound in the snake’s flank near the pale Reade Beryl. The worm released and recoiled away from his blows.
He pulled the pale maiden free, close, and breathed into her mouth. Tomlin became Reade’s breath until she with great effort drew a wheezing breath of her own. She coughed and spat.
Tomlin presented the tip of his sword and the Rose Crux to the wavering snake’s head proclaiming, “By the power of The Word and The Book.”
Reade slipped to the ground but continued to breathe. The weakened serpent convulsed. Pale gray light leaked from between its scales. A final aggression, an uneven wavering strike fell short of Tomlin and the wheezing Reade. The serpent quivered and crept. It shook and slithered away, trailing blood towards the river.
“Thou a wizard be; breath of life and war-magic called forth.” Beryl panted but steadied by the wavering Tomlin she stood and said, “Bold One, there are others of her kind. The tower beckons; let us linger no more.”
The serpent disappeared into the river. The water rose. Tomlin and Beryl sloshed along but trod knee deep before reaching the fog dimmed sunlight. Beyond the vines Beryl spoke, “I’ve heard this place called Moss Hell. Now I know why.”
They climbed. Steps cut from virgin rock steadied their footfalls. After a hundred paces they still stood ankle deep in water. The rising river kept their pace.
Tomlin’s voice stained with awe, “I almost died, twice.”
Beryl laughed but stood three steps above the water and clutched her chest. She puffed a bit, “We! Thou Tomlin. Wealmost died. Art thou a philosopher too? Thy talent hast no visible end. I thank thee for my life.”
The last steps, each a solid red jewel, faded into the muddy stream, disappearing beneath the muck clotted flow. Tomlin pulled the coughing woman along. They fell and slid into a fog choked ditch, discovering the tower’s dry moat. “The river may yet fill this,” wheezed Beryl.
With the decrepit drawbridge down, the mangled portcullis jammed open, and the moat near filled with dried silt they crossed into The Gray Tower. Muddy water invaded the moat and soon licked the fallen gate.
About the courtyard bristled empty battlements built to confront those who passed the gate. Archer’s slots stared with empty eyes. Tomlin’s gaze stopped at the granite stair that led up into the keep, “Surely a path so wide and fair is a trap baited with its own comeliness. Still, there are no visible defenders.”
Reade climbed half the stair before Tomlin joined her. The wind whined a muted shout of grief, water curled into the courtyard, and thunder mumbled a warning above the fog.
“The water can get deeper than this,” she called to him, turned, grabbed two handfuls of skirt, and climbed. Small hail stones fell, then ones the size of apples.
Hail as big as a man’s head hit sending ice splinters in all directions. Petrels, the small storm birds of legend, fell dead along with sky ice into the courtyard. Tomlin and Reade sprinted the remainder of the staircase among exploding cold white splinters.
The storm beat the fortress with an unseen fist. Inside the pounding seemed to come from a mighty stone drum. Only the warm smell of Reade Beryl and the dusty odor of the keep filled Tomlin’s nostrils. Darkness reigned within their sanctuary; sleet, rain, and hail fell without. Beryl encircled Tomlin’s waist with her arms and brushed his face with her cheek. Her blended voice said, “Together alone; how awkward.” She licked his ear and kissed his mouth, “Thou.” She kissed him again.
She wrapped her arms about him. He pulled her closer. The smell of warm maiden dusted with pine needles and anointed with cold crushed mint filled his head. Fresh melted ice water trickled from Tomlin’s brow and made a tiny splash on Reade’s cheek.
Tomlin’s thought’s threatened to overpower him when her tongue found his. He quivered, and not just his thighs. I want her. May the teachings of The Book protect us. I want her.
Tomlin gently freed himself from Reade’s embrace, “The water is still rising,” he said.
“Water?” mumbled Reade. “Yes the river; the river is too full and its overflow distracts my... Who climbs...where? How couldest thou stop? Such kisses are rare. Climb?” said Reade and climbed, following Tomlin’s quivering step.
A circular stair led upwards and joined a circular hallway that ended at a wooden door. After opening easily the entrance revealed the same again and its door repeated the matter: stair, hallway, door; a total of three times. Each stair and each hall were guarded by empty archer’s slots a fist wide along the left wall and head sized murder holes along the ceilings.
After the third level a counter clockwise stairway hung from the wall, quartz, granite, and limestone alternated as risers and ascended into a darkness sounding with the papery flutter of wings. High pitched squeals and continual thumping could be heard between lightning flashes and thunder rolls.
Tomlin’s bow spat two arrows into the upper darkness. A large bat dropped with the first but the second arrow stayed gone. Tomlin filled his left hand with his sword and climbed.
Reade watched and wrung her hands, “Beware, thou hero, I’ve seen bats as big as bulls inside this tower.”
Tomlin looked back at Reade holding a lamp’s light without a lamp to contain it. He looked up at the dark. That can’t be true, he thought.
Reade began her own assault; verbal but effective, “Thus saith Reade Beryl of The Gray Tower to The Mists, sky ice, cease!” She spat against the wall and motioned with her hands, visibly gouging the air. It hissed. Her lamp-less light brightened and changed hue from pale butter yellow to searing blue-white. The beating-thudding of the hail stopped. Gentle rain continued.
The upper levels of the keep now reflected enough light to discover its overdeveloped population and stop Tomlin’s assent. Lightning flashes confirmed the shadows with stark white light. As big as bulls? “Creator’s chin whiskers. Bats as thick as venison stew; as big as hounds.”
Tomlin climbed at a trot and swung his sword. Bats fell. Some chattered in frenzy and departed upwards. Tomlin slowed.
Reade screamed, “Watch out; there are missing steps.”
He stopped. Bow shot after bow shot sliced into the huge bats. Small bats fled but many dropped dead; some two to an arrow. Reade dodged bat carrion and spoke again, “Spirit of the Dread Keep, be bound, be stilled, and be gone.” Blue-white lamp-less light slowly climbed to the top of the keep.
A shriek, a muted shout arose through the tower fleeing the magic brightness. It lowered to a moan and fell silent. Bat noise lowered. Light shone from the top of the stair joining its rising blue-white cousin. The keep stank but the flying rats departed and the tower stood empty.
Tomlin easily climbed the remaining steps to the top and there in a chamber on a jeweled pedestal lay nothing save small knots of bat guano. Even more droppings surrounded the pedestal itself.
The warrior retched, turned, and staggered back down a few steps, “The Book of Wisdom, Healing, and Eternity would not allow itself to sit there.” He vomited.
Tomlin could retch no more. He wiped his mouth and looked down. Reade’s lamp-less light again showed shadows. But another form moved about dispelling darkness with a light whiter and cleaner than Reade’s butter yellow.
A strange voice came from below, “Children, why are you killing my bats?”
*** At the top of the keep Tomlin leaned over the battlements, pondered The Book of Wisdom, and smelled bat excreta. He muttered, “The priest said that The Book lay in the Gray Tower.” And thereby Tomlin described his problem; “It isn’t here.”
“Oh, it’s here alright,” said the old man.
The veiled sun shone down on a courtyard filled with water and covered with a frothy whiteness like a mug of ale. Hail floated there smoking off the thick white clots of fog obscuring the castle walls. But straight up tree limbs and portions of gray, even blue, sky could be seen.
Tomlin motioned with his hands and complained, “The river’s flow and the hail’s fog may as well be magic. Except... I can pray against a spell. Except... Reade could probably work her own spell. Except... I planned for everything except its absence. Where’s The Book? The water just doesn’t matter. Where’s The Book?”
“Son, I tell thee; it is here,” the old man smiled.
Tomlin saw Reade wade across the courtyard, and that startled him. “What can she be doing down there? As far as that thought will allow, why am I up here? Where’s The Book?" A small bat slammed into the roof of the keep and displaced a shingle, and that startled Tomlin too. He took a ragged breath and stared at Reade in the icy pool below.
Someone spoke. Tomlin flinched, “Food? Are you hungry? Your test is not over.” The Old One spoken of by Reade stood at his elbow.
He was thin and looked as if four broom handles supported his white linen tunic instead of the arms and legs of a man. His lamp-less light still accompanied him and did not smoke but smelled of apple and rosemary. Eyes resembling molten brass, but smoky and swirled, lit his face. “My warrior, The Book is there. It’s in the sanctuary next to the altar.”
“What? Where is there?” Tomlin pointed about and began chuckling, “There, there, there? Or here, here, or here?” He threw a pebble onto a lower roof causing a splintered cascade.
The Old Man chuckled himself. “That’s the sanctuary over, where else?" He pointed down and over to their left at a building both moss coated and fog clothed. "There. And the altar is inside.”
“Do you have any wine? Reade said you have wine,” said Tomlin.
The Old Man said, “Wine yes; a drink, a word, and a bite will settle both mind and heart. The Book will settle the spirit. The girl-child expects more enemies. That is why she patrols the courtyard. She will come back. There’s nowhere to go.”
Soon Reade sat between Tomlin and The Old One at a stone table made into the center of the very top of the keep. The two men talked. Their conversation painted scenes in vivid hues. The air itself vibrated with adventures, magics, and stark battles. A turn to philosophy blurred the word picture the two men had birthed. The give and take slowed. Two loaves of black bread and a block of yellow cheese became: slices, a meal and scattered crumbs. Wine filled goblets were drained. The two men impressed each other, but Reade studied the courtyard below. She neither ate nor drank though the men offered both food and wine.
Reade laughed easily and her duality shimmered in the fog strained sunlight. In blended speech surrounded by a sea of brown curls she said, “Why does this book you seek have worth? Has it wisdom? Will loves come to you because of it? Will it produce peaceful rest? Many other books contain all of these. How can it be different? How is it worth struggles with bats and reptiles?”
The Old Man spoke, “Did you hear that? Something is below, swimming about.” Something splashed from the fog clot below.
The three stood and peered down into the misty courtyard. The something moved. Great splashes were heard but the source remained unseen
Tomlin looked but saw only a few feet into the murk. He prayed, “Grant me eyes to see and ears to hear. Let it be so.”
A six foot wave of iced water rolled into the keep. Floating hailstones scattered up the stairs and into the keep. The echoes of their impacts boomed from the stairwell.
”What can that be?” Tomlin ran a few feet and descended, taking steps by twos and threes. At the bottom his first step found a sheet of black ice. Swerving and sliding, he fell and rose and fell again, finally crossing the floor to the door on his butt.
A small dry spot presented itself and he stood. What am I rushing into?
Flashes of dull color filtered through fog; a muted rainbow. Reptilian and covered with red-orange scales, the thing coalesced, advancing towards him. All the flesh tones of The Realm from golden brown to pink-tan fought for preeminence in the image.
The ice fog hid and revealed the advancing shape again and again but when it finally stood at the foot of the stair on the surface of the water it seemed a woman wrapped in blended drapes of crimson and royal blue, not a dragon, not aggressive but calm.
A sound like sand rubbed over wood came from behind Tomlin. A panting Reade stood touching his shoulder, “black ice.”
“Tomlin, my child, so well intended of you to come. You brought the Red One; so good. You’ve both passed my test. You are worthy to be lauded in verse and song. Riches will be yours; no doubt. Come let me embrace you both.”
The Old Man’s voice called out over the battlements from the top of the keep, “It’s her, the Nether’s Voice.”
Reade caught her breath, “The Old One's right. That’s Viscana.”
A cascade of light played from Viscana’s skin. Her robes burned with crimson and royal blue flames, blending and radiating jagged fires. “Should not a queen acknowledge the brave and comely? They have done so much. Daughter, stand with me. Lover, come.”
Reade staggered down a few steps. With a sound as of torn tapestry, Reade Beryl split and moved in two directions. One shade moved quickly to stand with Viscana. The other quivered, climbed, and stayed with Tomlin.
Reade trembled but she spoke in a single clear voice, “Let us run, Tomlin. She is the Mother of Familiars; the Goddess of Lies.”
Viscana smiled. Her breath steamed gray against the white of the ice-fog. “No, my daughter, you are mistaken. Another is evil, not I. I am a source of myths and fables; not lies. Many are deluded with the same falsehood as you, dear daughter. Come stand with me. Come lover, stand with me as well.”
Tomlin called out as if giving a command, “Happy is the man that findeth wisdom. She is more precious than rubies: and all the things thou canst desire are not to be compared unto her. Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace. She is a tree of life...”
“So, you know of The Book. You are no seeker of peace, but a warrior; handsome none-the-less.” Viscana curled her lip.
Tomlin kept speaking, “Say unto wisdom, Thou art my sister; and call understanding thy kinswoman.”
Viscana’s face wrinkled, she said, “Yes, I am your kinswoman. Come, Join to me.” Viscana held out her hands.
Tomlin retched but continued to speak, “Wisdom will keep thee from The Strange Woman, from the stranger which flatters with her words.”
Viscana arched an eyebrow and half turned her head. “Which? Am I not ‘Who?’ Nay; I am Wisdom Herself. Where is your mind? Don’t you recognize me? Kneel.”
Tomlin continued to quote The Book, “O ye simple, understand wisdom. And, ye fools, be ye of an understanding heart.”
Royal blue and crimson light flickered from the palms of Viscana's hands, “Yes, it is I; Wisdom herself. Come and worship me.”
Tomlin’s speech slowed but the words still came, “In the lips of him that has understanding wisdom is found.” Tomlin drew his sword, “Light fills darkness. Truth burns lies. My cause is just. The words of The Book are in my mouth and in my heart. A sword of power fills my hand.”
“So be it,” said Viscana and scales once again adorned her form. Smoke curled from her nostrils and scarlet wings burst from her shoulders. Fire dribbled from her lips and her teeth grew to fangs.
Tomlin stood on the stair. High ground favors the warrior who stands upon it. He eyed his foe seeking a weakness.
Reade shrieked, “Water! Jump in the water.”
Reade jumped. Tomlin dove for the courtyard. Heat from the first blast of dragon-flame engulfed him but the plunge into five feet of iced river water saved him and the ball of fire rolled past splattering onto the keep. Little dribbles of flame persisted on the steps, dimming, with some dying out.
Reade’s voice sounded far away calling, “A dragon must breathe in to breathe out.”
But when Tomlin stood back up it was the Old Man that he saw standing amid languishing dragon fire at the entrance of the keep. The Old One pronounced something over a loaf of bread. He tore it asunder and tossed the pieces into the waters of the courtyard. Then he produced a fresh bottle of wine. He blessed it after some fashion and crushed it between his hands letting the result flow down the steps.
From Tomlin’s distance it looked as if blood descended and mingled with the waters. The result sought him.
His soaked cape became bright red from the Old One’s magic and it warded off the dragon heat. Advancing when Viscana breathed in, ducking below the ice water when she spat fire, Tomlin struggled forward. His cape became dry in fiery breath and smoked until dunked once more.
Near the demon Tomlin covered himself with the remains of his cloak and in the midst of a furnace’s blast of fire he thrust his sword through what seemed a curtain of blood into the abdomen of the dragon. Brown stinking rot spilled out and burned away in the courtyard’s waters.
With the sword still quivering in her belly the dragon screamed and said, “You will pay with your life!” Her image bubbled and hissed into a dark vapor that dispelled, melting ice-fog in its wake. The sword fell into the water. The tattered cape fluttered in red ribbons here and there.
With the dragon gone Tomlin saw too clearly two Reade Beryls; both were looking at him. One stood on the surface of the water the other waded like Tomlin.
The wading Reade dunked beneath the water, retrieved the sword, and pointed it at her familiar-self. Tomlin looked from one Reade to the other, Who? Which?
The unarmed Reade Beryl loosened her bodice and half bowing said, “Come to me, noble hero. I have magic to relieve my enemy of your sword. You may trust me. Throw away your cloak. Come lay your head upon my bosom; let us talk. Let us commune. I will stroke your throat. We will comfort each one the other, Dear One.”
Stroke my throat? Perhaps with a knife? Thought Tomlin and jerked his gaze to the Reade Beryl holding his sword. She blushed and said, “Dost thou not recognize me? Of course not; thy heart is filled by thy enemies: snake, dragon, and familiar.”
The armed Reade dropped Tomlin’s sword and cut the air with her hands. She cast the result, a sphere of blue fire, at her mirror image.
The other Reade caught the missile in her left hand. It turned into ice and she dropped it. In the waters of the courtyard it fried like batter in boiling grease. Other Reade said, “Dearest Tomlin, hero, retrieve your sword and slay the pretender. Have I not stood by you and helped you. Will I not comfort you in your victory? Do you not remember?”
She turned and half bowed with her breasts exposed she said, “T’is you; you, oh Tomlin, you. Oh, and you do be pleased to look...more.”
Reade Beryl looked towards the gate. “I am undone,” she said. The black opal that hung from her neck on a tiny iron chain swung. Its soft light reflected in her tears and pulsed with her sobs.
The Gray Tower moaned from the wind. It seemed to say a single word, “Thou.”
Casting spells of comfort and temptation they are able to weaken or misguide your heart-courage. “Thou?” said Tomlin.
“You are the victor. I am the prize,” said the familiar.
“Thou,” muttered Reade wading towards the gate house.
Tomlin held out the Rose Crux. It bled warm pink light between his fingers. “Truth and life,” he said.
Reade stopped and held out her black opal to Tomlin, “Call Wisdom thy sister.”
The familiar recoiled from the light of the two displayed talismans. She frowned and made new desires known, “You serf, come here,” said the familiar motioning to Reade. “You warrior, leave,” she said indicating Tomlin.
Crimson light from the Rose Crux reached out and enfolded Reade overpowering the light of her enchanted black opal. Her face flushed with rose-light she said, “All who hate wisdom love death.”
Tomlin turned to the familiar and said, “Her house inclines unto death, and her paths unto the dead. None that go unto her return again. I choose Truth,” he reached out and took Reade by the hand.
The spirit’s image wavered as if reflected from desert sand. She quivered, “You and you...”
Tomlin spoke clearly but did not shout, “By the Power of The Book.”
Reade echoed Tomlin, “By the Power of The Book.”
“By the power of Wisdom,” said Tomlin.
“By the power of Wisdom,” echoed Reade.
“By the power of The Word, life,” said Tomlin.
“By the power of The Word, life,” echoed Reade.
The familiar became a brown mist that drifted away dissipating among the pure white of the remaining ice fog.
Tears streamed down Read Beryl’s cheeks, “It captured me when I was a small child. It has tormented me since. It’s gone. How did you know? What magic?” she laughed and she cried. More tears wet her face.
“Thou,” said Tomlin and ran his arm around Reade’s shoulders. He fondled the nest of brown curls her found there and embraced her.
Reade and Tomlin stood together before an altar in the small chapel north of The Gray Tower’s Keep. The Old Man spoke, “This is your beginning. Here take your prize, The Prize.”
Reade looked at Tomlin and blushed. “Me? I didn’t agree to marry. I’m no one’s prize,” she looked at Tomlin’s lips and he kissed her quickly.
When the kiss ended The Old Man shoved The Book into Tomlin’s hands, “Here, this is your prize.” He pointed at The Book and said, “Prize.” Then he pointed at Reade and said, “Woman; they aren’t all prizes either.” He winked at Reade and added, “Neither are the men.” Shaking his head and turning his gaze on Tomlin he said, “Watch. Learn. Be Tomlin of Martyr’s Chapel and of The Gray Tower.” He gestured a blessing and with a smile disappeared in a radiant burst of light that caused no smoke.
Tomlin and Reade walked a highway paved with polished granite flagstones. Oak trees lined their path and acorns crunched beneath their feet.
“Why didn’t you come to the tower this way?” Reade watched Tomlin’s eyes closely.
“I told you the last time you asked, because the priest said to stay along the river.” Tomlin laughed.
“Oh, I forgot; t’is a better test when harder without reason.” She curtsied. Reade’s courtly hand motion stopped, for Tomlin grabbed her and pulled her close. They kissed a bit longer than before, “You realize that I am not your kind don’t you?” said Reade.
“What kind is that, thou Reade Beryl; not barrel but rather rock-ish.” Tomlin still smiled and held her by the hand.
“Rock-ish am I? I have been called elfin and troll-worth too; even ogre-bait by the same wizard. He was drunk.” Reade pulled herself close up into Tomlin’s face using the tatters of his cape. “In truth I’m the kind of person that doesn’t wear cloaks smelling of dragon’s snot and foul magics gone sour; as some do; oh thou most phew.” she fanned her face with her hand but got peck-kissed for her trouble. She hugged the young warrior.
Tomlin said, “My classmates are at Saint Weldon’s Shrine; a few steps around the...”
A slender woman dressed in beige and brown stepped onto the path, “Not all; not I, Tomlin. What have you dragged back with you?”
A warrior with a salt and pepper beard, chain mail, and a well oiled sword and scabbard also stepped from the bushes and also spoke, “Leave it to Holy-Boy to find a tart in a ruin. At least he got The Book. The Mentors' bets are lost. And my purse fattens. None thought the fourth copy would come home; except me and thee too, Tomlin.”
Reade gazed up and down at Irene, “Look here, Tomlin of Martyr’s Cavern, your mother is not as attractive as you claimed, but she looks every moment her fifty years.”
Irene’s eyes flashed. “Tomlin, what did you tell her? Oh so, I see. You there, crook-witch, a harlot dressed in the palest of green muslin is Fenire’s whore and no doubt. Wolves stink, handmaiden. You too, are a hag.”
“Too? The blonde one admits her pedigree. But I; I am free, for Fenire is dead and I am delivered from a demon’s yoke by the hand of my champion, Tomlin of Martyr’s Cavern.” Reade smiled and curtsied towards Tomlin, adding his new title in a sing-song lilt, “And of The Gray Tower.”
Irene spat words, “How can a werewolf judge a woman or flatter a man?”
The salt and pepper warrior scratched his beard and said, “She is not our kind, Tomlin. Demon’s pawn or prey? You choose strangely; not my problem. Come, warrior-priest, we must be past Cat's Kill by sunset.”
The four walked down to Saint Weldon’s where the rest of the party stood ready to leave.
Irene pressed her lips together and blushed but did not hold her tongue, “It’s not over, werewolf.”
The sun reddened in the west.
Reade sighed and said, “I know not what other qualities that thou mayest yet reveal to me, but thou, oh thou dost warm my heart. No small feat that, while standing waist deep in iced waters. But even staring down a friendly path, as now, at a setting sun; ice and fire are much the same reflected in thy eyes. Death passed closely and fled from you.”
“From us,” Tomlin smiled.
“Truth can seem a lie. Kiss me again, Tomlin of The Gray Tower, and make sure Irene and the rest see us,” Reade stepped closer and tilted back her head.
“Quit scratching your beard and give me your horn, Padre Throwby.” Tomlin sounded the priest’s silver horn.
“What miracle dost thou announce, young Priest Tomlin?" asked Padre Throwby and rubbed his beard.