Magic in Ithkar 3, page 1part #3 of Magic in Ithkar Series
Prologue by Robert Adams
Three Knives in Ithkar by Gareth Bloodwine
Were-Sisters by Ann R. Brown
The Magic Carpet by James Clark
The Amiable Assassin by A. C. Crispin
Guardians of the Secret by Ginger Curry and Monika Conroy
The Beggar and His Cat by Gene DeWeese
Flarrin Red-chin by M. Coleman Easton
Covenant by P. M. Griffin
What Little Girls Are Made Of by T. S. Huff
Eyes of the Seer by Caralyn Inks and Georgia Miller
Fiddler Fair by Mercedes Lackey
The Silverlord by Morgan Llywelyn
SunDark in Ithkar by S. Lee Rouland
Hair’s Breath by Susan Shwartz
The Singing Eggs by Kiel Stuart
The Three Lordly Ones are said to have descended in their sun-bright Egg and come to rest on a spot near to the bank of the river Ith. The priests of their temple reckon this event to have occurred four hundred, two score, and eight years ago (and who should better know?). Though the Three never made any claim to godhead, they now are adored as such, and for at least four centuries, many pilgrims have come on the anniversary of the day of their coming to render their worship and to importune the Three to return.
The Three are said to have remained on the spot of their descent for almost a generation—twenty-one years and seven months—though they journeyed often in smaller Eggs that, it is told, could move far faster than even a shooting star and so bore them in only a bare day across snowy and impassable mountains, across stormy and monster-infested seas, to lands that most folk know only in fable.
Since not even the learned priests can fine down the exact date of their coming closer than a ten-day, pilgrims came and still come all during this period, and centuries ago, the Ithkar Temple and its denizens lived out the rest of each year on the donations of the pilgrims, the produce of the temple’s ploughlands, orchards, and herds, plus whatever edible fish they could catch in the Ith.
But wheresoever numbers of folk do gather for almost any purpose, other folk will come to sell them necessaries and luxuries. Pilgrimage Ten-day at Ithkar Temple was no different. Each year succeeding, more and more peddlers and hawkers gathered around the temple, the more astute arriving before the start of Holy Ten-day, so as to be well set up for business upon the influx of even the first-day pilgrims. Of course, other sellers, noting that these merchants always appropriated the best locations, began to plan their arrivals even earlier to claim these spots for their own. Within a few more years, most of the merchants were in place a full ten-day before the beginning of Holy Ten-day and many of the pilgrims then began to come earlier, in search of the bargains and rare merchandise often to be found at Ithkar Fair, as it was coming to be called far and wide.
Now, in modern times, the Fair at Ithkar has lengthened to three full ten-days in duration and still is extending in time even as it increases in size.
Nearly seventeen score years ago, the then high priest of Ithkar Temple, one Yuub, realized that the priests and priest-esses of the shrine were mostly missing out on a marvelous source of easy, laborless income. He it was who first sacrificed the nearer gardens—betwixt the temple enclave and the river-lake—and made of them three (later, four) campgrounds for the merchants and tradesmen, so that they no longer surround the temple on all sides as in the past. He it was, also, who first hired on temporary fair-wards—local bullies and old soldiers—to maintain order with their bronze-shod staves, enforce the will of the priests, and collect the monies due for the marked-off shop-spaces during the fair.
As the Temple at Ithkar waxed richer, successors to old Yuub continued to improve the temple and its environs. A guest house was built onto the northwestern corner of the temple’s main building in order to house the wealthier and nobler pilgrims in a greater degree of comfort (for which, of course, they were charged a more substantial figure than those who bode in tents, pavilions, or wagons or who simply rolled in a blanket on a bit of ground under the stars). A guest stable followed shortly, then a partially roofed pen for draft oxen. The next project was a canal to bypass the terrible rapids that lay between the East River’s confluence with the river Ith and the Harbor of Ithkar.
Two centuries ago, a high priest arranged to have huge logs of a very hard, dense, long-lasting wood rafted down from the northern mountains, then paid the hire of workmen to sink them as footings for the three long docks below the lower fair precincts, these to replace the old floating-docks which had for long received water-borne pilgrims, fairgoers, traders, merchants, and the like. Now these docking facilities are utilized year-round by users of the main trade road that winds from the steppes up the northern slopes of the mountains, through demon-haunted Galzar Pass, then down the south slopes and the foothills and the plain to the Valley of the Ith. Southbound users of the main trade road had, before the building of the docks and the digging of the canal, been obliged to either ford the East River well to the northeast, prior to its being joined by tributaries and thus widened, then to follow a road that led down to a ford not far above the Ith, or to raft down the East River, then portage around the rapids and falls.
With the great success of the temple or eastern canal there clear for all to see, the great noble whose lands lay just to the west of the lands of the temple in the Ith Valley had dug a longer, somewhat wider canal connecting Bear River to the harbor and its fine docks, charging fees for the use of his canal and, through arrangement, sharing in the commerce-taxes that the temple derived from year-round use of its docks by the transmontane traders, hunters, trappers, and steppe nomads who tended to use the Bear River route rather than the main trade road.
Before Bear River was rendered navigable by an earthquake that eliminated the worst of its rapids, the folk who used it had come down into Ith Valley via the longer, harder western road rather than the eastern through well-founded fear of wide-ranging denizens of the Death Swamp.
Many long centuries before the blessed arrival of the Three, it is related, a huge and prosperous city lay on the banks of the Ith somewhere within what now is deadly swamp but then were pleasant, fertile lands and pastures, vineyards, and orchards. But the people of this city were not content with the richness of the life they enjoyed, so they and other cities made war upon another coalition of lands and cities, using not only swords and spears and iron maces and bows, but terrible weapons that bore death from afar—death not only for warriors, but for entire cities and lands and all of their people and beasts. It was one such weapon as these that destroyed the city, rendered all living things within it dead in one terrible day and night, left all of the wrecked homes and empty buildings not destroyed outright clustered about a new lake created by the weapon, a long and wide and shallow lake with a bottom composed of green glass.
In those long-ago days it was that lands surrounding the destroyed and lifeless city earned the name of Death Swamp, for many of the most fertile of the former city’s lands had lain well below the usual level of the river Ith and had been protected from riverine encroachments by miles of earthen levees, but with no care or maintenance of those levees, spring floods first weakened them, then breached them and inundated field and farm, pasture and vineyard and orchard. Within a very short time, reeds waved high over expanses that once had produced grain-crops, while monstrous, sinuous shapes wriggled through the muck that had so lately been verdant pasturelands filled with sleek kine.
Monstrous beasts, kin of the mountain dragons, dwelt in many swamplands and in as many near swamp wastes—this -was a fact known to all—but the deniz
Descriptions of the Death Swamp monsters were almost all ancient ones, for precious few ever deliberately penetrated the dim, overgrown, terrible place that even the Three had warned should be avoided, adding that there were other places akin to it in lurking deadliness hither and yon in the world, sites rendered by the forgotten weapons of that long-ago war inimical to all forms of natural life. Of the few who do brave the Death Swamp, fewer still come out at all, and many of those are mad or have changed drastically in manners of thinking, acting, and speech, and seldom for the better. The sole reason that any still venture within the lands and waters surrounding that blasted city is the extraordinarily high prices that wizards will pay for arti-facts of that ancient place, many of which have proven to be of great and abiding power. And magic is as much a part of this world as the air and the water, the fire and the very earth itself.
The fair precincts are surrounded by palings of peeled logs sunk into the earth some foot or so apart, and those entering the gates must surrender all weapons other than eating-knives. Be they merchants or traders, they and the wares they would purvey must undergo questioning, weighing, and scrutiny by the fair-wards and the wizard-of-the-gate, lest spells be used to enhance the appearance of shoddy goods. Some magic is allowed, but it must be clearly advertised as such in advance and it must be magic of only the right-hand path.
Those apprehended within fair or temple precincts practicing unauthorized magic, harmful magic, or black magic can be haled before the fair-court. The high priest or those from the temple he appoints then hears the case and decides punishment, which punishment can range from a mere fine or warning up to and including being stripped of all possessions, declared outlaw (and thus fair game for any cheated customer or other enemy), and whipped from out the precincts, naked and unarmed.
The Ithkar Fair is divided into three main sections, each of which is laid out around a nucleus of permanent shops and booths; however, the vast majority of stalls are erected afresh each year, then demolished after the fair. Most distant from the temple precincts lies the section wherein operate dealers in live animals and in animal products—horses and other beasts of burden, hounds and coursing-cats, hawks, cormorants and other trained or trainable birds, domestic beasts, and wild rarities, many of these last captured afar and brought for sale to the wealthier for their private menageries.
In this fourth section, too, are sold such mundane things as bales of wool, hides, rich furs, supplies for the hunter and the trapper. Here, also, are places wherein performing animals can be shown and put through their paces, offered for sale or for hire to entertain private gatherings and parties of the well born or the well to do. Of recent years, quite a number of all-human performing acts have taken to auditioning here for prospective patrons:
The westernmost section of the main three houses craftsmen and dealers in base metals—armor, tools, and smaller hardware of all sorts and descriptions. Once the folk dealing in the sundries of wizardry were to be found here as well, but no more. Farrier/horseleeches are here, as are wheelwrights, saddlers, yoke-makers, and the like.
The middle section of the main three holds dealers in foods, clothing, and footwear. Here are weavers, tailors, embroiderers, bottiers, felters, spinners of thread, dealers in needles and pins, booths that sell feathers and plumes, metalcasters’ booths with brooches, torques, and arm- or finger-or ear-rings of red copper or bronze or brass or iron. Cookshops abound here, some of them with tasting-booths from which tidbits can be bought, some of them offering cooks and servers for hire to cater private parties or feasts. Also to be found here are the dealers in beers, ales, wines, meads, and certain more potent decoctions, with the result that there are almost always more fair-wards—proud in their tooled-leathern buffcoats and etched, crested brazen helmets, all bearing their lead-filled, bronze-shod quarterstaves—in evidence about the middlemost section.
The easternmost of the three main sections houses the workers in wood and stone—cabinetmakers, woodcarvers, master carpenters; statuette-carvers to master masons. Dealers in glassware are here to be found, candlemakers, purveyors of medicinal herbs, decoctions, scented oils, incense, and perfumeries, potters of every description and class, and lampmakers as well.
In this section one may purchase an alabaster chess set and, a little distance farther along, an inlaid table to accom-modate it. Here to be seen and examined are miniature models of the works of the master masons and carpenters, with whom contracts for future work may be arranged; like-wise, custom furniture may be ordered from the cabinetmakers.
Within the outskirts of the temple complex itself is a newer, much smaller subsection, centered around the tem-ple’s main gate. Here, where the ever-greedy priests’ agents can keep close watch on them and on their customers, are the money-changers, dealers in letters of credit, public scribes, artisans in fine metals and jewelry, image-makers, a few who deal in old manuscripts, pictures, small art treasures, and oddities found or dug out of strange ruins or distant places. Here, also, are those who deal in items enhanced by magic.
There are a few scattered priests, priestesses, mendicants, and cultists from overseas or far distant lands who worship other gods and are allowed to beg in the streets of the fair. They are, however, strictly forbidden to proselytize and are kept always under strictest surveillance by the men and women of the temple. One such alien god is called Thotharn, and about him and his rites of worship some rather odd and sinister stories have been bruited over the years: a committee of the priests of the Three is conducting secret studies of this god and his servants, while considering banning them from the fair.
Since all who legally enter the fair or the temple must surrender their weapons at the gates and swear themselves and their servants or employees to be bound by fair-law and fair-court for the duration of their stay, the well-trained, disciplined, and often quick-tempered fair-wards, armed with their weighted staves, seldom experience trouble in maintaining order.
The bulk of their work takes them to the middle section, with its array of pot-shops, or to the outer fringes of the enclave, where gather the inevitable collection of rogues, sturdy beggars, bravos, petty wizards, potion-makers and witches, would-be entertainers, snake-charmers, whores, and, it is rumored, more than a few assassins-for-hire.
And now, to all who have paid their gate-offering, welcome to the Fair at Ithkar.
Three Knives in Ithkar
They were only wood, she explained to the guards again and again. Toys of painted lath unsuitable for cutting even butter, and obvious even in the dark.
“Care to try your luck? For you, the first throw’s free. No, I’m not the prize, ha ha, you handsome devil! Who’s next now? Don’t be shy, step right up—”
Jorn balanced the slender, flimsy blade in his hand, staring at the rotting straw of the target, trying to keep his eyes off Salisa. The crowd of lowlifes and slumming dandies shouted coarse mockery and encouragement by turn as he squeezed the gaudily painted blade with sweaty fingers and lifted it to his ear. The first had fallen, but, miraculously, the second had actually remained impaled within the crudely painted circle, daring him to win the prize with a second successful throw. Salisa laughed with the rest, bending forward ever so slightly to give him a glimpse of her large, ever-so-distracting bosom. How easy to ruin their aim. And Jorn craved her, craved her with a passionate, obsessive love he did not dare express. She was too dangerous, her laugh an instrument of death by scorn. If he could get past that, past his failures at the game, then, then maybe . . .
The air was filled with stale ale breath and the smoke of burning goat-weed. Jorn glared about him as he was jostled, then, in a split second of calm and clarity and comparative silence, stilled himself as best he could and snapped the feeble thing forward. T
It stayed where it was put, but the other knife was not so secure. The touch of the third in the straw loosened the second, which drooped and sagged and finally fell with a nasty clack to the beaten dirt of the gamester’s floor. The crowd exploded with jocular derision as Salisa scooped up the coins of the wager and held them aloft. Her entertainer’s smile fastened on the hapless Jorn, and she waited for him to throw down yet another notched Ithkarian farthing.
Jorn was in love. Salisa looked on a face so full of longing and pain that it was impossible to maintain the pose of a cheap huckster. Their eyes met, and the raucous sounds around them became a distant shell, isolating them. Jorn couldn’t speak; his mouth opened, but there was nothing, nothing to say that Salisa didn’t know. She shook her head slightly and, in pity, leaned forward to tell him with a glance, Later. Come back later when the others have gone, and we’ll talk then. No more than talk, but that, at least, will be yours alone.
Jorn hated the enforced cleanliness of his foster father’s stall, where he sold herbs for flavor and for health to the middling prosperous and the very well off. The tyrant was constantly harping on the one note: Clean! Cleaner than that! Who’ll buy if the scale is dirty, if the parchment wrapping scraps are stained, if the costly glass and glazed ceramic pots are dusty, if your fingernails are filthy? So Jorn washed and dusted and polished and shined and learned what his father was willing to teach of herb lore. The old man was stingy with his knowledge, but a lovesick boy was hardly the kind of pupil to warm the heart of a man whose reputation in his craft had spread the length and breadth of Ithkar and beyond.
Thus it was an especial good fortune for the boy when he discovered the secret cache: a wooden chest beneath the sacks he never moved from laziness. The old man never dreamed that Jorn might seek solace from his tormenting love in work. And so, on the fourth day of the fair, when the old man was at the temple, gossiping and promoting his wares at the invitation-only party in the courtyard, Jorn, terrified of his own audacity, opened the chest and found the pale gray-green leaves unlike any others in the pots and flasks of the public shelves. They glowed with their own faint light as he held them up in the curtained darkness, barely bright enough to throw faint shadows into the moist green gloom. He even pounded his head as hard as he could, but he could not think of the name of the leaf nor of its virtue, though special its virtue must be. It reeked of magic, of such power that even the old man must be terrified of it. This was the stuff of the highest sorcery, no mere hedge-witch charm. It had to be priceless.