Godslayer, p.1

Godslayer, page 1

 

Godslayer
 


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Godslayer


  Godslayer

  Bifrost Guardians

  Book I

  Mickey Zucker Reichert

  ISBN: 0886773725

  August 1987

  Content

  Dedication

  Acknowledgments

  Prologue

  Chapter 1 Dragonslayer

  Chapter 2 Manslayer

  Chapter 3 Kinslayer

  Chapter 4 Wolfslayer

  Chapter 5 Childslayer

  Chapter 6 Mageslayer

  Chapter 7 Godslayer

  Epilogue

  Dedication

  For the veterans of Vietnam, especially the PTSD patients of Coatesville VA Hospital. May they find an uncondemning world and a god who believes in them. And for Marcellus, Brahmin, and Ahngmar for the inspiration.

  Acknowledgments

  I would like to thank Janny Wurts for being a role model, a teacher, and a friend; Joel Rosenberg for slapping me around when I most needed it; Raymond Feist for glowing praise and encouragement; Steve Zucker for storybook heroics; Jane Butler for her godawful patience and "not to worry"; Sheila Gilbert for things that can't be said in public; John Mulvey for objectivity, encouragement, and enthusiasm; my mother for patience; my father for pretending to discourage me; but mostly Mark Fabi for not writing a satire.

  Prologue

  "I! I who fashioned myself a sorcerer or an angel, who dispensed with all morality, I have come back to the earth."

  —Arthur Rimbaud, Adieu

  The three mailed guards who ushered Bramin into the king's court regarded him with cautious curiosity. No one dared touch him. Nor did they question the cloth parcel which swung from his belt. Offending any wizard could spell instant death, and the jade stone clamped in the black-nailed claw which tipped Bramin's staff identified him as a sorcerer of high rank.

  As they passed through the double set of oak doors, Bramin fought to keep his head high. The battle he had just survived and the enchantments of transport weakened him both mentally and physically. His aura had dulled to a flicker of gold and, though he had nothing to fear in Ashemir's throne room, he hoped the king's magician would not recognize his fatigue. It was simply a matter of pride.

  The carpeted path to the king's throne seemed to stretch for miles. The court watched the procession in a vast silence which jagged Bramin's already taut nerves. A comma of black hair slipped into his eye, and he flicked it back with an anger that sapped much of his remaining strength. Weakness of any sort enraged Bramin, and it reminded him of his reckless squandering of power. Over-confidence had cost many of his colleagues their lives.

  "Step forward and name yourself." King Ashemir's command broke the silence, and tense whispers followed it. Ire rose momentarily at this ritual formality. The king knew Bramin well. The magician had been born and raised in the royal city, the product of a rape. His father was one of the dark elves, the last faery creature seen in this part of the world. As a child, Bramin paid for his willowy figure and dark complexion with jeerings and ridicule.

  Bramin came forward, unhurried. He nodded briefly at the advisor beside the king, glared at the court sorcerer, who regarded him with both envy and amusement, and bowed pleasantly to the king. "I am Bramin, Dragonrank of the Jade Claw." He thumped the base of his staff on the floor for emphasis. "I have performed your quest. The giant, Redselr, lies dead at my hands." He thumbed the sack at his belt. Enervation and anxiety caused him to misjudge position and strength, and the tie snapped. The bag fell to the floor, and the giant's head rolled free to the king's feet.

  King Ashemir recoiled with a gasp. The court sorcerer turned an unbecoming shade of green. Behind Bramin, strained whispers broke to cries of fear and amazement. Guards scrambled to maintain order, others ran for the abomination which seemed to stare at their king with glazed eyes.

  With a word and a gesture, Bramin caused the head to slide back into its bag. The effort slammed against him like a wall, stealing his breath. His life aura flickered dangerously. A high-pitched ringing filled his head, making the voices around him seem distant. Yet Bramin retained control over his languishing muscles. Gradually his mind cleared, and he cursed himself brutally. He could have let the guards clear his mistake away or physically done so himself. Pride alone goaded him to recklessness, and he had nearly paid its price.

  The king cleared his throat. His look of fear dissolved, masked by a pleasant smile. "You've earned your reward, Bramin Halfman. Five chests of gold, a parcel of land, or the hand of my daughter, Halfrija. The choice is yours."

  The pronouncement of Halfrija's name made Bramin smile despite his exhaustion and indignation. "I need neither money nor power, for I have both already. But for Halfrija's hand, I would stop the sun from setting and the moon from rising. I would still the tides or steal the hammer of Thor."

  The court passed opinion in a gentle hum of conversation. The king bit his lip against an ecstatic grin, but his blue eyes gleamed with excitement as they met Bramin's glowing red glare. The court sorcerer looked stricken. All three men knew Bramin would need to abandon the School of Dragonrank, since one of its primary requirements was eleven months per year of training on the school's grounds. For the king, it meant a new court magician with power beyond any of his predecessors. Only those blessed with the claw symbol could join the Dragonranks. Its devotees were the most capable users of the art, and the most able among them became omnipotent lords or directly served gods. "Summon Halfrija," Ashemir commanded his guards. They rushed to obey.

  Bramin knew marriage would force him to sacrifice a future of ultimate power for domesticity and the banality of court proceedings. He lowered his head, staring at the claw-shaped scar which puckered the black skin on the back of his right hand. The symbol had appeared at the age of ten along with the first traces of the life aura which glimmered about him, visible only to those versed in magic. His mother and human half siblings sent Bramin away that year. So he traded the gibes of the citizens of Forste-Mar for their respect and the grueling discipline of the Dragonrank.

  A person marked with the claw was a rare enough occurrence in any town, and Forste-Mar received its second surprise three years later. Bramin's eldest half sister, Silme, was similarly stamped by destiny. She joined the Dragonrank, which pleased Bramin. It gave him a familiar companion on his infrequent breaks from studying enchantments or practicing swordsmanship. And he had always liked Silme best. Many times she had dried his tears or soothed his deadly rages when children grew cruel with their taunts or citizens wounded his pride with derision.

  The doors swung open, interrupting his memories, and the court again fell silent as the guards ushered Halfrija before them. A dress of blue silk with interlacing patterns of silver tastefully outlined her delicate frame. Her face was fair with artistically high cheek bones. Her wide-set eyes were the pale blue of cornflowers. At the sight of the lady he loved, all other thought fled Bramin.

  His heart pounded, pumping warmth and desire through his body. He stared without speaking, love-blinded to her taut-lipped pall of fear.

  The king rose from his throne. "Bramin Jade-claw, you see my daughter, the Lady Halfrija. On Midsummer's Day, I sanction the marriage between you. May you live long together and prosper!"

  Halfrija opened her mouth to speak, but her words were lost beneath the cheers of the crowd. As Bramin turned his back to the king and trod the walkway toward Halfrija, she shrank back. Her hands clenched to bloodless fists, and her soprano pierced the dying shouts of the court. "Wait!"

  Bramin stopped before her trembling form.

  "I would test your love," she announced shrilly. "It is my right."

  Breath broke from Bramin in an angry hiss. He had risked his life for her once and would gladly do so again. But her entreaty was a
n affront. While it was indeed her privilege, no princess had invoked the law since its enactment three centuries past.

  Halfrija continued. "You must fight a champion of my choosing to the death in the arena at midmorn. Should you survive, my hand is yours." She shivered, and her voice acquired a strange, droning quality. "You may select your weapon, but use of sorceries or enchanted swords will free me from my promise."

  Struck to the heart by the maliciousness of her challenge, Bramin dropped all pretense of dignity. He knelt before Halfrija with the true respect he had denied the king. "As you wish, my lady. May the court hear my vow to kill or be killed by your champion without use of magic."

  Halfrija's mouth twitched to a cruel smile which swiftly disappeared.

  Stiffly, Bramin turned. Fatigue and hopelessness wove a black curtain across his vision. As he retreated along the carpeted walkway he stumbled, and the glares of courtiers sapped him of all remaining grace. It seemed an eternity before he reached the far end of the hall. A guard swung open the carved oak doors, and Bramin passed through them. The portals clanged closed behind him, silencing the whispered condemnations of Ashemir's court as completely as death.

  Outside, wind flung strands of matted hair into Bramin's face as if to mock him. Despair rose to self-pity, then flared to righteous anger. His journey through the familiar streets of his childhood seemed as one through a tunnel. The dirt roads blurred to the dark obscurity of disinterest. Peasants stared or scuttled from his path, unnoticed. A horse cart driver hurled epithets at the dark sorcerer who paced the cobbles at the center of the alley. But at a flick of Bramin's hand, the driver stemmed his tide of oaths and swerved to a roadside ditch. They fear me. For the first time since he had left to kill the giant, Bramin smiled with cruel satisfaction. My life aura has dwindled to nearly nothing, yet those who once scorned me now shy from a gesture. Still, for Halfrija's love, he would weather the gibes of peasants gladly.

  The setting sun lanced red light through the guttering remnant of Bramin's aura. Utterly alone in his fury despite the dispersing throng of Forste-Mar's citizenry, he plodded to his mother's home. He opened the simple plank door, stepped across its threshold, and slammed it closed behind him. Despite his effort, the portal slid shut with an impotent click which betrayed his weakness. Rage flared anew.

  Despite the death of Bramin's stepfather several months earlier, the cottage had changed little since his childhood. The sod-chinked walls enclosed a simply-furnished room separated from his mother's bedchamber by a patched, blue curtain. Silme sat before a blazing hearth fire, a tomcat nestled in the folds of her robe, while a brother and sister begged stories of distant lands and Dragonrank training. As Bramin entered, his mother rose from a chipped wooden bench, her youngest child cradled to her breast. "Bramin?"

  Bramin gave no explanation. He spared neither glance nor words for the mother and half siblings who followed his march to the loft ladder with questioning stares. Anger lent the sorcerer strength. He caught the lowest rungs in callused palms and climbed to his sleeping quarters with a deliberate-ness designed to override fatigue-inspired clumsiness. Once in the loft, he pitched onto a pallet, oblivious to the bells and balls left by the child who occupied this bed since Bramin's departure to pursue the skills of Dragonrank. Tears burned his eyes. Repeatedly, his fist pounded the pillow, scattering straw among the toys.

  Behind Bramin, the ladder groaned. Silme's sweet voice wound through the loft. "Brother, are you well?"

  Bramin whirled like a cornered beast. Inappropriately, his malice channeled against the half sister who had comforted him in youth, the one woman he knew would not condemn him. "Nothing's changed, Silme! The citizens of Forste-Mar still hate me. Halfrija spurns my love." He struck the pallet again.

  "Stop!" Silme's voice grew uncharacteristically harsh. "Before you embed your soul in self-pity and accuse me of lying, tell me what happened in Ashemir's court."

  Bramin sucked air through pursed lips, then exhaled in a long sigh. He recounted the scenario in the king's presence, his overwhelming exhaustion, Ashemir's eager determination, and Halfrija's cruelty. As he concluded the tale, he surrendered to the cold grip of hopelessness. His words emerged in a thin whine. "While vestiges of dignity remain, I must leave Forste-Mar and never return. I cannot bear the sight of Halfrija's beauty, knowing her love will never belong to me."

  Silme lowered herself to the pallet beside her half brother. She squeezed his knee reassuringly. "Don't talk that way, Bramin. Your loves are intense. Your hatreds fester. In youth, you would damn all children for a single taunt and despise every man of Forste-Mar for a glare. Now, Bramin, would you condemn yourself to exile to avoid a challenge?"

  "A challenge!" Bramin shook free from Silme's grip. "Halfrija degraded me by calling upon a privilege rejected for centuries. Even Queen Ag-nete, who wrote the law, never invoked it for herself or her daughters."

  Silme's reply came soft as a cat's purr. "But Halfrija knew you could fulfill it."

  "What?"

  Silme framed a smile of triumph. "Halfrija doesn't hate you. For the last decade you have trained in a distant land eleven months of the year. Yet Halfrija never married in your absence."

  Bramin scowled, unconvinced.

  Silme rose from the pallet and knelt before

  Bramin. She caught his hands. "Here a woman is judged by the worth of her man. She must make certain her husband can protect her from bandits and raiders."

  Silme's blue-tinged aura dwarfed Bramin's, so dimmed was it with exhaustion. The jade rank sorcerer grunted. "You know I can."

  Silme concurred. "I know. But magic seems more alien to Halfrija than the sharp, dark features and red-hued eyes she has learned to accept. She understands swordplay."

  Bramin wavered.

  Silme pressed. "Who is the best warrior in this town?"

  "Me?"

  Silme stood. "We both know none of Ashemir's knights can defeat you. Halfrija knows it, too."

  As anger dispersed, fatigue crowded Bramin. Though Silme's explanation seemed implausible, his desire for the princess allowed him to believe. "Then why… ?"

  Silme interrupted. "Because she's insecure. She needs to justify your appearance by displaying your talents in public. Do you find Halfrija's hand more valuable than the life of a soldier?"

  Realization drove Bramin's voice to a whisper. "Far more." He sprawled across the pallet, drained of all emotion except the early, fine stirrings of hope. As Silme crept back to the ladder, sleep overtook him. Yet, despite his half sister's reassurances, the memory of Halfrija's fleeting sneer haunted Bramin's dreams.

  Rest restored the vitality drained by Bramin's battle with the giant. As he dressed in a simple tunic and breeks, many thoughts plagued him. As skilled with a sword as with magic, Bramin knew from his one month a year at home that no warrior of Forste-Mar could best him. Unless some strange and highly capable swordsman had joined them in the past year, he could not be defeated.

  Bramin fastened his sword belt and drew the blade from its leather hip scabbard. He smiled as the radiance of his restored life aura bounced blue highlights from the steel. He felt strong, mentally and physically. Striding from his mother's cottage, he let the door swing shut behind him and trotted through the streets to the cleared patch of castle grounds. Guards passed cautiously about him, attentive to their duties. With magically enhanced hearing, Bramin invaded their conversations, but the sentries seemed as curious about the princess' champion as he himself.

  Bramin executed an elegant series of sword feints. The hilt felt comfortable in his grip, metal wrapped with rough leather which would not slip from his sweat-slicked palm. He stopped, not wishing to tire himself before the match. His love for Princess Halfrija had begun as a childhood crush. He sent flowers and trinkets. Though she acknowledged none of them and regarded him with the same scorn as the other citizens of Forste-Mar, her reluctance only strengthened his passion. During his vacations from the School of Dragonrank, he wooed her. Soon, his
love became an all-encompassing desire.

  The sun shouldered over the horizon. Citizens drifted toward the southern side of the castle grounds where the arena towered over the quarters of guards and servants. Finely-dressed courtiers strode in regal pairs. Peasants in worn homespun crowded toward the building, hoping to catch a glimpse of the combatants. Armored guards tried to maintain some order in the milling chaos with little success.

  From habit, Bramin checked his own excitement. As he walked toward the arena, he took his staff in hand. It would help him through the throng, for men rightly shied from its touch. He used it like a walking stick, though none would question his youth or vigor; even those too foolish to fear the power of his magic could not fail to notice the unearthly aura of evil inherited from his father.

  The citizens of Forste-Mar shrank from the slim, dark wizard who strode purposefully to the door of the stadium. Despite the demoralizing inevitability of combat, Bramin gleaned some amusement from their awe. Years ago, these same men and women would have spit on him.

  The guards gestured Bramin inside, and the crowd closed in behind him, hoping for a glimpse of the combat. Noblemen lined the balconies and applauded politely at his entrance. Bramin leaned his staff against the lowest stands, walked to center ring, and examined his audience. He raised a hand in greeting to the king and queen. Ashemir waved, then shrugged in apology. Halfrija's seat was unoccupied, and Bramin supposed she was coaching her champion. The thought formed a painful ball in his throat. He felt utterly alone. Now, before Forste-Mar's masses, Silme's reassurances rang as hollow as in youth when she swore her playmates did not hate him even as they hurled rocks and challenges. Anxiety allowed Bramin to forget the times she had stroked his hair until he ceased to tremble. He knew nothing of how she had confronted his tormentors with their inhumanity and made them blush with humility.

 
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