Larvik brushed away the flakes of skin that fell like black snow upon his table. He deflected the waitress again; the pockets of his faded cloak held nothing of any use to her. If the little man arrived, Larvik would be able to pay for the mug of ale he raised to his lips. Better make this one last, he thought. It’s still early.
The sounds of the storm deepened briefly as Larvik’s host appeared in the weather-beaten doorway, shaking water from his cloak and stamping his tiny boots. At a glance he noticed Larvik, not that the beggar was hard to find, either on the street or in the torchlight of a nearly empty inn. Light steps carried the man to the table. He waved two slender fingers at the waitress who meandered back with a fresh mug in each hand. Larvik ordered the most expensive fare he could. Perhaps a hearty meal would pay for whatever mischief the little man proposed this night.
“I wish to speak of your former master,” the little man said. “You need not name him.”
Larvik studied him before he answered. He was the size of a six year old boy, yet his slender face sported a trim beard. His eyes, too large for his head, seemed to contain only white and pupil; if they held any color at all, it was black as scrivener’s ink. His fingers seemed too long for his tiny hands. Larvik’s host smelled like a clump of overturned dirt. Earthy came to Larvik’s mind; earthy and strange, like a smell remembered from an innocent past.
“I need not name him,” Larvik replied, “for I know him well. The one I do not know is you. You have given me coin on several occasions. For your kindness I thank you, and it is the only reason I remain here now that I know your target. But kindness is not enough for me to discuss a warlock with a stranger. The Red Brethren conceal their affairs for good reason.”
He reached out with one hand and lifted the cloth napkin from the table, spreading it clumsily in his lap, waiting to see how the little man responded. Perhaps Larvik might find a way to relieve him of some coin. A meal feeds for a day, but coin in the pocket is another matter altogether. The black eyes scurried now, back and forth, like those of a man who is habitually scared and is unnerved by the fact that no one is scaring him presently.
“My name is Kern,” the man said at last. His eyes seemed to measure every other patron to ensure his voice would not be overheard. “I am a friend of the queen. I have great need to enter your master’s home. I must retrieve something of value. I must have it tonight while he is away. You know the difficulty. You understand the need for silence. Name the price of your assistance.”
Larvik smiled at that. Yes, there would be coin. With his good hand, he picked up his napkin and shook it under the table. Black flakes scattered upon the wooden floor. “What you intend cannot be done,” he said at last.
Larvik watched ten slender fingers press together before Kern’s disappointed face. He imagined they might excel at folding parchment into dragons or castles or other complicated shapes. Perhaps they might also get the bottle, he thought. The bottle, after all this time. Imagine that.
“Not by you alone,” Larvik continued. “A warlock’s personal chamber – his cocoon – cannot be entered through mere instruction. It is secured by magical traps and armed guards. Should you fight your way through the latter, the warlock need not face alone one as fierce as you,” Larvik smiled at the jibe, Kern did not. “He would simply retreat within the protection of the former. You require an expert to show you the way.”
Kern opened his mouth to answer, but instead spread his own napkin as the servant girl approached with their food. Larvik did not care for her a bit. The fact that she constantly belched and chewed made her look even more bovine than her slow manner and her enormous face suggested. No matter what drink he ordered, Larvik was always relieved – and slightly surprised – to find she did not bring him milk instead. He picked up the mug with his good arm. It was beer. Good. She slid three silver coins into the pocket of her apron and wandered away. Even better.
Kern watched her leave before he turned back to Larvik. “I hire you to guide me,” he said. “You know the safer path. Do not be offended: your lost arm says such a way must be” – he struggled for a word – “clandestine. Yes, clandestine. That serves well. I do not intend to attack the warlock. I do not wish him to know of my presence.”
Larvik looked down at his ragged cloak, from beneath which one arm, one healthy arm, grasped his spoon. He smiled. Perhaps, he thought, this clever chap knows even less than I guessed.
“My lost arm?” Larvik laughed and shook his head. “No, my friend, I have the arm and something more. Let me give you a story to accompany this fine meal. Perhaps then you will understand the manner of man you propose to rob this rainy night.
“I worked for the warlock as apprentice these three years ago. At the time my arm was ‘lost,’ I had been with him some months, long enough to learn the secrets of his tower and cocoon. I had not yet learned to cast spells. No crimson mask lies beneath my burned features.”
Kern seemed surprised by that. His black eyes studied the beggar’s face, as if by the power of concentration alone he could peer through the beggar’s charred visage to discern the red stain of magic beneath. Then the eyes went back to wandering while his hand shoveled stew. Larvik paused to dispatch a little of his own, using the break to likewise ponder his host. What manner of a foreigner was this? Exotic to be sure: he spoke with a strange accent in a voice like an overturning bucket of gravel. There was nothing of the sea about him; Larvik dismissed the idea he had arrived by ship. The circus seemed more likely. Perhaps he’d ask the little man later, if it ever became important. It probably would not, he concluded.
“This warlock is a collector of sundries,” Larvik continued after a few bites, washed down with beer. “He gathers magical implements from far and wide, both to probe their secrets and to test their power against his own. One night, a porter delivered a box of trinkets (such I thought it at the time) into my hand. Being the curious sort, I fingered through it in my room before I delivered it.
“Within this box of refuse lay a short bracer forged for a warrior’s arm, one of a pair. Its polished steel had been inlaid with gold. I could feel warmth upon the curious carvings that decorated its face. I removed it from the box, sliding it onto my own forearm. It was too large for my frame, so I slid the bracer over my bicep, hiding it beneath the folds of my cloak. I then brought the remainder to the wizard’s cocoon. As I offered the box to him, the warlock measured me with his red eyes. I wilted before him and retreated, my new treasure still affixed to my arm.
“And when I say ‘affixed’, I lie not. I awoke the next morning to find I could not remove it. My hand ached and burned slightly, but I thought little of the pain at the time. My thoughts and efforts were consumed by the bracer. Neither heat nor cold nor grease nor blade could dislodge it. I could not divest myself of this curse, for all my own efforts.
“During the next few weeks, the pain subsided, yet a greater bane lay upon me. My hand, which I could no longer feel, began to wither and blacken. Flakes of skin began to peel from it, black flakes uncovering only blackness beneath. A burning sensation crawled toward my shoulder. As the heat passed, my arm curled inward. I hid it daily beneath my cloak as I worked, until I could no longer perform my duties. Only then did I confess my error to the warlock.”
Larvik closed his eyes briefly, remembering the pain of that day. The confession had been far worse than the curse. Only because he expected the warlock to aid him had he voluntarily undergone such humiliation. The memory of his degradation filled his mind as he scratched the fold of skin that had recently grown over an eye. Black flakes stuck beneath his nails and he wiped his fingers on his napkin. Kern’s black eyes stopped wandering for the moment, waiting patiently for him to continue.
“The wizard laughed full in my face. Then he uttered a trite little homily, as if he were my grandmother and I but a babe toddling among the dogs upon a dirty kitchen floor. His old wives’ tale has haunted me these cold years since his employ ended:
The thief’s weakness is holding
His heart is bent on keeping
His fingers bent for grasping
His mind consumed with reaping
But the fist that holds him grips him
‘Til his heart within him rips him
His freedom comes in turning from
His weakness in his weeping
“Then he turned me out in to the street, to bear alone the burden of my withered arm, then shoulder, and now the disfigured face you see before you. The flakes that fall from my misshapen flesh are a constant reminder of his cruelty. Daily I rise from a repulsive bed of charred skin. Every day I shake it off. Each night I pray it away, only to awaken in that foul berth once again.
“I tried to return the bracer, begging him to lift its curse, but he would say only that this was not the thing I needed to return. I know not whether my cure lay beyond his power or whether he simply intended to mock and punish me.”
Larvik’s memory returned to a vow made long ago. When his anger cooled to shame, he had set it aside in the knowledge he could never carry it out alone. But the image of the warlock’s wealth roared back now. He could feel his eyes burning with deep red gems and stacks of gold. He closed them and took a deep breath. His calm returned.
“The warlock owes me a debt that I shall see repaid,” he told the little man. “Meet me behind the Lonely Dragon at midnight. I will guide you safely into his cocoon.”
“You have still to name a price.” Kern looked moved by the story, but would not be shaken from his business, whatever it was.
Larvik smiled again. “I require five gold sovereigns, but that is not my price. It is simply a retainer, as it were, for preparation. Beggars, you will find, can be choosers. The price shall be a boon of my choosing at the time of my choosing. You and your queen shall be in my debt. On the day of my greatest need, I shall call upon you for payment.”
Kern’s black eyes bounced frantically as indecision chased panic across his tiny face. Let him chew on that a bit, Larvik thought. All the good things in life are expensive.
The servant girl grazed back over to their table and Larvik ordered a second meal, for which Kern paid without a word.
“No milk with that,” he mumbled.
“Beer with that. Thanks.”
She scowled at him as she left.
Kern slid five coins across the table. They disappeared into Larvik’s pocket with a satisfied clink.
“I will seek you at midnight,” Kern said, dropping three copper coins for the ragged imps who scurried between tables, collecting dirty mugs and plates. Then as quietly as he had entered, the little man disappeared into the rain.
Larvik enjoyed his second meal even more than the first. Sated at last, he pushed himself back from the table, pocketed the coppers, and turned for the door.
Part II can be found [here].