Black Gate Online Fiction: “The Trade,” Part One of The Tales of Gemen
Being the First Part of the Tales of Gemen the Antiques Dealer
by Mark Rigney
This is a complete work of fiction presented by Black Gate magazine. It appears with the permission of Mark Rigney and New Epoch Press, and may not be reproduced in whole or in part. All rights reserved. Copyright 2012 by New Epoch Press.
Gemen the Antiques Dealer arrived in Andolin late in spring, the year after that nation’s disastrous civil war had lumbered to a close. He spoke the language tolerably well, but always with an accent that some claimed hailed from the far west, while others insisted it smacked of the South: Melony, or even the Thornlands, where the sun burned people’s eyes the color of molten copper. Gemen managed all enquiries with polite prevarication and stories of endless, rootless travel. “Where I come from hardly matters,” he’d say. “What matters, friend, is where we are going, and what price we’re willing to pay.”
He rode with two companions, Dorvic and Velori, both as hard to place as Gemen himself. Velori, never still, found ways to pick a fight in almost every hamlet the trio entered. She had the unsettling habit of muttering to herself as if in constant dialogue with the very air around her. Wiry and short, she had perfect mahogany skin and a shock of incongruous red hair that shot from her head like thatching.
Dorvic was taciturn and tall like a stone column. It was impossible to determine where the wool of his soot-black beard ended and the curlings of hair from his massive chest and mead-fed belly began. He carried at all times a pitted, pockmarked sword the full-sworn height of any average man.
Gemen himself was undersized and bent, pale like a worm half-drowned by rain, but gifted with the sort of probing, invasive stare that made his age all but impossible to pin. Not young, that was certain. His fingers twined and his knuckles cracked, but his gaze, once attracted, was steady, especially in the presence of a bauble or trinket he thought worthy of purchase. Only one thing could then distract him: the laugh of a girl just growing into womanhood. “That one reminds me of my sister,” he’d say. “I miss her very much.”
In that year after the war, coin was scarce and food scarcer. The chance to sell apparently worthless decorations –– carvings, middling jewelry, ragged weavings –– was a luxury few could pass up, and thus the piles atop Gemen’s three mule-drawn wagons grew ever more voluminous.
Of course the trio was a natural target for brigands. The first attack came in a boulder-strewn wood not far from Brome, where bracken and the fat hanging leaves of wax-stem vines hid the assailants until the last possible moment. What happened next would never have been reported at all had not a company of priests, devotees of Rath, opted to ride along with Gemen’s force of three, reasoning that safety (as it sometimes does and sometimes does not) lies in numbers. Rumor and hyperbole inflated the story in any number of directions, but what all who saw agreed upon was that a burst of arrows had flown from the trees, that at least one struck a mule –– the mule let out a caterwauling shriek –– and that Velori had managed to pluck at least two bolts straight from the air. Gemen dropped to the ground and rolled for cover under the middle wagon, while Dorvic drew his mighty blade and waded straight into the onrush of underfed, badly armed attackers. Six on one, reported one priest; ten on one, said another. The number hardly mattered. Blood spattered the ferns as Dorvic dispatched the entire lot with quick, efficient swings.
From the other direction, more men had charged from behind the upturned root-base of a fallen altar tree, but they met –– so said the priests –– not only Velori but two immense spiders, spiders the size of fatback hogs, spiders that only a moment ago had simply not been present. A precise kick from Velori’s booted foot shattered the leader’s jaw, a spider bit through the jugular of the next man over, and the rest fled screaming into the forest.
Velori, said one of the priests, kissed both spiders atop their hairy black heads, before they, too, vanished into the undergrowth.
“Anyone hurt?” Gemen asked, as he clambered to his feet and brushed leaves and a smear of mud from the dusky blue of his expensive trousers. “No? Well, then, Velori –– no, better yet. If one of you gentlemen of Rath would be so kind as to ease my mule’s pain? You can help, yes? Excellent. It hardly appears lethal, eh? And then let’s be going. Woods like these –– treachery in all directions.”
Two more attempts were made to part Gemen from his money and accumulated treasures –– most of it junk by any local reckoning, things like half-burnt candles and dented thimbles –– neither more successful than the first. One month into Gemen’s Andolin sojourn, reputation alone assured the trio a safe night’s rest and unmolested travel.
Gemen kept his purchasing forays to villages and towns, assiduously avoiding cities or, indeed, anything with fortifications permanent enough to suggest a regular garrison. Brome’s high priest, the Broman, did send an emissary to determine if Gemen’s intentions could in any way be either hostile or treasonous, but the man returned with a shrug of his officious shoulders and reassurances that Gemen stood ready to pay any legal and reasonable tax that the Lords of Andolin might choose to levy.
“And where will he take all this…garbage?” the Broman enquired.
The emissary spread his hands. “Corvaen, he claims. Says the fools up north will buy nearly anything.”
Gemen’s full-to-bursting wagons eventually trundled into the distant town of Tynnefast Reach. From below the jutting promontory on which the town was built, the Tynnefast River sprang from a chill, dank cave and flowed dependably northeast. Long ago, it was said, the river had connected Andolin to the northern lands like a highway, but it had been many generations since any had dared go much past the falls, just a few days journey hence. Tynnefast Reach was, therefore, the absolute edge of Andolin, and all but untouched by the war.
High above the wellspring cave, at the top of the promontory, lay a circular public square decorated with stone benches and a host of wooden trellises designed to show off the best of the region’s brightly blooming, heavily scented flowers. In the center of the courtyard sat a tremendous marble block, brought from who knew what distance in a time long beyond any grandfather’s understanding. The stone, said the townsfolk, was their guardian, and very much alive.
The residents of Tynnefast Reach were in the midst of a post-planting celebration. They welcomed their guests with good cheer and fine hospitality –– word had already reached them that Gemen’s pockets were deep –– and all was well that day, that night, and the next. Gemen bought this, weighed that; he clucked over pincushions and rushed to buy parchments, scrolls, anything written or printed. “All in a day’s work,” he’d say, handing over more coin. “The junk man’s endless trade.”
But Gemen did not leave. He stayed for a third night, and then a fourth. Velori was fit to be tied and brawled first with a burly farmer (whom she thrashed), and then with a quartet of cocky roustabouts from the Andolin Forest Patrol –– two men, two women –– who barged into town laden with mink and winterwhite pelts. A few choice insults from Velori led in short order to collapsed furniture, a door burst from its hinges, and a badly broken arm (not Velori’s). The town’s gray-haired constable, Severn Lir, deposited all five in the only available cell for a week-long sentence, and ordered them to end up as friends –– or else.
And still Gemen stayed. Starting on day two, he’d planted himself in the largest inn’s low-slung, timber-framed common room, and remained there for hours on end. Eventually, he fetched a set of fearsomely thick hide-bound books from under the front seat of his lead wagon; day and night he pored over these tomes, muttering like Velori and cracking his knuckles with ever increasing frequency.
Dorvic spent his days napping beneath a ceremonial Melinol shade tree, while in the jail, Velori learned to play jackdraw cards from her four fellow captives, and howled with laughter when they each lost their clothes well ahead of hers.
On the fifth day, Gemen motioned to the large but deferential innkeeper, Kesper Dain. “That,” Gemen said, and he crooked a finger at an ancient gilt mirror, some five feet by three feet, hanging above the inn’s empty-for-summer hearth. “How long have you had it?”
Kesper shrugged. “Been here forever, so I’m told. Why?”
“Did you use it? In the wars?”
“Use it?” Kesper snorted back a gentle laugh. “Use it how?”
On the sixth day, when no one was looking, Gemen, for the first time, dared touch the mirror: just a scrape with a fingernail. Outside, Dorvic rifled his gear and donned his hauberk, battered with use, then replaced his tunic over top. Velori learned, with the aid of her cellmates and a single barred window, how to identify every single one of the local birds by sound. To the ongoing shock of her fellow inmates, she also learned to imitate them. Perfectly.
On the seventh day, Gemen offered to buy the mirror.
“I don’t think so,” said Kesper.
“It’s a true antique, quite valuable in certain circles,” Gemen said. “A prize among prizes, I admit that at the front. Thus my offer. Generous, if I may so myself. Very generous. Four hundred in broadside silver.”
Kesper’s eyes opened quite wide. He was a family man, and silver –– better and scarcer than any other metal currency, and broadside coin to boot –– would change his life. Large and evenly made, Marindak broadsides were usable anywhere in the known world for a fabulous rate of exchange.
“I can’t,” said Kesper, his every word a heartfelt apology. “We’re not allowed.”
“The spirit in the rock.”
Outside, Dorvic retreated to a sheltered spot, out of view of the locals, and added bracers, leather leggings and a helm to his armor. Into his belt he tucked a hammer and a dirk. He placed his bow and a quiver of twenty-two finely hewn arrows atop the rearmost wagon –– rearmost as he had them now set up, single file, hitched, and aimed directly out of town.
Inside the jail, Velori fell silent and refused all overtures at games, talk, or birdsong. She simply sat, her head to one side, as if listening to a peaceful, distant melody. High up on the wall, two spiders hurried back and forth, spinning a complicated web across the window’s stout iron bars.
“Five hundred,” said Gemen to Kesper. “Six hundred, and I vow to deal in person with any spirit you care to name.”
Kesper blanched and backed away, palms up. “Honest, sir. This mirror can’t go for sale.”
Gemen sighed and gathered his books. He clapped a handful of coins down on the table. “That should settle our room and board,” he said. “Beyond that, I’m sorry we couldn’t come to a better arrangement.”
On cue, the gigantic form of Dorvic filled the doorway. Gemen barked a peremptory order as he slid outside. “The mirror, Dorvic. Get it and we go.”
Kesper moved to block Dorvic’s path. “You don’t understand,” he began, but never finished. Dorvic walked directly into him and leveled the innkeep with a well-placed forearm.
“I don’t want to hurt you,” Dorvic said. “So don’t get up.”
Kesper chose sense over valor and remained on the floor while Dorvic strode to the mirror, lifted it from its supports, and lugged it out the front door.
On a hunch, Severn Lir had just trotted back to the jail, certain that something was wrong. Indeed something was. The back wall of the cell had been pulled outward, leaving a ragged gap of stone and metal and crumbling mortar, through which Velori had just run. The forest patrol remained right where they were, breathing in gasps, and pointing out through the hole.
“Spiders!” managed one. “Big!”
Lir turned and dashed toward the inn. Hadn’t he just seen Gemen’s wagons lined up for departure?
By the time Lir’s hue and cry had roused the townsfolk –– and by the time Kesper Dain had managed to rise and reach the doorway –– Gemen’s three wagons were already in motion, Gemen in the lead and Dorvic at the rear. Dorvic had strapped the mirror to the back of his wagon, hied the mule, and was making good progress down the road when the first bowstring twanged from behind him. He ducked instinctively, but the expected whhzzz of a passing bolt never came. More bowstrings drew, more arrows shot toward him, but he never saw nor felt a single one. Gemen’s voice rang from ahead: “Don’t worry! Just run that mule!”
Lir called off the pursuit with a raised hand. Every single arrow fired at Dorvic and his wagon had twisted in mid-flight, realigned itself, and headed straight for the mirror –– and then the mirror had absorbed each and every one, leaving behind nothing more than a mockery of grayish ripples.
“I had no idea,” mumbled Kesper, eyes wide. “No idea at all.”
“To the stone,” Lir said. “Quickly now!”
What he expected –– what any of them expected –– he never could have said, but what they arrived in time to behold left them dumbstruck, for the stone itself was shifting, cracking. Unfolding. It rose onto stocky legs, peeled tree-limb arms from the essential cube of its body, and lifted a squat head above suddenly formed shoulders. Fully upright, it formed a monolith some fifteen feet high, and its surface gleamed and flickered as the midday sunlight struck embedded quartz and feldspar. It had no mouth, nor any proper features, and its hands, if hands they could be called, were lumpy, fingerless clubs.
The stone man hesitated, then took a cracking, difficult step –– the step of a toddler stiff with unimaginable age. But the second step came easier, and the third more easily still. The crowd made room, and the stone man passed between them, its flat feet pounding the ground on impact, intent on slow, inexorable pursuit.
The page, who had never been comfortable in the presence of his liege, stammered as he swept into a bow so low that the plume on his cap brushed the royal green carpet on which he stood.
“G-gemen the Antiques Dealer,” he said. “He claims to hail from –– ”
“I know who Gemen is,” snapped the King –– Corvaen the Ninth –– and he scowled at the page with the tired hostility of one who likes things just so, and is often disappointed. “Send him in.”
The page made good his escape and the ruler of Corvaen slouched back on his simple oak throne. Forty-four snows of age, raven-haired with hints of silver-gray, he was dressed in a ceremonial chain mail coat, the metals treated to a burnished maroon; he wore no crown, nor jewelry of any kind. The people of his mountain lands expected a warrior for a king, and he was not about to disappoint. Around him in the timbered receiving hall sat his six most trusted captains, the Defenders of Corvaen, all better with sword and bow than he –– no mean accomplishment.
Gemen entered, alone. He bowed and knelt, saying only, “M’lord. It has been too long.”
“Doubtful,” murmured the king. “But I forget my manners. How goes your quest?”
“Slowly, sire. In the process, however, I believe I have unearthed a trinket for you. A device to aid in the defense of your most excellent realm.”
King Corvaen’s steady gaze roved over Gemen with critical distaste. “A small device, I imagine,” he said. “Or is it not on your person?”
“If I might be permitted to bring it in?”
A woman to the monarch’s right rose to object, but King Corvaen waved her off. “Show me.”
The entry doors were flung open, and in walked Dorvic and Velori, bearing the gilt mirror between them. At King Corvaen’s left, Lord Colinbard rose immediately, his right hand grasping the hilt of his sword; like all those Corvaen-born, he had only eight fingers.
“Wait, my friend,” said the king. “Even these two have been known to bring more fair weather than foul.”
The same woman who’d tried to speak before, Lady Alsifir, also rose. “Dorvic has been banned from this kingdom,” she said, “and while this girl I do not know, I’ll warrant we have before us a Priestess of Dominion.”
Velori threw her a crooked sneer. “What’s the matter, beautiful? Afraid of spiders?”
“My friends, please!” Gemen was cracking his hands in agitation. “Lord Colinbard, perhaps you would do the honors in demonstrating what this mirror can do? I know you for an expert marksman. Have you a dagger on your person?”
Lord Colinbard looked to his king before speaking. With a silent nod as his approval, he stepped down to meet Gemen. “I do,” he said. “Why?”
“If you would be so kind, sir, hurl a dagger at the mirror’s surface.”
Lord Colinbard considered for a moment, then stooped to withdraw a jeweled blade from the top of his boot. Without bothering to look again at his target or take aim in any way, he flung the knife at the mirror –– and the mirror, with a barely audible pop, sucked it in as if it had never been.
“By my shield!” Lord Colinbard cried. “That was my best dagger!”
“My apologies, sir,” said Gemen, retreating to a bow. “Had I known, I would have advised the use of another.”
“Can you get it back?”
The King of Corvaen let loose a humorless laugh. “Find twenty archers!” he commanded. “Have them assemble in the courtyard, arrows a-ready. Let us test this ‘mirror’ further.”
But the mirror proved its worth many hundreds of arrows over. In the direction that it faced, no airborne missile could pass it, be it bolt or arrow, stone or –– as Gemen himself demonstrated –– garden trowel.
“You give this to me?” demanded the king. “Why?”
Gemen had rehearsed his answer a thousand times, but no rehearsal could make the actual asking any easier. In a throaty whisper, he said, “My lord, I have it on unimpeachable authority that you and Lord Colinbard once journeyed to the burial place of the one known as Cleon, Cryptlord.”
At this, Lord Colinbard’s head whipped around, and his hand, this time without his knowing it, returned to his sword.
“I seek directions,” Gemen continued. “Directions, and knowledge, if you gained any.”
“Only a fool,” King Corvaen replied, “would willingly go there. And yes, I am calling myself, in hindsight, a fool.”
But Gemen would not be persuaded, and the Defenders of Corvaen agreed that it was, in the end, a small price to pay for gaining such a valuable defense for their ruler’s best castle. So, while Gemen and his companions sold their many wares at the Midsummer Market, the mirror was hung from the portcullis gatehouse. It looked so awkward, perched slightly askew like an unfinished signboard, that the soldiers in charge then garlanded it with chains of snow poppies and ice lilies, as if it were a bride.
By the end of the market festival, much of what Gemen had brought was gone, and Gemen, after selling also the mules and wagons, used his considerable profits to procure three experienced horses and basic supplies for a wilderness journey.
As Gemen and his companions rode southeast, into an ash-blue spine of mountains, Lord Colinbard said, “I dislike seeing any man ride to his death –– even this one. M’lord, you said he is on a quest? Were you jesting?”
The king folded his hands. “No. Gemen had a sister, once, lost to him now. To bring her back…it is his obsession.”
Five days later, the stone man heaved itself across Corvaen’s alpine borders and descended, one plodding footfall at a time, toward the center of the kingdom. By the time it reached the glacial moraine at the foot of the valley, Lord Colinbard and a force of a hundred men had been summoned. They attacked the walking stone with mattock and mace, cudgel and spear, all to no avail. So far as they could see, they hadn’t so much as chipped their sparkling off-white opponent.
Colinbard had not been made a Defender of Corvaen for nothing. He let the thing continue until it was crossing a plain of finest milky gray silt, where sluices of glacier-melt ran willy-nilly beneath its feet. The creature’s progress slowed as it heaved its way in and out of posthole footprints, and in the midst of this slog, Colinbard and his fastest men attacked with nets. They succeeded in toppling the giant, but it simply burrowed into the ground, disappearing with a muddy gurgle and a quiver of shifting sand.
“Fall back,” Lord Colinbard ordered. “To the castle!”
All those between the river and the castle were evacuated, and a phalanx of guards took up positions just outside the castle walls. King Corvaen joined Lord Colinbard atop the turreted walls and watched with more interest than fear as the stone man heaved itself out of the earth not two hundred paces from the outer barbican and resumed its methodical march.
“If I am its target,” said the king, “let it have me.”
A hundred paces. Fifty.
“Tell our men to stand aside,” the king ordered. “It makes for the gate. Let it pass.”
The order given, the nervous soldiers at the barbican parted to let the stone man through –– but it went only as far as the main gate. Once there, it directed its gazeless stare at the Tynnefast mirror. Then, with the same deliberation it used in walking, it strode to the corner of the gatehouse wall and began pounding, each of its massive, glittering arms swinging in turn like two great white mauls.
“The mirror, m’lord,” said Lady Alsifir, at the king’s elbow. “It has come for the mirror.”
King Corvaen the Ninth let out a heavy sigh. “Lord Colinbard, have your men lower the mirror. Quickly –– before we require a new gatehouse. And then somebody bring me Gemen –– on a pike if need be!”
To the southeast of Corvaen lay mountains, more mountains, and then forest upon forest, straight to the sea. In the midst of this, Gemen knew he would find the Tynnefast River, flowing northeast, but also leading southwest and back to the relative civilization of Andolin. He had no desire to go that way unless absolutely unnecessary. The reception they would receive at Tynnefast Reach would, he assumed, be far from cordial.
Their horses began to whicker sporadically on the eighth day of their journey, shying and kicking at the least disturbance. Bird calls grew infrequent, then vanished altogether. The humidity rose perceptibly, and soon after, all sign of insects disappeared. Toward evening, even Velori, for all her coaxing, could demand no further progress from their mounts.
“I don’t like this,” she said. “Where exactly are we going?”
Gemen tried to force a smile. “Just another special treasure.”
“That I doubt,” Velori harrumphed. “I am being told to go back.”
“The weavers. And don’t try telling me Dominion’s wiselings give poor advice.”
“Gemen,” demanded Dorvic, “how long will this errand be? If more than ten minutes, we should tether our horses back a mile, then return. They will not accept being tied here.”
To this, Gemen agreed. Before setting off again, he handed out wrapped torches and lit them from an engraved tinderbox. “Whatever happens,” he said, “stay close.”
“Information, Gemen,” Velori said. “What is this place, what are we dealing with –– and what are we looking for?”
Gemen explained as they picked their way through a maze of spruce and fir branches; underfoot lay a nearly soundless brown mat of damp-smelling needles. A mist loomed ahead, but not chill and cool, nor even white; it was warm, vaguely yellow, and stank with all the putrid force of recently rotted flesh.
“We are about to violate the final resting place of an ancient monarch. Cleon, they called him. Cleon the Magnificent, in life. In death, Cleon Cryptlord. It is said he sought immortality. Banal, in and of itself –– who doesn’t? But for Cleon, some part of him may have succeeded, and at least this much is certain: the elders of his time would not suffer him to be buried anywhere near city, town or hamlet, and so here, in this worthless forest, lies his tomb. Both the current king of Corvaen and his friend Colinbard came here as young men seeking adventure and riches. Here they found only the deaths of all but one of their companions, and of that one survivor, the best that may be said is that he lost his mind. Not, however, his memory –– or not entirely –– and he told me, some years ago, of how there’d been a chamber, half-flooded with water, and in it, a sort of altar, very primitive, bones and earth. Disgusting, yes, but nothing to remark upon –– except at the top, where one would expect to find some talisman or symbol, some magical inscription or rune, there was nothing but a great keystone, as for an arch or portal. I need that keystone, my friends. It is for that that we have come.”
“I know a dozen stone smiths,” Dorvic remarked, as the mist flowed around them, filling their nostrils with a stink unlike any they’d ever encountered. “If a keystone you need, they could hew one in a day, perhaps less.”
“This stone, no living smith could make.” Gemen paused, then pointed forward. “There.”
Ahead lay a clearing devoid of plant life, centered on a great earthen mound the size of a tumbledown barn. Part way up the naked slope was a gap, not so much a cave as a mouth, and from this hole poured the fog through which they walked. It emerged in gasps and billows as if blown from the lungs of something both vast and immeasurably sick.
“No,” said Velori. “I’m not going in there.”
“We are going, and we are going now. Corvaen and his mad companion agree on one point: whatever lies beneath is not especially alert. If we are quick about our business, we may never encounter what they did.”
“’What they did’? Gemen, do you hear yourself?”
“No. I will not enter that…that thing.”
“You owe me. Need I remind you?”
Velori looked to Dorvic, whose eyes remained fixed on the mound’s misty exhalations. “I gave my word,” he said. “Come.”
Cursing and muttering, Velori followed Gemen and Dorvic as they scrambled up the slope and entered, gasping at the stench, into the maw of the hill. The flickering orange torchlight played over the tunnel’s sticky, mud-rock walls, while at their feet, they could made out colonies of slick, oily fungi, some branched like old sea corals, others clustered in weird rings and glistening swirls. Their feet made squelching noises as they moved lower, lower still, until at last they came to a shattered doorway, surrounded by sigils and the inlaid bones of long-dead humans.
Eyes stinging, Dorvic clenched his teeth and stooped under the lintel. Gemen followed, with Velori at the rear, swearing under her breath. Beyond lay a circular chamber, perhaps thirty feet across, supported by a central pillar of fibrous material, more root than beam. Around the floor lay seven open graves, hardly more than shallow scratchings in the ground. In the nearest two, one to either side, they could make out occupants, quivering as if in restless sleep, their flesh seeping with molds and trails of reddish slime. Their eyelids were shut, and if they knew of the trio’s presence, they made no sign.
“Keep moving,” whispered Gemen, and he shoved Dorvic toward a pair of doors at the far edge of the chamber –– both of which, like the one through which they’d come, had been broken inward. The mists seemed to emanate entirely from the doorway on the right. Gemen guided them left.
“In, quickly –– and at all costs, avoid the right-hand door!”
Again, Dorvic was forced to duck, and he was hardly inside before Gemen had scuttled around him, desperate to see.
“There!” Gemen cried. “The keystone! Get it!”
Dorvic jammed his torch into a crevice of rock at his feet, sheathed his sword, and splashed through an ankle-deep lake of blackish water to cradle the keystone. It lay, just as Gemen had promised, atop a sort of ramshackle altar, a pyramid of bones, desiccated moss, and debris. Dorvic found the keystone to be heavy but manageable, like hefting one of Gemen’s weightier chests of broadside coin.
Both Gemen and Dorvic turned at the hiss of Velori’s voice. She was still in the main chamber, pointing at the nearest open grave. The figure within had risen to a sitting position, and as they watched, its unsteady hands sought the edges of the soil floor; its knees bent, and it began pushing the rest of its reluctant half-clothed form to a standing position. Its head swiveled toward Velori, and the bones inside its neck cracked like Gemen’s knuckles.
“The weavers!” whispered Gemen. “Quickly!”
Velori shook her head violently. “They wouldn’t enter! They’re not here!”
“Don’t let it get out of the grave!”
Galvanized by panic as much as Gemen’s order, Velori threw herself bodily at the half-risen corpse. Incredibly, it caught her by wrist and ankle, and with a great heave, the creature flung her across the room and into the wall, where she hit spine-first and slithered, breathless, to the floor.
Dorvic brushed Gemen aside and charged into the room, the keystone still clasped against his stomach. As the corpse swiveled to face him, Dorvic swung the stone in a great arc and caught his opponent on the upswing; stone met long-condemned flesh, and the creature sprawled backwards, out of its own grave and into the next.
“Velori!” Dorvic cried. “Run!”
The entire room was suddenly awash in motion as grizzled hands fought for purchase and skeletal feet jerked toward standing. That the figures made no vocal sound –– no howls or moans, no whispers or breathy threats –– made their eerie return to locomotion all the more appalling.
Gemen ran to the right, leaped a final gravesite, and gained the upward passage. Dorvic swatted a second corpse before it could reach for him, tumbling it back into the next, but the momentum of his swing knocked him off balance and his back foot slid into a grave behind. In an instant, two of the creatures were upon him, and with a surge of effort, they drove Dorvic backward –– and directly through the ruined remains of the right-hand portal.
From within came two noises, the first a gasp of surprise from Dorvic, and then an enormous sighing exhalation, as if some distant being had just been granted terrible and long-sought relief.
“Dorvic!” yelled Velori. “Dorvic, get out of there!”
She moved even as she called for him, and this time she did not underestimate the speed or abilities of her opponents. She cart-wheeled past the first, vaulted off the sloped walls so as to careen into a second, and landed a blow to its torso that sent the thing sprawling. As the next tried to grab at her hair, she dodged, slid under the corpse’s legs and jammed a dagger through its foot, anchoring it, at least momentarily, to the floor.
“Gemen!” she cried. “Help us!”
But Gemen had frozen, too petrified to flee or give aid, and Velori’s plea did nothing to shift him. His eyes were fixed on those of an approaching corpse-creature, and as it advanced, step by deathly step, Gemen seemed to wilt; his shoulders slumped, his jaw slackened, and he let out a fearful, rattling whimper.
Velori changed course. She had been making for the fog-bound door past which Dorvic had vanished, but instead she vaulted backward and into the sunken altar-room from which they’d dragged the keystone. She landed facing Gemen, and at the same moment she spread her arms and cried out in a voice that rang with terror and authority, “Dominion, Goddess! Aid me!”
The surviving torches instantly failed and the room, hardly lit to start with, sank into blackness. There was a sound like a great bellows pressed against a stubborn hearth, and the temperature plunged. Velori darted forward in the darkness, keeping her fingers pressed to the left-hand wall and scrabbling her way by feel to the edge of the second door. She dropped to her knees and crawled inside.
The rest of the world receded as all around her she felt an almost liquid presence; it was as if she had crawled not into a room but into the living essence of something both boundless and malevolent. Gasping, she felt blindly with her hands, seeking cloth, seeking armor –– any sign at all of Dorvic.
She found him. Or found, at least, his legs.
She offered up a silent, desperate plea –– Once more, O my Goddess –– and pulled with all her might. To her great relief, Dorvic shifted. A man she could not on a normal day have moved no matter what the effort came sliding over the rough-hewn floor as easily as straw in a sack.
The swirl of vaporous life around her called gently, begging her with wordless insistence to stop, relax…and open her eyes.
With that final cry, Velori burst back out of the doorway, Dorvic in tow behind her.
The presence of Dominion had gone from the room –– the torches had inexplicably relit –– and the rotted figures, dispersed as if by a whirlwind, were again clutching at the ground and fighting to rise. Velori spotted Gemen in the tunnel entrance, swaying and stunned.
“Gemen, help me!”
This time, her cry startled him into action. He raced across the room, and together he and Velori flipped Dorvic and shouldered him between them. Bent almost double by their burden, they stumbled back across the chamber while all around them the recovering corpses drew closer, their hands outstretched for one last grasping try –– too late. The living outraced the dead, gained the entry tunnel, and staggered up it toward mist-filtered daylight.
Gemen and Velori tumbled out of the opening, all but rolled down the mud-slope of the hill beyond, and landed in a defeated pile at its base. Other than the continuing emissions of vapor and fog, they saw no movement. No pursuit.
They remained there, crouched and wary but too exhausted to do more, for several minutes.
“We need to move away.”
“Yes,” Gemen agreed. “Do we have the keystone?”
Velori’s amazement hardened quickly to a stony chill of disgust. “No,” she said at last. “How could we?” Then she turned to Dorvic, and she slapped him sharply on the cheek. “Dorvic! Wake up!”
The huge man’s eyes rolled open. His pupils had dilated to a point beyond what either Gemen or Velori would have dreamed possible, and his stare was blind. He merely breathed, in, out, like a sleeping child. Velori helped his eyelids back to closing with the tips of her fingers and looked away.
“If there were a wound…” she said. “But this, this is beyond my powers.
Gemen shook his head, then pounded one impotent fist into the dirt. “I told him! In there, eyes closed! Didn’t I tell him?”
“You said don’t go in. Nothing about what to do if you got thrown in.”
“He had to look! If he’d kept his wits, he’d be here with us, and we’d have the cursed keystone!”
Velori’s arm shot out. She caught Gemen’s neck and jaw in her left hand and hauled him off his feet. Her right hand she held poised behind her head, the flat of her palm poised to strike. “Old man,” she hissed, “he was fighting for his life –– at your crazed and ungrateful behest. Thank him, and me, that you live this hour. And may Dominion have mercy on your walnut of a soul.”
She dropped him, turned away, and called for the weavers. In short order, they strung up a bier by which she and Gemen could drag Dorvic to the copse where they’d tethered their mounts. Even with the aid of the two huge arachnids, the journey took over an hour. As they reached the horses, the sun was dipping toward the eastern horizon, with darkness gathering all too close in the west.
“Gemen, be honest for once in your life. By night, will we be pursued? Can those things leave that hill?”
“Colinbard said no.”
“We should ride regardless. I can keep Dorvic’s horse still long enough that we can roll him up on the saddle and tie him on…”
“I have to go back.”
“The only place you have to go is away, with me!”
This time, Gemen didn’t even bother to shake his head. “Now that I have seen,” he said, his voice preternaturally calm, “I can deal with what lies below.”
“Battle is not my bailiwick, no –– nor proper spellwork, I admit –– but from the tunnel entrance, if I can just lay eyes on the keystone, I believe I can bring it to me.”
“Without ever entering that room?”
Gemen nodded. “I do not expect you to join me.”
Velori squinted at the rapidly vanishing disc of sun as it slid past a horizon line of purple-black hills. She shoved a hand into her saddlebag and withdrew an olive-colored taper. “I give you ‘til this burns down,” she said, through gritted teeth. “Then I leave you here.”
“You may try.”
“You realize you can’t carry that stone by yourself.”
The wait was an agony. The taper burned lower and lower still, smelling unpleasantly of lard, and as darkness surrounded the three fearful horses and their one conscious rider, the night-time sounds that Velori would normally have reveled in became, instead, harbingers of danger and death. Even the faint cracking of leaves that eventually signaled Gemen’s return sounded, at first, like the approach of Cleon himself.
“Velori. Help me.”
Velori touched the taper to the wick of a waiting lantern, then swung it up to light the clearing. There was Gemen, staggering like a pregnant drunk, the keystone all but slipping through his fingers. Beneath a sheen of sweat, he wore an expression of devilish satisfaction.
With the stone strapped firmly to the back of Gemen’s horse, they rode as fast as the pressing forest would allow for the higher, more open ground of the ridgelines above. Once there, still riding at all possible speed, Gemen related his adventure.
“There was no movement around the hill –– or none besides that poison fog. I lit my torch and descended, as quietly as I’ve ever moved in my life. And at the bottom, I could see it –– the keystone, right where he’d dropped it, almost between the two doors at the far side of the room. But long ago, I purchased –– from a simple farmer, of course, he had no idea what he had –– this.”
Gemen leaned across the gap between their steeds to show Velori a crooked metal stick, perhaps six inches long; affixed to its farthest end was a wax-like hand, its chubby fingers extended.
“It’s tricky to use –– tends to move the wrong things –– but there was so little in view, and Cleon’s guardians had retired to their graves, so…I summoned the stone, and it came, in defiance of gravity, in defiance of its own innate powers –– which I assure you, my friend, go far beyond anything you or I have ever before dealt with –– ”
“The story, Gemen. And less blasphemy.”
“Indeed. So this little souvenir of the trade, this paltry wax hand, did what all three of us together could not. It allowed the stone to pass un-noticed, floating, even, straight through that stinking chamber, until it deposited itself in my arms. And it remained nearly weightless until I’d hurried at least half the way back to you –– whereupon, as you saw, it grew steadily heavier.”
They rode in silence. The moon had risen, a crescent set against a phalanx of glittering stars. When morning showed its first rose light in the distant west, they made camp in a shelter of boulders and started a guttering, smoky fire.
“Gemen,” said Velori, already wrapped in a cloak and settled for sleep. “Free me from your service. Dorvic, too.”
They lay on opposite sides of the fire, so she couldn’t see Gemen’s face –– Dorvic lay downhill and between them –– but in the hesitation that followed she imagined that perhaps, for an instant, Gemen had considered saying yes.
“You will be free on schedule, not before.”
“We must help him. Corvaen is closest.”
“Corvaen? No. Marindak, perhaps –– but don’t worry, my friend. We’ll wake him from his nightmare. And we will be on about our business, as before, in no time.”
“Your business, Gemen. Not mine.”
Later, Velori dreamed of glistening threads in a luxurious garden bright with all manner of birds, flowers, and dew. Not far away, Gemen remembered a girl, lithe and clever, calling his name from across a cheerful brook. He tried to fix his sister’s face in his mind, but, as it had tended to do in recent years, the exact details escaped him, and when he, too, slept, he dreamed no more than did the rock he cradled in his arms, a barely hewn stone devoid of markings or apparent significance…but one which he was sure could once more cross that distant brook and return forever that happy, laughing girl.
If only he could retrieve the stones that fit to either side, the final two in his life-long hunt.
He was so very close…
Continued in “The Find,” the Second Part of the Tales of Gemen the Antiques Dealer.
Mark Rigney has published three stories in the Black Gate Online Fiction library: ”The Trade,” “The Find,” and “The Keystone.” Tangent called the tales “Reminiscent of the old sword & sorcery classics… once I started reading, I couldn’t stop. I highly recommend the complete trilogy.”
Also available at Black Gate is his serialized novel, In the Wake Of Sister Blue. The first installment is posted HERE.
Away from Black Gate, he is the author of the supernatural quartet, The Skates, Sleeping Bear, Check-Out Time, and Bonesy, all published by Samhain and featuring his semi-dynamic duo of Renner & Quist. His short fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and has appeared in Unlikely Story, Betwixt, Black Static, The Best of the Bellevue Literary Review, Realms of Fantasy, Witness, The Beloit Fiction Journal, Talebones, Not One Of Us, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet and many more. In other work, Rigney is the author of the plays Ten Red Kings, Acts of God and Bears, winner of the 2012 Panowski Playwriting Competition, as well as the non-fiction book Deaf Side Story: Deaf Sharks, Hearing Jets and a Classic American Musical (Gallaudet). Two collections of his stories (all previously published by various mags and ‘zines) are available through Amazon, Flights of Fantasy, and Reality Checks. His author’s page at Goodreads can be found HERE, and his website is markrigney.net.
Author photo by Heather Shumaker.
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