A play should never be too long. If bored, the audience may walk out, choosing their own ending.
—Sir Walter Maidstone, Freyan playwright
In the bedchamber upstairs in the elegant house in Freya’s capital city of Haever, the child of Sir Henry Wallace was coming into the world. Sir Henry was downstairs in his study, listening in agony to his young wife’s moans and screams. Sir Henry sat and paced and sat again and paced again, alternately cursing God or praying to Him. For the first time in Sir Henry’s long, illustrious and, many would say, infamous life, he was helpless.
He had done all he could. He had hired the best physicians, healers, nurses, and midwives, including the physician who attended to Her Majesty, Queen Mary of Freya. His wife’s bedchamber and the long hallway outside were crowded with illustrious medical practitioners, midwives, and healers, who got into heated arguments with the physicians over the best course of treatment. But as one of the midwives said with a shrug, “Babies will come as babies will come and there’s only so much a body can do.”
His wife’s labor had been so long and difficult that Sir Henry, appalled at the terrible sounds emanating from her bedchamber, had already once attempted to force his way through the door. The physicians and midwives, healers and nurses had united to wrestle him out of the room. Expectant fathers were considered a nuisance, if not a downright menace.
Sir Henry, the most powerful man in the kingdom of Freya, was forced to retreat, taking refuge in his study. He tried to read a recently published book, an account of the Blackfire War written by an eminent Freyan historian, but when he realized he’d read the same paragraph six times, he tossed the book to the floor.
Going to the window, he stood staring moodily into the street. The summer evening was gentle and warm; he shed his coat and threw off his cravat. The mists of the Breath on the distant horizon were fading shades of delicate pink and orange. As night’s shadows closed in, lights gleamed in the windows of the city homes of the Freyan noble lords.
The lamplighter would be coming soon, Sir Henry thought. A particularly loud scream caused him to shudder and break out in a cold sweat.
Preoccupied with his fears and hopes, he paid only scant attention to the wyvern-drawn carriage rapidly descending from the twilight sky to land on the street outside the house. Sir Henry assumed this was yet another doctor. He was about to turn away when he caught sight of a tall, heavily cloaked yet extremely familiar figure descending from the carriage.
Sir Henry uttered an exclamation of joy. He left his study in his shirtsleeves and went to the door himself, nearly colliding with the shocked footman who was supposed to attend to such duties.
Sir Henry yanked open the door, startling Mr. Sloan, who had his hand on the bell.
“Come in, Franklin, come in,” said Sir Henry, quite forgetting himself and addressing Mr. Sloan by his given name. He took hold of Mr. Sloan’s hand and gripped it tightly. “It is good to see you.”
Mr. Sloan was taken aback and much affected by his master’s unusual warmth. Flushing slightly, he murmured that he hoped he found Sir Henry well.
Sir Henry recovered himself and stepped back to allow the footman to remove Mr. Sloan’s cloak and hat and take them away. Mr. Sloan, with a worried glance, indicated his concern at the number of carriages parked in the street, many decorated with the coats-of-arms of well-known physicians or healers.
“My lord,” said Mr. Sloan, “is everything—”
“The child is coming,” said Sir Henry.
Another moaning cry from upstairs proclaimed the truth of this statement.
Mr. Sloan did the unthinkable. He clasped Sir Henry’s hand as fellow man to fellow man, not as secretary to his employer, and pressed the cold hand in warm sympathy.
“I will pray to God for your lady wife and the child, my lord.”
“Thank you, Mr. Sloan,” said Sir Henry. He turned away, cleared his throat, and then said in his usual formal tone, “Have you dined?”
“No, my lord,” said Mr. Sloan. “I came straight from the ship. Captain Northrop sends his regards, by the way.”
Hearing another cry, Mr. Sloan hesitated. “If this is not a good time, my lord, I can return—”
“No, no,” said Sir Henry. “I need something to distract me. I have not dined either. I fear I cannot offer you a proper meal. The doctors have the kitchen staff boiling water and doing God knows what else.”
“A bite standing is all I require, my lord,” said Mr. Sloan.
“I believe we can do better than that,” said Sir Henry with a faint smile.
He rang a bell and gave instructions to bring a collation of cold meats and cheeses, bread, nuts, and fruit, a bottle of wine for himself, and a pitcher of ale for Mr. Sloan, whose strict religious views permitted the consumption of ale, but not wine.
The two men retired to the study, where they did justice to the food and then settled down to discuss Mr. Sloan’s recent trip to the city-state of Braffa, and the momentous events that had occurred in Mr. Sloan’s absence.
“I was not expecting you for another week, Mr. Sloan,” said Sir Henry. “I judge by your hasty return that you have important news.”
“Indeed I do, my lord. King Alaric has withdrawn the Rosian fleet from Braffa.”
Sir Henry was in the act of raising a glass of port to his lips. He stopped midway to stare, then set the glass down untasted.
“The devil he has! What has he done with the ships?”
“Ordered them back to Rosia.”
“He’s terrified because of the attack on Westfirth,” said Sir Henry.
“So one would assume, my lord. Have you received any information from your agents in Rosia?”
“Not a word. Few ship captains have been either brave or foolhardy enough to venture out into the Breath since the attack on Westfirth. I can’t say I blame them. I saw King Alaric’s pride, the Royal Lion, explode and sink in flames—a terrible sight, Mr. Sloan. The enemy fired only a single shot—a green beam of contramagic from a cannon the size of a popgun. And yet it sank a sixty-gun warship.”
Mr. Sloan appeared suitably impressed.
Sir Henry sighed. “I suppose I should have celebrated the Rosian defeat, but I could not bring myself to do so.”
“No, my lord,” said Mr. Sloan. “Understandable. I myself saw those demonic creatures when they attacked your manor house. Do you fear Freya is next?”
“I’m not sure what I fear, and that makes me even more afraid,” said Sir Henry. “By the way, I did not at first give credence to your account of the bat-riding demons. My apologies.”
“None required, my lord. I found it difficult to believe my own eyes,” said Mr. Sloan.
He sat forward in his chair and, despite the fact that the study was heavily protected by magical constructs that dampened the sound, he lowered his voice. “You mentioned a beam of green light. I am reminded, my lord, of the cutter Defiant, and a certain woman…”
“Eiddwen. Yes,” said Sir Henry, his face darkening. “She is involved, of that I am certain. She tried to have me assassinated in Westfirth, just prior to the attack.”
“Good God, my lord!” said Mr. Sloan, shocked into blasphemy. “You were not hurt—”
“I escaped unscathed and, as it turned out, I gained some immensely valuable information. Eiddwen laid an ambush for me and my old nemesis, Father Jacob Northrop. We were attacked by demons in an alley. Father Jacob saved my life.” Sir Henry gave a grim smile. “And I saved Eiddwen’s.”
“My lord?” Mr. Sloan was bewildered.
“Not of my volition, believe me,” Sir Henry said drily. “She disguised herself as a sailor and stowed away on the merchant ship I had hired to smuggle myself and the journeyman, Alcazar, out of Westfirth. Eiddwen either knew the demons were going to attack Westfirth or she was the one who ordered the attack. She needed to leave before she was caught in the assault.”
“You are certain she is connected to these fiends?” Mr. Sloan asked.
“I am. She used the demons to try to kill me, first in my own house and, failing that, in Westfirth.”
“If so, my lord, that means…” Mr. Sloan paused.
“That means that whoever these people are, I helped fund their infernal green beam contramagic weapons,” said Sir Henry with some bitterness.
“You speak of them as people. I assume you do not believe the fiends are minions of the Evil One, my lord?”
“I saw one of them shot dead, Mr. Sloan. I think it likely a true demon of hell would be able to withstand a mere bullet.”
“An excellent point, my lord.” Mr. Sloan appeared relieved. “What about Mistress Eiddwen? You speak of her in the present tense. I gather you let her live.”
“I had no choice,” said Sir Henry with a grim smile. “Much as I would have liked to have wrung her lovely neck, there were too many witnesses on board the ship. She had chosen the battleground. That made me cautious. We drank a toast to our mutual destruction.”
“So what did you do with her, my lord?”
“Nothing I could do, Mr. Sloan, except deliver her to some godforsaken place on the Rosian coast. She disembarked, and that was the last I have seen or heard of the woman. I did tell her that if she ever attacked me or my family again I would track her to the hell where she was spawned, chain her to the devil’s gridiron, and pour boiling oil on her.”
“What was her reply to that, my lord?”
“She laughed. She said that her reason for trying to kill me had been merely to tie up a loose end, and that events had been set in motion that I could not stop.”
Sir Henry finished the port. Rising to his feet, he walked to the door, opened it, listened, shook his head, slammed the door, walked back to the table, and sat down. He poured another glass of port for himself, but did not drink. He merely sat, brooding, and gazed at the carpet.
Mr. Sloan thought it expedient to turn his master’s thoughts to a more pleasant topic.
“How is Alcazar progressing with his invention, my lord?”
Sir Henry looked up with a smile. “Quite well, Mr. Sloan. He has produced a vast quantity of the magically enhanced steel. Tests have proven that the magical constructs he placed on the pewter tankard work even better on steel, as he theorized. A cannonball fired directly at a plate of the magically enhanced steel bounced off, leaving scarcely a dent.”
“Excellent news, my lord,” said Mr. Sloan.
“And I made an important discovery, Mr. Sloan,” said Sir Henry. “This is news I have shared with no one, not even Alcazar. Or should I say especially not Alcazar—the man leaks like a punctured balloon. Alcazar’s steel not only deflects bullets and cannonballs.” Sir Henry paused for dramatic effect, lowering his voice. “The steel deflects the demonic green beam weapon’s fire.”
Mr. Sloan’s eyes widened. “How did you make this discovery, my lord?”
“You know that I carried that blasted tankard with me in a leather satchel the entire time I was in Rosia. When Eiddwen’s demons shot their green fireballs from their long guns at me, I flung the satchel up to guard my face. The contramagic fire hit the satchel. The leather disintegrated. The tankard inside was untouched. As was I, fortunately.”
“God be thanked, my lord,” said Mr. Sloan in solemn tones.
“I did thank Him, Mr. Sloan. Of that you may be certain. I have set Alcazar and his workers the task of manufacturing large plates made of this magical metal, which I will have installed on a gunboat. Given your news, it appears I may be making a journey soon to Braffa. If I encounter any of the demons along the way, I should be protected.”
Sir Henry raised his glass. “Let us drink to the confusion of our enemies, be they demons or Rosians.”
Mr. Sloan took a sip of his ale, and Sir Henry downed his entire glass of port. Another scream came from upstairs. Sir Henry swore under his breath and mopped his head with a handkerchief. Mr. Sloan rose quietly to pour his master another glass of port. Sir Henry thanked him with a look, accepted the glass, and resumed their conversation.
“I have one concern, Mr. Sloan.”
Mr. Sloan might well have said, “Only one, my lord?” Instead, he merely inclined his head to indicate that he was listening attentively.
“A brief preface to this tale. When I was in Westfirth, I discovered the son of my Rosian counterpart, the Countess de Marjolaine, had found out about Alcazar and his invention and was trying to prevent Alcazar and me from escaping to Freya. Captain de Guichen is a gallant soldier, but he lacks his mother’s skill at intrigue. I was able to not only give him the slip in Westfirth, but to take his best friend, one Monsieur Rodrigo de Villeneuve, hostage to ensure my safety. I took Monsieur de Villeneuve on board my ship, letting Captain de Guichen know that I would most certainly kill his friend if he attempted to stop me.”
“What became of the captain, my lord?” Mr. Sloan asked, concerned. “I trust he is not still pursuing you.”
“No, Mr. Sloan, Captain de Guichen and his friends are currently languishing on a remote island in the Breath, thanks to a cannonball fired from Admiral Baker’s warship. The captain is not what concerns me. During the voyage on the Raven, Alcazar and Monsieur de Villeneuve discussed the magically enhanced steel. I paid no heed to their blathering, for they were going on about theorems and postulates and whatnot. Unfortunately, their discussion occurred before I knew Eiddwen was on board. I think it most likely she eavesdropped on them.”
“That is unfortunate, my lord,” said Mr. Sloan. “Do you know whether she overheard anything about this new steel?”
“I fear so. The two idiots were talking openly of contramagic in regard to the magical steel. I ordered them to shut up, but she would have undoubtedly found their conversation most interesting.”
Mr. Sloan shook his head. “Most disturbing, my lord.”
“Indeed. I had not mentioned to Alcazar or anyone the fact that the steel is resistant to contramagic. Although I have no doubt the clever Monsieur de Villeneuve will soon arrive at that conclusion.”
“Why do you say that, my lord?”
“Because when we parted and I sent him off to join his shipmates on their deserted island, I gave Monsieur de Villeneuve the pewter tankard as a gift for my old enemy, the Countess de Marjolaine.”
Mr. Sloan was in the act of drinking ale when he received this startling news. He swallowed the wrong way, choked, and spent several moments coughing into his handkerchief.
“I beg your pardon, Mr. Sloan. I should have waited until you had finished.”
“Please give the matter no thought, my lord,” said Mr. Sloan when he could speak. “If I could inquire as to why you would—”
“—give an immensely important military discovery to our enemies?”
“I am certain you have good reason.”
“I do, Mr. Sloan.”
Sir Henry rested his elbows on the arms of the chair, brought the tips of his fingers together, and placed his two forefingers on his narrow chin. He gazed in silence into the empty grate for long moments while Mr. Sloan sat quietly, waiting.
“The demons attacked a stone guard tower not twenty miles from where we are sitting, Mr. Sloan. When you and I inspected the site, we saw how the magical constructs that strengthened the stones had been completely erased. That attack on Freyan soil was both a test and a taunt. The attack on our Rosian enemies in Westfirth was the same. As Eiddwen said, events have been set in motion. These fiends are letting both nations know that they are coming and there is not a damn thing we can do to stop them.”
Sir Henry was once again silent. Leaving his chair, he went to the window. Darkness had fallen. The lamplighter had been and gone. A gentle mist wreathed the shining lamps in ghostly halos.
“I foresee a time, Mr. Sloan, when Rosia and Freya will be unwilling allies in a war against this demonic foe, whoever or whatever it is. I want my ally to be as strong as myself. That is why I sent the pewter tankard to the countess. She will understand.”
Sir Henry started to say something else when he was interrupted by the sounds of a great commotion upstairs: feet pounding, muffled voices, an agonized scream, and then silence. Then raised voices and more pounding footfalls.
Sir Henry paled. He and Mr. Sloan looked at each other. Sir Henry put his hand on the back of the chair for support and stood staring at the closed door.
There was a knock. Sir Henry tried to speak and failed.
“Enter,” said Mr. Sloan.
The footman opened the door and announced the royal physician. He came into the room, smiling expansively.
“A son, my lord. Congratulations.”
Sir Henry’s grip on the chair tightened. “My wife?”
“Your son was born without complications. Lady Anne is young and healthy. I venture to say she will bear your lordship many more children. When I left her, she was already sitting up and asking for a cup of tea.”
“Praise God,” said Mr. Sloan.
Sir Henry muttered something and turned his back. He blinked his eyes, wiped his nose, and offered a heartfelt silent prayer. Regaining his composure, he then expressed his thanks to the royal physician and insisted that he partake of a glass of port.
The royal physician, knowing the quality of Sir Henry’s port, was only too happy to accept. The gentlemen were toasting Sir Henry and Lady Anne when the nursemaid entered the room, carrying a large bundle.
She curtsied and said, “Lady Anne sends her regards, my lord, and asks if you would like to meet your son.”
The nursemaid lifted a fold of the blanket to reveal the young lord, who was notable for being extremely red, wrinkled, and bald. He was screaming lustily, his small fists flailing, his eyes squinched tight shut.
Sir Henry regarded the child with pride and dismay. “He’s quite ugly, isn’t he, Mr. Sloan?”
Mr. Sloan gave a discreet cough. “I was about to say he resembles you, my lord.”
Copyright © 2013 by Margaret Weis and Robert Krammes
Dragon ornament copyright © 2013 by Jeff Easley