The Curse of Warim-Shek
by John Whitehouse
Karadas drew his cloak tighter against the chill of the night. “Remind me again why we’re here,” he asked Saram.
His stocky companion chuckled. “Because the Count pays well. It’s more than we’d earn in the King’s army or from being mercenaries.”
Karadas snorted. “Only just.” Strongly built despite his leanness, he was tall with reddish-brown hair, a small neatly-trimmed beard adorning his handsome features. “Why did we bother studying wizardry in the first place? It’s hard to make a decent living from it. We should have chosen something more lucrative.”
“Hey, stop chattering,” I told them. I gazed upward at the high, embrasured walls of the fortress, on which the moon cast a ghostly radiance, straining to listen for the jangling of armor along the battlements which would indicate the passing of the guard. Around us, gusts of wind rasped through the trees.
Saram jerked a thumb at me. “How come a mere stripling like him is in charge of us?” he asked his fellow mage.
“Because the Count says so,” Karadas told him. “He chose him to take charge of his personal guard, on account of his exploits in the war with Zammeria. So what he says, goes.” He turned to me. “Isn’t that right, Captain?”
I nodded. “And don’t you forget it,” although my order, like their teasing, was good natured. At twenty four I was some ten years younger than my companions, the three of us having been hand-picked for this particular mission – to rescue Count Varek’s wife from Rothkar, Duke of Eridon, who was presumably hoping to ransom her, although no demand had yet been received. Karis had been browsing in the market place when, in the bustling crowds, she’d become separated from the men guarding her. Witnesses told how she’d been seized and bundled away by a gang of hooded figures.
At first everyone had assumed them to be organized criminals – after all, kidnapping members of the nobility wasn’t uncommon. Then, a few days after the incident, the Count had summoned me to his private apartments. He told me he’d been sitting alone in his chambers when a section of the wall had begun to glow. A moment later, the image of a tall, shaven-headed man had appeared. He’d told the Count that, until recently, he’d been Rothkar’s mage but , following a disagreement, he was no longer in the Duke’s employ. He’d then revealed Karis’ whereabouts in return for what he hoped would be a substantial reward.
Sending a full contingent of men would have been impractical, since Rothkars’ private forces significantly outnumbered the Counts’ hundred or so men. And the fortress, with its grim, forbidding walls, was well able to withstand a prolonged siege. Instead, the Count had proposed a clandestine operation. Because of my experience of raiding behind enemy lines, I had been chosen to lead it, my comrades picked due to their skills in the magic arts.
“The Count’s a lucky devil,” Saram remarked. “His wife’s one of the most beautiful women in Pelador. And she’s only eighteen. He’s more than twice her age.”
“These nobles are all the same,” said Karadas. “They marry for political reasons, to form alliances and things. Love rarely comes into it. Still, it’s no wonder he wants her back.”
I signaled to my companions. “The guard’s passed by. Come on,” and together we broke from the trees and hurried to the base of the wall. Since Rothkar was presently without a mage, there were no warding spells to warn of our arrival, making our task easier.
The two mages linked arms with me.
“Ready?” asked Karadas. I nodded and, wreathed in magic, they rose into the air, carrying me with them. Drifting over the embrasures, we floated to the ground, landing softly as a leaf carried on a gentle breeze.
Thin clouds drifted across the moon, like veils concealing a woman’s face, as we crept across the courtyard, casting furtive glances at the battlements for any sign of guards. We halted before a heavy wooden door which we found to be locked.
“Allow me,” said Karadas. He waved his hands over the lock, whereupon it changed to a grey mist which swirled and dissipated in the air. With a protesting whine, the door swung open and we stepped through.
We found ourselves in a corridor lit by burning torches fastened at intervals to the walls. It was very quiet, unsurprising given the lateness of the hour. We glided along the passage, our only sound the soft tread of leather on stone, and came to a wide staircase leading upward. We’d begun to ascend when I heard footsteps. Someone was coming down the staircase toward us. I stiffened and whispered to my companions. Moments later two guards emerged from the shadows. At the sight of us they halted in astonishment. As they were reaching for their swords, Saram pointed to the men and a flash of white light engulfed them. They slumped down, unconscious.
Stepping around the still forms, we continued on our way, halting before a door at the head of the stairs. Saram pointed to it. “According to my scrying spell, Karis is behind there,” he told me. Grabbing a torch from its bracket on the wall, he opened the door a fraction and peered into the room beyond. “She’s asleep,” he whispered.
“I’ll keep watch out here,” I said. “You two go in and fetch her.”
My companions disappeared into the room and I stood, straining into the gloom, senses alert for any sign of movement. Then my companions emerged, Saram carrying Karis over one broad shoulder. In order to extract her with minimum fuss the mage had placed a spell on her so that her sleep would be long and undisturbed, a plan we’d decided on prior to the mission. When she awoke we would, if all went well, be back in the city of Pashad, at the Count’s estate.
We proceeded down the stairs and along the corridor to the door by which we’d entered. A cool breath of night air greeted us as I opened it. Coming from the battlements above, we heard the tramping of feet together with the clinking of armor. With the door slightly ajar, we stood in tense stillness, waiting for the sounds to fade.
I gave a signal and, stepping through, we scurried across the courtyard to the wall. The mages repeated their earlier spell and once again we rose into the air, floating over the battlements. Landing on the other side, we made our way through the trees to the horses which were tethered nearby.
“That was easy,” said Karadas, swinging into the saddle.
“Don’t count your chickens yet,” I told him. “Not until we’re well clear of here.”
“I’ll tell you something,” said Karadas. “For someone who was supposed to be a prisoner, her surroundings were comfortable enough. Luxurious, even. A far cry from the Zammerian prison camps, eh, Saram?”
We set off through the woods, Saram supporting Karis in his arms. The moon continued
its struggle with the clouds as we melted into the night.
“Amazing,” said Rodric. “Absolutely incredible.” The Count’s nephew continued to gaze in profound admiration at the painting which was laid out on a table in the middle of the room. A broad ribbon of silk, a foot wide and several feet in length, it had once been white but was now ripened with great age to a mellow brown. It depicted a river winding its way among groves of slender trees, through verdant meadows, past forbidding cliffs and round hills, emptying at last into a foam-flecked sea.
“So lifelike,” Rodric went on. “I can almost hear the running water, feel the wind sing among the trees.”
“Would you expect anything less from the great Warim-Shek?” said his uncle. “It is said that his brush was guided by the gods themselves.” In his mid-forties, the Count was tall and of heavy build, a barrel-chested warrior whose large powerful frame was now running to fat. Cold grey eyes, which brooded from beneath craggy brows, were set into hard, rugged features and his sandy colored hair and beard were streaked with grey.
“And this painting is part of a collection?” I said.
Rodric nodded. In his mid-twenties, he bore little resemblance to his uncle, being of medium height and slim build. His eyes were the color of ebony, his handsome features topped by short dark hair. He looked to be well and fully recovered from the fever he’d been in the grip of when I’d set out on my mission.
“Warim-Shek painted a series depicting four forms of water,” he explained, “the others being a spring, a lake and the sea. Before his death he is reputed to have put a curse on them. You see, it was his wish that the paintings be kept together and it is said that catastrophe will befall anyone separating them or parting one from the others.”
The Count smiled. “Men such as we, however, pay no heed to such superstitions. More wine, Tomalin?”
“Thank you,” I said and held out my goblet for him to refill. “You say you bought the painting from a peddler in the market?”
He nodded. “It belonged to Baron Tarmius – it is he who owns the collection.”
“But these works are centuries old,” I said. “They are beyond price. Whoever that peddler was, he must have stolen it.”
“Which has no doubt upset the Baron quite considerably,” said Rodric. “Quite a prize, eh, Uncle? Especially for a lover of the fine arts, like yourself.”
Just then the door opened, admitting a draught which caused the candle flames to shy. Startled shadows leaped up the walls. We turned and saw Karis step into the room, closing the door behind her. She was indeed beautiful, her soft oval features framed by two smooth shining wings of light brown hair. I noticed her eyes were reddened, as if from weeping. Tonight she wore one of her finest gowns, a long scarlet affair trimmed with ermine, on which ornate designs were embroidered in gold.
“Ah, my dear!” said the Count. “You look lovelier than ever. Here,” and he handed her a goblet which he’d earlier filled with wine. Gazing at her, I couldn’t help noticing the timid, almost frightened look in her eyes and I noticed that Rodric had become tense and uncomfortable, avoiding her gaze.
Karis was dressed in her finery for a reason, the same which required us men to wear formal attire. For this was the night when the Duchess of Amorina held her annual ball. It was one of the society events of the year and the Count had invited me along as a token of gratitude for rescuing his wife.
He raised his goblet. “Let us drink to the health of Captain Tomalin,” he said, “ and that of my two mages, by whose courage and daring my wife has been restored to me.” Rodric and Karis joined him in the toast, Karis forcing a thin, weak smile and once again I noted her sad, haunted features.
When we’d drained our goblets the Count ushered us out into the courtyard where, in the grey light of the evening, our carriages awaited. Rodric and myself climbed into one of the coaches, seating ourselves behind the groom who, I noticed, wasn’t one of the Counts’ usual servants. Varek helped his wife into the other carriage. “There is a spot of urgent business which requires my attention,” he told her. “I will be along shortly.”
He signaled for the gates to be opened, the carriages rolled through and we set off along the wide roads leading past the higher estates. Rodric was far from his usual self. I’d expected him to be in high spirits but instead he was sullen and moody, shifting uneasily in his seat.
Presently we drew up to the gate leading into the Duchess’ estate. The groom brought the horses to a halt and spoke to the gatekeeper while I threw a casual glance behind. To my surprise, Karis’ coach was nowhere in sight. I told Rodric.
“They may have a problem,” he said. “Perhaps a wheel’s broken or a horse gone lame. We’ll go back and check, in case they need help.” He told the groom to turn our coach around and we set off back the way we’d come. We passed a number of different carriages, doubtless on their way to the ball, but Karis’ coach was not among them. Finally we arrived back at the Count’s estate where Varek was just starting out. Rodric told him what had happened.
“Perhaps they took a wrong turning and became lost,” I ventured.
The Count shook his head. “The groom knows the way. Like yours, he was hired especially for the occasion.”
“Then there can be only one explanation,” I said. “Once again, Karis has been abducted, presumably by a criminal gang. But what has become of the groom? Unless they’ve taken him also, in order to cover their tracks.”
“There is another possibility,” said the Count. “Baron Tarmius may have learned that his painting is now in my possession, in which case he could have seized Karis in order to ransom her. The price, presumably, will be the picture.”
“In that case there’s no problem,” I said. “Your wife for the painting – a fair exchange, I would have thought.”
“Whoever is responsible, I expect we shall hear from them in due course,” said the Count. “In the meantime all we can do is wait.”
That night I was shaken from my slumber by Rodric. By the light of the candle which he held I saw he was dressed for some sort of expedition. His cape was slung around his shoulders, his sword hanging from his waist. Under one arm he carried a bundle, wrapped in satin.
“I have the painting,” he told me. “Before coming here I stole into the room where it is kept. I was prepared to break into the cupboard containing it but there was no need as my uncle had forgotten to lock it. I intend to go to Baron Tarmius tonight. If my uncles’ suspicions are correct, I will hand over the picture in exchange for Karis.”
“But what’s the hurry?” I asked. “And why all this secrecy? Why don’t you want your uncle to know?”
“Please trust me,” said Rodric. “I wish I could explain but all will become clear in due course, I promise. But I need your help. The Baron’s estate lies across the city from here. To get there, one has to go through some unsavory parts and I don’t fancy making the journey alone. You are a good friend, Tomalin. Will you accompany me, as a favor?”
His tenseness and anxiety were all too apparent and I realized that, whatever was bound up in this matter, it must be of great importance to him.
“Very well,” I said. “But there are a couple of others I’d like to bring along.”
“The mages who assisted in the escape from Rothkar's fortress. They’re completely trustworthy and their skills in magic will be useful if we run into any kind of trouble.”
Soon afterward the four of us were making our way through one of the roughest quarters of the city. As usual, all the Counts” horses had been put into their stables, the doors to which were locked and guarded, so we had no choice but to make the journey on foot. We tramped along dimly-lit streets, deserted save for the occasional sleeping beggar and the odd mangy-looking dog.
“This is a waste of time, if you ask me,” Karadas muttered. “The Countess probably has a lover. She’s run away with him, if the truth be known.”
So far our journey had been without incident. Then, as we rounded a corner, we came face to face with a gang of utter ruffians. They were more than twice our number and the leader, a stocky, bearded man, gave a wicked smile. “Well, well, what have we here?”
As the men reached for their swords, Saram pointed at them and drew his finger horizontally through the air, whereupon a wall of fire sprang up across the narrow street, creating a barrier between us and the gang. Flames leaped ten and twelve feet high, obscuring the men from view.
“Let’s get out of here,” I shouted and we turned and ran.
“The fire’s only an illusion,” Saram explained, “but it might deter them long enough for us to get away.”
“Having to flee from scum like that turns my stomach,” said Rodric. “If we meet any more, I swear they’ll feel the edge of my blade.”
“And you yourself may end up dead,” I told him. “ Sometimes the cowardly option is the sensible one.”
After a distance we paused for rest. Seeing no signs of pursuit, we continued on our way, our senses more alert than ever. We peered into stinking alleys and dingy side streets, tense in expectation of a similar encounter but there was no further trouble.
At length we arrived at the Baron’s estate, halting before large wooden gates which were set into a high stone wall. Rodric gave several raps on them and after a moment a servant opened a small hatch and peered through.
Rodric introduced himself. “I must see the Baron,” he told the man. “ It is a matter of the utmost urgency.”
Opening the gate, the servant admitted us into a garden thick with date palms. Somewhere a fountain tinkled and the air was heavy with the scent of exotic plants. The man led us along stone-flagged paths until we paused outside the house, before a great door banded with bronze.
“It is best I see the Baron alone,” Rodric told me. “One noble to another, you understand?”
I nodded. “We’ll wait here,” and he and the servant disappeared inside.
A short while later, the servant returned. “Which of you is Captain Tomalin?” he asked. I told him. “Please follow me,” he said and, leaving the two mages, I stepped through into a wide corridor. I followed the servant along the passage and up a flight of stairs to a landing. The man opened a door and stood aside as I passed through.
I found myself in a richly appointed bedchamber. In one corner stood a middle-aged man wearing a fine silk robe who I took to be the Baron. Karis lay on the bed and by the sullen glow of the lanterns I saw her skin was very pale. Her eyes were closed and her breathing was hoarse and shallow. Rodric was seated beside the bed, gazing at her with a mixture of relief and deep concern. He turned to me and in that moment I realized. “There was a lover, wasn’t there?” I said. “ It was you.”
Rodric nodded. “Rothkar didn’t kidnap her. She was running away.”
“About a month ago I visited a seer who told me Karis' life was in danger, that I must get her away from the Count as soon as possible. I realized he must have found out about us. I thought of simply taking Karis and fleeing but I knew my uncle wouldn’t rest until he’d hunted us down. So I contacted Rothkar, who’s a friend of mine. Together we arranged the abduction. I was going to join Karis as soon as I could but, as you know, I was struck down with fever before I could set off. Rothkar had agreed to provide a protective escort until we reached the coast. We planned to buy a passage out of Pelador, get far enough away from my uncle to be safe.”
I pointed to Karis. “What happened?”
It was the Baron who answered. “When we brought her here she was suffering the most terrible convulsions. I sent for my mage who realized she’d been poisoned. Fortunately he was able to save her using his magic arts.”
I saw it all then. Like a smashed vase magically repairing itself, the pieces of the puzzle flung themselves together.
“This is your uncle’s doing,” I told Rodric. “When he discovered the affair he must have watched the two of you together. He bided his time, nursing his hatred and planning his revenge like a work of art. And tonight he set about exacting it. The poison was in the wine he gave her. And the cupboard – your uncle left it unlocked on purpose. He guessed you’d come here tonight with the painting, hoping to buy Karis” freedom so you could run away together. He intended you to find her dead. That would have been his revenge. The question is, how did your uncle know she’d be kidnapped?”
“The Baron didn’t abduct her,” said Rodric. “The groom my uncle hired – he was paid to deliver her.”
“Deliver her? I don’t understand.”
“I first saw Karis in the market place some months ago,” Tarmius explained. “And from that moment I knew I must have her. I offered to buy her from the Count, told him to name his price but he wouldn’t hear of it. Then, a month ago, he changed his mind, decided to sell her to me. The price was the painting. Alas, it was all part of his twisted scheme.”
“So there never was any peddler in the market,” I murmured.
Rodrics' black eyes glittered like jet beads in the lantern glow. “I swear by all the gods my uncle shall pay for trying to take her life. With his own.”
“My honor has also been insulted,” said the Baron. “I will join you in exacting vengeance.”
“You may go, Tomalin,” said Rodric. “Thank you for being such a good friend.”
Soon afterwards I, along with the two mages, were making our way from the Baron’s estate. I told them what had happened. “It seems the curse of Warim-Shek may not be mere superstition, after all,” I said. “Varek and Tarmius meddled with the paintings. Now it seems they will pay the price.”
“The Count must be mad to start a feud like this,” said Karadas. “Where will it end?”
“Blood will be spilt, that’s for certain,” said Saram. “And I don’t intend any of it to be mine.”
“Same here,” said Karadas. “What about you, Captain?”
I gave a shrug. “Whether Varek is mad or not, I have no desire to be caught up in this. I think it’s time we found someone else who can make use of our talents, don’t you?”
The two mages nodded and, smiling, we disappeared into the night.
John Whitehouse enjoys writing in various genres, including mystery and fantasy. To date several of his stories have appeared in small press and national publications, both in the UK and US, and on the internet.
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