Spring had arrived. Planting was underway in the fields and farms around the small town of Bleakbourne on Heath, and most evenings Leryn, the bard, regularly found himself playing to an empty room. Even the bargemen were too busy to drink. Thus, Saturday evening had become the sole night of the week when the Ploughman’s Inn was full and more than a few coins would be dropped into his hat.
Since his return from a long existence as a horse, Sir Galahad had demonstrated no desire to go a-rescuing with his lover, Sir Lancelyn. But Rosie, the warrior-barmaid, regularly did. This upset the bard, who made it clear to the cursed knight that if his girlfriend was accidentally changed into a snake or a harpy, he would kill himself a knight.
Leryn sat in his usual corner working on a new ballad. The tap-room was empty, Lance and Rosie were off rescuing a farmer’s sheep from a mountain lion, and Galahad dozed in the corner, ready to act as barmaid should any customers appear.
The door opened. Tom Tailor rushed in, his eyes wide He paused, trembling violently. “I’ve been robbed.”
Polcock looked up. “When? What was taken?”
“I don’t know when. But…they’ve taken it, Polcock.” The tailor crossed to bar, speaking low, but urgently. “The talisman is gone.”
Leryn had never seen his landlord speechless.
Galahad leapt to his feet, strapping his sword belt on with grim efficiency.
Polcock hung out his closed sign, something Leryn didn’t even know he possessed, and the three men followed Tom. They passed through the darkened shop, going up the stairs to his rooms. At the foot of Tom’s bed was a trunk, with the lid open. The tray had been removed and a plain wooden box lay open and a purple cloth lay beside it, but nothing else.
“It must have been wrapped in the velvet before it was placed in the sealed box, which was locked and hidden at the bottom of the trunk. To my knowledge, it was never opened since Merlin sealed it.” Tom’s teeth chattered so that his words were hard to follow. “How…who would have done such a thing?”
Polcock said, “First, tell me who knew it was there?”
The tailor pressed his hands to his eyes. “No one! I swear, when my father passed away just before Yule, I placed it here, in this trunk, where it should be. The moment he passed from this earth I took possession of it, as was required. I brought it here in this box, hidden under my cloak, well after dark. The streets were empty and I was alone. Before I did anything, I closed the shutters so no witch’s familiar could see in.”
Leryn cleared his throat. “What is this talisman?”
Tom looked at Polcock before answering. The innkeeper nodded, and the tailor said, “A certain key to the prison of something—terrible. I had need of something in my chest and when I looked I found—” He covered his face, weeping. “Oh God! How could the key to the Devere vault be gone?”
Polcock shook his head. “I don’t know. But it goes along with many things that have perplexed me since Yule.”
“Devere vault?” The bard’s mind scrambled, trying to make sense of their panic.
Polcock replied, “The large stone ruins just downriver. Tom’s family name is Devere. The Deveres are the hereditary lords of Bleakbourne on Heath, and the keep was their home, but no longer.”
Galahad shivered. “I know this story—I was reminded of it when Lancelyn and I passed those ruins on the River Heath when we first came here. The younger son of the family was not a faithful husband to his wife, and the entire family paid a terrible price. His spurned wife was both jealous and skilled in the dark arts, and she gave her life to the setting of a terrible curse. The unfaithful husband was changed into one of the undead, becoming a vampire. I was never told his name.”
Polcock looked at him, one eyebrow raised.
Galahad shrugged. “My grandmother, whose grandmother’s sister was murdered by this vampire, told me the tale when I was a lad, likely in an effort to frighten me into behaving.”
Tom stared out the window, shaking and unable to speak. Polcock took up the tale. “For several months after his wife’s death, Geoffrey Devere was able to hide his terrible secret from his family by using his undead powers to bind his servant to secrecy. But eventually, the mysterious murders of several young women were traced back to the family. Lord Alfred Devere was elderly, and the discovery of his son’s curse most assuredly killed him—he had a heart attack and died that night. The oldest son sought help from the sorcerer, Merlin. Together they devised a plan to ensure the safety of the community.”
Still gazing out the window, Tom said, “The sorcerer and my great-great-grandfather, Roland Devere took Geoffrey by surprise, sealing him inside the family crypt. The locks were enchanted by Merlin himself, but the magic hinges on the talisman key. The family was sundered and our home abandoned, and the Devere name was allowed to go unremarked and often unremembered. It is my name, though I don’t make that fact known. My father swore that only Jason Tenneriff’s family knew who owned the ruins, as his lands marched alongside ours.”
Polcock looked ill. “And now Tenneriff is mentioned for the third time in as many months. He is tied into this somehow.”
“He and his keep vanished when I was a babe. Few are left who know the tales of Geoffrey’s reign of terror. We have worked for three generations to separate ourselves from the name. We are tailors now, and this has been our shop, father to son since Roland.” He turned to the three men. “But if the talisman is broken, the spells binding the crypt will be broken also. I am Thomas, 13th Baron Devere, though only Polcock and Merlin know. I have a duty to keep this community and my people safe.”
A voice spoke from the doorway, startling the four men. “We must speak to William Smith.” A ragged old beggar Leryn had regularly met by the docks stood with his arms crossed. “His forge is the only fire hot enough to affect the Talisman. Fortunately no forge is hot enough to break it.” The old man grimaced. “The spells still hold, but they’ve been altered. I felt the change in January.”
“Merlin,” said Polcock, recovering himself. “You need to learn to knock.”
“Oh, thank God.” Taking two deep breaths, Tom calmed himself. “I know now I should have looked in the trunk the night of the crypt-wind, but it didn’t occur to me. It’s the sort of thing you don’t think about once it’s safely hidden away.”
Polcock sighed. “William has much to tell us.”
Leryn cleared his throat. “Sir—I wish I’d known who you are a while ago. I’ve a story you must hear, and a message for you.”
“Thank you for the coins you thrown my way, bard. You’ve provided me with many hot meals and a dry place to sleep this winter.” The old man waved his hand and sparkles formed an image of the Demon Knight, whom Leryn had met some weeks prior, and faded. “Mordred—I followed his scent here, wondering what his errand could have been. Now I think I know.”
“Sir, he intends to meet you, and the sword he forced William to forge…it’s foul magic.”
“Foul, indeed, and I will question William closely to know just what it is.” He met Leryn’s gaze, and no trace of the shabby, old derelict he had been posing as could be found in those sharp, blue eyes. “Rest assured. The demon and I will meet, but in my time, not his.” Merlyn’s laugh was as cold as the demon’s had been. “Even with the vampire’s assistance, the demon will be hard-pressed to harm me. He’s not the only one who has been through some changes since we last met.” He gazed at the empty box. “We will wrap this up exactly as it was, and pretend you’re still unaware of the theft.”
Merlin turned to Galahad. “You and the bard must accompany Tom and me to the ruins tomorrow morning. I will require your help to set new wards there. No one must know of anything we have discussed, not even Lancelyn and Rosie. I’ll get them out of town on something they’ll enjoy. It’s for everyone’s safety—we can’t have Lancelyn anywhere near if magic is involved.”
Both the bard and the knight swore to remain silent, as did Polcock and Tom Tailor.
Leryn found himself riding out into the cold grey of the pre-dawn morning. Patches of fog hugged the meadows along river, frequently obscuring the four men who traveled to the ruins. Leryn and Galahad rode horses, while Tom and Merlin rode donkeys—the old sorcerer having borrowed Polcock’s Applecore. Half an hour prior to their departure, Lancelyn and Rosie were sent off in the opposite direction, chasing a bear, much to Leryn’s relief.
“Is the mist your doing, wizard?” Leryn’s whisper sounded from the sorcerer’s right. “Is it to hide us?”
“Fog happens at dawn, if you live along a river. Good sorcery involves spending the least amount of magic you can, and using your wits.” The old man’s eyes were keen, as he surveyed their surroundings. “Another thing: dawn is the safest time to deal with the undead, if you want to go unnoticed. They are weakest then, and the sun is most potent after its long night’s rest. After noon you’re risking trouble. Your scent might still be fresh enough by nightfall that they’ll be able to follow you.”
“And few people are about to know your business.” Leryn clenched his jaws shut to keep his teeth from chattering.
They neared the ruins. Merlin explained what he had learned from the smith. “As I feared last night, the talisman is now welded into the demon’s blade. That, we cannot undo. He has the power now to call forth and control the vampire. He’s biding his time for some reason of his own, because he has not yet done so.”
Tom had been silent since leaving Bleakbourne, and just nodded. Galahad said, “Vampires are tricky and willful. It makes sense that the demon knew that, and prepared some way of binding him.”
“Geoffrey’s soul went to Hell the moment Ariadne’s curse settled around him. His body lives on, but his soul is where Mordred has easy access to it. He will call forth the vampire when he chooses, and the creature will obey him.”
Leryn’s fear threatened to overwhelm him. “How can we possibly stop a creature as evil as the demon if he is able to do such a thing?”
“Stop him? No. But we will hinder him—it’s a matter of balance. He gained the talisman which tips the scale in his favor. He possesses it, yes—but when I wrought it, I ensured that no one can change its purpose.” The sorcerer’s grin was as evil as any Leryn had ever seen. “He has embedded the talisman I wrought into the blade he depends on. That gives him the ability to use the vampire against us, yes. Shortsighted as always, the demon has no idea how he has just played into my hands.” The old man laughed, dry and cold as winter. “But now, you must hear what I require of each of you.”
Regret colored Merlin’s tones as he added, “I fear it will not be painless. I must resort to blood-magic.”
To be continued
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Connie J. Jasperson is an author and blogger, and a regular contributing member of the Edgewise Words Inn staff.