Medievia Mudslinger

March 30th, 2003

Inspiration - By Koryne

The sound of her husband's furious scribbling made Clarissa put the manuscript down. Her soft slippers whispered warmly across the room to where her husband sat, frowning in thought. She stroked his hair fondly, as if to remind herself that this was not a dream. She was married to the great bard Valdezar. The storyteller who's words had captured her soul since he had first started writing. The man who she had dreamed of marrying for as long as she could remember. And to think, just a few weeks ago she had been a lowly serving girl in Castle Medievia...

The wind and rain had swept the central courtyard of the City of Medievia clean of its usual early evening bustle. The solitude suited my mood, and the deepening darkness seemed to mirror my dark thoughts. Not for the first time that day I found myself questioning the wisdom of my uncharacteristically rash decision. As if to remind myself, I studied my once fine cloak; the faded material and tattered hem clearly naming my financial station. Pulling the flapping thing more tightly around me I tried to protect my precious book from the rain. The castle loomed suddenly before me, its lightless windows staring at me in silent accusation. Quickening my pace, I made my way wetly up the staircase towards the drawbridge.

The guardhouse door creaked open, spilling a wedge of yellow light across my path. I started at the sound and sudden illumination, like a thief caught red-handed.

"Who goes there?" demanded a voice.

"It's Master Valdezar, the bard," I said, attempting a winning smile that hung crookedly on my face. The guardsman thrust a lantern rudely in my direction, and looked me up and down thoughtfully.

He nodded to himself and barked, "You're late."

I quickly tried to compose a grandiose apology along with a suitably exciting excuse for my tardiness, but the guardsman was already herding me across the drawbridge like a disobedient sheep. The man obviously had no appreciation for the art of a bard. His intellect was probably inversely proportional to the size of his muscles - which were considerably over-developed. The brute had probably never even heard of me, so I resolved to ignore the affront.

A page appeared and bade me follow him to the guest quarters where I would await the Duke's pleasure. As we made our way through the gaping maw of the castle doors toward the castle proper, I began to feel somewhat ill at ease. The impregnable stone walls of the castle had me firmly in their unrelenting grasp, and the thought turned my stomach to a ball of ice.

The echo of my boots on the black tiles seemed unusually loud, as if the floor itself was shouting the arrival of an enemy. Two cleaning ladies abruptly stopped their dusting, and frowned at me as I approached. They seemed on the brink of leaping to action and viciously assaulting me with their feather-dusters. Sweat began to bead on my forehead and a cold trickle began to form between my shoulder blades. My underhandedness seemed painted in my every move, and I would not have been surprised if the page lead me straight to the dungeons.

I tried to suppress the panic rising in my gut and school my mind to rationality. The mind of a bard, however, is not easily tamed. The more I tried not to think of the true reason for my presence in the castle, the worse my fanciful imaginings about dungeons, sharp objects and feather-dusters. Considering the fact that I had not written a word in five years, this sudden burst of imagination was somewhat ironic - under other circumstances I might have even laughed.

Five years ago, I was considered more then a bard; I was a creator. With pen and parchment I could raze a city and forge an empire, I could bring legends to life and make true love blossom. Admittedly, my ability to show people dreams they had not yet had, earned me a tidy sum of coin.

Then one day, I had no stories left to tell.

My imagination had run dry and my wit turned dull. Even the simplest story crumbled to dust under my quill after the first few lines.

Three days ago, I thought that fortune had finally begun to smile on me again. I was in the market considering the value of fruits and vegetables as opposed to wine, when a muffled cry made me turn. I felt no desire to be seen on the front page of the morning paper as the 'innocent citizen who stumbled onto a crime in progress and had unspeakable atrocities visited upon his person', so I began to make haste in the opposite direction.

My retreat was interrupted when a flustered young lady tackled me from behind. She seemed suitably embarrassed, and once she caught her breath, made an offhanded excuse about how I resembled her husband. Then she threw a heavy cloak around me and fussed over it, rubbing off a stain and adjusting it. At some point between tying a black ribbon in the cloak's lapel and picking invisible lint off it, she inquired if I didn't mind trying it on as it was a gift for her husband. She interrupted my non-committal grunt by saying that it looked so lovely on me and that I should keep it. She hurried off without another word.

I had barely collected my thoughts after that unsettling barrage, when a skinny, shifty-eyed man drew me aside. Before I could tell him I was, yet again, being confused with someone else, he slipped a small vial in my pocket. He told me that I was going to kill Duke Pherrence and be paid an astronomical sum of money. And then he, like the young lady, presently disappeared without a trace.

The rhythmic clink of steel greaves on stone brought me back to the present. Two knights rounded the corner in front of me, perfectly in step. Both looked resplendent in plate-mail, which had been burnished until it reflected even the faintest flickers of torch light. They moved with a dangerous grace, seeming constantly on the brink of violent action. They seemed to shimmer and glow with their own inner light, and this marked them Guardians of the Golden Wyrm. As one, they turned stares as cold as death towards me. Knowing eyes bored into my skull and I was certain that the discovery of my deception was imminent. I barely prevented myself from heaving a sigh of relief when their steps took them past me and out of view.

As if of their own accord, my traitorous fingers stole towards the top pocket of my cloak, tracing the outline of the glass vial stored there. Its contents was a tasteless, odorless powder that could be sprinkled on food or dissolved to do its foul deed. Some minutes later, I noticed with horror that my fingers still traced this outline in my cloak pocket. I quickly turned it to a patting motion, as if I were absent-mindedly checking the security of some valuable or other. The page seemed to be giving me sidelong looks, so I made a show of patting down my other pockets and tried to look satisfied.

After taking the Dragon Staircase to the second floor, the castle took on a deserted feel. The hallways were mottled with dust and dimly lit by sparsely placed torches burning low in their sconces. The air was musty from lack of ventilation, and the overall impression was somewhat dungeon-like; just the thing to set my teeth on edge again.

Abruptly I bumped into the page, who I now realized had stopped before a large wooden door. He caught his balance and gave me an indignant look, which I answered with a sheepish smile.

"Your cloak sir?" said the page after pushing the door open.

"Oh, yes of course," I said absently, and shrugged it off my shoulders.

The page ushered me in and bade me sit down, all the while trying to hold my dripping cloak as far from his body as humanly possible. The room was spacious and elegantly decorated - befitting the station of the Duke as the visiting noble of a powerful land. I moved over to the fireplace and slumped into a chair which was obviously made for its aesthetic appeal rather than comfort, and inspected my book for any water damage. Satisfied that it was unharmed, I leafed through the pages, letting my familiar words distract me from my task.

The door swung open, and I looked up expectantly. It was however, only a serving girl bearing a crystal decanter of wine, and two wineglasses. She gave me a broad smile and a curtsy after arranging decanter and glasses on the table near me. Something about her gnawed at my mind for a moment, but the thought was quickly lost in the blood-red depths of the wine decanter.

I hardly noticed the girl leave as I poured myself a glass with an unsteady hand.

"To Inspiration," I said quietly, toasting myself. Without wasting time to savor the flavor I tilted my head back and drained the glass. I immediately poured and drank a second glass in a feeble attempt to calm my nerves.

The door opened again, and I looked up to see Duke Pherrence striding into the room. His face seemed set in a grim mask, and his eyes seemed to burn with the same intensity as the fire in the hearth. However, something seemed out of sorts - his thinning hair was greasy and poorly slicked back in an attempt to make his baldness seem less obvious. His clothing was worn and looked like it had been slept in, and the absence of a sword at his hip was noticeable.

"Stay seated," said the Duke in an icy tone as I was halfway to my feet. The greeting that I had composed remained unsaid as I sank back down. The chair I noted, was getting less comfortable with each passing moment.

A smile bereft of humor twisted Duke Pherrence's face as he seated himself. "Let me ask you a question, Bard," the Duke began. "What, aside from that book, do you carry for me?"

I swallowed. "Only the book..."

The Duke looked at me askance, and snorted his disbelief. "Only a book of stories?" he asked of me. "No powder, perhaps?"

I felt the hot flush of blood as my heart began to pound; it seemed as if it were clawing its way up my throat. The vial in the pocket of my cloak - the same cloak the page had taken away. I had sat around drinking wine like a tavern drunk, and I had completely forgotten the vial! I marveled at my own stupidity. "P-powder?" I stammered.

The Duke stood up and tapped a finger thoughtfully on his lips as he paced the room. "I would assume it was meant for me?"

"Yes," I whined, realizing more lies would do me no good. "But... How did you know?"

"Aah yes, the ever inquisitive mind of a storyteller," said the Duke with an cold laugh. "My Kerstian Elites have been in the city for some time, gathering information and making preparations. They pass messages to me through a serving girl in the castle. They saw your little exchange with the Veiled Society in the market."

"What?" I asked, shocked.

"I am in no mood for games bard," said the Duke, sounding deathly serious. "Brown coat with a black ribbon - a freelance assassin looking for work."

"I am no assassin, I'm a bard!" I said, still in shock. "There was a lady... in the market. She threw the cloak around me, and then the man gave me slow-acting poison and..."

"Enough!" shouted the Duke, pounding his fist on the table in front of me. "You say you are no assassin? Yet you were planning to accept gold for my death were you not?"

"Gold," I muttered, knowing that was not the true reason. "And a story." And how I needed that story, I reflected. It had been so long. Here was the chance to feel the thrill of adventure. Surely after such an experience I would be inspired to write about it as no-one else had!

"A story?" said the Duke disbelievingly. "For your story's sake I hope your poison was slow acting enough."

I felt the icy uncoiling of dread inside me. I did not need the Duke's intentional glance at the decanter of wine to guess what he was alluding to. My vision swam and I felt bile rising in the back of my throat. Each dull thud of my heart was spreading the poison through my veins and edging me closer to death.

"I am not a cruel man," continued the Duke. "You came here for a story, and you shall have that. Contrary to popular belief, I am a prisoner in Castle Medievia. To what end, I still do not know, but that is irrelevant at this time. You will use your gift at writing and your name to make it common knowledge that I was held here against my will. You will expose the mayor of Medievia for the tyrant he is, as will you expose his collusion with the Veiled Society. And you can end the story with my brilliant escape with the aid of the Elites."

I stood mute, and stone-still.

"You will write this story or I will see to it that every thread which ties you to the fabric of society is picked apart. Your father is living off a militia member's pension in Ruellia, and your younger sister and her husband live in the Medievia suburbs. Their three children are studying to be mages in Vanlarra. They say that the quill is mightier than the sword, so pick up your quill and save your family from the blade."

My mouth worked silently, words still escaping the grasp of my frantic mind.

The door opened. The serving girl had returned bearing a tray of cakes and offered them to the Duke. He plucked a sugar dusted cake between two fingers and popped it into his mouth. My stomach heaved at the sweet smell as the girl turned the tray in my direction. For some reason she blinked rapidly and shook her head while offering the cakes.

In death my works would live on, I thought hollowly. And the hand of death seemed to be crushing me in its inescapable grasp. One slip, one oversight and my life was forfeit. The great bard dies trying to emulate on of his own brave adventurers - how ironic.

"...leave the choice to you. I bid you good night."

I started, suddenly aware that the Duke was speaking. My gaze slipped from his retreating back to the crystal decanter. I marveled at how such a simple thing, a drink of wine, had shattered my entire life.

I left the castle in a daze, and stumbled out into the night. My mind in turmoil, basic human instinct began to take charge; but I could not fight the invisible enemy coursing through me. I didn't even spare a thought for the precious book of my original writings, which I left behind.

Morning found me a withered husk of a human being. I was filthy and soaked to the bone after the nights downpour. I had found an old quill somewhere, although I still lacked ink and paper. Although, with the face of mortality looking straight at me, I wouldn't have been able to write a word. Perhaps, I thought, I should stop tormenting myself and give up - just lie down in an alleyway and die.

There seemed to be some commotion in the streets, as voices were raised and people called to one another. The cacophony continued to rise until it was no longer tolerable. I would not die face down in the mud among shouting peasants. I ambled past a young scribe who was shouting the news of the morning, and his words made me blink in confusion.

I grabbed the boy and pulled him towards me. "What did you say boy?"

" 's the Duke master," said the boy, visibly shaken after being manhandled. "He's dead."

"Dead," I echoed. Dead! I thought wildly. I threw my head back and roared with laughter. Death had claimed the wrong man!

Indeed I was to prove this, for I lived to see the day out. I was back at my home when I remembered my lost book. It felt as though someone had stolen a portion of my life - and the best part at that. I was living on borrowed time and didn't even have my memories to console me.

A firm knock at the door made my heart skip a beat. Could it be one of the Duke's henchmen come to finish the job? A guardsman, come to arrest me for the Duke's murder? Surely neither of the two would knock, and a sudden bout of nausea reminded me that I was dead anyway.

"Who is it?" I managed.

"A friend," a woman's voice replied. The voice tickled my memory as it continued, "You must have a few questions."

I stood before the door, mulling the words over in my mind. I lifted the latch, and pulled it open slowly...

I put my quill down and looked lovingly up at Clarissa.

"I think I'm not doing this story justice you know," I said. "I was thinking that you would be the unsung hero whose amazing feats are dramatically revealed right at the end."

She slapped me playfully as she said, "I thought I was the pretty little serving girl who came to return your book and tell you I switched your wine. And to tell you that that wasn't sugar on the cakes..."

I laughed as I said, "No, if I were writing it that way you would be the vivacious super-heroine masquerading as a serving girl. Who also attacks and basically robs assassins in the market."

"You're the creative genius Vald, not me. Where else was I going to get that exact brown cloak with a black ribbon on short notice?" she replied, with mock seriousness. "And I think the story's just fine. You said yourself that the best writing comes from personal experience - and you're telling the story as you saw it. Besides, I like sounding like your sort-of behind the scenes guardian angel."

"You saved my life and made us a fortune, and I haven't even used your name yet," I said, feeling ashamed.

"Nonsense," said Clarissa, "All I did was give you Inspiration."


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