Michael G. Manning

The Archmage unbound

Chapter 1

I walked carefully down the stone stairway leading to the lower parts of Lancaster. Although I had spent considerable time in the castle during my younger days I had never dared venture into these places before.

James Lancaster was well known as a fair and equitable lord; consequently the dungeon of Castle Lancaster had seen little use during his lifetime, aside from the occasional thief. Recently the war with Gododdin had changed things, but not as one might expect. There had been no prisoners in that war, I had seen to that. The memories of that war were still fresh and I frequently woke trembling at night, though I rarely remembered the dreams that disturbed my slumber.

Today I had come to remedy one of the problems that had been held over from that war. One of my allies, a man I had come to consider a friend, had turned against me near the end. It was no simple betrayal though, Cyhan had had his reasons. Considered from a different perspective it might be said that I had betrayed him, rather than the reverse. The warrior locked up here had acted according to his honor and the trust given to him by the King, a king who had already declared me an outlaw. In fact the more one looked at the situation the less Cyhan deserved the cell he was currently locked within.

None of these thoughts were new; I had mulled them over almost daily since the end of the battle outside Castle Cameron. I should have come sooner, but a thousand more urgent matters had kept me away and when I did have the rare free moment I procrastinated. This was not a conversation I looked forward to.

I stood now outside a heavy wooden door and with my mind I could sense the other man waiting within. He had heard me coming long before I reached the door, but that was no surprise. Being almost completely empty the dungeon was very quiet, and every sound seemed magnified. I had come alone though James had urged me to bring several guards with me. The last time I had faced Cyhan he had been hell bent on sending me to an early grave.

I had declined the offer of guards. I wanted to talk to him alone. Besides, if he did attempt violence I doubted guards would be much help. The veteran fighter was quite possibly the most skilled and dangerous warrior I had ever met. If I couldn’t stop him the guards would just be additional casualties. I would have brought someone like Dorian with me if I had thought it might come to that.

Taking a deep breath I removed the bar and with a thought and a word unlocked the door. I hadn’t brought the key, but locks were rarely an impediment for me anyway. The smell within was anything but pleasant. The man I had come to see was sitting at the far side of the room and he watched me intently as I stepped into the room but made no move to rise.

I looked him over carefully. Cyhan appeared ragged but in good health. James had made sure he was provided with clean water and decent food. His hair was unkempt but I could tell he had been doing his best to wash himself occasionally. A man such as Cyhan wouldn’t let himself fall into despair. “You look like shit,” I told him casually. Normally I like to start conversations with a compliment, but none had come to mind.

His face crinkled for a moment, an expression almost like humor passing quietly over his features, but it was gone before I could be sure. He declined to respond.

“I am here to settle things between us,” I added.

“You must have set a date then,” Cyhan ventured.

I almost asked him ‘for what’ before I realized he meant for his execution. “I don’t plan to execute you,” I replied.

“Then you’re a fool.”

“I wonder that you never became a councilor to the king, your charm is wasted as a warrior,” I answered sarcastically. “I came to offer you some choices.”

“Forget it. I have done as I swore to do. My choices were my own, and unlike some I have kept my oaths.” His gaze was piercing as he said this. It was a deliberate attempt to goad me into anger.

“The last time you used that one on me I lost my temper. Don’t waste your time with that tactic,” I said. Actually the last time he had called my mother a ‘failure’ and I had tried to attack him. Too many things had happened over the past few months for me to lose my cool over petty insults.

“At least you’re learning,” he responded. “Still, I will not change my stance. Your only choice is to kill me.”

“ I will decide what my choices are,” I said calmly, “and you will listen to what I have to say before you make your own choice.”

He didn’t waste words by bothering to answer. Instead he stood up, a slow careful motion that carried a subtle hint of menace. I watched him intently but continued talking, “The king sent me a message the other day.” I could see that I had the older warrior’s attention and his body language conveyed a sense of interest.

“And?” he asked.

“He wants to meet… secretly. He didn’t state his reasons, but I expect he wants to find a way out of our awkward political situation,” I elaborated.

“He wants you dead. Your victory here created as many problems for him as it solved,” Cyhan replied.

“I didn’t think you still cared.” My remark was sarcastic but my intuition told me that it might not fall far from the truth.

“I think you will be the undoing of mankind and I swore to put an end to you if the bond were broken.” He paused for a moment before adding, “Still, if things were otherwise I would gladly call you ‘friend’.”

I almost choked. That was as close to an emotional confession as I had ever witnessed coming from the stalwart trainer. I covered my shock with a short laugh. “You never fail to surprise me. Honestly, I’m starting to think you’d try to kill your own mother if she were in my position.”

He gave me an even stare that answered the question better than any amount of words could have done. As unsettling as that thought was, at least he was consistent. I went on, “Do you honestly think I’m still going mad? It has been over a month since the bond was broken.”

“How would I know? Madness can take many forms. Are you still hearing the voices?” he asked. I could hear an honest curiosity in his voice.

“Certainly… I hear them constantly now. I’ve become quite used to it. It isn’t nearly so unsettling once you realize what the voices represent,” I said calmly. In truth I could hear the deep thrumming of the earth below us even now, and the air brought a quiet murmur I had come to associate with the wind. The world itself was alive, and I could hear it whispering softly to me with a thousand voices. Now that I understood what I was hearing it wasn’t nearly as frightening as it had initially seemed.

A shadow passed over Cyhan’s face as I spoke and he turned away. “Tell me… what do they represent?” His voice was even but my senses easily picked up the growing tension in his body.

“The world is alive and those who have the right sort of ears can hear it speaking. That’s all,” I said.

“You say that and still expect me to believe you are not mad?”

“The wizards before the sundering didn’t have the bond. Some of them could hear the voice of the earth… and they could call upon it for aid. Moira Centyr didn’t defeat Balinthor with mere wizardry,” I answered.

“Lies! Did some dark spirit whisper these things to you, to convince you your madness was power?” Cyhan turned to glare at me and his face was lit with anger.

“No. I read them, in a book of history written not long after the sundering itself. My father’s house has an extensive library well protected from revisionist priests and politicians.”

“What is that supposed to mean?”

“Exactly what it sounds like… whether you choose to believe it… or not, is entirely up to you,” I said calmly.

“I couldn’t possibly believe that,” he said.

“Of course you can’t. In order to accept that you would have to face the possibility that much of what you

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