By Terry Mancour
(c) Terry Mancour 2014
A Spellmonger Short Story
(Chronologically this story takes place just after the events of Magelord,
in the Spring of the second year of King Rard’s reign)
I watched the Karshak Alon work crew move the last massive stone of the day into place, the foreman enrapt in the precise placement of the block in the fading light of the setting sun. He’d been at it for over an hour, using shims and a small hammer to make the most minute adjustments to the massive white stone. Finally, he exhaled, wiped his sweaty brow, looked up at the sun’s place descending over the western ridge, and stopped.
“That’s about as good as she’s gonna get,” he called in a hoarse, gravelly voice, adding a harsh word in the Karshak tongue that could have been a blessing or a curse. Or both – the Karshak Alon, I had learned in my short acquaintance with them, saw no contradiction in such matters. Master Guri wiped some sweat from his broad brow before it fell into his dust-stained beard. “That’s the day, lads!”
There were relieved sighs and groans from the dozen other masons who were working at various jobs around the construction site. Some were building wooden scaffolding to the next level of the structure, while others prepared the next foundation, while still others heaved the massive wooden crane around the top of the mountain like it was a toy.
The Karshak masons moved constantly, if not always quickly, working with a persistent efficiency that any human work crew would envy. None of them were over five feet tall, but they hefted burdens that would stagger a man twice their size. Only when the foreman, Guri, called for the day to be done did their coordinated effort cease. They broke down into informal groups as they cleaned up the yard, put away tools, and got ready to head back to their lodge.
“I kind of expected you to break into a merry tune,” I cracked, as Guri crossed the yard to greet me.
“Not until we’ve washed the dust down,” he grunted. “What are we, Alka?”
“Just a thought. It looks magnificent,” I sighed. The tower was only three stories tall, now, but already the base was taking shape. It was a beautiful fusion of Alka and humani aesthetics, built with the attention to detail that only the Alka Alon could give. It was representative of the new alliance between our peoples.
It was also built almost entirely out of enchanted snowstone from my private quarry behind the castle. That was no small feat, as the castle quarry was over three miles away, and we were atop a tall hill or a small mountain, depending upon your perspective. Guri had assured me he was giving the Alka the mediocre stone, keeping the better parts for the much bigger castle I wanted to build.
Since it was snowstone, the whole structure – rising eventually to a modest ten stories – the very fabric of the tower was going to make performing magic as easy as breathing, one of the reasons the Alka were so excited about it. The entire complex, when it was complete, would serve as the new quasi-official embassy of the Alka Alon (known to the common folk as the Tree Folk). It certainly classed-up my little valley’s skyline. It made my modest little castle in the distance look quaint and rustic in comparison.
I had plans to fix that – but one thing at a time.
“I anticipated your thirst,” I added, as I escorted him over to the foreman’s tarpaulin, where he kept his thick wooden chest full of parchment plans and schematics. “I hope you don’t mind, I went ahead and had a tun of ale brought to the foot of the mountain. Courtesy of the Council of Hollyburrow. To make up for any . . . misunderstandings.”
“That’s . . . that’s mighty generous of them,” he admitted. “My folk didn’t mean no harm, mind – they just don’t like being pestered. We like a good public house as much as . . . well, probably better than anyone, and the puds brew like gods. But we won’t stand to be . . . adored,” he huffed. “We’re laboring, damn it! We don’t need to be worshiped!”
“As I explained to them,” I said, soothingly. “After much discussion, Master Guri, it has been decided that the Holly Bush will be reserved for the use of your folk for one hour after the workday. After that, if they’re still there, they get subjected to whatever adoration the Tal Alon decide that you deserve.” I couldn’t hide the chuckle in my voice. It wasn’t that I enjoyed the gruff stonesinger’s discomfort . . . but I also couldn’t deny it was adorable. Master Guri was the earthiest Alon I’d ever met, as far from the elegant Alka Alon on whose behalf they toiled as you could imagine. Yet the Tal Alon treated him and his folk with the same awe they reserved for the Tree Folk who now wandered around Matten’s Helm.
“I appreciate that, Min,” he said, with a sigh. “I like the little guys, I really do. I’ve used them as labor, sometimes, and they can work like beavers when they have the proper inspiration. Hells, those little huts they build are pretty clever,” he admitted. “But when they start squealing with glee at every single word, it’s more than a guy can stand.”
“They will henceforth maintain a respectful distance,” I promised. “They’ve posted a sheriff at the door of the tavern to keep out the . . . faithful.”
“Splinters and shards, Min, we were never the ones who wanted all that stuff, I swear,” he grunted as he washed the stone dust from his broad face in a bucket of water. While the skin of his face was clear, it turned his beard into a kind of cement. “The Alka always wanted the bowing and scraping. The Karshak have always tried to treat everyone fair. But them puds, it’s like they can’t tell one from the other.”
“It’s more that they hold you both in high esteem,” I pointed out. “They feel they are only giving you your due. For your rank, if not your race.”
“Bah! My rank? I’m a competent stonesinger and a decent foreman, and my lodge doesn’t starve. I’m just trying to build,” he dismissed. “And not this decorative piece of fluffery!” he said, waving a meaty hand toward the tower he was building. “It’s a pretty thing, but it’s as useful as a bloody festival cake! Sure, it will stand up to dragonfire, but . . .”
“Remember, this is just your practice piece,” I reminded him, as I poured him a mug of ale from an earthenware jug I’d hauled up the mountain with me. Well, that I’d had my new apprentice haul, much to her dismay – that’s what they were there for.
“Oh, I know, I know, Min,” he said, an eager gleam in his eye. “I’m just putting this together out of scraps, clearing my way. I’ve been studying that mountain the whole time. I’ve started singing it.”
“And?” I asked, expectantly. That was the reason I’d hired Master Guri and his lodge of Karshak stonemasons. His ability to sing the stone of the mountain.
It was a magic particular to the Stone Folk, for obvious reasons. If the Alka Alon were masters of magic on Callidore, then the Karshak Alon were the masters of mineralogy. Some Karshak stonesingers spent their entire lives underground, I’d heard, never seeing natural light once in their lives.
Master Guri and his lodge were different. He was a master stonesinger, but he was a builder first. His aspirations seemed to be futile, in our day and age – the period when the Alka Alon built magnificent fortresses and grand cities was over, and even the Karshak Alon rarely attempted anything rivaling the greatness of their sires for their own benefit.
But I needed a new castle, a much bigger castle, and I had an entire mountain of magic rock to play with. The original basalt, Guri had informed me upon his first inspection, was as sound as any other, despite its pale coloration. It would make a fine material for castle walls, hard and resilient. Then he had begun examining the mountain, and for two months straight he did little but climb up its slopes and burrow into its roots, singing bits of the rock in his ragged voice at a pitch so low it could barely be heard by human ears. Mere cursory inspections, he’d said, before the beginning of the construction season.
The goal was to figure out the best way to proceed with construction – just how much space would need to be mined from the rock to furnish the walls and towers I wanted clinging to the mountain. Guri had been impressed with the vague vision I had presented him, and he’d been preparing to begin the first real sketches of the proposed construction based on his findings.
“Well, Min, I think I can build you a whoppin’ big fortress,” he pronounced. “I can turn the whole bloody mountain into a citadel. It’s just a matter of how big, how deep, and how strong.”
“The first two will depend on the third,” I admitted. “And the answer to the third is ‘as strong as your craft and mine can make it.’ I’ve given you some idea what we might expect, at some point in the future. Gods willing, Sheruel will never make it out of the Umbra, but if our fortunes flag in the war, Sevendor may someday face the full force of his wrath.”
“You don’t pick common enemies, do you, lad?” he chuckled, cocking a bushy eyebrow. “The last time something like that was built, it was the Alka Alon citadel of Anas Yatheran, in the Kulines. Beautiful job. Wasted on the Alka. My grandsires worked on it. But you can’t see it, because it’s so remote from anywhere anyone with any sense would want to live that no one can see the bloody thing! Now this,” he said, gesturing toward the white mountain in the distance, my little white castle crouched in front of it, “this will be seen by everybody and everything. You humani might have the strangest mating rituals in the world, but you have a certain barbaric style,” he said, approvingly.
“So you can build it? Build it strong?”
He started to say something, then stopped. “Aye,” he said, after a moment. “I still have a few more tests and trials I want to run. There are some interesting pockets, particularly on the eastern edge. Might be vesicles down there.”
“When the bones of the land rose, so long ago there aren’t numbers to count it, they were as solid as a warm berry pudding like those puds make so damned well. Like a pudding,” he explained, patiently, “they develop cracks as they cool. The environment within those cracks must have been quite interesting, alchemically-speaking. It can form crystals, all manner of crystals.”
“And you think my mountain may have some?”
“I’d bet on it,” he said. “If you knew my folk better, you’d know how strong a term that is. We don't wager lightly. Good ignious rock like this? I’ve just begun to sing the eastern slope of the snowstruck mountain, but from what I’ve seen so far, there has to be at least a few pockets in there. I’m going to go sing it, day after tomorrow. Really sing it. At least get started on it, see what I’m working with.”
“What happens if there are some?” I asked, my curiosity piqued.
“Well,” he said, slowly, “I can’t properly say. But all of the other silica atomi in your mountain were transformed. No reason why they wouldn’t be,” he reasoned.
“And what would that mean?” I prompted.
“Oh, hells, I don’t know, Min!” he grunted, taking a mighty swig from his mug. “Depends on just how stable the crystalline matrices were when they formed and what role silica plays in its composition. Temperature, alchemical composition, pressure, all of that could have played a role. My best guess?” he asked.
“That would be appreciated,” I nodded.
“I’d say they’ll be weirder than hell,” he predicted. “Might just be a big hole, with nothin’ at all inside. Might be loaded with crystals like flowers in a garden. That’s just the crystollagraphic side,” he nodded, sagely. “Once you throw in all this arcane crap . . . well, I’m thinking weird.”
“Weird,” I nodded. “All right. And any prediction about just how this weirdness might manifest . . .?”
“. . . would be pointless and mere wild speculation at the very best,” he agreed, draining his mug. “Unprofessional, to boot. Let me go sing the far side of the mountain, lad. I’ll tell you what I find when I return. You have my bond,” he reminded me. “You have nothing to worry about.”
That was no light matter. A Karshak’s bond is sacred, as much as an oath on a sacred relic. When Master Guri pledged his service and that of his lodge, to build my castle (and various and sundry other structures, as determined) until it was complete, the ceremony involved had been extremely involved. The written contract had been long – ninety leaves of parchment, which had to be read aloud by both parties before the agreement – and while Master Guri had signed and sealed the agreement, human-fashion, he had also delivered to me a small chest that represented his bond on the matter. The chest was locked, and I had no idea what was inside. But the act had strong significance to my relations with the Karshak, and the Master of the Lodge in particular.
He was my man – my Karshak, if you wanted to be particular – now, until his commission was fulfilled. That was what his bond signified. The contract was very specific on that: until the castle was accepted as finished, Master Guri and his lodge would be working in my interest. Anything they found on my property would be turned over to me for disposition. According to the Alka Alon, I could suspect the sun would not rise tomorrow before I’d found a Karshak lodge who would attempt to steal from their employer.
Of course, I was also paying them a pretty penny, too – or would, when the job was finished. They didn’t want gold, thank the gods, they wanted snowstone. How much would be based on just how much work they did for me. Luckily, I had an awful lot of snowstone.
But the lodge who had built a long hall at the base of the cliff, out behind my present castle, required me to provide for them under very specific terms. Every week seven or eight wagon loads of supplies, everything from rope and nails to barley, meat and eggs, would trundle into the lodge’s work camp. It was expensive, feeding all those Karshak, and it would only get more so. Each one could consume twice what a man of their size would, and they drank prodigiously.
There were more coming, too. The few who had arrived already were a company designed to prepare the worksite before the main body of masons arrived. From what Master Guri told me, when all of his folk had relocated, there would be over three hundred Karshak workers living behind my castle . . . and building my new one. That would increase my bills tremendously, but I wasn’t worried. Snowstone fetched a premium price.
I won’t say I forgot about Master Guri’s expedition to the far side of the mountain, but I was distracted for a few days with meeting a delegation of the clergy in my domain. A priestess of Trygg, Sister Bemia, had found her way to Sevendor, and my wife Alya and the other ladies of the castle had imposed upon me to designate her the castle’s chaplain.
I had meant to do something along those lines for a while, but other matters seemed to be more pressing. The recent battle with a dragon at Cambrian Castle had impressed upon me the necessity for good medical and spiritual resources, however. I'd heard of one Talented nursing sister who had managed to bring Bendolan the Outlaw nearly back to life after the battle. The dozens of wounds he'd sustained had assured his death, upon casual inspection, and his lifeless body had been laid out with the dead when the priestess had noted the glimmer of life and had rescued him from perishing. He was recuperating back in Barrowbell, now, but was expected to make a full recovery and return to duty in the Penumbra soon.
That had been a particularly spectacular case of a magically-trained priestess using the warmage's own witchstone to fuel her spells and bring him from the brink of death, but it had also emphasized to me the sudden importance of good clerical and medical care.
While Trygg’s clergy’s medical vocation usual dealt with problems of a feminine nature, they were also adept at nursing the sick in general. Sister Bemia was a devout, impressive middle-aged matron who had an easy-going nature and an earthy sense of humor, when she wasn’t acting in an official capacity. She had recently left a teaching position at a convent school, ostensibly because her goddess had called her, but more likely because she had heard of Sevendor’s sudden affluence.
She had quickly become a fixture around the castle, and had even imposed on me to build a small chapel off of the Great Hall, so that she would have a place to conduct services. But she was not single-minded in the pursuit of her cult’s success. Indeed, she envisioned a ministry to the castle folk that would expand to include the entire valley.
To that end she had persuaded the five or six other respected clergy who made Sevendor their home to form a council – with her at the head, naturally – to more properly minister to the domain’s population.
It was an odd crowd – stately Sister Bemia, the humble Bovali Landbrother of Huin who ran a shrine in Boval Village, two woolbrothers from Festan Abbey who had set up a small shrine in Brestal, and coinsister Ulana, priestess of Ifnia who ran the affairs for her order’s growing commerce in Sevendor. The group petitioned for a number of boons and assurances, but agreed that more clergy needed to be attracted to the vale if my hope of a hospital, schools, and other services was to come to pass.
After three grueling days of pious maneuvering, we came to some important understandings, including pressing for the nascent Town Council to set aside a temple district within its growing limits, regulation of certain activities during feast days, clerical services the domain would pay for (and which ones I wouldn’t – if a man wants his cattle blessed, he can pay for the privilege) and the formation of a basic temple school (without, yet, the benefit of an actual temple) were all settled by the time we concluded.
I was in my tower workshop going over the agreements we had drawn up when Master Guri unexpectedly knocked on my door.
The Karshak was filthy, his rugged leather clothing streaked with dust, dirt, and mud. But he had a strange expression on his face. Admittedly, I had only a very brief acquaintance with the Karshak, and they were alien enough to make me second-guess such things pretty regularly, but the look of excitement and fear combined was a little disconcerting.
“You’re back,” was all I said, leading him to a stool. “I was wondering if you’d fallen down a hole.”
“Aye, a couple,” he agreed, grinning tiredly. “I took a couple of lads from the lodge to help me wiggle into some tight spots, but that was expected.”
“So did you find what you were looking for?” I asked, pouring him a glass of spirits from a bottle I keep in my shop for such occasions. The Karshak drained it, gratefully, and I poured him another. Then he was ready to report.
“We found three mineral deposits of note in our surveys,” he said, setting down a sack of rocks, each group in a smaller sack within. He began unpacking them and displaying them on their bags. “The first is pure quartz. You have two veins of it, one milky, a smaller one crystalline. The milky quartz seems to project a good low-density field in the less-than-half of one percent at a rough rate of five meters per gram of mass,” he recited. “A half-kilo block of it will yield a zone of low magical resistance two and a half kilometers in either direction, with it tapering off rapidly after that.”
“Impressive,” I nodded. “A bit of that at each fortress in the Penumbra would make them much harder to take.”
“Oh, aye,” he nodded. “But that’s nothing compared to the crystalline quartz,” he bragged. “That has a rate of almost twice as much, ten meters per gram. And the density is, from what we can tell, more in the three tenths of one percent range. Perhaps higher, depending on the clarity. Still too early to tell.”
“That’s amazing,” I nodded. “So what was the second deposit?”
“A small cache of almandine,” he said, proudly, displaying a hand ful of dull red rocks. “Iron-heavy, not magnesium heavy.“ As if I knew the difference.
“So what do they do?” I asked, feeling like an idiot for not knowing. I’m a thaumaturge, not an enchanter.
“This is kind of a trade secret,” he admitted, “but I guess you aren’t going to tell no one. Almandine is normally paramagnetic – it’s antiferramagnetic. When it is subject to a strong electromagnetic field, the fields of the atomi align and . . . well, magical things can happen.”
“What kind of magical things?”
“I really have no idea,” he admitted. “Depending on the iron composition and the strength of the field, any number of things could happen. It’s going to take a lot of experimentation, but so far we have several excellent specimens. I took the best, of course, for assaying purposes, but there’s at least fifty to eighty kilograms of almandine. Hundreds of stones. But that’s nothing compared to these beauties,” he said, reverently, as he took a shiny – no, a glowing crystal out of a sack.
“What is it?” I asked, curious , my eyes locked on the brightly glowing gem.
“Apophylite,” answered the Karshak, conspiratorially. “A near perfect specimen.”
“And that means . . . ?”
“Apophylite is . . . it has some interesting properties. Beautiful crystal structure, and chemically complex. They grow in the vesicles of basalt deposits. That’s where I found these,” he explained in his coarse, gravelly voice. “And these are not,” he said, pausing for dramatic effect, “your ordinary apophylite.”
“So what do they do?” I asked, patiently.
“They . . . hard to say in your language . . . they are anchors,” he said, after much thought. “They exist both here and in the Otherworld, and perhaps even in other places. But when the ancient Alka Alon built their first great civilization here, they used apophylite as a means of anchoring their transit spells. That’s why the old pathways still exist, because there’s an artifact buried somewhere with an apophylite in its innards. Thing is,” he continued, “you could only place those things somewhere that has a relatively low, what do you call it, etheric density. Low magic resistance,” he said, sagely. “That’s why half of the old Alkan settlements are where they are, because of their proximity to areas of low etheric density.”
“All right,” I agreed, “So these are . . . special how?”
“Apophylite has a fair amount of silicon in it,” the Karshak stonesinger explained excitedly. “So the apophylite that was in the range of the snowspell was transformed, just like the quartz deposits we’ve found. So these jobbers,” he said, brandishing the handful of shiny stones triumphantly, “carry around their own low etheric density with ‘em! You can use them anywhere. Big improvement,” he nodded, knowingly.
“So the Alka would find these . . . valuable?”
“Invaluable,” he corrected. “I don’t know much about their transit magic, but it’s my theory that this stone would provide . . . well, essentially a portable means of using it. This would be a considerably valuable resource.”
“How much of it is there?” I asked, my head swimming.
“In that one vesicle? About ninety, a hundred kilograms. But there’s at least two, three more nearby, perhaps more, so it’s possible there are many more.”
“And how much apophylite does it take to anchor one of their transit spells?”
“More a matter of crystalline integrity than mass,” he figured. “But enough mass would make up for a lack. Uh . . . perhaps ten grams raw, or one gram perfect? Somewheres in between?”
“And what value would you place on such a thing?” I asked, carefully.
He looked at me thoughtfully. “To the Alka Alon? So valuable that to mention its worth in gold cheapens it,” he decided. “But if I did have to put a price on it, I’d reckon it at . . . a hundred thousand ounces of gold . . . per gram.”
My head spun. “How would you figure that in, say, irionite?”
He continued to calculate. “Understandin’ that irionite is an organic, and outside o’ my lodge, so to speak . . . I daresay you could get three grams of irionite for every one of this snow-born apophylite,” he decided. “Perhaps more, depending on the kindred you dealt with. Among the samples I took are three of breathtaking clarity, the most beautiful crystals of the lot, and five nearly as perfect,” he said, reverently, “all a-growin’ in one cluster. And one that is near-perfect, and as big as my thumb,” he said, holding one out for my inspection. It was, indeed, beautiful. Uncut and unpolished it was easily a hundred carats.
“Once I have a proper go at it,” he said, softly, as he examined the stone in the magelight, “it will be no less than a portable mountain of snowstone. I still have to make some measurements, but . . . as near as I can estimate, this one little pebble will drop the etheric density to less than one tenth of one percent – as near zero as you could ask – for nearly a mile in all directions. The other three will be slightly less, but . . . these are unique in the universe.”
“What mighty spells could be wrought with these,” I breathed, as I realized the implications. “And there are more vesicles?”
“Aye,” he nodded, “although this seems the largest, so far. But it could be that you own as much as five hundred kilograms of it.”
My head spun. “But valuing it in gold cheapens it,” I mused.
“Not sure there’s enough gold around to be able to,” he admitted. “Min, that thing is amazing. Unique. That’s my point, lad, there are simply no stones like this . . . anywhere else. Trying to come up with a value in any means of exchange just isn’t practical. The question isn’t what is it worth . . . it’s what would you accept in return for it?”
“So I shouldn’t have any problem paying off your contract?” I joked, weakly.
The Karshak got serious. “Min, I think we can work something out. I was going to have you pay us in snowstone, but this changes things. We may have to augment the contract.”
“Why? Do you want these gems instead?”
“Damn right I do,” he said, gruffly. “You don’t understand . . . when you sing a stone, it sorta sings back to you. It’s a technical thing, I guess, but each stone has its own voice. These pretties,” he said, gesturing to his samples, “sing so gorgeously and so flawlessly that it’s . . . it’s . . . “
“Sublime,” I supplied.
“Precisely the word,” he snapped. “It’s religious, I guess, the way some of you humani go on about your gods. But if I was to be fair,” he said, scratching his chin through his great beard thoughtfully, “I would say that my lodge could build your entire castle, tunnel out your mountain, and build every peasant in your domain a palace for the value represented by just a few apophylite stones. Or a few kilos of crystalline quartz. You are that filthy rich, Min.”
“But I wouldn’t even know that, if it wasn’t for your surveys,” I pointed out. “Nor would I have any idea of what to do with them. So I am fairly dependent on your good will and generosity in this, Guri.”
“I gave you my bond,” he shrugged. “I’m just working for you, here. But to answer your question, no, you won’t have any trouble paying off the lodge’s fee. In fact, I’d recommend that you augment our contract to include lapidary services,” he advised, nodding sagely. “I got a couple of cousins I could bring in who know more about that end. I’m a builder, not a rock polisher,” he snorted. “And it ain’t like you can’t afford it.”
“If you think I need them, get them,” I decided, my head spinning.
“Oh, aye, you need them,” he assured. “There’s no telling what some of these stones will do. That damn Snow That Never Melted screwed with them at the quantum level. There are still vesicles deeper in the mountain that I could not reach. We won’t be able to get to them until we start the major excavation, and all manner of excitement could be awaiting us there. So, yeah . . . you got yourself a lodge. I’ll build you as big a castle as you want, walls, towers, spires, and I’ll make it as perfect as you wish. For just a tithe of those crystals, you have the Karnaug Lodge on retainer.”
“Thank you,” I sighed.
“Just doin’ my job,” he said, digging out his pipe. “There’s one more thing . . . I’d like to bring in my grandsire. Master Azhguri, known in the trade as The Resilient. He was a stonesinger for four hundred years, but he’s retired, now. I’d like to bring him here and have him sing the mountain in its entirety.”
“I thought that’s what you were doing?”
“Oh, I’m singin’ like a budgie, all over the place. I want him to come and do it all at once.“
“All at once? The whole mountain?”
“He’s one of the few who could do the whole mountain,” Guri affirmed. “That takes skill beyond my ken. But it’s more a favor to him than you. I want to give the old guy a chance to sing this. It’s just too majestic to pass up, not for a stonesinger who’s had a career as rich as his. He couldn’t not see this mountain, were it on the other side of the world. With your permission . . .”
“Granted,” I agreed. “Whoever you want to bring, Guri, you bring them. I trust you.”
“I appreciate it, Min,” he grunted. “Not all your folk are so kind to my people.”
“Few of my folk would even recognize a Karshak, much less know enough about them to know how to respond. But I’ve become very fond of your lodge, Guri. And I can’t fault you for the job you’ve done.”
“Oh, we’re just getting started, Min,” he grinned. “Now that I know you can actually pay me what I’m worth . . . this is going to be a long and profitable relationship for both of us.”
* * *
Karnaug Lodge was a mobile household that moved from place to place as the job dictated. As most construction jobs take years or even decades to complete, that essentially meant that the Lodge tore down and re-built their hall everywhere they went.
There were a full score of them who arrived in the late winter, twenty heavily-cloaked figures with bushy beards protruding from their deep hoods. Each one bore a gigantic pack filled with tools and supplies. A pack train of llamas and donkeys, followed by three massive wains pulled by teams of oxen, arrived with another ten Karshak the next day. They spent the first night in the Great Hall, which nearly shook with the force of their combined snoring.
The next day they began working on their camp, selecting a site at the base of the tremendous cliff behind the castle. By day’s end an elongated structure of poles was erected and covered with canvas. A week later, most of the Hall had been completed. Eighty feet long and two stories in places, the squat hut seemed as temporary as a tent, but was built far more solidly than most of the new homes in Sevendor Town.
Guri offered me a rare tour, before the rites sealing the Lodge to outsiders were in place, as a courtesy to me as Lord of the domain. I was fascinated.
The far end of the Hall was made of a cunningly-contrived kitchen, with three iron stoves and two ovens that could be disassembled and moved. A great wooden cistern, lined with canvas and beeswax, was erected next to the kitchen and water was pumped into it into a massive basin for washing or cooking. The cook, Farf, was a grotesquely fat Karshak with a short beard (the rest had burned or hacked off over the years, he informed me in halting Narasi) but he knew his craft. There was a cauldron of stew going over the fire when I toured the place. From what I understand, Farf’s main job was to keep this perpetual pot of stew going constantly, in addition to cooking four gigantic meals a day.
The dining hall, comprised of two rows of trestle tables down each side, had an aisle in the center to allow for serving. Beyond that were the dormitories, long lines of simple wooden cots with straw ticks, each with a small chest of personal belongings at the foot. Each section was curtained off for privacy, but there was very little personal space.
The near end of the hall was the Lodge Room, a large open expanse in which a fire – in a cunningly-designed wrought-iron stove in the shape of a dragon’s head – was constantly burning. There were stools and lamps everywhere. This, explained Guri, was where his Karshak would rest in the evening, sharpening tools or working on individual projects around the fire.
Connected to the Lodge Room was the Master’s Shed, a well-constructed wooden shell that housed Guri’s private bedchamber, office, and pay chest. To the other side was a similar shed, known as the Toolmaven’s Shed, wherein the common tools of the Lodge were kept, along with records not under the purview of the Master.
Outside a number of workshops had sprung up: woodwright’s shop, blacksmith, stonecutter’s yard, as well as a large pavilion designed to shelter the scaffolds and cranes the Karshak lodge required for larger jobs.
By the time of my tour, the Karshak had assembled a perfect little village designed to be able to build anything from a cat cage to a castle.
Over the weeks more and more of the Lodge trickled in, in ones, twos, or sometimes wains of four or five. Each was brought to my castle for introductions and a meal before they were given leave to join the lodge – some tradition I wasn’t aware of.
But I didn’t mind the Karshak at all. For one thing, they loved to drink, and on their weekly payday they spent a large amount of their coin in Sevendor Town’s taverns. They favored ales and meads above all else. While there were the occasional fights, they didn’t last long. One blow from a Karshak would usually flatten a man.
Once they began work on the Alka Alon embassy, however, such incidents ceased altogether. The Karshak arose before dawn, conducted their strange rites, then marched in a double line to Matten’s Helm where they split into teams and began work. Apart from two short breaks during the day, they continued until dusk . . . and they accomplished a tremendous amount of work during that time.
The only other issues I’d had with the Karshak had been when they had started frequenting the Holly Bush, the Tal Alon taproom in Hollyburrow at the base of the mountain. Unlike the humani in Sevendor Town, the Tal Alon didn’t give the Karshak a respectable berth. They waited on them with understated adoration that bordered on worship. If it hadn’t been for the exquisite quality of the Hollyburrow brews, the Karshak would have skipped the place altogether.
But a roof a comfortable space over their head and a wildly delicious nutty brown ale the furry little nonhumans had concocted had been too much of a lure. Eventually the obsequious Tal had crossed the line, and I’d had to intervene.
* * *
One thing I hadn’t considered, when deciding to build a new castle, was how much sitting around and just discussing obscure matters such as famine and disease and how they might relate to the architectural design would be involved.
“The good news, lad,” Guri told me during one of those late nights in the Great Hall, over a mug of beer and a pipe, “is that the backside of the mountain is nigh inaccessible, save through one or two easy-to-control trails. And even if your enemy could get behind you, what good would it do?”
“I’d rather not contend with that,” I decided.
“No reason you should,” he agreed. “But we’re putting a shaft virtually through the entire mountain, first. We can run it all the way,” he proposed, making a quick sketch in charcoal on a double leaf of parchment, “and have it come out here, in the back. There’s a shallow little blind valley there that would be a good spot for a second entrance.”
“I do like the idea of a back door,” I agreed.
“Then we tunnel back from the main shaft in the northern end,” he continued, “clearing and expanding the plateau here, here, here, and here,” he said, drawing out the area from memory. “We take the stone from excavating the hall to build the outer part of the hall, the inner fortifications, the gatehouse, and the spire.”
“That seems like an awful lot of stone,” I remarked.
“Oh, aye, a great whopping mountain of it,” he agreed, amiably. “But it will work out fine. The eastern wing will be barracks, workshops, and the like. Western wing will be the Spellmonger’s residence and chambers. Your palace,” he reiterated. “I chose the western side because we should be able to excavate all the way to this little ledge, which will have quite the view over the Westwood.”
“I do enjoy a pretty sunset. That seems like a lot of space,” I noted. “Do I need all of that?”
“Let’s see, your private bedchamber, your study, your library, your workshop, your lady’s room—”
“What, does Alya need a room?”
“Min, you’re building the biggest castle of your era,” he said, slowly, “and you aren’t going to grant your wife one room of her own?”
“Good point,” I agreed. “And then the rooms for the children,” I agreed.
“You got three apprentices, and you’ve got your Castellan and his family. You’ve got to have a formal dining and meeting area. And then all of the servants not actually involved in defense, they’ll be needing places to sleep.”
“You’re right,” I sighed. “I suppose we do have a large staff now.”
“And it ain’t gonna get smaller,” he warned. “We’re building something here that will serve for five or six of you humani’s puny excuses for a lifespan. The interior spaces of the mountain will be at least seven stories high, and nine on the west side. The battlements and towers directly outside the mountain will be ten stories. The spire, if I can pull it off, will be seven stories or more above that. I’m thinking,” he envisioned, cautiously, “that if we do it right, we can get the thing about three stories above the crest of the mountain behind it.”
“That . . . that would make it huge,” I said, puffing on my pipe absently. “Guri, that would make it bigger than Darkfaller Castle!”
“Yes,” he said, a little scornfully.
“Or Relan Cor! Or Castabriel itself!”
“Min, we’re building into a mountain,” he reminded me. “Why limit yourself? You understand how wealthy you are, now? If you can afford it, you should. Particularly with that . . . that thing out there,” he said, warily.
The Karshak didn’t even like acknowledging the existence of the Dead God, though they had a few mines near his cursed valley in the Mindens, from what Guri had told me. The Karshak rarely got along with gurvani, even under good circumstances. They saw the former servant race as a crude mockery of their own culture, and looked down upon them as unskilled miners and workers. For their part, while the gurvani did not bear the Karshak the same enmity they did the Alka Alon, they were not friendly.
But once you added in the specter of Shereul, the Karshak got positively anxious.
“No good will come of this war, I warn you, Min,” Guri often told me when we got on the subject. “The sooner that big green ball gets crushed to powder, the better for us all. The Alka Alon should be taking care of this. They’re being irresponsible! This is their job! They should be dealing with that abomination themselves, not subcontracting it out to some idealistic race of ephemerals. No offense.”
I couldn’t argue with that much, and I didn’t take offense. The Alka Alon had been cautiously supportive of my rise, but they had taken little direct action in the course of the war.
Of course, once Guri discovered the crystals under the mountain, I started to realize that I might have some leverage to convince them otherwise.
* * *
When the Karshak Alon travel through human lands, they tend to try to disguise themselves to avoid attracting attention. As they are the most human-like of the Alon, that usually works. A party of cloaked Karshak looks like any other party of travelers from a distance, unless there’s something around for scale. Then they just seem a bit short, for their girth. The Karshak had adopted many of the humani accouterments – such as clothing and shoes – that the other Alon disdained.
When you get closer to them, however, the differences quickly become apparent. Their bone structure is different from ours, and they move differently. Their barrel-like chests produce a much deeper voice than you’d expect, and understanding even clearly-spoken Narasi from a Karshak throat takes a little patience.
When Master Azhguri, retired Grandmaster Stonesinger of the Karnaug Lodge, arrived in Sevendor, there was no mistaking his entourage for human. The cart he rode in was as strange a contraption as had ever rumbled down Sevendor’s roads, a two-wheeled affair pulled by four burly, shaggy llamas. Four younger Karshak rode in escort, in addition to a Karshak woman (one of the first I’d ever seen) driving the llama team.
The escorts rode ponies as shaggy as the llamas, but they were not mere miners or masons. Each had at their belt a deadly-looking axe or adze or mattock or whatever the Karshak call their distinctive weaponry. And each carried a crossbow of intricate design in their laps, cocked and loaded. All four of the escorts wore dark blue cloaks with long pointed hoods, with sturdy armor under.
Master Guri had alerted me to the arrival of his grandsire, and for the first time in our acquaintance I saw the Karshak stonesinger nervous. He arrived at the castle that morning in what I suppose was Karshak formal wear, and when the normally confident mason repeated himself and stuttered twice in the first few moments of our conversation, I knew this was an important occasion. I had Dara fetch my more formal mantle and a gaudy-looking staff I used when I wanted to impress someone. Alya, of course, always looked good. But Sire Cei, seeing my preparations, made a point to change his own tunic and mantle for the one he used on state occasions.
The little cart drove all the way to the castle yard before the back of the wain was opened, and a stout little figure descended the cleverly-contrived staircase from the rear.
It was a Karshak of great age, I could tell by the length of the mane (the Karshak, unlike the Alka Alon, grow a luxurious mane around their head and face, similar to a human beard. It’s a distinction that they’ve made into a point of cultural pride). It was silver-gray, but had once been tawny, I noted, and was plaited into a huge but elegant braid that ran down the front of his broad chest.
His eyes were ancient, deeply sunk into his wrinkled face, and seemed to stare past us, as if he did not see people at all, only the rocks around them.
“Grandmaster Azhguri, I bid you welcome to the Mageland of Sevendor,” I said, giving him my deepest bow. “Master Guri has told us much—”
“Be silent!” the old Karshak rumbled in sharply accented Narasi. “The mountain speaks to me!”
Ordinarily, I would have taken grave offense to being spoken to in that manner, and Guri looked at me with an expression of horror and shock, his loyalties torn between his family and his employer. You just don’t speak to half-civilized barbarian humani war chieftains like that and get away with it.
But I was appreciative both of the Grandmaster’s position of respect among the Kashak and deferent of his great age. Besides, it didn’t take long to see that he was enrapt in an experience akin to religious awe. I motioned around me for silence, and Sire Cei , Alya, and even Dara nodded gravely in return.
We waited a few moments while Azhguri just listened, before he finally spoke.
“We are near the center of the effect,” he said, just above a whisper. “I have heard it calling to me since I came within a hundred miles of it. I must see the centerpoint,” he declared . . . and strode off into my hall.
I followed behind him, barely beating his guards inside. The Karshak strode – okay, more like waddled – through my hall like it wasn’t there, seeking for the source of his obsession. He found the stairway behind the great fireplace and entered my tower like he lived there, and while the human-sized steps were a bit of a struggle for his short legs, he managed to get up them quite quickly.
Then I was standing in my bedroom with a strange old Karshak and our frightened Tal Alon maid, Daisy, who looked far more uncomfortable than I did. Indeed, she dropped her furry little body to the floor and looked upon the old Karshak with near-adoration in her eyes.
“This is where it happened,” he said, ignoring the Tal and staring intently at my bed. “This is where the effect was triggered, was it not?”
“The event was the birth of my son, Minalyan,” I agreed, trying to focus on the thaumaturgical element of the meeting, not the political or social. Here was an acknowledged master of magic, in his own way as important and potent as an Alka Alon Aronin or a human Adept. Social propriety was secondary to professional interest. “He was resisting the birth, magically, somehow. Wild magic, and the wildest I’ve ever seen. I improvised a spell on the spot and broke the natural enchantment, and when I did the resulting after-effect was the snowstone. From here outwards, just shy of two miles in every direction.”
“Amazing,” he said, shaking his massive head. “Three natural currents of energy flowing near, I see.”
“I moved them around a bit when I arrived,” I agreed. “My workshop is directly above this room, and the natural energy flows augmented my spells. Before the snowstone,” I reminded myself. “Now raising energy is as easy as breathing.”
“A crude but effective remedy,” he nodded. “If I am not mistaken, there was an element of the human divine involved?” he asked, looking at me suspiciously.
“There may have been,” I agreed, cautiously, impressed that he had caught on to that. Most of the human magi who had studied the effect of the Snow That Never Melted had focused on the purely thaumaturgical mechanism of the spell. Only I was aware that my invocation to Briga, the Narasi fire goddess (who was, coincidentally, also a minor goddess of childbirth and magic) had played a role in the spell.
“It would almost be required,” he nodded. “And there was irionite involved?”
“A large sphere of it,” I agreed. “A recent augmentation from my original stone. But yes, I used a great deal of power.”
“I look forward to calculating just how much,” he said, amused. “It would be an interesting study of the capacities of the humani system.”
“We’re fairly resilient,” I said, a bit defensively.
“And there was also a reproductive component to the effect,” he noted. “Birth. That invokes powerful forces in all creatures. In my own race, the women experience a kind of trance in which they commune with their ancestors. It can take days,” he said, wrinkling up his nose. “No doubt why we replace ourselves so slowly. Then there is the other reproductive component to the spell. This is where you lie with your mate?”
I hesitated acknowledging my marriage in such rudimentary terms, but I tried to remember that this was a member of another species talking about it. “Yes, this is my marital chamber,” I agreed, diplomatically.
He sniffed. “And an active one, too. That likely contributed to the context of the spell’s effect.”
I was tempted to be offended, but I was professionally fascinated. I was also a bit confused. “I thought that stonesingers weren’t interested in something that . . . biological.”
“Young man,” the stonesinger said, sharply, reminding me of my father for a moment, “I have lived on this world for over five hundred years. One cannot know the stone unless one also comes to understand the instrument regarding the stone. My grandson is still young. He’s focused on the stone, still. He will learn, in time. Such things do matter, however. May I see the mountain, now?”
“By all means,” I agreed, escorting him back out of my bedchamber. That sniffing bothered me a bit. Perhaps Pentandra, my colleague who specialized in sex magic, could manage not to take that sort of thing personally, but I was still a relative newlywed. I don’t know how the Karshak do it – nor am I certain I want to – but if you don’t need to towel off afterwards, you didn’t do it right.
Azhguri did not dwell on my sex life further, not when the mountain of solid snowstone beckoned. He returned to the yard and gazed up at its rounded peak. Then he walked directly to the base of the cliff without taking his eyes off of the peak. At some point he began a hum, so low that I didn’t hear it until it picked up in pitch. It was a jaw-clenching tone, the beginning of the process of singing the stone.
I had only a vague idea what stonesinging entails, magically. I was fascinated by the process, as it was entirely different than the Imperial and Alka Alon magical systems I was familiar with. It wasn’t even akin to gurvani shamanism. When a Karshak stonesinger sings the stone, something entirely particular happens to the magical shroud surrounding the singer.
I watched as carefully as I could, with magesight, eager to gain any insights into the practice. But it was in vain. While I stared in wonderment at the elegantly complex whirl of energies and forces around the stonesinger, I had no idea what any of it meant. The tendrils of each vortex reached out to caress the mountain, some arcing hundreds of feet up the face of the cliff, but I had no context for what type of force it was, or what it was intended to do.
More, the stone itself seemed to respond to the magic with tendrils of its own. If I gained nothing else from my observations, it was the way thestonesinger was able to invoke the involvement of the stone in a way I would imagine only a living entity might. Inert matter reacts, it doesn’t answer your call the way a puppy does. But that was how the stone reacted, thaumaturgically speaking, to Master Azhguri’s song.
Beyond that, I had no idea what he was doing. It was like listening to a poem masterfully delivered . . . but in a beautiful language you had no hope of understanding.
Eventually the ancient Karshak leaned against the cliff, both hands splayed on the rock with his forehead bent upon it in reverent reflection.
And there he stayed. For two days.
I got worried, but Guri calmed me. Apparently this was not uncommon, to spend hours communing with the stone as you sang it. “I’ve seen him go as long as nine days before, as still as a statue,” Guri assured me. “Singing this mountain is like . . . like the perfect gingercake,” he said, smacking his lips. He had discovered the treat recently, when I had them served at a meal, and he had become enchanted with them. The Karshak bake breads, after a fashion, but they have little talent for fine baking. “You just want to gobble it up, all at once. If I know my gran, he’s going to want to savor this over a long period of time. In smaller bites.”
When the old stonesinger finally did end his opening song, he was weeping. This, apparently, is almost unheard of among the stoic race. He was helped into the lodge hall, overcome with emotion, his guards looking around suspiciously. Master Guri hurried anxiously inside, and I was tempted to follow . . . but under the terms of our contract, the Lodge Hall was forbidden to all but members. Not even Master Guri could lift that rule.
He explained what had happened the next morning in the Great Hall.
“He . . . he was overcome,” he confessed, guiltily. “Four hundred years at the trade, and this is the . . . well, there was . . . but this is different. He told me . . . he told me he saw stone as it was – as it really was – for the first time. Stuff I couldn’t even see, and I’m damned good at what I do but . . . well, he’s better,” he said, as if the admission was painful. “He saw things I never did. In those two days, he saw things he had never seen when he was singing stone, and . . . and he saw what might come of it.”
I swallowed. I was afraid that this might happen. “Is he . . . is he unhappy that I plan on carving up the mountain?” I didn’t want a revolt on my hands, but that was my damn mountain. I could imagine what would happen if the old geezer suddenly declared it a Karshak holy site.
“I was curious about that myself. He said . . . he said it didn’t matter whether or not we excavated. He said that you should enjoy it while you have it.”
That stopped me. “What did he mean by that?”
“Well I have no bloody idea, do I?” Guri said, exasperated. “The old guvah was in a stone trance! Talking out of parts of his mind that don’t usually see daylight! I’ve been right addled myself, after singing stone, but he went deep, Min,” he said, with particular anxiety. “You can go easy or you can go deep, when you sing stone, and my gran went deep . . . as deep as I’ve ever seen a singer go!”
“He was only there for two days,” I reminded him.
“It isn’t a matter of time,” he said, shaking his shaggy head. “It’s . . . well, it’s a matter of how involved you get in the stone. He went as far as anyone ever has. I was . . . I was worried,” he confessed.
I could tell Guri was confronting something novel in his existence, and I felt for him. “Will he be okay?”
“Aye, he seems to be coming around, now,” he agreed, grudgingly. “I’m going to check on him after end of day. He was resting in the lodge. I’ll keep you informed.”
Sister Bemia saw the Karshak leave the Great Hall, head hung, as she left the chapel after lauds. I was still getting used to having the priestess around, but Bemia had a keen eye and seemed adept at certain human interactions. And, as I learned, some non-human interactions.
“Oh, that one is troubled,” she clucked in earshot as the butler closed the door behind him. “It’s never a good thing when a lad feels he’s competing with his sires.”
“But . . . he’s not,” I said, confused. “Master Guri already has this job.”
“But will he keep it?” she wondered. “Perhaps I don’t know the Stone Folk, Magelord, but I know fathers and sons. Every priestess of Trygg does. That one had the look of a boy who knows he’s going to lose his favorite toy. If I had to guess, he’s considering turning over the whole thing to his grandfather. It’s killing him, but that’s what he’s thinking, Trygg knows.”
“You think?” I asked, considering the matter. “I think he’s just worried about an old man overtaxing himself.”
“We shall see, Magelord,” she conceded. “But I’d bet my next stipend on it.”
As it turned out, the priestess was correct. Master Guri returned that evening, just after dinner. His expression was a mix of frustration, anger, and resignation, and he spoke through clenched teeth.
“Grandmaster Azhguri is awake, alert, and hale. He expressed his gratitude with the Magelord for the opportunity to sing his mountain. He’s also saying that . . . that he wants to stay.”
“Here, in Sevendor,” the stonesinger emphasized. “On my job.”
“Oh,” I said, realizing what might have been bothering Guri. Sister Bemia had been right.
I could only imagine what it must have been like, when he’d been approached to build the new castle out of the snowstone mountain. The Karshak lodges were few in number, in this part of Callidore, because there just weren’t very many clients left here. The glory days of the Alka Alon were past. They were not building any more grand citadels or majestic palaces. They were eschewing the types of structures the Karshak built for the elegant simplicity of arboreal life . . . and that didn’t leave the Karshak lodges much in the way of clients.
Humani were just too short-lived, and had too little vision for the Karshak’s tastes. Nor could we often afford their services. While the Stone Folk grudgingly acknowledged that some of our constructions were not absolutely laughable – and, indeed, we built most alike to them in design and aesthetic – they would ever consider us untalented amateurs compared to them. Few human lords could afford the price or understand the value of what they got with a Karshak lodge. From the Karshak’s perspective, the humani just didn’t know how to build right. We were slightly more talented than the Tal Alon or the gurvani.
Giving a young, talented Karshak with a small lodge the chance to design and build something like the new Sevendor Castle – and be allowed to do it the way he wanted – was a dream job for Master Guri. As stonesinger and Master of the Lodge, the opportunity to work with snowstone was the chance of a lifetime. Inviting his grandsire to see the mountain had been a token of respect and a way of showing off for the retired grandmaster.
Only instead of praise and support, old Azhguri wanted the job for himself. And Guri was honor-bound, by code or by filial piety, to step aside if the old master wanted the position. As humiliating and disappointing as it would be, Guri felt obligated to allow the better stonesinger to lead the construction job.
Only I could foresee all sorts of problems if that happened. And I still wasn’t over the whole sniffing incident. I had to deal with this, I knew, and suddenly I realized just how to accomplish that. I hardened my face into a frown.
“But I hired you as stonesinger, not him.”
His big bushy eyebrows shot up. “But Azhguri is a far, far more experienced stonesinger than I am. He’s led hundreds of crews on dozens of projects. He’s sung more stone in his first century than I—"
“I hired Master Guri of the Karnaug Lodge,” I said, stiffly. “Not Master Azhguri.”
“You . . . you don’t want him to work on the job?” he asked, confused.
“Look, Master Guri,” I said, affecting a lot more formality than I’m used to, “I hired you to build my castle. Your lodge. I was very specific. I have your bond, if you recall.”
“Oh, I know, but if—”
“If you think I’m going to let you weasel out of our deal so you can substitute some worn out, aging replacement to keep your costs low—”
“But . . . Min!” he gasped, scandalized at the suggestion. “I’d never—“
“Don’t you try to equivocate now!” I said, raising my voice, ever-so-slightly. “You think I haven’t heard about the sharp-dealing Karshak? If you want to hire yourself an assistant stonesinger, that’s your business,” I snapped. “But you do it from your existing funds, because that wasn’t specced-out in the contract, was it?” I demanded. I actually did not recall if there was such a provision or not, but apparently either there was not or Guri did not remember, either.
“I – Min, no, of course not—”
“Then you go tell that old geezer that if he wants to work on this job, it will be under your direction, as your subordinate!” I snarled. “When I took your bond I was assured of a first-class, professional construction crew! I don’t need any half-senile old coots getting themselves hurt on my job. Do we have an understanding?” I asked, folding my arms judgmentally across my chest.
Guri looked at me blankly, trying to comprehend what just had happened. He’s not the most socially adept Karshak – or maybe he is, I really don’t know – but he finally straightened and looked me in the eye.
“Yes, Magelord Minalan, you have made yourself as clear as crystal,” he admitted, nodding firmly, as he realized just what I had done - and the boon I just granted him. “I shall inform the Grandmaster of your intractability on the matter.”
“And I trust you shall be able to do it in such a way as to spare any lingering resentment?” I asked, an eyebrow raised.
“Oh, aye, Min,” he chuckled, breaking the tension a bit, “I’ll just explain to him what a right flaming arsehole you are, a typical barbaric humani warlord who has no proper understanding of who he’s speaking to . . . old Azhguri can understand that.”
“That wasn’t quite—”
“ 'The client is the client',” he said knowingly, as if quoting some professional proverb. “You should hear him go on about what bloody twits the Alka Alon were, back in his day. But he did the job the way the client wanted, and honored his bond to the last. So . . . yes, I think I can work with your utter, pigheaded ignorant mortal barbarian obstinance, and still get you the benefit of Azhguri’s experience. Without him pulling the mountain down on you in a snit.”
“That would be appreciated. I value his contribution. But I like your style more, Guri. And you’ve never said anything about how my bedchamber smells.”
Guri looked at me apologetically. “Well, in truth, it’s never really come up . . .”
“Don’t you have some bad news to break to a haughty old Karshak?” I reminded him. “And for future reference, my bedchamber need never come up. We pigheaded ignorant mortal barbarian warlords are touchy that way.”
* * *
And so it came to pass that Grandmaster Azhguri removed to Sevendor, with his small entourage of aides and servants. As there could be only one Master of the Lodge in residence, a cozy little cottage was built nearby the lodge in an out-of-the-way section of the yard.
If Azhguri was put off by the forcible demotion, he didn’t let on. I have no idea what words were spoken of in the sanctity of the Master’s Shed, but in the days that followed the old stonesinger seemed to relax into a kind of advisory role on the site. He still commanded the utmost of respect and deference from the other memebers of the Lodge. But he publicly deferred to his grandson several times, in my sight, as the work crews were heading out to Matten’s Helm.
If he was upset with me, he did not show it. On the contrary, he was quite polite and respectful as I stopped and inquired as to progress. In the weeks that followed I often stopped by the job site on Matten’s Helm or the yard behind the castle and encountered the old Karshak, and he was never anything but charming to me.
It wasn’t until a few weeks after he’d settled into his new role, when he was helping instruct a small group of novices in the lodge in basic stone-shaping, that I found out what he really thought about the situation. I had come by the Lodge to deal with some supply issues and I got to watch the old Karshak at work. I watched with interest as he taught the novices to ply their sharp-edged hammers on blocks of the milky-white basalt properly, giving them pointers about the angle and force and other professional minutia.
I was discussing something with Guri on the other side of the yard, when one of the younger masons struck a poor blow and sent the hammer flying out of his hand, nearly striking a fellow novice. No one was hurt, but I was amused by the reaction. Master Azhguri, his finery packed away and replaced by a threadbare tunic and well-worn leather apron, slowly fetched the hammer for his student.
I couldn’t resist – I was wondering just what words of wisdom the stonesinger was passing on, so I cast a quick Long Ears spell to listen in. I figured they’d be speaking Karshak, but to my surprise they spoke Narasi (I learned later that they rarely use the speech outside of the Lodge or a Karshak homeland).
“. . . the next time you want to slay one of your classmates, you gurvani-fingered idiot, do so in a proper duel,” Azhguri was lecturing. “But for the Lodge’s sake, don’t do it at lessons, and don’t do it in front of a respected master of the craft, but most importantly don’t do it in front of the fucking client,” he said, passing the hammer back to the sheepish apprentice. “That’s unprofessional and bad form under any circumstances. But in some cases it can be worse.”
He looked up and noticed my eyes on him. He broke into a big, beard-splitting grin and waved his thick-fingered hand at me. I smiled and waved back.
“Because if you screw up in front of a regular client, that reflects badly on the lodge. If you screw up in front of this client,” he said, shaking his head, still smiling and waving, unaware I was listening in, “well, you’ll never hear the end of it. Biggest phallus-headed flaming bloody arsehole of his whole short-lived miserable little race. We’ll be building a palace for pigs, and he’ll harp on every little detail and demand the moon and stars before we’re done. Drives the master bloody mad with his impetuous ways and his quick temper, he does. No, don’t cross the Spellmonger, lads,” he said, finally turning away from me. “You stick to the plans and build it the way he wants. The client is the client,” he stated.
“The client is the client,” they all repeated, by rote, their hammers flying in perfect unison.
“And he’s a bloody arsehole!” Master Azhguri affirmed with a last smile for me before returning to berating the apprentices.
I didn’t take it personally. In fact, I found I didn’t mind at all.