By Eric Zawadzki and Matthew Schick
“The first day of summer in Marrishland marks the start of Duxfest, and it is the only time when the Mardux’s power can be challenged. Any eighth-degree wizard not on the Council may win the Chair by defeating the current Mardux in a magical duel. If a wizard wins the Chair and holds it against all challengers for one full day, he becomes the new Mardux.”
— Nightfire Tradition, The Magical Traditions of Marrishland
Weard Sven Takraf, eighth-degree wizard and graduate of Nightfire’s Academy, had a marsord because of his power, but he had not brought it to Domus Palus. He knew he could defeat anyone who would be Mardux without it, and the challenge of retaining that position would not trouble him. He had no intention of allowing it to.
Three days of challenges and still no Mardux, Sven thought. Nightfire would have returned to the Academy if someone had been able to hold the Chair, which means the magocrats are divided. The gods could not have crafted a clearer omen.
He smiled grimly. And how long has anyone thought of Nightfire as anything but his name, when it is truly just the title of Marrishland’s arbiter of the Law.
Sven wore knee-high boots turned down at the tops all the way to his calves. His loose pants were dark green, tucked in and bunched up above the boots. A leather strap served as a belt, and thick, studded leather gloves hung from it. His brown shirt had a collar — also turned down — and long sleeves with drawstrings at the end to tighten them. His leather utility vest showed years of wear. All his clothes had travel stains, but old ones.
Close-cropped brown hair and dark, almost mud-colored, skin surrounded his green eyes, hawkish nose and sharp mouth. Green eyes — Marrish’s eyes, as the mundanes called them — were rare among Mar, but Sven knew of three others besides his parents who had them.
So much coincidence cannot be coincidence.
Domus Palus was the seat of the Mardux, the not-quite king of Marrishland and ruling magocrat. The city on the coast was the center of Mar civilization, and home to thousands of wizards, six times their number in mundanes and the largest slave population in the country.
And like our civilization, it stagnates around us, Sven thought as he passed a square reclaimed by the swamp. There was even a suckmud willow in it.
The slaves — mostly convicts whose crime had been reneging on an oral agreement — lived outside the ancient city. The mundanes, Mar who had not studied magic, lived throughout the city. Sven only cared about one group right now, the wizards, and they were at the citadel.
The “palace” of Domus Palus.
In the center of the city, eight tall steps led up to a wide walkway crossing between the citadel and the temple of Marrish. On that walkway, many of the most powerful magocrats in Mar history had fought for the position of ruler of Marrishland. Most contenders died simply because killing a powerful wizard was far easier than subduing one.
Sven heard the sounds of battle before he saw anything.
The massive citadel came into view, its stone and iron bulk in marginally better condition than the buildings around it. Crowds of wizards appeared, a milling mass of city officials on a holiday. Most wore green and auburn, but he could make out patches of blue, amber and cyan. This late in the night, slaves kept torches lit, filling the air with oily smoke.
What a waste of energy, Sven thought, shaking his head sadly.
He picked out and counted the lavender and yellow wizards, those one or two ranks below eighth-degree. As he reached a hundred, he stopped. Then he sought the bright cloaks of eighth-degree wizards and found them on the walkway. Two fought in the center, marsords flailing as fire burst between them. Sven judged the battle nearly over.
There were fifteen besides the two fighting — a group of five on the citadel side, two standing near them but separate, and eight standing in front of the temple, perched like a bunch of greedy, terrified scavengers waiting for the damnen to finish its meal.
Sven pressed forward, the color of his cloak making the crowd bend around him like water around a bubble of marsh gas. As he reached the foot of the steps, one of the red-cloaked men on the walkway drove his marsord through the other.
The victor — hands bloody, face blackened by burns — cut off his opponent’s head and kicked it to the feet of the eight scavengers, a dark scowl on his face. Sven searched the victor’s eyes and found the tiredness there. The foremost of the eight, the Dux of Flasten, Volund Feiglin, glared murderously at the victor and nudged the young man by his side.
Ketil Wenigar, Volund’s son. Sven wondered who the challenger had been.
“Would anyone else like to die before sunrise?” the victorious wizard called hoarsely.
Volund scowled at Ketil before speaking. “There will be a challenge tomorrow, you can be sure.”
Nightfire stepped forward, part of the pair behind the victor. “Does any other wish to challenge Einar Schwert tonight?”
Einar wiped his marsord on the corpse of his opponent and sheathed it. None of the reds at the edge of the square stirred.
“Weard Schwert will return at noon. If no challenger defeats him by this time tomorrow, he will be Mardux.”
The bloodied wizard turned on his heel and marched to the citadel. The stiffness of his dirty red cloak betrayed a limp he had not yet healed. The group of five parted to let him pass, following only after Nightfire and his companion caught up to Einar. Sven crept up the stairs as Volund, cursing loudly at his son, stormed after them into the citadel. Ketil followed meekly.
Ignoring the six bickering reds and their seventh-degree companion, Sven joined the yellow-garbed priests of Marrish as they began disposing of the body.
Ketil hesitated because Einar just killed his brother, Sven noted as they moved the head. Volund cannot take the Chair while he is on the Council, but he would have a son there. And what brings a borderland weard like Einar Schwert into this? Sven glanced at the six reds.
A tall one with burning grey eyes was watching him as though all the Mar’s troubles could be laid at Sven’s feet. He turned to shout something hotly into the discussion.
They seem to want the Chair as well, but they let Volund’s son fight first. Why?
As Sven eyed them, he gauged their strength. Surely any eighth-degree could defeat a tired eighth-degree. He shook his head. Gobbels will eat their own if it is the least dangerous source of food.
The crowd began to disperse. The eighth-degrees who still disputed Einar’s claim to the Chair and their attendants did not stir from their place by the temple.
Sven thanked the priests as they blessed him in Marrish’s name and gently moved him away from the corpse. He walked over to the vultures as the crowd and priests began to disperse. They did not notice him immediately.
“… Must have gotten a message out of Domus before Duxfest,” the angry, gaunt man was saying.
“A pest to the last, our Rorik Beurtlin,” a man adorned in gold rings and necklaces said. “Like a konig worm infestation.”
“Dux Feiglin’s gambit has failed like his son,” the obese man said. “Weard Schwert will hold the Chair tomorrow.”
The only woman in the bunch frowned and opened her mouth to speak, but the gaunt man cut her off.
“We will be in the Fens of Reur before snow flies, am I right, Weard Faul?”
A slight young Mar balled his hands into fists and opened his mouth to speak. He closed it when the yellow — a pale-skinned man with straight, black hair — touched his arm.
The one with the jewelry sneered. “I did not see you step forward, Vigfus Vielfrae. Why did you bother traveling to Domus from Flasten if you had no intention of making yourself useful to your dux? Surely it caused you some ... strain.”
The rotund man’s face purpled in rage. “And what of you, Solvi Zorn? If you had challenged Einar in his weakened condition ...”
The gaunt Mar cut him off. “And make an enemy of Flasten? I may take the Chair tomorrow, but not without consulting my allies first.”
He noticed Sven then, and all eyes turned to the newcomer. Sven kept his face expressionless.
“Solvi Zorn of Domus?” he asked quietly. “Perhaps you can tell me how many challengers Einar Schwert has defeated.”
The gaunt Mar’s grey eyes narrowed, and Sven did not need Fraemauna’s eyes to guess the man’s next move. “Do you think you can topple the old man?”
“It was a simple question,” Sven said.
“We do not even know who you are,” said the yellow smoothly, head and body swiveling to catch all the glaring eyes. “Young wizard, tell us your name.”
Sven felt the slightest brush of a spell against his cheek and instantly snapped at the myst. The yellow is trying to calm me with his magic. Sven took an involuntary step back.
“I am Sven Takraf.”
Vigfus gave a dismissive snort, but Solvi leaned forward a little, intrigued. The woman leaned over to whisper something to the gold-encrusted man, and the yellow stepped behind the frail, young wizard as though attempting to vanish.
I remember you, too, Robert Wost.
“Sven Takraf?” Solvi asked. “Of Tortz?”
“Ask your friend Dux Feiglin about me, Weard Zorn.”
“Your ears are sharp, Weard Takraf,” Solvi said. “I suppose you heard my name and Vigfus Vielfrae’s. The thin one is Weard Ari Faul, and his man there is Weard Robert Wost. The woman is Weard Arnora Stolz, and her friend with the rings is Weard Valgird Geir. The silent one with the vacant expression is Weard Horik Neid.”
“He is drunk on narcotics,” Vigfus said. “He is a worthless piece of Domin’s own dung, is that not so, Horik?”
Horik opened his mouth, but only drool came out.
“Weard Takraf, we hear the renegade Brand Halfin imprisoned you four years ago at Tortz.”
“Volund Feiglin was there,” Sven said. “I am sure that you can learn the story from him. If you cannot answer my question, I can go ask Nightfire or some other member of the Council.”
“Einar Schwert defeated Ozur Betrun this afternoon, and two opponents tonight.”
Sven nodded. A fourth opponent surely would have finished him, yet none of them stepped forward. These are the ones who will challenge me, and they do not trust each other. It is a wonder anyone ever wins the Chair.
“Do you intend to challenge Weard Schwert, Weard Takraf?” Solvi asked, voice too smooth for Sven’s liking.
They want more power, and they do not even know how to use what they already have. Yet, they live for power. They would do anything to acquire more for themselves.
Memories of Tortz pressed in on him. He forced them away, gritting his teeth.
Or to keep others from having any.
Sven clenched his hands into fists at his side. “I will be Mardux because you cannot defeat me.” They all started talking at once, but Sven spoke over them. “Weard Vielfrae would have to break a sweat, so he will not fight. Weard Geir is too weighted down with gold to step forward tomorrow. Weard Stolz would require many nine-day spans to plan a way to eliminate the danger of her defeat. Weard Faul cannot think for himself. Weard Neid does not even know what the Chair is. Weard Zorn, you fear my reputation too much to step forward. A mundane has more courage than any of you, and a mapmaker possesses more wisdom.”
He started walking away.
Solvi hollered after him, “We had an agreement with the dux! His sons would go first!”
This is why I have come here, Sven thought. This is why the gods chose me for this path. This is why the Mar need me.
He walked into the citadel.
Nightfire must have noticed me while I watched the end of the battle.
Sven sent a slave to find him. The boy couldn’t have been older than twelve, with dark eyes and calloused hands.
What crime could he have committed? What oath could someone so young break?
Sven waited in a room that might once have been a meeting hall. Several centuries of ivy had eaten through the ceiling. The flagstone floor was a mass of cracks, and bare earth peeked through in places. A second-story hallway opened to the room across the back, resulting in a crumbling balcony large enough for the entire population of Rustiford to stand on.
He imagined it whole once again.
I will commission a tapestry of the gods giving the Guardian his tasks, and the Guardian will have my face. No one will forget Mardux Sven Takraf.
“You will challenge Einar Schwert.”
Sven did not turn to welcome Nightfire. “Of course, master. Marrish said I would be Mardux. Fraemauna convinced me. Seruvus stood there, and even the gods must fulfill promises brought before the Oathbinder.”
Nightfire stood next to Sven, followed his eyes to the gaps in the ceiling through which the stars shone. He was a much older man. His hair was streaked gray and black, his skin much paler than Sven’s for lack of sun. Under his cloak, he wore an outfit similar to Sven’s, and he had not brought his marsord with him, either.
There are no Drakes in Domus Palus, Sven thought, and Nightfire is a scholar, not a magocrat.
He noticed that his master’s companion had joined them. Katla Duxpite was Sven’s green-eyed sister and four years his senior. She had worn the red a year longer than Sven. Education had transformed her as it had him, but in different ways, and they had barely spoken since Tortz.
“Weard Schwert is not your enemy. What will you do when you are Mardux that he would not do?” Nightfire asked softly.
“Unite Marrishland. Defeat the Mass. As the gods said I should.” Sven couldn’t keep the hesitation from his voice.
Sven met his master’s piercing green eyes. “And they said I will succeed you.”
“You cannot be the arbiter if you are the Mardux.”
“I will change the Law. I will remove the distinction between magocrat and mundane.”
“Did the gods truly ask for that?”
“It is necessary.” They implied it. They want it.
Nightfire frowned deeply. He took several steps away from Sven and turned around.
“You asked to see me. What is it you want?”
“I need your support when I take the Chair tomorrow. No one must doubt I am the Guardian.”
“You speak as though you have already crushed your enemies!” Katla snapped.
Sven ignored her. Her master is no threat without Volund. “I have told you this day would come, master.”
Nightfire shook his head. “As many times as I have supported you, Sven, you know I cannot take a side in this.”
“Then tell me about Einar Schwert. You say he is not my enemy. Why does he seek the Chair?”
Nightfire glanced at Katla, and they sighed almost in unison.
“Please join us, Sven,” Katla said finally with a weak smile. “We have some soup.”