There was once a magician named Dardash, who—at the relatively young age of 103—decided he had done with the world.
Accordingly, he selected an islet a short distance off the coast of Koldana and built upon it a small but comfortable house which resembled a wind-carved spire of rock. He equipped the dwelling with life’s few necessities and moved into it with all his possessions—the most prized of which were twelve massive scrolls in air-tight cylinders of oiled leather bound with silver wire. He surrounded his new home with certain magical defences and, as a final touch which was intended to complete his isolation, he rendered the entire island invisible.
As has already been stated, Dardash had decided he was finished with the world.
But the world was far from being finished with him…
It was a flawless morning in early summer, one on which the universe seemed to have been created anew. The land to the east shimmered like freshly smelted gold, deckled with white fire where the sun’s rays grazed slopes of sand; and on all other sides the flat blue immensity of the sea challenged Dardash’s knowledge of history with its sheer ringing emptiness. It was as though Minoa and Egypt and Sumer had never existed, or had vanished as completely as the ancient magic-based civilisations which had preceded them. The very air sang a song of new beginnings.
Dardash walked slowly on the perimeter of his island, remembering a time when such mornings had filled him with a near-painful joy. It was a time that was lost to him.
Being a magician, he retained a long-muscled and sinewy physique which—except for its lack of scars—resembled that of a superbly conditioned warrior, but his mind was growing old, corrupted by doubt. When the twelve scrolls had first come into his possession, and he had realised they contained spells written in the mana-rich, dawn-time of magic, he had known with a fierce certainty that he was destined to become the greatest warlock that had ever lived. But that had been almost two-score years ago, and he was no longer so confident. In truth, although he rarely admitted it to himself, he had begun to despair—and all because of a single, maddening, insuperable problem.
He reached the north-eastern tip of the islet, moody and abstracted in spite of the vitality all around him, and was turning southwards when his attention was caught by a flickering whiteness at the far side of the strip of water separating him from the mainland. The coast of Koldana was rocky in that area, a good feeding ground for gulls, but the object he had noticed was too large to be a bird. It was possibly a man in white garments, although travellers were rare in that region. Dardash stared at the brilliant speck for a moment, trying to bring it into sharp focus, but even his keen eyesight was defeated by the slight blurring effect caused by the islet’s invisibility screen.
He shrugged and continued his morning walk, returning his thoughts to more weighty considerations. As a man who had travelled the length and breadth of the known world, he could speak every major language and was familiar with the written forms where they existed. The fact that the spells of the twelve scrolls were couched in the Old Language had at first seemed a minor inconvenience, especially for one who was accustomed to deciphering all manner of strange inscriptions. A few months, possibly even a few years, of study would surely reveal the secrets of the old manuscripts—thus enabling him to fulfil his every dream, to become immortal, to assume all the fantastic powers of the dream-time sorcerers.
But he had not allowed for the effect of the 10,000-year hiatus.
The old magic-based civilisations—so powerful in the days when mana was plentiful everywhere—had in fact been edifices of great fragility; and when the raw stuff of magic had disappeared from the earth they too had crumbled and faded into nothingness. Few relics remained, and those that Dardash had seen or thought he had seen were totally without relevance to his quest. He lacked the necessary key to the Old Language, and as long as it remained impenetrable to him he would fail to develop anything like his full potential. The doors of destiny would remain shut against him, even though there were places where mana had again begun to accumulate, and that had been the principal reason for his retreat from outside distraction. He had elected to devote all his time, all his mental energies, all his scholarship to one supremely important task—solving the riddle of the scrolls.
Thus preoccupied, and secure behind his magical defences, Dardash should have been oblivious to the world beyond, but he had been oddly restless and lacking in concentration for some time. His mind had developed an annoying tendency to pursue the irrelevant and the trivial, and as he neared the southern corner of the island—where his house was located—he again found himself speculating about who or what had appeared on the opposite shore. Yielding to impulse, he glanced to the east and saw that the enigmatic white mote was still visible at the water’s edge. He frowned at it for a short period, hesitating, then acknowledged to himself that he would have no mental peace until the inconsequential little mystery was solved.
Shaking his head at his own foolishness, he went into his house and climbed the stone stair to the upper balcony. He had used the spy-mask only the previous day to observe a ship which had appeared briefly on the western horizon, and it was still lying on the low bench, resembling the severed head of a giant eagle. Dardash fastened the mask over his face and turned towards the mainland. Because the spy-mask operated on magical and not optical principles, there was no focusing or scanning to be done—Dardash immediately saw the mysterious object on the coast as though from a distance of a few paces. And he was unable to withhold an exclamation.
The young woman was possibly the most beautiful he had ever seen. She appeared to be of Amorite stock, with the lush black hair and immaculate tawny skin of her race. Her face was that of the perfect lover that all men recognise from dreams, but which few aspire to touch in reality—dark-eyed and full-lipped, sensuous and wilful, generous yet demanding. She was standing ankle-deep in the waters of a narrow cove—a place where she could presume to remain unobserved—and, as Dardash watched, she unbuttoned her white linen chiton, cast the garment behind her on to the sand, and began to bathe.
Her movements were graceful and languorous, like those of a dance that was being performed for his sole benefit, and his mouth went dry as he took in every detail of her body, followed the course of every runnel of water from splendid breast to belly and slim-coned thigh.
Dardash had no clear idea of how long her toilet lasted. He remained in a timeless, trance-like state until she had left the water, clothed herself and was gliding away into the rocky outcrop that formed a natural palisade between sea and land. Only when she was lost to his view did he move again. He removed the eagle-mask from his head, and when he surveyed his little domain with normal vision it seemed strangely bleak and cheerless.
As he descended the stair to the principal chamber in which he did most of his work, there came to Dardash a belated understanding of his recent lack-lustre moods, of his irritability and lapses of concentration. The decision to devote his entire life to the riddle of the scrolls had been an intellectual one, but he was a composite being—a synthesis of mind and body—and the physical part of him was in rebellion. He should have brought one or more girls from an inland village when he had set up his offshore retreat a year earlier. Many would have been glad to accompany and serve him in exchange for a little basic tutelage in magic, but he had an uneasy feeling it was too late to come to such an arrangement. The women, even the youngest, of the region tended to be a sun-withered, work-hardened lot—and he had just seen the sort of companion he truly craved.
But who was she? Where had she come from, and what was her destination?
The questions troubled Dardash at intervals for the rest of the day, distracting him from the endless task of trying to relate the phonetic writing of the scrolls to the complex abstractions of his profession. It was rare for trade caravans plying between the capital city of Koldana and the northern lands to take the longer coastal route, so she was unlikely to be the daughter or concubine of a wealthy merchant. But what possibilities remained? Only in fables did princesses or others of high birth go wandering in search of knowledge. Reconciling himself to the fact that speculation was futile, Dardash worked until long after nightfall, but in spite of being weary he found it difficult to sleep. His rest was disturbed by visions of the unknown woman, and each time he awoke with the taste of her lips fading from his the sense of loss was greater, more insistent.
Part of his mood was occasioned by a belief that important opportunities only come once, that the penalty for failing to take action is eternal regret. Hence it was with a sense of near-disbelief, of having been specially favoured by the gods, that on the following morning as he walked the eastern boundary of his island he again saw the flicker of whiteness on the mainland. This time, vision aided by memory, he had no trouble interpreting the lazy pulsations and shape changes of the blurred speck. She was there again. Undressing, uncovering that splendid body, preening herself, preparing for the sea’s caress.
Dardash paused only long enough to unfasten his sandals. He stepped down into the clear water and swam towards the mainland, propelling himself with powerful and economical strokes which quickly reduced the distance to the shore. As he passed through the perimeter of the invisibility screen which protected his islet, he saw the outline of the woman become diamond-sharp in his vision and he knew that from that moment on she would be able to see him. Apparently, however, she was too preoccupied.
It was not until Dardash felt pebbles beneath his hands and stood up, his near-naked body only knee-deep in water, that she became aware of his presence. She froze in the act of unbuttoning her chiton, breasts partly exposed, and gave him a level stare which signalled surprise and anger, but—he was thrilled to note—no hint of fear.
“I had presumed myself alone,” she said coldly, her beautiful face queenly in displeasure. “Suddenly the very sea is crowded.”
“There is no crowd,” Dardash replied, courting her with his smile. “Only the two of us.”
“Soon there will only be you.” The woman turned, picked up the net pouch which contained her toiletries, and strode away from him towards the narrow entrance to the cove. Sunlight piercing the fine material of her clothing outlined her body and limbs, striking fire behind Dardash’s eyes.
“Wait,” he said, deciding that a challenge could be the most effective way of capturing her interest. “Surely you are not afraid?”
The woman gave a barely perceptible toss of her head and continued walking, beginning to move out of sight behind outcroppings of rock. Impelled by a growing sense of urgency, Dardash went after her with long strides, convinced that were he to fail this time he would never again have a night’s peace. He had almost reached the woman, was breathing the scent of her waist-length black hair, when an inner voice warned him that he was behaving foolishly. He halted, turned to check a deep cleft in the rocks to his left, and groaned as he realised he was much too late.
The braided leather whip whistled like a war arrow as it flailed through the air, catching him just above the elbow, instantaneously binding his arms to his sides.
Dardash reacted by continuing his turn, intending to coil the whip further around his body and thus snatch it from its user’s grasp, but there was a flurry of footsteps and a glint of sunlight on armour and the weight of a man hit behind the knees, bringing him down. Other armed men, moving with practised speed, dropped on top of him and he felt thongs tighten around his wrists and ankles. Within the space of three heartbeats he was immobile and helpless, and sick with anger at having allowed himself to be trapped so easily.
Narrowing his eyes against the glare from the sky, he looked up at his captors. There were four men wearing conical helmets and studded leather cuirasses. They did not look like soldiers, but the similarity of their equipment suggested they were in the employ of a person of wealth. A fifth figure—that of the woman—joined them, causing Dardash to turn his face away. He had no wish to see a look of triumph or contempt on her face, and in any case his mind was busy with the question of who had instigated the attack against him. In his earlier years he had made many enemies, but most of them had long since died, and latterly he had devoted so much time to his scrolls that there had scarcely been the chance to incur the wrath of anybody who mattered.
“Tell me the name of your master,” he said, making himself sound patient and only mildly interested. He wanted to give the impression that he was unconcerned about his safety, that he was holding tremendous magical powers in reserve, although he was actually quite helpless. Most magic required protracted and painstaking preparation, and the ruffians standing over him could easily end his life at any moment if they so desired.
“You’ll find out soon enough,” the tallest man said. He had a reddish stubble of a beard and one of his nostrils had been excised by an old wound that had left a diagonal scar on his face.
“You owe him no loyalty,” Dardash said, experimenting with the possibilities of his situation. “By sending you against me he has placed you in terrible danger.”
Red-beard laughed comfortably. “I must be a braver man than I realised—I feel absolutely no fear.”
You will, Dardash vowed inwardly. If I get out of this alive. The sobering realisation that this could be the last day of his life caused him to lapse into a brooding silence while the four men brought a wooden litter from its place of concealment behind nearby rocks. They rolled him on to it, none too gently, and carried him up the steep slope to the higher ground of the plain that spanned most of Koldana. The woman, now more normally clad in an all-enveloping burnous, led the way. Dardash, still trying to guess why he had been taken, derived little comfort from the fact that his captors had not run a sword through him as soon as they had the chance. Their master, if he was an enemy worth considering, would want to dispose of him in person—and quite possibly by some means that would give all concerned plenty of time to appreciate what was happening.