Edmund looked at the map, examined its borders. The parchment was old and yellowed and losing its integrity, fraying at the edges. The ink, too, was fading away, making the borders it traced indistinct. So old, and yet nothing had changed in that time.
Making the map new would be his legacy.
Aldis pointed to a spot just outside the Windcleft Moors and drug his finger to the south. “The orcs’ nearest settlement now lies somewhere around here.”
“And the likelihood of retaliation?”
The general shrugged. “I couldn’t guess what they’ll decide. Hard to know what to expect from the brain of a brute. Not much.” He laughed at his own joke and leaned back in his chair. “But should they decide to strike back, we’d be more than prepared. I’ve sent troops south to set up fortifications where their camp was. If they march north, we’ll know well in advance. And if you want us to squash the vermin once and for all, you need only give the word.”
Edmund shook his head, unconcerned. “What about our friend, the hermit on the moors? I worry more about him than the orcs.”
“Aeterneau?” Aldis sneered. “Same offer. Give the word, and I’ll have our army descend on him like a plague.”
Alfraed, Edmund’s chief advisor, sat at the far end of the table and hissed his displeasure. “He is the plague.”
Edmund held his hand up to check Alfraed, but nodded his agreement. “Every soldier that falls on the battlefield is just another recruit for him. To fight a necromancer’s army is to feed him.”
Aldis grunted. “No one has offered a better solution.” He immediately regretted the sharpness in his tone and bowed his head slightly. “Your Majesty.”
Edmund spun the heavy rings that burdened his hands. “Are you giving me cause to relieve you of your post? You are my primary military strategist, Aldis. You are the one that should have better solutions.”
Alfraed laughed–it was laced with malice. “You really can’t expect much from the brain of a brute.”
“Only the king’s favor saves you, you detestable little man. Everyone around here would be glad to run you through with their sword if only Our Liege would allow it.”
Alfraed ignored the oaf. “It just so happens, My Liege, that I might have a solution to the necromancer.”
“Any sort of direct confrontation with Aeterneau would be inadvisable. So we must pursue a more roundabout solution. I’ve given the matter much thought. And I confess,” here he put his hand to his heart in an over-dramatic flourish, “for a time I thought this riddle might get the best of me. But poring through my tomes, I came across something that gave me pause. Something that I think might be the key.” He opened a book to a page he had marked and slid it over to Edmund.
“Cursed Ink? What’s this?”
“Yes,” his advisor said. “It’s duplicitous. It’s insidious. It’s nefarious. It’s delicious. It’s precisely what we need–to assassinate the necromancer.”
“A coward’s solution,” Aldis said. “Hardly surprising from you.”
“Quiet, Aldis. Go on.”
Alfraed’s face lit up with wicked amusement. “It truly is an admirable bit of treachery. Almost poetic in its mechanism.”
“Out with it,” Aldis urged.
“The ink is actually a potion. Just not one you consume. You use it as you use any ink. But anyone who signs their name with it is instantly slain.”
The king looked over the page with greater interest now. “Fascinating.”
“Its an extremely archaic bit of magic. I found reference to it only in this tome. And there’s no recipe provided.”
The king closed the book and read its filigreed title–Ancient Alchemies. “Have you spoken to Odo about this?”
“Of course, Your Majesty. I inquired immediately when I came upon it. He’s unfamiliar.”
Aldis wasn’t surprised. “He’s a worthless old coot, like you. Just more personable.”
Edmund stood and moved to the window, staring out. It was still light, and the spectral glow of Aeterneau’s was washed out by the sparkling sky. But soon, a satin twilight would drape itself over the hills, and the grim glimmer would again haunt the horizon. Edmund knew it had grown in intensity. He knew the wound had opened wider, threatening to swallow them. He knew the infection was evolving, and soon the whole countryside would be diseased, awash with an infernal sepsis. “Aldis, if you aren’t going to contribute, you are free to leave.” He turned back to the table and frowned. “But I don’t understand why you bring this to me, Alfraed, if we don’t have any way of manufacturing it.”
“Well, we don’t,” he said. “But I think I might know who does…” Alfraed let the end of his thought float in tantalizing silence.
The king was more tolerant than most, but even he could tire of Alfraed’s affectations. “Speak plainly.”
“One of the Coven. Beatrice. She’s a master alchemist, or so they say.”
Aldis knocked his goblet over in frustration, the ancient wood of the table greedily drinking the burgundy wine into its grain. “Trading one lunatic sorcerer for another? That’s your answer? He’s madder than we thought.”
“You think she would agree to help?” the king said.
“Your Majesty, you can’t be honestly entertaining this.”
“If you had a better solution, I wouldn’t need to, but here we are.”
Alfraed shrugged, unsure. The Coven were nearly as reclusive as Aeterneau. “There isn’t any harm in asking.”
“If that’s true,” Aldis said, “you shouldn’t have any qualms about asking her yourself.”
Alfraed reeled in offense. “Many qualms. My time is valuable. I won’t waste it on errands. Send one of your lackies.”
“Gerard is escorting Prince Holden,” Edmund thought aloud. “Who else would you suggest, Aldis?”
Before Aldis could reply, Darwyn strode into the room, bowing his head at the king. “Your Majesty.” He was disheveled, his breastplate hastily strapped in place, his braids pulled into a knotted tangle. But nobody noticed. They simply saw their answer.