Prologue to the Story To Be Named Later, III
Derud laughed along with his fellow students, although he hadn’t understood the joke. His reaction was automatic, a reflex born of a life where he never felt like he truly fit in. Although he was the same age as his fellows, he didn’t have their experience with women, wasn’t privy to the gossip they heard, and couldn’t match their ability to spin a tale. His modest upbringing didn’t help, as most of the better-born students looked askance at those who grew up with dirt on their hands. He was sure that his presence was tolerated only because of his ability to study and help those who hadn’t, and his willingness to laugh at the most stale jest.
The one who held their attention had made those facts very clear. Loccan Kor, privileged son of a prestigious member of that minor noble family, was speaking of his dalliance with yet another daughter of a noble family. This time, his escapade involved the first cousin, once removed, of the Baron himself, a small dressing room, and a hasty glamour that prevented his detection. Derud’s fellows didn’t seem concerned that Loccan’s glamour was used to make him appear to be the lady’s betrothed, even to her, but Derud the Dullard (as they mockingly named him when his laughter rang ignorant in their ears) felt that using their improving skills in such a manner was nothing that their instructors would approve of, let alone Elder Merrus.
Derud’s foray into moralizing sent him into reverie long enough for his absent stare to be noticed. He was snapped out of it when he realized that the others were looking at him expectantly, while Loccan wore his most dangerous sneer. “P-pardon?” Derud asked, face flushing and head withdrawing, turtle fashion, into his shoulders.
The sneer deepened. “I merely inquired, Dullard, what magnificent tryst you’ve undertaken that puts my little adventure so far beneath your attention?” Everyone at the table laughed, except Loccan. Derud recognized the gleam in the young noble’s emerald green eyes, that glimmer that promised a painful retribution on its target. The stammering student’s usually nimble brain felt locked as his mouth formed inaudible fragments of words.
The loud crack as the tavern door rebounded from the wall saved Derud from further embarrassment as everyone turned to face it. As the door swung back, it was stopped in its arc by a large, scarred hand attached to a thick arm in turn connected to a wide bull of a body. The eyes attached to that body wandered around the dim tavern until they sighted along an outstretched arm, helpfully provided by those that crowded behind the large man. “Tole ya, Bru, ‘e’s right there!” Derud watched the pointing finger and dark eyes alight on Loccan as his stomach dropped and pulse began to hammer.
The man shambled into the room towards Loccan like an angry bear, fists clenched and mouth set in a hard, grim line. Derud wondered if the man was someone wronged by one of Loccan’s “adventures”, but the student dismissed the notion at the man’s obvious low station. The eager faces of the dozen or so men pouring through the door behind him brought Derud to his feet, before any of his fellows could begin to react. As someone used to feeling out of place and disconnected, Derud knew trouble, serious trouble, when he saw it, as if it was something he was continuously expected. His lips whispered words and he tossed a hand Loccan’s way.
Derud’s quick spell saved Loccan’s head from splitting on the table as the man-bear smashed a paw into the side of the noble’s head. Even with the sorcerous shielding, Locaan was knocked from his chair and behind the table. With a surge prompted by the first blow, both sides exploded into a flurry of punches, kicks, and gouges. With no more time or opportunity for even the slightest mystical working, Derud and his fellows fought in the manner of their aggressors, striking out furiously.
Despite the attitudes most outsiders had of the wizards and their students, they were not frail nor fragile. The discipline of manipulating the essence of the world and other dimensions called for stamina and strength of body as well as mind, and the students were exercised regularly to ensure their ability to hold up while they fine-tuned their abilities. Derud could tell their assailants were caught off guard by their resistance; the once-farmer’s son had needed to use his fists before, albeit not since joining the Tower. The scene blurred around him as he avoided blows and lashed out with his own.
A scant minute later a pair of his companions went down under the assault, their youth and fitness no match for their attackers’ fury. Loccan was still up, using the confusion of the brawl to keep distance between himself and the large brutal leader. Derud knew that the outcome would be worse the longer this went on. Thinking quickly, he ducked a blow and upended the table towards the bear-man, cutting off his pursuit of Loccan and buying himself some time. “Grab Olybrian!” he shouted as he scooped the unconscious body of Ennod from the floor. Blows rained on him as he sunk his head low and rushed towards the open door. Bursting into the sun and stench, he staggered forward a few steps before turning to see whether his fellows or their sudden enemies followed him.
He sighed with relief as Loccan and Heruld exited the tavern, each with arm of Olybrian slung over a shoulder. Derud turned and quickly shuffled away, ignoring the odd looks of the few wanderers on the hot dusty streets. When he reached Tridon’s Square, he turned left and pointed himself and his burden towards the Dreaming Tower and safety.
“Dullard!” Loccan’s sharp voice brought him up short. “Where in the Void are you going?”
Derud looked behind him, once again stammering and confused. “The, uh, Tower…?”
Loccan’s sneer cut him off. His green eyes flashed even brighter now, with fury and grim joy. Derud noticed that Heruld now supported Olybrian’s battered body alone as Loccan approached him. “Idiot,” he hissed, “we aren’t going to the Tower. The Petal is this way.” Loccan’s arm pointed the opposite direction Derud wanted to go; further into the city, where The Blushing Petal of Eve stood. Another tavern, and a favorite of the eldest students of the Dreaming Tower. “This isn’t over.” Loccan turned without another word and moved in that direction, drawing Heruld behind him with an imperious gesture.
Derud closed his eyes a moment. This isn’t over, he thought, and shuffled along in their wake, the toes of Ennod’s boots leaving twin tracks behind him. A chill settled over his heart despite the relentless heat.