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The Lord of Joiry

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Jirel’s dagger flashed in the moonlight. Alone in the courtyard, she practiced the dance of retreat and advance, parry and thrust, that she had learned under her indulgent father’s eye. Her feet slid and pattered over the cobblestones, her shadow hastening to keep up. She imagined herself dueling some enemy, some monster of legend, some tyrant. Her uncle. Her teeth bared in warrior’s glee as she thrust her dagger into her phantom adversary’s heart.

“Jirel!”

The girl spun around, her hair flying out behind her like a banner of war. As if she had summoned him with her fantasy of revenge, her uncle stood behind her. She drew herself up to her full height – tall, very tall indeed for a girl of sixteen – and turned the hot glare of her eyes upon him.

“Have I not forbidden this?” Her uncle did not wait for a reply, but strode forward and twisted her wrist with his huge bear-paw of a hand.

Hissing with pain, Jirel dropped the dagger. It clattered on the stones. Her uncle released her wrist and slapped her hard across the face. A wild anger rose up in her, and she drew back her own hand and struck him.

The two stood facing each other, panting, with their red hair gleaming in the silver light and their yellow eyes burning like flames.

“I have been far too patient with you, strumpet,” said her uncle. “Think you to challenge me for Joiry?”

“Joiry is mine!” Jirel spat at him. “My father left it to me, not to you!”

Rage overcame her in that moment, burning away all thought of caution. She turned toward the dark windows of the keep and shouted, “I am Jirel of Joiry! I claim Joiry for myself!”

And in the yellow eyes of the Lord of Joiry, so like Jirel’s own, she saw a fury rise to match her own.

Jirel remembered then what her maidservant Mathilde had whispered to her, that terrible day after her father had died, when his brother had come to take Joiry. “He is a wizard,” Mathilde had said. “Do not anger him! If he believes you will try to claim Joiry, he will…” The girl had shuddered, never finishing the sentence. She died the next day, in a plague that had taken only her. She had been a buxom, pretty sixteen, with hair like sunflowers and lips like cherries, but her body had looked like that of a woman of ninety.

The hot anger flickering in her uncle’s eyes died, leaving only cold ash behind. “So be it.”

He drew his sword. Jirel snatched up her dagger and slid back, not fearing the unequal battle, glorying in the thought that she would finally duel him for her birthright, and vowing to herself that she would slay him even as he killed her.

To her surprise, he dropped the tip of his sword to the cobblestones. Expecting a trick, Jirel did not attack. The sword point flicked out like a quill pen, leaving trails of darkness behind, sketching letters in some unknown alphabet. And yet Jirel felt that if she continued to look at them, she would be able to read them. The thought of reading those words, written in the oily black smoke that boiled out from the tip of a wizard’s sword, filled her with horror. Worse, she somehow knew that if she read those words, she would understand them. And if she understood them… She could not bear that thought.

Closing her eyes, she lunged forward, dagger striking for her uncle’s heart. Her dagger met no resistance. Jirel stumbled, caught herself, then fearfully opened her eyes.

She had come to another land, one brightly colored as a fever dream. A scarlet crescent moon hung low in a bone-pale sky, and, higher and larger, was a black and gibbous moon like a hole in the air. Jirel stood on a plain of moss as brilliantly yellow as her eyes. As her uncle’s eyes. Fungus-like growths, the same blazing yellow as the moss, rose up from it, taller than trees. Their pendulous branches dangled down like the boneless fingers of giants. Creatures darted and skittered atop the moss, avoiding the tree-things: faceted spiders like animated moonstones and rubies, lizards glittering silver and gold, and emerald-furred beasts that Jirel could not name.

There was no wind, but the branches of the fungal growths fumbled about like a blind person searching for something lost. Jirel backed out of their reach. When she moved, a double shadow of inky black pursued her, haloed in blood.

She spun about, searching for Joiry Castle and for her uncle, but there was no sign of them. Jirel crossed herself. Mathilde had been right. This was surely some Hell-spawned wizardry of her uncle’s.

Then she saw movement, and readied her dagger.

“Wait!” The shout came from a boy, who stepped out from behind a fungus. A yellow tentacle patted at the ground behind him, fumbling toward his ankles, but he dodged it and ran toward Jirel.

She lowered her dagger as he came closer. He was her age, but undersized and sickly-looking, with soft black hair and eyes of startling green. He moved as clumsily as if he had never been trained in fighting, and carried nothing but a worn book bound in faded leather. And though she knew she had never seen him before, he seemed as familiar as if she had known him all her life.

“Do not strike the trees,” said the boy. “The branches are sticky. Look.”

He indicated a thick tentacle. A shining purple animal, like a hairless rat or squirrel, was stuck to it and struggling. She gingerly raised her dagger, thinking to cut it free.

But the boy caught at her hand. “It is too late. It is one with the tree.”

Jirel looked more closely. To her horror, she saw that the animal had no legs, only protrusions of the same stuff as the fungus-trees. As she watched, the animal’s head softened, losing its shape and shifting color, and became a lump of yellow fungus. Jirel shuddered.

“What is this place?” Jirel asked.

“It has no name,” said the boy. “It was made by the Lord of Joiry, for his enemies.”

“There must be some escape!” Jirel exclaimed.

Laughter boomed out around them. It came from the sky, from the ground beneath their feet, from the moss and from the fungus-trees, from the very air itself. It was the mocking laugh of the Lord of Joiry.

“There is no escape,” said that hateful voice, so loud that seemed to shake Jirel’s flesh from her bones. “You had your chance, girl. Now you will die here, like all my enemies, killing yourself piece by piece while I watch, until there is nothing left at all.”

As the echoes and vibrations of the voice died down, the boy opened his book. He whispered words which Jirel could not understand… and yet she felt that if she listened long enough, she would understand. She knew that she was in the presence of magic.

“There,” said the boy. “He will not be able to hear us, for a little while.”

“You’re a wizard.” Jirel eyed the boy doubtfully. Though her folk distrusted wizards, the boy did not seem evil.

The boy nodded. “It’s the family gift. Each generation has one wizard. When we come of age, we begin to discover our magic.”

“Can you use it to free us from this place?”

“Perhaps,” said the boy. “Come with me.”

Jirel felt that she could trust him. If nothing else, he must hate her uncle as much as she did. “Where are we going?”

“To get a weapon.”

Jirel followed him with a will. To her relief, they soon emerged from the yellow forest and came to a plain of reddish grass threaded with burbling blue brooks. Thirsty, Jirel stooped to drink.

Below the surface of the brook, a face was pressed up against the water, as if peering through a window. It was the face of a beautiful woman, terrified and desperate. Two slender hands silently beat against the surface of the water. Delicately, a blade of grass bent down and pierced the water, stabbing into the woman’s cheek. The woman flinched and tossed her head, but could not seem to escape. The blade deepened to scarlet as it drank.

Jirel hastily knelt on the grass, ignoring the multitude of small blades eagerly piercing her skin. She reached into the water, trying to pull the woman out. But she touched only the sandy bottom. She drew her hands out, dripping with pink-tinged water. When the ripples cleared, the woman was writhing in silent agony, clutching at two deep red wounds in her chest.

Jirel’s eyes prickled with unaccustomed tears. She sprang up and screamed at the sky, “I will kill you! I swear it!"

There was no answer.

“He cannot hear you,” the boy said gravely. “Not while my spell holds. But it will not hold for long.”

Dashing the tears from her eyes, Jirel followed the boy. She tried not to examine the landscape too closely, but she could not help seeing the tormented faces that peered from within the hearts of the scarlet flowers, or noticing the strangely resilient texture of the ground on which she ran. The air smelled musky and sharp, like sweat and perfume. Of her two shadows, only one followed her movements exactly. The other moved just a little late, as if deliberately mimicking her actions. She tried not to look at it.

“How did you come here?” Jirel asked as they ran. She was forced to slow her pace so as to follow the boy, who was panting from effort. “How do you know so much?”

“Magic,” gasped the boy. “I know by magic. He brought me here to kill me, as he did you. That is all I know.”

The boy stopped suddenly. Before them, a great double-edged sword lay on a bed of scarlet moss. “It is too heavy for me to lift. I think he left it here to torment me with my weakness. But you are stronger than I.”

Jirel eagerly strode forward. Almost reverently, she lifted the sword in both hands. It was heavy, but she could wield it.

Then she heard that hateful laugh. The boy had vanished. Her uncle stood in his place, sword in hand.

“Fool!” he exclaimed. “Did you truly believe I would allow you a friend? Here, in my very own world? It was I who walked beside you - I who brought you to my world to have the pleasure of terrifying you - I who will now have the pleasure of killing you.”

Fury blazed in Jirel’s heart – not only at her uncle, but at herself, for having come to like the boy. For having been tricked so easily. With a wordless shriek of rage, she smashed aside her uncle’s sword and plunged the great sword’s blade into his chest.

Her uncle vanished. It was the boy who fell. And Jirel knew she had been a fool indeed.

She knelt beside the boy and took his hand. It was already growing cold.

“What is your name?” Jirel asked the boy. Her words caught in her throat. “Tell me, so I may avenge you!”

The dying boy’s green eyes blazed with rage and the desire for revenge, transforming his peaceful face. Jirel suddenly knew why he had seemed so familiar, and what she had done when she had slain him. She did not need to hear his final, whispered words, “I am Jirel.”

As he died, she felt a part of herself die with him. Her birthright magic, that she had never known she possessed – the magic that would have been hers, had she not destroyed it – was gone forever.

Laughter boomed all around her. The earth, the air, the sky, even the moons were laughing. And then she knew what she had to do.

Jirel threw herself forward and plunged the great sword into the earth, stabbing downward until it was buried hilt-deep. A scream of agony rose up, so shrill she thought her ears would burst. Then it faded out in a horrible dying gurgle. The ground dissolved beneath her outstretched body. As she looked up, she saw the moons crumble to dust, and then the sky itself melted away.

Jirel found herself standing in her own room in Joiry Castle, clutching the sword. As she looked around, assuring herself that she was indeed home, there came a frantic knocking at the door.

“Come,” said Jirel.

A servant rushed in, distraught. “Oh, Lady Jirel! Your uncle, Lord of Joiry, is dead!”

Jirel looked past the servant, at the good solid stone of Joiry Castle. Joiry was hers, and the great sword was hers. It was all she had ever wanted. She strode forth to greet her people, ignoring the aching loss in her heart, hoping to never again meet magic.