A Tomb of Winter's Plunder
by Tim Pratt
Chapter One: Taking the Waters
Alaeron sat, naked, on a natural stone bench in the sacred pool, the chest-deep water just a bit warmer than his own blood. He leaned into a fortuitous hollow in the rock, closed his eyes—hardly necessary, considering the depth of darkness in the cave—and let the healing waters soothe him. Or tried to. He'd paid enough to be soothed, at the very least.
The Balneal Springs retreat, nestled in the northern hills of Andoran east of Darkmoon Vale, was home to legendary waters that reportedly cured arthritis, muscle atrophy, toothache, heavy metal poisoning, and spiritual malaise. Alaeron suffered from none of those ailments, which might have explained why he didn't feel particularly cured now. He was young, in good condition (being unusually physically active for an alchemist), blessed with fine teeth, always careful when handling quicksilver and other toxic materials, and possessed with a combination of curiosity and impulsiveness that insured he would never be bored. Despite his rosy health, he'd come to Balneal to take the waters anyway.
And by "take the waters," he meant take the waters. He'd gathered samples from all the other springs on the property already, many of the pools hellishly hot and stinking of rotten eggs (from sulfur, not magic, as some more ignorant folk supposed). The volcanic activity to the north presented itself in a somewhat gentler aspect here, with bubbling hot springs that were locally renowned, if not as famous as the Brimstone Springs of Nidal.
The final waters he needed to sample were here in, Hanspur's Bath—a sacred spring-fed pool deep in a black cave where the foreign river deity was reputed to have paused once, on a journey to the sea. Alaeron's visit to the retreat, and access to this cave, had cost a tidy sum of gold he'd earned translating a profane text for a deranged patron. The profiteering priests who ran the retreat guarded their secrets closely, but despite the enforced nudity in this sacred chamber, Alaeron had smuggled in a bag made of thin watertight material, wadded up and hidden in his cheek. Unfolded and filled, the bag would hold a few precious ounces of liquid. Once full it would be too large to smuggle out the same way, but he had a plan to stash the bag in a dark crevice by the entryway and return later to create a distraction—explosions were quite distracting, he'd found—which would enable him to duck inside the cave mouth and retrieve the bag.
The plan was a bit elaborate, and more than a little dangerous, but what matter was the risk of life and limb in the service of his art? If the waters really were as efficacious as the priests and satisfied customers claimed, their properties should prove useful in his work, and could be diluted to create a score of potions to cure—or cause—an impressive variety of ailments physical and spiritual.
He took the bag from his mouth and prepared to fill it—then froze when he heard a splash on the far side of the pool. He had not been promised a private visit to the healing waters (that option was far too expensive for him), but he'd deliberately come early in the morning, when most of the wealthy visitors to Balneal would be sleeping or gorging themselves at breakfast.
Alaeron wasn't sure whether he should speak, as the etiquette of sitting in a black pool of magical water was not something he'd ever had occasion to learn. Before he could decide, the newcomers began talking.
"It would be an adventure," a voice—male, hearty, and self-confident—said. "The sort of bold act that made the Selmy family great."
"I'm not sure breaking into my dead thrice-great-grand-uncle's crypt compares to traveling to far lands for pillage and war," a second voice said—also male, but rather less hearty and confident.
"Oh, come, your whole family is founded on ancestral fortunes anyway. Raiding your uncle's tomb would be much the same, just... more direct."
"The treasures are supposed to be fabulous," the second voice—presumably a Selmy—said. "But I can't imagine they'd be easy to carry out. Uncle Brant had all his favorite things buried with him. He left us his money, at least some of it, but he was particular about his things, by all accounts. I'm sure there must be protections against graverobbers. Traps, and so forth. I'd rather not die on this trip, Rodrick. I'm here for my health, after all."
Alaeron is more scholar than warrior, but explosives have a funny way of solving problems.
"Nonsense, Simeon," Rodrick replied. "We know about the wards he laid to protect his barrow—only the blood of a Selmy can open the door, isn't that right? The fact that he made it possible for you to open the door suggests he wanted some descendant to come take his treasures away someday, doesn't it?"
"More likely he just wanted someone capable of setting him free if he was accidentally entombed alive," Simeon said. "Or perhaps to return occasionally and leave treasure, or shoo away spiders, or do a bit of light cleaning." A long pause. "My great-grandfather remembered Uncle Brant, from when he was a child and Brant was ancient. He said Brant was the sort of man who'd steal the coins from a beggar's bowl, even though he was rich as Artokus of Thuvia. Brant couldn't remember the names of his own grandchildren, but he had particular favorites among his coins."
"Then it's time someone took a few of those coins off him. No sense letting such precious things go to waste in a hole in the ground. The treasures he looted were precious antiquities when he stole them, two hundred years ago. Imagine what they're worth now!" Rodrick paused, and when he spoke again, his voice was very low, barely audible above the gentle lapping of water. "Or you could ask your father for the money to pay the Ratter the money you owe—"
"Oh, yes, that would go over well," Simeon said dolefully. "You know about mother's gambling problem. If father found out I'd lost that much at Towers, after he'd already spent all this money sending me here to recuperate... Is there no other way? You couldn't loan me the money? You know I'm good for it."
"Alas, I lost my own allowance gambling—though I paid off my outstanding balance, so the Ratter doesn't want to take me in his jaws—and mother won't send another purse for a month. No, it's the barrow, Simeon, unless you'd like to try your luck at busking in the streets for coins?"
"You know someone who would buy the things we found?" Simeon said.
"Oh, yes, indeed. There's a man I know in Almas who pays buckets of gold for relics."
"We could at least look," Simeon said. "The barrow isn't far, less than a day's travel. We could nip inside, and if there don't seem to be any dangers, carry a few things away. I daresay Uncle Brant can rest just as easily less a vase or statuette or two."
"An adventure!" Rodrick said. "Though personally I hope we encounter a ghoul or two. I'd hate to think I sharpened my sword for nothing."
They sat in silence for a while longer, taking in the waters and discussing their plans for departure and the best route, then left to walk down the dark and twisting tunnel back to the light.
Alaeron let his little bag float away. Ah, well. The sacred waters weren't going anywhere. He could steal a dram of those another time. But a barrow full of ancient relics, that could be opened only by the blood of the dead inhabitant's relatives? That was the sort of opportunity that wasn't likely to come his way again.
Alaeron wasn't much of a tracker—his natural habitat was the laboratory, the workshop, and the library, though he was surprisingly comfortable crawling into dark holes in the ground in search of treasure, both because he was fascinated by history and because a man had to fund his researches somehow. Fortunately, Simeon and Rodrick had said where they were going. Alaeron packed his bags and left his room, which was smaller than his sleeping quarters in Almas and cost as much for three nights as his entire workshop was worth. Only the very rich would consider it reasonable to pay so much for quarters so incredibly spare, presumably because austerity (and magical waters) were good for the soul—but only in moderation.
He walked along the crushed gravel paths, among the ancient weathered statues and small ornamental gardens, to the outer courtyard. The retreat was protected by high stone walls, because while they weren't too close to Darkmoon Vale, incursions from the dark forest weren't impossible.
One of the servants who bustled everywhere at the retreat brought him his horse, brushed and saddled and well fed, and helped Alaeron mount. He needed the help. He'd never been comfortable on horses, and would have hired a carriage (or at least a cart), but wheeled conveyances couldn't make it up the steep paths to the retreat. Alaeron cajoled the horse, a black pony he'd spent far too much money on, to amble northeast, through the lightly wooded foothills. This general area was fairly safe—the guards at the retreat kept the woods free of bandits and monsters, as rich people being eaten was bad for business. The barrow of Brant Selmy was half a day's ride away, at most, and Alaeron followed old colliers' paths through the forest, munching on dried meat and pausing occasionally to let the horse rest, though the pace was hardly punishing.
He didn't want to overtake Simeon and Rodrick. Better for them to arrive first, open the barrow, and delve deep inside. Alaeron was confident that, in the dark, with his experience and the advantage of his extracts and mutagens, he could move past the rich brats, snatch up some choice loot, and escape again unnoticed.
The barrow was unmistakable, an immense mound of earth and rock furred with moss and topped by gnarled, scraggly trees. Rodrick and Simeon had made some token attempt to hide their presence, tying up their horses in a copse some distance away, but this was a little-traveled part of the forest, and they hadn't worried overmuch about being discovered. Alaeron tied his own horse farther away and crept toward one side of the barrow. He hadn't expected this level of pillage when he'd set out for Balneal, and so hadn't packed his full adventuring packs, but he had enough in the way of reagents and elixirs and weapons to manage a brief delve into a crypt.
The door of the barrow was an immense oval stone, scratched a bit from past unsuccessful attempts by graverobbers to pry it open. The door was etched with runes that were faded and worn but still legible, though a few were smeared with what looked like fresh blood, and the stone was tilted to one side, revealing an opening just large enough for a man to slip through sideways. Alaeron crouched when he heard familiar voices inside.
"It's dark in here," Simeon complained.
"That's why we brought the lantern, isn't it?" Rodrick answered cheerfully.
Despite Alaeron's leisurely pace, the rich fools had only just arrived themselves. He was in awe at their slowness. Had they stopped to have a picnic lunch on the way? He decided to wait for them to make it a bit deeper into the barrow, then—
"Watch out!" Rodrick shouted. There was a peculiar sound—the twang of a taut wire snapping, if Alaeron was any judge—and then a horrific, meaty thunk, like a butcher bringing the weight of the cleaver down to crack open a cow's skull.
Rodrick swore, which meant he was still alive. Simeon didn't scream, which meant... something else. They'd triggered a trap. Apparently Uncle Brant wasn't so keen on having his descendants visit after all, or else Simeon hadn't been given the list of dangers to avoid.
"Simeon, you fool," Rodrick said. "Why didn't you look where you were—hold on. Damn it!"
Alaeron tensed, expecting the sound of another sprung trap—which would, at least, leave the barrow free for him to explore—but instead Rodrick just let loose a torrent of cursing. Alaeron slipped inside, hoping Rodrick would be too focused on his misery to notice the intrusion.
The light of Rodrick's lantern, set on a shelf of rock, revealed the barrow's interior to be typical of its kind: walls of timber and earth and stone, faintly rounded roof too low for comfort. A second door stood across the small room, directly opposite the exterior door, and that's where Simeon had met his fate: a length of timber as thick around as a man's waist, studded with stone spikes, had been hidden in a slot on the ceiling, doubtless connected to some tripwire in front of that interior door. Simeon's approach had set off the trap, dropping the log onto himself, and the result was a bit like what happened if you hit a tomato with a hammer. Alaeron realized that he'd never seen the boy in one piece, having only eavesdropped on him in the dark and from concealment.
Rodrick was standing over—or, rather, in—his dead friend, peering at the interior door. The surviving man was dressed in clothes too fine for dungeoneering, though he'd put on a mail shirt, and had a sword at his hip. His boots looked sturdy, at least. Alaeron couldn't see his face from here, but his shoulders were dismayingly wide, and in general he had the kind of muscular and well-proportioned physique the old poets called "thews."
"More runes," Rodrick muttered. "You died for nothing, Simeon—I can't even get in."
Well. There was no sneaking past him and snatching up a few treasures unawares now. Alaeron considered slinking away, but there was a barrow full of relics, with nothing between him and the treasures but a stone etched with magical writing, and he couldn't quite bring himself to leave.
He cleared his throat instead. "Excuse me," he said. "I couldn't help overhearing your problem. I think I can get the door open for you."
Rodrick rounded on him, sword in his hand before Alaeron even saw him start to draw, and roared.
Coming Next Week: Comrades of convenience in Chapter Two of Tim Pratt’s “A Tomb of Winter’s Plunder.”
For More of Alaeron’s adventures, check out City of the Fallen Sky, available now!
Tim Pratt's writing has won a Hugo Award, a Rhysling Award, and an Emperor Norton Award, as well as been nominated for Nebula, Mythopoeic, World Fantasy, and Stoker Awards. His stories have appeared in anthologies such as The Best American Short Stories and The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, as well as two short story collections of his own. He novels include the contemporary fantasies The Strange Adventures of Rangergirl and Briarpatch; the Forgotten Realms novel Venom in Her Veins; and seven books in the Marla Mason urban fantasy series (as T. A. Pratt). He edited the anthology Sympathy for the Devil, and the forthcoming Rags & Bones anthology with Melissa Marr. His books and stories have been translated into French, Czech, Dutch, Russian, Greek, Korean, Spanish, German, and several other languages.
Illustration by Eric Belisle.