Elven Nations Trilogy

 

 

    Volume Two

 

 

 [Dragonlance logo]

 

 

 

 

 

        The

 

 

  Kinslayer Wars

 

 

    Douglas Niles

 

 

 

 

 

     Cover Art

 

 

       Brom

 

 

 

 

 

    [WotC logo]

 


 

                                                 THE KINSLAYER WARS

 

 

 

                                                    ©2001 Wizards of the Coast, Inc.

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Cover art by Brom

First Printing: August 1991

Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 90-71492

 

 

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ISBN: 1-56076-113-X

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                                          Prologue

 

 

                           Winter, Year of the Ram, 2215 (PC)

 

 

 

 

 

    "The Emperor arrives­he enters the fortress at the South Gate!"

 

 

    The cry rang from the walls of Caergoth, blared by a thousand trumpets and heard by

 

a million ears. Excitement spread through the massive tent city around the great castle,

 

while the towering fortress itself fairly tingled with anticipation.

 

 

 

 

    The carriage of Emperor Quivalin Soth V, sometimes called Ullves, rumbled through

 

the huge gates, pulled by a team of twelve white horses, trailed by an escort of five

 

thousand men. From every parapet, every castellated tower top and high rampart in

 

sprawling Caergoth, silk-gowned ladies, proud noblemen, and courtiers waved and

 

cheered.

 

 

 

 

 

    Sheer, gray-fronted walls of granite towered over the procession, dominating the

 

surrounding farmlands as a mountain looms over a plain. Four massive gates, each

 

formed from planks of vallenwood eighty feet long, barred the sides of the great structure

 

against any conceivable foe­indeed, they proudly bore the scars of dragonbreath,

 

inflicted during the Second Dragon War more than four centuries earlier.

 

 

 

 

 

    The interior of Caergoth consisted of winding avenues, tall and narrow gates, stone

 

buildings crowded together, and always the high walls. They curved about and climbed in

 


 

terrace after terrace toward the heart of the massive castle, forming a granite maze for all

 

who entered.

 

    The carriage trundled through the outer gatehouse with imperial dignity and rolled

 

along the streets, through open gates, and down the widest avenue toward the center of

 

the fortress. Banners, in black and deep red and dark blue, hung from the ramparts.

 

Everywhere the cheering of the crowds thundered around the emperor's coach.

 

 

 

 

    Outside the walls, a vast sea of tents covered the fields around the fortress, and from

 

these poured the men-at-arms of the emperor's army­some two hundred thousand in all.

 

Though they did not mingle with the nobles and captains of the fortress, their joy was no

 

less boisterous. They surged toward the castle in the wake of the emperor's procession,

 

their shouts and hurrahs penetrating the heavy stone walls.

 

 

 

 

 

    Finally the procession entered a broad plaza, cool and misty from the spray of a

 

hundred fountains. Beyond, soaring to the very clouds themselves, arose the true wonder

 

of Caergoth: the palace of the king. Tall towers jutted up from high walls, and lofty,

 

peaked roofs seemed distant and unreachable. Crystal windows reflected sunlight in

 

dazzling rainbows, filtering and flashing their colors through the shimmering haze of the

 

fountains.

 

 

 

 

 

    The coach rumbled down the wide, paved roadway to the gates of the palace. These

 

portals, solid silver shined to mirrorlike brilliance, stood open wide. In their place stood

 


 

the royal personage himself, King Trangath II, Lord of Caergoth and most loyal servant

 

to the Emperor of Ergoth.

 

    Here the royal coach halted. A dozen men-at-arms snapped their halberds to their

 

chests as the king's own daughter opened the door of the gleaming steel carriage. The

 

crowd surged across the plaza, even through the pools of the fountains, in an effort to see

 

the great person who rode within. Around the plaza, from the surrounding walls and

 

towers, teeming thousands shouted their adulation.

 

 

 

 

 

    The emperor's green eyes flashed as he stepped from the high vehicle with a grace

 

that belied his fifty years. His beard and hair now showed streaks of gray, but his iron

 

will had hardened over his decades of rule until he was known, truthfully, as a ruthless

 

and determined leader who had led his people into a prosperity they had never before

 

known.

 

 

 

 

 

    Now this regal leader, his robe of crimson fur flowing over a black silk tunic

 

trimmed in platinum, ignored the King of Caergoth, stepping quickly to the three men

 

who stood silently behind that suddenly embarrassed monarch. Each of these was

 

bearded and wore a cap and breastplate of gleaming steel plate. Tall boots rose above

 

their knees, and each held a pair of gauntlets under his arm as he waited to greet the most

 

powerful man in all of Ansalon.

 


 

        The shrieks of the crowd reached a crescendo as the emperor seized each of these

 

men, one after the other, in an embrace of deepest affection. He turned once more and

 

waved to the masses.

 

 

 

 

        Then Quivalin V led the three men toward the crystal doors of the king's palace. The

 

portals parted smoothly, and when they closed, the hysteria beyond fell to a muted rum-

 

ble.

 

 

 

 

        "Find us a place where we can speak privately," the emperor commanded, without

 

turning to look at King Trangath.

 

 

 

        Immediately that royal personage scuttled ahead, bowing obsequiously and

 

beckoning the emperor's party through a towering door of dark mahogany.

 

 

 

        "I hope fervently that my humble library will suit my most esteemed lord's needs,"

 

the old king huffed, bowing so deeply he tottered for a moment, almost losing his

 

balance.

 

 

 

 

        Emperor Quivalin said nothing­until he and the three men had entered the library

 

and the doors had soundlessly closed behind them. A deep black marble floor stretched

 

into the far comers of the huge room. Above them, the ceiling lofted into the distance, a

 

dark surface of rich, brown wood. The only light came from high, narrow windows of

 

crystal; it fell around them as beams of heat and warmth before its reflections vanished in

 

the light-absorbent darkness of the floor.

 


 

    Though several soft chairs stood along the walls, none of the men moved to sit.

 

Instead, the emperor fixed each of the others with a stare of piercing strength and

 

impelling command.

 

 

 

 

    "You three men are my greatest generals," Quivalin V said, his voice surprisingly

 

soft beneath the intensity of his gaze. "And now you are the hope and the future of all hu-

 

mankind!"

 

 

 

 

    The three stood a little taller at his words, their shoulders growing a trifle more

 

broad. The emperor continued. "We have borne the elven savagery long enough. Their

 

stubborn refusal to allow humans their rightful place in the plains has become too much

 

to bear. The racial arrogance of their Speaker has turned diplomacy into insults. Our

 

reasonable demands are mocked. Silvanesti intransigence must be wiped out."

 

 

 

 

 

    Abruptly Quivalin's gaze flashed to one of the trio­the oldest, if his white beard and

 

long hair of the same color were any indication. Lines of strain and character marked the

 

man's face, and his short stature nevertheless bespoke a quiet, contained power.

 

 

 

 

    "Now, High General Barnet, tell me your plans."

 

 

    The older warrior cleared his throat. A veteran of four decades of service to this

 

emperor­and to Quivalin IV before him­Barnet nevertheless couldn't entirely calm him-

 

self in the face of that august presence.

 


 

    "Excellency, we will advance into the plains in three great wings­a powerful thrust

 

from the center, and two great hooks to the north and south. I myself will command the

 

central wing­a thousand heavy lancers and fifty thousand sturdy footmen with metal

 

armor, shields, and pikes. Sailors and woodsmen from Daltigoth and the south, mainly,

 

including ten thousand with crossbows.

 

 

 

 

 

    "We shall drive directly toward Sithelbec, which we know is the heart of the elven

 

defense­a place the elven general must defend. Our aim is to force the enemy into

 

combat before us, while the northern and southern wings complete the encirclement.

 

They will serve as the mobile hammers, gathering the enemy against the anvil of my own

 

solid force."

 

 

 

 

 

    High General Barnett looked to one of his co-commanders. "General Xalthan

 

commands the southern wing."

 

 

 

    Xalthan, a red-bearded warrior with bristling eyebrows and missing front teeth,

 

seemed to glower at the emperor with a savage aspect, but this was simply an effect of his

 

warlike appearance. His voice, as he spoke, was deferential. "I have three brigades of

 

heavy lancers, Excellency, and as many footmen as Barnett­armored in leather, to move

 

more quickly."

 

 

 

 

 

    Xalthan seemed to hesitate a moment, as if embarrassed, then he plunged boldly

 

ahead. "The gnomish artillery, I must admit, has not lived up to expectations. But their

 


 

engineers are busy even as we speak. I feel certain that the lava cannons will be activated

 

early in the campaign."

 

    The emperor's eyes narrowed slightly at the news. No one saw the facial gesture

 

except for Xalthan, but the other two noticed that veteran commander's ruddy complexion

 

grow visibly pale.

 

 

 

 

    "And you, Giarna?" asked the emperor, turning to the third man. "How goes the

 

grandest campaign of the Boy General?"

 

 

 

    Giarna, whose youthfulness was apparent in his smooth skin and soft, curling beard,

 

didn't react to his nickname. Instead, he stood easily, with a casualness that might have

 

been interpreted as insolence, except there was crisp respect reflected in his expression as

 

he pondered his answer. Even so, his eyes unsettled the watchers, even the emperor. They

 

were dark and full of a deep and abiding menace that made him seem older than his

 

years.

 

 

 

 

 

    The other two generals scowled privately at the young man. After all, it was common

 

knowledge that Giarna's favored status with the emperor was due more to the Duchess

 

Suzine des Quivalin­niece of the emperor, and reputed mistress to the general

 

himself­than to any inherent military skill.

 

 

 

 

    Still, Giarna's battle prowess, demonstrated against rebellious keeps across the

 

Vingaard Plains, was grudgingly admitted even by his critics. It was his mastery of strate-

 

gy, not his individual courage or his grasp of tactics, that had yet to be proven.

 


 

    Under ordinary circumstances, General Giarna's army command skills would not

 

have been tested on the battlefield for some years yet­until he was older and more sea-

 

soned. However, a recent rash of tragic accidents­a panicked horse bucking, a jealous

 

husband returning home, and a misunderstood command to retreat­had cost the lives of

 

the three generals who had stood in line for this post. Thus Giarna, youthful though he

 

was, had been given his opportunity.

 

 

 

 

 

    Now he stood proudly before his emperor and replied.

 

 

    "My force is the smallest, Excellency, but also the fastest. I have twenty thousand

 

riders­horse archers and lancers­and also ten thousand footmen each of sword and

 

longbowmen. It is my intention to march swiftly and come between the Wildrunners and

 

their base in Sithelbec. Then I will wait for Kith-Kanan to come to me, and I will shred

 

his army with my arrows and my horsemen."

 

 

 

 

 

    Giarna made his report coolly, without so much as a nod to his peers, as if the other

 

two commanders were excessive baggage on this, the Boy General's first great

 

expedition. The older generals fumed; the implication was not lost on them.

 

 

 

 

    Nor on the emperor. Quivalin V smiled at the plans of his generals. Beyond the walls

 

of the cavernous library, within the vast palace, the roar of the admiring crowd could still

 

be heard.

 


 

    Abruptly the emperor clapped his hands, the sound echoing sharply through the large

 

chamber. A side door to the room opened, and a woman advanced across the gleaming

 

marble. Even the two older generals, both of whom distrusted and resented her, would

 

have admitted that her beauty was stunning.

 

 

 

 

    Her hair, of coppery red, spiraled around a diamond-encrusted tiara of rich platinum.

 

A gown of green silk conformed to the full outline of her breasts and hips, accented by a

 

belt of rubies and emeralds that enclosed her narrow waist. But it was her face that was

 

most striking, with her high cheekbones and proud, narrow chin and, most significant, her

 

eyes. They glowed with the same vibrance as the emeralds on her belt, the almost

 

unnatural green of the Quivalin line.

 

 

 

 

 

    Suzine Des Quivalin curtsied deeply to her uncle, the emperor. Her eyes remained

 

downcast as she awaited his questions.

 

 

 

    "What can you tell us about the state of the enemy's forces?" asked the ruler. "Has

 

your mirror been of use in this regard?"

 

 

 

    "Indeed, Excellency," she replied. "Though the range to the elven army is great,

 

conditions have been good. I have been able to see much.

 

 

 

    "The elven general, Kith-Kanan, has deployed his forces in thin screens throughout

 

the plain, well forward of the fortress of Sithelbec. He has few horsemen­perhaps five

 

hundred, certainly less than a thousand. Any one of your army's wings will outnumber his

 

entire force, perhaps by a factor of two or three."

 


 

    "Splendid," noted Quivalin. Again he clapped, this time twice.

 

 

    The figure that emerged from a different door was perhaps as opposite from the

 

woman as was conceivable. Suzine turned to leave as this stocky individual clumped into

 

the room. She paused only long enough to meet Giarna's gaze, as if she was searching for

 

something in his eyes. Whatever it was, she didn't find it. She saw nothing but the dark,

 

insatiable hunger for war. In another moment, she disappeared through the same door she

 

had entered.

 

 

 

 

 

    In the meantime, the other figure advanced toward the four men. The newcomer was

 

stooped, almost apelike in posture, and barely four feet tall. His face was grotesque, an

 

effect accentuated by his leering grin. And where Suzine's eyes crowned her beauty with

 

pride and dignity, the mad, staring eyes of the dwarf showed white all around the tiny

 

pupils and seemed to dart frantically from person to person.

 

 

 

 

 

    If he felt any repugnance at the dwarf's appearance, the emperor didn't show it.

 

Instead, he simply asked a question.

 

 

 

    "What is the status of Thorbardin's involvement?"

 

 

    "Most Exalted One, my own dwarves of the Theiwar Clan offer you their

 

unequivocal support. We share your hatred of the arrogant elves and wish nothing more

 

than their defeat and destruction."

 


 

    "Nothing more, unless it be a sum of profit in the bargain," remarked the emperor,

 

his voice neutral.

 

 

 

    The dwarf bowed again, too thick-skinned to be offended. "Your Eminence may take

 

reassurance from the fact that loyalty purchased is always owed to the wealthiest

 

patron­and here you have no competition in all of Krynn."

 

 

 

 

    "Indeed," Quivalin added dryly. "But what of the other dwarves­the Hylar, the

 

Daergar?"

 

 

 

    "Alas," sighed the Theiwar dwarf. "They have not been so open-minded as my own

 

clan. The Hylar, in particular, seem bound by ancient treaties and affections. Our influ-

 

ence is great, but thus far insufficient to break these ties."

 

 

 

 

    The dwarf lowered his voice conspiratorially. "However, your lordliness, we have an

 

agent in place­a Theiwar­and should be able to ensure that little excess of comfort is

 

delivered to your enemies."

 

 

 

 

    "Splendid," agreed the emperor. If he was curious as to the precise identity of the

 

Theiwar agent, he gave no sign. "A vigorous season of warfare should bring them to heel.

 

I hope to drive them from the plains before winter. The elven cowards will be ready to

 

sign a treaty by spring!"

 

 

 

 

    The emperor's eyes suddenly glowed with dull fire, the calculated sense of power

 

and brutality that had allowed him to send thousands of men to their deaths in a dozen of

 


 

his empire's wars. They flamed brighter at the thought of the arrogance of the long-lived

 

elves and their accursed stubbornness. His voice became a growl.

 

    "But if they continue to resist, we will not be content to wage war on the plains.

 

Then you will march on the elven capital itself. If it is necessary to prove our might, we

 

will reduce Silvanost itself to ashes."

 

 

 

 

    The generals bowed to their ruler, determined to do his bidding. Two of them felt

 

fear­fear of his power and his whim. Beads of sweat collected upon their foreheads, drip-

 

ping unnoticed down cheeks and beards.

 

 

 

 

    General Giarna's brow, however, remained quite dry.

 

 

 

 

 

                               PART 1: A TASTE OF KILLING

 


 

                                              1

 

 

                            Late Winter, Year of the Raven,

 

 

                                        2214 (PC)

 

 

 

 

 

    The forest vanished into the distance on all sides, comfortingly huge, eternal, and

 

unchanging. That expanse was the true heart, the most enduring symbol, of the elven na-

 

tion of Silvanesti. The towering pines, with lush green needles so dark they were almost

 

black, dominated, but glades of oak and maple, aspen, and birch flourished in many iso-

 

lated pockets, giving the forest a diverse and ever-changing character.

 

 

 

 

 

    Only from a truly exalted vantage­such as from the Tower of the Stars, the central

 

feature of Silvanost­could the view be fully appreciated. This was where Sithas, Speaker

 

of the Stars and ruler of Silvanesti, came to meditate and contemplate.

 

 

 

 

    The sky loomed vast and distant overhead, a dome of black filled with glittering

 

pinpoints of light. Krynn's moons had not yet risen, and this made the pristine beauty of

 

the stars more brilliant, more commanding.

 

 

 

 

    For a long time, Sithas stood at the lip of the tower's parapet. He found comfort in

 

the stars and in the deep and eternal woods beyond this island, beyond this city. Sithas

 

sensed that the forest was the true symbol of his people's supremacy. Like the great

 


 

trunks of forest giants, the ancient, centuries-living elves stood above the scurrying,

 

scampering lesser creatures of the world.

 

    Finally the Speaker of the Stars lowered his eyes to look upon that city, and

 

immediately the sense of peace and splendor he had known dissipated. Instead, his mind

 

focused on Silvanost, the ancient elven capital, the city that held his palace and his

 

throne.

 

 

 

 

    Faint traces of a drunken chant rose through the night air to disturb his ears. The

 

song thrummed in the guttural basso of dwarves, as if to mock his concern and

 

consternation.

 

 

 

 

    Dwarves! They are everywhere in Silvanost! Everywhere, in the city of elves, he

 

thought grimly.

 

 

 

    Yet the dwarves were a necessary evil, Sithas admitted with a sigh. The war with the

 

humans called for extremely careful negotiations with powerful Thorbardin, the dwarven

 

stronghold south of the disputed lands. The power of that vast and warlike nation, thrown

 

behind either human Ergoth or elven Silvanesti, could well prove decisive.

 

 

 

 

    Once, a year earlier, the Speaker of the Stars had assumed the dwarves were firmly

 

in the elven camp. His negotiations with the esteemed Hylar dwarf Dunbarth Ironthumb

 

had presented a unified front against human encroachment. Sithas had assumed that

 

dwarven troops would soon stand beside the elves in the disputed plainslands.

 


 

    Yet, to date, King Hal-Waith of Thorbardin had not yet sent a single regiment of

 

dwarven fighters, nor had he released to Kith-Kanan's growing army any of the great

 

stocks of dwarven weapons. The patient dwarves were not about to be hurried into any

 

rash wars.

 

 

 

 

    So a dwarven diplomatic mission was a necessity in Silvanost. And now that war had

 

begun, such missions required sizable escorts­in the case of the recently arrived dwarven

 

general Than-Kar, some one thousand loyal axemen.

 

 

 

 

    Surprising himself, Sithas thought with fondness of the previous dwarven

 

ambassador. Dunbarth Ironthumb had fully possessed all the usual uncouthness of a

 

dwarf, but he also had a sense of humor and was self-effacing, traits that had relaxed and

 

amused Sithas.

 

 

 

 

    Than-Kar had none of these traits. A swarthy complected Theiwar, the general was

 

rude to the point of belligerence. Impatient and uncooperative, the ambassador actually

 

seemed to act as an impediment to communication.

 

 

 

 

    Take, for example, the messenger who had arrived from Thorbardin more than a

 

week ago. This dwarf, after his months'-long march, must certainly have brought impor-

 

tant news from the dwarven king. Yet, Than-Kar had said nothing, had not even

 

requested an audience with the Speaker of the Stars. This was the reason for the

 

conference Sithas had scheduled for the morrow, peremptorily summoning Than-Kar to

 

the meeting in order to find out what the Theiwar knew.

 


 

    His mood as thick as the night, Sithas let his gaze follow the dark outlines of the

 

river Thon-Thalas, the wide waterway surrounding Silvanost and its island. The water

 

was smooth, and he could see starlight reflected in its crystal surface. Then the breeze

 

rose again, clouding the surface with ripples and washing the chant of the dwarven

 

axemen away.

 

 

 

 

 

    Seeing the river, the Speaker's mind filled with a new and most unwelcome memory,

 

a scene as clear in its every detail as it was painful in its recollection. Two weeks ago or

 

more it was now, yet it might as well have been that very morning. That was when the

 

newly recruited regiments had departed westward, to join Kith-Kanan's forces.

 

 

 

 

    The long columns of warriors had lined the riverbank, waiting their turns to board

 

the ferry and cross. From the far bank of the Thon-Thalas, they were about to begin their

 

long march to the disputed lands, five hundred miles to the west. Their five thousand

 

spears, swords, and longbows would prove an important addition to the Wildrunners.

 

 

 

 

    Yet, for the first time in the history of Silvanesti, the elves had needed to be bribed

 

into taking up arms for their Speaker, their nation. A hundred steel bounty, paid upon

 

recruitment, had been offered as incentive. Even this had not brought volunteers flocking

 

to the colors, though after several weeks of recruitment regiments of sufficient size had

 

finally been raised.

 

 

 

 

 

    And then there had been the scene at the riverbank.

 


 

    The cleric Miritelisina had just recently emerged from the cell where Sithas's father,

 

Sithel, had thrown her for treason a year earlier. The matriarch of the faith of Quenesti

 

Pah, benign goddess of healing and health, Miritelisina had voiced loud objections to the

 

war with the humans. She had had the audacity to lead a group of elven females in a

 

shrill, hysterical protest against the conflict with Ergoth. It had been a sickening display,

 

worthy more of humans than of elves. Yet the cleric had enjoyed a surprisingly large

 

amount of support from the onlooking citizens of Silvanesti.

 

 

 

 

 

    Sithas had promptly ordered Miritelisina back to prison, and his guard had disrupted

 

the gathering with crisp efficiency. Several females had been wounded, one fatally. At

 

the same time, one of the heavily laden river craft had overturned, drowning several

 

newly recruited elves. All in all, these were bad omens.

 

 

 

 

    At least, the Speaker realized, the outbreak of war had driven the last humans from

 

the city. The pathetic refugees of the troubles on the plains­many with elven spouses­had

 

marched back to their homelands. Those who could fight had joined the Wildrunners, the

 

army of Silvanost, centered around the members of the House Protectorate. The others

 

had taken shelter in the great fortress of Sithelbec. Ironic, thought Sithas, that humans

 

married to elves should be sheltered in an elven fortress, safe against the onslaught of

 

human armies!

 


 

    Still, in every other way, the city that Sithas loved seemed to be slipping further and

 

further from his control.

 

 

 

    His gaze lingered to the west, rising to the horizon, and he wished he could see

 

beyond. Kith-Kanan was there somewhere under this same star-studded sky. His twin

 

brother might even be looking eastward at this moment; at least, Sithas wanted to believe

 

that he felt some contact.

 

 

 

 

    For a moment, Sithas found himself wishing that his father still lived. How he

 

missed Sithel's wisdom, his steady counsel and firm guidance! Had his father ever known

 

these doubts, these insecurities? The idea seemed impossible to the son. Sithel had been a

 

pillar of strength and conviction. He would not have wavered in his pursuit of this war in

 

the protection of the elven nation against outside corruption.

 

 

 

 

 

    The purity of the elven race was a gift of the gods, with its longevity and its serene

 

majesty. Now that purity was threatened­by human blood, to be sure, but also by ideas of

 

intermingling, trade, artisanship, and social tolerance.

 

 

 

 

    The nation faced a very crucial time indeed. In the west, he knew, elves and humans

 

had begun to intermarry with disturbing frequency, giving birth to a whole bastard race of

 

half-elves.

 

 

 

 

    By all the gods, it was an abomination, an affront to the heavens themselves! Sithas

 

felt his face flush, and his hands clenched. If he had worn a sword, he would have seized

 


 

it then, so powerfully did the urge to fight come over him. The elves must prevail­they

 

would prevail!

 

    Again he felt his distance from the conflict, and it loomed as a yawning chasm of

 

frustration before him. As yet they had received no word of battle, although he knew that

 

nearly a month earlier, the great invasion had begun. His brother had reported three great

 

human columns, all moving purposefully into the plainslands. Sithas wanted to go and

 

fight himself, to lend his strength to winning the war, and it was all he could do to hold

 

himself back. Inevitably his sense of reason prevailed.

 

 

 

 

 

    At times, the war seemed so far away, so unreachable. Yet, other times, he found it

 

beside him, here in Silvanost, in his palace, in his thoughts ... in his very bedroom.

 

 

 

    His bedroom. Sithas gave a rueful smile and shook his head in wonder. He thought

 

of Hermathya, how months earlier his feelings for her had approached loathing.

 

 

 

    Yet with the coming of war, a change had come over his wife as well. Now she

 

supported him as never before, standing beside him every day against the complaints and

 

pettiness of his people ... and lying beside him every night as well.

 

 

 

 

    He heard, or perhaps he felt, the soft rustle of silk, and then she was beside him. He

 

breathed a deep sigh­a sound of contentment and satisfaction. The two of them stood

 

alone, six hundred feet above the city, atop the Tower of the Stars, beneath the brilliant

 

light shower of its namesake.

 


 

    Her mouth, with its round lips so unusually full for an elf, was creased by the trace of

 

a smile­a sly, secret smile that he found strangely beguiling. She stood beside him,

 

touching a hand to his chest and leaning her head on his shoulder.

 

 

 

 

    He smelled her hair, rich with the scent of lilacs, yet in color as bright as copper. Her

 

smooth skin glowed with a milky luminescence, and he felt her warm lips upon his neck.

 

A warm rush of desire swept through him, fading only slightly as she relaxed and stood

 

beside him in silence.

 

 

 

 

    Sithas thought of his volatile wife­how pleasant it was to have her come to him thus,

 

and how rare such instances had been in the past. Hermathya was a proud and beautiful

 

elf woman, used to getting her own way. Sometimes he wondered if she regretted their

 

marriage, arranged by their parents. Once, he knew, she had been the lover of his

 

brother­indeed, Kith-Kanan had rebelled against his father's authority and fled Silvanost

 

when her engagement to Sithas had been announced. Did she ever regret her choice?

 

How well had she calculated her future as wife of the Speaker of the Stars? He did not

 

know­perhaps, in fact, he was afraid to ask her.

 

 

 

 

 

    "Have you seen my cousin yet?" she asked after a few minutes.

 

 

    "Lord Quimant? Yes, he came to the Hall of Balif earlier today. I must say, he seems

 

to have an excellent grip on the problems of weapon production. He knows mining,

 

smelting, and smithing. His aid is much needed ... and would be much appreciated. We

 

are not a nation of weaponsmiths like the dwarves."

 


 

    "Clan Oakleaf has long made the finest of elven blades," Hermathya replied proudly.

 

"That is known throughout Silvanesti."

 

 

 

    "It is not the quality that worries me, my dear. It is in the quantity of weapons that

 

we lag sadly behind the humans, and the dwarves. We cleaned out the royal armories in

 

order to outfit the last regiments we sent to the west."

 

 

 

 

    "Quimant will solve your problems, I'm certain. Will he be coming to Silvanost?"

 

 

    The estate of Clan Oakleaf lay to the north of the elven capital, near the mines where

 

they excavated the iron for their small foundries. The clan, the central power behind

 

House Metalline, was the primary producer of weapons-quality steel in the kingdom of

 

Silvanesti. Lately its influence had grown, due to the necessity of increased weapons

 

production brought on by the war. The mines were worked by slaves, mostly human and

 

Kagonesti elves, but this was a fact Sithas had to accept because of his nation's emer-

 

gency. Lord Quimant, the son of Hermathya's eldest uncle, was being groomed as the

 

spokesman and leader of Clan Oakleaf, and his services for the estate were important.

 

 

 

 

 

    "I believe he will. I've offered him chambers in the palace, as well as incentives for

 

the Oakleaf clan­mineral rights, steady supplies of coal ... and labor."

 

 

 

    "It would be wonderful to have some of my family around again." Hermathya's voice

 

rose, joyful as a young girl's. "This can be such a lonely place, with all of your attention

 

directed to the war."

 


 

    He lowered his hand, sliding it along the smooth silk of her gown, down her back,

 

his strong fingers caressing her. She sighed and held him tighter. "Well, maybe not all of

 

your attention," she added, with a soft laugh.

 

 

 

 

    Sithas wanted to tell her what a comfort she had been to him, how much she had

 

eased the burdens of his role as leader of the elven nation. He wondered at the change

 

that had come over her, but he said nothing. That was his nature, and perhaps his

 

weakness.

 

 

 

 

    It was Hermathya who next spoke.

 

 

    "There is another thing I must tell you ...."

 

 

    "Good news or bad?" he asked, idly curious.

 

 

    "You will need to judge that for yourself, though I suspect you will be pleased."

 

 

    He turned to look at her, holding both of his hands on her shoulders. That secret

 

smile still played about her lips.

 

 

 

    "Well?" he demanded, feigning impatience. "Don't tease me all night! Tell me."

 

 

    "You and I, great Speaker of the Stars, are going to have a baby. An heir."

 

 

    Sithas gaped at her, unaware that his jaw had dropped in a most unelven lack of

 

dignity. His mind reeled, and a profound explosion of joy rose within his heart. He

 

wanted to shout his delight from the tower top, to let the word ring through the city like a

 

prideful cry.

 


 

        For a moment, he truly forgot about everything­the war, the dwarves, the logistics

 

and weapons that had occupied him. He pulled his wife to him and kissed her. He held

 

her for a long time under the starlight, above the city that had so troubled him earlier.

 

 

 

 

        But for now, all was right with the world.

 

 

                                            *   *   *   *   *

 

 

        The next day, Than-Kar came to see Sithas, though the Theiwar dwarf arrived nearly

 

fifteen minutes after the time indicated in the Speaker's summons.

 

 

 

        Sithas awaited him, impatiently seated upon the great emerald throne of his

 

ancestors, located in the center of the great Hall of Audience. This vast chamber occupied

 

the base of the Tower of the Stars, with its sheer walls soaring upward into the dizzying

 

heights. Above, six hundred feet over their heads, the top of the tower stood open to the

 

sky.

 

 

 

 

 

        Than-Kar clumped into the hall at the head of a column of twelve bodyguards,

 

almost as if he expected ambush. Twoscore elves of the House Protectorate­the royal

 

guard of Silvanesti­snapped to attention around the periphery of the hall.

 

 

 

 

        The Theiwar sniffed his nose loudly, the rude gesture echoing through the hall, as he

 

approached the Speaker. Sithas studied the dwarf, carefully masking his distaste.

 

 

 

        Like all Theiwar dwarves, Than-Kar's eyes seemed to stare wildly, with the whites

 

showing all around the pinpoint pupils. His lips curled in a perpetual sneer, and despite

 


 

his ambassadorial station, his beard and hair remained unkempt, his leather clothes filthy.

 

How unlike Dunbarth Ironthumb!

 

    The Theiwar bowed perfunctorily and then looked up at Sithas, his beady eyes

 

glittering with antagonism.

 

 

 

    "We'll make this brief," said the elf coldly. "I desire to know what word has come

 

from your king. He has had time to reply, and the questions we have sent have not been

 

formally answered."

 

 

 

 

    "As a matter of fact, I was preparing my written reply when your courier interrupted

 

me with this summons yesterday. I had to delay my progress in order to hasten to this

 

meeting."

 

 

 

 

    Yes, Than-Kar must have made haste, for he obviously hadn't taken time to run a

 

comb through his hair or change his grease-spattered tunic, thought Sithas. The Speaker

 

held his tongue, albeit with difficulty.

 

 

 

 

    "However, insofar as I am here and taking up the speaker's valuable time, I can

 

summarize the message that I have received from Thorbardin."

 

 

 

    "Please, do," Sithas requested dryly.

 

 

    "The Royal Council of Thorbardin finds that, to date, there is insufficient cause to

 

support elven warmaking in the plains," announced the dwarf bluntly.

 

 

 

    "What?" Sithas stiffened, no longer able to retain his impassive demeanor. "That is a

 

contradiction of everything our meetings with Dunbarth established! Surely you­your

 


 

people­recognize that the human threat extends beyond mere grazing rights on the

 

plains!"

 

    "There is no evidence of a threat to our interests."

 

 

    "No threat?" The elf cut him off rudely. "You know humans, they will stretch and

 

grab whatever they can. They will seize our plains, your mountains, the forest­-

 

everything!"

 

 

 

 

    Than-Kar regarded him coolly, those wide, staring eyes seeming to gleam with

 

delight. Abruptly Sithas realized that he was wasting his time with this arrogant Theiwar.

 

Angrily he stood, half fearing that he would strike out at the dwarf and very much

 

desiring to do just that. Still, enough of his dignity and self-control remained to stay his

 

hand. After all, a war with the dwarves was the last thing they needed right now.

 

 

 

 

 

    "This conference is concluded," he said stiffly.

 

 

    Than-Kar nodded­smugly, Sithas thought­and turned to lead his escort from the hall.

 

 

    Sithas stared after the dwarven ambassador, his anger still seething. He would not­he

 

could not­allow this to be the final impasse!

 

 

 

    But what else could he do? No ideas arrived to lighten the oppressive burden of his

 

mood.

 


 

                                                  2

 

 

                                     Spring, 2214 (PC)

 

 

 

 

 

    The horse pranced nervously along the ridgetop, staying within the protective foliage

 

of the tree line. Thick, bluegreen pines enclosed the mount and its elven rider on three

 

sides. Finally the great stallion Kijo stood still, allowing Kith-Kanan to peer through the

 

moist, aromatic branches to the vast expanse of open country beyond.

 

 

 

 

    Nearby, two of the Wildrunners­Kith's personal bodyguards­sat alertly in their

 

saddles, swords drawn and eyes alert. Those elves, too, were nervous at the sight of their

 

leader possibly exposing himself to the threat in the valley below.

 

 

 

 

    And what a threat it was! The long column of the human army snaked into the

 

distance as far as the keen-eyed elves could see from their vantage on the ridgetop. The

 

vanguard of the army, a company of heavily armored lancers riding huge, lumbering

 

war-horses, had already passed them by.

 

 

 

 

    Now ranks of spearmen, thousands upon thousands, marched past, perhaps a mile

 

away down the gradually sloping ridge. This was the central wing of the massive Army

 

of Ergoth, which followed the most direct route toward Sithelbec and presented the most

 

immediate threat to the Wildrunners. Kith-Kanan turned with a grim smile, and Kijo

 

pranced into the deeper shelter of the forest.

 


 

    The commander of the Wildrunners knew his force was ready for this, the opening

 

battle of his nation's first war in over four centuries. Not since the Second Dragon War

 

had the elves of the House Protectorate taken to the field to defend their nation against an

 

external threat.

 

 

 

 

    The ring on his finger­the Ring of Balifor­had been given to his father as a reminder

 

of the alliance between kender and elves during the Second Dragon War. Now he wore it

 

and prepared to do battle in a new cause. For a moment, he wondered what this war

 

would be named when Astinus took up his pen to scribe the tale in his great annals.

 

 

 

 

    Though Kith-Kanan was young for an elf­he had been born a mere ninety-three

 

years ago­he felt the weight of long tradition riding in the saddle with him. He knew no

 

compelling hatred toward these humans, yet he recognized the threat they presented. If

 

they weren't stopped here, half of Silvanesti would be gobbled up by the rapacious human

 

settlers, and the elves would be driven into a small corner of their once vast holdings.

 

 

 

 

 

    The humans had to be defeated. It was Kith-Kanan's job, as commander of the

 

Wildrunners, to see that the elven nation was victorious.

 

 

 

    Another figure moved through the trees, bringing the bodyguards' swords swooshing

 

forth, until they recognized the rider.

 

 

 

    "Sergeant-Major Parnigar." Kith-Kanan nodded to the veteran Wildrunner, his chief

 

aide and most reliable scout. The sergeant was dressed in leather armor of green and

 

brown, and he rode a stocky, nimble pony.

 


 

    "The companies are in place, sir­the riders behind the ridge, with a thousand elves of

 

Silvanost bearing pike behind them." Parnigar, a veteran warrior who had fought in the

 

Second Dragon War, had helped recruit the first wild elves into Kith-Kanan's force. Now

 

he reported on their readiness to die for that cause. "The Kagonesti archers are well

 

hidden and well supplied. We can only hope the humans react as we desire."

 

 

 

 

 

    Parnigar looked skeptical as he spoke, but Kith suspected this was just the elf's

 

cautious nature. The sergeant's face was as gray and leathery as an old map. His strapping

 

arms rested on the pommel of his saddle with deceptive ease. His green eyes missed

 

nothing. Even as he talked to his general, the sergeant-major was scanning the horizon.

 

 

 

 

    Parnigar slouched casually in his saddle, his posture more like a human's than an

 

elf's. Indeed, the veteran had taken a human wife some years before, and in many ways

 

he seemed to enjoy the company of the short-lived race. He spoke quickly and moved

 

with a certain restless agitation­both characteristics that tended to mark humans far more

 

typically than elves.

 

 

 

 

 

    Yet Parnigar knew his roots. He was an heir of the House Protectorate and had

 

served in the Wildrunners since he had first learned to handle a sword. He was the most

 

capable warrior that Kith-Kanan knew, and the elven general was glad to have him at his

 

side.

 


 

    "The human scouts have been slain by ambush," KithKanan told him. "Their army

 

has lost its eyes. It is almost time. Come, ride with me."

 

 

 

    The commander of the Wildrunners nudged Kijo's flanks with his knees, and the

 

stallion exploded into a dash through the forest. So nimble was the horse's step that he

 

dashed around tree trunks with Kith-Kanan virtually a blur. Parnigar raced behind, with

 

the two hapless guards spurring their steeds in a losing struggle to keep pace.

 

 

 

 

    For several minutes, the pair dashed through the forest, the riders' faces lashed by

 

pine needles, but the horses' hooves landing true. Abruptly the trees stopped, exposing

 

the wide, gently rolling ridgetop. Below, to the right, marched the endless army of

 

humankind.

 

 

 

 

    Kith-Kanan nudged Kijo again, and the stallion burst into view of the humans below.

 

The elven general's blond hair trailed in the sun behind him, for his helmet remained

 

lashed to the back of his saddle. As he rode, he raised a steel-mailed fist.

 

 

 

 

    He made a grand figure, racing along the crest of the hill above the teeming mass of

 

his enemy. Like his twin brother Sithas, his face was handsome and proud, with

 

prominent cheekbones and a sharp, strong chin. Though he was slender­like every one of

 

his race­his tall physique lifted him above the deep pommels of the saddle.

 

 

 

 

    Instantly the trumpeters of Silvanost sprang to their feet. They had lain in the grass

 

along this portion of the crest. Raising their golden horns in unison, they brayed a chal-

 

lenge across the rolling prairie below. Behind the trumpeters, concealed from the humans

 


 

by the crest of the ridge, the elven riders mounted their horses while the bowmen knelt in

 

the tall grass, waiting for the command to action.

 

    The great column of humans staggered like a confused centipede. Men turned to

 

gape at the spectacle, observing pennants and banners that burst from the woods in a riot-

 

ous display of color. All order vanished from the march as each soldier instinctively

 

yielded to astonishment and the beginnings of fear.

 

 

 

 

    Then the human army gasped, for the elven riders abruptly swarmed over the

 

ridgetop in a long, precise line. Horses pranced, raising their forefeet in a high trot, while

 

banners unfurled overhead and steel lance tips gleamed before them. They numbered but

 

five hundred, yet every human who saw them swore later that they were attacked by

 

thousands of elven riders.

 

 

 

 

 

    Onward the elven horsemen came, their line remaining parade-ground sharp. On the

 

valley floor, some of the humans broke and ran, while others raised spears or swords,

 

ready and even eager for battle.

 

 

 

 

    From the front of the vast human column, the huge brigade of heavy lancers turned

 

its mighty war-horses toward the flank. Yet they were two miles away, and their compan-

 

ies quickly lost coherence as they struggled around other regiments­the footmen­that

 

were caught behind them.

 

 

 

 

    The elven riders raced closer to the center of the column, the thunder of their hooves

 

crashing and shaking the earth. Then, two hundred feet from their target, they stopped.

 


 

Each of the five hundred horses pivoted, and from the dust of the sudden maneuver, five

 

hundred arrows arced forth, over the great blocks of humans and then down, like deadly

 

hawks seeking out their terrified victims.

 

    Another volley ripped into the human ranks, and suddenly the elven riders retreated,

 

dashing across the same ridge they had charged down mere moments before.

 

 

 

    In that same instant, the humans realized they were going to be robbed of the

 

satisfaction of fighting, and a roar of outrage erupted from ten thousand throats. Swords

 

raised, shields brandished, men broke from the column without command of their

 

captains, chasing and cursing the elven riders. The enraged mob swept up the slope in

 

chaotic disarray, united only in its fury.

 

 

 

 

 

    Abruptly a trumpet cry rang from the low summit, and ranks of green-clad elves

 

appeared in the grass before the charging humans, as if they had suddenly sprouted from

 

the ground.

 

 

 

 

    In the next instant, the sky darkened beneath a shower of keen elven arrows, their

 

steel tips gleaming in the sunlight as they arced high above the humans, then tipped in

 

their inevitable descent. Even before the first volley fell, another rippled outward, as

 

steady and irresistible as hail.

 

 

 

 

    The arrows tore into the human ranks with no regard for armor, rank, or quickness.

 

Instead, the deadly rain showered the mob with complete randomness, puncturing steel

 

helmets and breastplates and slicing through leather shoulder pads. Shrieks and cries

 


 

from the wounded rose in hysterical chorus, while other humans fell silently, writhing in

 

mute agony or lying still upon the now-reddening grass.

 

    Again and again the arrows soared outward, and the mob wavered in its onrush.

 

Bodies littered the field. Some of these crawled or squirmed pathetically toward safety,

 

ignored by the mindless rush of the others.

 

 

 

 

    As more of them died, fear rose like a palpable cloud over the heads of the humans.

 

Then, by twos and fives and tens, they turned and raced back toward the rest of the

 

column. Finally they retreated in hundreds, harried back down the newly mud-covered

 

slope by pursuing missile fire. As they vanished, so did the elven archers, withdrawing at

 

a trot over the crest of the ridge.

 

 

 

 

 

    At last the human heavy lancers approached, and a cheer rose from the rest of the

 

great army. A thousand bold knights, clad in armor from head to toe, urged their massive

 

horses onward. The great beasts lumbered like monsters, buried beneath clanking plates

 

of barding. A cloud of bright pennants fluttered over the thundering mass.

 

 

 

 

    Kith-Kanan, still mounted upon his proud stallion, studied these new warriors from

 

the ridgetop. Caution, not fear, tempered his hopes as the great weight of horses, men,

 

and metal churned closer. The heavy knights, he knew, were the army's most lethal attack

 

force.

 

 

 

 

    He had planned for this, but only the reality of things would show whether the

 

Wildrunners stood equal to the task. For a moment, Kith-Kanan's courage wavered, and

 


 

he considered ordering a fast retreat from the field­a disastrous idea, he quickly told

 

himself, for his hope now lay in steadfast courage, not flight. The knights drew nearer,

 

and Kith-Kanan wheeled and galloped after the archers.

 

    The great steeds runbled inexorably up the slope, toward the gentle crest where the

 

elven riders and archers had disappeared. They couldn't see the foe, but they hoped that

 

the elves would be found just beyond the ridgetop. The knights kicked their mounts and

 

shouted their challenges as they crested the rise, springing with renewed speed toward the

 

enemy. In their haste, they broke their tight ranks, eager to crush the deadly archers and

 

light elven lancers.

 

 

 

 

 

    Instead, they met a phalanx of elven pikemen, the gleaming steel tips of the

 

Wildrunners' weapons arrayed as a bristling wall of death. The elves stood shoulder to

 

shoulder in great blocks, facing outward from all sides. The riders and archers had taken

 

shelter in the middle of these blocks, while three ranks of pikemen­one kneeling, one

 

crouching, and one standing­kept their weapons fixed, promising certain death to any

 

horse reckless enough to close.

 

 

 

 

 

    The great war-horses, sensing the danger, turned, bucked, and spun, desperate to

 

avoid the rows of pikes. Unfortunately for the riders, each horse, as it turned, met another

 

performing a similar contortion. Many of the beasts crashed to the ground, and still more

 

riders were thrown by their panicked steeds. They lay in their heavy armor, too weighted

 

down even to climb to their feet.

 


 

    Arrows whistled outward from the Wildrunners. Though the shortbows of the elven

 

riders were ineffective against the armored knights, the longbows of the foot archers

 

drove their barbed missiles through the heaviest plate at this close range. Howls of pain

 

and dismay now drowned out the battle cries among the knights, and in moments the

 

cavalry, in mass, turned and lumbered back across the ridgetop, leaving several dozen of

 

their number moaning on the ground almost at the feet of the elven pikemen.

 

 

 

 

 

    "Run, you bastards!" Parnigar's shout was a gleeful bark beside Kith-Kanan.

 

 

    The general, too, felt his lieutenant!s elation. They had held the knights! They had

 

broken the charge!

 

 

 

    Kith-Kanan and Parnigar watched the retreat of the knights from the center of the

 

largest contingent. The sergeant-major looked at his commander, gesturing to the fallen

 

knights. Some of these unfortunate men lay still, knocked unconscious by the fall from

 

horseback, while others struggled to their knees or twitched in obvious pain. More

 

humans lay at the top of the slope, their bodies punctured by elven arrows.

 

 

 

 

 

    "Shall I give the order to finish them?" Parnigar asked, ready to send a rank of

 

swordsmen forward. The grim warrior's eyes flashed.

 

 

 

    "No," Kith-Kanan said. He looked grimly at his sergeant's raised eyebrows. "This is

 

the first skirmish of a great war. Let it not be said we began it with butchery."

 


 

    "But­but they're knights! These are the most powerful humans in that entire army!

 

What if they are healed and restored to arms? Surely you don't want them to ride against

 

us again?" Parnigar kept his voice low but made his arguments precisely.

 

 

 

 

    "You're right­the power of the heavy knights is lethal. If we hadn't been fully

 

prepared for their assault, I'm not certain we could have held them. Still .... "

 

 

 

    Kith-Kanan's mind balked at the situation before him, until a solution suddenly

 

brightened his expression. "Send the swordsmen forward­but not to kill. Have them take

 

the weapons of the fallen knights and any banners, pennants, and the like that they can

 

find. Return with these, but let the humans live."

 

 

 

 

    Parnigar nodded, satisfied with his general's decision. He raised a hand and the line

 

of pikemen parted, allowing the sergeant-major's charger to trot forward. Selecting a hun-

 

dred veterans, he started the task of stripping the humans of their badges and pennants.

 

 

 

 

    Kith turned, sensing movement behind him. He saw the pikemen parting there, too,

 

this time to admit someone­a grimy elven rider straddling a foaming, dust-covered horse.

 

Through the dust, Kith recognized a shock of hair the color of snow.

 

 

 

 

    "White-lock! It's good to see you." Kith swung easily from his saddle as the

 

Kagonesti elf did the same. The general clasped the rider's hand warmly, searching the

 

wild elf's eyes for a hint of his news.

 


 

    White-lock rubbed a hand across his dust-covered face, revealing the black and white

 

stripes painted across his forehead. Typical of the wild elves, he was fully painted for

 

war­and covered by the grit of his long ride. A scout and courier for the Wildrunners, he

 

had ridden hundreds of miles to report on the movements of the human army.

 

 

 

 

    Now White-lock nodded, deferentially but coolly, toward Kith-Kanan. "The humans

 

fare poorly in the south," he began. "They have not yet crossed the border into elven

 

lands, so slowly do they march."

 

 

 

 

    White-lock's tone dripped with scorn­a scorn equal to that Kith had heard him use

 

when describing the "civilized" elves of crystalline Silvanost. Indeed, the wild elves of

 

Kagonesti in many cases bore little love for their cousins in the cities­antipathy, to be

 

sure, that mirrored the hatred and prejudice held by the Silvanesti elves for any race other

 

than their own.

 

 

 

 

 

    "Any word out of Thorbardin?"

 

 

    "Nothing reliable." The Kagonesti continued his report, his tone revealing that

 

dwarves ranked near the bottom on his list of worthwhile peoples. 'They promise to assist

 

us when the humans have committed sufficient provocation, but I won't believe them till I

 

see them stand and fight."

 

 

 

 

    "Why does the southern wing of the Ergothian army march so slowly?" Kith-Kanan,

 

through his Wildrunner scouts, had been tracking the three great wings of the vast

 

Caergoth army, each of which was far greater in size than his entire force of Wildrunners.

 


 

     "They have difficulties with the gnornes," White-lock continued. "They drag some

 

kind of monstrous machine with them, pulled by a hundred oxen, and it steams and

 

belches smoke. A whole train of coal wagons follows, carrying fuel for this machine."

 

 

 

 

     "It must surely be some type of weapon­but what? Do you know?"

 

 

     White-lock shook his head. "It is now mired in the bottomlands a few miles from the

 

border. Perhaps they will leave it behind. If not ...." The Kagonesti elf shrugged. It was

 

simply another idiocy of the enemy that he could not predict or fathom.

 

 

 

 

     "You bring good news," Kith noted with satisfaction. He planted his hands on his

 

hips and looked at the ridgeline above, where Parnigar and his footmen were returning.

 

Many waved captured human banners or held aloft helmets with long, trailing plumes.

 

Every so often he saw a dejected and disarmed human scuttling upward and disappearing

 

over the ridge as if he still feared for his life.

 

 

 

 

 

     Today Kith and the Wildrunners had directed a sharp blow against the central wing

 

of the human army. He hoped the confusion and frustration of the elven attack would de-

 

lay their march for several days. The news from the south was encouraging. It would take

 

months for a threat to develop there. But what of the north?

 

 

 

 

     His worries lingered as the Wildrunners quickly reformed from battle into march

 

formation. They would pass through partially forested terrain, so the elven army moved

 

in five broad, irregular columns. They followed parallel routes, with about a quarter of a

 


 

mile between columns. If necessary, they could easily outdistance any human army,

 

whether mounted or on foot.

 

     Kith-Kanan, with Parnigar and a company of riders, remained behind until sunset.

 

He was pleased to see the human army encamp at the scene of the attack. In the morning,

 

he suspected, they would send forth huge and cumbersome reconnaissances, none of

 

which would find any trace of the elves.

 

 

 

 

     Finally the last of the Wildrunners, with Kith in the lead, turned their stocky, fast

 

horses to the west. They would leave the field in possession of the foe, but a foe a little

 

more bewildered, a little more frightened, than the day before.

 

 

 

 

     The elven riders passed easily along forest trails at a fast walk, and at a canter

 

through moonlit meadows. It was as they crossed one of these that movement in the

 

fringe of the treeline pulled Kijo up sharply. A trio of riders approached. Kith recognized

 

the first two as members of his guard.

 

 

 

 

     "A messenger, sir­from the north." The guards puffed aside as Kith stared in shock

 

at the third rider.

 

 

 

     The elf slumped in his saddle like a corpse that had been placed astride a horse. As

 

he looked toward Kith-Kanan, his eyes flickered with a momentary hope.

 

 

 

     "We tried to hold them back, sir­to harass them, as you commanded," the elf

 

reported in a rush. "The human wing to the north moved onto the plain, and we struck

 

them!"

 


 

    The scout's voice belied his looks. It was taut and firm, the voice of a man who spoke

 

the truth and who desperately wanted to be believed. Now he shook his head. "But no

 

matter how quickly we moved, they moved more quickly. They struck at us, sir! They

 

wiped out a hundred elves in one camp and routed the Kagonesti back to the woods!

 

They move with unbelievable stealth and speed."

 

 

 

 

 

    "They advance southward, then?" Kith-Kanan asked, instinctively knowing the

 

answer, for he immediately understood that the human commander of the northern wing

 

must be an unusually keen and aggressive foe.

 

 

 

 

    "Yes! Faster than I would have believed, had I not seen it myself. They ride like the

 

wind, these humans. They have surrounded most of the northern pickets. I alone

 

escaped."

 

 

 

 

    The messenger's eyes met Kith's, and the elf spoke with all the intensity of his soul.

 

"But that is not the worst of it, my general! Now they sweep to the east of my own path.

 

Already you may be cut off from Sithelbec."

 

 

 

 

    "Impossible!" Kith barked the denial. The fortress, or city, of Sithelbec was his

 

headquarters and his base of operations. It was far to the rear of the battle zone. "There

 

can't be any humans within a hundred miles of there."

 

 

 

 

    But again he looked into the eyes of the messenger, and he had to believe the terrible

 

news. "All right," he said grimly. "They've stolen a march on us. It's time for the

 

Wildrunners to seize it back."

 


 

 


 

                                              3

 

 

                            That Night, in the Army of Ergoth

 

 

 

 

 

    The sprawling tent stood in the center of the vast encampment. Three peaks stood

 

high, marking the poles that divided the shelter into a trio of chambers. Though the stains

 

of the season's campaign marked its sides, and seams showed where the top had been

 

mended, the colorless canvas structure had a certain air about it, as if it was a little more

 

important, a little more proud than the tents flowing to the horizon around it.

 

 

 

 

 

    The huge camp was not a permanent gathering, and so the rows of straight-backed

 

tents ran haphazardly, wherever the rolling ground, crisscrossed by numerous ravines,

 

allowed. Green pastures, feeding grounds for twenty thousand horses, marked the hinges

 

of the encampment. As dusk settled, the army's shelters lined up in gray anonymity,

 

except for this high, three-peaked tent.

 

 

 

 

 

    The inside of that structure, as well, would never be mistaken for the abode of some

 

soldier. Here cascades of silken draperies­deep browns, rich golds, and the iridescent

 

black that was so popular among Ergothian nobles­covered the sides, blocking any view

 

of the harsh realities beyond the canvas walls.

 

 

 

 

    Suzine des Quivalin sat in the tent, studying a crystal glass before her. Her coppery

 

hair no longer coiled about the tiara of diamond-studded platinum. Instead, it gathered in

 


 

a bun at the back of her head, though its length still cascaded more than a foot down her

 

back. She wore a practical leather skirt, but her blouse was of fine silk. Her skin was

 

clean, making her unique among all these thousands of humans.

 

    Indeed, captains and sergeants and troopers alike grumbled about the favors shown

 

to the general's woman­hot water for bathing! A luxurious tent­ten valuable horses were

 

required just to haul her baggage.

 

 

 

 

    Still, though grumbling occurred, none of it happened within earshot of the

 

commander. General Giarna led his force with skill and determination, but he was a

 

terrifying man who would brook no argument, whether it be about his tactics or his

 

woman's comforts. Thus the men kept the remarks very quiet and very private.

 

 

 

 

    Now Suzine sat upon a large chair, cushioned with silk-covered pillows of down, but

 

she didn't take advantage of that softness. Instead, she sat at the edge of the seat, tension

 

visible in her posture and in the rapt concentration of her face as she studied the crystal

 

surface before her.

 

 

 

 

    The glass looked like a normal mirror, but it didn't show a reflection of the lady's

 

very lovely face. Instead, as she studied the image, she saw a long line of foot soldiers.

 

They were clean-shaven, blond of hair, and carried long pikes or thin, silver swords.

 

 

 

 

    She watched the army of Kith-Kanan.

 

 

    For a time, she touched the mirror, and her vision ran back and forth along the

 

winding column. Her lips moved silently as she counted longbows and pikes and horses.

 


 

She watched the elves form and march. She noted the precision with which the long, fluid

 

columns moved across the plains, retaining their precise intervals as they did so.

 

    But then her perusal reached the head of the column, and here she lingered. She

 

studied the one who rode at the head of that force, the one she knew was Kith-Kanan,

 

twin brother to the elven ruler.

 

 

 

 

    She admired his tall stance in the saddle, the easy, graceful way that he raised his

 

hand, gesturing to his outriders or summoning a messenger. Narrow wings rose to a pair

 

of peaks atop his dark helmet. His dark plate mail looked worn, and a heavy layer of dust

 

covered it, yet she could discern its quality and the easy way he wore it, as comfortably

 

as many a human would wear his soft cotton tunic.

 

 

 

 

 

    Her lips parted slightly, and she didn't sense the pace of her breathing slowly

 

increase. The lady did not hear the tent flap move behind her, so engrossed was she in her

 

study of the handsome elven warrior.

 

 

 

 

    Then a shadow fell across her, and she looked up with a sharp cry. The mirror faded

 

until it showed only the lady, her face twisted in an expression of guilt mixed with indig-

 

nation.

 

 

 

 

    "You could announce your presence," she snapped, standing to face the tall man who

 

had entered.

 

 

 

    "I am commander of the camp. General Giarna of Ergoth need announce his

 

presence to no one, save the emperor himself," the armor-plated figure said quietly. His

 


 

black eyes fixed upon the woman's, then shifted to the mirror. These eyes of the Boy

 

General frightened her­they were hardly boyish, and not entirely human, either. Dark and

 

brooding, they sometimes blazed with an internal fire that was fueled, she sensed, by

 

something that was beyond her understanding. At other times, however, they gaped black

 

and empty. She found this dispassionate void even more frightening than his rage.

 

    Suddenly he snarled and Suzine gasped in fright. She would have backed away, save

 

for the fact that her dressing table blocked any retreat. For a moment, she felt certain he

 

would strike her. It would not be the first time. But then she looked into his eyes and

 

knew that, for the moment, anyway, she was safe.

 

 

 

 

    Instead of violent rage, she saw there a hunger that, while frightening, did not

 

presage a blow. Instead, it signaled a desperate yearning for a need that could never be

 

satisfied. It was one of the things that had first drawn her to him, this strange hunger.

 

Once she had felt certain that she could slake it.

 

 

 

 

    Now she knew better. The attraction that had once drawn her to Giarna had waned,

 

replaced for the most part by fear, and now when she saw that look in his eyes, she

 

mostly pitied him.

 

 

 

 

    The general grunted, shaking his head wearily. His short, black hair lay sweaty and

 

tousled on his head. She knew he would have had his helmet on until he entered the tent,

 

and then taken it off in deference to her.

 

 

 

 

    "Lady Suzine, I seek information and have been worried by your long silence. Tell

 

me, what have you seen in your magic mirror?"

 


 

    "I'm sorry, my lord," replied Suzine. Her eyes fell, and she hoped that the flush

 

across her cheeks couldn't be noticed. She took a deep breath, regaining her composure.

 

 

 

    "The elven army countermarches quickly­faster than you expected," she explained,

 

her voice crisp and efficient. "They will confront you before you can march to Sithelbec."

 

 

 

    General Giarna's eyes narrowed, but his face showed no other emotion. "This captain

 

... what's his name?"

 

 

 

    "Kith-Kanan," Suzine supplied.

 

 

    "Yes. He seems alert­more so than any human commander I've faced. I would have

 

wagered a year's pay that he couldn't have moved so fast."

 

 

 

    "They march with urgency. They make good tune, even through the woods."

 

 

    "They'll have to stick to the forests," growled the general, "because as soon as I meet

 

them, I shall rule the plains."

 

 

 

    Abruptly General Giarna looked at Suzine inquiringly. "What is the word on the

 

other two wings?"

 

 

 

    "Xalthan is still paralyzed. The lava cannon is mired in the lowlands, and he seems

 

unwilling to advance until the gnomes free it."

 

 

 

    The general snorted in amused derision. "Just what I expected from that fool. And

 

Barnet?"

 


 

    "The central wing has gone into a defensive formation, as if they expect attack. They

 

haven't moved since yesterday afternoon."

 

 

 

    "Excellent. The enemy comes to me, and my erstwhile allies twiddle their thumbs!"

 

General Giarna's black beard split apart as he grinned. "When I win this battle, the em-

 

peror cannot help but realize who his greatest warrior is."

 

 

 

 

    He turned and paced, speaking more to himself than to her. "We will drive against

 

him, break him before Sithelbec! We have assurances that the dwarves will stay out of

 

the war, and the elves alone cannot hope to match our numbers. The victory will be

 

mine!"

 

 

 

 

    He turned back to her, those dark eyes flaming again, and Suzine felt another kind of

 

fear­the fear of the doe as it trembles before the slavering jaws of the wolf. Again the

 

general whirled in agitation, pounding his fist into the palm of his other hand.

 

 

 

 

    Suzine cast a sidelong glance at the mirror, as if she feared someone might be

 

listening. The surface was natural, reflecting only the pair in the tent. In the mirror, she

 

saw General Giarna step toward her. She turned to face him as he placed his hands on her

 

shoulders.

 

 

 

 

    She knew what he wanted, what she would­she must­give him. Their contact was

 

brief and violent. Giarna's passion contorted him, as if she was the vent for all of his

 

anxieties. The experience bruised her, gave her a sense of uncleanliness that nearly

 


 

brought her to despair. Afterward, she wanted to reach out and cover the mirror, to smash

 

it or at least turn it away.

 

     Instead, she hid her feelings, as she had learned to do so well, and then lay quietly as

 

Giarna rose and dressed, saying nothing. Once he looked at her, and she thought he was

 

going to speak.

 

 

 

 

     Suzine's heart pounded. Did he know what she was thinking? She thought of the face

 

in the mirror again­that elven face. But General Giarna only scowled as he stood before

 

her. After several moments, he spun on his heel and stalked from the tent. She heard the

 

pacing of his charger without, and then the clatter of hooves as the general galloped

 

away.

 

 

 

 

 

         Hesitantly, inevitably, she turned back to the mirror.

 


 

                                             4

 

 

                                      In Pitched Battle

 

 

 

 

 

    The two armies wheeled and skirmished across the flatlands, using the forests for

 

cover and obstruction, making sharp cavalry sweeps and sudden ambushes. Lives ex-

 

pired, men and elves suffered agony and maiming, and yet the great bodies of the two

 

armies did not contact each other.

 

 

 

 

    General Giarna's human force drove toward Sithelbec, while Kith-Kanan's

 

Wildrunners countermarched to interpose themselves between the Ergothian army and its

 

destination. The humans moved quickly, and it was only the effort of an all-night forced

 

march that finally brought the exhausted elves into position.

 

 

 

 

    Twenty thousand Silvanesti and Kagonesti warriors finally gathered into a single

 

mass and prepared a defense, tensely awaiting the steadily advancing human horde. The

 

elven warriors averaged three to four hundred years of age, and many of their captains

 

had seen six or more centuries. If they survived the battle and the war, they could look

 

forward to more centuries, five or six hundred years, perhaps, of peaceful aging.

 

 

 

 

 

    The Silvanesti bore steel weapons of fine craftsmanship, arrowheads that could

 

punch through plate mail and swords that would not shatter under the most crushing of

 

blows. Many of the elves had some limited proficiency in magic, and these were grouped

 


 

in small platoons attached to each company. Though these elves, too, would rely upon

 

sword and shield to survive the battle, their spells could provide a timely and

 

demoralizing counterpunch.

 

    The Wildrunners also had some five hundred exceptionally fleet horses, and upon

 

these were mounted the elite lancers and archers who would harass and confuse the

 

enemy. They wore the grandest armor, shined to perfection, and each bore his personal

 

emblem embroidered in silk upon his breast.

 

 

 

 

    This force stood against a human army of more than fifty thousand men. The humans

 

averaged about twenty-five years of age, the oldest veterans having seen a mere four or

 

five decades of life. Their weapons were crudely crafted by elven standards, yet they

 

possessed a deep strength. The blade might grow dull, but only rarely would it break.

 

 

 

 

    The human elite included riders, numbering twenty thousand. They bore no insignia,

 

nor did they wear armor of metal. Instead, they were a ragged, evil-looking lot, with

 

many a missing tooth, eye, or ear. Unlike their elven counterparts, almost all were

 

bearded, primarily because of a disdain of shaving, or indeed grooming of any kind.

 

 

 

 

    But they carried within them an inner thirst for a thing uniquely human in character.

 

Whether it be called glory or excitement or adventure, or simply cruelty or savagery, it

 

was a quality that made the short-lived humans feared and distrusted by all the

 

longer-lived races of Krynn.

 


 

    Now this burning ambition, propelled by the steel-bladed drive of General Giarna,

 

pushed the humans toward Sithelbec. For two days, the elven army appeared to stand

 

before them, only to melt away at the first sign of attack. By the third day, however, they

 

stood within march of that city itself.

 

 

 

 

    Kith-Kanan had reached the edge of the tree cover. Beyond lay nothing but open

 

field to the gates of Sithelbec, some ten miles away. Here the Wildrunners would have to

 

stand.

 

 

 

 

    The reason for falling back this far became obvious to elf and human alike as the

 

Wildrunners reached their final position. Silver trumpets blared to the eastward, and a

 

column of marchers hove into view.

 

 

 

 

    "Hail the elves of Silvanost!"

 

 

    Cries of delight and welcome erupted from the elven army as, with propitious timing,

 

the five thousand recruits sent by Sithas two months earlier marched into the

 

Wildrunners' camp. At their head rode Kencathedrus, the stalwart veteran who had given

 

Kith-Kanan his earliest weapons training.

 

 

 

 

    "Hah! I see that my former student still plays his war games!" The old veteran, his

 

narrow face showing the strain of the long march, greeted Kith before the commander's

 

tent. Wearily Kencathedrus lifted a leg over his saddle. Kith helped him to stand on the

 

ground.

 


 

    "I'm glad you made it," Kith-Kanan greeted his old teacher, clasping his arms

 

warmly. "It's a long march from the city."

 

 

 

    Kencathedrus nodded curtly. Kith-Kanan would have thought the gesture rude,

 

except that he knew the old warrior and his mannerisms. Kencathedrus represented the

 

purest tradition of the House Royal­the descendents, like Kith-Kanan and Sithas, of

 

Silvanos himself. Indeed, they were distant cousins in some obscure way Kith had never

 

understood.

 

 

 

 

 

    But more than blood relative, Kencathedrus was in many ways the mentor of

 

Kith-Kanan the warrior. Strict to the point of obsession, the teacher had drilled the pupil

 

in the instinctive use of the longsword and in the swift and repetitive shooting of the bow

 

until such tasks had become second nature.

 

 

 

 

    Now Kencathedrus looked Kith-Kanan up and down. The general was clad in

 

unadorned plate mail, with a simple steel helmet, unmarked by any sign of rank.

 

 

 

    "What about your crest?" he asked. "Don't you fight in the name of Silvanos, of the

 

House Royal?"

 

 

 

    Kith nodded. "As always. However, my guards have persuaded me that there's no

 

sense in making myself a target. I dress like a simple cavalryman now." He took

 

Kencathedrus's arm, noting that the old elf moved with considerable stiffness.

 

 

 

 

    "My back isn't what it used to be," admitted the venerable captain, stretching.

 


 

    "It's likely to get some more exercise soon," Kith warned him. "Thank the gods you

 

arrived when you did!"

 

 

 

    "The human army?" Kencathedrus looked past the elves, lined up for battle. Kith told

 

the captain what he knew.

 

 

 

    "A mile away, no more. We have to face them here. The alternative is to fall back

 

into the fortress, and I'm not ready to concede the plains."

 

 

 

    "You've chosen a good field, it seems." Kencathedrus nodded at the stands of trees

 

around them. The area consisted of many of these thick groves, separated by wide, grassy

 

fields. "How many stand against us?"

 

 

 

 

    "Just a third of the entire Ergoth army­that's the good news. The other two wings

 

have bogged down, more than a hundred miles away right now. But this one is the most

 

dangerous. The commander is bold and adventurous. I had to march all night to get in

 

front of him, and now my troops are exhausted as he prepares his attack."

 

 

 

 

    "You forget," Kencathedrus chided Kith, almost harshly. "You stand with elves

 

against a force of mere humans."

 

 

 

    Kith-Kanan looked at the old warrior fondly, but he shook his head at the same time.

 

"These 'mere' humans wiped out a hundred of my Wildrunners in one ambush. They've

 

covered four hundred miles in three weeks." Now the leader's voice took on a tone of

 

authority. "Do not underestimate them."

 


 

    Kencathedrus studied Kith-Kanan before nodding his agreement. "Why don't you

 

show me the lines," he suggested. "I presume you want us ready at first light."

 

 

 

                                          *   *   *   *   *

 

 

    As it happened, General Giarna gave Kith's force one more day to rest and prepare.

 

The human army shifted and marched and expanded, all behind the screen of several

 

groves of trees. Kith sent a dozen Kagonesti Wildrunners to spy, counting on the natural

 

vegetation that they used so well to cover them.

 

 

 

 

    Only one returned, and he to report that the human sentries were too thick for even

 

the skilled elves to pass without detection.

 

 

 

    The elven force took advantage of the extra day, however. They constructed trenches

 

along much of their front, and in other places, they laid long, sharp stakes in the earth to

 

form a wall thrusting outward. These stakes would protect much of the front from the

 

enemy horsemen Kith knew to number in the thousands.

 

 

 

 

    Parnigar supervised the excavation, racing from site to site, shouting and cursing. He

 

insulted the depth of one trench, the width of another. He cast aspersions on the lineage

 

of the elves who had done the work. The Wildrunners leaped to obey out of respect, not

 

fear. All along the line they dug in, proving that they used the pick and the spade as well

 

as the longsword and pike.

 


 

    Midafternoon slowly crept toward dusk. Kith restlessly worked his way back and

 

forth along the line. Eventually he came to the reserve, where the men of Silvanost recov-

 

ered from their long march under the shrewd tutelage of Kencathedrus. That captain

 

stepped up to Kith-Kanan as the general dismounted from Kijo.

 

 

 

 

    "Odd how they work for him," noted the older elf, indicating Parnigar. "My elves

 

wouldn't even look at an officer who talked to them like that."

 

 

 

    Kith-Kanan looked at him curiously, realizing that he spoke the truth. "The

 

Wildrunners here on the plains are a different kind of force than you know from the city,"

 

he pointed out.

 

 

 

 

    He looked at the reserve force, consisting of the five thousand elves who had

 

marched with Kencathedrus. Even at ease, they lounged in the sun in neat ranks across

 

the grassy meadows. A formation of Wildrunners, Kith reflected, would have collected in

 

the areas of shade.

 

 

 

 

    The teacher nodded, still skeptical. He looked across the front, toward the trees that

 

screened the enemy army. "Do you know their deployments?" asked Kencathedrus.

 

 

 

    "No." Kith admitted. "We've been shut off all day. I'd fall back if I could. They've

 

had too much time to prepare an attack, and I'd love to set those preparations to waste.

 

Your old lesson comes to mind: 'Don't let the enemy have the luxury of following his

 

plan'."

 


 

    Kencathedrus nodded, and Kith nearly growled in frustration as he continued. "But I

 

can't move back. These trees are the last cover between here and Sithelbec. There's not so

 

much as a ditch to hide behind if I abandon this position."

 

 

 

 

    All he could do was to deploy a company of skirmishers well to each flank of his

 

position and hope they could provide him with warning of any sudden flanking thrust.

 

 

 

    It was a night of restlessness throughout the camp, despite the exhaustion of the

 

weary troops. Few of them slept for more than a few hours, and many campfires

 

remained lit well past midnight as elves gathered around them and talked of past

 

centuries, of their families­of anything but the terrible destiny that seemed to await them

 

on the morrow.

 

 

 

 

 

    Dew crept across the land in the darkest hours of night, becoming a heavy mist that

 

flowed thickly through the meadows and twisted around the trunks in the groves. With it

 

came a chill that woke every elf, and thus they spent the last hours of darkness.

 

 

 

 

    They heard the drums before dawn, a far-off rattle that began with shocking

 

precision from a thousand places at once. Darkness shrouded the woods, and the mists of

 

the humid night drifted like spirits among the nervous elves, further obscuring visibility.

 

 

 

 

    Gradually the dark mist turned to pale blue. As the sky lightened overhead, the

 

cadence of a great army's advance swelled around the elves. The Wildrunners held to

 

their pikes, or steadied their prancing horses. They checked their bowstrings and their

 


 

quivers, and made certain that the bucklings on their armor held secure. Inevitably the

 

blue light gave way to a dawn of vague, indistinct shapes, still clouded by the haze of fog.

 

    The beat of the drums grew louder. The mist drifted across the fields, leaving even

 

nearby clumps of trees nothing more than gray shadows. Louder still grew the precise

 

tapping, yet nothing could be seen of the approaching force.

 

 

 

 

    "There­coming through the pines!"

 

 

    "I see them­over that way."

 

 

    "Here they come­from the ravine!"

 

 

    Elves shouted, pointing to spots all along their front where shapes began to take form

 

in the mist. Now they could see great, rippling lines of movement, as if waves rolled

 

through the earth itself. The large, prancing figures of horsemen became apparent, several

 

waves of them flexing among the ranks of infantry.

 

 

 

 

    Abruptly, as suddenly as it had started, the drumming ceased. The formations of the

 

human army appeared as darker shapes against the yellow grass and the gray sky. For a

 

moment, time on the field, and perhaps across all the plains, across all of Ansalon, stood

 

still. The warriors of the two armies regarded each other across a quarter-mile of ground.

 

Even the wind died, and the mist settled low to the earth.

 

 

 

 

 

    Then a shout arose from one of the humans and was echoed by fifty thousand voices.

 

Swords bashed against shields, while trumpets blared and horses whinnied in excitement

 

and terror.

 


 

     In the next instant, the human wave surged forward, the roaring sound wave of the

 

attack preceding it with terrifying force.

 

 

 

     Now brassy notes rang from elven trumpets. Pikes rattled as their wielders set their

 

weapons. The five hundred horses of the Wildrunner cavalry nickered and kicked ner-

 

vously.

 

 

 

 

     Kith-Kanan steadied Kijo. From his position in the center of the line, he had a good

 

view of the advancing human tide. His bodyguards, increased to twelve riders today,

 

stood in a semicircle behind him. He had insisted that they not obstruct his view of the

 

field.

 

 

 

 

     For a moment, he had a terrifying vision of the elven line's collapse, the human horde

 

sweeping across the plains and forests beyond like a swarm of insects. He shuddered in

 

the grip of the fear, but then the swirl of events grabbed and held his attention.

 

 

 

 

     The first shock of the charge came in the form of two thousand swordsmen,

 

brandishing shields and howling madly. Dressed in thick leather jerkins, they raced ahead

 

of their metal-armored comrades, toward the block of elven pikes standing firm in the

 

center of Kith's line.

 

 

 

 

     The clash of swordsmen with the tips of those pikes was a horrible scene. The

 

steel-edged blades of the pikes pierced the leather with ease as scores of humans impaled

 

themselves from the force of the charge. A cheer went up from the Wildrunners as the

 


 

surviving swordsmen turned to flee, leaving perhaps a quarter of their number writhing

 

and groaning on the ground, at the very feet of the elves who had wounded them.

 

    Now the focus shifted to the left, where human longbowmen advanced against an

 

exposed portion of the Wildrunner line. Kith's own archers fired back, sending a deadly

 

shower against the press of men. But the human arrows, too, found marks among the

 

tightly packed ranks, and elven blood soon flowed thick in the trampled grass.

 

 

 

 

    Kith nudged Kijo toward the archers, watching volleys of arrows arc and cross

 

through the air. The humans rushed forward and the elves stood firm. The elven

 

commander urged his steed faster, sensing the imminent clash.

 

 

 

 

    Then the human advance wavered and slowed. Kith saw Parnigar, standing beside

 

the archers.

 

 

 

    "Now!" cried the sergeant-major, gesturing toward a platoon of elves standing beside

 

him. A few dozen in number, these elves wore swords at their sides but had no weapons

 

in their hands. It was their bare hands that they raised, fingers extended toward the

 

rushing humans.

 

 

 

 

    A bright flash of light made Kith blink. Magic missiles, crackling blasts of sorcerous

 

power, exploded from Parnigar's platoon. A whole line of men dropped, slain so suddenly

 

that members of the rear ranks tripped and tumbled over the bodies. Again the light

 

flashed, and another volley of magic ripped into the humans.

 


 

    Some of those struck screamed aloud, crying for their gods or for their mothers.

 

Others stumbled back, panicked by the sorcerous attack. A whole company, following the

 

decimated formation, stopped in its tracks and then turned to flee. In another moment, the

 

mass of human bowmen streamed away, pursued by another volley of the keen elven

 

arrows.

 

 

 

 

 

    Yet even as this attack failed, Kith sensed a crisis on his left. A line of human

 

cavalry, three thousand snorting horses bearing armored lancers, thundered through the

 

rapidly thinning mist. The charge swept forward with a momentum that made the

 

previous attacks look like parade-ground drills.

 

 

 

 

    Before the horsemen waited a line of elves with swords and shields, soft prey for the

 

thundering riders. To the right and left of them, the sharp stakes jutted forward, proof

 

against the cavalry attack. But the gaps in the line had to be held by troops, and now these

 

elves faced approaching doom.

 

 

 

 

    "Archers­give cover," Kith shouted as Kijo raced across the lines. Companies of

 

elven longbow wheeled and released their missiles, scoring hits among the horsemen. But

 

still the charge pounded forward.

 

 

 

 

    "Fall back! Take cover in the trees!" he shouted to the captains of the longsword

 

companies, for there was no other choice.

 


 

    Kith cursed himself in frustration, realizing that the human commander had forced

 

him to commit his pikes against the initial charge. Now came the horses, and his

 

companies of pikes, the only true defense against a wave of cavalry, were terribly out of

 

position.

 

 

 

 

    Then he stared in astonishment. As more arrows fell among the riders, suddenly the

 

horsemen wheeled about, racing away from the elven position before the defenders could

 

follow Kith's orders to withdraw. The astonished elven swordsmen watched the horses

 

and the riders flee, pursued by a desultory shower of arrows. The elven defenders could

 

only wonder at the fortuitous turn of events.

 

 

 

 

 

    In the back of Kith's mind, something whispered a warning. This had to be a trick, he

 

told himself. Certainly the arrows hadn't been thick and deadly enough to halt that

 

awe-inspiring charge. Less than fifty riders, and no more than two dozen horses, lay in

 

the field before them. His scouts had given him a good count of the human cavalry.

 

Though he had not been able to study these, he suspected he had seen only about half the

 

force.

 

 

 

 

 

                                         *   *   *   *   *

 

 

    "Our men fall back as you ordered," reported Suzine, her eyes locked upon the

 

violent images in her mirror. The glass rested on a table, and she sat before it­table,

 

woman, and mirror, all encased in a narrow shroud of canvas, to keep the daylight from

 


 

the crucial seeing device. She never lost view of the elven commander who sat straight

 

and proud in his saddle, every inch the warrior of House Royal.

 

    Behind her, pacing in taut excitement, General Giarna looked over her shoulder.

 

 

    "Excellentl And the elves­what do you see of them?"

 

 

    "They stand firm, my lord."

 

 

    "What?" General Giarna's voice barked violently against her, filling the small canvas

 

shelter where they observed the battle. "You're wrong! They must attack!"

 

 

 

    Suzine flinched. The image in the mirror­a picture of long ranks of elven warriors,

 

holding their positions, failing to pursue the bait of the human retreat­wavered slightly,

 

 

 

    She felt the general's rage explode, and then the image faded. Suzine saw only her

 

own reflection and the hideous face of the man behind her.

 

 

 

                                           *   *   *   *   *

 

 

    "My lord! Let us hit them now, while they fall back in confusion!" Kith turned to see

 

Kencathedrus beside him. His old teacher rode a prancing mare, and the weariness of the

 

march from Silvanost was totally gone from his face. Instead, the warrior's eyes burned,

 

and his gauntleted fist clung tightly to the hilt of his sword.

 

 

 

 

    "It has to be a trick," Kith countered. "We didn't drive them away that easily."

 

 

    "For the gods' sakes, Kith-Kanan­these are humans! The cowardly scum will run

 

from a loud noise! Let's follow up and destroy them!"

 


 

    "No!" Kith's voice was harsh, full of command, and Kencathedrus's face whitened

 

with frustration.

 

 

 

    "We do not face an ordinary general," Kith-Kanan continued, feeling that he owed

 

further explanation to the one who had girded his first sword upon him. "He hasn't failed

 

to surprise me yet, and I know we have seen but a fraction of his force."

 

 

 

 

    "But if they fly they will escape! We must pursue!" Kencathedrus couldn't help

 

himself.

 

 

 

    "The answer is no. If they are escaping, so be it. If they attempt to pull us out of our

 

position to trap us, they shall not."

 

 

 

    Another roar thundered across the fields before them, and more humans came into

 

view, running toward the elves with all manner of weaponry. Great companies of

 

longbowmen readied their missiles, while bearded axemen raised their heavy blades over

 

their heads. Spearmen charged with gleaming points extended toward the enemy, while

 

swordsmen banged their swords against their shields, advancing at a steady march.

 

 

 

 

 

    Kencathedrus, shocked by the fresh display of human might and vigor, looked at the

 

general with respect. "You knew," he said wonderingly.

 

 

 

    Kith-Kanan shrugged and shook his head. "No­I simply suspected. Perhaps because

 

I had a good teacher."

 


 

    The older elf growled, appreciating the remark but annoyed with himself. Indeed,

 

they both realized that, had the elves advanced when Kencathedrus had desired, they

 

would have been swiftly overrun, vulnerable in the open field.

 

 

 

 

    Kencathedrus rejoined his reserve company, and Kith-Kanan immersed himself in

 

the fight. Thousands of humans and elves clashed along the line, and hundreds died.

 

Weapons shattered against shields, and bones shattered beneath blades. The long morning

 

gave way to afternoon, but the passing of time meant nothing to the desperate

 

combatants, for whom each moment could be their last.

 

 

 

 

 

    The tide of battle surged back and forth. Companies of humans turned and fled,

 

many of them before their charging ranks even reached the determined elves. Others

 

hacked and slew their way into the defenders, and occasionally a company of elves gave

 

way. Then the humans poured through the gap like the surging surf, but always Kith--

 

Kanan was there, slashing with his bloody sword, urging his elven lancers into the

 

breach.

 

 

 

 

 

    Wave after wave of humans surged madly across the trampled field, hurling

 

themselves into the elves as if to shatter them with the sheer momentum of their charges.

 

As soon as one company broke, one regiment fell back depleted and demoralized, another

 

block of steel-tipped humanity lunged forward to take its place.

 


 

    The Wildrunners fought until total exhaustion gripped each and every warrior, and

 

then they fought some more. Their small, mobile companies banded together to form

 

solid lines, shifted to deflect each new charge, and flowed sideways to fill gaps caused by

 

their fallen or routed comrades. Always those plunging horses backed them up, and each

 

time, as the line faltered, the elven cavalry thundered against the breakthrough, driving it

 

back in disorder.

 

 

 

 

 

    Those five hundred riders managed to seal every breach. By the time the afternoon

 

shadows began to lengthen, Kith noticed a slackening in the human attacks. One

 

company of swordsmen stumbled away, and for once there was no fresh formation to

 

take their place in the attack. The din of combat seemed to fade somewhat, and then he

 

saw another formation­a group of axemen­turn and lumber away from the fight. More

 

and more of the humans broke off their attacks, and soon the great regiments of Ergoth

 

streamed across the field, back toward their own lines.

 

 

 

 

 

    Kith slumped wearily in his saddle, staring in suspicion at the fleeing backs of the

 

soldiers. Could it be over? Had the Wildrunners won? He looked at the sun­about four

 

good hours of daylight remained. The humans wouldn't risk an encounter at night, he

 

knew. Elven nightvision was one of the great proofs of the elder race's superiority over its

 

shorter-lived counterparts. Yet certainly the hour was not the reason for the humans'

 

retreat, not when they had been pressing so forcefully all along the line.

 


 

    A weary Parnigar approached on foot. Kith had seen the scout's horse cut down

 

beneath him during the height of the battle. The general recognized his captain's lanky

 

walk, though Parnigar's face and clothes were caked in mud and the blood of his slain

 

enemies.

 

 

 

 

    "We've held them, sir," he reported, his face creasing into a disbelieving smile.

 

Immediately, however, he frowned and shook his head. "Some three or four hundred

 

dead, though. The day was not without its cost."

 

 

 

 

    Kith looked at the exhausted yet steady ranks of his Wildrunners. The pikemen held

 

their weapons high, the archers carried bows at the ready, while those with swords honed

 

their blades in the moments of silence and respite. The formations still arrayed in full

 

ranks, as if fresh and unblooded, but their ranks were shorter now. Organized in neat

 

rows behind each company, covered with blankets, lay a quiet grouping of motionless

 

forms.

 

 

 

 

 

    At least the dead can rest, he thought, feeling his own weariness. He looked again to

 

the humans, seeing that they still fled in disorder. Many of them had reached the tree line

 

and were disappearing into the sheltering forest.

 

 

 

 

    "My lord! My lord! Now is the time. You must see that."

 

 

    Kith turned to see Kencathedrus galloping up to him. The elven veteran reined in

 

beside the general and gestured at the fleeing humans.

 


 

     "You may be right." Kith-Kanan had to agree. He saw the five thousand elves of

 

Silvanost gathered in trim ranks, ready to advance the moment he gave the word. This

 

was the chance to deliver a coup de grace that could send the enemy reeling all the way

 

back to Caergoth.

 

 

 

 

     "Quickly, my lord­they're getting away." Impatiently, his gray brows bristling,

 

Kencathedrus indicated the ragged humans running in small clumps, like sheep, toward

 

the sheltering woods in the distance.

 

 

 

 

     "Very well­advance and pursue! But have a care for your flanks!"

 

 

                                         *   *   *   *   *

 

 

     "They must come after us now." General Giarna's horse twisted and pitched among

 

the ranks of retreating humans, many of whom were bleeding or limping, supported by

 

the shoulders of their sturdier comrades. Indeed, the Army of Ergoth had paid a hideous

 

price for the daylong attacks, all of which were mere preliminaries to his real plan of

 

battle.

 

 

 

 

 

     The general paid no attention to the human suffering around him. Instead, his dark

 

eyes fixed with a malevolent stare on the elven positions across the mud-spattered land-

 

scape. No movement yet­but they must advance. He felt this with a certainty that filled

 

his dark heart with a bloodthirsty anticipation.

 


 

    For a moment, he cast a sharp glance to the rear, toward the tiny tent that sheltered

 

Suzine and her mirror. The gods should damn that bitch! How, in the heat of the fight,

 

could her powers fail her? Why now­today?

 

 

 

 

    His brow narrowed in suspicion, but he had no time now to wonder about the

 

unreliability of his mistress. She had been a valuable tool, and it would be regrettable if

 

that tool were no longer at his disposal.

 

 

 

 

    Perhaps, as she had claimed, the tension of the great conflict had proven too

 

distracting, too overpowering for her to concentrate. Or maybe the general's looming

 

presence had frightened her. In fact, General Giarna wanted to frighten her, just as he

 

wanted to frighten everyone under his command. However, if that fear was enough to

 

disrupt her powers of concentration, than Suzine's usefulness might be seriously limited.

 

 

 

 

 

    No matter­at least for now. The battle could still be won by force of arms. The key

 

was to make the elves believe that the humans were beaten.

 

 

 

    General Giarna's pulse quickened then as he saw a line of movement across the field.

 

 

                                             *   *   *   *   *

 

 

    "Elves of Silvanost, advance!" The captain had already turned away from his

 

commander. The reserve companies started forward at a brisk march, through the gaps in

 

the spiked fence of the elven line. The companies of the Wildrunners, battered and weary,

 

cleared the way for the attackers, whose gleaming spear points and shining armor stood

 


 

out in stark contrast to the muddy, bloody mess around them. Nevertheless, the

 

Wildrunners raised a hearty cheer as Kencathedrus led his troops into the attack.

 

    "On the double­charge!" His horse prancing eagerly beneath him, Kencathedrus

 

brandished his sword and urged his complement forward. The troops needed no prodding.

 

All day they had seen their fellow countrymen die at the hands of these rapacious

 

savages, and now they had the chance to take vengeance.

 

 

 

 

    The panicked humans cast down weapons, shields, helmets­anything loose and

 

cumbersome­in their desperate flight. They scattered away from the charging elves,

 

racing for the shelter of any clump of trees or thick brush they could find.

 

 

 

 

    The warriors of Silvanost, disciplined even at their steady advance, remained in

 

close-meshed lines. They parted at the obstacles, while several who were armed with

 

shortswords pressed into the grove, quickly dispatching the hapless humans who sought

 

refuge there.

 

 

 

 

    But even so, it was clear that the great bulk of the routed troops would escape, so

 

rapid was their flight. The close ranks of the elves could not keep pace. Finally Kencathe-

 

drus slowed his company to a brisk walk, allowing the elves to catch their breath as they

 

approached the first large expanse of forest.

 

 

 

 

    "Archers, stand forward to the flanks!" Kith-Kanan didn't know why he gave the

 

order, but suddenly he saw how vulnerable were the five thousand elves, in the event that

 

he had been tricked. Kencathedrus and his regiment had already advanced nearly half a

 


 

mile ahead of the main army, while the fleeing humans seemed to melt away before

 

them.

 

     Two blocks of elves­his keenest longbows, some thousand strong each­trotted

 

ahead.

 

 

 

     "Pikes­in the middle, quickly." One more unit Kith-Kanan sent forward, this one

 

consisting of his fiercest veterans, armed with their deadly, fifteen-foot weapons with

 

razor-sharp steel tips. They advanced at a trot, filling some of the gap between the two

 

blocks of longbows.

 

 

 

 

     "Horsemen! To me!" A third command brought the proud elven cavalry thundering

 

to their commander. It seemed to Kith-Kanan that Kencathedrus and his company were

 

now in terrible danger. He had to catch up and give them support.

 

 

 

 

     Flanked by his mounted bodyguards, the commander led his horsemen through the

 

lines, in a wide sweep toward the right of Kencathedrus's company. The elven archers

 

carried their weapons ready. Pikes rattled behind them. Had he done everything that he

 

could to protect the advance?

 

 

 

 

     Kith sensed something in the air as the late afternoon seemed to grow sinister around

 

him. He listened carefully; his eyes studied the opposite tree line, scanned to the right and

 

left to the limits of his vision.

 

 

 

 

     Nothing.

 


 

     Yet now some of his elves sensed the same thing, the indefinable inkling of

 

something terrible and awesome and mighty. Warriors nervously fingered their weapons.

 

The Wildrunners' horses moved restlessly, shaking off the weariness of many hours'

 

battle.

 

 

 

 

     Then a rumble of deep thunder permeated the air. It began as a faint drumming, but

 

in Kith-Kanan's mind, it grew to a deafening explosion within a few seconds.

 

 

 

     "Sound the withdrawal!" He shouted at the trumpeters as he looked left, then

 

right­where, by all the gods?

 

 

 

     He saw them appear, like a wave of brown grass on the horizon, to both

 

sides­countless thousands of humans mounted on thundering horses, sweeping around

 

the patches of woods, across the open prairie, pounding closer, with all the speed of the

 

wind.

 

 

 

 

     The horns blared, and Kith saw that Kencathedrus had already sensed the trap. Now

 

the elves of Silvanost retired toward the Wildrunners' lines at a quick pace. But all who

 

looked on could see that they would be too late.

 

 

 

 

     The archers and pikemen advanced, desperate to aid their countrymen. They

 

showered the human cavalry with arrows, while the long pikes bristled before the archers,

 

protecting them from the charge.

 


 

    But the elves of Silvanost had no such protection. The human cavalry slammed into

 

them, and rank after rank of the elven infantry fell beneath the cruel hooves and keen,

 

unfeeling steel.

 

 

 

 

    The pikemen and archers fell back slowly, carefully, still shredding the cavalry with

 

deadly arrows, felling the horsemen by the hundred with each volley. Yet thousands upon

 

thousands of the humans trampled across the plain, slaughtering the stranded regiment.

 

 

 

 

    Kith-Kanan led his riders into the flank of the human charge, little caring that there

 

were ten or twenty humans for every one of his elves. With his own sword, he cut a

 

leering, bearded human from the saddle. Horses screamed and bucked around them, and

 

in moments, the two companies of cavalry mingled, each man or elf fighting the foe he

 

found close at hand.

 

 

 

 

 

    More blood flowed into the already soaked ground. Kith saw a human lancer drive a

 

bloodstained lance toward his heart. One of his loyal bodyguards flung himself from his

 

saddle and took the weapon through his own throat, deflecting the blow that would have

 

surely been fatal. With a surge of hatred, Kith spurred Kijo forward, chopping savagely

 

through the neck and striking the lancer's head from his shoulders. Spouting blood like an

 

obscene geyser, the corpse toppled from the saddle, lost in the chaos of the melee before

 

it struck the ground.

 


 

    Kith saw another of his faithful guards fall, this time to a human swordsman whose

 

horse skipped nimbly away. The fight swirled madly, flashing images of blood,

 

screaming horses, dying men and elves. If he had paused to think, he would have

 

regretted the charge that brought his riders out here to aid Kencathedrus. Now, it seemed,

 

both units faced annihilation.

 

 

 

 

 

    Desperately Kith-Kanan looked for a sign of the elves of Silvanost. He saw them

 

through the melee. Led by a grim-faced Kencathedrus, the elven reserve force struggled

 

to break free of the deadly trap. Finally they tore from their neat ranks in a headlong dash

 

through the sea of human horsemen toward the safety of the Wildrunner lines.

 

 

 

 

    Miraculously, many of them made it. They scrambled between the thick wall of

 

stakes, into the welcoming arms of their comrades, while the stampeding cavalry surged

 

and bucked just beyond. By the dozens and scores and hundreds, they limped and dodged

 

and tumbled to safety, until more than two thousand of them, including Kencathedrus,

 

had emerged. The captain tried to turn and limp back into the fray in a foredoomed effort

 

to bring forth more of his men, but he was restrained in the grasp of two sergeantsmajor.

 

 

 

 

 

    The archers, too, fell back, and then it was only the riders caught on the field.

 

Isolated pockets of elven cavalry twisted away from the sea of human horsemen,

 

breaking for the shelter of their lines. Kith-Kanan himself, however, after having led the

 

charge, was now caught in the middle of the enemy forces.

 


 

    His arm grew leaden with fatigue. Blood from a cut on his forehead streamed into his

 

eyes. His helmet was gone, knocked from his head by a human's bashing shield. His loyal

 

guards­the few who still lived­fought around him, but now the outlook was grim.

 

 

 

 

    The humans fell back, just far enough to avoid the slashing elven blades. Kith-Kanan

 

and a group of perhaps two dozen elven riders gasped for breath, surrounded by a ring of

 

death­more than a thousand human lancers, swordsmen, and archers.

 

 

 

 

    With a groan of despair, he cast his sword to the ground. The rest of the survivors

 

immediately followed his example.

 

 

 

                                         *   *   *   *   *

 

 

    As darkness finally closed about them, the humans turned back from the elven line.

 

Kencathedrus and Parnigar knew that it was only nightfall that had prevented the com-

 

plete collapse of their position. They knew, too, that the exhausted army would have to

 

retreat now, even before the darkness was complete.

 

 

 

 

    They would have to take shelter in Sithelbec early the following day, before the

 

deadly human cavalry could catch them in the open. The entire force of the Wildrunners

 

could suffer the fate of the unblooded elves of Silvanost.

 

 

 

 

    It seemed to the elven leaders that the day couldn't have been any more disastrous.

 

Despair settled around them like a bleak cloud as they considered the worst news of all:

 

Kith-Kanan, their commander and the driving force behind the Wildrunners, was

 

lost­possibly captured, but more likely killed.

 


 

    The army marched, heads down and shambling, toward the security­and the

 

confinement­of Sithelbec.

 

 

 

    Sometime after midnight, it started to rain, and it continued to pour throughout the

 

night and even past the gray, featureless dawn. The miserable army finally reached

 

Sithelbec, closing the gates behind the last of the Wildrunners, sometime around noon of

 

the following gray, drizzling day.

 


 

                                              5

 

                                      After the Battle

 

 

 

 

 

    Suzine awakened to a summons from the general, delivered by a bronze-helmed

 

lieutenant of crossbows. The woman felt vague relief that General Giarna hadn't come to

 

her in person. Indeed, she hadn't seen him since before the battle's climax, when his trap

 

had snared so much of the elven army.

 

 

 

 

    Her relief had grown from the previous night, when she had feared that he would

 

desire her. General Giarna frightened her often, but there was something deeper and more

 

abiding about the terror he inspired after he had led his troops in battle.

 

 

 

 

    The darkness that seemed always to linger in his eyes became, in those moments,

 

like a bottomless well of despair and hopelessness, as if his hunger for killing could never

 

be sated. The more the blood flowed around him, the greater his appetite became.

 

 

 

 

    He would take her then, using her like he was some kind of parasite, unaware and

 

uncaring of her feelings. He would hurt her and, when he was finished, cast her roughly

 

aside, his own fundamental needs still raging.

 

 

 

 

    But after this battle, his greatest victory to date, he had stayed away from her. She

 

had retired early the night before, dying to look into her mirror, to ascertain Kith-Kanan's

 

whereabouts. She felt a terrible fear for his safety, but she hadn't dared to use her glass

 

for fear of the general. He mustn't suspect her growing fascination with Kith-Kanan.

 


 

    Now she dressed quickly and fetched her mirror, safe in a felt-lined wooden case,

 

and then allowed the officer to lead her along the column of tents to General Giarna's

 

shelter of black silk. The lieutenant held the door while she entered, blinking for a

 

moment as she adjusted to the dim light.

 

 

 

 

    And then it seemed that her world exploded.

 

 

    The file of muddy elven prisoners, many of them bruised, stood at resentful

 

attention. There were perhaps a score of them, each with a watchful swordsman right

 

behind him, but Suzine's eyes flashed immediately to him.

 

 

 

 

    She recognized Kith-Kanan in the instant that she saw him, and she had to forcibly

 

resist an urge to run to him. She wanted to look at him, to touch him in all the ways she

 

could not through her mirror. She fought an urge to knock the sword-wielding guard

 

aside.

 

 

 

 

    Then she remembered General Giarna. Her face flushed, she felt perspiration gather

 

on her brow. He was watching her closely. Forcing an expression of cool detachment, she

 

turned to him.

 

 

 

 

    "You summoned me, General?"

 

 

    The commander seemed to look through her, with a gaze that threatened to wither

 

her soul. His eyes yawned before her like black chasms, menacing pits that made her

 

want to hurriedly step back from the edge.

 


 

    "The interrogation continues. I want you to witness their testimony and gauge the

 

truth of their replies." His voice was like a cold gust of air.

 

 

 

    For the first time, Suzine noticed an additional elven form. This one stretched

 

facedown on the carpeted floor of the tent, a tiny hole at the base of his neck showing

 

where he had been stabbed.

 

 

 

 

    Numbly she looked back. Kith-Kanan stood second from the end of the line, near

 

where the killing had occurred. He paid no attention to her. The elf between him and the

 

dead one looked in grimly concealed fear at the human general.

 

 

 

 

    "Your strength!" demanded General Giarna. "How many troops garrison your

 

fortress? Catapults? Ballistae? You will tell us about them all."

 

 

 

    The final sentence was a demand, not a question.

 

 

    "The fortress is garrisoned by twenty thousand warriors, with more on the way!"

 

blurted the prisoner beside the corpse. "Wizards and clerics, too­"

 

 

 

    Suzine didn't need the mirror to see that he lied; neither, apparently, did General

 

Giarna. He chopped his hand once, and the swordsman behind the terrified speaker

 

stabbed at the doomed elf. His blade severed the elf's spinal cord and then plunged

 

through his neck, emerging under the unfortunate warrior's chin in a gurgling fountain of

 

blood.

 


 

    The next swordsman­the one behind Kith-Kanan­prodded his charge in the back,

 

forcing him to stand a little straighter, as the general's eyes came to rest upon him. But

 

only for a moment, for the human leader allowed his scornful gaze to roam across the

 

entire row of his captives.

 

 

 

 

    "Which of you holds rank over the others?" inquired the general, casting his eyes

 

along the line of remaining elves.

 

 

 

    For the first time, Suzine realized that Kith-Kanan wore none of the trappings of his

 

station. He was an anonymous rider among the elven warriors. Giarna didn't recognize

 

him! That revelation encouraged her to take a risk.

 

 

 

 

    "My general," she said quickly, hearing her voice as if another person was speaking,

 

"could I have a word with you­away from the ears of the prisoners?"

 

 

 

    He looked at her, his dark eyes boring into her. Was that annoyance she saw, or

 

something darker?

 

 

 

    "Very well," he replied curtly. He took her arm in his hand and led her from the tent.

 

 

    She felt the mirror's case in her hand, seeking words as she spoke. "They are

 

obviously willing to die for their cause. But perhaps, with a little patience, I can make

 

them useful to us ... alive."

 

 

 

 

    "You can tell me whether they speak the truth or not­but what good is that when

 

they are willing to die with lies in their mouths?"

 


 

    "But there is more to the glass," she said insistently. "Given a quiet place and some

 

time­and some close personal attention to one of these subjects­I can probe deeper than

 

mere questions and answers. I can see into their minds, to the secret truths they would

 

never admit to such as you."

 

 

 

 

    General Giarna's black brows came together in a scowl. "Very well. I will allow you

 

to try." He led her back into the tent. "Which one will you start with?"

 

 

 

    Trying to still the trembling in her heart, Suzine raised an imperious hand and

 

indicated Kith-Kanan. She spoke to the guard behind him. "Bring this one to my tent,"

 

she said matter-of-factly.

 

 

 

 

    She avoided looking at the general, afraid those black eyes would paralyze her with

 

suspicion or accusation. But he said nothing. He merely nodded to the guard behind Kith

 

and the swordsman beside him, the one who had just slain the fallen elf. The pair of

 

guards prodded Kith-Kanan forward, and Suzine preceded him through the silken flap of

 

General Giarna's tent.

 

 

 

 

 

    They passed between two tents, the high canvas shapes screening them from the rest

 

of the camp. She could feel his eyes on her back as she walked, and finally she could no

 

longer resist the urge to turn and look at him.

 

 

 

 

    "What do you want with me?" he asked, his voice surprising her with its total lack of

 

fear.

 


 

    "I won't hurt you," she replied, suddenly angry when the elf smiled slightly in

 

response.

 

 

 

    "Move, you!" grunted one of the guards, stepping in front of his companion and

 

waving his blade past Kith-Kanan's face.

 

 

 

    Kith-Kanan reached forward with the speed of a striking snake, seizing the guard's

 

wrist as the blade veered away from his face. Holding the man's hand, the elf kicked him

 

sharply in the groin. The swordsman gasped and collapsed.

 

 

 

 

    His companion, the warrior who had slain the elf in the tent, gaped in momentary

 

shock­a moment that proved to be his last. Kith pulled the blade from the fallen guard's

 

hand and, in the same motion, drove the point into the swordsman's throat. He died, his

 

jaw soundlessly working in an effort to articulate his shock.

 

 

 

 

    The dead guard's helmet toppled off as he fell, allowing his long blond hair to spill

 

free when he collapsed, face first, on the ground.

 

 

 

    Kith lowered the blade, ready to thrust it through the neck of the groaning man he

 

had kicked. Then something stayed his hand, and he merely admonished the guard to be

 

silent with a persuasive press of the blade against the man's throat.

 

 

 

 

    Turning to the one he had slain, Kith looked at the body curiously. Suzine hadn't

 

moved. She watched him in fascination, scarcely daring to breathe, as he brushed the

 

blond hair aside with the toe of his boot.

 


 

     The ear that was revealed was long and pointed.

 

 

     "Do you have many elves in your army?" he asked.

 

 

     "No-not many," Suzine said quickly. "They are mostly from the ranks of traders and

 

farmers who have lived in Ergoth and desire a homeland on the plains."

 

 

 

     Kith looked sharply at Suzine. There was something about this human woman. . . .

 

 

     She stood still, paralyzed not so much by fear for herself as by dismay. He was about

 

to escape, to leave her!

 

 

 

     "I thank you for inadvertently saving my life," he said before darting toward the

 

corner of a nearby tent.

 

 

 

     "I know who you are!" she said, her voice a bare whisper.

 

 

     He stopped again, torn between the need to escape and increasing curiosity about this

 

woman and her knowledge.

 

 

 

     "Thank you, too, then, for keeping the secret," he said, with a short bow. "Why did

 

you ... "

 

 

 

     She wanted to tell him that she had watched him for a long time, had all but lain

 

beside him, through the use of her mirror. Suzine looked at him now, and he was more

 

glorious, prouder, and taller than she had ever imagined. She wanted to ask him to take

 

her away with him­right now­but, instead, her mouth froze, her mind locked by terror.

 


 

    In another moment, he had disappeared. It was several moments longer before she

 

finally found the voice to scream.

 

 

 

                                         *   *   *   *   *

 

 

    The elation Kith-Kanan felt at his escape dissipated as quickly as the gates of

 

Sithelbec shut behind him and enclosed him within the sturdy walls of the fortress. His

 

stolen horse, staggering from exhaustion, stumbled to a halt, and the elf swung to the

 

ground.

 

 

 

 

    He wondered, through his weariness, about the human woman who had given him

 

his chance to flee. The picture of her face, crowned by that glory of red hair, remained in-

 

delibly burned into his mind. He wondered if he would ever see her again.

 

 

 

 

    Around him loomed the high walls, with the pointed logs arrayed along the top.

 

Below these, he saw the faces of his warriors. Several raised a halfhearted cheer at his

 

return, but the shock of defeat hung over the Wildrunners like a heavy pall.

 

 

 

 

    Sithelbec had grown rapidly in the last year, sprawling across the surrounding plain

 

until it covered a circle more than a mile in diameter. The central keep of the fortress was

 

a stone structure of high towers, soaring to needlelike spires in the elven fashion. Around

 

this keep clustered a crowded nest of houses, shops, barracks, inns, and other buildings,

 

all within other networks of walls, blockhouses, and battle platforms.

 


 

    Expanding outward through a series of concentric palisades, mostly of wood, the

 

fortress protected a series of wells within its walls, ensuring a steady supply of water.

 

Food­mostly grain­had been stockpiled in huge barns and silos. Supplies of arrows and

 

flammable oil, stored in great vats, had been collected along the walls' tops. The greater

 

part of Kith-Kanan's army, through the alert withdrawal under Parnigar, had reached the

 

shelter of those ramparts.

 

 

 

 

 

    Yet as the Army of Ergoth moved in to encircle the fortress, the Wildrunners could

 

only wait.

 

 

 

    Now Kith-Kanan walked among them, making his way to the small office and

 

quarters he maintained in the gatehouse of the central keep. He felt the tension, the fear

 

that approached despair, as he looked at the wide, staring eyes of his warriors.

 

 

 

 

    And even more than the warriors, there were the women and children. Many of the

 

women were human, their children half-elves, wives and offspring of the western elves

 

who made up the Wildrunners. Kith shared their sorrow as deeply as he felt that of the

 

elven females who were here in even greater numbers.

 

 

 

 

    They would all be eating short rations, he knew. The siege would inevitably last into

 

the autumn, and he had little doubt the humans could sustain the pressure through the

 

winter and beyond.

 


 

    As he looked at the young ones, Kith felt a stab of pain. He wondered how many of

 

them would see spring.

 


 

                                              6

 

 

                               Autumn, Year of the Raven

 

 

 

 

 

    Lord Quimant came to Sithas in the Hall of Audience. His wife's cousin brought

 

another elf­a stalwart-looking fellow, with lines of soot set firmly in his face, and the

 

strapping, sinewy arms of a powerful wrestler­to see the Speaker of the Stars.

 

 

 

 

    Sithas sat upon his emerald throne and watched the approaching pair. The Speaker's

 

green robe flowed around him, collecting the light of the throne and diffusing it into a

 

soft glow that seemed to surround him. He reclined casually in the throne, but he

 

remained fully alert.

 

 

 

 

    Alert, in that his mind was working quickly. Yet his thoughts were many hundreds of

 

miles and years away.

 

 

 

    Weeks earlier, he had received a letter from Kencathedrus describing Kith-Kanan's

 

capture and presumed loss. That had been followed, barely two days later, by a missive

 

from his brother himself, describing a harrowing escape: the battle with guards, the theft

 

of a fleet horse, a mad dash from the encampment, and finally a chase that ended only

 

after Kith-Kanan had led his pursuers to within arrow range of the great fortress of

 

Sithelbec.

 


 

    Sithelbecnamed for his father, the former Speaker of the Stars. Many times Sithas

 

had reflected on the irony, for his father had been slain on a hunting trip, practically with-

 

in sight of the fortress's walls. As far as Sithas knew, it had been his father's first and only

 

expedition to the western plains. Yet Sithel had been willing to go to war over those

 

plains, to put the nation's future at stake because of them. And now Sithas, his firstborn,

 

had inherited that struggle. Would he live up to his father's expectations?

 

 

 

 

 

    Reluctantly Sithas forced his mind back to the present, to his current location. He

 

cast his eyes around his surroundings to force the transition in his thoughts.

 

 

 

    A dozen elven guards, in silver breastplates and tall, plumed helmets, snapped their

 

halberds to attention around the periphery of the hall. They stood impassive and silent as

 

the noble lord marched toward the throne. Otherwise the great hall, with its gleaming

 

marble floor and the ceiling towering six hundred feet overhead, was empty.

 

 

 

 

    Sithas looked at Quimant. The elven noble wore a long cloak of black over a silk

 

tunic of light green. Tights of red, and soft, black boots, completed his ensemble.

 

 

 

    Lord Quimant of Oakleaf was a very handsome elf indeed. But he was also

 

intelligent, quick-witted, and alert to many threats and opportunities that might otherwise

 

have missed Sithas's notice.

 

    "This is my nephew," the lord explained. "Ganrock Ethu, master smith. I recommend

 

him, my Speaker, for the position of palace smith. He is shrewd, quick to learn, and a

 

very hard worker."

 


 

    "But Herrlock Redmoon has always handled the royal smithy," Sithas protested.

 

Then he remembered: Herrlock had been blinded the week before in a tragic accident,

 

when he had touched spark to his forge. Somehow the kindled coal had exploded

 

violently, destroying his eyes beyond the abilities of Silvanost's clerics to repair. After

 

seeing that the loyal smith was well cared for and as comfortable as possible, Sithas had

 

promised to select a replacement.

 

    He looked at the young elf before him. Ganrock's face showed lines of maturity, and

 

the thick muscle of his upper torso showed proof of long years of work.

 

    "Very well," Sithas agreed. "Show him the royal smithy and find out what he needs

 

to get started." He called to one of his guards and told the elf to accompany Ganrock Ethu

 

to the forge area, which lay in the rear of the Palace of Quinari.

 

    "Thank you, Your Eminence," said the smith, with a sudden bow. "I shall endeavor

 

to do fine work for you."

 

    "Very good," replied the Speaker. Quimant lingered as the smith left the hall.

 

    Lord Quimant's narrow face tightened in determination as he turned back to Sithas.

 

    "What is it, my lord? You look distressed." Sithas raised a hand and bade Qiumant

 

stand beside him.

 

    "The Smelters Guild, Your Highness," replied the noble elf. "They refuse­they

 

simply refuse­to work their foundries during the hours of darkness. Without the addi-

 

tional steel, our weapon production is hamstrung, barely adequate for even peacetime

 

needs."

 

    Sithas cursed quietly. Nevertheless, he was thankful that Quimant had informed him.

 

The proud heir of Clan Oakleaf had greatly improved the efficiency of Silvanost's war

 

preparations by spotting details­such as this one­that would have escaped Sithas's notice.

 


 

    "I shall speak to the smelter Kerilar," Sithas vowed. "He is a stubborn old elf, but he

 

knows the importance of the sword. I will make him understand, if I have to."

 

    "Very good, Excellency," said Lord Quimant, with a bow. He straightened again. "Is

 

there news of the war?"

 

    "Not since the last letter, a week ago. The Wildrunners remain besieged in Sithelbec,

 

while the humans roam the disputed lands at will. Kith has no chance to break out. He's

 

now surrounded by a hundred thousand men."

 

    The lord shook his head grimly before fixing Sithas with a hard gaze. "He must be

 

reinforced­there's no other way. You know this, don't you?"

 

    Sithas met Quimant's gaze with equal steadiness. "Yes­I do. But the only way I can

 

recruit more troops is to conscript them from the city and the surrounding clan estates.

 

You know what kind of dispute that will provoke!"

 

    "How long can your brother hold his fort?"

 

    "He has rations enough for the winter. The casualties of the battle were terrible, of

 

course, but the remainder of his force is well disciplined, and the fortress is strong."

 

    The news of the battlefield debacle had hit the elven capital hard. As the knowledge

 

spread that two thousand of the city's young elves­two out of every five who had

 

marched so proudly to the west­had perished in the fight, Silvanost had been shrouded in

 

grief for a week.

 

    Sithas learned of the battle at the same time as he heard that his brother had fallen

 

and was most likely lost. For two days, his world had been a grim shroud of despair.

 

Knowing that Kith had reached safety lightened the burden to some extent, but their

 

prospects for victory still seemed nonexistent. How long would it be, he had agonized,

 

before the rest of the Wildrunners fell to the overwhelming tide around them?

 


 

    Then gradually his despair had turned to anger­anger at the shortsightedness of his

 

own people. Elves had crowded the Hall of Audience on the Trial Days, disrupting the

 

proceedings. The emotions of the city's elves had been inflamed by the knowledge that

 

the rest of the Wildrunners had suffered nowhere near the size of losses inflicted upon the

 

elves of Silvanost. It was not uncommon now to hear voices raised in the complaint that

 

the western lands should be turned over to the humans and the Wildrunner elves, to let

 

them battle each other to extinction.

 

    "Very well­so he can hold out." Quimant's voice was strong yet deferential. "But he

 

cannot escape! We must send a fresh army, a large one, to give him the sinew he needs!"

 

    "There are the dwarves. We have yet to hear from them," Sithas pointed out.

 

    "Pah! If they do anything, it will be too late! It seems that Than-Kar sympathizes

 

with the humans as much as with us. The dwarves will never do anything so long as he

 

remains their voice and their ears!"

 

    Ah­but he is not their voice and ears. Sithas had that thought with some small

 

satisfaction, but he said nothing to Quimant as the lord continued, though his thoughts

 

considered the potential of hope. Tamanier Ambrodel, I am depending upon you!

 

    "Still, we must tolerate him, I suppose. He is our best chance of an alliance."

 

    "As always, good cousin, your words are the mirror of my thoughts." Sithas

 

straightened in his throne, a signal that the interview drew to a close. "But my decision is

 

still to wait. Kith-Kanan is secure for now, and we may learn more as time goes on."

 

    He hoped he was right. The fortress was strong, and the humans would undoubtedly

 

require months to prepare a coordinated assault. But what then?

 

    "Very well." Quimant cleared his throat awkwardly, then added, "What is the word

 

of my cousin? I have not seen her for some weeks now."

 


 

    "Her time is near," Sithas offered. "Her sisters have come from the estates to stay

 

with her, and she has been confined to bed by the clerics of Quenesti Pah."

 

    Quimant nodded. "Please give her my wishes when next you see her. May she give

 

birth speedily, to a healthy child."

 

    "Indeed."

 

    Sithas watched the elegant noble walk from the hall. He was impressed by Quimant's

 

bearing. The lord knew his worth to the throne, proven in the half-year since he had come

 

to Silvanost. He showed sensitivity to the desires of the Speaker and seemed to work well

 

toward those ends.

 

    He heard one of the side doors open and looked across the great hall as a

 

silk-gowned female elf entered. Her eyes fell softly on the figure seated upon the brilliant

 

throne with its multitude of green, gleaming facets.

 

    "Mother," said Sithas with delight. He didn't see much of Nirakina around the palace

 

during these difficult days, and this visit was a pleasant surprise. He was struck, as she

 

approached him, by how much older she looked.

 

    "I see you do not have attendants now," she said quietly to Sithas, who rose and

 

approached her. "So often you are busy with the affairs of state ... and war."

 

    He sighed. "War has become the way of my life­the way all Silvanost lives now."

 

He felt a twinge of sadness for his mother. So often Sithas looked upon the death of his

 

father as an event that had placed the burden of rule on his own shoulders. He tended to

 

forget that it had, at the same time, made his mother a widow.

 

    "Take a moment to walk with me, won't you?" asked Nirakina, taking her son by the

 

arm.

 

    He nodded, and they walked in silence across the great hall of the tower to the crystal

 

doors reserved for the royal family alone. These opened soundlessly, and then they were

 


 

in the Gardens of Astarin. To their right were the dark wooden buildings of the royal

 

stables, while before them beckoned the wondrous beauty of the royal gardens. Imme-

 

diately Sithas felt a sense of lightness and ease.

 

    "You need to do this more often," said his mother, gently chiding. "You grow old

 

before your time." She held his arm loosely, letting him select the path they followed.

 

    The gardens loomed around them­great hedges and thick bushes heavy with dewy

 

blossoms; ponds and pools and fountains; small clumps of aspen and oak and fir. It was a

 

world of nature, shaped and formed by elven clerics­devotees of the Bard King,

 

Astarin­into a transcendent work of art.

 

    "I thank you for bringing me through those doors," Sithas said with a chuckle.

 

"Sometimes I need to be reminded."

 

    "Your father, too, needed a subtle reminder now and then. I tried to give him that

 

when it became necessary."

 

    For a moment, Sithas felt a wave of melancholy. "I miss him now more than ever. I

 

feel so ... unready to sit on his throne."

 

    "You are ready," said Nirakina firmly. "Your wisdom is seeing us through the most

 

difficult time since the Dragon Wars. But since you are about to become a father, you

 

must realize that your life cannot be totally given over to your nation. You have a family

 

to think about, as well."

 

    Sithas smiled. "The clerics of Quenesti Pah are with Hermathya at all times. They

 

say it will be any day now."

 

    "The clerics, and her sisters," Nirakina murmured.

 

    "Yes," Sithas agreed. Hermathya's sisters, Gelynna and Lyath, had moved into the

 

palace as soon as his wife's pregnancy had become known. They were pleasant enough,

 


 

but Sithas had come to feel that his apartments were somehow less than his own now. It

 

was a feeling he didn't like but that he had tried to overlook for Hermathya's sake.

 

    "She has changed, Mother, that much you must see. Hermathya had become a new

 

woman even before she knew about the child. She has been a support and a comfort to

 

me, as if for the first time."

 

    "It is the war," said Nirakina. "I have noticed this change you speak of, and it began

 

with the war. She, her clan of Oakleaf, they all thrive upon this intensity and activity."

 

The elven woman paused, then added, "I noticed Lord Quimant leaving before I entered.

 

You speak with him often. Is he proving himself useful?"

 

    "Indeed, very. Does this cause you concern?"

 

    Nirakina sighed, then shook her head. "I­no­no, it doesn't. You are doing the right

 

thing for Silvanesti, and if he can aid you, that is a good thing."

 

    Sithas stopped at a stone bench. His mother sat while he paced idly below

 

overhanging branches of silvery quaking aspen that shimmered in the light breeze.

 

    "Have you had word from Tamanier Ambrodel?" Nirakina asked.

 

    Sithas smiled confidentially. "He has arrived at Thorbardin safely and hopes to get in

 

touch with the Hylar. With any luck, he will see the king himself. Then we shall find out

 

if this Than-Kar is doing us true justice as ambassador."

 

    "And you have told no one of Lord Ambrodel's mission?" his mother inquired

 

carefully.

 

    "No " Sithas informed her. "Indeed, Quimant and I discussed the dwarves today, but

 

I said nothing even to him about our quiet diplomat. Still, I wish you would tell me why

 

we must maintain such secrecy."

 

    "Please, not yet," Nirakina demurred.

 


 

    A thin haze had gradually spread across the sky, and now the wind carried a bit of

 

early winter in its caress. Sithas saw his mother shiver in her light silken garment.

 

    "Come, we'll return to the hall," he said, offering his arm as she rose.

 

    "And your brother?" Nirakina asked tentatively as they turned back toward the

 

crystal doors. "Can you send him more troops?"

 

    "I don't know yet," Sithas replied, the agony of the decision audible in his voice.

 

"Can I risk arousing the city?"

 

    "Perhaps you need more information."

 

    "Who could inform me of that which I don't already know?" Sithas asked skeptically.

 

    "Kith-Kanan himself." His mother stopped to face him as the doors opened and the

 

warmth of the tower beckoned. "Bring him home, Sithas," she said urgently, taking both

 

of his arms in her hands. "Bring him home and talk to him!"

 

    Sithas was surprised at his own instinctive reaction. The suggestion made

 

surprisingly good sense. It offered him hope­and an idea for action that would unite, not

 

divide, his people. Yet how could he call his brother home now, out of the midst of a

 

monstrous encircling army?

 

                                          *   *   *   *   *

 

    The next day Quimant again was Sithas's first and primary visitor.

 

    "My lord," began the adviser, "have you made a decision about conscription of

 

additional forces? I am reluctant to remind you, but time may be running short."

 

    Sithas frowned. Unbidden, his mind recalled the scene at the riverbank when the first

 

column departed for war. Now more than half those elves were dead. What would be the

 

city's reaction should another, larger force march west?

 

    "Not yet. I wish to wait until . . . " His voice trailed off. He had been about to

 

mention Ambrodel's mission. "I will not make that decision yet," he concluded.

 


 

    He was spared the necessity of further discussion when Stankathan, his palace

 

majordomo, entered the great hall. That dignified elf, clad in a black waistcoat of wool,

 

preceded a travel-stained messenger who wore the leather jerkin of a Wildrunner scout.

 

The latter bore a scroll of parchment sealed with a familiar stamp of red wax.

 

    "A message from my brother?" Sithas rose to his feet, recognizing the form of the

 

sheet.

 

    "By courier, who came from across the river just this morning," replied Stankathan.

 

"I brought him over to the tower directly."

 

    Sithas felt a surge of delight, as he did every fortnight or so when a courier arrived

 

with the latest reports from Kith-Kanan. Yet that delight had lately been tempered by the

 

grim news from his brother and the besieged garrison.

 

    He looked at the courier as the elf approached and bowed deeply. Besides the dirt

 

and mud of the trail, Sithas saw that the fellow had a sling supporting his right arm and a

 

dark, stained bandage around the leggings of his left knee.

 

    "My gratitude for your efforts," said Sithas, appraising the rider. The elf stood taller

 

after his words, as if the praise of the speaker was a balm to his wounds. "What was the

 

nature of your obstacles?"

 

    "The usual rings of guards, Your Highness," replied the elf. "But the humans lack

 

sorcerers and so cannot screen the paths with magic. The first day of my journey I was

 

concealed by invisibility, a spell that camouflaged myself and my horse. Afterward, the

 

fleetness of my steed carried me, and I encountered only one minor fray."

 

    The Speaker of the Stars took the scroll and broke the wax seal. Carefully he

 

unrolled the sheet, ignoring Quimant for the time being. The lord stood quietly; if he was

 

annoyed, he made no visible sign of the fact.

 

    Sithas read the missive solemnly.

 


 

I look out, my brother, upon an endless sea of humanity. Indeed, they

 

surround us like the ocean surrounds an island, completely blocking our

 

passage. It is only with great risk that my couriers can penetrate the

 

lines­that, and the aid of spells cast by my enchanters, which allow them

 

some brief time to escape the notice of the foe.

 

    What is to be the fate now of our cause? Will the army of Ergoth

 

attack and carry the fort? Their horses sweep in great circles about us, but

 

the steeds cannot reach us here. The other two wings have joined General

 

Giarna before Sithelbec, and their numbers truly stun the mind.

 

    General Giarna, I have learned, is the name of the foe we faced in the

 

spring, the one who drove us from the field. We have taken prisoners

 

from his force, and to a man they speak of their devotion to him and their

 

confidence that he will one day destroy us! I met him in the brief hours I

 

was prisoner, and he is a terrifying man. There is something deep and

 

cruel about him that transcended any foe I have ever encountered.

 

    Will the dwarves of Thorbardin march from their stronghold and

 

break the siege from the south? That, my brother, would be a truly

 

magnificent feat of diplomacy on your part. Should you bring such an

 

alliance into being, I could scarce convey my gratitude across the miles!

 

    Or will the hosts of Silvanost march forth, the elves united in their

 

campaign against the threat to our race? That, I am afraid, is the least

 

likely of my musings­at least, from the words you give me as to our

 

peoples' apathy and lack of concern. How fares the diplomatic battle,

 

Brother?

 


 

    I hope to amuse you with one tale, an experience that gave us all

 

many moments of distraction, not to mention fear. I have written to you

 

of the gnomish lava cannon, the mountain vehicle pulled by a hundred

 

oxen, its stony maw pointed skyward as it belches smoke and fire. Fi-

 

nally, shortly after my last letter, this device was hauled into place before

 

Sithelbec. It stood some three miles away but loomed so high and spumed

 

so furiously that we were indeed distraught!

 

    For three days, the monstrous structure became the center of a

 

whirlwind of gnomish activity. They scaled its sides, fed coal into its

 

bowels, poured great quantities of muck and dust and streams of a red

 

powder into its maw. All this time, the thing puffed and chugged. By the

 

third day, the entire plain lay shrouded beneath a cloud from its wheezing

 

exhalations.

 

    Finally the gnomes clambered up the sides and stood atop the device,

 

as if they had scaled a small mountain. We watched, admittedly with

 

great trepidation, as one of the little creatures mixed a caldron at the very

 

lip of the cannon's interior. Eventually he cast the contents of the vessel

 

into the weapon itself. All of the gnomes fled, and for the first time, we

 

noticed that the humans had pulled back from the cannon, giving it a

 

good half-mile berth to either side.

 

    For a full day, the army of Ergoth huddled in fright, staring at their

 

monstrous weapon. Finally it appeared that it had failed to discharge, but

 

it was not until the following day that we watched the gnomes creep for-

 

ward to investigate.

 


 

    Suddenly the thing began to chug and wheeze and belch. The gnomes

 

scurried for cover, and for another full day, we all watched and waited.

 

But it was not until the morning of the third day that we saw the weapon

 

in action.

 

    It exploded shortly after dawn and cast its formidable ordnance for

 

many miles. Fortunately we, as the targets of the attack, were safe. It was

 

the gathered human army that suffered the brunt of flaming rock and

 

devastating force that ripped across the plains.

 

    We saw thousands of the humans' horses (unfortunately a small

 

fraction of their total number) stampede in panic across the plain. Whole

 

regiments vanished beneath the deluge of death as a sludgelike wave

 

spread through the army.

 

    For a brief moment, I saw the opportunity to make a sharp attack,

 

further disrupting the encircling host. Even as I ordered the attack,

 

however, the ranks of General Giarna's wing shouldered aside the other

 

humans. His deadly riders ensured that our trap remained effectively

 

closed.

 

    Nevertheless, the accident wreaked havoc among the Army of

 

Ergoth. We gave thanks to the gods that the device misfired; had its

 

attack struck Sithelbec, you would have already received your last

 

missive from me. The cannon has been reduced to a heap of rubble, and

 

we pray daily that it cannot be rebuilt.

 

    My best wishes and hopes for my new niece or nephew. Which is it

 

to be? Perhaps you will have the answer by the time you read this. I can

 


 

       only hope that somehow I will know. I hope Hermathya is comfortable

 

       and well.

 

            I miss your counsel and presence as always, Brother. I treat myself to

 

       the thought that, could we but bring our minds together, we could work a

 

       way to break out of this stalemate. But, alas, the jaws of the trap close

 

       about me, and I know that you, in the capital, are ensnared in every bit as

 

       tight a position as I.

 

            Until then, have a prayer for us! Give my love to Mother!

 

 

 

 

                                                                               Kith

 

 

 

 

    Sithas paused, realizing that the guards and Quimant had been studying him intently

 

as he read. A full range of emotions had played across his face, he knew, and suddenly

 

the knowledge made him feel exceedingly vulnerable.

 

    "Leave me, all of you!" Sithas barked the command, more harshly perhaps than he

 

intended, but he was nevertheless gratified to see them all quickly depart from the hall.

 

    He paced back and forth before the emerald throne. His brother's letter had agitated

 

him more than usual, for he knew that he had to do something. No longer could he force

 

the standoff at Sithelbec into the back of his mind. His mother and his brother were right.

 

He needed to see Kith-Kanan, to talk with him. They would be able to work out a plan­a

 

plan with some hope of success!

 

    Remembering his walk with Nirakina, he turned toward the royal doors of crystal.

 

The gardens and the stables lay beyond.

 


 

    Resolutely Sithas stalked to those doors, which opened silently before him. He

 

emerged from the tower into the cool sunlight of the garden but took no note of his sur-

 

roundings. Instead, he crossed directly to the royal stable.

 

    The stable was in fact a sprawling collection of buildings and corrals. These included

 

barns for the horses and small houses for the grooms and trainers, as well as stocks of

 

feed. Behind the main structure, a field of short grass stretched away from the Tower of

 

the Stars, covering the palace grounds to the edges of the guildhouses that bordered them.

 

    Here were kept the several dozen horses of the royal family, as well as several

 

coaches and carriages. But it was to none of these that the speaker now made his way.

 

    Instead, he crossed through the main barn, nodding with easy familiarity to the

 

grooms who brushed the sleek stallions. He passed through the far door and crossed a

 

small corral, approaching a sturdy building that stood by itself, unattached to any other.

 

The door was divided into top and bottom halves; the top half stood open.

 

    A form moved within the structure, and then a great head emerged from the door.

 

Bright golden eyes regarded Sithas with distrust and suspicion.

 

    The front of that head was a long, wickedly hawklike beak. The beak opened

 

slightly. Sithas saw the great wings flex within the confining stable and knew that

 

Arcuballis longed to fly.

 

    "You must go to Kith-Kanan," Sithas told the powerful steed. "Bring him out of his

 

fort and back to me. Do this, Arcuballis, when I let you fly!"

 

    The griffon's large eyes glittered as the creature studied the Speaker of the Stars.

 

Arcuballis had been Kith-Kanan's lifelong mount until the duties of generalship had

 

forced his brother to take a more conventional steed. Sithas knew that the griffon would

 

go and bring his brother back.

 


 

    Slowly Sithas reached forward and unlatched the bottom half of the door, allowing

 

the portal to swing freely open. Arcuballis hesitantly stepped forward over the half-eaten

 

carcass of a deer that lay just inside the stable.

 

    With a spreading of his great wings, Arcuballis gave a mighty spring. He bounded

 

across the corral, and by his third leap, the griffon was airborne. His powerful wings

 

drove downward and the creature gained height, soaring over the roof of the stable, then

 

veering to pass near the Tower of the Stars.

 

    "Go!" cried Sithas. "Go to Kith-Kanan!"

 

    As if he heard, the griffon swept through a turn. Powerful wings still driving him

 

upward, Arcuballis swerved toward the west.

 

    It seemed to Sithas as if a heavy burden had flown away from him, borne upon the

 

wings of the griffon. His brother would understand, he knew. When Arcuballis arrived at

 

Sithelbec, as Sithas felt certain he would, Kith-Kanan would waste no time in mounting

 

his faithful steed and hastening back to Silvanost. Between them, he knew, they would

 

find a way to advance the elven cause.

 

    "Excellency?"

 

    Sithas whirled, startled from his reverie by a voice from behind him. He saw

 

Stankathan, the majordomo, looking out of place among the mud and dung of the corral.

 

The elf's face, however, was knit by a deeper concern.

 

    "What is it?" Sithas inquired quickly.

 

    "It's your wife, the Lady Hermathya," replied Stankathan. "She cries with pain now.

 

The clerics tell me it is time for your child to be born."

 


 

                                             7

 

                                    Three Days Later

 

 

 

 

    The oil lamp sputtered in the center of the wooden table. The flame was set low to

 

conserve precious fuel for the long, dark months of winter that lay ahead. Kith-Kanan

 

thought the shadowy darkness appropriate for this bleak meeting.

 

    With him at the table sat Kencathedrus and Parnigar. Both of them­as well as Kith,

 

himself­showed the gauntness of six months at half rations. Their eyes carried the dull

 

awareness that many more months of the same lay before them.

 

    Every night during that time, Kith had met with these two officers, both of them

 

trusted friends and seasoned veterans. They gathered in this small room, with its plain

 

table and chairs. Sometimes they shared a bottle of wine, but that commodity, too, had to

 

be rationed carefully.

 

    "We have a report from the Wildrunners," Parnigar began. "White-lock managed to

 

slip through the lines. He told me that the small companies we have roaming the woods

 

can hit hard and often. But they have to keep moving, and they don't dare venture onto

 

the plains."

 

    "Of course not!" Kencathedrus snapped.

 

    The two officers argued, as they did so often, from their different tactical

 

perspectives. "We'll never make any progress if we keep dispersing our forces through

 

the woods. We have to gather them together! We must mass our strength!"

 

    Kith sighed and held up his hands. "We all know that our 'mass of strength' would be

 

little more than a nuisance to the human army­at least right now. The fortress is the only

 


 

thing keeping the Wildrunners from annihilation, and the hit-and-run tactics are all we

 

can do until ... until something happens."

 

     He trailed off weakly, knowing he had touched upon the heart of their despair. True,

 

for the time being they were safe enough in Sithelbec from direct attack. And they had

 

food that could be stretched, with the help of their clerics, to last for a year, perhaps a

 

little longer.

 

     In sudden anger, Kencathedrus smashed his fist on the table. "They hold us here like

 

caged beasts," he growled. "What kind of fate do we consign ourselves to?"

 

     "Calm yourself, my friend." Kith touched his old teacher on the shoulder, seeing the

 

tears in the elven warrior's eyes. His eyes were framed by sunken skin, dark brown in

 

color, that accentuated further the hollowness of the elf's cheeks. By the gods, do we all

 

look like that? Kith had to wonder.

 

     The captain of Silvanost pushed himself to his feet and turned away from them.

 

Parnigar cleared his throat awkwardly. "There is nothing we can accomplish by

 

morning," he said. Quietly he got to his feet.

 

     Parnigar, alone of the three of them, had a wife here. He worried more about her

 

health than his own. She was human, one of several hundred in the fort, but this was a

 

fact that they carefully avoided in conversation. Though Kith-Kanan knew and liked the

 

woman, Kencathedrus still found the interracial marriage deeply disturbing.

 

     "May you rest well tonight, noble elves," Parnigar offered before stepping through

 

the door into the dark night beyond.

 

     "I know your need to avenge the battle on the plains," Kith-Kanan said to

 

Kencathedrus as the latter turned and gathered his cloak. "I believe this, my friend­your

 

chance will come!"

 


 

    The elven captain looked at the general, so much younger than himself, and Kith

 

could see that Kencathedrus wanted to believe him. His eyes were dry again, and finally

 

the captain nodded gruffly. "I'll see you in the morning," he promised before following

 

Parnigar into the night.

 

    Kith sat for a while, staring at the dying flame of the lantern, reluctant to extinguish

 

the light even though he knew precious fuel burned away with each second. Not enough

 

fuel ... not enough food ... insufficient troops. What did he have enough of, besides

 

problems?

 

    He tried not to think about the extent of his frustration­how much he hated being

 

trapped inside the fortress, cooped up with his entire army, at the mercy of the enemy

 

beyond the walls. How he longed for the freedom of the forests, where he had lived so

 

happily during his years away from Silvanost.

 

    Yet with these thoughts, he couldn't help thinking of Anaya­beautiful, lost Anaya.

 

Perhaps his true entrapment had begun with her death, before the war started, before he

 

had been made general of his father's­and then his brother's­army.

 

    Finally he sighed, knowing that his thoughts could bring him no comfort. Reluctantly

 

he doused the lantern's flame. His own bunk occupied the room adjacent to this office,

 

and soon he lay there.

 

    But sleep would not come. That night they had had no wine to share, and now the

 

tension of his mood kept Kith-Kanan awake for seeming hours after his two officers left.

 

    Eventually, with the entire fortress silent and still around him, his eyes fell shut­but

 

not to the darkness of restful sleep. Instead, it was as though he fell directly from wake-

 

fulness into a very vivid dream.

 


 

    He dreamed that he soared through the clouds, not upon the back of Arcuballis as he

 

had flown so many times before, but supported by the strength of his own arms, his own

 

feet. He swooped and dove like an eagle, master of the sky.

 

    Abruptly the clouds parted before him, and he saw three conical mountain peaks

 

jutting upward from the haze of earth so far below. These monstrous peaks belched

 

smoke, and streaks of fire splashed and flowed down their sides. The valleys extending

 

from their feet were hellish wastelands of crimson lava and brown sludge.

 

    Away from the peaks he soared, and now below him were lifeless valleys of a

 

different sort. Surrounded by craggy ridges and needlelike peaks, these mountain retreats

 

lay beneath great sheets of snow and ice. All around him stretched a pristine brilliance.

 

Gray and black shapes, the forms of towering summits, rose from the vast glaciers of

 

pure white. In places, streaks of blue showed through the snow, and here Kith-Kanan saw

 

ice as clean, as clear as any on Krynn.

 

    Movement suddenly caught his eye in one of these valleys. He saw a great mountain

 

looming, higher than all the others around. Upon its face, dripping ice formed the crude

 

outlines of a face like that of an old, white-bearded dwarf.

 

    Kith continued his flight and saw movement again. At first Kith thought that he was

 

witnessing a great flock of eagles­savage, prideful birds that crowded the sky. Then he

 

wondered, could they be some kind of mountain horses or unusual, tawny-colored goats?

 

    In another moment, he knew, as the memory of Arcuballis came flooding back.

 

These were griffons, a whole flock of them! Hundreds of the savage half-eagle, half-lion

 

creatures were surging through the air toward Kith-Kanan.

 

    He felt no fear. Instead, he turned away from the dwarfbeard mountain and flew

 

southward. The griffons followed, and slowly the heights of the range fell behind him. He

 

saw lakes of blue water below him and fields of brush and mossy rock. Then came the

 


 

first trees, and he dove to follow a mountain rivulet toward the green flatlands that now

 

opened up before him.

 

    And then he saw her in the forest­Anaya! She was painted like a wild savage, her

 

naked body flashing among the trees as she ran from him. By the gods, she was fast! She

 

outdistanced him even as he flew, and soon the only trace of her passage was the wild

 

laughter that lingered on the breeze before him.

 

    Then he found her, but already she had changed. She was old, and rooted in the

 

ground. Before his eyes, she had become a tree, growing toward the heavens and losing

 

all of the form and the senses of the elfin woman he had grown to love.

 

    His tears flowed, unnoticed, down his face. They soaked the ground and nourished

 

the tree, causing it to shoot farther into the sky. Sadly the elf left her, and he and his grif-

 

fons flew on farther to the south.

 

    Another face wafted before him. He recognized with shock the human woman who

 

had given him his escape from the enemy camp. Why, now, did she enter his dream?

 

    The rivulet below him became a stream, and then more streams joined it, and the

 

stream became a river, flowing into the forested realm of his homeland.

 

    Ahead he finally saw a ring of water where the River Thon-Thalas parted around the

 

island of Silvanost. Behind him, five hundred griffons followed him homeward. A radiant

 

glow reached out to welcome him.

 

    He saw another elf woman in the garden. She looked upward, her arms spread,

 

welcoming him to his home, to her. At first, from a distance, he wondered if this was his

 

mother, but then as he dove closer, he recognized his brother's wife, Hermathya.

 

    Sunlight streamed into his window. He awoke suddenly, refreshed and revitalized.

 

The memory of his dream shone in his mind like a beacon, and he sprang from his bed.

 

The fortress still slumbered around him. His window, on the east wall of a tower, was the

 


 

first place in Sithelbec to receive the morning sun. Throwing a cloak over his tunic and

 

sticking his feet into soft, high leather boots, he laced the latter around his knees while he

 

hobbled toward the door.

 

    A cry of alarm suddenly sounded from the courtyard. In the next moment, a horn

 

blared, followed by a chorus of trumpets blasting a warning. Kith dashed from his room,

 

down the hall of the captain's quarters and to the outside. The sun was barely cresting the

 

fortress wall, and yet he saw a shadow pass across that small area of brightness.

 

    He noted several archers on the wall, turning and aiming their weapons skyward.

 

    "Don't shoot!" he cried as the shadow swooped closer and he recognized it.

 

"Arcuballis!"

 

    He waved his hand and ran into the courtyard as the proud griffon circled him once,

 

then came to rest before him. The lion's hindquarter's squatted while the creature raised

 

one foreclaw­the massive, taloned limb of an eagle. The keen yellow eyes blinked, and

 

Kith-Kanan felt a surge of affection for his faithful steed.

 

    In the next moment, he wondered about Arcuballis's presence here. He had left him

 

in charge of his brother back in Silvanost. Of course! Sithas had sent the creature here to

 

Kith to bring him home! The prospect elated him like nothing else had in years.

 

                                          *   *   *   *   *

 

    It took Kith-Kanan less than an hour to leave orders with his two subordinates.

 

Parnigar he placed in overall command, while Kencathedrus was to drill and train a

 

small, mobile sortie force of cavalry, pikes, and archers. They would be called the Flying

 

Brigade, but they were not to be employed until Kith-Kanan's return. He cautioned both

 

officers on the need to remain alert to any human strategem. Sithelbec was the keystone

 

to any defense on the plains, and it must remain impregnable, inviolate.

 


 

    "I'm sure my brother has plans. We'll meet and work out a way to break this

 

stalemate!" The autumn wind swirled through the compound, bringing the first bite of

 

winter.

 

    He climbed onto the back of his steed, settling into the new saddle that one of the

 

Wildrunner horsemen had cobbled for him.

 

    "Good luck, and may the gods watch over your flight," Kencathedrus said, clasping

 

Kith's gloved hand in both of his own.

 

    "And bring a speedy return," added Parnigar.

 

    Arcuballis thrust powerful wings, muscular and stout enough to break a man's neck,

 

toward the ground. At the same time, the leonine hindquarters thrust the body into the air.

 

    Several strokes of his wings carried Arcuballis to the top of a building, still inside the

 

fortress wall. He grasped the peaked roof with his eagle foreclaws, then used his feline

 

rear legs to spring himself still higher into the air. With a squawk that rang like a

 

challenge across the plain, he soared over the wall, climbing steadily.

 

    Kith-Kanan was momentarily awestruck at the spectacle of the enemy arrayed below

 

him. His tower, the highest vantage point in Sithelbec, didn't convey the immense sprawl

 

of the army of Ergoth­not in the way that Arcuballis's ascending flight did. Below, ranks

 

of human archers took up their weapons, but the griffon already soared far out of range.

 

    They flew onward, passing above a great herd of horses in a pasture. The shadow of

 

the griffon passed along the ground, and several of the steeds snorted and reared in sud-

 

den panic. These bolted immediately, and in seconds, the herd had erupted into a

 

stampede. The elf watched in wry amusement as the human herdsmen raced out of the

 

path of the beasts. It would be hours, he suspected, before order was restored to the camp.

 

    Kith looked down at the smoldering remains of the lava cannon, now a black,

 

misshapen thing, like a burned and gnarled tree trunk leaning at a steep angle over the

 


 

ground. He saw seemingly endless rows of tents, some of them grand but most simple

 

shelters of oilskin or wool. Everywhere the flat ground had been churned to mud.

 

    Finally he left the circular fortress and the larger circle of the human army behind.

 

Forests of lush green opened before him, dotted by ponds and lakes, streaked by rivers

 

and long meandering meadows. As the wild land surrounded him, he felt the agony of the

 

war fall away.

 

                                          *   *   *   *   *

 

    Suzine des Quivalen studied the image in the mirror until it faded into the distance,

 

beyond the reach of her arcane crystal. Yet even after it vanished, the memory of those

 

powerful wings carrying Kith-Kanan away­away from her­lingered in her mind.

 

    She saw his blond hair, flying from beneath his helmet. She recalled her gasp of

 

terror when the archers had fired, and her slow relaxation as he gained height and safety.

 

Yet a part of her had cursed and railed at him for leaving, and that part had wanted to see

 

a human arrow bring him down. She didn't want him dead, of course, but the idea of this

 

handsome elf as a prisoner in her camp was strangely appealing.

 

    For a moment, she paused, wondering at the fascination she found for this elven

 

commander, mortal enemy of her people and chief opponent of the man who was her . . .

 

lover.

 

    Once General Giarna had been that and more. Smooth, dashing, and handsome, he

 

had swept her off her feet in the early days of their relationship. With the aid of her

 

powers with the mirror, she had given him information sufficient to discredit several of

 

the emperor's highest generals. The grateful ruler had rewarded the Boy General with an

 

ever increasing array of field commands.

 

    But something had changed since those times. The man who she thought had loved

 

her now treated her with cruelty and arrogance, inspiring in her fears that she could not

 


 

overcome. Those fears were great enough to hold her at his side, for she had come to

 

believe that flight from General Giarna would mean her sentence of death.

 

    Here on the plains, in command of many thousands of men, Giarna had little time for

 

her, which was a relief. But when she saw him, he seemed so coldly controlled, so mon-

 

strously purposeful, that she feared him all the more.

 

    With an angry shake of her head, she turned from the mirror, which slowly faded

 

into a reflection of the Lady Suzine and the interior of her tent. She rose in a swirl of silk

 

and stalked across the rich carpets that blanketed the ground. Her red hair swirled in a

 

long coil around her scalp, rising higher than her head and peaking in a glittering tiara of

 

diamonds, emeralds, and rubies.

 

    Her gown, of blood-red silk, clung to the full curves of her body as she stalked

 

toward the tent flap that served as her door. She stopped long enough to throw a woolen

 

shawl over her bare shoulders, remembering the chill that had settled over the plains in

 

the last few days.

 

    As soon as she emerged, the six men-at-arms standing at her door snapped to

 

attention, bringing their halberds straight before their faces. She paid no attention as they

 

fell in behind her, marching with crisp precision as she headed toward another elegant

 

tent some distance away. The black stallion of General Giarna stood restlessly outside, so

 

she knew that the man she sought was within.

 

    The Army of Ergoth spread to the horizons around her. The massive encampment

 

encircled the fortress of Sithelbec in a great ring. Here, at the eastern arc of that ring, the

 

headquarters of the three generals and their retinues had collected. Amid the mud and

 

smoke of the army camp, the gilded coaches of the noble lancers and the tall, silken folds

 

of the high officers' tents, stood out in contrast.

 


 

    Before Suzine arose the tallest tent of all, that of General Barnet, the overall general

 

of the army.

 

    The two guards before that tent stepped quickly out of the way to let her pass, one of

 

them pulling aside the tent flap to give her entrance. She passed into the semidarkness of

 

the tent and her eyes quickly adjusted to the dim light. She saw General Giarna lounging

 

easily at a table loaded with food and drink. Before him, sitting stiffly, was General

 

Barnet. Suzine couldn't help but notice the fear and anger in the older general's eyes as he

 

looked at her.

 

    Beyond the two seated men stood a third, General Xalthan. That veteran's face was

 

deathly, shockingly pale. He surprised Suzine by looking at her with an expression of

 

pleading, as if he hoped that she could offer him succor for some terrible predicament.

 

    "Come in, my dear," said Giarna, his voice smooth, his manner light. "We are having

 

a farewell toast to our friend, General Xalthan."

 

    "Farewell?" she asked, having heard nothing of that worthy soldier's departure.

 

    "By word of the emperor­by special courier, with an escort. Quite an honor, really,"

 

added Giarna, his tone mocking and cruel.

 

    Instantly Suzine understood. The disaster with the lava cannon had been the last

 

straw, as far as the emperor was concerned, for General Xalthan. He had been recalled to

 

Daltigoth under guard.

 

    To his credit, the wing commander nodded stiffly, retaining his composure even in

 

the face of Giarna's taunts. General Barnet remained immobile, but the hatred in his eyes

 

now flashed toward Giarna. Suzine, too, felt an unexpected sense of loathing toward the

 

Boy General.

 

    "I'm sorry," she said to the doomed wing commander quietly. "I really am." Indeed,

 

the depths of her sorrow surprised her. She had never thought very much about Xalthan,

 


 

except sometimes to feel uncomfortable when his eyes ran over the outlines of her body

 

if she wore a clinging gown.

 

    But the old man was guilty of no failing, she suspected, except an inability to move

 

as quickly as the Boy General. Xalthan stood in the path of Giarna's desire to command

 

the entire army. General Giarna's reports to the emperor, she felt certain, had been full of

 

the information she had provided him­news of Xalthan's sluggish advance, the ineptness

 

of the gnomish artillerymen, all details that could make a vengeful and impatient ruler

 

lose his patience.

 

    And cause an old warrior who deserved only a peaceful retirement to face instead a

 

prospect of torture, disgrace, and execution.

 

    The knowledge made Suzine feel somehow dirty.

 

    Xalthan looked at her with that puppylike sense of hope, a hope she could do nothing

 

to gratify. His fate was laid in stone before them: There would be a long ride to Daltigoth,

 

perhaps with the formerly esteemed officer bound in chains. Once there, the emperor's

 

inquisitors would begin, often with Quivalen himself in attendance.

 

    It was rumored that the emperor received great pleasure from watching the torture of

 

those he felt had failed him. No tool was too devious, no tactic too inhumane, for these

 

monstrous sculptors of pain. Fire and steel, venoms and acids, all were the instruments of

 

their ungodly work. Finally, after days or weeks of indescribable agony, the inquisitors

 

would be finished, and Xalthan would be healed­just enough to allow him to be alert for

 

the occasion of his public execution.

 

    The fact that her cousin was the one who would do this to the man didn't enter into

 

her considerations. She accepted, fatalistically, that this was the way things would

 

happen. Her role in the court family was to be one who remained docile and sensitive to

 


 

her duties, useful with her skills as seer. She had to play that role and leave the rest to

 

fate.

 

         Just for a moment, a nearly overwhelming urge possessed her, a desire to flee this

 

army camp, to flee the gracious life of the capital, to fly from all the darkness that seemed

 

to surround her empire's endeavors. She wanted to go to a place where troubles such as

 

this one remained concealed from delicate eyes.

 

         It was only when she remembered the blond-haired elf who so fascinated her that she

 

paused. Even though he had gone, flown from Sithelbec on the back of his winged steed,

 

she felt certain he would return. She didn't know why, but she wanted to be here when he

 

did.

 

         "Farewell, General," she said quietly, crossing to embrace the once-proud warrior.

 

Without another glance at Giarna, she turned and left the tent.

 

         Suzine retreated to her own shelter, anger rising within her. She stalked back and

 

forth within the silken walls, resisting the urge to throw things, to rant loudly at the air.

 

For all her efforts at self-control, her vaunted discipline seemed to have deserted her. She

 

could not calm herself.

 

         Suddenly she gasped as the tent flap flew open and her general's huge form blocked

 

out the light. Instinctively she backed away as he marched into her shelter, allowing the

 

flap to fall closed behind him.

 

         "That was quite a display," he growled, his voice like a blast of winter's wind. His

 

dark eyes glowered, showing none of the amusement they had displayed at Xalthan's pre-

 

dicament.

 

         "What­what do you mean?" she stammered, still backing away. She held her hand to

 

her mouth and stared at him, her green eyes wide. A trace of her red hair spilled across

 

her brow, and she angrily pushed it away from her face.

 


 

    Giarna crossed to her in three quick strides, taking her wrists in both his hands. He

 

pulled her arms to her sides and stared into her face, his mouth twisted into a menacing

 

sneer.

 

    "Stop­you're hurting me!" she objected, twisting powerlessly in his grip.

 

    "Hear me well, wench." He growled, his voice barely audible. "Do not attempt to

 

mock me again­ever! If you do, that shall be the end your power ... the end of every-

 

thing!"

 

    She gasped, frightened beyond words.

 

    "I have chosen you for my woman. That fact pleased you once; perhaps it may please

 

you again. Whether it does or not is irrelevant to me. Your skills, however, are of use to

 

me. The others wonder at the great intelligence I gain concerning the elven army, and so

 

you will continue to serve me thus.

 

    "But you will not affront me again!" General Giarna paused, and his dark eyes

 

seemed to mock Suzine's terrified stare.

 

    "Do I make myself perfectly clear?" Giarna demanded, and she nodded quickly,

 

helplessly. She feared his power and his strength, and she could only tremble in the grip

 

of his powerful hands.

 

    "Remember well," added the general. He fixed her with a penetrating gaze, and she

 

felt the blood drain from her face. Without another word, he spun on his heel and stalked

 

imperiously from the tent.

 

                                             *   *   *   *   *

 

    The flight to Silvanost took four days, for Kith allowed Arcuballis to hunt in the

 

forest, while he himself took the time to rest at night on a lush bed of pine boughs amid

 

the noisy, friendly chatter of the woods.

 


 

    On the second day of his flight, Kith-Kanan stopped early, for he had reached a place

 

that he intended to visit. Arcuballis dove to earth in the center of a blossom-bright

 

clearing, and Kith dismounted. He walked over to a tree that grew strong and proud,

 

shading a wide area, far wider than when he had last been here a year before.

 

    "Anaya, I miss you," he said quietly.

 

    He rested at the foot of the tree and spent several hours in bittersweet reflection of

 

the elf woman he'd loved and lost. But he didn't find total despair in the memory, for this

 

was indeed Anaya beside him now. She grew tall and flourished in a part of the woods

 

she had always loved.

 

    She had been a creature of the woods, and together with her "brother" Mackeli, the

 

forest's guardian as well. For a moment, the pain threatened to block out the happier

 

memories. Why did they die? For what purpose? Anaya killed by marauders. Mackeli

 

slain by assassins­sent, Kith suspected, by someone in Silvanost itself.

 

    Anaya hadn't really died, he reminded himself. Instead, she had undergone a bizarre

 

transformation and become a tree, rooted firmly in the forest soil she loved and had

 

strived to protect.

 

    Then a disturbing vision intruded itself into Kith's reminiscences, and the picture of

 

Anaya, laughing and bright before him, changed slightly. A beautiful elven woman still

 

teased him, but now the face was different, no longer Anaya's.

 

    Hermathya! The image of his first love, now his brother's wife, struck him like a

 

physical blow. Angrily he shook his head, trying to dispel her features, to call back those

 

of Anaya. Yet Hermathya remained before him, her eyes bold and challenging, her smile

 

alluring.

 

    Kith-Kanan exhaled sharply, surprised by the attraction he still felt for the Silvanesti

 

woman. He had thought that impulse long dead, an immature passion that had run its

 


 

course and been banished to the past. Now he imagined her supple body, her clinging,

 

low-cut gown tailored to show enough to excite while concealing enough to mystify. He

 

found himself vaguely ashamed to realize that he still desired her.

 

    As he shook his head in an effort to banish the disturbing emotion, a picture of still a

 

third woman insinuated itself. He recalled again the red-haired human woman who had

 

given him his chance to escape from the enemy camp. There had been something vibrant

 

and compelling about her, and this wasn't the first time he had remembered her face.

 

    The conflicting memories warred within him as he built a small fire and ate a simple

 

meal. He camped in the clearing, as usual making himself a soft bed. The night passed in

 

peace.

 

    He took to the air at first light, feeling as if he had somehow sullied Anaya's

 

memory, but soon the clean air swept through his hair, and his mind focused on the day's

 

journey. Arcuballis carried him swiftly and uneventfully eastward.

 

    After his third night of sleeping in the woods, he felt as if his strength had been

 

doubled, his wit and alertness greatly enhanced.

 

    His spirits soared as high as the Tower of the Stars, which now appeared on the

 

distant horizon. Arcuballis carried him steadily, but so far was the tower that more than

 

an hour passed before they reached the Thon-Thalas River, border to the island of

 

Silvanost.

 

    His arrival was anticipated; boatmen on the river waved and cheered as he flew

 

overhead, while a crowd of elves hurried toward the Palace of Quinari. The doors at the

 

foot of the tower burst open, and Kith saw a blond-haired elf, clad in the silk robe of the

 

Speaker of the Stars, emerge. Sithas hurried across the garden, but the griffon met him

 

halfway.

 


 

    Grinning foolishly, Kith leapt from the back of his steed to embrace his brother. It

 

felt very good to be home.

 


 

PART II: SCIONS OF SILVANOS

 


 

                                              8

 

                                  Midautumn, 2214 (PC)

 

 

 

 

    "By Quenesti Pah, he's beautiful!" Kith-Kanan cautiously took the infant in his arms.

 

Proudly Sithas stood beside them. Kith had been on the ground for all of five minutes

 

before the Speaker of the Stars had hurried him to the nursery to see the newest heir to

 

the throne of Silvanesti.

 

    "It takes a while before you feel certain that you won't break him," he told his

 

brother, based on his own extensive paternal experience, a good two months' worth now.

 

    "Vanesti­it's a good name. Proud, full of our heritage," Kith said. "A name worthy of

 

the heir of the House of Silvanos."

 

    Sithas looked at his brother and his son, and he felt better than he had in months.

 

Indeed, he knew a gladness that hadn't been his since the start of the war.

 

    The door to the nursery opened and Hermathya entered. She approached Kith-Kanan

 

nervously, her eyes upon her child. At first, the elven general thought that his sister-in--

 

law's tension resulted from the memory of them together. Kith and Hermathya's affair,

 

before her engagement to Sithas, had been brief but passionate.

 

    But then he realized that her anxiety came from a simpler, more direct source. She

 

was concerned that someone other than herself held her child.

 

    "Here," said Kith, offering the silk-swathed infant to Hermathya. "You have a very

 

handsome son."

 

    "Thank you." She took the child, then smiled hesitantly. Kith tried to see her in a

 

different light than he did in his memories. He told himself that she looked nothing like

 

the woman he had known, had thought he loved, those few years earlier.

 


 

     Then the memories came back in a physical rush that almost brought him to his

 

knees. Hermathya smiled again, and Kith-Kanan ached with desire. He lowered his eyes,

 

certain that his bold feelings showed plainly on his face. By the gods, she was his

 

brother's wife! What kind of distorted loyalty tortured him that he could think these

 

thoughts, feel these needs.

 

     He cast a quick, apprehensive glance at Sithas and saw that his brother looked only

 

at the baby. Hermathya, however, caught his eye, her own gaze sparking like fire. What

 

was happening? Suddenly Kith-Kanan felt very frightened and very lonely.

 

     "You should both be very happy," he said awkwardly.

 

     They said nothing, but each looked at Vanesti in a way that communicated their love

 

and pride.

 

     "Now let's take care of business," said Sithas to his brother. "The war."

 

     Kith sighed. "I knew we'd have to get around to the war sooner or later, but can we

 

make it a little bit later? I'd like to see Mother first."

 

     "Of course. How stupid of me," Sithas agreed. If he had noticed any of the feelings

 

that Kith had thought showed so plainly on his face, the Speaker gave no sign. His voice

 

dropped slightly. "She's in her quarters. Shell be delighted to see you. I think it's just what

 

she needs."

 

     Kith-Kanan looked at his brother curiously, but Sithas did not elaborate. Instead, the

 

Speaker continued in a different vein.

 

     "I've had some Thalian blond wine chilled in my apartment. I want to hear

 

everything that's happened since the start of the war. Come and find me after you've

 

spoken to Nirakina."

 

     "I will. I've got a lot to tell, but I want to know how things have fared in the city as

 

well." Kith-Kanan followed Sithas from the nursery, quietly closing the door. Before it

 


 

shut, he looked back and saw Hermathya cuddling the baby to her breast. The elf

 

woman's eyes looked up suddenly and locked upon Kith's, making an electric connection

 

that he had to force himself to break.

 

    The two elves, leaders of the nation, walked in silence through the long halls of the

 

Palace of Quinari. They reached the apartments of their mother, and Kith stopped as

 

Sithas walked silently on.

 

    "Enter" came her familiar voice in response to his soft knock.

 

    He pushed open the door and saw Nirakina seated in a chair by the open window.

 

She rose and swept him into her arms, hugging him as if she would never let him go.

 

    He was shocked by the aging apparent in his mother's face, an aging that was all the

 

more distressing because of the long elven life span. By rights, she was just reaching

 

middle age and could look forward to several productive centuries before she approached

 

old age.

 

    Yet her face, drawn by cares, and the gray streaks that had begun to silver her hair

 

reminded Kith of his grandmother, in the years shortly before her death. It was a reve-

 

lation that disturbed him deeply.

 

    "Sit down, Mother," Kith said quietly, leading her back to her chair. "Are you all

 

right?"

 

    Nirakina looked at him, and the son had trouble facing his mother's eyes. So much

 

despair!

 

    "Seeing you does much to bring my strength back," she replied, offering a wan

 

smile. "It seems I'm surrounded by strangers so much now."

 

    "Surely Sithas is here with you."

 

    "Oh, when he can be, but there is much to occupy him. The affairs of war, and now

 

his child. Vanesti is a beautiful baby, don't you agree?"

 


 

    Kith nodded, wondering why he didn't hear more pleasure in his mother's voice. This

 

was her first grandchild.

 

    "But Hermathya thinks that I get in the way, and her sisters are here to help. I have

 

seen too little of Vanesti." Nirakina's eyes drifted to the window. "I miss your father. I

 

miss him so much sometimes that I can hardly stand it."

 

    Kith struggled for words. Failing, he took his mother's hands in his own.

 

    "The palace, the city­it's all changing," she continued. "It's the war. In your absence,

 

Lord Quimant advises your brother. It seems the palace is becoming home to all of Clan

 

Oakleaf."

 

    Kith had heard of Quimant in Sithas's letters and knew his brother considered him to

 

be a great assistance in affairs of state.

 

    "What of Tamanier Ambrodel?" The loyal elf had been his mother's able aide and

 

had saved her life during the riots that rocked the city before the outbreak of war. Sithel

 

had promoted him to lord chamberlain to reward his loyalty. His mother and Tamanier

 

had been good friends for many years.

 

    "He's gone. Sithas tells me not to worry, and I know he has embarked upon a mission

 

in the service of the throne. But he has been absent a long time, and I cannot help but

 

miss him."

 

    She looked at him, and he saw tears in her eyes. "Sometimes I feel like so much

 

excess baggage, locked away in my room here, waiting for my life to pass!"

 

    Kith sat back, shocked and dismayed by his mother's despair. This was so unlike the

 

Nirakina he had always known, an elf woman full of vigor, serene and patient against the

 

background of his father's rigid ideas. He tried to hide his churning emotions beneath a

 

lighthearted tone.

 


 

     "Tomorrow we'll go riding," he said, realizing that sunset approached quickly. "I

 

have to meet Sithas tonight to make my reports. But meet me for breakfast in the dining

 

hall, won't you?"

 

     Nirakina smiled, for the first time with her eyes as well as well as with her lips. "I'd

 

like that," she said. But the memory of her lined, unhappy face stuck with him as he left

 

her chambers and made his way to his brother's library.

 

     "Come in," announced Sithas, as two liveried halberdiers of the House Protectorate

 

snapped to attention before the silver-plated doors to the royal apartment. One of them

 

pulled the door open, and the general entered.

 

     "We wish to be alone," announced the Speaker of the Stars, and the guards nodded

 

silently.

 

     The pair settled into comfortable chairs, near the balcony that gave them an excellent

 

view of the Tower of the Stars, which rose into the night sky across the gardens. The red

 

moon, Lunitari, and the pale orb of Solinari illuminated the vista, casting shadows

 

through the winding passages of the garden paths.

 

     Sithas filled two mugs and placed the bottle of fine wine back into its bucket of

 

melting ice. Handing one mug to his brother, he raised his own and met Kith's with a

 

slight clink.

 

     "To victory," he offered.

 

     "Victory!" Kith-Kanan repeated.

 

     They sat and, sensing that his brother wanted to speak first, the army commander

 

waited expectantly. His intuition was correct.

 

     "By all the gods, I wish I could be there with you!" Sithas began, his tone full of

 

conviction.

 


 

    Kith didn't doubt him. "War's not what I thought it would be," he admitted. "Mostly

 

it's waiting, discomfort, and tedium. We are always hungry and cold, but mostly bored. It

 

seems that days and weeks go by when nothing happens of consequence."

 

    He sighed and paused for a moment to take a deep draft of his wine. The sweet liquid

 

soothed his throat and loosened his tongue. "Then, when things do start to happen, you're

 

more frightened than you ever thought was possible. You fight for your life; you run

 

when you have to. You try to stay in touch with what's going on, but it's impossible. Just

 

as quickly, the fight's over and you go back to being bored. Except now you have the

 

grief, too, knowing that brave companions have died this day, some of them because you

 

made the wrong decision. Even the right decision sometimes sends too many good elves

 

to their deaths."

 

    Sithas shook his head sadly. "At least you have some control over events. I sit here,

 

hundreds of miles away. I sent those good elves to live or die without the slightest knowl-

 

edge of what will befall them."

 

    "That knowledge is slim comfort," replied his brother.

 

    Kith-Kanan told his brother, in elaborate detail, about the battles in which the

 

Wildrunners had fought the Army of Ergoth. He talked of their initial small victories, of

 

the plodding advance of the central and southern wings. He described the fast-moving

 

horsemen of the north wing and their keen and brutal commander, General Giarna. His

 

voice broke as he related the tale of the trap that had ensnared Kencathedrus and his

 

proud regiment, and for a moment, he lapsed into a miserable silence.

 

    Sithas reached out and touched his brother on the shoulder. The gesture seemed to

 

renew Kith-Kanan's strength, and after drawing a deep breath, he began to speak again.

 

    He told of their forced retreat into the fortress, of the numberless horde of humans

 

surrounding them, barring the Wildrunners against any real penetration. The wine bottle

 


 

emptied­it may as well have been by evaporation, for all the notice the brothers took­and

 

the moons crept toward the western horizon. Sithas rang for another bottle of Thalian

 

blond as Kith described the state of supplies and morale within Sithelbec and talked about

 

their prospects for the future.

 

    "We can hold out through the winter, perhaps well into next year. But we cannot

 

shake the grip around us, not unless something happens to break this stalemate!"

 

    "Something such as what? More reinforcements­another five thousand elves from

 

Silvanost?" Sithas leaned close to his brother, disturbed by the account of the war. The

 

setbacks suffered by the Wildrunners were temporary­this the speaker truly believed­and

 

together they had to figure out some way to turn the tide.

 

    Kith shook his head. "That would help­any reinforcements you can send would

 

help­but even twice that many elves would not turn the tide. Perhaps the Army of Thor-

 

bardin, if the dwarves can be coaxed from their mountain retreat ...." His voice showed

 

that he placed little hope in this possibility.

 

    "It might happen," Sithas replied. "You didn't get to know Lord Dunbarth as did I,

 

when he spent a year among us in the city. He is a trustworthy fellow, and he bears no

 

love for the humans. I think he realizes that his own kingdom will be next in line for

 

conquest unless he can do something now."

 

    Sithas described the present ambassador, the intransigent Than-Kar, in considerably

 

less glowing terms. "He's a major stumbling block to any firm agreement, but there still

 

might be some way around him."

 

    "I'd like to talk to him myself," Kith said. "Can we bring him to the palace?"

 

    "I can try," Sithas agreed, realizing how weak the phrase sounded. Father would have

 

ordered it, he reminded himself. For a moment, he felt terribly ineffective, wishing he had

 


 

Sithel's steady nerves. Angrily he pushed the sensation of doubt away and listened to his

 

brother speak.

 

    "I'll believe in dwarven help when I see their banners on the field and their weapons

 

pointed away from us!"

 

    "But what else?" pressed Sithas. "What other tactics do we have?"

 

    "I wish I knew," his brother replied. "I hoped that you might have some

 

suggestions."

 

    "Weapons?" Sithas explained the key role Lord Quimant was playing to increase the

 

munitions production at the Oakleaf Clan's forges. "We'll get you the best blades that

 

elven craftsmen can make."

 

    "That's something­but still, we need more. We need something that cannot just stand

 

against the human cavalry but break it­drive it away!"

 

    The second bottle of wine began to vanish as the elven lords wrestled with their

 

problem. The first traces of dawn colored the sky, a thin line of pale blue on the horizon,

 

but no ready solution came to mind.

 

    "You know, I wasn't certain that Arcuballis could find you," Sithas said after a pause

 

of several minutes. The frustration of their search for a solution weighed upon them, and

 

Kith welcomed the change of conversation.

 

    "He never looked so good to me," Kith-Kanan replied, "as when he came soaring

 

into the fortress compound. I didn't realize how much I missed this place­how much I

 

missed you and mother­until I saw him."

 

    "He's been there in the stable since you left," Sithas said, shaking his head with a wry

 

grin. "I don't know why I didn't think of sending him to you shortly after you first became

 

besieged."

 


 

    "I had a curious dream about him­about an entire flock of griffons, actually­on the

 

very night before he arrived. It was most uncanny." Kith described his strange dream, and

 

the two brothers pondered its meaning.

 

    "A flock of griffons?" Sithas asked intently.

 

    "Well, yes. Do you think it significant?"

 

    "If we had a flock of griffons ... if they all carried riders into combat ... could that be

 

the hammer needed to crack the shell around Sithelbec?" Sithas spoke with growing

 

enthusiasm.

 

    "Wait a minute," said Kith, holding up his hand. "I suppose you're right, in a

 

hypothetical sense. In fact, the horses of the humans were spooked as I flew over, even

 

though I was high, out of bowshot range. But who ever heard of an army of griffons?"

 

    Sithas settled back, suddenly realizing the futility of his idea. For a moment, neither

 

of them said anything­which was how they heard the soft rustling in the room behind

 

them.

 

    Kith-Kanan sprang to his feet, instinctively reaching for a sword at his hip, forgetting

 

that his weapon hung back on the wall of his own apartment. Sithas whirled in his seat,

 

staring in astonishment, and then he rose to his feet.

 

    "You!" the Speaker barked, his voice taut with rage. "What are you doing here?"

 

    Kith-Kanan crouched, preparing to spring at the intruder. He saw the figure, a mature

 

elf cloaked in a silky gray robe, move forward from the shadows.

 

    "Wait." said Sithas, much to his brother's surprise. The speaker held up his hand and

 

Kith straightened, still tense and suspicious.

 

    "One day your impudence will cost you," Sithas said levelly as the elf approached

 

them. "You are not to enter my chambers unannounced again. Is that clear?"

 

    "Pardon my intrusion. As you know, my presence must remain discreet."

 


 

    "Who is this?" Kith-Kanan demanded.

 

    "Forgive me," said the gray-cloaked elf before Sithas cut him off.

 

    "This is Vedvedsica," said Sithas. Kith-Kanan noted that his brother's tone had

 

become carefully guarded. "He has ... been helpful to the House of Silvanos in the past."

 

    "The pleasure is mine, and it is indeed great, honored prince," offered Vedvedsica,

 

with a deep bow to Kith-Kanan.

 

    "Who are you? Why do you come here?" Kith demanded.

 

    "In good time, lord­in good time. As to who I am, I am a cleric, a devoted follower

 

of Gilean."

 

    Kith-Kanan wasn't surprised. The god was the most purely neutral in the elven

 

pantheon, most often used to justify self-aggrandizement and profit. Something about

 

Vedvedsica struck him as very self-serving indeed.

 

    "More to the point, I know of your dream."

 

    The last was directed to Kith-Kanan and struck him like a lightning bolt between the

 

eyes. For a moment, he hesitated, fighting an almost undeniable urge to hurl himself at

 

the insolent cleric and kill him with his bare hands. Never before had he felt so violated.

 

    "Explain yourself!"

 

    "I have knowledge that the two of you may desire­knowledge of griffons, hundreds

 

of them. And even more important, I may have knowledge as to how they can be found

 

and tamed."

 

    For the moment, the elven lords remained silent, listening suspiciously as

 

Vedvedsica moved forward. "May 1?" inquired the cleric, gesturing to a seat beside their

 

own.

 

    Sithas nodded silently, and all three sat.

 


 

    "The griffons dwell in the Khalkist Mountains, south of the Lords of Doom." The

 

brothers knew of these peaks­three violent volcanoes in the heart of the forbidding range,

 

high among vast glaciers and sheer summits. It was a region beyond the ken of elven

 

explorers.

 

    "How do you know this?" asked Sithas.

 

    "Did your father ever tell you how he came to possess Arcuballis?" Again the cleric

 

fixed Kith-Kanan with his gaze, then continued as if he already knew the answer. "He got

 

him from me!"

 

    Kith nodded, reluctant to believe the cleric but finding himself unable to doubt the

 

veracity of his words.

 

    "I purchased him from a Kagonesti, a wild elf who told me of the whereabouts of the

 

pack. He encountered them, together with a dozen companions. He alone escaped the

 

wrath of the griffons, with one young cub­the one given by me to Sithel as a gift, and the

 

one that he passed along to his son. To you, Kith-Kanan."

 

    "But how could the flock be tamed? From what you say, a dozen elves perished to

 

bring one tiny cub away!" Kith-Kanan challenged Vedvedsica. Despite his suspicions, he

 

felt his own excitement begin to build.

 

    "I tamed him, with the aid and protection of Gilean. I developed the spell that broke

 

him to halter. It's a simple enchantment, really. Any elf with a working knowledge of the

 

Old Script could have cast it. But only I could bring it into being!"

 

    "Continue," said Sithas urgently.

 

    "I believe that spell can be enhanced, developed so that many more of the creatures

 

could be brought to heel. I can inscribe it onto a scroll. Then one of you can take it in

 

search of the griffons."

 

    "Are you certain that it will work?" demanded Sithas.

 


 

    "No," replied the cleric frankly. "It will need to be presented under precise

 

circumstances and with a great force of command. That is why the person who casts the

 

spell must be a leader among elves­one of you two. No others of our race would have the

 

necessary traits."

 

    "How long would it take to prepare such a scroll?" pressed Kith. A cavalry company

 

mounted on griffons, flying over the battlefield! The thought made his heart pound with

 

excitement. They would be unstoppable!

 

    Vedvedsica shrugged. "A week, perhaps two. It will be an arduous process."

 

    "I'll go," Kith volunteered.

 

    "Wait!" said Sithas sharply. "I should go! And I will!"

 

    Kith-Kanan looked at the Speaker in astonishment. "That's crazy!" he argued.

 

"You're the Speaker of the Stars. You have a wife, a child! More to the point, you're the

 

leader of all Silvanesti! And you haven't ever lived in the wilderness before like I have! I

 

can't allow you to take the risk."

 

    For a moment, the twins stared at each other, equally stubborn. The cleric was

 

forgotten for the moment, and he melted into the shadows, discreet in his withdrawal.

 

    It was Sithas who spoke.

 

    "Do you read the Old Script?" he asked his brother bluntly. "Well enough to be

 

certain of your words, when you know that the whole future of the realm could depend

 

upon what you say?"

 

    The younger twin sighed. "No. My studies always emphasized the outdoor skills. I'm

 

afraid the ancient writing wouldn't make much sense to me."

 

    Sithas smiled wryly. "I used to resent that. You were always out riding horses or

 

hunting or learning swordsmanship, while I studied the musty tomes and forgotten

 

histories. Well, now I'm going to put that learning to use.

 


 

    "We'll both go," Sithas concluded.

 

    Kith-Kanan stared at him, realizing the outcry such a plan would raise. Perhaps, he

 

had to admit, this was the reason the scheme appealed to him. Slowly, Kith relaxed,

 

settling back into his chair.

 

    "The trip won't be easy," Kith warned sternly. "We're going to have to explore the

 

largest mountain range on Ansalon, and winter isn't far away. In those heights, you can

 

be sure there's already plenty of snow."

 

    "You can't scare me off," answered Sithas purposefully. "I know that Arcuballis can

 

carry the two of us, and I don't care if it takes all winter. We'll find them, Kith. I know we

 

will."

 

    "You know," Kith-Kanan said ironically, "I must still be dreaming. In any event,

 

you're right. The sons of Sithel ought to make this quest together."

 

    With a final mug of wine, as the sky grew pale above them, they began to make their

 

plans.

 


 

                                             9

 

                                        Next Morning

 

 

 

 

    Kith-Kanan and his mother rode through the tree-lined streets of Silvanost for

 

several hours, talking only of fond memories and pleasant topics from many years before.

 

They stopped to enjoy the fountains, to watch the hawks dive for fish in the river, and to

 

listen to the songbirds that clustered in the many flowered bushes of the city's lush

 

gardens.

 

    During the ride, it seemed to the elven warrior that his mother slowly came to life

 

again, even to the point of laughing as they watched the pompous dance of a brilliant

 

cardinal trying to impress his mate.

 

    In the back of Kith's mind lurked the realization that his mother would soon learn of

 

her sons' plans to embark on a dangerous expedition into the Khalkist Mountains. That

 

news could wait, he decided.

 

    "Are you going to join your brother at court?" asked Nirakina as the sun slid past the

 

midafternoon point.

 

    Kith sighed. "There'll be enough time for that tomorrow," he decided.

 

    "Good ." His mother looked at him, and he was delighted to see that the familiar

 

sparkle had returned to her eyes. She spurred her horse with a sharp kick, and the mare

 

raced ahead, leaving Kith with the challenge of her laugh as he tried to urge his older

 

gelding into catching up.

 

    They cantered beneath the shade of towering elms and dashed among the crystal

 

columns of the elven homes in a friendly race toward the Gardens of Astarin and the

 

royal stables. Nirakina was a good rider, with the faster horse; though Kith tried to spur

 


 

the last energy from his own steed, his mother beat him through the palace gates by a

 

good three lengths.

 

    Laughing, they pulled up before the stables and dismounted. Nirakina turned toward

 

him, impulsively pulling him into a hug, "Thank you," she whispered. "Thank you for

 

coming home!"

 

    Kith held her in silence for some moments, relieved that he hadn't discussed the

 

twins' plans with her.

 

    Leaving his mother at her chambers, he made his way to his own apartments,

 

intending to bathe and dress for the banquet his brother had scheduled for that evening.

 

Before he reached his door, however, a figure moved out of a nearby alcove.

 

    Reflexively the elven warrior reached for a sword, a weapon that he did not usually

 

carry in the secure confines of the palace. At the same time, he relaxed, recognizing the

 

figure and realizing that there was no threat­at least, no threat of harm.

 

    "Hermathya," he said, his voice oddly husky.

 

    "Your nerves are stretched tight," she observed, with an awkward little laugh. She

 

wore a turquoise gown cut low over her breasts. Her hair cascaded over her shoulders,

 

and as she looked up at him, Kith-Kanan thought that she seemed as young and

 

vulnerable as ever.

 

    He forced himself to shake his head, remembering that she was neither young nor

 

vulnerable. Still, the spell of her innocent allure held him, and he wanted to reach out and

 

sweep her into his arms.

 

    With difficulty, he held his hands at his sides, waiting for Hermathya to speak again.

 

His stillness seemed to unsettle her, as if she had expected him to make the next move.

 

    The look in her eyes left him little doubt as to what response she was hoping for. He

 

didn't open the door, he didn't move toward his room. He remained all too conscious of

 


 

the private chambers and the large bed nearby. The aching in his body surprised him, and

 

he realized with a great deal of dismay that he wanted her. He wanted her very badly

 

indeed.

 

     "I­I wanted to talk to you," she said. He understood implicitly that she was lying.

 

     Her words seemed to break the spell, and he reached past her to push open his door.

 

"Come in," he said as flatly as possible.

 

     He walked to the tall crystal doors, pulling the draperies aside to reveal the lush

 

brilliance of the Gardens of Astarin. Keeping his back to her, he waited for her to speak.

 

     "I've been worried about you," she began. "They told me you had been captured, and

 

I feared I would go out of my mind! Were they cruel to you? Did they hurt you?"

 

     Not half so cruel as you were once, he thought silently. Half of him wanted to shout

 

at her, to remind her that he had once begged her to run away with him, to choose him

 

over his brother. The other half wanted to sweep her into his arms, into his bed, into his

 

life. Yet he dared not look at her, for he feared the latter emotion and knew it was the

 

worst treachery.

 

     "I was only held prisoner for a day," he said, his voice hardening. "They butchered

 

the other elves that they held, but I was fortunate enough to escape."

 

     He thought of the human woman who had­unwittingly, so far as he knew­aided his

 

flight. She had been very beautiful, for a human. Her body possessed a fullness that was

 

voluptuous, that he had to admit he found strangely attractive. Yet she was nothing to

 

him. He didn't even know her name. She was far away from him, probably forever. While

 

Hermathya ...

 

     Kith-Kanan sensed her moving closer. Her hand touched his shoulder and he stood

 

very still.

 

     "You'd better go. I've got to get ready for the banquet." Still he did not look at her.

 


 

    For a second, she was silent, and he felt very conscious of her delicate touch. Then

 

her hand fell away. "I ..." She didn't complete the thought.

 

    As he heard her move toward the door, he turned from the windows to watch her.

 

She smiled awkwardly before she left, pulling the door closed behind her.

 

    For a long time afterward, he remained motionless. The image of her body remained

 

burning in his mind. It frightened him terribly that he found himself wishing she had

 

chosen to remain.

 

                                        *   *   *   *   *

 

    Kith-Kanan's reentry into the royal court of Silvanost felt to him like a sudden

 

immersion into icy water. Nothing in his recent experience bore any resemblance to the

 

gleaming marble-floored hall, and the elegant nobles and ladies dressed in their silken

 

robes, which were trimmed in fur and silver thread and embellished with diamonds,

 

emeralds, and rubies.

 

    The discussions with his family, even the banquet of the previous night, had not

 

prepared him for the full formality of the Hall of Audience. Now he found himself

 

speaking to a faceless congregation of stiff coats and noble gowns, describing the course

 

of the war to date. Finally his report was done, and the elves dissolved smoothly into

 

private discussions.

 

    "Who's that?" Kith-Kanan asked Sithas, indicating a tall elf who had just arrived and

 

now made his way to the throne.

 

    "I'll introduce you." Sithas rose and gestured the elf forward. "This is Lord Quimant

 

of Oakleaf, of whom I have spoken. This is my brother, Kith-Kanan, general of the elven

 

army."

 

    "I am indeed honored, My lord," said Quimant, with a deep bow.

 


 

    "Thank you," Kith replied, studying his face. "My brother tells me that your aid has

 

been invaluable in supporting the war effort."

 

    "The Speaker is generous," the lord said to Kith-Kanan modestly. "My contribution

 

pales in comparison to the sacrifices made by you and all of your warriors. If we can but

 

provide you with reliable blades, that is my only wish."

 

    For a moment, Kith was struck by the jarring impression that Lord Quimant, in fact,

 

wished for a great deal more out of the war. That moment passed, and Kith noticed that

 

his brother seemed to place tremendous confidence and warmth in Hermathya's cousin.

 

    "What word from our esteemed ambassador?" asked Sithas.

 

    "Than-Kar will attend our court, but not until after the noon hour," reported the lord.

 

"He seems to feel that he has no pressing business here."

 

    "That's the problem!" snapped the Speaker harshly.

 

    Quimant changed the topic. To Sithas and Kith-Kanan, he described some additional

 

expansions of the Clan Oakleaf mines, though the general paid little attention. Restlessly

 

his eyes roamed the crowd, seeking Hermathya. He felt a vague relief that she was not

 

present. He had felt likewise when she didn't attend the previous night's banquet, pleading

 

a mild illness.

 

    The evening passed with excruciating slowness. Kith-Kanan stood tersely as he was

 

plied with invitations to banquets and hunting trips. Some of the ladies gave him other

 

types of invitations, judging from the suggestive tilts of their smiles or the coy lowerings

 

of demure eyelashes. He felt like a prize stag whose antlers were coveted for everybody's

 

mantel.

 

    Kith found himself, much to his astonishment, actually looking back with fondness

 

on the grim, battle-weary conversations he had most nights with his fellow warriors.

 

They might have squatted around a smoky fire for illumination, caked with mud and

 


 

smelling of weeks of accumulated grime, yet somehow that all seemed so much more real

 

than did this pompous display.

 

    Finally the fanfare of trumpets announced the arrival of the dwarven ambassador and

 

his retinue. Kith-Kanan stared in surprise as Than-Kar led a column of more than thirty

 

armed and armored dwarves into the hall. They marched in a muddy file toward the

 

throne, finally halting to allow their leader to swagger forward on his own.

 

    The Theiwar dwarf bore little resemblance to the jovial Dunbarth Ironthumb, of the

 

Hylar Clan, whom Kith-Kanan had met years before. He found Than-Kar's wide eyes,

 

with their surrounding whites and tiny, beadlike pupils, disturbing­like the eyes of a

 

madman, he thought. The dwarf was filthy and unkempt, with a soiled tunic and muddy

 

boots, almost as if he had made a point of his messy appearance for the benefit of the

 

elven general.

 

    "The Speaker has demanded my presence, and I have come," announced the dwarf in

 

a tone ripe with insolence.

 

    Kith-Kanan felt an urge to leap from the Speaker's platform and throttle the obscene

 

creature. With an effort, he held his temper in check.

 

    "My brother has returned from the front," began Sithas, dispensing with the formality

 

of an introduction. "I desire for you to report to him on the status of your nation's

 

involvement."

 

    Than-Kar's weird eyes appraised Kith-Kanan, while a smirk played on the dwarf's

 

lips. "No change." He said bluntly. "My king needs to see some concrete evidence of

 

elven trustworthiness before he will commit dwarven lives to this . . . cause."

 

    Kith felt his face flush, and he took a step forward. "Surely you understand that all

 

the elder races are threatened by this human aggression?" he demanded.

 


 

    The Theiwar shrugged. "The humans would say that they are threatened by elven

 

aggression."

 

    "They are the ones who have marched into elven lands! Lands, I might add, that

 

border firmly against the northern flank of your own kingdom!"

 

    "I don't see it that way," snorted the dwarf. "And besides, you have humans among

 

your own ranks! It almost seems to me that it is a family feud. If they see fit to join, why

 

should dwarves get involved?"

 

    Sithas turned in astonishment to Kith-Kanan, though the speaker remained outwardly

 

composed.

 

    "We have no humans fighting on the side of our forces. There are some­women and

 

children, mostly­who have taken shelter in the fortress for the siege. They are merely

 

innocent victims of the war. They do not change its character!"

 

    "More to the point, then," spoke the ambassador, his voice an accusing hiss, "explain

 

the presence of elves in the Army of Ergoth!"

 

    "Lies!" shouted Sithas, forgetting himself and springing to his feet. The hall erupted

 

in shouts of anger and denial from courtiers and nobles pressing forward. Than-Kar's

 

bodyguards bristled and raised their weapons.

 

    "Entire ranks of elves," continued the dwarf as the crowd murmured. "They resist

 

your imperial hegemony."

 

    "They are traitors to the homeland!" snapped Sithas.

 

    "A question of semantics," argued Than-Kar. "I merely mean to illustrate that the

 

confused state of the conflict makes a dwarven intervention seem rash to the point of

 

foolishness."

 


 

    Kith-Kanan could hold himself in check no longer. He stepped down from the

 

platform and stared at the dwarf, who was a foot or more shorter than himself. "You

 

distort the truth in a way that can only discredit your nation!"

 

    He continued, his voice a growl. "Any elves among the ranks of Ergoth are lone

 

rogues, lured by human coin or promises of power. Even the likes of you cannot blur the

 

clear lines of this conflict. You spout your lies and your distortions from the safety of this

 

far city; hiding like a coward behind the robes of diplomacy. You make me sick!"

 

    Than-Kar appeared unruffled as he stepped aside to address Sithas. "This example of

 

your general's impetuous behavior will be duly reported to my king. It cannot further

 

your cause."

 

    "You set a new standard for diplomatic excess, and you try my patience to its limits.

 

Leave, now!" Sithas hissed the words with thick anger, and the hall fell deathly silent.

 

    If the dwarf was affected by the speaker's rage, however, he concealed his emotions

 

well. With calculated insolence, he marched his column about and then led them from the

 

Hall of Audience.

 

    "Throw open the windows!" barked the Speaker of the Stars. "Clear the stench from

 

the air!"

 

    Kith-Kanan slumped to sit on the steps of the royal dais, ignoring the surprised looks

 

from some of the stiff-backed elven nobles. "I could have strangled him with pleasure,"

 

he snarled as his brother came to sit beside him.

 

    "The audience is over," Sithas announced to the rest of the elves, and Kith-Kanan

 

sighed with concern as the last of the anonymous nobles left. The only ones remaining in

 

the great hall were Quimant, the twins, and Nirakina.

 

    "I know I shouldn't have let him get under my skin like that. I'm sorry," the general

 

said to the Speaker.

 


 

    "Nonsense. You said things I've wanted to voice for months. It's better to have a

 

warrior say them than a head of state." Sithas paused awkwardly. "What he did say­how

 

much truth was there to it?"

 

    "Very little," sighed Kith-Kanan. "We are sheltering humans in the fortress, most of

 

them the wives and families of Wildrunners. They would be slain on sight if they fell into

 

the hands of the enemy."

 

    "And are elves fighting for Ergoth?" Sithas couldn't keep the dismay from his voice.

 

    "A few rogues, as I said," Kith admitted. "At least, we've had reports of them. I saw

 

one myself in the human camp. But these turncoats are not numerous enough that we

 

have taken notice of them on the field."

 

    He groaned and leaned backward, remembering the offensive and arrogant Theiwar

 

dwarf. "That lout! I suppose it's a good thing I didn't have my sword at my side."

 

    "You're tired," said Sithas. "Why don't you relax for a while. This round of banquets

 

and courts and all-night meetings, I'm sure, takes an adjustment. We can talk tomorrow."

 

    "Your brother is right. You do need rest," Nirakina added in a maternal tone. "I'll

 

have dinner sent to your apartments."

 

                                            *   *   *   *   *

 

    The dinner arrived, as Nirakina had promised. Kith-Kanan guessed that his mother

 

had sent orders to the kitchen, and someone in the kitchen had communicated the

 

situation to another interested party. For it was Hermathya who knocked on his door and

 

entered.

 

    "Hello, Hermathya," he said, sitting up in the bed. He wasn't particularly surprised to

 

see her, and if he was honest with himself, neither was he very much dismayed.

 


 

    "I took this from the serving girl," she said, bringing forward a large silver tray with

 

domed, steaming dishes and crystal platters. Once again he was struck by her air of youth

 

and innocence.

 

    Memories of the two of them together.... Kith-Kanan felt a sudden resurgence of

 

desire, a feeling that he thought had been gone for years. He wanted to take her in his

 

arms. Looking into her eyes, he knew that she desired the same thing.

 

    "I'll get up. We can dine near the windows." He didn't want to suggest they go to the

 

balcony. He felt there was something furtive and private about her visit.

 

    "Just stay there," she said softly. "I'll serve you in bed."

 

    He wondered what she meant, at first. Soon he learned, as the dinner grew cold upon

 

a nearby table.

 


 

                                            10

 

                                   The Morning After

 

 

 

 

    Hermathya slipped away sometime during the middle of the night, and Kith-Kanan

 

felt profoundly grateful in the morning that she was gone. Now, in the cold light of day,

 

the passion that had seized them seemed like nothing so much as a malicious and hurtful

 

interlude. The flame that had once drawn them together ought not to be rekindled.

 

    Kith-Kanan spent most of the day with his brother, touring the stables and farriers of

 

the city. He forced himself to maintain focus on the task at hand: gathering additional

 

horses to mount his cavalry forces for the time when the Wildrunnners took to the

 

offensive. They both knew that they would, they must, eventually attack the human army.

 

They couldn't simply wait out the siege.

 

    During these hours together, Kith found that he couldn't meet his brother's eyes.

 

Sithas remained cheerful and enthusiastic, friendly in a way that twisted Kith-Kanan's

 

gut. By midafternoon, he made an excuse to leave his twin's company, pleading the need

 

to give Arcuballis some exercise. In reality, he needed an escape, a chance to suffer his

 

guilt in solitude.

 

    The following days in Silvanost passed slowly, making even the bleak confinement

 

in beseiged Sithelbec seem eventful by comparison. He avoided Hermathya, and he found

 

to his relief that she seemed to be avoiding him as well. The few times he saw her she

 

was with Sithas, playing the doting wife holding tightly to her husband's arm and hanging

 

upon his every word.

 

    In truth, the time dragged for Sithas as well. He knew that Vedvedsica was laboring

 

to create a spell that might allow them to magically ensnare the griffons, but he was

 


 

impatient to begin the quest. He ascribed Kith-Kanan's unease to similar impatience.

 

When they were together, they spoke only of the war and waited for a message from the

 

mysterious cleric.

 

    That word did not come for eight days, and then, oddly, it arrived in the middle of

 

the night. The twins were wide awake, engaged in deep discussion in Sithas's chambers,

 

when they heard a rustling on the balcony beyond the open window. Sithas drew the

 

draperies aside, and the sorcerous cleric stepped into the room.

 

    Kith-Kanan's eyes immediately fell upon Vedvedsica's hand, for he carried a long

 

ivory tube, the ends capped by cork. Several arcane sigils, in black, marked its alabaster

 

surface.

 

    The cleric raised the object, and the twins instinctively understood, even before

 

Vedvedsica uncorked the end and withdrew a rolled sheet of oiled vellum. Unrolling the

 

scroll, he showed them a series of symbols scribed in the Old Script.

 

    "The spell of command," the priest explained softly. "With this magic, I believe the

 

griffons can be tamed."

 

    The twins planned to depart after one more day of final preparations. With the scroll

 

at last a reality, a new urgency marked their activity. They met with Nirakina and Lord

 

Quimant shortly after breakfast, a few hours after Vedvedsica had departed.

 

    The four of them gathered in the royal library, where a fire crackled in the hearth to

 

disperse the autumnal chill. Sithas brought the scroll, though he placed his cloak over it

 

as he set it on the floor. They all sat in the great leatherbacked chairs that faced the fire.

 

    "We have word of a discovery that may change the course of the war­for the better,"

 

announced Kith.

 

    "Splendid!" Quimant was enthusiastic. Nirakina merely looked at her sons, her

 

concern showing in the furrowing of her brow.

 


 

    "You know of Arcuballis, of course," continued the warrior. "He was given to

 

Sithel­to father­by a 'merchant' from the north." According to the strategy he and Sithas

 

had developed, they would say nothing about the involvement of the gray cleric. "We

 

have since learned that the Khalkist Mountains are home to a great herd of the

 

creatures­hundreds of them, at least."

 

    "Do you have proof of this, or is it merely rumor?" asked Nirakina. Her face had

 

grown pale.

 

    "They have been seen," explained Kith-Kanan, glossing over the question. He told

 

Quimant and Nirakina of his dream on the night before he departed Sithelbec. "Right

 

down to the three volcanoes, it bears out everything we've been able to learn."

 

    "Think of the potential!" Sithas added. "A whole wing of flying cavalry! Why, the

 

passage of Arcuballis alone sent hundreds of horses into a stampede. A sky full of

 

griffons could very well rout the whole Army of Ergoth!"

 

    "It seems a great leap," Nirakina said slowly and quietly, "from the knowledge of

 

griffons in a remote mountain range to a trained legion of flyers, obeying the commands

 

of their riders." She was still pale, but her voice was strong and steady.

 

    "We believe we can find them," Sithas replied levelly. "We leave at tomorrow's

 

sunrise to embark upon this quest."

 

    "How many warriors will you take?" asked Nirakina, knowing as they all did the

 

legends of the distant Khalkists. Tales of ogres, dark and evil dwarves, even tribes of

 

brutish hill giants­these comprised the folklore whispered by the average elf regarding

 

the mountain range that was the central feature of the continent of Ansalon.

 

    "Only the two of us will go." Sithas faced his mother, who appeared terribly frail in

 

her overly-large chair.

 


 

    "We'll ride Arcuballis," Kith-Kanan explained quickly. "And he'll cover the distance

 

in a fraction of the time it would take an army­even if we had one to send."

 

    Nirakina looked at Kith-Kanan, her eyes pleading. Her warrior son understood the

 

appeal. She wanted him to volunteer to go alone, leaving the Speaker of the Stars behind.

 

Yet even as this thought flashed in her eyes, she lowered her head.

 

    When she looked up, her voice was firm again. "How will you capture these

 

creatures, assuming that you find them?"

 

    Sithas removed his cloak and picked up the tube from the floor beside his chair. "We

 

have acquired a spell of command from a friend of the House of Silvanos. If we can find

 

the griffons, the spell will bind them to our will."

 

    "It is a more powerful version of the same enchantment that was used to domesticate

 

Arcuballis," added Kith. "It is written in the Old Script. That is one reason why Sithas

 

must go with me­to help me cast the spell by reading the Old Script."

 

    His mother looked at him, nodding calmly, more out of shock than from any true

 

sense of understanding.

 

    Nirakina had stood beside her husband through three centuries of rule. She had borne

 

these two proud sons. She had suffered the news of her husband's murder at the hands of

 

a human and lived through the resulting war that now engulfed her nation, her family,

 

and her people. Now she faced the prospect of her two sons embarking on what seemed

 

to her a mad quest, in search of a miracle, with little more than a prayer of success.

 

    Yet, above all, she was the matriarch of the House of Silver Moon. She, too, was a

 

leader of the Silvanesti, and she understood some things about strength, about ruling, and

 

about risk-taking. She had made known her objections, and she realized that the minds of

 

her sons were set. Now she would give no further vent to her personal feelings.

 


 

     She rose from her chair and nodded stiffly at each of her sons. Kith-Kanan went to

 

her side, while Sithas remained in his chair, moved by her loyalty. The warrior escorted

 

her to the door.

 

     Quimant looked at Sithas, then turned to Kith-Kanan as he returned to his chair.

 

"May your quest be speedy and successful. I only wish I could accompany you."

 

     Sithas spoke. "I shall entrust you to act as regent in my absence. You know the

 

details of the nation's daily affairs. I shall also need you to begin the conscription of new

 

troops. By the end of winter, we will have to raise and train a new force to send to the

 

plains."

 

     "I will do everything in my power," pledged Quimant.

 

     "Another thing," added Sithas casually. "If Tamanier Ambrodel returns to the city, he

 

is to be given quarters in the palace. I will need to see him immediately upon my return."

 

     Quimant nodded, rose, and bowed to the twins. "May the gods watch over you," he

 

said, then left.

 

                                          *   *   *   *   *

 

     "I have to go. Don't you understand that?" Sithas challenged Hermathya. She

 

stomped about their royal bedchambers before whirling upon him.

 

     "You can't! I forbid it!" Hermathya's voice rose, becoming shrill. Her face, moments

 

before blank with astonishment, now contorted in fury.

 

     "Damn it! Listen to me!" Sithas scowled, his own anger rising. Stubborn and

 

intractable, they stared into each other's eyes for a moment.

 

     "I've told you about the spell of binding. It's in the Old Script. Kith doesn't have the

 

knowledge to use it, even if he found the griffons. I'm the only one who can read it

 

properly." He held her shoulders and continued to meet her eyes.

 


 

    "I have to do this, not just for the good it will do our nation, but for me! That's what

 

you have to understand!"

 

    "I don't have to, and I won't!" she cried, whirling away from him.

 

    "Kith-Kanan has always been the one to face the dangers and the challenges of the

 

unknown. Now there's something that I must do. I, too, must put my life at risk. For once,

 

I'm not just sending my brother into danger. I'm going myself!"

 

    "But you don't have to!"

 

    Hermathya almost spat her anger, but Sithas wouldn't budge. If she could see any

 

sense in his desire to test himself, she wouldn't admit it. Finally, in exhaustion and

 

frustration, the Speaker of the Stars stormed out of the chambers.

 

    He found Kith-Kanan in the stables, instructing the saddlemaker on modifications to

 

Arcuballis's harness. The griffon would be able to carry the two of them, but his flight

 

would be slowed, and they would be able to take precious little in the way of provisions

 

and equipment.

 

    "Dried meat­enough for only a few weeks," recited Kith-Kanan, examining the

 

bulging saddlebags. "A pair of waterskins, several extra cloaks. Tinder and flint, a couple

 

of daggers. Extra bowstrings. We'll carry our bows where we can get at them in a hurry,

 

of course. And twoscore arrows. Do you have a practical sword?"

 

    For a moment, Sithas flushed. He knew that the ceremonial blade he had carried for

 

years would be inadequate for the task at hand. Cast in a soft silver alloy, its shining

 

blade was inscribed with all manner of symbols in the Old Script, reciting the glorious

 

history of the House of Silvanos. It was beautiful and valuable, but impractical in a fight.

 

Still, it rankled him to hear his brother speak ill of it. "Lord Quimant has procured a

 

splendid longsword for me," he said stiffly. "It will do quite nicely."

 


 

    "Good." Kith took no notice of his brother's annoyance. "We'll have to leave our

 

metal armor behind. With this load, Arcuballis can't handle the extra weight. Have you a

 

good set of leathers?"

 

    Again Sithas replied in the affirmative.

 

    "Well, we'll be ready to go at first light, then. Ah­"

 

    Kith hesistated, then asked, "How did Hermathya react?" Kith knew that Sithas had

 

put off telling Hermathya that he would be gone for weeks on this journey.

 

    "Poorly," Sithas, said, with a grimace. He offered no elaboration, and Kith-Kanan

 

did not probe further.

 

    They attended a small banquet that night, joined by Quimant and Nirakina and

 

several other nobles. Hermathya was conspicuously absent, a fact for which Kith was

 

profoundly grateful, and the mood was subdued.

 

    He had found himself anxious throughout these last days that Hermathya would tell

 

her husband about her dalliance with his brother. Kith-Kanan had tried to put aside the

 

memory of that night, treating the incident as some sort of waking dream. This made his

 

guilt somewhat easier to bear.

 

    After dinner, Nirakina handed Sithas a small vial. The stoneware jar was tightly

 

plugged by a cork.

 

    "It is a salve, made by the clerics of Quenesti Pah," she explained. "Miritelisina gave

 

it to me. If you are injured, spread a small amount around the area of the wound. It will

 

help the healing."

 

    "I hope we won't need it, but thank you," said Sithas. For a moment, he wondered if

 

his mother was about to cry, but again her proud heritage sustained her. She embraced

 

each of her sons warmly, kissed them, and wished them the luck of the gods. Then she

 

retired to her chambers.

 


 

    Both of the twins spent much of the night awake, taut with the prospect of the

 

upcoming adventure. Sithas tried to see his wife in the evening and again before sunrise,

 

but she wouldn't open her door even to speak to him. He settled for a few moments with

 

Vanesti, holding his son in his arms and rocking him gently while night gave way to early

 

dawn.

 


 

                                             11

 

                                 Day of Departure, Autumn

 

 

 

 

    They met at the stables before dawn. As they had requested, no one came to see them

 

off. Kith threw the heavy saddle over the restless griffon's back, making sure that the

 

straps that passed around Arcuballis's wings were taut. Sithas stood by, watching as his

 

brother hoisted the heavy saddlebags over the creature's loins. The elf took several

 

minutes to make sure that everything was secure.

 

    They mounted the powerful beast, with Kith-Kanan in the fore, and settled into the

 

specially modified saddle. Arcuballis trotted from the stable doors into the wide corral.

 

Here he sprang upward, the thick muscles of his legs propelling them from the ground.

 

His powerful wings beat the still air and thrust downward. In a single fluid motion, he

 

leaped again and they were airborne.

 

    The griffon labored over the garden and then along the city's main avenue, slowly

 

gaining altitude. The twins saw the towers of the city pass alongside, then slowly fall be-

 

hind. Rosy hues of dawn quickly brightened to pink, then pale blue, as the sun seemed to

 

explode over the eastern horizon into a crisp and cloudless day.

 

    "By the gods, this is fantastic!" cried Sithas, overcome with the beauty of their flight,

 

with the sight of Silvanost, and perhaps with the exhilaration of at last escaping the

 

confining rituals of his daily life.

 

    Kith-Kanan smiled to himself, pleased with his brother's enthusiasm. They flew

 

above the Thon-Thalas River, following the silvery ribbon of its path. Though autumn

 

had come to the elven lands, the day was brilliant with sunshine, the air was clear, and a

 

brilliant collage of colors spread across the forested lands below.

 


 

    The steady pulse of the griffon's wings carried them for many hours. The city quickly

 

fell away, though the Tower of the Stars remained visible for some time. By midmorning,

 

however, they soared over pristine forestland. No building broke the leafy canopy to

 

indicate that anyone­elf, human, or whatever­lived here.

 

    "Are these lands truly uninhabited?" inquired Sithas, studying the verdant terrain.

 

    "The Kagonesti dwell throughout these forests," explained Kith. The wild elves,

 

considered uncouth and barbaric by the civilized Silvanesti, did not build structures to

 

dominate the land or monuments to their own greatness. Instead, they took the land as

 

they found it and left it that way when they passed on.

 

    Arcuballis swept northward, as if the great griffon felt the same joy at leaving

 

civilization behind. Despite the heavy packs and his extra passenger, he showed no signs

 

of tiring during a flight that lasted nearly twelve hours and carried them several hundred

 

miles. When they ultimately landed to make camp, they touched earth beside a clear pool

 

in a sheltered forest grotto. The two elves and their mighty beast spent a peaceful night,

 

sleeping almost from the moment of sunset straight through until dawn.

 

    Their flight took them six days. After the first day, they took a two-hour interval at

 

midday so that Arcuballis could rest. They passed beyond the forests on the third day,

 

then into the barren plains of Northern Silvanesti, a virtual desert, uninhabited and

 

undesired by the elves.

 

    Finally they flew beside the jagged teeth of the Khalkist Range, the mountainous

 

backbone of Ansalon. For two full days, these craggy peaks rose to their left, but

 

Kith-Kanan kept them over the dry plains, explaining that the winds here were more

 

easily negotiable than they would be among the jutting summits.

 

    Eventually they reached the point where they had to turn toward the high valleys and

 

snow-filled swales if they expected to find any trace of their quarry. Arcuballis strained

 


 

to gain altitude, carrying them safely over the sheer crests of the foothills and flying

 

above the floor of a deep valley, following the contours of its winding course as steep

 

ridgelines rose to the right and left, high above them.

 

    They camped that night, the seventh night of their journey, near a partially frozen

 

lake in the base of a steep-sided, circular valley. Three waterfalls, now frozen into

 

massive icicles, plunged toward them from the surrounding heights. They chose the spot

 

for its small grove of hardy cedars, reasoning correctly that firewood would be a useful,

 

and rare, commodity among these lofty realms.

 

    Sithas helped his brother build the fire. He discovered that he relished the feel of the

 

small axeblade cutting the wood into kindling. The campfire soon crackled merrily, and

 

the warmth on his hands was especially gratifying because his work had provided the

 

welcome heat.

 

    Thus far, their journey seemed to the Speaker of the Stars to be the grandest

 

adventure he had ever embarked upon.

 

    "Where do you think the Lords of Doom lie from here?" he asked his brother as they

 

settled back to gnaw on some dried venison. The three volcanoes were rumored to lie at

 

the heart of the range.

 

    "I don't know exactly," Kith admitted. "Somewhere to the north and west of here, I

 

should say. The city of Sanction lies on the far side of the range, and if we reach it, we'll

 

know we've gone too far."

 

    "I never knew that the mountains could be so beautiful, so majestic," Sithas added,

 

gazing at the awesome heights around them. The sun had long since left their deep valley,

 

yet its fading rays still illumined some of the highest summits in brilliant reflections of

 

white snow and blue ice.

 

    "Forbidding, too."

 


 

    They looked toward Arcuballis as the griffon curled up near the fire. His massive

 

bulk loomed like a wall.

 

    "Now we'll have to start searching," Kith commented. "And that might take us a long

 

time."

 

    "How big can this range be?" asked Sithas skeptically. "After all, we can fly."

 

                                          *   *   *   *   *

 

    Fly they did, for day after grueling, bone-chilling day. The pleasant autumn of the

 

lowlands swiftly became brutal winter in these heights. They pressed to the highest eleva-

 

tions, and Sithas felt a fierce exultation as they passed among the lofty ridges, a sense of

 

accomplishment that dwarfed anything he had done in the city. When the snow blew into

 

their faces, he relished the heavy cloak pulled tight against his face; when they spent a

 

night in the barren heights, he enjoyed the search for a good campsite.

 

    Kith-Kanan remained quiet, almost brooding, for hours during their aerial search.

 

The guilt of his night with Hermathya gnawed at him, and he cursed his foolish

 

weakness. He longed to confess to Sithas, to ask for his forgiveness, but in his heart, he

 

sensed that this would be a mistake, that his brother would never forgive him. Instead, he

 

bore his pain privately.

 

    Some days the sun shone brightly, and then the white bowls of the valleys became

 

great reflectors. They both learned, the first such day, to leave no skin exposed under

 

these conditions. Their cheeks and foreheads were brutally seared, yet ironically the cold

 

air prevented them from feeling the sunburn until it had reached a painful state.

 

    On other days, gray clouds pressed like a leaden blanket overhead, cloaking the

 

highest summits and casting the vistas in a bleak and forbidding light. Then the snow

 

would fly, and Arcuballis had to seek firm ground until the storm passed. A driving

 

blizzard could toss the griffon about like a leaf in the wind.

 


 

    Always they pushed through the highest summits of the range, searching each valley

 

for sign of the winged creatures. They swung southward until they reached the borders of

 

the ogrelands of Bloten. The valleys were lower here, but they saw signs of the brutish

 

inhabitants everywhere­forestlands blackened by swath burning, great piles of tailings.

 

Knowing that the griffons would seek a more remote habitat, they turned back to the

 

north, following a snakelike glacier higher and higher into the heart of the range.

 

    Here the weather hit them with the hardest blow yet. A mass of dark clouds appeared

 

with explosive suddenness to the west. The expanse covered the sky and swiftly spread

 

toward them. Arcuballis dove, but the snow swirled so thickly they couldn't see the valley

 

floor.

 

    'There­a ledge!" shouted Sithas, pointing over his brother's shoulder.

 

    "I see it." Kith-Kanan directed Arcuballis onto a narrow shelf of rock protected by a

 

blunt overhang. Sheer cliffs dropped away below them and climbed over their heads.

 

Winds buffeted them even as the griffon landed, and further flight seemed suicidal. A

 

narrow trail seemed to lead along the cliff face, winding gradually downward from their

 

perch, but they elected to wait out the storm.

 

    "Look­it's flat and wide here," announced Sithas, clearing away some loose rubble.

 

"Plenty of space to rest, even for Arcuballis."

 

    Kith nodded.

 

    They unsaddled the creature and settled in to wait as the winds rose to a howling

 

crescendo and the snow flew past them.

 

    "How long will this last?" asked Sithas.

 

    Kith-Kanan shrugged, and Sithas suddenly felt foolish for the question. They

 

unpacked their bedrolls and huddled together beside the warm flank of the griffon and the

 

cold protection of the cliff wall. Their bows, arrows, and swords they placed within easy

 


 

reach. Just beyond their feet, the slope of the mountainside plummeted away, a sheer

 

precipice vanishing into the snow-swept distance.

 

    They coped, on their remote ledge, for two solid days as the blizzard raged around

 

them and the temperature dropped. They had no fuel for a fire, so they could only huddle

 

together, taking turns sleeping so that they didn't both drift into eternal rest, blanketed by

 

a deep winter cold.

 

    Sithas was awake at the end of the second day, shaking his head and pinching

 

himself to try to remain alert. His hands and feet felt like blocks of ice, and he alternated

 

his position frequently, trying to warm some part of his body against the bulk of

 

Arcuballis.

 

    He noticed the pace of the griffon's breathing change slightly. Suddenly the creature

 

raised his head, and Sithas stared with him into the snow-obscured murk.

 

    Was there something there, down the path that they had seen when they landed, the

 

one that seemed to lead away from this ledge? Sithas blinked, certain his eyes deceived

 

him, but it had seemed as if something moved!

 

    In the next instant, he gaped in shock as a huge shape lunged out of the blowing

 

snow. It towered twice as high as an elf, though its shape was vaguely human. It had arms

 

and hands­indeed, one of those clutched a club the size of a small tree trunk. This

 

weapon loomed high above Sithas as the creature charged forward.

 

    "Kith! A giant!" He shouted, kicking his brother to awaken him. At the same time,

 

purely by instinct, he picked up the sword he had laid by his side.

 

    Arcuballis reacted faster than the elf, springing toward the giant with a powerful

 

shriek. Sithas watched in horror as the monster's club crashed into the griffon's skull.

 

Soundlessly Arcuballis went limp, disappearing over the side of the ledge like so much

 

discarded garbage.

 


 

     "No!" Kith-Kanan was awake now and saw the fate of his beloved steed. At the same

 

time, the twins saw additional shapes, two or three more, materializing from the blizzard

 

behind the first giant. Snarling with hatred, the elven warrior grabbed his blade.

 

     The monster's face, this close, was more grotesque than Sithas had first thought. Its

 

eyes were small, bloodshot, and very close-set while its nose bulged like an outcrop of

 

rock. Its mouth was garishly wide. The giant's maw gaped open as the beast fought,

 

revealing blood-red gums and stubs of ivory that looked more like tusks than teeth.

 

     A deep and pervasive terror seized Sithas, freezing him in place. He could only stare

 

in horror at the approaching menace. Some distant part of his mind told him that he

 

should react, should fight, but his muscles refused to budge. His fear paralyzed him.

 

     Kith-Kanan rose into a fighting crouch, menacing the giant with his sword. Tears

 

streaked Kith's face, but grief only heightened his rage and his deadly competence. His

 

hand remained steady. Seeing him, Sithas shook his head, finally freeing himself from his

 

immobility.

 

     Sithas leaped to his feet and lunged at the monster, but his foot slipped on the icy

 

rocks, and he fell to the rocks at the very lip of the precipice, slamming the wind from his

 

lungs. The giant loomed over him.

 

     But then he saw his brother, darting forward with incredible agility, raising his blade

 

and thrusting at the giant's belly. The keen steel struck home, and the creature howled,

 

lurching backward. One of its huge boots slipped from the ice-encrusted ledge, and with a

 

scream, the monster vanished into the gray storm below.

 

     Now they saw that the three other giants approached them, one at a time along the

 

narrow ledge. Each of the massive creatures carried a huge club. The first of these

 

lumbered forward, and Kith-Kanan darted at him. Sithas, recovering his breath, climbed

 

to his feet.

 


 

    The giant stepped back, then swung a heavy blow at the dodging, weaving elf. Kith

 

danced away, and then struck so quickly that Sithas didn't see the movement. The tip of

 

the sword cut a shallow opening in the giant's knee before the elf skipped backward.

 

    But that cut was telling. Sithas watched in astonishment as the giant's leg collapsed

 

beneath it. Thrashing in futility with its hamlike hands, the giant slid slowly over the

 

edge, vanishing with a shriek that was quickly lost in the howling of the storm.

 

    While the other two giants gaped in astonishment, Kith-Kanan remained a dervish of

 

motion. He charged the massive creatures, sending them slipping and sliding backward

 

along the ledge to avoid his keen blade, a blade that now glistened with blood.

 

    "Kith, watch out!" Sithas found his voice and urged his brother on. Kith-Kanan

 

appeared to stumble, and one of the giants crashed his heavy club downward. But again

 

the elf moved too quickly, and the club splintered against bare stone. Kith rolled toward

 

this one, rising into a crouch between its stumplike legs. He stabbed upward with all the

 

strenth in his powerful arms and shoulders, and then dove out of the way as the mortally

 

wounded giant bellowed its pain.

 

    Sithas raced toward his brother, recognizing Kith's danger. He saw his twin slip as he

 

tried to hug the cliff wall between the dying giant and its sole remaining comrade.

 

    The latter swung his club with strength born of desperate terror. The loglike beam,

 

nearly a foot thick at its head, crashed into Kith-Kanan's chest and crushed his body

 

against the rough stone wall behind him. Sithas saw his brother's head snap back and

 

blood explode from his skull. Slowly the elf sank to the ledge.

 

    The wounded giant collapsed, and Sithas sent it toppling from the brink. The last of

 

the brutes looked at the charging elf, the twin of the warrior he had just felled, and turned

 

away. He bounded along the narrow ledge, descending across the face of the mountain,

 


 

away from the niche that had sheltered the twins. In seconds, he disappeared into the

 

distance.

 

    Sithas paid no further attention to the monster. He knelt at Kith's side, appalled at the

 

blood that gushed from his brother's mouth and nose, staining and matting his long blond

 

hair.

 

    "Kith, don't die! Please!" He didn't realize that he was sobbing.

 

    Gingerly he lifted his brother, surprised at Kith's frailty­or perhaps at his own

 

desperate strength. He carried him to their niche. Every cloak, every blanket and tunic

 

that they carried, he used to cushion and wrap Kith-Kanan. His brother's eyes were

 

closed. A very faint motion, a rising and falling of his chest, gave the only sign that Kith

 

lived.

 

    Now night fell with abruptness, and the wind seemed to pick up. The snow stung

 

Sithas's face as sharply as did his own tears. He took Kith's cold hand in his and sat

 

beside his brother, not expecting either of them to be alive to greet the dawn.

 


 

                                             12

 

                                           Dawn

 

 

 

 

    Somehow Sithas must have dozed off, for he suddenly noticed that the wind, the

 

snow­indeed, the entire storm­had vanished. The air, now still, had become icy cold,

 

with an absolute clarity that only comes in the highest mountains during the deepest

 

winter frosts.

 

    The sun hadn't risen yet, but the Speaker could see that all around him towered

 

summits of unimaginable heights, plumed with great collars of snow. Gray and

 

impassive, like stone-face giants with thick beards of frost, they regarded him from their

 

aloof vantages.

 

    The brothers' ledge perched along one of the two steep sides of the valley. To the

 

south, on Sithas's left as he looked outward, the valley stretched and twisted toward the

 

low, forested country from which they had come. To the right, it appeared to end in a

 

cirque of steep-walled peaks. At one place, he saw a saddle that, while still high above

 

him, seemed to offer a lone, treacherous path into the next section of the mountain range.

 

    Kith-Kanan lay motionless beside him. His skin had the paleness of death, and Sithas

 

had to struggle against a resurgence of despair. He couldn't allow himself to abandon

 

hope; he was their only chance for survival. The quest for the griffons, the excitement

 

and adventure of the journey he had known before, were all forgotten now, overwhelmed

 

by the simple and basic wish to continue living.

 

    The valley below him, he saw, was not as deep as they had guessed when the storm

 

struck. Their shelf was a bare hundred feet above level ground. He leaned out to look

 

over the edge, but all he saw was a vast drift of snow piled against the cliff. If the bodies

 


 

of the giants or of gallant, fallen Arcuballis remained down there somewhere, he had no

 

way to know it. No trees grew in this high valley, nor did he see any signs of animal life.

 

In fact, the only objects that met his eyes, in any direction, were the bedrock of the

 

mountain range and the snowy blanket that covered it.

 

    With a groan, he slumped back against the cliff. They were doomed! He could see no

 

possibility of any fate other than death in this remote valley. His throat ached, and tears

 

welled in his eyes. What good was his court training in a situation like this?

 

    "Kith!" he moaned. "Wake up! Please!"

 

    When his brother made no response, Sithas collapsed facedown on his cloak. A part

 

of him wished that he was as unconscious of their fate as Kith-Kanan.

 

    For the whole long day, he lay as if in a trance. He pulled their cloaks about them as

 

night fell, certain that they would freeze to death. Kith-Kanan hadn't moved­indeed, he

 

barely breathed. Broken by his own anguish, the speaker finally tumbled into restless

 

sleep.

 

    It was not until the next morning that he regained some sense of purpose. What did

 

they need? Warmth, but there was no firewood in sight. Water, but their skins of the

 

liquid had frozen solid, and without fire, they couldn't melt snow. Food, of which they

 

had several strips of dried venison and some bread. But how could he feed Kith-Kanan

 

while his brother remained unconscious?

 

    Again the feeling of hopelessness seized him. If only Arcuballis were here! If only

 

Kith could walk! If only the giants ... He snarled at himself in anger, realizing the idiocy

 

of his ramblings.

 

    Instead, he pushed himself to his feet, suddenly aware of a terrible stiffness in his

 

own body. He studied the route along the narrow ledge that twisted its way from their

 


 

niche to the valley floor. It looked negotiable­barely. But what could he do if he was

 

lucky enough to reach the ground?

 

    He noted, for the first time, a dark patch on the snow at the edge of the flat expanse.

 

The sun had crested the eastern peaks by now, and Sithas squinted into the brightness.

 

    What caused the change of coloration in the otherwise immaculate surface of snow?

 

Then it dawned on him­water! Somewhere beneath that snow, water still flowed! It

 

soaked into the powder above, turning it to slush and causing it to settle.

 

    With a clear goal now, Sithas began to act. He took his own nearly empty waterskin,

 

since Kith's contained a block of ice that would be impossible to remove. As he turned

 

away from the sun, however, he had another idea. He set Kith's waterskin in the sunlight,

 

on a flat stone. He found several other dark boulders and placed them beside the skin,

 

taking care that they didn't block the sunlight.

 

    Then he started down the treacherous ledge. In many places, the narrow path was

 

piled with snow, and he used his sword to sweep these drifts away, carefully probing so

 

that he did not step off the cliff.

 

    Finally he reached a spot where he was able to drop into the soft snow below. He

 

pushed his way through the deep fluff, leaving a trench behind him as he worked his way

 

toward the dark patch of slush. The going was difficult, and he had to rest many times,

 

but finally he reached his goal.

 

    Pausing again, he heard a faint trill of sound from beneath the snow, the gurgling of

 

water as it babbled along a buried stream. He poked and pressed with his sword, and the

 

surface of snow dropped away, revealing a flowage about six inches deep.

 

    But that was enough. Sithas suspended his skin from the tip of his sword and let it

 

soak in the stream. Though it only filled halfway, it was more water than they had tasted

 

in two days, and he greedily drained the waterskin. Then he refilled it, as much as

 


 

possible with his awkward rig, and turned back to the cliff. It took him more than an hour

 

to carry it back up to Kith-Kanan, but the hour of toil seemed to warm and vitalize him.

 

    His brother showed no change. Sithas dribbled some water into Kith's mouth, just

 

enough to wet his tongue and throat. He also washed away the blood that had caked on

 

the elf's frostbitten face. There was even some water left over, since Kith's frozen

 

waterskin had begun to melt from the heat of the sun.

 

    "What now, Kith?" Sithas asked softly.

 

    He heard a sound from somewhere and looked anxiously around. Again came the

 

noise, which sounded like rocks falling down a rough slope.

 

    Then he saw a distinct movement across the valley. White shapes leaped and sprang

 

along the sheer face, and for a moment, he thought they flew, so effectively did they defy

 

gravity. More rocks broke free, crashing and sliding downward. He saw that these nimble

 

creatures moved upon hooves.

 

    He had heard about the great mountain sheep that dwelled in the high places, but

 

never had he observed them before. One, obviously the ram, paused and looked around,

 

raising his proud head high. Sithas glimpsed his immense horns, swirling from the

 

creature's forehead.

 

    For a moment, he wondered at the presence of these great beasts as he watched them

 

press downward. They reached the foot of the cliff, and then the ram bounded through the

 

powder, plowing a trail for the others.

 

    "The water!" Sithas spoke aloud to himself. The sheep needed the water, too!

 

    Indeed, the ram was nearing the shallow stream. Alert, he looked carefully around

 

the valley, and Sithas, though he was out of sight, remained very still. Finally the proud

 

creature lowered his head to drink. He stopped frequently to look around, but he drank

 

for a long time before he finally stepped away from the small hole in the snow.

 


 

    Then, one by one, the females came to the water. The ram stood protectively beside

 

them, his proud head and keen eyes shifting back and forth.

 

    The group of mountain sheep spent perhaps an hour beside the water hole, each of

 

the creatures slaking its thirst. Finally, with the ram still in the lead, they turned back

 

along the tracks and reclimbed the mountain wall.

 

    Sithas watched them until they disappeared from view. The magnificent creatures

 

moved with grace and skill up the steep face of rock. They looked right at home here­so

 

very different from himself!

 

    A soft groan beside him pulled his attention instantly back to Kith-Kanan.

 

    "Kith! Say something!" He leaned over his twin's face, rejoicing to see a flicker of

 

vitality. Kith-Kanan's eyes remained shut, but his mouth twisted into a grimace and he

 

was gasping for breath.

 

    "Here, take a drink. Don't try to move."

 

    He poured a few drops of water onto Kith's lips, and the wounded elf licked them

 

away. Slowly, with obvious pain, Kith-Kanan opened his eyes, squinting at the bright

 

daylight before him.

 

    "What ... happened?" he asked weakly. Abruptly his eyes widened and his body

 

tensed. "The giants! Where ... ?"

 

    "It's all right," Sithas told him, giving him more water. "They're dead­or gone, I'm

 

not sure which."

 

    "Arcuballis?" Kith's eyes widened and he struggled to sit up, before collapsing with a

 

dull groan.

 

    "He's . . . gone, Kith. He attacked the first giant, got clubbed over the head, and fell."

 

    "He must be down below!"

 


 

     Sithas shook his head. "I looked. There's no sign of his body­or of any of the giants,

 

either."

 

     Kith moaned, a sound of deep despair. Sithas had no words of comfort.

 

     "The giants ... what kind of beasts do you think they were?" asked Sithas.

 

     "Hill giants, I'm sure," Kith-Kanan said after a moment's pause. "Relatives of ogres, I

 

guess, but bigger. I wouldn't have expected to see them this far south."

 

     "Gods! If only I'd been faster!" Sithas said, ashamed.

 

     "Don't!" snapped the injured elf. "You warned me­gave me time to get my sword

 

out, to get into the fight." Kith-Kanan thought for a moment. "When­how long ago was

 

it, anyway? How much time has passed since­"

 

     "We've been up here for two nights," said Sithas quietly. "The sun has nearly set for

 

the third time." He hestitated, then blurted his question. "How badly are you hurt?"

 

     "Bad enough," Kith said bluntly. "My skull feels like it's been crushed, and my right

 

leg seems as if it is on fire."

 

     "Your leg?" Sithas had been so worried about the blow to his brother's head that he

 

had paid little attention to the rest of his body.

 

     "It's broken, I think," the elf grunted, gritting his teeth against the pain.

 

     Sithas's mind went blank. A broken leg! It might as well be a sentence of death! How

 

would they ever get out of here with his twin thus crippled? And winter had only begun!

 

If they didn't get out of the mountains quickly, they could be trapped here for months.

 

Another snowfall would make travel by foot all but impossible.

 

     "You'll have to do something about it," Kith said, though it took several moments

 

before the remark registered in Sithas's mind.

 

     "About what?"

 


 

    "My leg!" The injured elf looked at his twin sharply, then toughened his voice.

 

Almost without thinking, he used the tones of command he had become accustomed to

 

when he led the Wildrunners.

 

    "Tell me if the skin is broken, if there's any discoloration­any infection."

 

    "Where? Which leg?" Sithas struggled to focus his thoughts. He had never been so

 

disoriented before in his life.

 

    "The right one, below the knee."

 

    Gingerly, almost trembling, Sithas pulled the blankets and cloaks away from his

 

brother's feet and legs. What he saw was terrifying.

 

    The ugly red swelling had almost doubled the size of the limb from the knee to the

 

ankle, and Kith's leg was bent outward at an awkward angle. For a moment, he cursed

 

himself, as if the injury was his own fault. Why hadn't he thought to examine his brother

 

two days earlier, when Kith had first been injured? Had he twisted the wound more when

 

he moved the fallen elf into the shelter of the rocky niche?

 

    "The­the skin isn't broken," he explained, trying to keep his voice calm. "But it's red.

 

By the gods, Kith, it's blood red!"

 

    Kith-Kanan grimaced at the news. "You'll have to straighten it. If you don't, I'll be

 

crippled for life."

 

    The Speaker of the Stars looked at his twin brother, the sense of helplessness

 

growing inside him. But he saw the pain in Kith-Kanan's eyes, and he knew he had no

 

choice but to try.

 

    "It's going to hurt," he warned, and Kith nodded silently, gritting his teeth.

 

    Cautiously he touched the swollen limb, and then instantly recoiled at Kith's sharp

 

gasp of pain. "Don't stop," hissed the wounded elf. "Do it­now!"

 


 

    Gritting his teeth, Sithas grasped the swollen flesh. His fingers probed the wound,

 

and he felt the break in the bone. Kith-Kanan cried aloud, gasping and choking in his pain

 

as Sithas pulled on the limb.

 

    Kith shrieked again and then, mercifully, collapsed into unconsciousness.

 

Desperately Sithas tugged, forcing his hands and arms to do these things that he knew

 

must be causing Kith-Kanan unspeakable pain.

 

    Finally he felt the bones slip into place.

 

    "By Quenesti Pah, I'm sorry, Kith," Sithas whispered, looking at his brother's terribly

 

pale face.

 

    Quenesti Pah ... goddess of healing. The invocation of that benign goddess brought

 

his mind around to the small vial his mother had given them before they departed. From

 

Miritelesina, she had said, high priestess of Quenesti Pah. Frantically Sithas dug through

 

the saddlebag, finally discovering the little ceramic jar, plugged with a stout cork.

 

    He popped the cork from the bottle's mouth and immediately recoiled at the pungent

 

scent. Smearing some of the salve on his fingers, he drew off the cloak and spread the

 

stuff on Kith's leg, above and below the wound. That done, he covered his brother with

 

the blankets and leaned back against the stone wall to wait.

 

    Kith-Kanan remained unconscious throughout the impossibly long afternoon as the

 

sun sank through the pale blue sky and finally disappeared behind the western ridge. Still,

 

no sign of movement came from the wounded elf. If anything, he seemed even weaker.

 

    Gently Sithas fed his brother drops of water. He wrapped him in all of their blankets

 

and lay down beside him.

 

    He fell asleep that way, and though he awoke many times throughout the brutally

 

cold night, he stayed at Kith-Kanan's side until dawn began to brighten their valley.

 


 

    Kith-Kanan showed no sign of reviving consciousness. Sithas looked at his brother's

 

leg and was appalled to see a streak of red running upward, past his knee and into his

 

thigh. What should he do? He had never seen an injury like this before. Unlike

 

Kith-Kanan, he hadn't been confronted by the horrors of battle or by the necessity of self-

 

sufficiency in the wilds.

 

    Quickly the elf took the rest of the cleric's salve and smeared it onto the wound. He

 

knew enough about blood poisoning to realize that if the venomous infection could not be

 

arrested, his brother was doomed. With no way left to treat Kith-Kanan, however, all

 

Sithas could do was pray.

 

    Once again the water in their skins was frozen, and so he made the arduous trek

 

down the narrow pathway from the ledge to the valley floor. The trough in the snow

 

made by his passage on the previous day remained, for the wind had remained blessedly

 

light. Thus he made his way to his snow rimmed water hole with less difficulty than the

 

day before.

 

    But here he encountered a challenge: The bitter cold of the night had frozen even the

 

rapidly flowing water beneath the snow. He chopped and chipped with his sword, finally

 

exposing a small trickle, less than two inches deep. Only by stretching himself full-length

 

in the snow, and immersing his hand into the frigid water could he collect enough to

 

carry back to their high campsite.

 

    As he rose from the water hole, he saw the trail of the sheep across from him and

 

remembered the magnificent creatures. Suddenly he was seized by an inspiration. He

 

thought of his bow and arrows, still up on the ledge with Kith-Kanan. How could he

 

conceal himself in order to get close enough to shoot? Unlike Kith-Kanan, he was not an

 

expert archer. A close target would be essential.

 


 

    He gave up his ponderings in the effort of making his way back to the ledge. Here he

 

found no change in Kith-Kanan, and all he could do was force his brother once again to

 

take a few drops of water between his lips.

 

    Afterward, he strung his bow, checking the smooth surface of the weapon for flaws,

 

the string for knots or frays. As he did so, he heard a clattering of hooves even as he

 

stewed in his frustration. Once again led by the proud ram, the mountain sheep descended

 

from their slope across the valley and made their way to the faint trickle of water. They

 

took turns drinking and watching, with the ram remaining alert.

 

    Once, when the creature's eyes passed across the cliff where Sithas and Kith lay

 

motionless, the animal stiffened. Sithas wondered if he had been discovered and wrestled

 

with a compulsion to quickly nock an arrow and let it fly in the desperate hope of hitting

 

something.

 

    But he forced himself to remain still, and finally the ram relaxed its guard. Sithas

 

sighed and clenched his teeth in frustration as he watched the creatures turn and plow

 

through the snow back toward their mountain fastness. The powdery drifts came to the

 

shoulders of the large ram, and the sheep floundered and struggled until they reached the

 

secure footing of the rocky slope.

 

    The rest of the day passed in frigid monotony. That night was the coldest yet, and

 

Sithas's own shivering kept him awake. He would have been grateful for even such an

 

uncomfortable sign of life from his brother, but Kith-Kanan remained still and lifeless.

 

    The fourth morning on the ridge, Sithas could barely bring himself to emerge from

 

beneath the cloaks and blankets. The sun rose over the eastern ridge, and still he lay

 

motionless.

 


 

    Then urgency returned, and he sat up in panic. He sensed instinctively that today was

 

his last chance. If he could not feed himself and his brother, they would not experience

 

another dawn.

 

    He grabbed his bow and arrows, strapped his sword to his back, and allowed himself

 

the luxury of one woolen cloak from the pile that sheltered Kith-Kanan. He made his way

 

down the cliff with almost reckless haste. Only after he nearly slipped fifty feet above the

 

valley floor did he calm himself, forcing his feet to move with more precision.

 

    He pushed toward the water hole, feeling sensation return to his limbs and

 

anticipation and tension fill his heart. Finally he reached the place opposite where the

 

sheep came to drink. He didn't allow himself to ponder a distinct possibility: What if the

 

sheep didn't return here today? If they didn't, he and his brother would die. It was a

 

simple as that.

 

    Urgently he swept a shallow excavation in the snow, fearful that the sheep might

 

already be on their way. He swung his eyes to the southern ridge, to the slope the sheep

 

had descended on each of the two previous days, but he saw no sign of movement.

 

    In minutes, Sithas cleared the space he desired. A quick check showed no sign of the

 

sheep. Trembling with tension, he freed his bow and arrows and laid them before him in

 

the snow. Next he knelt, forcing his feet into the powdery fluff behind him. He took the

 

cloak he had brought and lay it before him, before stretching, belly down, on top.

 

    The last thing was the hardest to do. He pulled snow from each side into the

 

excavation, burying his thighs, buttocks, and torso. Only his shoulders, arms, and head

 

remained exposed.

 

    Feeling the chill settle into his bones as he pressed deeper into the snowy cushion, he

 

twisted to the side and pulled still more of the winter powder onto him. His bow, with

 

several arrows ready, he covered with a faint dusting of snow directly in front of him.

 


 

    Finally he buried his head, leaving an opening no more than two inches in diameter

 

before his face. From this tiny slot, he could see the water hole and he could get enough

 

air to breathe. At last his trap was ready. Now he had only to wait.

 

    And wait. And wait some more. The sun passed the zenith, the hour when the sheep

 

had come to water on each of the previous days, with no sign of the creatures. Cold

 

numbness crept into Sithas's bones. His fingers and toes burned from frostbite, which was

 

bad enough, but gradually he became aware that he was losing feeling in them altogether.

 

Frantically he wiggled and stretched as much as he could within the limitations of his

 

confinement.

 

    Where were the accursed sheep?

 

    An hour of the afternoon passed, and another began. He could no longer keep any

 

sensation in his fingers. Another few hours, he knew, and he would freeze to death.

 

    But then he became aware of strange sensations deep within his snowy cocoon.

 

Slowly, inexplicably, he began to grow warm. The burning returned to his fingertips. The

 

snow around his body formed a cavity, slightly larger than Sithas himself, and he noticed

 

that this snow was wet. It packed tightly, giving him room to move. He noticed wetness

 

in his hair, on his back.

 

    He was actually warm! The cavity had trapped his body heat, melting the snow and

 

warming him with the trapped energy. The narrow slot had solidified before him, and it

 

was with a sense of exhilaration that he realized he could wait here safely for some time.

 

    But the arrival of twilight confirmed his worst fears­the sheep had not come to drink

 

that day. Bitter with the sense of his failure, he tried to ignore the gnawing in his belly as

 

he gathered more water and made the return to the ledge, arriving just as full darkness

 

settled around them.

 


 

    Had the sheep seen his trap? Had the flock moved on to some distant valley,

 

following the course of some winter migration? He could not know. All he could do was

 

try the same plan tomorrow and hope he lived long enough for the effort.

 

    Sithas had to lean close to Kith-Kanan just to hear his brother's breathing. "Please,

 

Kith, don't die!" he whispered. Those words were the only ones he spoke before he fell

 

asleep.

 

    His hunger was painful when he awoke. Once again the day was clear and still, but

 

how long could this last? Grimly he repeated his process of the previous day, making his

 

way to the stream bank, settling himself in with his bow and arrows, and trying to conceal

 

any sign of his presence. If the sheep didn't come today, he knew that he would be too

 

weak to try on the morrow.

 

    Exhausted, despairing, and starving, he passed from consciousness into an exhausted

 

sleep.

 

    Perhaps the snow insulated him from sound, or maybe his sleep was deeper than he

 

thought. In any event, he heard nothing as his quarry approached. It wasn't until the sheep

 

had reached the water hole that he woke suddenly. They had come! They weren't twenty

 

feet away!

 

    Not daring to breathe, Sithas studied the ram. The creature was even more

 

magnificent up close. The swirled horns were more than a foot in diameter. The ram's

 

eyes swept around them, but Sithas realized with relief that the animal did not notice his

 

enemy up close.

 

    The ram, as usual, drank his fill and then stepped aside. One by one the ewes

 

approached the small water hole, dipping their muzzles to slurp up the icy liquid. Sithas

 

waited until most of the sheep had drank. As he had observed earlier, the smallest were

 

the last to drink, and it was one of these that would prove his target.

 


 

     Finally a plump ewe moved tentatively among her larger sisters. Sithas tensed

 

himself, keeping his hands under the snow as he slowly reached forward for his bow.

 

     Suddenly the ewe raised her head, staring straight at him. Others of the flock

 

skittered to the sides. The elf felt two dozen eyes fixed upon his hiding place. Another

 

second, he suspected, and the sheep would turn in flight. He couldn't give them that

 

opportunity.

 

     With all of the speed, all of the agility at his command, he grasped his bow and

 

arrows and lurched forward from his hiding place, his eyes fixed on the terrified ewe.

 

Vaguely he sensed the sheep spinning, leaping, turning to flee. They struggled through

 

the deep snow, away from this maniacal apparition who rose apparently from the very

 

earth itself.

 

     He saw the ram plunge forward, nudging the ewe that stood stock-still beside the

 

water hole. With a panicked squeal, she turned and tried to spring away.

 

     As she turned, for one split second, she presented her soft flank to the elven archer.

 

Even as he struggled to his feet, Sithas had nocked his arrow. He pulled back the string as

 

his target became a blur before him. Reflexively he let the missile fly. He prayed to all

 

the gods, desperate for a hit.

 

     But the gods were not impressed.

 

     The arrow darted past the ewe's rump, barely grazing her skin, just enough to spur

 

the frightened creature into a maddened flight that took her bounding out of range even as

 

Sithas fumbled with another arrow. He raised the weapon in time to see the ram kick his

 

heels as that great beast, too, sprinted away.

 

     The herd of mountain sheep bounded through the deep snow, springing and leaping

 

in many different directions. Sithas launched another arrow and almost sobbed aloud in

 


 

frustration as the missile flew over the head of a ewe. Mechanically he nocked another

 

arrow, but even as he did so, he knew that the sheep had escaped.

 

    For a moment, a sensation of catastrophe swept over him. He staggered, weak on his

 

feet, and would have slumped to the ground if something hadn't caught his attention.

 

    A small sheep, a yearling, struggled to break free from a huge drift. The animal was

 

scarcely thirty feet away, bleating pathetically. He knew then he had one more chance­-

 

perhaps the last chance­for survival. He held his aim steady, sighting down the arrow at

 

the sheep's heaving flank. The animal gasped for breath, and Sithas released the missile.

 

    The steel-tipped shaft shot true, its barbed head striking the sheep behind its foreleg,

 

driving through the heart and lungs in a powerful, fatal strike.

 

    Bleating one final time, a hopeless call to the disappearing herd, the young sheep

 

collapsed. Pink blood spurted from its mouth and nostrils, foaming into the snow. Sithas

 

reached the animal's side. Some instinct caused him to draw his sword, and he slashed the

 

razor-sharp edge across the sheep's throat. With a gurgle of air, the animal perished.

 

    For a moment, Sithas raised his eyes to the ledge across the valley. The ewes

 

scampered upward, while the ram lingered behind, staring back at the elf who had

 

claimed one of his flock. Sithas felt a momentary sense of gratitude to the creature. His

 

heart filled with admiration as he saw it bound higher and higher up the sheer slope.

 

    Finally he reached down and gutted the carcass of his kill. The climb back to

 

Kith-Kanan would be a tough one, he knew, but suddenly his body thrummed with

 

excitement and energy.

 

    Behind him, atop the ridge, the ram cast one last glance downward and then

 

disappeared.

 


 

                                                 13

 

                                            Fresh Blood

 

 

 

 

        Sithas cut a slice of meat from his kill on the valley floor, tearing bites from the raw

 

meat, uncaring of the blood that dribbled across his chin. Smacking greedily, he wolfed

 

down the morsel before he carried the rest of the carcass up the steep trail to their ledge.

 

He found Kith-Kanan as still as when he had left him, but now, at least, they had food­-

 

they had hope!

 

        The lack of fire created a drawback, but it didn't prevent Sithas from devouring a

 

large chunk of meat as soon as he got it back to the ledge. The blood, while it was still

 

warm, he dribbled into his unconscious brother's mouth, hoping that the warmth and

 

nourishment might have a beneficial effect, however minimal.

 

        Finally sated, Sithas settled back to rest. For the first time in days, he felt something

 

other than bleak despair. He had stalked his game and slain it­something he had never

 

done before, not without beaters and weapon-bearers and guides. Only his brother's

 

condition cast a pall over the situation.

 

        For two more days, Kith's condition showed no signs of change. Gray clouds rolled

 

in, and a dusting of snow fell around them. Sithas trickled more of the ewe's blood into

 

Kith's mouth, hiked down for water several times a day, and offered prayers to Quenesti

 

Pah.

 

        Then, toward sunset of their seventh day on the ledge, Kith groaned and moved. His

 

eyes fluttered open and he looked around in confusion.

 


 

    "Kith! Wake up!" Sithas leaned over his twin, and slowly Kith-Kanan's eyes met his

 

own. At first they looked dull and lifeless, but even as Sithas watched they grew brighter,

 

more alert.

 

    "What­how did you­?"

 

    Sithas felt weak with relief and helped his brother to sit up. "It's OK, Kith. You'll be

 

all right!" He forced more confidence into his tone than he actually felt.

 

    Kith's eyes fell upon the carcass, which Sithas had perched near the precipice.

 

"What's that?"

 

    "Mountain sheep!" Sithas grinned proudly. "I killed it a few days ago. Here, have

 

some!"

 

    "Raw?" Kith-Kanan raised his eyebrows but quickly saw that there was no

 

alternative. He took a tender loin portion and tore off a piece of meat. It was no delicacy,

 

but it was sustenance. As he chewed, he saw Sithas watching him like a master chef

 

savoring the reaction to a new recipe.

 

    "It's good," Kith-Kanan said, swallowing and tearing off another mouthful.

 

    Excitedly Sithas told him of stalking his prey­about his two wasted arrows and the

 

lucky break that helped him make his kill.

 

    Kith chuckled with a heartiness that belied his wounds and their predicament.

 

    "Your leg," Sithas said concernedly. "How does it feel today?"

 

    Kith groaned and shook his head. "Need a cleric to work on it. I doubt it'll heal

 

enough to carry me."

 

    Sithas sat back, suddenly too tired to go on. Alone, he might be able to walk out of

 

these mountains, but he didn't see any way that Kith-Kanan could even get down from

 

this exposed, perilous ledge.

 


 

    For a while, the brothers sat in silence, watching the sun set. The sky domed over

 

them, pale blue to the east and overhead but fading to a rose hue that blended into a rich

 

lavender along the western ridge. One by one stars winked into sight. Finally darkness

 

crept across the sky, expanding from the east to overhead, then pursuing the last lingering

 

strips of brightness into the west.

 

    "Any sign of Arcuballis?" asked Kith hopefully. His brother shook his head sadly.

 

    "What do we do now?" Sithas asked.

 

    To his dismay, his brother shook his head in puzzlement. "I don't know. I don't think

 

I can get down from here, and we can't finish our quest on this ledge."

 

    "Quest?" Sithas had almost forgotten about the mission that had brought them to

 

these mountains. "You're not suggesting we still seek out the griffons, are you?"

 

    Kith smiled, albeit wanly. "No, I don't think we can do much searching. You,

 

however, might have a chance."

 

    Now Sithas gaped at his twin. "And leave you here alone? Don't even think about it!"

 

    The wounded elf gestured to stem Sithas's outburst. "We have to think about it."

 

    "You won't have a chance up here! I won't abandon you!"

 

    Kith-Kanan sighed. "Our chances aren't that great any way you look at it. Getting out

 

of these mountains on foot is out of the question until spring. And the months of deep

 

winter are still before us. We can't just sit here, waiting for my leg to heal."

 

    "But what kind of progress can I make on foot?" Sithas gestured to the valley walls

 

surrounding them.

 

    Kith-Kanan pointed to the northwest, toward the pass that had been their goal before

 

the storm had driven them to this ledge. The gap between the two towering summits was

 

protected by a steep slope, strewn with large boulders and patches of scree. Strangely,

 

snow had not collected there.

 


 

    "You could investigate the next valley," the elf suggested. "Remember, we've

 

explored much of the range already."

 

    "That's precious little comfort," Sithas replied. "We flew over the mountains before.

 

I'm not even sure I could climb that pass, let alone explore beyond it."

 

    Kith-Kanan studied the steep slope with a practiced eye. "Sure you could. Go up on

 

the big rocks off to the side there. Stay away from those smooth patches. They look like

 

easy going, but it's sure to be loose scree. You'd probably slip back farther than you

 

climbed with each step. But if     you stay on the good footing, you could make it."

 

    The wounded elf turned his eyes upon his skeptical brother and continued. "Even if

 

you don't find the griffons, perhaps you'll locate a cave, or better yet some herdsman's

 

hut. Whatever lies over that ridge, it can't be any more barren than this place."

 

    The Speaker of the Stars squatted back on his haunches, shaking his head in

 

frustration. He had looked at the pass himself over the last few days and privately had

 

decided that he would probably be able to climb it. But he had never considered the

 

prospect of going without his brother.

 

    Finally he made a decision. "I'll go­but just to have a look. If I don't see anything,

 

I'm coming straight back here."

 

    "Agreed." Kith-Kanan nodded. "Now maybe you can hand me another strip of

 

lamb­only this time, I'd like it cooked a little more on the rare side. That last piece was

 

too well done for my taste."

 

    Laughing, Sithas used his dagger to carve another strip of raw mutton. He had found

 

that by slicing it very thin he could make the meat more palatable­at least, more easily

 

chewed. And though it was still cold, it tasted very, very good.

 

                                          *   *   *   *   *

 


 

    Kith-Kanan sat up, leaning against the back wall of the ledge, and watched Sithas

 

gather his equipment. It was nearly dawn.

 

    "Take some of my arrows," he offered, but Sithas shook his head.

 

    "I'll leave them with you, just in case."

 

    "In case of what? In case that ram comes looking for revenge?"

 

    Suddenly uncomfortable, Sithas looked away. They both knew that if the hill giants

 

returned, Kith-Kanan would be helpless to do more than shoot a few arrows before he

 

was overcome.

 

    "Kith . . ." He wanted to tell his brother that he wouldn't leave him, that he would

 

stay at his side until his wounds had healed.

 

    "No!" The injured elf raised a hand, anticipating his brother's objections. "We both

 

understand­we know that this is the only thing to do."

 

    "I­I suppose you're right."

 

    "You know I'm right!" Kith's voice was almost harsh.

 

    "I'll be back as soon as I can."

 

    "Sithas­be careful."

 

    The Speaker of the Stars nodded dumbly. It made him feel like a traitor to leave his

 

brother like this.

 

    "Good luck, Brother." Kith's voice came to Sithas softly, and he turned back.

 

    They clasped hands, and then Sithas leaned forward to embrace his brother. "Don't

 

run off on me," he told Kith, with a wry smile.

 

    An hour later, he was past the water hole, where he had stopped to refill his skin.

 

Now the pass loomed before him like an icy palisade­the castle wall of some

 

unimaginably monstrous giant. Carefully, still some distance away from the ascent, he

 


 

selected a route up the slope. He stopped to rest several times before reaching the base,

 

but before noon, he began the rugged climb.

 

    All the time he remained conscious of Kith-Kanan's eyes on his back. He looked

 

behind him occasionally, until his brother became a faint speck on the dark mountain

 

wall. Before he started up the pass, he waved and saw a tiny flicker of motion from the

 

ledge as Kith waved back.

 

    The pass, up close, soared upward and away from him like a steep castle wall,

 

steeper than it had looked from the safe distance of their campsite. The base was a

 

massive, sloping pile of talus­great boulders that, over many centuries, had been pried

 

loose by frost or water to tumble and crash down the mountainside. Now they teetered

 

precariously on top of each other, and powdery snow filled the gaps between them.

 

    Sithas strung his bow across his back, next to his sword. His cloak he removed and

 

tied around his waist, hoping to maintain full freedom of movement.

 

    He picked his way up the talus slope, stepping from rock to rock only after testing

 

each foothold for security. Once several rocks tumbled away beneath him, and he sprang

 

aside just in time. Always he gained altitude, pulling himself up the sheer face with his

 

leather-gloved hands. Sweat dripped into his eyes, and for a moment, he wondered how,

 

in the midst of this snow-swept landscape, could he get so Abyss-cursed hot? Then a

 

swirl of icy wind struck him, penetrating his damp tunic and leggings and bringing an in-

 

stant shiver to his bones.

 

    Soon he reached the top. Here he encountered long stretches of loose scree, small

 

stones that seemed to slip and slide beneath each footfall, carrying him backward four

 

feet for every five of progress.

 


 

    Kith-Kanan, of course, had been right. He was always right! His brother knew his

 

way around in country like this, knew how to survive and even how to move and explore,

 

to hunt and find shelter.

 

    Why couldn't it have been Sithas to suffer the crippling injury? A healthy

 

Kith-Kanan would have been able to care for both of them, Sithas knew. Meanwhile, he

 

wrestled with overwhelming despair and hopelessness, and he was not yet out of sight of

 

their base camp!

 

    Shaking off his self-pity, Sithas worked his way sideways, toward steeper, but more

 

solid, shoulders of bedrock. Once his feet slipped away, and he tumbled twenty or thirty

 

feet down the slope, only stopping himself by digging his hands and feet into the loose

 

surface. Cursing, he checked his weapons, relieved to find them intact. Finally he reached

 

a solid rock, with a small shelf shaped much like a chair, where he collapsed in

 

exhaustion.

 

    A quick look upward showed that he had made it perhaps a quarter of the way up the

 

slope. At this rate, he would be stranded here at nightfall, a prospect that terrified him

 

more than he wanted to contemplate.

 

    Resolutely he started upward again, this time climbing along rough outcrops of rock.

 

After only a few moments, he realized that this was by far the easiest climbing yet, and

 

his spirits rose rapidly.

 

    Stepping upward in long strides, he relished a new sense of accomplishment. The

 

valley floor fell away below him; the heavens­and more mountains­beckoned from

 

above. He no longer felt the need for rest. Instead, the climb seemed to energize him.

 

    By midafternoon, he had neared the top of the pass, and here the route narrowed

 

challengingly. Two huge boulders teetered on the slope, with but a narrow crack of

 


 

daylight between them. One, or both, could very easily roll free, carrying him back down

 

the mountainside if they didn't crush him between them first.

 

    No other route presented itself. To either side of the massive rocks, sheer cliffs

 

soared upward to the pinnacles of the two mountains. The only way through the pass lay

 

between those two precarious boulders.

 

    He didn't hesitate. He approached the rocks and saw that the gap was wide enough to

 

allow him to pass­just barely. He entered the aperture, climbing upward across loose

 

rock.

 

    Suddenly the ground beneath his feet slipped away, and his heart lurched. He felt one

 

of the huge boulders shift with a menacing rumble. The rock walls to either side of him

 

pressed closer, narrowing by an inch or so. Then the rock seemed to settle into place, and

 

he felt no more movement.

 

    With a quick burst of speed, he darted upward, scrambling out of the narrow passage

 

before the rocks could budge again. His momentum carried him farther up the last

 

hundred yards of so of the ascent until finally he stood upon the summit of the pass.

 

    Trees! He saw patches of green among the snowfields, far, far below. Trees, which

 

meant wood, which meant fire! The slope before him, while steep and long, was nowhere

 

near as grueling as the one he had just climbed. He glanced over his left shoulder at the

 

sun, estimating two remaining hours of daylight.

 

    It would have to be enough. He would have a fire tonight, he vowed to himself.

 

    He plunged recklessly downward, sometimes riding a small, tumbling pillow of

 

snow, at other times leaping through great drifts to soft landings ten or fifteen feet below.

 

Exhausted, sweat-soaked, and bone-weary, he finally reached a clump of gnarled cedars

 

far down in the basin. Now, at last, his spirits soared. He used the last illumination of

 


 

daylight to gather all of the dead limbs he could find. He piled the firewood before an

 

unusually thick trio of evergreens, where he had decided to make his camp.

 

    A mere touch of his steel dagger to the flint he carried in his belt-pouch brought a

 

satisfactory spark. The dry wood kindled instantly, and within minutes, he relished the

 

comfort of a crackling blaze.

 

                                          *   *   *   *   *

 

    Was this the curse of the gods, thought Kith-Kanan, the punishment for his betrayal

 

of his brother's marriage? He leaned against the cliff wall and shut his eyes, wincing not

 

in pain but in guilt.

 

    Why couldn't he have simply died? That would have made things so much easier.

 

Sithas would have been free to perform the quest instead of worrying about him like a

 

nervous nursemaid worries about a feverish babe.

 

    In truth, Kith-Kanan felt more helpless than a crawling infant, for he didn't have even

 

that much mobility.

 

    He had watched Sithas make his way up the slope until his twin had disappeared

 

from sight. His brother had moved with grace and power, surprising Kith with the speed

 

of his ascent.

 

    But as long as Kith-Kanan lay here upon this ledge, he knew Sithas would be tied to

 

this location by their bond of brotherhood. He would explore their immediate surround-

 

ings, perhaps, but would never bring himself to travel far beyond.

 

    All because I'm so damned stupid! Kith railed at himself. They had made inadequate

 

preparations for attack! They had both dozed off. Only the sacrifice of brave Arcuballis

 

had given the first warning of the hill giants.

 


 

    Now his griffon was gone, no doubt dead, and he himself was impossibly crippled.

 

Sithas searched alone and on foot. It seemed inevitable to Kith-Kanan that their quest

 

would be a failure.

 

                                         *   *   *   *   *

 

    Sithas dried his clothes and boots, every stitch of which had been soaked by sweat or

 

melting snow, by the crackling fire. It brightened his night, driving back the high

 

mountain darkness that had previously stretched to infinity on all sides, and it warmed his

 

spirits in a way that he wouldn't have thought possible a few hours earlier.

 

    The fire spoke to him with a soothing voice, and it danced for him in sultry allure. It

 

was like a companion, one who could listen to his thoughts and give him pleasure. And

 

finally the fire allowed him to cook a strip of his frozen meat.

 

    That morsel, seared for a few minutes on a forked stick that Sithas plunged into the

 

flames, emerged from the fire covered with ash, blackened and charred on the outside and

 

virtually raw in the center. It was unseasoned, tough, imperfectly preserved ... and it was

 

unquestionably the most splendid meal that the elf had ever eaten in his life.

 

    The three pines served as a backdrop to his campsite. Sithas scraped away the small

 

amount of snow here and cleared for himself a soft bed of pine needles. He stoked the fire

 

until he had to back away from the blazing heat.

 

    That night he slept for a few hours, and then awoke to fuel his fire. A mountainous

 

pile of coals radiated heat, and the ground provided a soft and comfortable cushion until

 

the coming of dawn.

 

    Sithas arose slowly, reluctant to break the reverie of warmth and comfort. He cooked

 

another piece of meat, more patiently this time, for breakfast. By the time he finished,

 

sunlight was bathing the bowl-shaped depression around him in its brilliant light. He had

 

made a decision.

 


 

    He would bring Kith-Kanan to this valley. He didn't know how yet, but he was

 

convinced that this was the best way to insure his brother's recovery.

 

    His course plotted, he gathered up his few possessions and lashed them to his body.

 

Next he took several minutes to gather a stack of firewood­light, sun-dried logs that

 

would burn steadily. He trimmed the twigs off of these so that he could bundle them

 

tightly together. This bundle he then lashed to his back.

 

    Finally he turned his face toward the pass. The slope before him still lay in shadow,

 

as it would for most of the day. Retracing his tracks of the previous afternoon, he forced

 

his way through the deep snow, back toward the summit of the pass.

 

    It took him all morning, but finally he reached the summit. He paused to rest­the

 

climb had been extremely wearying­and sought out the speck of color that he knew

 

would mark Kith-Kanan's presence on the ledge in the distance. He had to squint, for the

 

sunlight reflecting from the snow-filled bowl brutally assaulted his eyes.

 

    He couldn't see the ledge, though he recognized the water hole where he had

 

collected their drinking water. What was that? He saw movement near the stream, and for

 

a moment, he wondered if the sheep had returned. His eyes adjusted to the brightness,

 

and he understood that these could not be sheep. Large humanoid shapes lumbered

 

through the snow. Shaggy fur seemed to cover them in patches, but the "fur" proved to be

 

cloaks cast over broad shoulders.

 

    They moved in single file, some ten or twelve of them, as they crossed the valley

 

floor, taking no notice of the depth of the snow.

 

    With a sickening realization, Sithas understood what was happening: The hill giants

 

had returned, and they were making their way toward Kith-Kanan.

 


 

                                                 14

 

                                     Immediately Following

 

 

 

 

        Sithas studied the hill giant that led the column of the brutes, perhaps two miles

 

away and a thousand feet below him. The monster gestured to its fellows, pointing

 

upward. Not toward Sithas, the elf realized, but toward . . . the ledge! His brother's camp!

 

The dozen giants trudged through the snow of the valley floor, making their way in that

 

direction.

 

        Sithas tried to spot his twin, but the distance was too great. Wait ... there!

 

Kith-Kanan, he realized, must also have seen the giants, for the wounded elf had pulled a

 

dark cloak over himself and was now pressed against the far wall of the ledge. His

 

camouflage seemed effective and would make him virtually invisible from below as the

 

giants headed toward the cliff.

 

        The column of giants waded the stream. The one in the lead gestured again, this time

 

indicating the path in the snow that Sithas had made in his travels back and forth for

 

water. Another giant indicated a different track, the one made by Sithas on the previous

 

day.

 

        That slight gesture gave him a desperate idea. He acted quickly, casting around until

 

his eyes fell upon a medium-sized boulder resting in the summit of the pass and cracked

 

loose from the bedrock below. Seizing it in both of his hands, grunting from the exertion,

 

he lifted the stone over his head. The last of the giants had crossed the stream, and now

 

the file of huge, grotesque creatures was nearing the cliff wall.

 

        Sithas pitched the boulder as hard and as far as he could. The rock plummeted down

 

the steep, rock-strewn pass. Then it hit, crashing into another boulder with a sharp report

 


 

before bouncing and smashing again and again down the mountain pass, Breathlessly

 

Sithas watched the giants. They had to hear the commotion!

 

    Indeed they did. Suddenly the twelve monsters whirled around in surprise. Sithas

 

kicked another rock, and that one too clattered down the pass, rolling between the two

 

huge boulders that he had slipped between on the previous day's climb.

 

    Now the beasts halted, staring upward. Breathlessly Sithas waited.

 

    It worked! He saw the first giant gesturing wildly, pointing toward the summit of the

 

pass, toward Sithas! Kith-Kanan was left behind as the entire band of the great brutes

 

turned and broke into a lumbering trot, pursuing the elf they probably thought they had

 

"discovered" trying to sneak through the pass.

 

    Sithas watched them advance toward him. They plunged through the deep snow in

 

giant strides, each stride taking them farther from Kith-Kanan. Sithas wondered if his

 

brother was watching, if he had seen the clever diversion created by his twin. He lay still,

 

peering around a boulder as the monsters approached the bottom of the pass.

 

    Now what could he do? The giants had almost reached the base of the pass. He

 

looked behind him. Everywhere the valley was blanketed by deep snow. Wherever he

 

went, he would leave a trail so obvious that even the thick-witted hill giants would have

 

no difficulty in following him.

 

    His attention returned to the immediate problem. He saw, with sharp panic, that the

 

giants had disappeared from view. Moments later he understood. They were so close to

 

the pass now that the steepness of the slope blocked his vision.

 

    His head seemed fogged by fear, his body tensed with the anticipation of combat.

 

The thought almost brought a smile to his lips. The prospect of facing a dozen giants with

 

his puny sword struck him as ludicrous indeed! Yet by the same token, that prospect

 

seemed inevitable, so that his amusement quickly gave way to stark terror.

 


 

    Carefully he crept forward and looked down the pass. All he saw were the two

 

monstrous boulders that had bracketed his ascent of the pass on the day before. As yet

 

there was no sign of the giants.

 

    Should he confront them at those rocks? No more than one at a time could pass

 

through the narrow aperture. Still, with a brutally honest assessment of his own fighting

 

prowess, he knew that one of them was all it would take to squash his skull like an

 

eggshell. Also, he remembered the precarious balance of those boulders. Indeed, one of

 

them had shifted several inches merely from the weight of his touch.

 

    That recollection gave him an idea. The elf checked his longsword, which was lashed

 

securely to his back. Quickly he unlashed the bundle of firewood and dropped the sticks

 

unceremoniously to the ground. He hefted the longest one, which was about as long as

 

his leg but no thicker than his arm­still, it would have to do.

 

    Without pausing to consider, Sithas, in a running crouch, crossed through the saddle

 

and started down the slope toward the two rocks. He could see several of the giants

 

through the crack now, and realized with alarm that they were nearly halfway up the

 

steep-sided pass.

 

    In a slide of tumbling scree, Sithas crashed into one of the boulders and felt it lurch

 

beneath his weight. But then it settled back into its place, and he couldn't force it to move

 

farther. Turning to the second rock, he pushed and heaved at it and was rewarded by a

 

fractional shifting of its massive bulk. However, it, too, seemed to be nestled in a

 

comfortable spot and would not move any farther.

 

    Desperately Sithas slid downward through the crack between the boulders. The elf

 

reached beneath the base of the one he judged to be the loosest and began to dig and chop

 

with his piece of firewood.

 


 

        He pried a large stone loose, and it skittered down the slope. Immediately he began

 

prying at a different rock. A bellow of surprise reached him from below, and he knew

 

that he didn't have much time. He didn't look behind him. Instead, he scrambled back

 

upward between the rocks. He pitched his body against the rock he had worked so hard to

 

loosen and was rewarded by a slight teetering. Then a shower of gravel sprayed from

 

beneath it to tumble into the faces of the approaching giants.

 

        The leader of the monsters bellowed again. The creature was a bare fifty yards below

 

Sithas now and bounding upward with astonishing speed.

 

        After one last, futile push at the rock, Sithas knew that he would have to abandon

 

that plan. His time had run out. Drawing his sword, he dropped through the narrow crack

 

again, prepared to meet the first giant at the mouth of the opening. Grimly he resolved to

 

draw as much blood as possible before he perished.

 

        The beast came toward him, its face split by a garish caricature of a grin. Sithas saw

 

the tiny bloodshot eyes and the stubs of teeth jutting like tusks from its gums. Its huge

 

lips flapped with excitement as the brute prepared to squash the life from this impudent

 

elf.

 

        The thing held one of those monstrous clubs such as the giants had employed in their

 

earlier attack. Now that weapon lashed outward, but Sithas ducked back into the niche,

 

feeling the rock tremble next to him from the force of the blow. He darted outward and

 

stabbed quickly with his steel blade. A sense of cruel delight flared within him as the

 

weapon scored a bloody gash on the giant's forehead.

 

        With a cry of animal rage, the giant lunged upward, dropping its club and reaching

 

with massive paws toward Sithas's legs. The elf skipped backward, scrambling up and

 

away. As he did, he stabbed downward, driving his blade clear through the monster's

 

hand.

 


 

         Howling in pain, the giant twisted away, shrinking back down the slope to clutch its

 

bleeding extremity. Sithas had no time to reconnoiter, however. The next monster had al-

 

ready caught up. This one had apparently learned from his comrade's errors, for it thrust

 

its heavy club into the crack and stayed out of reach.

 

         Sithas twisted away with a curse as the crude weapon nearly crushed his left wrist.

 

The giant reached in, and Sithas scrambled upward. But then a loose patch of scree

 

caused him to lose his footing, and he slipped downward toward that leering, hate-filled

 

face.

 

         He saw the monstrous lips spread in a leering grin, darkened stubs of ivory teeth

 

ready to tear at his flesh. Sithas kicked out, and his boot cracked into the beast's huge,

 

wart-covered nose.

 

         Desperately Sithas kicked again, pushing himself upward and catching one boot on

 

an outcrop of the rock wall beside him. The giant reached up to catch him, but the elf re-

 

mained just out of his reach, barely a foot or so above him.

 

         With determination, the broad-shouldered brute pressed into the narrow crack

 

between the boulders. The force of his body pushed the stones outward slightly.

 

         Yet that seemed to be enough. The monster's hand clutched Sithas's foot. Even as the

 

elf kicked and flailed frantically, one of the rocks teetered precariously on the brink of a

 

fall.

 

         The Speaker of the Stars braced his back against one of the rocks and pressed both of

 

his boots against the other. Calling for the blessings of every god he could think of, he

 

pushed outward, straining and gasping to move the monstrous weight.

 

         Slowly, almost gradually, the huge boulder toppled forward. The giant stared

 

upward, his beady eyes nearly bulging out of his skull as the huge load slid forward, then

 


 

began to roll downward. Tons of rock crushed the life from the brute as the boulder broke

 

free.

 

    His foothold suddenly gone, Sithas slid downward in the wake of the crashing stone.

 

He felt a sickening crunch in the earth and looked up to see the other rock also break free

 

to crash toward the valley floor a thousand feet below. Desperately the elf sprang to one

 

side, feeling the ground shake as the huge stone tumbled past him.

 

    The sounds of the rockslide grew and echoed, seeming to shake the bedrock of the

 

world. Sithas pressed his face into the ground, trying to cling with his hands as the entire

 

wall of the pass fell away. The thunderous volume overwhelmed him, and he expected to

 

be swept away at any second.

 

    But now the gods looked kindly on the Speaker of the Stars, and though the cliff wall

 

a scant twelve inches from his hand plunged below, the rock to which Sithas clung re-

 

mained fixed, miraculously, to the ridge.

 

    The world crashed and surged around Sithas for what seemed like hours, though in

 

reality it was no more than a few minutes. When he finally opened his eyes, blinking

 

away the dust and grime, he looked down at a scene of complete devastation.

 

    A dust cloud had settled across the formerly pristine snowfields, casting the entire

 

valley in a dirty gray hue. The surface of the cliff gaped like a fresh scar where scree and

 

talus, even great chunks of bedrock, had torn away. He could see none of the twelve

 

giants, but it seemed inconceiveable that any of them could have lived through that

 

massive, crushing avalanche.

 

    The pass was now even steeper than it had been when he climbed it, but the entire

 

surface was clear of snow, and the rock that remained was solid mountain. Thus he had

 

little difficulty in picking his way painstakingly down the thousand feet of descent to the

 

valley floor.

 


 

    Near the bottom, he came upon the body of one of the giants. The creature was

 

half-buried in rubble and covered with dust.

 

    Sithas stepped carefully along the slope, using handholds to maintain his balance,

 

until he reached the motionless body of the giant. The creature hung over a sharp outcrop

 

of rock, looking like a rag doll that someone had casually cast aside. When the elf

 

reached the monster, he examined it more closely.

 

    He saw that it wore boots of heavy fur and a tunic of bearskin. The creature's beard

 

was long but sparsely grown, adding to the straggled and unkempt appearance of its face.

 

The great mouth hung slackly open, and its long, floppy tongue protruded. Several

 

broken teeth studded its gums alongside a single well-formed tusk of ivory in front.

 

Sithas found himself feeling a spontaneous reaction of compassion as he looked at the

 

pathetic visage.

 

    His reaction changed instantly to alarm when the giant moved, reaching out with one

 

trunklike arm toward him. The elf stepped nervously backward, his longsword in his

 

hand.

 

    Then the giant groaned, smacking his lips and snorting in discomfort before finally

 

forcing open the lid of one blank, bloodshot eye. The eye stared straight at the elf.

 

    Sithas froze. His instincts, as soon as the beast had moved, had urged him to drive

 

his keen steel blade into the creature's throat or its heart.

 

    However, some inner emotion, surprising the elf with its strong compulsion, had held

 

his hand. The blade remained poised before the giant's face, a foot from the end of its

 

blunt and swollen nose, but Sithas didn't drive it home.

 

    Instead, he studied the creature as it opened its other eye. The two orbs crossed

 

ludicrously as it appeared to study the keen steel so close to its face. Slowly the bloodshot

 


 

orbs came into focus. Sithas sensed the giant tensing, and he knew that he should slay it,

 

if it wasn't already too late! Misgivings assailed him.

 

    Still he held firm. The giant scowled, still trying to understand what had happened,

 

what was going on. Finally the realization came, with a reaction that took Sithas com-

 

pletely by surprise. The monster yelped­a high-pitched gasp of fright­and tried to squirm

 

backward away from the elf and the weapon.

 

    A large boulder blocked its retreat, and the beast cowered against the rock, raising its

 

massive fists as if to ward away a blow. Sithas took a step forward, and when the beast

 

cried out again, he lowered his blade, bemused by the strange behavior.

 

    Sithas made a casual gesture with his sword. The giant raised its hands to protect its

 

face and grunted something in a crude tongue. Again Sithas was struck by the one perfect

 

tooth bobbing up and down amongst the otherwise ragged gums.

 

    The problem remained of what to do with it. Letting the brute just wander away

 

seemed like an unacceptable risk.

 

    Yet Sithas couldn't kill it out of hand, now that it cowered and gibbered at him. It

 

didn't seem like much of a threat anymore, despite its huge size.

 

    "Hey, One-Tooth. Stand up!" The elf gestured with his blade, and after several

 

moments, the giant climbed hesitantly to its feet.

 

    The creature loomed ten feet or more tall, with a barrel-sized chest and stout,

 

sinew-lined limbs. One-Tooth gaped pathetically at Sithas as the elf nodded, pleased. He

 

gestured again with his sword, this time down the pass, toward the valley.

 

    "Come on, you lead the way," he instructed the giant. They started down the

 

mountain, with Sithas keeping his sword ready.

 

    But One-tooth seemed perfectly content to shuffle along ahead of the elf. On the

 

ground, Sithas found it a great boon to follow in the footsteps of the giant, rather than

 


 

break his own trail through the snow. Following an elaborate pantomime, he showed

 

One-Tooth how to drag his feet when he walked, thus making a deeper and smoother path

 

for the elf.

 

     He directed the giant toward the ledge where Kith-Kanan lay helpless. At the bottom,

 

before they picked their way up the steep, treacherous trail, Sithas turned back to the

 

giant.

 

     "I want you to carry him," he explained. He cradled his arms as if he was carrying an

 

infant and pointed to the ledge above them. "Do you understand?"

 

     The giant squinted at the elf, his eyes shrinking to tiny dots of bloodshot

 

concentration. He looked upward.

 

     Then his eyes widened, as if someone had just opened the shutters to a dark,

 

little-used room. His mouth gaped happily, and the tooth bobbed up and down in

 

enthusiastic comprehension.

 

     "I hope so," Sithas muttered, not entirely confident about what he was doing.

 

     Now the elf led the way, working his way up the narrow trail until he reached the

 

ledge that had sequestered his brother.

 

     "Well done, Brother!" Kith-Kanan was sitting upright, his back against the cliff wall

 

and his face creased by a grin of amazed delight. "I saw them coming, and I figured that

 

was the end!"

 

     "That thought crossed my mind as well," admitted Sithas.

 

     Kith looked at him with an admiring expression Sithas had never seen in his brother's

 

eyes before. "You could have been killed, you know!"

 

     Sithas laughed self-consciously, feeling a warm sense of pride. "I can't let you have

 

all the fun."

 


 

    Kith smiled, his eyes shining. "Thanks, Brother!" Clearing his throat, he nodded at

 

One-Tooth. "But what is this­a prisoner or friend? And what idea do you have now?"

 

    "We're going to the next valley," Sithas replied. "I couldn't find a horse, so you'll

 

have to ride a giant!"

 


 

                                            15

 

                             Winter, in the Army of Ergoth

 

 

 

 

    The rains beat across a sea of canvas, a drumming, monotonous cadence that marked

 

time during winter on the plains. Gray skies stretched over the brown land, encloaked by

 

air that changed from fog to downpour to icy mist.

 

    If only it would freeze! This was the wish of every soldier in the army who had to

 

stand guard, conduct drills, or make the arduous treks to distant woods for firewood or

 

lumber. A hard frost would soldify the viscous earth that now churned underfoot, miring

 

wagon wheels and making the simple act of walking an exhaustive struggle.

 

    Sentries stood shivering on guard duty around the ring of the great human

 

encampment. The great bulk of Sithelbec was practically invisible in the gray anonymity

 

of the twilit gloom. The fortress walls loomed strong; they had been tested at the cost of

 

more than a thousand men during recent months.

 

    Darkness came like a lowering curtain, and the camp became still and silent, broken

 

only by the fires that dotted the darkness. Even these blazes were few, for all sources of

 

firewood within ten miles of the camp had already been picked clean.

 

    Amid this darkness, an even darker figure moved. General Giarna stalked toward the

 

command tent of High General Barnet. Trailing him, trying to control her terror, followed

 

Suzine.

 

    She didn't want to be here. Never before had she seen General Giarna as menacing as

 

he seemed tonight. He had summoned her without explanation, his eyes distant ... and

 

hungry. It was as if he barely knew that she was present, so intent were his thoughts on

 

something else.

 


 

    Now she understood that his victim was to be Barnet.

 

    General Giarna reached the high general's tent and flung aside the canvas flap, boldly

 

entering. Suzine, more cautiously, came behind him.

 

    Barnet had been expecting company, for he stood facing the door, his hand on the

 

hilt of his sheathed sword. The three of them were alone in the dim enclosure. One lamp

 

sputtered on a battered wooden table, and rain seeped through the waterlogged roof and

 

sides of the tent.

 

    "The usurper dares to challenge his master?" sneered the white-haired Barnet, but his

 

voice was not as forceful as his words.

 

    "Master?" The black-armored general's voice was heavy with scorn. His eyes

 

remained vacant, and focused on something very far away. "You are a failure­and your

 

time is up, old man!"

 

    "Bastard!" Barnet reacted with surprising quickness, given his age. In one smooth

 

movement, his blade hissed from its scabbard and lashed toward the younger man's face.

 

    General Giarna was quicker. He raised one hand, encased in its black steel gauntlet.

 

The blade met the gauntlet at the wrist, a powerful blow that ought to have chopped

 

through the armor and sliced off the general's hand.

 

    Instead, the sword shattered into a shower of silver splinters. Barnet, still holding the

 

useless hilt, gaped at the taller Giarna and stepped involuntarily backward.

 

    Suzine groaned in terror. Some unbelievably horrible power pulsed in the room, a

 

thing that she sensed on a deeper level than sight or smell or touch. Her knees grew weak

 

beneath her, but somehow she forced herself to stand.

 

    She knew that Giarna wanted her to watch, for this was to be a lesson for her as

 

much as a punishment for Barnet.

 


 

    The old man squealed­a pathetic, whimpering sound­as he stared at something in the

 

dark eyes of his nemesis. Giarna's hands, cloaked in the shiny black steel, grasped Barnet

 

around the neck, and the high general's sounds faded into strangled gasps and coughs.

 

    Barnet's face expanded to a circle of horror. His tongue protruded, and his jaw flexed

 

soundlessly. His skin grew red­bright red, like a crimson rose, thought Suzine. Then the

 

man's face darkened to a bluish, then ashen, gray.

 

    Finally, as if his corpse was being seared by a hot fire, Barnet turned black. His face

 

ceased to bulge, slowly shrinking until the skin pressed tight around the clear outlines of

 

his skull. His lips stretched backward, and then split and dried into mummified husks.

 

    His hands, Suzine saw, had become veritable claws, each an outline of white bone,

 

with bare shreds of skin and fingernails clinging to the ghastly skeleton.

 

    Giarna cast the corpse aside, and it settled slowly to the floor, like an empty gunny

 

sack that catches the undercurrents of air as it floats downward.

 

    When the general finally turned back to Suzine, she gasped in mindless dread. He

 

stood taller now. His skin was bright, flushed.

 

    But his eyes were his most frightening aspect, for now they fixed upon her with a

 

clear and deadly glow.

 

                                         *   *   *   *   *

 

    Later, Suzine stared into her mirror, despairing. Though it might show ten thousand

 

signs, to her it was still devoid of that which meant all to her. She no longer knew if Kith-

 

Kanan was even alive, so far distant had he flown.

 

    In the ten days since General Giarna had slain Barnet, the army camp had been

 

driven into furious activity. An array of great stone-casting catapults took shape along the

 

lines. Building the huge wooden machines was slow work, but by the end of winter,

 

twoscore of the war machines would be ready to rain their destruction upon Sithelbec.

 


 

    A hard ground freeze had occurred during the days immediately following the brutal

 

murder, and this had eliminated the mud that had impeded all activity. Now great parties

 

of human riders scoured the surrounding plains, and the few bands of Wildrunners

 

outside Sithelbec's walls had been eliminated or driven to the shelter of the deepest

 

forests.

 

    Wearily Suzine turned her thoughts to her uncle, Emperor Quivalin Soth V. The

 

mirror combed the expanse of the frozen plain to the west, and soon she found what

 

Giarna had directed her to seek: the emperor's great carriage, escorted by four thousand

 

of his most loyal knights, was trundling closer to the camp.

 

    She went to seek her commander and found him belaboring the unfortunate captains

 

of a team sent to bring lumber from a patch of forest some dozen miles away.

 

    "Double the size of your force if you need to!" snarled General Giarna, while six

 

battle-scarred officers trembled before him. "But bring me the wood by tomorrow! Work

 

on the catapults must cease until we get those timbers!"

 

    "Sir," ventured the boldest, "it's the horses! We drive them until near collapse. Then

 

they must rest! It takes two days to make the trip."

 

    "Drive them until they collapse, then­or perhaps you consider horseflesh to be more

 

valuable than your own?"

 

    "No, General!" Badly shaken, the captains left to organize another, larger, lumbering

 

expedition.

 

    "What have you learned?" General Giarna whirled upon Suzine, fixing her with his

 

penetrating stare.

 

    For a moment, Suzine looked at him, trying to banish her trembling. The Boy

 

General reminded her, for the first time in a long time, of the vibrant and energetic officer

 

she had first met, for whom she had once developed an infatuation. What did the death of

 


 

Barnet have to do with this? In some vile way, it seemed to Suzine that the man had

 

consumed the life force of the other, devoured his rival, and found the deed somehow

 

invigorating.

 

    "The emperor will arrive tomorrow," she reported. "He makes good time, now that

 

the ground is frozen."

 

    "Splendid." The general's mind, she could see, was already preoccupied with

 

something else, for he turned that sharp stare toward the bastion of Sithelbec.

 

                                          *   *   *   *   *

 

    If Emperor Quivalin noticed any dark change in General Giarna, he didn't say

 

anything to Suzine. His carriage had rolled into the camp to the cheers of more than a

 

hundred thousand of his soldiers. The great procession rumbled around the full

 

circumference of the circular deployments before arriving at the tent where the Boy

 

General kept his headquarters.

 

    The two men conferred within the tent for several hours before the ruler and the

 

commander emerged, side by side, to address the troops.

 

    "I have appointed General Giarna as High General of the Army," announced

 

Quivalin, to the cheers of his men, "following the unfortunate demise of former High

 

General Barnet.

 

    "He has my full confidence, as do you all." More cheers. "I feel certain that, with the

 

coming of spring, your force will carry the walls of the elven fortress and reduce their

 

defenses to ashes! For the glory of Ergoth, you will prevail!"

 

    Adulation rose from the troops, who surged forward to get a close look at the mighty

 

ruler. A sweeping stare from their general, however, held them in their tracks. A slow,

 

reluctant silence fell over the mass of warriors.

 


 

    "The collapse of my predecessor, due to exhaustion, was symptomatic of the

 

sluggishness that previously pervaded this entire army­a laxness that allowed our enemy

 

to reach its fortress months ago," said General Giarna. His voice was level and low, yet it

 

seemed to carry more ominous power than the emperor's loud exhortations.

 

    Murmurs of discontent rose in many thousands of throats. Barnet had been a popular

 

leader, and his death hadn't been satisfactorily explained to the men. Yet the stark fear

 

they felt for the Boy General prevented anyone from audibly muttering open displeasure.

 

    "Our emperor informs me that additional troops will be joining us, a contingent of

 

dwarves from the Theiwar Clan of Thorbardin. They are skilled miners and will be put to

 

work digging excavations beneath the walls of the enemy defenses.

 

    "Those of you who are not engaged in preparations for the attack will begin

 

tomorrow a vigorous program of training. When the time comes to attack, you will be

 

ready! And for the glory of our emperor, you will succeed!"

 


 

                                               16

 

                               Two Weeks Later, Early Winter

 

 

 

 

    The firelight reflected from the walls of the cave like dancing sprites, weaving

 

patterns of warmth and comfort. A haunch of venison sizzled on a spit over the coals,

 

while Sithas's cloak and leggings dried on a makeshift rack.

 

    "No tenderloin of steer ever tasted so sweet or lay so sumptuously on the palate,"

 

announced Kith-Kanan, with an approving smack of his lips. He reached forward and

 

sliced another hot strip from the meat that slow-roasted above the coals.

 

    Sithas looked at his brother, his eyes shining with pride. Unlike the sheep, which he

 

admitted had been slain by dumb luck as much as anything, he had stalked this deer

 

through the woods, lying in wait for long, chilly hours, until the timid creature had

 

worked its way into bow range. He had aimed carefully and brought the animal down

 

with one shot to the neck.

 

    "I have to agree," Sithas allowed as he finished his own piece. He, too, carved

 

another strip for eating. Then he cut several other juicy morsels, piling them on a flat

 

stone that served as a platter, before lifting the spit from the fire.

 

    He turned to the mouth of the shallow cave, where winter's darkness closed in. "Hey,

 

One-Tooth." he called. "Dinner time!"

 

    The giant's round face, split by his characteristic massive grin, appeared. One-Tooth

 

squinted before reaching his massive paw into the cave. His eyes lit up expectantly as

 

Sithas handed him the spit.

 


 

    "Careful­it's hot. Eat hearty, my friend " Sithas watched in amusement as the giant,

 

who had learned several words of the common tongue­"hot" being high on the

 

list­picked tentatively at the dripping meat.

 

    "Amazing how friendly he got, once we started feeding him," remarked Kith-Kanan.

 

    Indeed, once the hill giant had satisified himself that the elf wasn't going to slay him,

 

One-Tooth had become an enthusiastic helper. He had carried Kith down the narrow trail

 

from the ledge with all the care that a mother shows to her firstborn babe. The weight of

 

the injured elf hadn't seemed to slow the hill giant at all as Sithas led him back over the

 

steep pass and into this valley.

 

    The trip had been hard on Kith-Kanan, with each step jarring his injured leg, but he

 

had borne the punishment in silence. Indeed, he had been amazed and delighted at the

 

degree of control with which Sithas had seized the reins of their expedition.

 

    It had taken another day of searching, but finally the Speaker of the Stars had

 

discovered this shallow cave, its entrance partially screened by boulders and brush. Lying

 

in the overhang of a rock-walled riverbank, the cave itself was dry and spacious, albeit

 

not so spacious that the giant didn't have to remain outside. A small stream flowed within

 

a dozen feet of its mouth, assuring a plentiful supply of water.

 

    Now that they had reached this forested valley, Sithas had been able to rig a splint

 

for Kith-Kanan's wound.

 

    Nevertheless, it galled the leader of the Wildrunners, who had always handled his

 

own problems, to sit here in forced immobility while his brother, the Speaker of the Stars,

 

did the hunting, wood-gathering, and exploration, as well as the simpler jobs like

 

fire-tending and cooking.

 

    "This is truly amazing, Sithas," Kith said, indicating their rude shelter. "All the

 

comforts of home."

 


 

    The cave was shallow, perhaps twenty feet deep, with a ceiling that rose almost five

 

feet. Several dense clumps of pines and cedars grew within easy walking distance.

 

    "Comforts," Sithas agreed. "And even a palace guard!

 

    One-Tooth looked attentive, sensing that they were talking about him. He grinned

 

again, though the juice dribbling from his huge lips made the effect rather grotesque.

 

    "I have to admit, when you first told me that I was going to ride a giant, I thought the

 

cold had penetrated a little too far between your ears. But it worked!"

 

    They had set up a permanent camp here, agreeing tacitly between them that without

 

Arcuballis they were stuck in these mountains at least for the duration of the winter.

 

    Of course, they were haunted by awareness of the distant war. They had discussed

 

the nature of Sithelbec's defenses and concluded that the humans probably wouldn't be

 

able to launch an effective assault before summer. The stout walls ought to stand against

 

a long barrage of catapult attacks, and the hard earth would make tunneling operations

 

difficult and time-consuming. All they could do now was wait and hope.

 

    Sithas had gathered huge piles of pine boughs, which made fairly comfortable beds.

 

A fire built at the mouth of the cave sent its smoke billowing outward, but radiated its

 

impressive heat throughout their shelter. It made the cave into a very pleasant shelter,

 

and­with the presence of OneTooth­Sithas no longer feared for his brother's safety if he

 

had to be left alone. They both knew that soon enough, Sithas would have to set out on

 

foot to seek the griffons.

 

    Now they sat in silence, sharing a sense of well-being that was quite extraordinary,

 

given the circumstances. They had shelter and warmth, and now they even had extra

 

food! Lazily Sithas rose and checked his boots, careful not to singe their fur-covered

 

surface. He turned them slightly to warm a different part of their soggy surface.

 

Immediately steam began to arise from the soaked leather. He returned to his spot and

 


 

flopped down on his own cloak. He looked at his brother, and Kith-Kanan sensed that he

 

wanted to say something.

 

    "I think you've got enough food here to last you for a while," Sithas began. "I'm

 

going to search for the griffons."

 

    Kith nodded. "Despite my frustration with this­" he indicated his leg­"I think that's

 

the only thing to do."

 

    "We're near the heart of the range," Sithas continued, with a nod. "I figure that I can

 

head out in one direction, make a thorough search, and get back here within a week or ten

 

days. Even with the deep snow, I'll be able to make some progress. I'll stop back and

 

check on you and let you know what I've found. If it's nothing, I'll head out in a different

 

direction after that."

 

    "Sounds like a reasonable plan," Kith-Kanan agreed. "You'll take the scroll from

 

Vedvedsica, of course."

 

    Sithas had planned on this. "Yes. If I find the griffons, I'll try to get close enough to

 

use the spell."

 

    His brother looked at him steadily. Kith-Kanan's face showed an expression Sithas

 

was not accustomed to. The injured elf spoke. "Let me do something before you go. It

 

might help on your journey."

 

    "What?"

 

    Kith wouldn't explain, instead requesting that his brother bring him numerous supple

 

pine branches­still green, unlike the dried sticks they used for firewood. "The best ones

 

will be about as big around as your thumb and as long as possible."

 

    "Why? What do you want them for?"

 

    His brother acted mysterious, but Sithas willingly gathered the wood as soon as

 

daylight illuminated the valley. He spent the rest of the day gathering provisions for the

 


 

first leg of his trek, checking his own equipment, and stealing sidelong glances at his

 

brother. Kith-Kanan pretended to ignore him, instead whittling away at the pine branches,

 

weaving them into a tight pattern, even pulling threads from his woolen cloak to lash the

 

sticks together firmly.

 

    Toward sunset, he finally held the finished creations up for Sithas's inspection. He

 

had made two flat objects, oval in shape and nearly three feet long by a foot wide. The

 

sticks had been woven back and forth into a grid pattern.

 

    "Wonderful, Kith­simply amazing. I've never seen anything like them! But ... what

 

are they?"

 

    Kith-Kanan smiled smugly. "I learned about them during that winter I spent in the

 

Wildwood." For a moment, his smile tightened. He couldn't remember that time without

 

thinking of Anaya, of the bliss they had shared, and of the strange fate that had claimed

 

her. He blinked and went on. "They're called 'snowshoes'."

 

    Instantly Sithas saw the application. "I lash these to my boots, right?" he guessed.

 

"And then walk around, leaving footprints in the snow like a giant?"

 

    "You'll be surprised, I promise. They'll let you walk on top of the snow, even deep

 

powder."

 

    Indeed, Sithas wasted no time pulling on his boots and affixing the snowshoes to

 

them with several straps Kith had created by tearing a strip from one of their cloaks. He

 

tripped and sprawled headlong as he left the cave but quickly dusted himself off and

 

started into the woods on a test walk.

 

    Though the snowshoes felt somewhat awkward on his feet and forced him to walk

 

with an unusually wide-spread gait, he trotted and marched and plodded through the

 

woods for nearly an hour before returning to the cave.

 

    "Big feet!" One-Tooth greeted him outside, where he had left the giant.

 


 

    "Good feet!" Sithas replied, reaching up to give the giant a friendly clap on the arm.

 

    Kith awaited him expectantly.

 

    "They're fantastic! I can't believe the difference they make!"

 

    Kith was forced to admit, as he looked at his exhilarated brother, that Sithas no

 

longer seemed to need the assistance of anyone to cope with the rigors of the high

 

mountain winter.

 

    Determined to begin his quest well rested, Sithas tried to force himself to sleep. But

 

though he closed his eyes, his mind remained alert. It leaped from fear to hope to antici-

 

pation in a chaotic whirling dance that kept him wide awake as the hours drifted past. He

 

heard One-Tooth snoring at the cave mouth and saw Kith slumbering peacefully on the

 

other side of the fire.

 

    Finally, past midnight, Sithas slept. And when he did, his dreams were rich and

 

bright, full of blue skies swarming with griffons.

 

                                          *   *   *   *   *

 

    Yellow eyes gleamed in the woods, staring at the fading fire in the mouth of the

 

cave. The dire wolf crept closer, suppressing the urge to growl.

 

    The creature saw and smelled the hill giant slumbering at the mouth of the cave.

 

Though the savage canine was huge­the size of a pony, weighing more than three hun-

 

dred pounds­it feared to attack the larger hill giant.

 

    Too, the fire gave it pause. It had been burned once before, and remembered well the

 

terrifying touch of flame.

 

    Silently the wolf slinked back into the woods. When it was safely out of hearing of

 

the cave, it broke into a patient lope, easily moving atop the snow.

 


 

    But there was food in the cave. During the lean winter months, fresh meat was a rare

 

prize in this mountain fastness. The wolf would remember, and as it roamed the valleys,

 

it would meet others of its kind. Finally, when the pack had gathered, they would return.

 

                                          *   *   *   *   *

 

    Sithas's first expedition, to the west, lasted nearly four weeks. He pressed along

 

snow-swept ridges and through barren, rock-boundaried vales. He saw no life, save for

 

the occasional spoor of the hardy mountain sheep or the flying speck of an eagle soaring

 

in the distance.

 

    He traveled alone, having persuaded One-Tooth­only after a most intricate series of

 

contortions, pantomimes, threats, and pleas­to remain behind and guard Kith-Kanan.

 

Each day his solitude seemed to weigh heavier on him and become an oppressive,

 

gnawing despair.

 

    Winds tore at him every day, and as often as not, his world vanished behind a shroud

 

of blowing snow. The days of clear weather that had followed Kith's injury, he now

 

realized, had been a fortunate aberration in the typical weather patterns of the high

 

mountains. Winter closed in with a fury, shrouding him in snow and hail and ice.

 

    He pressed westward until at last he stood upon a high ridge and saw ground falling

 

to foothills and plains beyond. He would find no mountainous refuge of griffons in this

 

direction. The route he followed back to Kith-Kanan and One-Tooth diverged somewhat

 

from the trail he had taken westward, but this, too, proved fruitless.

 

    He found his brother and the hill giant in good spirits, with a plentiful supply of

 

meat. Though Kith could not yet bear his weight on his leg, the limb seemed to be

 

healing well. Given time, it would regain most of its prior strength.

 

    After a night of warmth and freshly cooked meat, Sithas began his search to the

 

north. This time his quest took even longer, for the Khalkist Range extended far along

 


 

this axis. After twenty-five days of exploring, however, he saw that he had left the

 

highest summits of the range behind. Though the trail northward was mountainous and

 

the land uninhabited, he could see from his lofty vantage that it lacked the towering,

 

craggy summits that had been so vividly described in Kith-Kanan's dream. It seemed safe

 

to conclude that the valley of the griffons did not lie farther north.

 

    His return to camp took another ten days and carried him through more lofty, but

 

equally barren, country. The only significant finds he made were several herds of deer.

 

He had stumbled across the creatures by accident and watched them race away, plunging

 

through the deep snow. It was with a sensation approaching abject hopelessness that he

 

plodded over the last ridge and found the camp nestled in its cave and remaining very

 

much as he had left it.

 

    One-Tooth was eager to greet him, and Kith-Kanan looked stronger and healthier,

 

though his leg was still awkwardly splinted. His brother was working on an intricately

 

carved crutch, but as yet he hadn't tried walking with it.

 

    By now the food supply had begun to run short, so Sithas remained for several days,

 

long enough to stalk and slay a plump doe. The deer's carcass yielded more meat than

 

either of his previous kills, and when he returned to camp with the doe, he was surprised

 

to find Kith waiting at the cave mouth­standing and waiting.

 

    "Kith! Your leg!" he asked, dropping the deer and stepping quickly to his brother's

 

side.

 

    "Hurts like all the fires of the Abyss," Kith grunted, but his teeth, though clenched,

 

forced his mouth into a tight smile. "Still, it can hold me up, with the help of my crutch."

 

    "Call you Three-Legs now," observed One-Tooth dryly.

 

    "Fair enough," Kith agreed, still gritting his teeth.

 


 

        "I think this calls for a celebration. How about some melted snow and venison?"

 

proposed Sithas.

 

        "Perfect," Kith-Kanan agreed.

 

        One-Tooth drooled happily, sharing the brothers' elation. The trio enjoyed an

 

evening of feasting. The giant was the first to tire, and soon he was snoring noisily in his

 

accustomed position outside the mouth of the cave.

 

        "Are you going back out?" Kith asked quietly after long moments of contented

 

silence.

 

        "I have to," Sithas replied. They both knew that there was no other alternative.

 

        "This is the last chance," Kith-Kanan observed. "We've come up from the south, and

 

now you've looked to the north and the west. If the valley doesn't lie somewhere to the

 

east, we'll have to face the fact that this whole adventure might have been a costly pipe

 

dream."

 

        "I'm not prepared to give up yet!" Sithas said, more sharply than he intended.

 

Truthfully, the same suspicions had lurked in his own subconscious for many days. What

 

if he found no sign of the griffons? What if they had to march back to Silvanost on foot, a

 

journey that would take months and couldn't begin until snowmelt in late spring? And

 

what if they returned, after all this time, empty handed?

 

        So it was that Sithas began his eastward search with a taut determination. He pushed

 

himself harder than ever before, going to reckless lengths to scale sheer passes and tra-

 

verse lofty, precipitous ridges. The mountains here were the most rugged of any in the

 

range, and any number of times they came very close to claiming the life of the intrepid

 

elf.

 

        Every day Sithas witnessed thundering avalanches. He learned to recognize the

 

overhanging crests, the steep and snow-blanketed heights that gave birth to these

 


 

crushing snowslides. He identified places where water flowed beneath the snow, gaining

 

drinking water when he needed it but avoiding a potential plunge through the ice that, by

 

soaking him in these woodless heights, would amount to a sentence of death by freezing.

 

    He slept on high ridges, with rocks for his pillow and bed. He excavated snow caves

 

when he could and found that the warmth of these greatly improved his chances of

 

surviving the long, dark nights. But once again he found nothing that would indicate the

 

presence of griffons­indeed, of any living creatures­among these towering crags.

 

    He pressed for two full weeks through the barren vales, climbing rock-studded

 

slopes, dodging avalanches, and searching the skies and the ridges for some sign of his

 

quarry. He pressed forward each day before dawn and searched throughout the hours of

 

daylight until darkness all but blinded him to any spoor that wasn't directly in front of his

 

nose. Then he slept fitfully, anxious for the coming of daylight so that he could resume

 

his search.

 

    However, he was finally forced to admit defeat and turned back toward the brothers'

 

camp. A bleak feeling of despair came over him as he made camp on a high ridge. It was

 

as he rearranged some rocks to form his sleeping place that Sithas saw the tracks: like a

 

cat's, only far bigger, larger than his own hand with the fingers fully outstretched. The

 

rear, feline feet he identified with certainty, and now the nature of the padded forefeet

 

became clear, too. They might have been made by an incredibly huge eagle, but Sithas

 

knew this was not the case. The prints had been made by the great taloned griffon.

 

                                          *   *   *   *   *

 

    Kith-Kanan squirmed restlessly on his pine-branch bed. The once-soft branches had

 

been matted into a hard and lumpy mat by more than two months of steady use, and no

 

longer did they provide a pleasant cushion for his body. As he had often done

 


 

before­indeed, as he did a hundred or a thousand times each day­he cursed the injury that

 

kept him hobbled to this shelter like an invalid.

 

    He noticed another sound that disturbed his slumber­a rumble like a leaky bellows in

 

a steel-smelting plant. The noise reverberated throughout the cave.

 

    "Hey, One-Tooth!" Kith snapped. "Wake up!"

 

    Abruptly the sound ceased with a snuffling gurgle, and the giant peered sleepily into

 

the cave.

 

    "Huh?" demanded the monstrous humanoid. "What Three-Legs want now?"

 

    "Stop snoring! I can't sleep with all the racket!"

 

    "Huh?" One-Tooth squinted at him. "Not snoring!"

 

    "Never mind. Sorry I woke you." Smiling to himself, the wounded elf shifted his

 

position on the rude mattress and slowly boosted himself to his feet.

 

    "Nice fire." The giant moved closer to the pile of coals. "Better than village

 

firehole."

 

    "Where is your village?" asked Kith curiously. The giant had mentioned his small

 

community before.

 

    "In mountains, close to tree lands."

 

    This didn't tell Kith much, except that it was at a lower altitude than the valley they

 

now inhabited, a fact that was just as well, considering his brother's ongoing exploration

 

of the highlands.

 

    "Sleep some more," grunted the giant, stretching and yawning. His mouth gaped, and

 

the solitary tusk protruded until One-Tooth smacked his lips and closed his eyes.

 

    The giant had made remarkable progress in learning the elven tongue. He was no

 

scintillating conversationalist, of course, but he could communicate with Kith-Kanan on a

 

remarkable number of day-to-day topics.

 


 

    "Sleep well, friend," remarked Kith softly. He looked at the slumbering giant with

 

genuine affection, grateful that the fellow had been here during these months of solitude.

 

    Looking outward, he noticed the pale blue of the dawn sky looming behind

 

One-Tooth's recumbent form.

 

    Damn this leg! Why did he have to suffer an injury now, just when his skills were

 

most needed, when the entire future of the war and of his nation were at stake?

 

    He had regained some limited mobility. He could totter, albeit painfully, around the

 

mouth of the cave, getting water for himself and exercising his limbs. Today, he resolved,

 

he would press far enough to get a few more pine branches for his crude and increasingly

 

uncomfortable bed.

 

    But that was nothing compared to the epic quest undertaken by his brother! Even as

 

Kith thought about making the cave a little more cozy, his brother was negotiating high

 

mountain ridges and steep, snow-filled valleys, making his camp wherever the sunset

 

found him, pressing forward each day to new vistas.

 

    More than once, Kith had brooded on the fact that Sithas faced great danger in these

 

mountains. Indeed, he could be killed by a fall, or an avalanche, or a band of wolves or

 

giants­by any of countless threats­and Kith-Kanan wouldn't even know about it until

 

much time had passed and he failed to return.

 

    Growling to himself, Kith limped to the cave mouth and looked over the serene

 

valley. Instead of inspiring mountain scenery, however, all he saw were steep, gray

 

prison walls, walls that seemed likely to hold him here forever.

 

    What was his brother doing now? How fared the search for the griffons?

 

    He limped out into the clear, still air. The sun touched the tips of the peaks around

 

him, yet it would be hours before it reached the camp on the valley floor.

 


 

        Grimacing with pain, Kith pressed forward. One-Tooth's forays for wood and water

 

had packed down the snow for a large area around their cave, and the elf crossed the

 

smooth surface with little difficulty.

 

        He reached the edge of the packed snow, stepping into the spring mush and sinking

 

to his knee. He took another step, and another, wincing at the effort it took to move his

 

leg.

 

        Then he froze, motionless, his eyes riveted to the snow before him. His hand reached

 

for a sword that he was not wearing.

 

        The tracks were clear in the soft snow. They must have been made the night before.

 

A pack of huge wolves, perhaps a dozen or more, had run past the cave in the darkness.

 

Luckily he could see no sign of them now as he carefully backed toward the cave.

 

        He remembered the fire they had built the night before and imagined the wolves

 

sidling past, fearful of the flames. Yet he knew, as he studied the silent woods, that

 

sooner or later they would return.

 


 

                                             17

 

                                       The Next Day

 

 

 

 

     Sithas reached upward, pulling himself another several inches closer to his goal.

 

Sweat beaded upon his forehead, fatigue numbed his arms and legs, and a dizzying

 

expanse of space yawned below him. All of these factors he ignored in his grim

 

determination to reach the crest of the ridge.

 

     The rocky barrier before him loomed high, with sheer sides studded with cracked

 

and jagged outcrops of granite. A month ago, he reflected as he paused to gasp for breath,

 

he would have called the climb impossible. Now it represented merely another obstacle,

 

one that he would treat with respect yet was confident that he would successfully

 

overcome.

 

     High hopes surged in his heart, convincing him to keep on climbing. This had to be

 

the place! The night before, those tracks on the ledge had seemed so clear, such irrefuta-

 

ble proof that the griffons lived somewhere nearby. Now doubts assailed him. Perhaps his

 

mind played tricks on him, and this torturous climb was simply another exercise in

 

futility.

 

     Beyond this steep-walled ridge, he knew, lay a stretch of the Khalkist Mountains that

 

he had not yet explored. The region sprawled, a chaos of ridges, glaciers, and valleys. Fi-

 

nally he pulled himself up over the rocky summit of the divide. He looked into the deep

 

valley beyond, squinting against the bright sunlight. He no longer wore his scarf pro-

 

tectively across his face. Four months of exposure to wind, snow, and sun had given his

 

skin the consistency and toughness of leather.

 


 

    No movement greeted his eyes, no sign of life in the wide and deep vale. Yet before

 

him­and far, far below­he saw a wide expanse of dark green forest. Amidst these trees,

 

he glimpsed a sparkling reflection that he knew must be a pond or small lake, and unlike

 

any other body of water he had seen for the last two months, this one was unfrozen!

 

    He scrambled over the top of the ridge, only to be confronted by a precipitous

 

descent beyond. Undismayed, he followed the knifelike crest, until at last he found a

 

narrow ravine that led downward at an angle. Quickly, almost recklessly, Sithas slid

 

down the narrow chute. Always he kept his eyes on the heavens, searching for any sign of

 

the magnificent half-lion, half-eagle beasts that he sought.

 

    Would he be able to tame them? He thought of the scroll he had carried during these

 

weeks of searching. When he paused to rest, he removed it and examined its ivory tube.

 

Uncorking the top, he checked to see that the parchment was still curled, well protected,

 

within. From somewhere, a nagging doubt troubled him, and for the first time, he won-

 

dered if the enchantment would work. How could mere words, read from such a scroll,

 

have an effect on creatures as proud and free as the griffons? He could only hope that

 

Vedvedsica had spoken the truth.

 

    The ravine provided him good cover and a relatively easy descent that carried him

 

steadily downward for thousands of feet. He moved carefully, taking precautions that his

 

footsteps didn't trigger any slide of loose rock. And though he saw no sign of his quarry,

 

he wanted to make every effort to ensure that it was he who discovered them, rather than

 

the other way around.

 

    It took Sithas several hours to make the long, tedious descent. Steep walls climbed to

 

his right and left, sometimes so close together that he could reach out his hands and touch

 

each side of the ravine simultaneously. Once he came to a sharp drop-off, some twelve

 

feet straight down. Turning to face the mountain, he lowered himself over the precipice,

 


 

groping with his feet until he found a secure hold. Very carefully, he braced himself and

 

sought lower grips for his hands. In this painstaking fashion, he negotiated the cliff.

 

    The floor of the passage wound back and forth like a twisting corridor, and

 

sometimes Sithas could see no more than a dozen feet in front of him. At such times, he

 

moved with extra caution, peering around the bend before proceeding ahead. Thus it was

 

that he came upon the nest.

 

    At first he thought it to be an eagle's eyrie. A huge circle of twigs, sticks, and

 

branches rested on a slight shoulder of the ravine. Steep cliffs dropped away below it. A

 

hollow in the middle of the nest had obviously been smoothed out, creating a deep and

 

sheltering lair that was nearly six feet across. Three small feathered creatures moved

 

there, immediately turning to him with gaping beaks and sharp, demanding squawks.

 

    The animals rose, spreading their wings and bleating with increased urgency. Their

 

feathers, Sithas saw, were straggly and thin; they looked incapable of flight. Their actions

 

seemed like those of fledglings, yet already the young griffons were the size of large

 

hawks.

 

    Sithas peeked carefully over the lip of a boulder. The tiny griffons, he saw, had

 

collected themselves into a bundle of feathers and fur, talons and beaks. They hissed and

 

spat, the feathers along the napes of their eagle necks bristling. At the same time, feline

 

tails lashed back and forth in excitement and tension.

 

    For several moments, the elf dared not draw a breath or even open his mouth. So

 

powerful was the sense of triumph sweeping over him that he had to resist the temptation

 

to shout his delight aloud.

 

    He forced himself to keep still, hiding in the shadow of the huge rock, trying to

 

restrain the pounding of his heart.

 

    He had found the griffons! They lived!

 


 

     Of course, these nestlings were not the proud creatures he sought, but the nearness of

 

the flock was no longer a matter of doubt. It remained only a matter of time before he

 

would discover the full-grown creatures. How many were there? When would they

 

return? He watched and waited.

 

     For perhaps half an hour, he remained immobile. He searched the skies above, even

 

as he shrank against the wall of the ravine and tried to conceal himself from overhead