THE QUALINESTI

 

 

 

                                                    ©2001 Wizards of the Coast, Inc.

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Cover art by Brom

First Printing: November 1991

Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 90-71493

 

 

9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

 

 

ISBN: 1-56076-114-8

620-08339

 

 

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                                          Prologue

 

 

 

                                       The Cornerstone

 

 

 

 

    Ten thousand footsteps rattled in the quiet mountain valley. It was early morning,

 

just before sunrise, and mist still clung to the low places between the slopes. Five

 

thousand elves, dwarves, and humans were assembling in this remote mountain pass.

 

Many were warriors, resplendent in burnished armor and flowing capes, who had battled

 

in the long years of the Kinslayer Wars, elf against man, man against dwarf, and elf

 

against elf. So protracted had been the time of bloodshed that sons and daughters of

 

warriors had grown up to bear arms alongside their parents.

 

    This was an army of peace, gathered in the Kharolis Mountains. They had come

 

from the kingdom of Thorbardin and the realm of Qualinesti to seal a bargain and to erect

 

a fortress. Pax Tharkas, it was to be called; the name had already been agreed upon. In

 

the elven tongue, it meant "Citadel of Peace."

 

    From the southern end of the pass came the delegation of dwarves, led by their new

 

king, Glenforth Sparkstriker. It was he who had led the doughty dwarven armies against

 

the humans of Ergoth, checking their advance in the high mountain passes around

 

Thorbardin. The Battle of Raven's Hook had cost Prince Glenforth an eye, but it had also

 

put an end to the Emperor of Ergoth's plan to subjugate the dwarves. Now, with his eye

 

patch of beaten gold and his magnificent coal-black beard rippling across his mailed

 

chest, King Glenforth led his people in an even greater endeavor.

 

    Behind the king came the most powerful thanes, those of Glenforth's own Clan

 

Hylar. Richly dressed in crimson velvet and glittering with all the jewels they could

 

possibly wear, the Hylar each bore a ceremonial hammer on his shoulder. Close behind

 


 

the Hylar came the Daewar, for this great occasion wearing midnight blue tunics, yellow

 

sashes, and great wide-brimmed hats of brown leather. The Daewar carried gilded rock

 

chisels, as long as each dwarf was tall.

 

     The thanes of the other clans, the Klar and the Neidar, less richly dressed but still

 

proud, followed in the wake of their more powerful cousins. The Klar carried ceremonial

 

trowels, and the Neidar picks.

 

     Where the valley floor began to slope upward, King Glenforth raised a hand. The

 

councilors and thanes halted and waited in respectful silence.

 

     The delegation from Qualinesti approached the dwarves from the north end of the

 

valley. Most of the delegation were formerly of Silvanesti, and had the chiseled features

 

and light coloring of that ancient elven race. But sharp eyes could see the mingled

 

characteristics of the Kagonesti, the elves of the forest, and even the broad features of

 

humans. The new elven kingdom of Qualinesti had existed for just eighty years, and so

 

far had proven the truth of its founder's dream: that elves and men and dwarves could live

 

together in harmony, peace, and justice.

 

     The founder himself led his nobles and notables to meet the Thorbardin thanes. In

 

middle age now, as elves reckon time, the Speaker of the Sun was by far the most

 

commanding figure in the valley. Age and toil had sent a few streaks of silver through his

 

white-blond hair, but the clear, noble features of the House of Silvanos were unaltered by

 

all the years of strife.

 

     Kith-Kanan, the Speaker of the Sun, the founder of the nation of Qualinesti, stopped

 

his entourage twenty paces or so from the dwarves. Alone, he went forward to meet King

 

Glenforth of Thorbardin.

 

     The elf met the dwarf near a large boulder that rose up in the center of the path.

 

Glenforth extended his thick, powerful arms.

 


 

    "Royal brother!" he said heartily. "I rejoice to see you!"

 

    "And I you, Thane of Thanes!"

 

    Tall elf and squat dwarf clasped hands about each other's forearms. "This is a great

 

day for our nations," Kith-Kanan said, stepping back. "For all of Krynn."

 

    "There were many times I didn't think I would live to see this day," Glenforth said

 

frankly.

 

    "I, too, have wondered if this new kingdom of ours could have been born without the

 

blood and suffering of the war. My late wife used to say that all things are born that

 

way­with blood and pain." Kith-Kanan nodded slowly, thinking of days gone by. "But

 

we're here now, that's the important thing," he added, smiling.

 

    "Praise the gods," said the dwarf sincerely.

 

    Kith-Kanan turned back the folds of his emerald green cape to free his left hand.

 

Looking to his waiting entourage, he smiled and lifted his arm, gesturing two figures

 

forward. Glenforth squinted his good eye and saw that the two were children, a

 

golden-haired boy and a brown-haired girl.

 

    "King Glenforth, may I present my son, Prince Ulvian, and my daughter, Princess

 

Verhanna," Kith-Kanan said, pushing the children forward. Ulvian dragged his feet and

 

hung back from the unfamiliar dwarf. Verhanna, however, approached the king and

 

bowed deeply to him.

 

    "You do me honor," Glenforth said, a smile flashing amidst his black beard.

 

    "No, sire. I am the honored one," Verhanna replied, her high voice ringing clear in

 

the mountain air. Her large, dark brown eyes appraised the dwarf frankly, with no sign of

 

fear. "I've heard the bards sing of your greatness in battle. Now that I've met you, I see

 

the truth of their songs."

 


 

    "Memories of battle are a poor comfort when one grows old and tired. I would trade

 

all of mine for a child like you," he said gallantly. Verhanna flushed at this praise,

 

stammered a thank-you, and withdrew to her father's side.

 

    "Go on." Kith-Kanan said to his son. "Make your greetings to King Glenforth."

 

    Prince Ulvian took a small step forward and bowed with a quick, bobbing motion.

 

"Greetings, Great King," he said, running his words together in his haste to get them out.

 

"I'm honored to meet you."

 

    His duty done, Ulvian stepped back and hovered just behind his father.

 

    With a fond pat on Verhanna's cheek, Kith-Kanan sent his children back to the ranks

 

of nobles. Turning once more to the dwarf, he said softly, "Excuse my son. He hasn't

 

been the same since his mother died. My daughter never really knew her mother; it's been

 

easier for her."

 

    Glenforth nodded politely. Practically everyone from Hylo to Silvanost knew the tale

 

of Kith-Kanan and his human wife, Suzine. She had died many years before, in one of the

 

last battles of the Kinslayer War. Her children matured at a much slower rate than human

 

children, but not as slowly as full-blooded elven offspring. In human terms, both were

 

still quite young.

 

    The two monarchs exchanged more polite trivialities before returning to the reason

 

for their meeting this morning. At a sign from Glenforth, an elderly dwarf came forward

 

carrying an object covered by a red velvet cloth. It was obviously very heavy, and he held

 

it firmly in both hands. Glenforth took the parcel, holding it easily. The elderly dwarf

 

bowed to his king and was introduced as Chancellor Gendrin Dunbarth, senior thane of

 

the Hylar clan.

 

    "My lord," Kith-Kanan said, scrutinizing the chancellor, "I once knew a wise dwarf

 

called Dunbarth of Dunbarth. Are you by chance related to him?"

 


 

    Gendrin mopped his brow with a coarse-looking handkerchief. "Yes, Highness.

 

Dunbarth of Dunbarth, ambassador to the court of Silvanesti, was my father," replied the

 

dwarf, puffing from exertion.

 

    Kith-Kanan smiled. "I met him in Silvanost many years ago and remember him with

 

esteem. He was an honorable fellow."

 

    Glenforth cleared his throat. Kith-Kanan returned his attention to the king. In loud,

 

ringing tones, audible to the assembled thanes and Qualinesti, the dwarf king declared,

 

"Great Speaker, on behalf of all the dwarves of Thorbardin, I present you with this

 

special tool. I know you will wield it justly, for the benefit of your people and mine."

 

    He passed the velvet-wrapped burden to Kith-Kanan. The Speaker of the Sun

 

whisked the cover away, revealing a large iron hammer, wrought in traditional dwarven

 

style but made larger to fit the hands of an elf. The octagonal iron handle was banded

 

with silver, and the sides of the massive flat hammerhead were gilded.

 

    "It is called Sunderer," Glenforth explained. "Our priests of Reorx forged it in a slow

 

fire, and quenched it in dragon's blood to give it a worthy temper."

 

    "It is magnificent," Kith-Kanan said in awed tones. He turned the great hammer in

 

his hands. "This is the tool of a demigod, not a mortal such as I."

 

    "Well, as long as it's good enough," the dwarf king said with a wry smile. He waved

 

a beringed hand, and another Hylar thane came to him. This dwarf bore one of the long

 

iron chisels banded with silver. He gave it to his king, then he and Gendrin Dunbarth

 

withdrew.

 

    Kith-Kanan and Glenforth walked in matched step to the boulder that lay in the

 

center of the pass. As they proceeded with appropriate dignity, Kith-Kanan said softly,

 

"Will you make the announcement, or shall I?"

 

    "This was your idea." Glenforth replied in a low voice. "You do it."

 


 

    "It's a joint project, Your Highness."

 

    "Yes, but I'm no speechifier," said the dwarf. They stood by the boulder. "Besides,

 

everyone knows elves are better talkers than dwarves."

 

    "First I've heard of it," Kith-Kanan muttered.

 

    The Speaker of the Sun turned to face the delegations. King Glenforth stood

 

resolutely beside him, his hands resting on the long chisel as a warrior rests on his sword

 

pommel.

 

    Kith-Kanan listened for a moment to the stillness of the valley. The mist was

 

vanishing, burned off by the rising sun. A flock of swifts darted and wheeled overhead.

 

Somewhere in the distance, a dove made its mournful call.

 

    "We have come here today," he began, "to erect a fortress. Not a stronghold for war,

 

for we have too long followed that path. This fortress, which we of Qualinesti and our

 

friends of Thorbardin shall build and occupy together, shall be a place of peace, a place

 

where people of all races can seek haven and find protection and rest."

 

    The Speaker paused as the first direct rays of the sun lanced over the mountain peaks

 

into the valley. He was facing east, and the sunbeams warmed his face. A surge of

 

resolution, of the rightness of what they were beginning here today, passed through

 

Kith-Kanan.

 

    "This boulder will be the cornerstone of Pax Tharkas, the Citadel of Peace. King

 

Glenforth and I will carve it out ourselves, as a symbol of the cooperation and friendship

 

between our countries."

 

    He turned to the rock and set the great hammer Sunderer on his shoulder. Glenforth

 

butted the chisel against the rock and steadied it with both of his thick, powerful hands.

 

    "Swing true, Speaker," he said, half-jesting.

 


 

    Kith-Kanan raised the hammer. Ulvian and Verhanna, standing with the Qualinesti

 

nobles, stepped forward to get a better view of their father's work.

 

    Sunderer came down on the chisel. A torrent of sparks fell across the boulder,

 

spraying the dwarf king with fire. Glenforth laughed and urged Kith-Kanan to strike

 

again. The third blow Kith-Kanan delivered was a mighty stroke indeed. It echoed

 

through the valley like a roll of thunder and was quickly followed by the dry crack of

 

cleaving rock. An entire side of the boulder fell away, leaving the rock with a face clean

 

and straight. Cheers erupted from the onlookers.

 

    Sweating in the cool mountain air, Kith-Kanan said to Glenforth, "Your hammer

 

strikes nothing but true blows, Thane of Thanes."

 

    "Your hammer, Great Speaker, like all tools, strikes only as its wielder aims," replied

 

the dwarf thoughtfully. He blew on his hands and rubbed them together.

 

    "What do you think of that, Ullie?" Kith-Kanan called, looking to his son. The boy

 

had his head down, a hand pressed to his right cheek. The Speaker frowned. "What's

 

wrong, son?"

 

    Ulvian looked up slowly to meet his father's eyes. The boy's face showed pain. When

 

he took his hands away, a small cut could be seen on his cheek. Gazing at the blood

 

staining his fingers, Ulvian said softly, "I bleed."

 

    "A rock chip hit you," Verhanna said matter-of-factly. "Some landed on me, too."

 

She shook the folds of her boyish clothes and bits of stone and grit fell out.

 

    Prince Ulvian's face twisted in anger. "I bleed!" he cried. He backed away from his

 

father and bumped into a wall of courtiers and nobles. They parted for him, and the

 

panicked prince fled into the crowd.

 

    "Ulvian, come back!" Kith-Kanan shouted. The boy did not heed him.

 


 

    "Want me to catch him?" Verhanna offered, sure in the knowledge that she was

 

swifter than her brother.

 

    "No, child. Stay here."

 

    Kith-Kanan summoned his castellan, the elf in charge of his household, Tamanier

 

Ambrodel. The elderly, gray-haired elf, dressed in a gray doublet and mauve cape,

 

stepped out of the crowd.

 

    "Find my son, Tam, and take him to a healer if he needs one," said the Speaker.

 

    Tamanier bowed. "Yes, Highness."

 

    Kith-Kanan watched his castellan disappear into the crowd. Hefting the great

 

hammer, he said, "Ullie will be all right." Glenforth cleared his throat and pretended to be

 

studying the boulder before him.

 

    Verhanna and the rest of the crowd stood back as the Speaker of the Sun and the

 

King of Thorbardin resumed their places at the stone. The valley rang with the sound of

 

iron on rock.

 

    In short order, the stone became a cube, square on four sides and rough on top. King

 

Glenforth wasn't tall enough to bring the chisel to bear on the top of the boulder, so his

 

thanes formed themselves into a living stair, that he might climb onto the rock. It was

 

quite a sight, all the richly bedecked dwarves of Clans Hylar and Daewar, their thick

 

arms locked together, bent over and braced against the cornerstone. Glenforth set aside

 

the chisel and climbed up their backs. Once he was atop the stone, the thanes passed the

 

chisel to him.

 

    "Well, Great Speaker," said the dwarf from his lofty perch, "now I am higher than

 

you! Will your councilors elevate you as mine did me?"

 


 

    Kith-Kanan tossed the hammer to the top of the boulder, then faced his people. "You

 

heard the Thane of Thanes! Will the nobles of Qualinesti stoop so that their Speaker can

 

rise to the occasion?"

 

    Half a hundred elves and men surged to the rock, ready to aid Kith-Kanan. Laughing,

 

the Speaker ordered them back, then chose three elves and three humans. They looped

 

their arms around each others' waists and bent to the rock. As the others cheered,

 

Kith-Kanan climbed nimbly atop the boulder. He and Glenforth stood side by side, and

 

the cheering continued. Finally Kith-Kanan raised his hands and waved for silence.

 

    "My good and loyal friends!" he cried. "Many times in the recent past I have

 

wondered if our coming to this new land was wise. Many times I have asked myself,

 

should I have stayed in Silvanost? Should I have fought to establish in our old homeland

 

the ideals we now share?"

 

    There were shouts of "No! No!" from the crowd.

 

    "And now­" Kith-Kanan again waved for quiet. "And now, I see us here today­men,

 

elves, and dwarves­working together where once we fought, and I know I could have

 

done nothing less than lead you to this new land, to make this new nation. You have all

 

suffered and struggled and bled for Qualinesti. So have I. We did not fight to make a

 

country like my father's, where tradition and age count for more than truth and justice. I

 

do not want to rule for centuries and see all my ideals grow hoary with time. Therefore,

 

on this rock, with this great hammer, Sunderer, in my hand, I will make you this pledge:

 

The day this fortress is finished, I shall abdicate in favor of my successor."

 

    A loud murmur of surprise spread through the assembly. The dwarves stroked their

 

beards and looked concerned. Some of the Qualinesti elves cried out that Kith-Kanan

 

should rule for life.

 


 

    "No! Listen to me!" Kith-Kanan shouted. "This is what we fought for! The ruler and

 

the ruled must be bound by a solemn pact that neither shall suffer the other unwanted.

 

Once this fortress of peace is complete, let a younger, fresher mind lead Qualinesti

 

forward to greater happiness and glory."

 

    He nodded to King Glenforth. The dwarf placed the chisel against the surface of the

 

rock. The gilded head of Sunderer flashed in the sun. Sparks flew as it smote Glenforth's

 

chisel, and the blow Kith-Kanan struck reverberated down through the boulder into the

 

stony ground of Krynn. Every elf, every dwarf, every human present felt the mighty

 

stroke.

 


 

                                             1

 

                                      Shadow Talk

 

 

 

 

    When Kith-Kanan led his followers west to found a new elven nation in the ancient

 

woodland known first as Mithranhana, he had no goal, no plan in mind except that the

 

mistakes of Silvanesti would not be repeated. By this he meant not only the autocratic,

 

inflexible government of the first elven nation, but also the baroque, ornamental layout of

 

the city of Silvanost itself.

 

    The site of the first city in the new nation was chosen not by conscious thought, but

 

by a lost deer. Kith-Kanan and his closest lieutenants were riding ahead of their column

 

of settlers one afternoon when they spied a magnificent hart with ice-blue antlers and

 

gray hide. Thinking the beast would make a fine trophy, as well as provide much needed

 

meat, Kith-Kanan and his lieutenants gave chase. The hart bounded away with great

 

leaps, and the elves on horseback were hard pressed to keep up. The deer led them farther

 

and farther from their line of march, down a steep ravine. An arrow nocked, Kith-Kanan

 

was about to try a desperate on-the-fly shot when the ravine ended at the precipitous edge

 

of a river gorge. Kith-Kanan pulled his horse up sharply and gave a yell of surprise. The

 

deer leapt straight off the cliff!

 

    Astonished, the elves dismounted, hurried to the rim of the gorge, and looked down.

 

There was no sign of the hart; no carcass lay smashed on the riverbank below.

 

Kith-Kanan then knew the animal had been a magical one, but why had it deliberately

 

crossed their path? Why had it brought them here?

 

    The answer soon became obvious as the elves surveyed their surroundings. Across

 

the wide gorge was a beautiful plateau, lightly wooded with hardwoods and conifers.

 


 

After only a moment's reflection, Kith-Kanan knew this was to be the site of their new

 

city, the capital of their new nation.

 

    The plateau was bounded on the north, east, and west by two rivers, which

 

converged at the north end of the plateau and became a tributary of the White Rage

 

River. These two streams ran through deep, wide gorges. The south side of the roughly

 

triangular escarpment was a labyrinth of steep, rocky ravines, and the land rose

 

eventually to form the mountains of Thorbardin. From a natural point of view, the place

 

was ideal, offering beauty and natural defenses. And as for the gray hart­well, the Bard

 

King, Astarin, the god most revered by elves, is sometimes known as the Wandering

 

Hart.

 

    So the city of Qualinost was born. For a time, there was much sentiment to name the

 

town after Kith-Kanan, as Silvanost had been named after the great Silvanos, august

 

founder of the first elven nation. The Speaker of the Sun would not hear of it.

 

    "This city is not to be a monument to me," he told his well-intentioned followers,

 

"but a place for all people of good heart."

 

    In the end, it was Kith-Kanan's friend and war companion, Anakardain, who named

 

the city. That middle-aged warrior, who had fought beside Kith at the Battle of Sithelbec,

 

remarked one night over dinner that the noblest person he'd ever heard of was Quinara,

 

wife of Silvanos. The palace in Silvanost was called the Quinari, after her.

 

    "You're right," Kith-Kanan declared. Though Quinara had died before he was born,

 

Kith-Kanan knew well the stories of his grandmother's virtuous life. Thereafter, the

 

budding city in the trees was known as Qualinost, which in Old Elven means "In Memory

 

of Quinara."

 

    The ranks of the immigrants were swelled daily by arrivals from Silvanesti. A vast

 

camp grew up along the bank of the east river as more permanent dwellings sprouted

 


 

among the evergreens on the plateau. The buildings of Qualinost, formed from the rose

 

quartz that occurred naturally there, were domelike or conical in shape, reaching like

 

leafless trees to the heavens.

 

    Greatest effort was reserved for the Tower of the Sun, a tremendous golden spire that

 

was to be the seat of the Speaker of the Sun's reign. In general design, it resembled

 

Silvanost's Tower of the Stars, but in place of cold, white marble, this tower was covered

 

with burnished gold. The metal reflected the warm, bright rays of the sun. The shape of

 

the Tower of the Sun was the only likeness Qualinost bore to the old elven capital; when

 

it was done, and Kith-Kanan had been formally installed as Speaker of the Sun, then the

 

break between East and West was complete.

 

                                          *   *   *   *   *

 

    One spring morning in the two hundred and thirtieth year of the reign of Kith-Kanan,

 

the calm of Qualinost was shattered by the tramping of massed hobnailed boots. City folk

 

gathered outside their rose-hued homes, in the shade of the wide, spreading trees, and

 

watched as nearly the entire Guard of the Sun, the army of Qualinesti, marched across the

 

high-arched bridges that spanned the four corners of the city. Unlike human fortified

 

towns, Qualinost had no walls; instead, four freestanding spans of wrought iron and

 

bronze arched from tower keep to tower keep, enclosing the city in walls of air. The

 

bridges were designed to aid in the protection of the city, yet not interfere with the free

 

passage of traders and townsfolk. Not unimportantly, they were breathtakingly beautiful,

 

as delicate as cobwebs but obviously strong enough to hold the troops that even now

 

marched across them. The bronze of the cantilevered spans flashed fire in the sunlight,

 

and at night, the black iron was silvered by the white moon, Solinari. The four keeps had

 

been named by Kith-Kanan as Arcuballis, Sithel, Mackeli, and Suzine Towers.

 


 

    That morning, the people stood with their faces turned upward as the companies of

 

guards left the tower keeps and converged on Suzine Tower, at the southeast comer of the

 

city. The elves had been at peace for over two centuries, and no such concentration of

 

troops had been observed in all that time. Once the two thousand soldiers of the guard

 

had gathered at the keep, quiet returned once more to the city. Though the curious

 

Qualinesti watched for long minutes, nothing else seemed to be happening. The arched

 

bridges were again empty. The people, their faith in their leaders and their troops strong,

 

shrugged their shoulders and went back to their daily routines.

 

    There were too many warriors to fit inside Suzine Tower, so many stood on the

 

lower intersecting ends of the bridges. Rumors circulated through the ranks. What was

 

happening? Why had they been summoned? The old enemy, Ergoth, had been quiet a

 

long time. Tension existed with Silvanesti, and the frightening idea formed that the

 

Speaker's twin brother, Sithas, Speaker of the Stars, was attacking from the east. This

 

grim story gained momentum as it spread.

 

    In ignorance, the troops waited as the sun passed its zenith and began its descent.

 

When at last the shadow of the Tower of the Sun reached out and touched the eastern

 

bridge, the keep's doors opened and Kith-Kanan emerged, along with a sizable contingent

 

from the Thalas-Enthia, the Qualinesti senate.

 

    The warriors clasped their hands to their armored chests and cried, "Hail, Great

 

Speaker! Hail, Speaker of the Sun!" Kith-Kanan acknowledged their salutes, and the

 

soldiers fell silent. The Speaker of the Sun looked tired and troubled. His mane of blond

 

hair, heavily shot through with silver, was pulled back in a crude queue, and his sky-blue

 

robes were wrinkled and dusty.

 

    "Guards of the Sun," he said in a low, controlled voice, "I have summoned you here

 

today with a heavy heart. A problem that has plagued our country for some years has

 


 

grown so much worse that I am forced to use you, my brave warriors, to suppress it. I

 

have consulted with the senators of the Thalas-Enthia and the priests of our gods, and

 

they have agreed with my chosen course!"

 

    Kith-Kanan paused, closing his eyes and sighing. The day was beginning to cool

 

slightly, and a breeze wafted over the tired leader's face. "I am sending you out to destory

 

the slave traders who infest the confluence of the rivers that guard our city," he finished,

 

his voice rising.

 

    The guards broke out in subdued murmurs of surprise. Every resident of Qualinost

 

knew that the Speaker had been trying to suppress slavery in his domain. The long

 

Kinslayer War had, as one of its saddest consequences, created a large population of

 

refugees, vagabonds, and lawless rovers. These were preyed upon by slavers, who sold

 

them into bondage in Ergoth and Silvanesti. Since Qualinesti was a largely unsettled area

 

between these two slave-holding countries, it was inevitable that the slavers would

 

operate in Kith-Kanan's land. Slavers who drove their human and elven "goods" to

 

market through Qualinesti territory frequently captured Qualinesti citizens as they went.

 

Slavery was one of the principal evils Kith-Kanan and his followers had wanted to leave

 

behind in Silvanesti, but the pernicious practice had insinuated itself into the new

 

country. It was time for the Speaker of the Sun to put an end to it.

 

    "Lord Anakardain will lead a column of a thousand guards up the eastern river to the

 

confluence. Lord Ambrodel will command a second column of seven hundred and fifty

 

mounted warriors, who will sweep the western branch and drive the slavers into Lord

 

Anakardain's hands. As much as possible, I want these people taken alive for public trial.

 

I doubt many of them will have the stomach to fight anyway, but I don't want them dealt

 

with summarily. Is that clear?"

 


 

    Most of the guards were former Wildrunners who had fought with Kith-Kanan

 

against the Ergothians; they were the sons and daughters of Kagonesti elves who had

 

been held in slavery in Silvanost for centuries. Slavers could expect little kindness from

 

them.

 

    Kith-Kanan stood back as Lord Anakardain began dividing the troops into the two

 

forces, with the remaining two hundred fifty warriors to remain behind in the city.

 

General Lord Kernian Ambrodel, son of Kith-Kanan's castellan, stood beside his

 

sovereign.

 

    "If you wish, sire, I can have Lady Verhanna assigned to the city guard," he said

 

confidentially.

 

    "No, no. She is a warrior the same as any other," Kith-Kanan said. "She would never

 

want to be shown favoritism simply because she is my daughter."

 

    Even in the crowd of two thousand troops, he could easily pick out Verhanna. Taller

 

by almost a head than most of the Qualinesti warriors, her silver helm bore the red plume

 

of an officer. A thick braid of light brown hair hung down her back to her waist. She was

 

quite mature for a half-human. Never married, Verhanna was dedicated to her father and

 

to the guards. Kith-Kanan was proud of his daughter's warrior skills, but some small

 

fatherly portion of him wished to see her wedded and a mother before he died.

 

    "I would prefer, however, that she go with you rather than Anakardain. I think she

 

will be safer with the mounted troops," Kith-Kanan told Lord Ambrodel.

 

    The handsome, fair-haired Silvanesti elf nodded gravely. "As you command, sire."

 

    Lord Anakardain called his young subordinate to his side. Kith-Kanan watched Lord

 

Ambrodel hurry away, and he was once more struck by the strong resemblance the young

 

general bore to his elderly father.

 


 

    As the guards broke up into their two units, the Speaker reentered Suzine Tower,

 

trailed by several members of the Thalas-Enthia. With a notable lack of protocol,

 

Kith-Kanan went to a table set beside the curved wall and poured himself a large cup of

 

potent nectar.

 

    The senators ringed round him. Clovanos, who was of an old, noble Silvanesti clan,

 

said, "Great One, this act will cause great dismay to the Speaker of the Stars."

 

    Kith-Kanan set down his cup. "My brother must deal with his own conscience," he

 

said flatly. "I will not tolerate slavery in my realm."

 

    Senator Clovanos waved a dismissive hand. "It is a minor problem, Great Speaker,"

 

he said.

 

    "Minor? The buying and selling of people as if they were chickens or glass beads?

 

Do you honestly consider that a minor problem, my lord?"

 

    Senator Xixis, who was half Kagonesti, put in, "We only fear retribution by the

 

Speaker of the Stars or the Emperor of Ergoth if we mistreat those slavers who happen to

 

be their subjects. Our country is still very new, Highness. If we were attacked by one or

 

both of those countries, Qualinesti would not survive."

 

    "I think you gravely underestimate our strength," said a human senator, Malvic

 

Pathfinder, "and overestimate the concern of two monarchs for some of the worst scum to

 

walk this world."

 

    "There are deeper roots to this business than you know," Clovanos said darkly.

 

"Even within Qualinost, there are those who profit by this trade in flesh."

 

    Kith-Kanan snapped around, his robes swirling about his feet. "Who would dare," he

 

demanded, "in defiance of my edicts?"

 


 

    Clovanos paled before the Speaker's sudden wrath. He backed up a step and

 

stammered, "G-Great Majesty, one hears things in taverns, in temples. Shadow talk. Dark

 

things without substance."

 

    Xixis and Irthenie, a Kagonesti senator who still proudly wore the face paint popular

 

with her wilder cousins, stepped between Kith-Kanan and the chastened Clovanos.

 

Irthenie, whose intelligence and strong antislavery stance made her a confidant of the

 

Speaker, declared, "Clovanos speaks the truth, Majesty. There are places in the city

 

where money changes hands for influence and for slaves sold in other lands."

 

    Kith-Kanan released the gold clasp from his long hair and combed through the pale

 

strands with his fingers. "It never ends, does it?" he said tiredly. "I try to give the people a

 

new life, and all the old vices come back to haunt us."

 

    His gloomy observation hung in the air like dark smoke. Embarrassed, Clovanos and

 

Xixis were the first to leave. Malvic followed, after offering words of support for the

 

Speaker's stand. The half-human Senator Harplen, who seldom spoke, left with Malvic.

 

Only Irthenie remained.

 

    With much tramping and shouting, the two units of the Guards of the Sun dispersed.

 

Kith-Kanan watched from the window as his warriors streamed over the bridges to the

 

tower keeps and down into the city. He looked for, but didn't see, Verhanna.

 

    "My daughter is going out with the guard," he said, his back to the Kagonesti

 

woman. "This will be her first taste of conflict."

 

    "I doubt that," said Irthenie flatly. "No one close to you can be unfamiliar with

 

conflict, Kith. What I don't understand is why you don't send your son along, too. He

 

could use some hard lessons, that boy."

 

    Kith-Kanan rolled the brass cup back and forth in his hands, warming the nectar

 

within. "Ulvian has gone off with his friends again. I don't know where. Probably

 


 

drinking himself sick, or gambling his shirt on a roll of the bones." The Speaker's tone

 

was bitter. A frown pulled at the corners of Kith-Kanan's mouth. He set his cup aside.

 

"Ullie has never been the same since Suzine died. He was very close to his mother."

 

    "Give him to me for six months and I'll straighten him out!"

 

    Kith-Kanan had to smile at her declaration. Irthenie had four sons, all of whom were

 

vigorous, opinionated, and successful. If Ulvian were younger, he might take Irthenie up

 

on her offer. "My good friend," he said instead, taking her dark, age-worn hands in his,

 

"of all the problems that face me today, Ulvian is not the worst."

 

    She looked up at him, studying him closely. "You're wrong, Speaker," she said. "The

 

fortress of Pax Tharkas is nearing completion, and the time is fast approaching when you

 

vowed to abdicate. Can you in good conscience appoint a good-for-nothing idler like

 

Ulvian the next Speaker of the Sun? I think not."

 

    He dropped her hands and turned away, his face shadowed by concern. "I can't go

 

back on my word. I swore I would abdicate once Pax Tharkas was finished." He sighed

 

heavily. "I wish to pass on the mantle of leadership. After the war, and after building a

 

new nation, I am tired."

 

    "Then I tell you this, Kith-Kanan. Take your rest and give over the title to another, as

 

long as it is anyone but your son," Irthenie said firmly.

 

    The Speaker did not reply. Irthenie waited for several minutes, then bowed and left

 

the tower.

 

    Kith-Kanan sat down on a hard barrack chair and let the sunshine wash over his face.

 

Closing his eyes, he gave himself over to deep and difficult thoughts.

 

                                          *   *   *   *   *

 

    "Ho there, trooper! Close up your ranks."

 


 

    Sullenly the guards reined their horses about. They weren't usually so glum, but they

 

happened to have been assigned to the strictest, most particular captain in the Guards of

 

the Sun. Verhanna Kanan did not spare herself, or anyone in her command.

 

    Verhanna's troop was moving northward, patrolling the western slopes of the Magnet

 

Mountains, a small but steep range of peaks west of Qualinost. The stream that flowed

 

past the western side of the city originated in these mountains. The land was sparsely

 

wooded this close to the range of hills. Lord Ambrodel had given Verhanna's troop the

 

task of searching closest to the foot of the peaks, where the guards were vulnerable to

 

ambush from above.

 

    The captain kept her warriors close together. She didn't want any stragglers getting

 

picked off. Her eyes never left the hillside. The red rock and brown soil were streaked

 

with veins of black. These were deposits of lodestone, the natural magnets that gave the

 

mountains their name. Kender shamans came from all across Ansalon to dig up the

 

lodestone for protective amulets. So far on this sortie, the only living things Verhanna

 

had seen were a few of the small kender race, working at the outcroppings of lodestone

 

with deer antler picks.

 

    Her second-in-command, a former Silvanesti named Merithynos, Merith for short,

 

kept by her side as their horses picked their way slowly over the stony ground. The slopes

 

were in shadow all morning.

 

    "A futile task," Merith said, sighing loudly. "What are we doing here?"

 

    "Carrying out the Speaker's command," Verhanna replied firmly. Her gaze rested on

 

a dark figure nestled in a fold in the ground. She stared hard at it but soon realized it was

 

only a holly bush.

 

    Merith yawned, one hand pressed against his mouth. "But it's such a bore."

 


 

    "Yes, I know. You'd rather be in Qualinost, strutting down the street, impressing the

 

maids with your sword and armor," Verhanna, said dryly. "At least out here you're

 

earning your pay."

 

    "Captain! You wound me." Merith clutched his chest and swayed as if shot by an

 

arrow.

 

    She scowled at him, a mock frown on her face. "Fool! How did a dandy like you

 

ever get in the guards?" she asked.

 

    "Actually, it was my father's idea. Priesthood or warriorhood, that's what he told me.

 

'There's no room in Clan Silver Moon for wastrels', he said."

 

    Verhanna stiffened and reined her horse up short. "Quiet," she hissed. "I saw

 

something."

 

    With hand signals, the captain divided her troop of twenty in half, with ten warriors,

 

including herself, dismounting. Sword and buckler at the ready, she led the guards up the

 

gravelly slope. Their booted feet slid in the loose dirt. The climb was a slow one.

 

    Suddenly a shape rose up in front of Verhanna and scampered away, like a partridge

 

flushed by a spaniel.

 

    "Get him!" the captain shouted. The small creature, which seemed to be wrapped in a

 

white cloth, darted away but lost its footing and rolled downhill. It came to rest with a

 

bump against Merith's booted feet.

 

    He put the tip of his slender elven blade against the sheeted mound, pricking the

 

creature until it lay still. "Captain," Merith called coolly, "I have him."

 

    The guards closed around the captive. Verhanna took one edge of the white sheet and

 

pulled hard, spinning the occupant around. Out popped a small, sinewy figure with

 

flaming red hair and a face to match.

 


 

    "Stinkin', poxy, rancid, dirty, lice-ridden­" he sputtered, rubbing his backside. "Who

 

poked me?"

 

    "I did," Merith said. "And I'll do it again if you don't hold your tongue, kender."

 

    "That's enough, Lieutenant," Verhanna said sharply. Merith shrugged and gave the

 

outraged fellow an insolent smile. The captain turned to her captive and demanded, "Who

 

are you? Why did you run from us?"

 

    "Wrinklecap is who I am, and you'd run, too, if you woke from a nap to see a dozen

 

swords over you!" The kender stopped rubbing his backside and twisted around to look at

 

it. An almost comical expression of outrage widened his pale blue eyes. "You made a

 

hole in my trousers!" he said, glaring at them. "Someone's gonna pay for this!"

 

    "Be still," Verhanna said. She shook out the sheet Wrinklecap had been sleeping in.

 

A double handful of black pebbles fell from its folds. "A lodestone gatherer," she said.

 

The disappointment in her voice was obvious.

 

    "The lodestone gatherer," intoned the tiny fellow, tapping his chest with one finger.

 

"Rufus Wrinklecap of Balifor, that's me."

 

    The guards who were waiting below on horseback called out to their captain.

 

Verhanna shouted back that all was well. Sheathing her sword, she said to the kender,

 

"You'd better come along with us."

 

    "Why?" piped Rufus.

 

    Verhanna was tired of bandying words with the noisy kender, so she pushed him

 

ahead. Rufus snatched his sheet from the elven captain and rolled it up as he walked.

 

    "Not fair­big bunch of bullies­creepin', pointyheaded elves­" he grumbled all the

 

way down the slope.

 


 

    Verhanna halted and ordered her troopers to remount. She sat down on a handy

 

boulder and waved the kender over. "How long have you been in these parts?" she asked

 

him.

 

    After a few seconds of hesitation, the kender took a deep breath and said, "Well,

 

after Uncle Trapspringer escaped from the walrus men and was eaten by the great ice

 

bear­"

 

    The captain quickly clamped a hand over the kender's open mouth. "No," she said

 

firmly. "I do not want your entire life history. Simply answer my questions, or I'll let

 

Lieutenant Merith poke you again."

 

    His long red topknot bobbled as Rufus swallowed hard. Verhanna was easily twice

 

his size. Merith, from his mounted position next to them, was tapping the pommel of his

 

sword meaningfully. The kender nodded. Verhanna released her hold on him.

 

    "I've been here going on two months," Rufus said sulkily.

 

    Verhanna remembered the loose stones he'd had. "You don't have much to show for

 

two month's work," she commented.

 

    Rufus puffed out his thin chest. "I only take the best stones," he said proudly. "I don't

 

fill my pockets with trash like all them others do."

 

    Ignoring for the moment the little fellow's last remark, Verhanna asked, "How do

 

you live? I don't see any camp gear, cooking pot, or waterskin."

 

    The kender turned innocent azure eyes on her and said, "I find what I need."

 

    Merith snorted loudly. A smile touched Verhanna's lips. "Find, eh? Kender are good

 

at that. Who have you 'found' things from?" she asked.

 

    "Different people."

 

    Verhanna drew a long, double-edged dagger from her belt and began to strop it

 

slowly against her boot. "We're looking for some different people," she said carefully,

 


 

making sure the kender followed every stroke of the bright blade. "Humans. Maybe some

 

elves." The dagger paused. "Slavers."

 

    Rufus let out his breath with a whoosh. "Oh!" he exclaimed, his high-pitched voice

 

descending the scale. "Is that who you're after? Well, why didn't you say so?"

 

    The kender launched into a typically random account of his activities of the past few

 

days­caves he'd explored, wonders he'd beheld, and a secret camp he'd found over the

 

mountains. In this camp, he claimed there were humans and elves holding other humans

 

and elves in chains. Rufus had seen the camp just two days before.

 

    "On the other side of the mountains?" Verhanna said sharply. "The eastern slope?"

 

    "Yup. Right by the river. Are you going to attack them?" The kender's eagerness was

 

unmistakable. His darting gaze took in their armor and weapons, and he added, "Well, of

 

course you are. Want me to show you where I saw them?"

 

    Verhanna did indeed. She ordered food and water for Rufus while she conferred with

 

Merith about this new intelligence.

 

    The kender wolfed down chunks of quith-pa, a rich elven bread, and bites of a

 

winesap apple. "This little fellow may be a great help to us," she said confidentially to

 

Merith. "Send a message to Lord Ambrodel informing him of what we've learned."

 

    Merith saluted. "Yes, Captain." His expression turned grim as he added, "You realize

 

what this means, don't you? If the slavers are on the other side of the mountain, then they

 

are operating within sight of the city."

 

    He turned on one heel and strode away to send the dispatch to Lord Ambrodel.

 

Verhanna watched him for a moment, then pulled on her gauntlets and said to Rufus,

 

"Can you ride pillion?"

 

    The kender hastily lowered a water bottle from his lips, dribbling sweet spring water

 

down his sunbrowned cheeks. "Ride a what?" he asked suspiciously.

 


 

    Not pausing to explain, Verhanna swung onto her black horse and grabbed the

 

kender by the hood attached to the back of his deerhide tunic. Yelping, Rufus felt himself

 

lifted into the air and settled on the short leather tail of her saddle.

 

       "That's a pillion," she said. "Now hold on!"

 


 

                                               2

 

                                           The Raid

 

 

 

 

        The kender led Verhanna's troops across the mountains to a bluff overlooking the

 

River of Hope, which formed Qualinost's western boundary. The towers and bridges of

 

the city rose up to the northeast not three miles away. The sun was setting behind the

 

mountains at the warriors' backs. Its light washed the capital, and the arched bridges

 

glowed like golden tiaras. Nestled in the light green of spring leaves, thousands of

 

windows reflected the crimson sun. Brightest of all, the Tower of the Sun mirrored the

 

fiery glow with a vigor that nearly burned Verhanna's eyes.

 

        Verhanna gazed over the city her father had founded, and a deep sense of peace

 

filled her. Her home was beautiful; the thought that dealers in elven and human misery

 

operated within sight of Qualinost's beauty sent a wave of resolute anger washing over

 

her.

 

        Rufus broke her reverie. "Captain," he whispered, "I smell smoke."

 

        Verhanna strained until she caught a faint tang of wood smoke on the gentle breeze.

 

It was coming from below, from the base of the bluff. "Is there a way down there?" she

 

queried.

 

        "Not on horseback. The path's too narrow," Rufus replied.

 

        Quietly Verhanna ordered her troops to dismount. The horses were tethered among

 

the rocks, and a group of five warriors was set to watch them. The remaining fifteen

 

followed Verhanna to the path. She, in turn, followed Rufus Wrinklecap.

 

        It was obvious that others had been using this path. Sand from the riverbank had

 

been spread over the rocky ground, no doubt to soften footfalls. Now the sand served the

 


 

guards as they crept down the path two abreast. They were careful to keep their shields

 

from banging against anything. The smell of wood smoke grew stronger.

 

     The base of the bluff was some thirty yards from the river's edge. Scrub pines dotted

 

the landscape, and halfway out from the cliff, there was nothing but sand deposited by the

 

river during spring floods. Verhanna caught Rufus by the shoulder and stopped him. The

 

warriors crouched silently behind their captain, shielded from the camp by the small

 

trees.

 

     Voices drifted to them­voices and sounds of movement.

 

     "Can't see how many there are," Verhanna said in a tense whisper.

 

     "I can find out," Rufus said confidently, and before she could stop him, he had eased

 

out from under her hand and started forward.

 

     "No! Come back!" the captain hissed.

 

     It was too late. With the fearlessness, some might say foolishness, of his race, the

 

kender scrambled forward a few paces, stood, and dusted the sand from his knees. Then,

 

whistling a cheery air, he marched into the unseen slavers' camp.

 

     Merith crawled to his captain. "The little thief will give us away," he murmured.

 

     "I don't think so," she replied. "By the gods, he's a brave little mite."

 

     Moments later, rough laughter filled the air. Rufus's treble voice, saying something

 

unintelligible, followed, then more laughter. To Verhanna's surprise, the kender came

 

rolling through the scrub pines, knees tucked under his chin. He made a graceful flip onto

 

his feet and flung out his arms. There was more laughter, and a spattering of applause.

 

Verhanna understood; the kender was playing the fool, doing acrobatic tricks to amuse

 

the slavers.

 


 

    Rufus scuffed his feet on the sand and dove headfirst into a somersault. From her

 

hiding place, Verhanna could just make out what he'd marked in the dirt. A one and a

 

zero. There were ten slavers in the camp.

 

    "Good fellow," she whispered fiercely. "We'll rush them. Spread out along the

 

riverbank. I don't want any of them jumping in the water and swimming away." Burdened

 

by armor, her guards wouldn't be able to pursue the slavers in the river.

 

    Swords whisked out of scabbards. Verhanna stood, silently thrusting her blade in the

 

air. The last rays of daylight fell across her face, highlighting its mix of human and elven

 

features. Almond-shaped elven eyes, rather broad human cheeks, and a sharp Silvanesti

 

chin proclaimed the captain's ancestry. Her braid of light brown hair hung forward across

 

her chest, and she flicked it behind her. She nodded curtly to her warriors. The guards

 

swept forward.

 

    As Verhanna hurried through the screen of scrawny trees, she took in the slavers'

 

camp in a quick glance. At the foot of the cliff stood several huts made of beach stone

 

chinked with moss. They blended in so well with their surroundings that from a distance

 

no one would have recognized them as dwellings. Two small campfires burned on the

 

open ground in front of the huts. The slavers stood in a ragged group between the fires.

 

Rufus, his red topknot dripping perspiration and his blizzard of freckles lost on his

 

flushed face, was standing on his hands before them.

 

    The astonished slavers shouted when they saw the guards crashing toward them. A

 

few reached for weapons, but most elected to flee. Verhanna pounded across the sand,

 

straight at the nearest armed slaver. He appeared to be a Kagonesti, with dark braided

 

hair and red triangles painted on his cheeks. In his hands he held a short spear with a

 

wicked barbed head. Verhanna fended off the spear point with her shield and hacked at

 

the shaft with her sword, lopping off the spearhead. The Kagonesti cursed, flung the

 


 

wooden shaft at her, and turned to run. She was on him in a heartbeat, her long legs far

 

swifter than his. The captain lowered her sword and slashed the fleeing slaver on the back

 

of his leg. He fell, clutching his wounded limb. Verhanna hopped over him and kept

 

going.

 

    The slavers fell back, driven in toward the cliff base by the swords of the guards.

 

Some chose to fight the Qualinesti, and these died in a brief, bloody skirmish. The ragged

 

band was poorly armed and outnumbered, and soon they were on their knees, crying out

 

for quarter.

 

    "Down on your bellies!" Verhanna shouted. "Put your hands out flat on the ground."

 

    She heard a warning shout from her left and turned in time to see one of the slavers

 

sprinting for the river. He had too much of a head start for any of the guards to catch him,

 

but he hadn't reckoned on Rufus Wrinklecap. The kender whipped out a sling and quickly

 

loosed a pellet. With a thunk, the stone hit the back of the slaver's head, and the escaping

 

human fell and lay still. Rufus trotted over to him, and his hands began moving through

 

the fellow's clothing.

 

    The fight was over. The slavers were searched and bound hand and foot. Of the ten

 

in the camp, four were human men, four were Kagonesti, and two were half-humans.

 

Merith remarked on the fact that the three who died fighting were all Kagonesti.

 

    "They're not inclined to submit," Verhanna replied grudgingly. "Have those huts

 

searched, Merith."

 

    Rufus came sauntering up, swinging his sling jauntily. "Pretty good fight, eh,

 

Captain?" he said cheerfully.

 

    "More a pigeon shoot than a fight, thanks to you."

 

    The kender beamed. Verhanna dug into her belt pouch and found a gold piece. Her

 

father's graven image stared up from the coin. She tossed it to Rufus.

 


 

    "That's for your help, kender," she said.

 

    He caressed the heavy gold piece. "Thank you, my captain."

 

    Just then Merith shouted, "Captain! Over here!" He stood by one of the huts.

 

    "What is it?" she asked sharply when she reached him. "What's wrong?"

 

    Ashen-faced, he nodded toward the hut. "You­you'd best go inside and see."

 

    Verhanna frowned and pushed by him. The door of the crude stone house was

 

nothing but a flap of leather. She thrust a hand through and stepped inside. A candle

 

burned on the small table in the center of the one-room dwelling. Someone was seated at

 

the table. His face was in shadow, but Verhanna saw numerous rings on the hand that

 

rested on the table, including a familiar silver signet ring. A ring that belonged to­

 

    "Really, sister, you have the most appalling timing in the world," said the seated

 

figure. He leaned forward into the candlelight, and the hazel eyes of the line of Silvanos

 

sparkled.

 

    "Ulvian! What are you doing here?" Verhanna asked, shock reducing her voice to a

 

whisper.

 

    Kith-Kanan's son pushed the candle aside and clasped his hands lightly on the

 

tabletop. "Conducting some very profitable business, till you so rudely disrupted it."

 

    "Business?" For a long moment, his sister couldn't take it in. The crude plates and

 

utensils, the worn wooden table, the rough pallet of blankets in one corner, even the

 

sputtering candle­all claimed her roving gaze before her eyes once more rested on the

 

person before her. Then, with the force of a summer storm, she exploded, "Business!

 

Slavery!"

 

    Ulvian's handsome face, so like his mother Suzine's, twitched slightly. Full-blooded

 

elven males couldn't grow beards or mustaches, but Ulvian kept a modest stubble as a

 


 

sign of his half-human heritage. With a quick, distracted motion, he stroked the fine

 

golden hair.

 

    "What I do is none of your affair," he said, annoyed. "Nor anyone else's, for that

 

matter."

 

    Her own brother a trafficker in slaves! Eldest son of the House of Silvanos and the

 

supposed heir to the throne of Qualinesti. Verhanna's face flamed with her disgrace and

 

the knowledge of the shame and pain this would cause their father. How could Ulvian do

 

such a thing? Then her mortification was replaced by anger. Cold rage filled the

 

Speaker's daughter. Grabbing Ulvian by the front of his crimson silk doublet, Verhanna

 

dragged him from behind the table and out of the hut. Merith was still waiting outside.

 

    "Where are the slaves?" she rasped. Mutely Merith pointed to the larger of the two

 

remaining huts.

 

    "Come on, Brother," growled Verhanna, shoving Ulvian ahead of' her. Other guards

 

saw the Speaker's son and gaped. Merith stormed at them.

 

    "What are you gawking at? Mind those prisoners!" he ordered.

 

    Verhanna propelled Ulvian into the slave hut. Within, a guard was removing a

 

young, emaciated female elf's chains with a hammer and chisel. Other slaves slumped

 

against the walls of the hut. Even with their deliverance at hand, they were broken in

 

spirit, listless and passive. There were some half-human males, and to Verhanna's horror,

 

two dark-haired human children who couldn't have been more than nine or ten years old.

 

All the captives were caked with filth. The hut reeked of stale sweat, urine, and despair.

 

    The guard hacked the elf woman's chain in two and helped her stand. Her thin, frail

 

legs wouldn't support her. With only the faintest of sighs, she crumpled. The guard lifted

 

her starved body in his arms and carried her out.

 


 

    Verhanna knew she must get control of her emotions. Closing her eyes, she willed

 

herself to be calm, willed her heart to slow its frenzied beating. Opening her eyes once

 

more, she said with certainty, "Ulvian, Father will have your head for this. If he favors

 

me, I'll gladly swing the axe."

 

    One pale hand adjusting the lace at his throat, Ulvian smiled. "I don't think so, sweet

 

Sister. After all, it wouldn't look good for the Speaker's heir to go around without a head,

 

now would it?"

 

    The captain slapped her brother. Ulvian's head snapped back. Slowly he turned to

 

face his sister. She was four inches taller than he, and the prince tilted his head back

 

slightly to stare directly into her eyes. The smirk was gone from his lips, replaced by

 

cold-blooded fury.

 

    "You will never be Speaker if I have anything to say about it," Verhanna swore.

 

"You are unfit to utter our father's name, let alone inherit his title."

 

    A single bead of blood hung from the corner of Prince Ulvian's mouth. He dabbed at

 

it and said softly, "You always were Father's lapdog."

 

    Sweeping the door flap aside, Verhanna called, "Lieutenant Merith! Come here!"

 

The elegant elf hustled in, scabbard jangling against his armored thigh.

 

    "Put Prince Ulvian in chains," she ordered. "And if he utters one word of protest, gag

 

him as well."

 

    Merith stared. "Captain, are you sure? Chain the prince?"

 

    "Yes!" she thundered.

 

    Merith searched among the heaps of chain in the slave hut and found a set of

 

manacles to fit Prince Ulvian. Abashed, he stood before Kith-Kanan's son and held open

 

the cold iron bonds.

 

    "Highness," Merith said tightly. "Your hands, please."

 


 

    Ulvian did not resist. He presented his slim arms, and Merith snapped the bands

 

around his wrists. A hole in the latch would take a soft iron rivet.

 

    "You will regret this, Hanna," the prince said in a barely audible voice as he stared at

 

his manacled wrists.

 

                                          *   *   *   *   *

 

    By the time Verhanna's warriors had the slavers' camp sorted out, Lord Ambrodel

 

and his personal escort of thirty riders had come thundering up the riverbank, summoned

 

by fast dispatch. The elves set up a double row of torches in the sand to light the riders'

 

way. By the same light, they had sorted the wretched captives by race and gender. The

 

slavers were chained together in one large band, and a guard of bow-armed warriors set

 

to watch them.

 

    Lord Ambrodel rode up, sand flying beneath his horse's hooves. He called out loudly

 

for Verhanna. The Speaker's daughter came forward and saluted the younger Ambrodel.

 

    "Give me your report," he ordered before dismounting.

 

    Verhanna handed him a tally showing eight slaves found and freed, and seven

 

slavers captured. "Three chose to fight and were killed," she added. Lord Ambrodel

 

slipped the parchment under his breastplate.

 

    "How were they moving the slaves?" he asked, surveying the cunningly concealed

 

camp.

 

    "By river, sir."

 

    Lord Ambrodel glanced back at the moonlit water.

 

    "My lord," Verhanna continued, "we found signs that more slaves were sent on from

 

this camp. The ones we found here were too sick to travel. I'd like to take my troop on

 

and try to intercept the rest before they reach the Ergoth border."

 


 

    "You're far too late for that, I'm sure," Lord Ambrodel replied. "I want to question

 

the leader of the slavers. Did you take him alive?" Verhanna nodded curtly. The warrior

 

lord tugged off his leather gauntlets and slapped the sand from his mailed thighs. "Well,

 

Captain, show him to me," he said impatiently.

 

    Without a word, Verhanna turned on one heel and led her commander toward the

 

huts. The slavers lay on the ground, their heads buried in their arms in despair or else

 

staring with hatred at their captors. Verhanna yanked a torch from the sand and held it

 

high. She held the door flap open for Lord Ambrodel and thrust the torch inside. The face

 

of the figure seated before them leapt into clarity.

 

    Lord Ambrodel recoiled sharply. "It cannot be!" he gasped. "Prince Ulvian!"

 

    "Kemian, my friend," the prince said to the general, "you'd best have these fetters

 

removed. I am not a common criminal, though my hysterical sister insists on treating me

 

like one."

 

    "Release him," said Lord AmbrodeI. His face was white.

 

    "My lord, Prince Ulvian was caught engaging in the forbidden commerce of

 

slavery," Verhanna put in quickly. "Both my father's edicts and the laws of the Thalas--

 

Enthia demand­"

 

    "Don't quote the law to me!" Lord Ambrodel snapped. "I shall bring this matter to

 

the attention of the Speaker at once, but I will not drag a member of the royal family

 

through the streets of Qualinost in chains! I cannot disgrace the Speaker so!"

 

    Before she could order it, Merith was at Verhanna's side, chisel in hand. She shoved

 

her lieutenant's hands aside and grasped the cold iron clamps in her own bare hands. With

 

the strength bestowed upon her by her elven heritage, Verhanna pried the manacles apart

 

just enough so that Ulvian could slip his arms out. Impudently he handed the empty

 

chains to his sister.

 


 

    "Captain," Lord Ambrodel said, "return to your troop. Muster them for marching."

 

    "My lord! To what destination?" she answered tersely.

 

    "Southeast­to the forest. I want you to search for other slaver camps there.

 

Lieutenant Merithynos will remain to report on the finding of the slavers."

 

    Verhanna's gaze flickered to her brother, to Merith, and back to Lord Ambrodel. She

 

was too disciplined in the ways of the warrior to disobey her commander, but she knew

 

Lord Ambrodel was sending her away so he could handle the delicate business of

 

Ulvian's crime and punishment. Kemian would not let the prince escape; he was too

 

honest for that. But he would grant her brother every privilege, up to the moment he

 

turned Ulvian over to Kith-Kanan himself.

 

    "Very good, sir," Verhanna finally responded. With a curt nod, she departed, spurs

 

ringing as her heels struck the packed sand.

 

    Ulvian rubbed his wrists and smiled. "Thank you, my lord," he said. "I shall

 

remember this."

 

    "Save your gratitude, my prince. I meant what I said; you will be given over to your

 

father's judgment."

 

    Ulvian maintained his smile. The ruddy light of the torch made his blond beard and

 

hair look like copper. "I'm not afraid," he said lightly. Indeed he wasn't. His father had

 

never punished Ulvian for his errant ways in the past.

 

    As Verhanna gathered her warriors together with hoarsely shouted commands, the

 

kender reappeared. His pockets were bulging with plunder from the slavers' camp:

 

knives, string, flints, clay pipes, brass-studded wristbands.

 

    "Hail, Captain," Rufus called. "Where to now?"

 

    Verhanna looped her reins around her left hand. "So you came back! I thought I'd

 

seen the last of you."

 


 

    "You paid me. I'm your scout now," Rufus announced. "I can lead you anywhere.

 

From which horizon will we next see the sun?"

 

    Verhanna swung into the saddle. Her eyes rested on the hut where her brother and

 

Lord Ambrodel still tarried. Her brother, the slaver.

 

    "South," she said, biting off the word as it left her tightly drawn lips.

 

                                          *   *   *   *   *

 

    The Speaker's house was quite large, though far less grand than the Quinari Palace in

 

Silvanost where Kith-Kanan had grown up. Built entirely of wood, it had a warmth and

 

naturalness he felt was missing from the great crystal residence of his brother, the

 

Speaker of the Stars. The house was more or less rectangular in shape, with two small

 

wings radiating to the west. The main entrance was on the east side, facing the courtyard

 

of the Tower of the Sun.

 

    Lord Ambrodel, Lieutenant Merith, and Prince Ulvian stood in the lamplit

 

antechamber where Kith-Kanan usually greeted his guests. As it was well past midnight,

 

the bright moons of Krynn had already set.

 

    Despite the late hour, the Speaker looked alert and carefully groomed as he and

 

Tamanier Ambrodel descended the polished cherrywood staircase to the antechamber.

 

His fur-trimmed robe swept the floor. The toes of his yellow felt slippers protruded from

 

under the green velvet hem.

 

    "What has happened?" he asked gently.

 

    As senior officer present, it fell to Kemian Ambrodel to explain. When he reached

 

the point in his story where Verhanna had discovered Prince Ulvian in the slavers' camp,

 

Kemian's father Tamanier gasped in astonishment. Kith-Kanan's gaze shifted to Ulvian,

 

who pursed his lips and rocked on his heels in an obvious display of arrogance.

 

    "Were the slaves you found badly treated?" asked the Speaker in clipped tones.

 


 

    "They were sick, filthy, and ill-fed, Majesty. From what they told us, they were held

 

back from a larger group of slaves sent on by river to Ergoth because they were deemed

 

too feeble for hard work." Kemian fought down his disgust. "A few had been whipped,

 

Speaker."

 

    "I see. Thank you, my lord."

 

    Kith-Kanan clasped his hands behind his back and studied the floor. The maple had a

 

beautiful grain pattern that resembled the dancing flames of a fire. Suddenly, he lifted his

 

head and said, "I want you all to swear to keep what happens here tonight strictly secret.

 

No one is to know of it­not even your families. Is that clear?" The assembled elves

 

nodded solemnly, except Ulvian. "This is a delicate matter. There are those in Qualinost

 

who would try to profit from my son's actions. For the safety of the nation, this must

 

remain a secret."

 

    Stepping down from the last stair, the Speaker stood nose-to-nose with his son.

 

"Ullie," he said quietly, "why did you do it?"

 

    The prince quivered with suppressed anger tinged with fear. "Do you really want to

 

know?" he burst out. "Because you preach about justice and mercy instead of strength

 

and greatness! Because you waste money on beggars and useless temples instead of a

 

proper palace! Because you were the most famous warrior of the age, and you've thrown

 

all your glory away to idle in gardens instead of fighting your way to the gates of

 

Silvanost, our rightful home!" His voice choked off.

 

    Kith-Kanan looked his son up and down. The grief on his face was visible to all. The

 

Speaker's great dignity asserted itself, however, and he said, "The war and the great

 

march west left Silvanesti with an acute shortage of farmers, crafters, and laborers. To

 

appease the nobles and clerics, my brother, the Speaker of the Stars, has sanctioned

 

slavery throughout his realm. A similar condition exists in Ergoth, with similar results.

 


 

But no amount of inconvenience justifies the bondage of living, thinking beings by

 

others. I have made it my life's goal to stamp out the evil traffic in servitude in Qualinesti,

 

and yet my own son­" Kith-Kanan folded his arms, gripping his biceps hard through the

 

plush velvet of his robe. "Ulvian, you will be held under close confinement in Arcuballis

 

Tower until­until I can think of a proper punishment for you," he declared.

 

    "You don't dare." The prince sneered. "I am your son, your only legitimate heir!

 

Where will your precious dynasty be without me? I know you, Father. You'll forgive me

 

anything to keep from being the first and last Speaker of the Sun from the House of

 

Silvanos!."

 

    The aged Tamanier Ambrodel could contain himself no longer. He had been friend

 

to Kith-Kanan ever since the Speaker was a young prince in Silvanost. To listen to this

 

spoiled pup jeering at his father was more than mortal flesh could bear. The gray-haired

 

castellan stepped forward and struck Ulvian with his open hand. The prince rounded on

 

him, but Kith-Kanan moved swiftly, placing himself between his son and castellan.

 

    "No, Tam. Stop," he said, his voice shaking. "Don't justify his hatred." To Ulvian, he

 

added, "Fifty years ago you might have earned a beating for your insolence, but now I

 

will not ease your conscience so readily."

 

    Tamanier stepped back. Kith-Kanan beckoned to Merith, standing quietly behind

 

Kernian Ambrodel.

 

    "I have a charge for you, Lieutenant," Kith-Kanan said gravely. The Speaker's gaze

 

unnerved the anxious young elf. "You will be my son's keeper. Take him to Arcuballis.

 

Stay with him. He must see and speak to no one­no one at all. Do you understand?"

 

    "Yes, Great Speaker." Merith saluted stiffly.

 

    "Go now, while it is still dark."

 


 

    Merith drew his sword and stood beside Ulvian. The prince glared sullenly at the

 

naked blade. Speaker, castellan, and general watched the two leave for the tower keep

 

that guarded the city's northeastern corner. When the great doors of the house closed

 

behind them, Kith-Kanan asked Kernian where Verhanna was. Lord Ambrodel explained

 

how he'd thought it best to separate brother and sister at such a crisis.

 

    "A wise decision," Kith-Kanan said ruefully. "Hanna would wring Ullie's neck."

 

    The Speaker bade Kemian return to the field and continue the hunt for slavers. The

 

general bowed low, first to his sovereign and then to his father, and swept out of the hall.

 

Once he was gone, Kith-Kanan sank shakily to the steps. Tamanier swiftly knelt beside

 

him.

 

    "Majesty! Are you ill?"

 

    Tears glistened in Kith-Kanan's brown eyes. "I am all right," he murmured. "Leave

 

me, Tam."

 

    "May I escort Your Majesty to his room?"

 

    "No, I want to sit a while. On your way now, old friend."

 

    Tamanier rose and bowed. The scuff of his sandals faded in the dimly lit corridor.

 

Kith-Kanan was alone.

 

    He realized his hands were clenched into fists, and he relaxed them. Five hundred

 

years was not a long time to live, by elven standards, yet at that moment, Kith-Kanan felt

 

very aged indeed. What was he to do with Ulvian? The boy's motives were a mystery to

 

him. Did he need money so badly? Was it the thrill of doing something forbidden? No

 

reason could excuse his conduct this time.

 

    Once, after Ulvian had returned home half-naked and filthy after literally losing his

 

shirt gambling, Verhanna had cornered her father. "He's no good," she had said.

 


 

    "Isn't he? Who made him so?" Kith-Kanan had wondered aloud. "Can I blame

 

anyone but myself? I hardly ever saw him till he was twelve. The war was going badly,

 

and I was needed in the field."

 

    "Mother spoiled him. She filled his head with a lot of nonsense," Verhanna said

 

bitterly. "I can't count the times he's told me you were responsible for her death."

 

    Kith-Kanan drew a hand across his brow. He couldn't count the times he'd told

 

Ulvian the truth about Suzine, that she had sacrificed her life for her husband and his

 

cause, but Ulvian never believed it.

 

    What could he do? Ulvian was right; Kith-Kanan couldn't have his own son executed

 

or banished. He was the Speaker's heir. After working so hard, sacrificing so much, to

 

build this great nation, Kith-Kanan wondered, was it all to be lost?

 

    A bell tolled somewhere far off. The priests of Mantis, called Matheri in old

 

Silvanost, were ringing the great bronze temple bell, signaling the imminent dawn. Kith-

 

Kanan raised his weary head from his hands. The sound of the bell was like a voice,

 

calling to him. Come, come, it said.

 

    Yes, he thought. I will meditate and ask the gods. They will help me.

 


 

                                               3

 

                                  The Balance of Justice

 

 

 

 

    The domed ceiling of the Tower of the Sun was decorated with an elaborate mosaic

 

symbolizing the passage of time and the forces of good and evil. One half of the dome

 

was blue sky, made up of thousands of chips of turquoise, and a brilliant sun made from

 

gold and diamonds. The opposite half was tiled with the blackest onyx and sprinkled with

 

diamond stars. The three moons of Krynn were represented by discs of ruby for Lunitari,

 

silver for Solinari, and oxblood garnet for Nuitari. Dividing these hemispheres was a

 

rainbow band set with crimsonite, topazes, peridots, sapphires, and amethysts. The

 

rainbow was a barrier and bridge between the worlds of night and day, a symbol of the

 

intervention of the gods in mortal affairs.

 

    Kith-Kanan meditated on the symbolism of the dome as he lay on his back on the

 

rostrum in the center of the tower floor. Unlike its counterpart in Silvanost, this tower

 

was not used as the throne room. The Tower of the Sun was mainly used when

 

Kith-Kanan wanted to, as Verhanna put it, "impress the boots off a visitor."

 

    Kith-Kanan pillowed his head on one hand. His silver-blond hair was loose and

 

spread out around his head like a halo. Fixing his gaze on the ceiling of the tower, he

 

opened his mind. The peace and balanced beauty of the Tower of the Sun calmed him,

 

allowing him to consider difficult matters.

 

    Rows of windows and mirrors spiraled up the height of the tower, letting in the sun

 

and reflecting it in endless cascades. No matter where the sun was in the sky, the Tower

 

of the Sun would always be brightly lit. The Speaker draped his free arm over his face. A

 

cool breeze played over his arms as it whistled through the tower windows. Even that was

 


 

soothing. On this day, the Speaker of the Sun needed every bit of peace he could find as

 

he wrestled with the problem of succession.

 

    Qualinesti must have an heir. Kith-Kanan had sworn, before the gods and the

 

assembly at Pax Tharkas, that he would step aside when the fortress was complete.

 

Weekly dispatches from the chief architect and master builder, the dwarf Feldrin

 

Feldspar, kept him informed of the progress there. Pax Tharkas was ninety percent done;

 

with good weather and no delays, the citadel would be finished in another two or three

 

years. Kith-Kanan must name his successor soon.

 

    For too long, the Speaker had consoled himself with the thought that his only son

 

was merely wayward, but now there was no denying that the problems ran much deeper.

 

His own son involved in the slave trade. . . .

 

    With Ulvian obviously unworthy for the position of Speaker of the Sun, Kith-Kanan

 

pondered other candidates. Verhanna? Not a good choice. She was brave, intelligent, and

 

as honorable as any highborn Silvanesti, but also temperamental and sometimes prone to

 

harshness. In spite of Kith-Kanan's dreams of equality in his kingdom, the fact that

 

Verhanna was half-human would also weigh against her in the minds of some of his full-

 

blooded elven subjects. These prejudices were kept carefully tucked away, out of plain

 

sight, but the Speaker knew they existed still. Coupled with the fact that Verhanna was

 

female, that bias would be too much to overcome.

 

    "You could marry again," said a quiet voice.

 

    Kith-Kanan descended the rostrum and looked around. The tower was pitch-dark,

 

though he knew it wasn't yet midday. Standing to his left, between two of the pillars that

 

ringed the chamber, was a strange elf, wreathed in yellow light.

 

    "Who are you?" demanded Kith-Kanan.

 


 

    The halo of light followed the stranger as he approached the rostrum, though the elf

 

carried no lamp or candle. He was clad entirely in a suit of close-fitting red leather. A

 

scarlet cape hung from one shoulder and brushed the floor. The stranger's ears were

 

unusually tall and pointed, even for an elf, and his long hair was a vivid ruby red.

 

    "I am one who can help you," the intruder said. He spoke with an air of supreme

 

self-assurance. Now that he was closer, Kith-Kanan saw that his eyes were black and

 

glittering, set in a face as dead white as dry bones. No lines at all touched the face; it

 

might have been carved from purest alabaster.

 

    "Begone from here," Kith-Kanan said sharply. "You intrude on my privacy." He

 

faced the stranger, his muscles tensed for fight or flight.

 

    "Come, come! You're in a quandary about your son, aren't you? I can help. I have

 

considerable power."

 

    Kith-Kanan knew this elf must be, at the very least, a powerful sorcerer. The tower

 

was wrapped in protective spells, and for any malign being to enter would require great

 

mastery of magic. "What is your name?"

 

    The red elf shrugged, and his cape rippled like waves in a scarlet sea. "I have many

 

names. You may call me Dru if you like." With one hand at his slim waist and the other

 

held out before him, Dru made a graceful, mocking bow. "You came here seeking help

 

from higher powers, Great Speaker, so I have answered your call."

 

    Kith-Kanan's brows arched. "Are you mortal?"

 

    "Does it matter? I can help you. Your son has offended you, and you want to know

 

what to do about it . . . yes? You are Speaker of the Sun. Condemn him," Dru said

 

smoothly.

 

    "He is my only son."

 


 

    "And yet you might have another, if you marry again. For a slight fee, I can procure

 

for you the mate of your heart's desire!" He smiled, revealing teeth as red as his hair.

 

Kith-Kanan recoiled and moved quickly back to the rostrum, where the potent magic

 

symbols set in the floor mosaic would protect him from evil spells.

 

    "I will not bargain with an evil spirit," he exclaimed. "Begone! Trouble me no

 

more!"

 

    The red elf laughed, the loud peals echoing weirdly in the black, empty tower. "Our

 

bargain has already commenced, Great Speaker."

 

    Kith-Kanan was confused. Already commenced? Had he somehow summoned this

 

odd being from the netherworld?

 

    "Of course you did," Dru said, reading his thoughts. "I'm a busy fellow. I don't waste

 

my valuable time appearing to just anyone. Here, son of Sithel. Let me demonstrate what

 

I can do."

 

    Dru brought his white hands together with a loud clap. Kith-Kanan felt a breeze rush

 

by him, as if all the air in the tower gusted toward the strange elf. With a crackling hiss, a

 

ball of fire appeared suddenly between Dru's palms, and he flung it to the floor, where it

 

burst. The loud crack and blinding flash caused Kith-Kanan to stagger back. When his

 

vision cleared, he beheld a transformed scene.

 

    Kith-Kanan no longer stood in the Tower of the Sun, though its rostrum was still

 

solid beneath his feet. His surroundings were those of a smaller tower. By the stonework

 

and the shape of the windows, he knew that it was in Silvanost. Tapestries in shades of

 

pale green and blue hung on the walls, depicting woodland scenes and elegantly clad

 

ladies. Sunlight filled the room.

 


 

    A sigh caught his ears. He turned and saw a large, heavy wooden chair, its back to

 

him, facing an open window. Someone was sitting in the chair. Kith-Kanan couldn't see

 

who.

 

    Suddenly the someone stood. Kith-Kanan glimpsed her beautiful red hair and his

 

breath caught.

 

    "Hermathya," he whispered.

 

    "She cannot see or hear us," Dru informed him. "You see how she languishes in

 

Silvanost, unloved and unloving. I can have her at your side in the blink of any eye."

 

    Hermathya . . . the love of his youth. For many years the wife of his twin brother,

 

Sithas. She stared straight through the spot where Kith-Kanan stood, piercing him

 

unknowingly with her deep blue eyes. Her red-gold hair was piled up on her head in

 

elaborate braids, showing the elegant shape of her upswept ears, and she wore a gown of

 

the finest spider's web gold, thin and clinging. Once he had proposed marriage to her, but

 

his father, not knowing of their love, had betrothed her to Kith-Kanan's twin, Sithas. So

 

much time had passed since that distant day. Now Sithas was leader of the Silvanesti

 

elves, as Kith-Kanan ruled the Qualinesti.

 

    Lonely and a bit self-pitying, Kith-Kanan felt himself sorely tempted. Always

 

Hermathya's great beauty had been able to arouse him. An elf would have to be made of

 

stone not to feel something in her presence.

 

    Just as he was about to ask Dru his terms, Hermathya turned away. She lunged at the

 

open window before her chair. Kith-Kanan cried out and reached for her.

 

    Before she could hurtle through the high window, Hermathya was brought up short.

 

The harsh clank of metal shocked Kith-Kanan. Beneath the hem of her golden gown, he

 

spied an iron fetter, locked about her right ankle and attached by a chain to the heavy

 


 

chair. The chair was fastened to the floor. Though the fetter was lined with padded cloth,

 

it gripped Hermathya's slender ankle tightly.

 

    "What does this mean?" demanded Kith-Kanan.

 

    Dru seemed vexed. "A minor problem, Great Speaker. The lady Hermathya suffers

 

from despondency over the crippling of her son during the war and, I might add, over the

 

loss of your love. The Speaker of the Stars has ordered her chained so that she won't

 

harm herself."

 

    Hermathya had been staring with palpable longing at the open window. Her face was

 

as exquisitely lovely as Kith-Kanan remembered it. The high cheekbones, the delicately

 

slender nose, and skin as smooth as the finest silk. Time hadn't marked her at all. Once

 

more her faint sigh came to him, a sound full of sorrow and yearning. Kith-Kanan

 

squeezed his eyes shut. "Take me away," he hissed. "I cannot bear to see this."

 

    "As you wish."

 

    The dark embrace of the Tower of the Sun in Qualinost returned.

 

    Kith-Kanan shuddered. Hermathya had been out of his thoughts, and out of his heart,

 

for centuries. The break between him and his twin brother had been widened by the

 

passion Kith-Kanan had felt for Hermathya. Time and other loves had practically

 

extinguished the old fire. Why did he feel such longing for her now?

 

    "Old wounds are the deepest and the hardest to heal," said Dru, once more answering

 

Kith's thoughts.

 

    "I don't believe any of this," the Speaker snapped. "You created that scene with your

 

magic to deceive me."

 

    Dru sighed loudly and circled the rostrum, his yellow aura moving with him. "Ah,

 

such lack of faith," Dru said sardonically. "All I offered was true. The lady can be yours

 

again if you meet my terms."

 


 

    Kith-Kanan folded his arms. "Which are what?"

 

    The red elf pressed his hands together prayerfully, but the expression on his face was

 

anything but pious. "Permit the passage of slave caravans from Ergoth and Silvanesti

 

through your realm," he said quickly.

 

    "Never!" Kith-Kanan strode toward Dru, who did not retreat. The strange elf's

 

yellow aura stopped the Speaker's advance. When he, reached out to touch the golden

 

shell, he snatched his fingers back as if they'd been burned. But the glow was bizarrely,

 

intensely cold.

 

    "You are brave," Dru mused, "but do not try to lay hands on me again."

 

    At that moment, Kith-Kanan realized who Dru really was, and for one of the few

 

times in his life, he was truly frightened.

 

    "I know you," he said in a voice that wavered, though he fought to keep it steady.

 

"You are the one who corrupts those beset by adversity." Almost too softly to be heard,

 

he added, "Hiddukel."

 

    The God of Evil Bargains, whose sacred color was red, bowed. "You are tiresome in

 

your virtues," he remarked. "Is there nothing you want? I can fill this tower twenty times

 

with gold or silver or jewels. What do you say to that?" His red eyebrows rose

 

questioningly.

 

    "Treasure will not solve my problems."

 

    "Think of the good you could do with it all." Hiddukel's voice dripped with

 

malicious sarcasm. "You could buy all the slaves in the world and set them free."

 

    Kith-Kanan backed away toward the rostrum. It was his safe haven, where not even

 

the evil god's magic could reach him. "Why do you concern yourself with the slave trade,

 

Lord of the Broken Scales?" he asked.

 


 

    The god's elven form shrugged. "I concern myself with all such commerce. I am the

 

patron deity of slavers."

 

    The stone of the rostrum bumped against Kith-Kanan's heels. Confidently he climbed

 

backward onto it. "I refuse all your offers, Hiddukel," he declared. "Go away, and trouble

 

me no further."

 

    The look of malign enjoyment left the red-garbed elf's face. Addressed by his true

 

name, he had no choice but to depart. His pointed features twisted into a hateful grimace.

 

    "Your troubles will increase, Speaker of the Sun," the God of Demons spat. "That

 

which you have created will come forth to strike you down. The hammer shall break the

 

anvil. Lightning shall cleave the rock!"

 

    "Go!" Kith-Kanan cried, his heart pounding in his throat. The single syllable

 

reverberated in the air.

 

    Hiddukel backed away a pace and spun on one toe. His cape swirled around like a

 

flame. Faster and faster the god whirled, until his elven form vanished, replaced by a

 

whirling column of red smoke and fire. Kith-Kanan threw up an arm to shield his face

 

from the virulent display. The voice of Hiddukel boomed in his head.

 

    "The time of wonders is at hand, foolish king! Forces older than the gods surround

 

you! Only the power of the Queen of Darkness can withstand them! Beware!"

 

    The fiery specter of Hiddukel flew apart, and in two heartbeats, the Tower of the Sun

 

was quiet once more. The deep darkness that filled it remained, however. Sweating and

 

shaking from his near escape from the Collector of Souls, Kith-Kanan sank to the floor.

 

His body was wracked with spasms he could not control. A jumble of thoughts and

 

images warred inside his brain­Ulvian, Hermathya, Suzine, Verhanna, his brother

 

Sithas­all surmounted by the leering visage of Hiddukel. He felt as if his soul was the

 

object of a deadly tug-of-war.

 


 

    Kith-Kanan's entire body ached. He was limp, worn out, exhausted. Rest was what

 

he craved. He must rest. His eyelids fluttered closed.

 

                                          *   *   *   *   *

 

    "Sire? Speaker?" called a faint voice.

 

    Kith-Kanan pushed himself up on his hands. "Who is it?" he replied hoarsely,

 

brushing hair from his eyes.

 

    A glow appeared from the entry hall. This time it was the mundane light of a lamp in

 

the hands of his castellan.

 

    "I'm here, Tam."

 

    "Great Speaker, are you well? We could not reach you, and­and the whole city has

 

been plunged into darkness! The people are terrified!"

 

    Concentrating his strength, Kith-Kanan struggled to his feet. Behind the agitated

 

Tamanier were several silent Guards of the Sun. Their usual jaunty posture was gone,

 

replaced by an attitude of tense fear.

 

    "What do you mean?" the Speaker demanded shakily. "How long have I been in

 

here? Is it night?"

 

    Tamanier came closer. His face was white and drawn. "Sire, it is barely noon! Not

 

long after you entered the tower to meditate, a curtain of blackness descended on the city.

 

I came at once to inform you, but the tower doors were barred by invisible forces! We

 

were frantic. Suddenly, only a few moments ago, they swung wide."

 

    Kith-Kanan adjusted his rumpled clothing and combed his hair back with his fingers.

 

His mind was racing. The tower seemed normal, except for the darkness cloaking it.

 

There was no trace of Hiddukel. He took a deep, restoring breath and said, "Come. We

 

will see what the situation is and then calm the people."

 


 

    They went to the entrance, Kith-Kanan striding as purposefully as his nerves and

 

throbbing muscles would allow. Tamanier hurried along with the lamp. The guards at the

 

door presented arms and waited dutifully for the Speaker to pass. The great doors stood

 

open.

 

    Kith-Kanan paused, his feet on the broad granite sill. The gloom beyond was intense,

 

far denser than ordinary night. In spite of the torches carried by Tamanier Ambrodel and

 

several warriors, Kith-Kanan could barely see to the bottom of the tower steps. The

 

torchlight seemed muffled by the jet-black fog. There were no lights to be seen in the

 

gloom, though from this high vantage point, all of Qualinost should be spread out before

 

him. Overhead, no stars or moons were visible.

 

    "You say this happened just after I entered the tower?" he asked tensely.

 

    "Yes, sire," replied the castellan.

 

    Kith-Kanan nodded. Was this some spell of Hiddukel's, to coerce him into accepting

 

the god's vile bargain? No, not likely. The Lord of the Broken Scales was a deceiver, not

 

an extorter. Hiddukel's victims damned themselves. Their torment was thus sweeter to the

 

wicked god.

 

    "It's very strange," Kith-Kanan said in his best royal manner. "Still, it doesn't seem

 

dangerous, merely frightening. Is the prisoner still in Arcuballis Tower?" No need to

 

bandy the prince's name about.

 

    One of the guards stepped forward. "I can answer that, sire. I was at the tower myself

 

when the blackness fell. Lieutenant Merithynos thought it might be part of a plot to free

 

his prisoner. No such attempt was made, however, Highness."

 

    "This is no mortal's spell," remarked Kith-Kanan. He swept a hand. through the

 

murk, half expecting it to stain his skin. It didn't. The gloom that looked so solid felt

 

completely insubstantial, not even damp like a normal fog.

 


 

    "Tell Merithynos to bring his prisoner to my house," Kith-Kanan ordered briskly.

 

"Keep him sequestered there until I return."

 

    "Where are you going, sire?" asked Tamanier, confused and unsure.

 

    "Among my people, to reassure them."

 

    With no escort and bearing his own torch, Kith-Kanan left the Tower of the Sun. For

 

the next several hours, he walked the streets of his capital, meeting common folk and

 

nobles alike. Fear had thickened the air as surely as the weird gloom. When word spread

 

that Kith-Kanan was in the streets, the people came out of the towers and temples to see

 

him and to hear his calming words.

 

    "Oh, Great Speaker," lamented a young elf woman. "The blackness smothers me. I

 

cannot breathe!"

 

    He put a hand on her shoulder. "It's good air," he assured her. "Can't you smell the

 

flowers in the gardens of Mantis?" His temple was close by. The aroma of the hundreds

 

of blooming roses that surrounded it scented the still air.

 

    The elf woman inhaled with effort, but her face cleared somewhat as she did. "Yes,

 

sire," she said more calmly. "Yes . . . I can smell them."

 

    "Mantis would not waste his perfume in suffocating air," said the Speaker kindly.

 

"It's fear that chokes you. Stay here by the gardens until you feel better."

 

    He left her and moved on, trailed by a large crowd of worried citizens. Their pale

 

faces moved in and out of the gloom, barely lit by the scores of blazing brands that had

 

sprouted from every window and in every hand. Where the avenue from the Tower of the

 

Sun joined the street that curved northwest to the tower keep called Sithel, Kith-Kanan

 

found a band of crafters and temple acolytes debating in loud, angry voices. He stepped

 

between the factions and asked them why they were arguing.

 


 

    "It's the end of the world!" declared a human man, a coppersmith by the look of the

 

snips and pliers dangling from his oily leather vest. "The gods have abandoned us."

 

    "Nonsense!" spat an acolyte of Astra, the patron god of the elves. "This is merely

 

some strange quirk of the weather. It will pass."

 

    "Weather? Black as pitch at noon?" exclaimed the coppersmith. His companions­a

 

mix of elves and humans, all metal crafters­loudly supported him.

 

    "You should heed the learned priest," Kith-Kanan said firmly. "He is versed in these

 

matters. If the gods wanted to destroy the world, they wouldn't wrap us in a blanket of

 

night. They'd use fire and flood and shake the ground. Don't you agree?"

 

    The smith hardly wanted to contradict his sovereign, but he said sullenly, "Then why

 

don't they do something about it?" He gestured to the half-dozen young clerics facing

 

him.

 

    "Have you tried?" Kith-Kanan asked the acolyte of Astra.

 

    The cleric frowned. "None of our banishing spells worked, Highness. The darkness

 

is not caused by mortal or divine magic," he said. The other clerics behind him murmured

 

their agreement.

 

    "How long do you think it will last?"

 

    The young elf could only shrug helplessly.

 

    The coppersmith snorted, and Kith-Kanan turned to him. "You ought to be grateful,

 

my friend, for this darkness."

 

    That caught the fellow off guard. "Grateful, Majesty?"

 

    "It's pitch-black on a working day. I'd say you have a holiday." The crafters laughed

 

nervously. "If I were you, I'd hie on over to the nearest tavern and celebrate your good

 

fortune!" A broad grin brightened the coppersmith's face, and the disputants began to

 

disperse.

 


 

    Kith-Kanan continued on his way. Passing a side street on his right, he halted when

 

he heard weeping coming from the dim alley.

 

    The Speaker turned into the side street, following the sound of sobbing. Suddenly a

 

hand reached out of the dark and pressed against his chest, stopping him.

 

    "Who are you?" he said sharply, thrusting the torch toward the one who'd halted him.

 

    "I live here. Gusar is my name."

 

    The weak torchlight showed Kith-Kanan an old human, bald and white-browed.

 

Gusar's eyes were white, too. Cataracts had taken his sight.

 

    "Someone is in trouble down there," said the Speaker, relieved. An old blind man

 

was hardly a threat.

 

    "I know. I was going to help when you blundered up behind me."

 

    Kith-Kanan bristled at the man's bluntness. "Get that brand out of my face, and I'll be

 

on my way," the blind man continued.

 

    The monarch of Qualinesti drew his torch back. Gusar moved off with the easy

 

confidence of one used to darkness. Kith-Kanan trailed silently behind the blind man. In

 

short order, they came upon a trio of elf children huddled by the closed door of a tower

 

home.

 

    "Hello," Gusar said cheerfully. "Is someone crying?"

 

    "We can't find our house," wailed an elf girl. "We looked and looked, but we couldn't

 

see the daisies that grow by our door!"

 

    "Daisies, eh? I know that house. It's only a few steps more. I'll take you there." Gusar

 

extended a gnarled hand. The elf children regarded him with misgiving.

 

    "Are you a troll?" asked the smallest boy, his blue eyes huge in his tiny face.

 

    Gusar cackled. "No. I'm just an old, blind man." He pointed a thumb over his

 

shoulder. "My friend has a torch to help light your way."

 


 

    Kith-Kanan was surprised. He hadn't realized the old man knew he was still there.

 

    The girl who'd spoken got up first and took the human's hand. The two boys

 

followed their sister, and together the children and the old human wandered down the

 

lane. Kith-Kanan followed at a distance, until the little girl turned and announced, "We

 

don't need you, sir. The old one can see us home."

 

    "Fare you well, then," Kith-Kanan called. The bowed back of the aged human and

 

the flaxen hair of the elf children quickly vanished in the inky air.

 

    For the first time in days, the Speaker smiled. His dream of a nation where all races

 

could live in peace was truly taking hold when three children of pure Silvanesti blood

 

could fearlessly take the hand of a gnarled old human and let him lead them home.

 


 

                                             4

 

                              The Lightning and the Rock

 

 

 

 

    On the morning of what would have been the fourth day of darkness, a ball of red

 

fire appeared in the eastern sky. The people of Qualinost swarmed into the streets,

 

fearfully pointing at the dangerous-looking orb. Within minutes, dread turned to relief

 

when they realized that what they were seeing was the sun, burning through the gloom.

 

The darkness lifted steadily, and the day dawned bright and cloudless.

 

    Kith-Kanan looked out over his city from the window of his private rooms. The

 

rose-quartz towers sparkled cleanly in the newborn sunlight, and the trees seemed to bask

 

in the warmth. All over Qualinost, in every window and every gracefully curving street,

 

faces were upturned to the luxurious heat and light. As the Speaker looked south across

 

his city, the songs and laughter of spontaneous revelry reached his ears.

 

    The return of light was a great relief to Kith-Kanan. For the past three days, he had

 

done nothing but try to hold his people together, reassuring them that the end of the world

 

was not nigh. After two days of darkness, emissaries had arrived in Qualinost from

 

Ergoth and Thorbardin, seeking answers from the Speaker of the Sun as to the cause of

 

the fearful gloom. Kith-Kanan had his own ideas, but didn't share them with the

 

emissaries. Some new power was rising from a long sleep. Hiddukel had said it was a

 

power older even than the gods. The Speaker did not yet know what its purpose was, and

 

he didn't want to spread alarms through the world based on his own flimsy theories.

 

    From all over his realm, people poured into Qualinost, clogging the bridges and

 

straining the resources of the city. Everyone was afraid of the unknown darkness. Fear

 

made allies of the oldest enemies, too. From outside Kith-Kanan's enlightened kingdom

 


 

came humans and elves' who had fought each other in the Kinslayer Wars. During the

 

darkness, they had huddled together around bonfires, praying for deliverance.

 

    From his window overlooking the sunlit city, Kith-Kanan mused. Perhaps that was

 

the reason for it­to bring us all together.

 

    There was a soft, firm knock at the door. Kith-Kanan turned his back on the city and

 

called, "Enter." Tamanier Ambrodel appeared in the doorway and bowed.

 

    "The emissaries of Ergoth and Thorbardin have departed," the castellan reported,

 

hands folded in front of him. "In better spirits than when they arrived, I might add, sire."

 

    "Good. Now perhaps I can deal with other weighty matters. Send Prince Ulvian and

 

the warrior Merithynos to me at once."

 

    "At once, Majesty" was Tamanier's quiet reply.

 

    As soon as the castellan had departed, Kith-Kanan moved to his writing table and sat

 

down. He took out a fresh sheet of foolscap. Dipping the end of a fine stylus into a jar of

 

ink, he began to write. He was still writing when Ulvian and Merith presented

 

themselves.

 

    "Well, Father, I hope this ridiculous business is over," Ulvian said with affected

 

injury. He was still clad in the crimson doublet and silver-gray trousers he'd been cap-

 

tured in. "I've been bored silly, with no one to talk to but this tiresome warrior of yours."

 

    Merith's hand tightened on the pommel of his sword. His cobalt-blue eyes stared

 

daggers at the prince. Kith-Kanan forestalled the lieutenant's offended retort.

 

    "That's enough," the Speaker said firmly. He finished writing, melted a bit of sealing

 

wax on the bottom of the sheet, and pressed his signet ring into the soft blue substance.

 

When the seal was cool, he rolled the foolscap into a scroll and tied it with a thin blue

 

ribbon. This he likewise sealed with wax.

 


 

    "Lieutenant Merithynos, you will convey this message to Feldrin Feldspar, the

 

master builder who directs the work at Pax Tharkas," said the Speaker, rising and holding

 

out the scroll. Merith accepted it, though he looked perplexed.

 

    "Am I to give up guarding the prince, Majesty?" he asked.

 

    "Not at all. The prince is to accompany you to Pax Tharkas."

 

    Kith-Kanan's eyes met his son's. Ulvian frowned.

 

    "What's in Pax Tharkas for me?" he asked suspiciously.

 

    "I am sending you to school," his father replied. "Master Feldrin is to be your

 

schoolmaster."

 

    Ulvian laughed. "You mean to make an architect out of me?"

 

    "I am putting you in Feldrin's hands as a common laborer­a slave, in fact. You will

 

work every day for no wage and receive only the meanest provender. At night, you will

 

be locked in your hut and guarded by Lieutenant Merithynos."

 

    Ulvian's confident smirk vanished. Hazel eyes wide, he backed away a few steps,

 

falling to one of the Speaker's couches. His face was pale with shock.

 

    "You can't mean it," he whispered. More loudly, he added, "You can't do this."

 

    "I am the Speaker of the Sun," Kith-Kanan said. Though his heart was breaking with

 

the punishment he was visiting on his only son, the Speaker's demeanor was firm and

 

unyielding.

 

    The prince's head shook back and forth, as if denying what he was hearing. "You

 

can't make me a slave." He leapt to his feet and his voice became a shout. "I am your son!

 

I am Prince of Qualinesti!"

 

    "Yes, you are, and you have broken my law. I'm not doing this on a whim, Ullie. I

 

hope it will teach you the true meaning of slavery­the cruelty, the degradation, the pain

 


 

and suffering. Maybe then you will understand the horror of what you've done. Maybe

 

then you'll know why I hate it, and why you should hate it, too."

 

    Ulvian's outrage wilted. "How­how long will I be there?" he asked haltingly.

 

    "As long as necessary. I'll visit you, and if I'm convinced you've learned your lesson,

 

I'll release you. What's more, I will forgive you and publicly declare you my successor."

 

    That seemed to restore the prince somewhat. His gaze flickered toward Merith, who

 

was standing at rigid attention, though his expression reflected frank astonishment.

 

Ulvian said, "What if I run away?"

 

    "Then you will lose everything and be declared outlaw in your own country,"

 

Kith-Kanan said evenly.

 

    Ulvian advanced on his father. There was betrayal and disbelief in his eyes, and rage

 

as well. Merith tensed and prepared to subdue the prince if he attacked the Speaker, but

 

Ulvian stopped a pace short of his father.

 

    "When do I go?" he asked through clenched teeth.

 

    "Now."

 

    A roll of thunder punctuated Kith-Kanan's pronouncement. Merith stepped forward

 

and took hold of the prince's arm, but Ulvian twisted out of his grasp.

 

    "I'll come back, Father. I will be the Speaker of the Sun!" the prince vowed in

 

ringing tones.

 

    "I hope you will, Son. I hope you will."

 

    A second crash of thunder finished the confrontation. Merith led the prince

 

reluctantly away.

 

    Hands clasped tightly behind his back, Kith-Kanan returned to his window.

 

Melancholy washed over him in slow, steady waves as he gazed up at the cloudless sky.

 

Then, even as his mind was far away, from the corner of one eye, he spied a bolt of

 


 

lightning. It flashed out of the blue vault and dove at the ground, striking somewhere in

 

the southwestern district of Qualinost. A deep boom reverberated over the city, rattling

 

the shutters on the Speaker's house.

 

    Thunder and lightning from a clear sky? Kith-Kanan's inner torment was pushed

 

aside for a moment as he digested this remarkable occurrence.

 

    The time of wonders was indeed at hand.

 

                                         *   *   *   *   *

 

    Twenty riders followed the dusty trail through the sparse forest of maple saplings,

 

most no taller than the horses. Twenty elven warriors, under Varhanna's command and

 

guided by their new kender scout, Rufus Wrinklecap, rode slowly in single file. No one

 

spoke. The muggy morning air oppressed them­that, and the cold trail they were trying to

 

follow. Four days out of Qualinost, and this was the only sign of slavers they'd found. It

 

hadn't helped that they'd had to flounder on in three days of total darkness. Rufus warned

 

the captain that the tracks they were tracing were many weeks old and might lead to

 

nothing.

 

    "Never mind," she grumbled. "Keep at it. Lord Ambrodel sent us here for a reason."

 

    "Yes, my captain."

 

    The kender eased his big horse a little farther away from the ill-tempered Verhanna.

 

Rufus was a comic sight on horseback; with his shocking red topknot and less than four

 

feet of height, he hardly looked like a valiant elven warrior. Perched on a chestnut

 

charger that was bigger than any other animal in the troop, he resembled a small child

 

astride a bullock.

 

    During their brief stopover in Qualinost, while the troops were reprovisioned and a

 

horse was secured for him, the kender had bought himself some fancy clothes. His blue

 

velvet breeches, vest, and white silk shirt beneath a vivid red cape made quite a contrast

 


 

to the armor-clad elves. Atop his head perched an enormous broad-brimmed blue hat,

 

complete with a white plume and a hole in the crown to allow his long topknot to trail

 

behind.

 

    They had passed through the easternmost fringe of the Kharolis Mountains onto the

 

great central plain, the scene of so many battles during the Kinslayer War. Now and then

 

the troop saw silent reminders of that awful conflict: a burned village, abandoned to

 

weeds and carrion birds; a cairn of stones, under which were buried the bodies of fallen

 

soldiers of Ergoth in a mass grave. Occasionally their horses' hooves turned up battered,

 

rusting helmets lodged in the soil. The skulls of horses and the bones of elves shone in

 

the tall grass like ivory talismans, warning of the folly of kings.

 

    Once every hour Verhanna halted her warriors and ordered Rufus to check the trail.

 

The nimble kender leaped from his horse's back or slid off its wide rump and scrambled

 

through the grass and saplings, sniffing and peering for telltale signs.

 

    During the third such halt of the morning, Verhanna guided her mount to where

 

Rufus squatted, busily rubbing blades of grass between his fingers.

 

    "Well, Wart, what do you find? Have the slavers come this way?" she asked, leaning

 

over her animal's glossy neck.

 

    "Difficult to say, Captain. Very difficult. Other tall folk have passed this way since

 

the slavers. The trails are muddled," muttered Rufus. He put a green stem in his mouth

 

and nibbled it. "The grass is still sweet," he observed. "Others came from the east and

 

passed through during the days of darkness."

 

    "What others?" she said, frowning.

 

    The kender hopped up, dropping the grass and dusting off his fancy blue pants.

 

"Travelers. Going that way," he said, pointing to the direction they'd come from

 

Qualinost. "They were in deeply laden, two-wheeled carts."

 


 

    Verhanna regarded her scout sourly. "We didn't pass anyone."

 

    "In that darkness, who knows what we passed? The Dragonqueen herself could've

 

ridden by clad in cloth o' gold and we wouldn't have seen her."

 

    She straightened in the saddle and replied, "What about our quarry?"

 

    Rufus rubbed his flat, sunburned nose. "They split up."

 

    "What?" Verhanna's shout brought the other troopers to attention. Her

 

second-in-command, a Kagonesti named Tremellan, hurried to her side. She waved him

 

off and dismounted, slashing through the tall grass to Rufus. Planting her mailed hands

 

on her hips, the captain demanded, "Where did they split up?"

 

    Rufus took two steps forward and one sideways.

 

    "Here," he said, pointing at the trodden turf. "Six riders, the same ones we've been

 

chasing all along. Two went east. They were elder folk, like the Speaker." By this, the

 

kender meant the two were Silvanesti. "Two others went north. They smelled of fur and

 

had thick shoes. Humans, I'd say. The last two continued south, and they're tricky.

 

Barefoot, they are, and they smell just like the wind. Dark elders, and wise in the ways of

 

the chase."

 

    "What does he mean?" Verhanna muttered to Tremellan.

 

    "Dark elders are my people," offered the Kagonesti officer. "They probably work as

 

scouts for the other four. They find travelers, or a lonely farm, and lead the slavers there."

 

    Verhanna slapped her palms together with a metallic clink. "All right. Gather the

 

troop around! I want to speak to them."

 

    The elven warriors made a circle around their captain and the kender scout.

 

Verhanna grinned at them, arms folded across her chest.

 

    "The enemy has made a mistake," she declared, rocking on her heels. "They've split

 

themselves into three groups. The humans and Silvanesti are headed for their homelands,

 


 

probably carrying the gold they made selling slaves. Without their Kagonesti scouts, they

 

don't stand a chance against us. Sergeant Tremellan, I want you to take a contingent of

 

ten and ride after the Silvanesti. Take them alive if you can. Corporal Zilaris, you take

 

five troopers and follow the humans. They shouldn't give you much trouble. Four

 

warriors will come with me to find the Kagonesti."

 

    "Excuse me, Captain, but I don't think that's wise," Tremellan said. "I don't need ten

 

warriors to catch the Silvanesti slavers. You should take more with you. The dark elders

 

will be the hardest to catch."

 

    "He's right." chimed in Rufus. His topknot bobbed as he nodded vigorously.

 

    "Who's captain here?" Verhanna demanded. "Don't question my orders, Sergeant.

 

You don't imagine I need numbers to track the woods-wise Kagonesti, do you? No, of

 

course not! Stealth is what's needed, Sergeant. My orders stand."

 

    A rumble of thunder rolled across the plain and was ignored. Without further

 

discussion, Tremellan collected half the warriors and redistributed food and water among

 

them. He formed his group around him while Verhanna gave him final orders.

 

    "Pursue them hard, Sergeant," she urged. Her blood was up, and her brown eyes

 

were brilliant. "They've a week's head start, but they might not yet know anyone is after

 

them, so they won't be moving fast."

 

    "And the border, Captain?" asked Tremellan.

 

    "Don't talk to me about borders," snapped the captain. "Get those damned slavers!

 

This is no time for faint hearts or half measures!"

 

    Tremellan suppressed his irritation, saluted, and spurred his horse. The troop rode off

 

through the maple saplings as thunder boomed at their backs.

 

    Verhanna felt a tug on her haqueton. She turned and looked down, seeing Rufus

 

standing close beside her. "What is it?"

 


 

    "Look up. There are no clouds, " he said, turning his small face heavenward.

 

"Thunder, but no clouds."

 

    "So the storm is over the horizon," Verhanna replied briskly. She left the kender still

 

staring at the clear-blue sky. Corporal Zilaris took his detachment and headed north after

 

the human slavers. Verhanna was watching them recede in the distance when suddenly a

 

bolt of lightning lanced down a scant mile away. Dirt flew up in the air, and the crack of

 

thunder was like a blow from a mace.

 

    "By Astra!" she exclaimed. "That was close!"

 

    The next one was closer still. With no warning, a column of blue-white fire slammed

 

into the ground less than fifty paces from Verhanna, Rufus, and the remaining warriors.

 

The horses screamed and reared, some falling back on their startled riders. Verhanna, still

 

on the ground, kept a tight hand on her straining mount's bridle. Rufus had just

 

remounted, and when his horse began to snort and dance, the kender climbed onto its

 

neck to get a better hold. His cape flopped over the horse's eyes, a fortuitous accident,

 

and the beast calmed.

 

    The shock of the lightning strike passed, and the elves slowly recovered. One warrior

 

lay moaning on the ground, his leg broken when his horse fell on him. Verhanna and the

 

others set to binding his shattered limb. Rufus, not being needed, wandered over to the

 

crater gouged by the lightning.

 

    The hole was twenty feet across and nearly as deep. The sides of the pit were black

 

and steaming. Tiny flames licked the dry prairie grass around the rim of the hole. Rufus

 

stamped on the fires he saw and gazed with awe at the gaping pit. A shadow fell over

 

him. He turned to see that Verhanna had joined him.

 

    "Someone's hurling thunderbolts at us, my captain," he said seriously.

 


 

     "Rot," was her reply, though her tone was uncertain. "It was just an act of nature."

 

The next flash of lightning came in an instant. Verhanna uttered a brief warning cry and

 

threw herself down. The bolt struck some distance away, and she sheepishly raised her

 

head. Rufus was shading his eyes, staring at the southern horizon.

 

     "It's moving that way," he announced.

 

     Verhanna stood up and brushed dirt and grass from her haqueton. Her cheeks were

 

stained crimson with embarrassment, and she was grateful that the kender ignored her

 

nervous dive for cover. "What's moving away?" she asked quickly.

 

     "The lightning," he replied. "Three strikes we've seen, each one farther south than the

 

last."

 

     "That's crazy," said Verhanna dismissively. "Lightning is random."

 

     "Ain't no ordinary lightning," the kender insisted.

 

     The warriors made their injured comrade comfortable, and when Verhanna and

 

Rufus rejoined them, she ordered one of the warriors to remain with the injured elf to

 

help him back to Qualinost.

 

     "Now we are four," she remarked as they formed up to resume their hunt. A glance at

 

Rufus caused her to amend her statement. "Four and a half, I mean."

 

     "Not good odds, captain," one of the warriors said.

 

     "Even if I were alone, I'd go on," stated Verhanna firmly. "These criminals must be

 

caught, and they will be."

 

     To the south, where the plain seemed to stretch on endlessly, the flash and crack of

 

lightning continued. It was in that direction the little band rode.

 

                                          *   *   *   *   *

 

     The audience hall of the Speaker's house was crammed with Qualinesti, all talking at

 

once. The breeze stirred up by the roiling crowd had set the banners hanging from the

 


 

high ceiling to waving gently. The scarlet flags were embroidered in gold, hand-worked

 

by hundreds of elven and human girls. The crest of Kith-Kanan's family­the royal family

 

of Qualinesti, not the old line in Silvanost­was a composite of the sun and the Tree of

 

Life.

 

    In the midst of this maelstrom, the Speaker of the Sun sat calmly on his throne while

 

his aides tried to sort out the confusion. However, his inner conflict showed in the small

 

circular movements of his thumbs on the creamy wooden arm of his throne. The wood

 

was rare, a gift from an Ergothian trader who called it vallenwood and said it came from

 

trees that grew to enormous size. Once polished, the vallenwood seemed to glow with an

 

inner light. Kith-Kanan thought it the most beautiful wood in the world. It felt smooth

 

and comforting under his nervously moving fingers.

 

    Tamanier Ambrodel was arguing heatedly with Senators Clovanos and Xixis. "Four

 

towers have been toppled by lightning strikes!" Clovanos said, his voice becoming shrill.

 

"A dozen of my tenants were hurt. I want to know what's being done to stop all this!"

 

    "The Speaker is attending to the problem," Tamanier said, exasperated. His white

 

hair stood out from his head as he ran his hand through it in distraction. "Go home! You

 

are only adding to the problem by being hysterical."

 

    "We are senators of the Thalas-Enthia!" Xixis snapped. "We have a right to be

 

heard!"

 

    All through this mayhem, thunder boomed outside and flashes of lightning, mixed

 

with the bright morning sun, gave the hall eerie illumination. Kith-Kanan glanced out a

 

nearby window. Three columns of smoke were visible, rising from spots where trees had

 

been set afire by lightning. After two days of lightning, the damage was mounting.

 

    Kith-Kanan slowly rose to his feet. The crowd quickly fell silent and ceased its

 

nervous shuffling.

 


 

    "Good people," began the Speaker, "I understand your fear. First the darkness came,

 

weakening the crops and frightening the children. Yet the darkness left after causing no

 

real harm, as I promised it would. Today begins our third day of lightning­"

 

    "Cannot the priests deflect this plague of fire?" shouted a voice from the crowd.

 

Others took up the cry. "Is there no magic to defend us?"

 

    Kith-Kanan held up his hands. "There is no need to panic," he said loudly. "And the

 

answer is no. None of the clerics of the great temples has been able to dispel or deflect

 

any of the lightning."

 

    A low murmur of worry went through the assembly. "But there is no threat to the

 

city, I assure you!"

 

    "What about the towers that were knocked down?" demanded Clovanos. His graying

 

blond hair was coming loose from its confining ribbon, and small tendrils curled around

 

his angry face.

 

    From the rear of the hall, someone called out, "Those calamities are your fault,

 

Senator!"

 

    The mass of elves and humans parted to let Senator Irthenie approach the throne.

 

Dressed, as was her custom, in dyed leather and Kagonesti face paint, Irthenie cut an

 

arresting figure among the more conservatively attired senators and townsfolk.

 

    "I visited one of the fallen towers, Great Speaker. The lightning struck the open

 

ground nearby. The shock caused the tower to fall," announced Irthenie.

 

    "Mind your business, Kagonesti!" Clovanos growled.

 

    "She is minding her business as a senator," Kith-Kanan cut in sharply. "I know very

 

well you expect compensation for your lost property, Master Clovanos. But let Irthenie

 

finish what she has to say first."

 


 

    A flash of lightning highlighted the Speaker's face for a second, then passed away.

 

Chill winds blew through the audience hall. The banners suspended above the as-

 

semblage flapped and rippled.

 

    More calmly, Irthenie said, "The soil near Mackeli Tower is very sandy, Your

 

Majesty. I recall when Feldrin Feldspar erected that great tower keep. He had to sink a

 

foundation many, many feet in the ground until he struck bedrock."

 

    She turned to the fuming Senator Clovanos, eyeing him with disdain. "The good

 

senator's towers are in the southwestern district, next to Mackeli, and they had no such

 

deep foundations. It's a wonder they've stood this long."

 

    "Are you an architect?" Clovanos spat back. "What do you know of building?"

 

    "Is Senator Irthenie correct?" asked Kith-Kanan angrily. Before the fire in his

 

monarch's eyes and the dawning disgust evident in the faces around him, Clovanos

 

reluctantly admitted the accuracy of Irthenie's words. "I see," the Speaker concluded. "In

 

that case, the unhappy folk who lived in those unsafe towers shall receive compensation

 

from the royal treasury. You, Clovanos, shall get none. And be thankful I don't charge

 

you with endangering the lives of your tenants."

 

    With Clovanos thus humbled, the other complainants fell back, unwilling to risk the

 

Speaker's wrath. Sensing their honest fear, Kith-Kanan tried to raise their spirits.

 

    "Some of you may have heard of my contact with the gods just before the darkness

 

set in. I was told that there would appear wonders in the world, portents of some great

 

event to come. What the great event will be, I do not know, but I can assure you that

 

these wonders, while frightening, are not dangerous themselves. The darkness came and

 

went, and so shall the lightning. Our greatest enemy is fear, which drives many to hasty,

 

ill-conceived acts.

 


 

    "So I urge you again: Be of stout heart! We have all faced terror and death during the

 

great Kinslayer War. Can't we bear a little gloom and lightning? We are not children, to

 

cower before every crack of thunder. I will use all the wisdom and power at my

 

command to protect you, but if you all go home and reflect a bit, you'll soon realize there

 

is no real danger."

 

    "Unless you have Clovanos for a landlord," muttered Irthenie.

 

    Laughter rippled in the ranks around her. The Kagonesti woman's soft words were

 

repeated through the ranks until everyone in the hall was chortling in appreciation.

 

Clovanos's face turned beet red, and he stalked angrily out, with Xixis on his heels. Once

 

the two senators were gone, the laughter increased, and Kith-Kanan could afford to join

 

in. Much of the tension and anxiety of the past few days slipped away.

 

    Kith-Kanan sat back down on his throne. "Now," he said, stilling the mirth swelling

 

across the hall, "if you are here to petition for help due to damage caused by the darkness

 

or the lightning, please go to the antechamber, where my castellan and scribes will take

 

down your names and claims. Good day and good morrow, my people."

 

    The Qualinesti filed out of the hall. The last ones out were the royal guards, whom

 

Kith-Kanan dismissed. Irthenie remained behind. The aged elf woman walked with quick

 

strides to the window. Kith-Kanan joined her.

 

    "The merchants in the city squares say the lightning isn't in every country as the

 

darkness was," Irthenie informed him. "To the north, they haven't had any at all. To the

 

south, it's worse than here. I've heard tales of ships being blasted and sunk, and fires in

 

the southern forests all the way to Silvanesti."

 

    "We seem to be spared the worst," Kith-Kanan mused. He clasped his hands behind

 

his back.

 


 

    "Do you know what it all means?" the senator asked. "Old forest elves are incurably

 

curious. We want to know everything."

 

    He smiled. "You know as much as I do, old fox."

 

    "I may know a deal more, Kith. There's talk in the city about Ulvian. He's missed,

 

you know. His wastrel friends are asking for him, and rumors are rampant."

 

    The Speaker's good humor vanished. "What's being said?"

 

    "Almost the truth­that the prince committed some crime and you have exiled him for

 

a time," Irthenie replied. A sizzling lightning bolt hit the peak of the Tower of the Sun,

 

just across the square from the Speaker's house. Since the strange weather had begun, the

 

tower had been struck numerous times without effect. "His exact crime and place of exile

 

remain a secret," she added.

 

    Kith-Kanan nodded a slow affirmation. Irthenie pursed her thin lips. The yellow and

 

red lines on her face stood out starkly with the next lightning blast.

 

    "Why do you keep Ulvian's fate a secret?" she inquired. "His example would be a

 

good lesson to many other young scoundrels in Qualinost."

 

    "No. I will not humiliate him in public."

 

    Kith-Kanan turned his back to the display of heavenly fire and looked directly into

 

Irthenie's hazel eyes. "If Ulvian is to be Speaker after me, I wouldn't want his youthful

 

transgressions to hamper him for the rest of his life."

 

    The senator shrugged. "I understand, though it isn't how I would handle him. Perhaps

 

that's why you are the Speaker of the Sun and I am a harmless old widow you keep

 

around for gossip and advice."

 

    He chuckled in spite of himself. "You are many things, old friend, but a harmless old

 

widow is not one of them. That's like saying my grandfather Silvanos was a pretty good

 

warrior."

 


 

    The Speaker yawned and stretched his arms. Irthenie noticed the dark smudges under

 

his eyes and asked, "Are you sleeping well?" He admitted he was not.

 

    "Too many burdens and too many anxious dreams," Kith-Kanan said. "I wish I could

 

get away from the city for a while."

 

    "There is your grove."

 

    Kith-Kanan clapped his hands together softly. "You're right! You see? Your wits are

 

more than a little sharp. My mind is so muddled that I never even thought of that. I'll

 

leave word with Tam that I'm spending the day there. Perhaps the gods will favor me

 

again, and I'll discover the reason behind all these marvels."

 

    Kith-Kanan hurried to his private exit behind the Qualinesti throne. Irthenie went to

 

the main doors of the audience hall. She paused and looked back as Kith-Kanan

 

disappeared through the dark doorway. Thunder vibrated through the polished wooden

 

floor. Irthenie opened the doors and plunged into the crowd still milling in the Speaker's

 

antechamber.

 

                                          *   *   *   *   *

 

    There were no straight streets in Qualinost. The boundary of the city, laid out by

 

Kith-Kanan himself, was shaped like the keystone of an arch. The narrow north end of

 

the city faced the confluence of the two rivers that protected it. The Tower of the Sun and

 

the Speaker's house were at that end. The wide portion of the city, the southern end, faced

 

the high ground that eventually swelled into the Thorbardin peaks. Most of the common

 

folk lived there.

 

    In the very heart of Qualinost was the city's tallest hill. It boasted two important

 

features. First, the top of the hill was a huge flat plaza known as the Hall of the Sky, a

 

unique "building" without walls or roof. Here sacred ceremonies honoring the gods were

 

held. Convocations of the great and notable Qualinesti met, and festivals of the seasons

 


 

were celebrated. The huge open square was paved with a mosaic of thousands of hand-set

 

stones. The mosaic formed a map of Qualinesti.

 

    The second feature of this tall hill, lying on its north slope, was the last bit of natural

 

forest remaining within Qualinost. Kith-Kanan had taken great care to preserve this grove

 

of aspens when the rest of the plateau was shaped by elven spades and magic. More than

 

a park, the aspen grove had become the Speaker's retreat, his haven from the pressures of

 

ruling. He treasured the grove above all features in his capital because the densely

 

wooded enclave reminded him of days long past, of the time when he had dwelt in the

 

primeval forest of Silvanesti with his first wife, the Kagonesti woman Anaya, and her

 

brother Mackeli.

 

    His time with Anaya had been long ago . . . four hundred years and more. Since then

 

he had struggled and loved, fought, killed, ruled. The people of Qualinost were afraid of

 

the darkness and lightning that had fallen upon them. Kith-Kanan, however, was troubled

 

by the impending crisis of his succession. The future of the nation of Qualinesti depended

 

on whom he chose to rule after him. He had to keep his word and step aside. More than

 

that, he really wished to step aside, to pass the burden of command on to younger

 

shoulders. But to whom? And when? When would Pax Tharkas be officially completed?

 

    The grove had no formal entrance, no marked path or gate. Kith-Kanan slowed his

 

pace. The sight of the closely growing trees already calmed him. No lightning at all had

 

touched the grove. The aspen trees stood bright white in the morning sun, their triangular

 

leaves shivering in the breeze and displaying their silvery backs.

 

    The Speaker slipped the hood back from his head. Carefully he lifted the gold circlet

 

from his brow. This simple ring of metal was all the crown Qualinesti had, but for his

 

time in the grove, Kith-Kanan did not want even its small burden.

 


 

    He dropped the crown into one of the voluminous pockets on the front of his

 

monkish robe. As he passed between the tree trunks, the sounds of the city faded behind

 

him. The deeper he went into the trees, the less the outside world could intrude. Here and

 

there among the aspens were apple, peach, and pear trees. On this spring day, the fruit

 

trees were riotous with blossoms. Overhead, in the breaks between the treetops, he saw

 

fleecy clouds sailing the sky like argosies bound for some distant land.

 

    Crossing the small brook that meandered through the grove, Kith-Kanan came at last

 

to a boulder patched with green lichen. He himself had flattened the top of the rock with

 

the great hammer Sunderer, given to him decades before by the dwarf king Glenforth.

 

The Speaker climbed atop the boulder and sat, sighing, as he drank in the peace of the

 

grove.

 

    A few paces to his right, the brook chuckled and splashed over the rocks in its path.

 

Kith-Kanan cleared his mind of everything but the sounds around him, the gently stirring

 

air, the swaying trees, and the play of the water, It was a technique he'd learned from the

 

priests of Astra, who often meditated in closed groves like this. During the hard years of

 

the Kinslayer War, it had been moments like this that preserved Kith-Kanan's sanity and

 

strengthened his will to persevere.

 

    Peace. Calm. The Speaker of the Sun seemed to sleep, though he was sitting upright

 

on the rock.

 

    Rest. Tranquility. The best answers to hard questions came when the mind and the

 

body were not fighting each other for control.

 

    A streak of heat warmed his face. Dreamily he opened his eyes. The wind sighed,

 

and white clouds obscured the sun. Yet the sensation of heat had been intense. He lifted

 

his gaze to the sky. Above him, burning like a second sun, was an orb of blue-white light.

 


 

It took him only half a heartbeat to realize he was staring at a lightning bolt that was

 

falling directly toward him.

 

    Shocked into motion, Kith-Kanan sprang from the boulder. His feet had hardly left

 

its surface when the lightning bolt slammed into the rock. All was blinding flash and

 

splintered stone. Kith-Kanan fell face down by the brook, and broken rock pelted his

 

back. The light and sound of the bolt passed away, but the Speaker of the Sun did not

 

move.

 

                                          *   *   *   *   *

 

    It was after sunset before Kith-Kanan was missed. When the Speaker was late for

 

dinner, Tamanier Ambrodel sent warriors to the grove to find him. Kemian Ambrodel

 

and his four comrades searched through the dense forest of trees for quite a while before

 

they found the Speaker lying unconscious near the brook.

 

    With great care, Kemian turned Kith-Kanan over. To his shock and surprise, the

 

Speaker's brown eyes were wide open, staring at nothing. For one dreadful instant, Lord

 

Ambrodel thought the monarch of Qualinesti was dead.

 

    "He breathes, my lord," said one of the warriors, vastly relieved.

 

    Eyelids dipped closed, fluttered, then sprang open again. Kith-Kanan sighed.

 

    "Great Speaker," said Kemian softly, "are you well?"

 

    There was a pause while the Speaker's eyes darted around, taking in his

 

surroundings. Finally he said hoarsely, "As well as any elf who was nearly struck by

 

lightning."

 

    Two warriors braced Kith-Kanan as he got to his feet. His gaze went to the blasted

 

remains of the boulder. Almost as if he was talking to himself, the Speaker said softly,

 

"Some ancient power is at work in the world, a power not connected with the gods we

 

know. The priests and sorcerers can discern nothing, and yet . . .."

 


 

    Something fluttered overhead. The elves flinched, their nerves on edge. A bird's

 

sharp cry cut through the quiet of the aspen grove, and Kith-Kanan laughed.

 

    "A crow! What a stalwart band we are, frightened out of our skins by a black bird!"

 

he said. His stomach rumbled loudly, and Kith-Kanan rubbed it. There were holes burned

 

through his clothing by bits of burned rock. "Well, I'm famished. Let's go   

                                                                            home." 

 

    The Speaker of the Sun set off at a brisk pace. Lord Ambrodel and his warriors fell

 

in behind him and trailed him back to the Speaker's house, where a warm hearth and a

 

hearty supper awaited.

 


 

                                               5

 

                                    The Citadel of Peace

 

 

 

 

    The blazing sun provided little heat in the thin air of the Kharolis Mountains. Under

 

that dazzling orb, twenty thousand workers labored, carving the citadel of Pax Tharkas

 

out of the living rock. Dwarves, elves, and humans worked side by side on the great

 

project. Most of them were free craftsmen­stonecutters, masons, and artisans. Out of the

 

twenty thousand, only two thousand were prisoners. Those with useful skills worked

 

alongside their free comrades, and they worked well. The Speaker of the Sun had made

 

them this bargain: If the prisoners performed their duties and kept out of trouble, they

 

would have their sentences reduced by half. Outdoor work at Pax Tharkas was far

 

preferable to languishing in a tower dungeon for years on end.

 

    Not all the convicts were so fortunate. Some simply would not conform, so Feldrin

 

Feldspar, the dwarf who was master builder in charge of creating the fortress, collected

 

the idle, the arrogant, and the violent prisoners into a "grunt gang." Their only task was

 

brute labor. Alone of all the workers at Pax Tharkas, the grunt gang was locked into its

 

hut at night and closely watched by overseers during the day. It was to the grunt gang that

 

Prince Ulvian was sent. He had no skill at stonecarving or bricklaying, and the Speaker

 

had decreed that he should be treated as a slave. That meant he must take his place with

 

the other surly prisoners in the grunt gang, pushing and dragging massive stone blocks

 

from the quarry to the site of the citadel.

 

    Ulvian's one meeting with Feldrin had not gone well. The chained prince, now

 

dressed in the green and brown leathers of a forester, had been led by Merith to the can-

 

vas hut where the master builder lived. The dwarf came out to see them, setting aside an

 

armful of scrolls covered with lines and numbers. These were the plans for the fortress.

 


 

    "Remove his chains," Feldrin rumbled. Without a word, Merith took Ulvian's

 

shackles off. Ulvian sniffed and thanked the dwarf casually.

 

    "Save your thanks," replied Feldrin. His thick black beard was liberally sprinkled

 

with white, and his long stay in the heights of the Kharolis had deeply tanned his face and

 

arms. He planted brick-hard fists on his squat hips and skewered the prince with his blue

 

eyes. "Chains are not needed here. We are miles from the nearest settlement, and the

 

mountains are barren and dry. You will work hard. If you try to run away, you will perish

 

from hunger and thirst," the dwarf said darkly. "That is, if my people don't hunt you

 

down first. Is that clear?"

 

    Ulvian rolled his eyes and didn't answer. Feldrin roared, "Is that clear?" The prince

 

flinched and nodded quickly. "Good."

 

    He assigned Ulvian to the grunt gang, and a burly, bearded human came to escort the

 

prince to his new quarters.

 

    When they were gone, Merith's shoulders sagged. "I must confess, Master Feldrin, I

 

am exhausted," he said, sighing. "For ten days, I have had the prince in my keeping, and I

 

haven't had a moment's rest!"

 

    "Why so, Lieutenant? He doesn't look so dangerous."

 

    Feldrin stooped to retrieve his plans. Merith squatted to help.

 

    "It wasn't fear that spoiled my sleep," the warrior confided, "but the prince's constant

 

talk! By holy Mantis, that boy can talk, talk, talk. He tried to convert me, make me his

 

friend, so that I wouldn't deliver him to you. He's engaging when he wants to be, and

 

clever, too. You may have trouble with him."

 

    Feldrin pushed back the front flap of his hut with one broad, blunt hand. "Oh, I doubt

 

it, Master Merithynos. A few days dragging stone blocks will take the stiffness out of the

 

prince's neck."

 


 

    Merith ducked under the low doorframe and entered the hut. Though the walls and

 

roof were canvas, like a tent, Feldrin's hut had a wooden frame and floor, sturdier than a

 

tent. The mountains were sometimes wracked by fierce winds, blizzards, and landslides.

 

    Feldrin clomped across the bare board floor and dropped his scrolls on a low trestle

 

table in the center of the room. He turned up the wick on a brass oil lamp and settled

 

himself on a thick-legged stool, then proceeded to rummage through the loose assortment

 

of parchment until he found a scrap.

 

    "I shall send a note back to the Speaker," he said, "so that he will know you and the

 

prince arrived safely."

 

    The lieutenant glanced back at the door flap hanging loosely in the still, cool air.

 

"What shall I do, Master Feldrin? I'm supposed to guard the prince, but it seems you don't

 

really need me."

 

    "No, he won't be any trouble," muttered the dwarf, finishing his brief missive with a

 

flourish. He shook sand over the wet ink to dry it. "But I may have another use for you."

 

    Merith drew himself up straight, expecting an official order. "Yes, master builder?"

 

    Stroking his thick beard, Feldrin regarded the tall elf speculatively. "Do you play

 

checkers?" he asked.

 

                                         *   *   *   *   *

 

    Bells and gongs rang through the camp, and all over Pax Tharkas workers set down

 

their tools. The sun had just begun to set behind Mount Thak, which meant only an hour

 

of daylight remained. It was quitting time.

 

    Ulvian dragged along at the rear of the ragged column of laborers known as the grunt

 

gang. His arms and legs ached, his palms were blistered, and despite the cool

 

temperature, the stronger sun at this high elevation had burned his face and arms cherry

 

red. The overseers­the mute, bearded human Ulvian had met his first day in camp and an

 


 

ill-tempered dwarf named Lugrim­stood on each side of the barracks door, urging the

 

exhausted workers to hurry inside.

 

    The long, ramshackle building was made from slabs of shale and mud, and the rear

 

wall was sunk in the mountainside. There were two windows and only one door. The roof

 

was made of green splits of wood and moss, and the whole barrack was drafty, dusty, and

 

cold, despite the fires kept burning in baked-clay fireplaces at each end.

 

    Inside the dim structure, the grunt gang members headed straight for their rude beds.

 

Ulvian's was near the center of the single large room, as far from either fire as it could be.

 

Still, he was so tired that he was about to fall on his bunk when he noticed the man who

 

slept on his right was already in bed, where he had apparently lazed all day. Ulvian

 

opened his mouth to protest.

 

    The prince froze two paces from the bed. The human's head and right leg were

 

swathed in loose, bloodstained bandages. His hands hung limply over the sides of the

 

narrow bunk.

 

    "Poor wretch won't live the night," rasped a voice behind the prince. Ulvian whirled.

 

A filthy, rag-clad elf stood close to him, staring at him with burning gray eyes. "He was

 

taking a load of bricks up the tower, and the scaffold broke. Broke his leg and cracked his

 

skull."

 

    "Aren't­aren't there healers to take care of him?" Ulvian exclaimed.

 

    A dry rattle of laughter issued from the throat of the sun-baked elf. He was nearly as

 

tall as Ulvian, and very thin. When he looked down at the human on the bed, dust fell

 

from his blond eyebrows and matted hair. "Healers?" he chortled. "Healers are for the

 

masters. We get a swig of wine, a damp cloth, and a lot of prayers!"

 

    Ulvian recoiled from the loud elf. "Who are you?"

 

    "Name's Drulethen," said the elf, "but everyone calls me Dru."

 


 

    "That's a Silvanesti name," Ulvian said, surprised. "How did you come to be here?"

 

    "I was once a wandering scholar who sought knowledge in the farthest comers of the

 

world. Unfortunately when the war started, I was in Silvanesti, and the Speaker of the

 

Stars needed able-bodied elves for his army. I didn't want to fight, but they forced me to

 

take up arms. Once out in the wilderness, I ran away."

 

    "So you're a deserter," said Ulvian, understanding dawning.

 

    Dru shrugged. "That's not a crime in Qualinesti," he said idly and sat down on the

 

nearest bed. "While I wandered the great plain, I found it was easier to take what I

 

wanted than work for it, so I became a bandit. The Wildrunners caught up to me, and the

 

Speaker of the Sun graciously allowed me to work here rather than rot in a Qualinost

 

dungeon." He held out his slender hands palms up. "So it goes."

 

    No one had spoken at such length to Ulvian since his arrival at Pax Tharkas. Dru

 

might be a coward and a thief, but it was obvious he had a certain amount of education,

 

which was as rare as diamonds in the grunt gang. Sitting down on his own bed, the prince

 

asked Dru a question that had been bothering him. "Why can't we get closer to the fires?"

 

he said in a low voice. Dru laughed nastily.

 

    "Only the strongest ones get a place by the chimneys," he said. "Weaklings and

 

newcomers get stuck in the middle. Unless you want a beating, I suggest you don't dis-

 

pute the order of things."

 

    Before Ulvian could broach another question, Dru moved to his own bunk. Dropping

 

down on the bed, he turned his back to the prince and in seconds began to snore lightly

 

with each intake of breath. Ulvian threw himself across his own bed, which consisted of

 

strips of cloth nailed to a rough wooden frame. It stank of sweat and dirt even more

 

strongly than the barracks as a whole. The prince locked his hands together behind his

 


 

head and stared at the crude ceiling overhead. The orange-tinged sunlight filtered in

 

through the chinks in the roof slats. While he pondered his fate, he dozed fitfully.

 

    Something thumped against the prince's feet, which hung over the end of his short

 

bunk. Ulvian snapped to a sitting position. Dru had bumped him on his way to the injured

 

human's bed, where he now stood. Skinning back the man's eyelid with his thumb, Dru

 

shook his head and made clucking sounds in his throat.

 

    "Frell's gone," he announced loudly.

 

    An especially tall human came to the dead man's bed and hoisted the body easily

 

over his shoulder. He strode across the room and kicked the front door open. The red

 

wash of sunset flowed into the gloomy barracks. The tall human dumped the corpse

 

unceremoniously on the ground outside. Before he could close the door again, a dozen

 

gang members were already picking the dead man's bed clean. They took everything,

 

from his scrap of blanket to the few personal items he'd stowed under the bunk. The press

 

was so great that Ulvian was forced to move away. He spied Dru leaning against the wall

 

near the water barrel. Slipping through the crowd, he finally faced the Silvanesti.

 

    "Is that it?" he asked sharply. "A man dies and he gets dumped outside?"

 

    "That's it. The dwarves will take the body away," Dru replied, unconcerned.

 

    "What about his friends? His family?" insisted the prince.

 

    Dru took a small stone from his pocket. It was a four-inch cylinder of onyx the

 

thickness of his thumb. "Nobody has friends here," he said. "As to family­" He shrugged

 

and didn't finish. His fingers rubbed back and forth over the piece of black crystal.

 

    Just as night was claiming the mountain pass, the sound of metal against metal sent

 

the grunt gang storming toward the door. Outside was a huge iron cart wheeled by four

 

dwarves. The cart bore a great kettle, and when one of the dwarves removed its lid, steam

 


 

poured out. Ulvian let the rest of the gang press ahead of him, having no desire to be

 

trampled for a dish of stew.

 

    When he got outside, he shivered. A raw wind whistled down the pass, knifing

 

through the clothing the prince wore. He watched the laborers, clay bowls in hand, mill

 

around the food wagon while the dwarves served the steaming stew and doled out

 

formidable loaves of bread to each worker. The aroma of roasted meat and savory spices

 

drifted to Ulvian's nose. It drew him toward the wagon.

 

    He was promptly shoved away by a Kagonesti with a shaved head and two scalp

 

locks that hung down his back. Ulvian bristled and started to challenge the wild elf, but

 

the hard muscles in the fellow's arms and the definite air of danger in his manner held the

 

prince back. Ulvian slinked to the rear of the poorly formed line and waited his turn.

 

    By the time he reached the wagon, the dwarves were scraping the bottom of the

 

kettle. The ladle-bearing dwarf, warmly dressed in fur and leather, squinted down from

 

the cart at Ulvian.

 

    "Where's your bowl?" he growled.

 

    "I don't know."

 

    "Idiot!" He swung the ladle idly at the prince, who ducked. The copper dipper was as

 

big as his hand and stoutly formed. The dwarf barked, "Get back inside and find yourself

 

a bowl!"

 

    Chastened, Ulvian did so. He searched the room until he saw Dru, who was leaning

 

against the wall by the water barrel, eating his stew.

 

    "Dru," he called, "I need a bowl. Where can I get one?"

 

    The Silvanesti pointed to the fireplace at the south end of the room. Ulvian thanked

 

him and wended his way through the crowd to the fireplace. Up close, he saw that the

 


 

hearth was dominated by the same Kagonesti who had shoved him away from the food

 

cart.

 

         "What do you want, city boy?" he snarled.

 

         "I need a bowl," replied Ulvian warily.

 

         The Kagonesti, who was called Splint, set down his bowl. Glaring at the prince, he

 

said, "I'm no charity, city boy. You want a bowl, you got to buy it."

 

         The Speaker's son was perplexed. He had nothing to trade. All his valuables had

 

been taken from him before he left Qualinost.

 

         "I don't have any money," he said lamely.

 

         Harsh laughter rang out around him. Ulvian flushed furiously. Splint wiped his

 

mouth with the end of one of his long scalp locks.

 

         "You got a good pair of boots, I see."

 

         Ulvian looked at his feet. These were his oldest pair of boots, scuffed and dirty, but

 

there were no holes in them and the soles were sound. They were also the only shoes he

 

had.

 

         "My boots are worth a lot more than a clay dish," Ulvian said stiffly.

 

         Splint made no reply. Instead, he picked up his bowl and started eating again. He

 

studiously ignored Ulvian, who stood directly in front of him.

 

         The prince fumed. Who did this wild elf think he was? He was about to denounce

 

him and tell everyone in earshot that he was the son of the Speaker of the Sun, but the

 

words died in his throat. Who would believe him? They would only laugh at him.

 

Hopelessness welled up inside him. No one cared what happened to him. No one would

 

notice if he lived or died. For a horrible instant, he felt like crying.

 

         Ulvian's stomach rumbled loudly. A few of the gang around him chuckled. He bit his

 

lip and blurted out, "All right! The boots for a bowl!"

 


 

     Languidly Splint stood up. He was the same height as Ulvian, but his powerful

 

physique and menacing presence made him seem much larger. The prince shucked off his

 

boots and was soon standing on the cold dirt floor in his stockings. The Kagonesti slipped

 

his ragged sandals off and pulled on the boots. After much stamping of his feet to settle

 

them into the unfamiliar footwear, he pronounced them a good fit.

 

     "What about my bowl?" Ulvian reminded him angrily.

 

     Splint reached under his bunk next to the fireplace and brought out a chipped

 

ceramic bowl, enameled in blue. Ulvian snatched the dish and ran to the door, leaving

 

gales of coarse guffaws in his wake. By the time he threw open the door and dashed out,

 

the dwarves and the food wagon were gone.

 

     The grunt gang was still laughing when he returned moments later. He stalked

 

through them to the crackling fire, where Splint sat warming himself.

 

     "You tricked me." Ulvian said in a scant whisper. He was afraid to raise his voice,

 

afraid he would start shrieking. "I want my boots back."

 

     "I'm not a merchant, city boy. I don't make any exchanges."

 

     The barracks were quiet now. Confrontation was as thick in the air as smoke.

 

     "Give them back," demanded the prince, "or I'll take them back!"

 

     "You truly are an idiot, pest. Go to sleep, city boy, and thank the gods I don't beat

 

you senseless," Splint said.

 

     Ulvian's pent-up rage exploded, and he did a rash thing. He raised a hand high and

 

smashed the empty bowl against the Kagonesti's head. A collective gasp went up from

 

the workers. Splint rocked sideways with the blow, but in a flash, he had shaken it off and

 

leapt to his feet.

 

     "Now you got no boots and no bowl!" he spat. His fist caught Ulvian low in the

 

chest. The prince groaned and fell against one of the spectators who had gathered, who

 


 

promptly flung him back to Splint. The Kagonesti delivered a rolling punch to Ulvian's

 

jaw, sending him spinning into the wall. Splint followed the reeling prince.

 

    Ulvian's world swam in a sea of red fog. He felt strong hands grasp his shirt and drag

 

him away from the support of the wall. More blows rained on his head and chest. Every

 

time he was knocked down, someone picked him up and tossed him back to receive more

 

abuse. Vainly he tried to grapple with Splint. The wild elf broke his feeble grip with little

 

more than a shrug, kicking him in the stomach.

 

    "He's had enough, Splint," Dru said, stepping between the prostrate Ulvian and the

 

raging Kagonesti.

 

    "I ought to kill him!" Splint retorted.

 

    "He's new and stupid. Let him be," countered Dru.

 

    "Bah!" Splint spat on Ulvian's back. He rubbed his throbbing knuckles and returned

 

to his place by the fire.

 

    Dru dragged the semiconscious prince to his bed and rolled him into it. Ulvian's face

 

was bruised and battered. His left eye would soon be invisible behind a rapidly swelling

 

lid. Eventually the pain of his injuries gave way to sleep. Hungry and beaten, Ulvian sank

 

into forgiving darkness.

 

    During the night, someone stole his stockings.

 


 

                                              6

 

                                     Bards and Liars

 

 

 

 

    The lightning lasted three days, then suddenly ceased. The next day, exactly one

 

week after the darkness had fallen across the world, the sky filled with clouds. No one

 

thought much of it, for they were ordinary-looking gray rain clouds. They covered the

 

sky from horizon to horizon and lowered until it seemed they would touch the lofty

 

towers of Qualinost. And then it began to rain­brilliant, scarlet rain.

 

    It filled the gutters and dripped off leaves, a torrent that drove everyone indoors.

 

Though the crimson rain had no effect on anyone save to make him wet, the universal

 

reaction to the downpour was to regard it as unnatural.

 

    "At least I am spared the hordes of petitioners who sought an audience during the

 

darkness and lightning," Kith-Kanan observed. He was standing on the covered verandah

 

of the Speaker's house, looking south across the city. Tamanier Ambrodel was with him,

 

as was Tamanier's son, Kemian. The younger Ambrodel was in his best warrior's

 

garb­glittering breastplate and helm, white plume, pigskin boots, and a yellow cape so

 

long it brushed the ground. He stood well back from the eaves so as not to get rain on his

 

finery.

 

    "You don't seem upset by this new marvel, sire," Tamanier said.

 

    "It's just another phase we must pass through," Kith-Kanan replied stoically.

 

    "Ugh," grunted Kemian. "How long do you think it will last, Great Speaker?" Scarlet

 

rivulets were beginning to creep over the flagstone path. Lord Ambrodel shifted his boots

 

back, avoiding the strange fluid.

 


 

    "Unless I am mistaken, exactly three days," said the Speaker. "The darkness lasted

 

three days, and so did the lightning. There's a message in this, if we are just wise enough

 

to perceive it."

 

    "The message is 'the world's gone mad'," Kemian breathed. His father didn't share his

 

concern. Tamanier had lived too long, had served Kith-Kanan for too many centuries, not

 

to trust the Speaker's intuition. At first he'd been frightened, but as his sovereign seemed

 

so unconcerned, the elderly elf quickly mastered his own fear.

 

    Restless, Kemian paced up and down, his slate-blue eyes stormy. "I wish whatever's

 

going to happen would go ahead and happen!" he exclaimed, slamming his sword hilt

 

against his scabbard. "This waiting will drive me mad!"

 

    "Calm yourself, Kem. A good warrior should be cool in the face of trial, not coiled

 

up like an irritated serpent," his father counseled.

 

    "I need action," Kemian said, halting in midstride. "Give me something to do, Your

 

Majesty!"

 

    Kith-Kanan thought for a moment. Then he said, "Go to Mackeli Tower and see if

 

any foreigners have arrived since the rain started. I'd like to know if the rain is also falling

 

outside my realm."

 

    Grateful to have a task to perform, Kemian bowed, saying, "Yes, sire. I'll go at

 

once."

 

    He hurried away.

 

                                           *   *   *   *   *

 

    Red rain trickled down Verhanna's arms, dripping off her motionless fingertips.

 

Beside her, Rufus Wrinklecap squirmed. She glared at him, a silent order to keep still.

 

    Ahead, some thirty feet away, two dark figures huddled by a feeble, smoky campfire.

 

Rufus had smelled the smoke from quite a distance off, so Verhanna and her two

 


 

remaining warriors had dismounted and crept up to the camp on foot. Verhanna grabbed

 

the kender by his collar and hissed, "Are these the Kagonesti slavers?"

 

    "They are, my captain," he said solemnly.

 

    "Then we'll take them."

 

    Rufus shook his head, sending streams of red liquid flying. "Something's not right,

 

my captain. These fellows wouldn't sit in the open by a campfire where anyone could

 

find them. They're too smart for that."

 

    The kender's voice was nearly inaudible.

 

    "How do you know? They just don't realize we're on their trail," Verhanna said just

 

as softly. She sent one of her warriors off to the left and the other to the right to surround

 

the little clearing where the slavers had camped. Rufus fidgeted, his sodden, wilting

 

plume bobbing in front of Verhanna's face.

 

    "Be still!" she said fiercely. "They're almost in position." She caught a dull glint of

 

armor as the two elf warriors worked their way into position. Carefully the captain drew

 

her sword. Muttering unhappily, Rufus pulled out his shortsword.

 

    "Hail Qualinesti!" shouted Verhanna, and bolted into the clearing. Her two comrades

 

charged also, swords high, shouting the battle cry. The slavers never stirred.

 

    Verhanna reached them first and swatted at the nearest one with the flat of her blade.

 

To her dismay, her blow completely demolished the seated figure. It was nothing but a

 

cloak propped up by tree limbs.

 

    "What's this?" she cried. One of her warriors batted at the second figure. It, too, was

 

a fake.

 

    "A trick!" declared the warrior. "It's a trick!" A heartbeat later, an arrow sprouted

 

from his throat. He gave a cry and fell onto his face.

 

    "Run for it!" squealed Rufus.

 


 

    Another missile whistled past Verhanna as she sprinted for the trees. Rufus hit the

 

leaf-covered ground and rolled, bounced, and dodged his way to cover. The last warrior

 

made the mistake of following his captain rather than making for the edge of the clearing

 

nearest him. He ran a half-dozen steps before an arrow hit him in the thigh. He staggered

 

and fell, calling out to Verhanna.

 

    The captain crashed into the line of trees, blundering noisily through the

 

undergrowth. When she reached her original hiding place, she stopped. The wounded elf

 

warrior called to her again.

 

    Breathing hard, Verhanna sheathed her sword and put her back against a tree. The

 

red rain coursed down her cheeks as she gasped for breath.

 

    "Psst!,

 

    She jumped at the sound and whirled. Rufus was on his hands and knees behind her.

 

    "What are you doing?" she hissed.

 

    "Trying to keep from getting an arrow in the head," said the kender. "They was

 

waitin' for us."

 

    "So they were!" Furious with herself for walking into the trap, she said, "I've got to

 

go back for Rikkinian."

 

    Rufus grabbed her ankle. "You can't!"

 

    Verhanna kicked free of his grasp. "I won't abandon a comrade!" she said

 

emphatically. Shrugging off her cloak, Verhanna soon stood in her bare armor. She drew

 

a thick-bladed dagger from her belt and crouched down, almost on all fours.

 

    "Wait, I'll come with you," said the kender in a loud whisper. He scampered through

 

the brush behind her.

 


 

    Verhanna reached the edge of the clearing. Rikkinian, the wounded elf, was now

 

silent and unmoving, lying face down in the mud. The other warrior sprawled near the

 

phony slavers. Curiously, the stick figures and cloaks had been re-erected.

 

    "Come here, Wart," the captain muttered. Rufus crawled to her. "What do you

 

think?"

 

    "They're both dead, my captain."

 

    Verhanna's gaze rested on Rikkinian. Her brisk demeanor was gone; two warriors

 

had paid for her mistake. Plaintively she asked, "Are you certain?"

 

    "No one lies with his nose in the mud if he's still breathing," Rufus said gently. He

 

squinted at the propped-up cloaks. "The archers are gone," he announced. Again

 

Verhanna asked him if he was sure. He pointed. "There are two sets of footprints crossing

 

the clearing over there. The dark elders have fled."

 

    To demonstrate the truth of his words, Rufus stood up. He walked slowly past the

 

fallen elves toward the smoldering fire. Verhanna went to Rikkinian and gently turned

 

him over. The arrow wound in his leg hadn't killed him. Someone had dispatched him

 

with a single thrust of a narrow-bladed knife through the heart. Burning with anger, she

 

rose and headed for her other fallen comrade. Before she reached him, she was shocked

 

to see Rufus raise his little sword and fall on the back of one of the propped-up cloaks.

 

This time the cloak didn't collapse into a pile of tree limbs. Arms and legs appeared

 

beneath it, and a figure leapt up.

 

    "Captain!" Rufus shouted. "It's one of them!"

 

    Verhanna fumbled for her sword as she ran toward the campfire. The kender stabbed

 

over and over again at the cloaked figure's back. Though not muscular, Rufus possessed a

 

wiry strength, but his attack appeared to have no effect. The cloaked one spun around,

 


 

trying to throw the pesky kender off. When the front of the hood swung past Verhanna,

 

she froze in her tracks and gasped.

 

    "Rufus! It has no face!" she shouted.

 

    With one last prodigious shake, the cloaked thing hurled Rufus to the ground. The

 

kender's small sword flew into the woods as Rufus landed with a thud. He groaned and

 

lay still, crimson rain beating down on his pallid face.

 

    Verhanna gave a cry and slashed at the faceless figure, her slim elven blade slicing

 

through the cloth with ease. She felt resistance as the blade passed through whatever lay

 

beneath the cloak, but no blood flowed. Under the hood, where a face should have been,

 

there was only a ball of grayish smoke, as if someone had stuffed the hood with dirty

 

cotton.

 

    Cutting and thrusting and hacking, Verhanna soon reduced the cloak to a tattered

 

mass on the muddy ground. Shorn of its garment, the thing was revealed to be a vaguely

 

elf-shaped column of dove-colored smoke. Two arms, two legs, a head, and torso were

 

visible, but nothing else­only featureless vapor. Realizing she was exhausting herself to

 

no avail, Verhanna stood back to catch her breath.

 

    Rufus sat up slowly and clutched his head. He shook the pain aside and looked up at

 

the smoky apparition standing between him and his captain. His hat had been trodden in

 

the mud, and rain streamed from his long hair. Rufus glanced from the wispy figure to the

 

dying campfire. Only a single coil of vapor, as thick as his wrist, snaked upward from the

 

damp wood, and it twisted and writhed oddly in the still air.

 

    Suddenly the kender had an inspiration. He dragged the other, unoccupied cloak to

 

the fire and threw it over the smoldering wood. The sodden material soon extinguished

 

the last of the sparks, and the fire died. As it did, the smoky figure thinned and finally

 

vanished.

 


 

    There was a long moment of silence, broken only by Rufus's and Verhanna's heavy

 

breathing. At last Verhanna demanded, "What in Astra's name was that infernal thing?"

 

    "Magic," Rufus replied simply. His attention was centered on retrieving his hat from

 

the mud. Sorrowfully he tried to straighten the long, crimson-stained plume. It was

 

hopeless; the feather was broken in two places and hung limply.

 

    "I know it was magic," Verhanna said, annoyed. "But why? And whose?"

 

    "I told you those elves were clever. One of them knows magic. He made the ghost as

 

a diversion, I'll bet, to keep us busy while they escaped."

 

    Verhanna slapped the flat of her blade against her mailed thigh. "E'li blast theml My

 

two soldiers killed and we're diverted by magic smoke!" She stamped her foot, splashing

 

blood-colored puddles over Rufus. "I'd give my right arm for another crack at those two!

 

I never even saw them!"

 

    "They're very dangerous," said Rufus sagely. "Maybe we should get more soldiers to

 

hunt them down."

 

    The Speaker's daughter was not about to admit defeat. She slammed her sword home

 

in its scabbard. "No, by the gods! We'll take them ourselves!"

 

    The kender jammed his soggy blue hat down on his head. His new clothes were

 

ruined. "You don't pay me enough for this," he said under his breath.

 

                                          *   *   *   *   *

 

    How empty the great house seemed with Verhanna gone and Ulvian sent off to toil in

 

the quarries of Pax Tharkas. Lord Anakardain was away from the city, with the lion's

 

share of the Guards of the Sun chasing down the last stubborn bands of slavers. Kemian

 

Ambrodel was out questioning new arrivals in Qualinost about the red rain and other

 

marvels of days past.

 


 

    So many friends and familiar faces gone. Only he, Kith-Kanan, had remained

 

behind. He had given up his freedom to roam when he accepted the throne of Qualinesti.

 

After all these centuries, he finally understood how his father, Sithel, had felt before him.

 

Bound up in chains like a prisoner. Only a Speaker's chains weren't made of iron, but of

 

the coils of responsibility, duty, protocol.

 

    It was hard, very hard, to remain inside the arched bridges of Qualinost, just as it was

 

hard to keep inside the walls of the increasingly lonely Speaker's house. Sometimes his

 

thoughts were with Ulvian. Had he done right by his son? The prince's crime was

 

heinous, but did it justify Kith-Kanan's harsh sentence?

 

    Then he thought of Verhanna, probing every glade and clearing from Thorbardin to

 

the Thon-Thalas River, seeking those whose crimes were the same as her brother's.

 

Loyal, brave, serious Hanna, who never swerved from following an order.

 

    Kith-Kanan rose from his bed and threw back the curtains from his window. It was

 

long after midnight, by the water clock on the mantle, and the world outside was as dark

 

as pitch. He could hear the bloody rain still falling. It seeped under windowsills and

 

doors.

 

    A name, long buried in his thoughts, surfaced. It was a name not spoken aloud for

 

hundreds of years: "Anaya!"

 

    Into the quiet darkness, he whispered the name of the Kagonesti woman who had

 

been his first wife. It was as if she was in the room with him.

 

    He knew she was not dead. No, Anaya lived on, might even manage to outlive

 

Kith-Kanan. As her life's blood had flowed out of a terrible sword wound, Anaya's body

 

had indeed died. But undergoing a mysterious, sublime transformation, Anaya the elf

 

woman had become a fine young oak tree, rooted in the soil of the ancient Silvanesti

 


 

forest she had lived in and guarded all her life. The forest was but a small manifestation

 

of a larger, primeval force, the power of life itself.

 

    The power­he could think of nothing else to call it­had come into existence out of

 

the First Chaos. The sages of Silvanost, Thorbardin, and Daltigoth all agreed that the

 

First Chaos, by its very randomness, accidentally gave birth to order, the Not-Chaos.

 

    Only order makes life possible.

 

    These things Kith-Kanan had learned through decades of studying side by side with

 

the wisest thinkers of Krynn. Anaya had been a servant of the power, the only force older

 

than the gods, protecting the last of the ancient forests remaining on the continent. When

 

her time as guardian was ended, Anaya had become one with the forest. She had been

 

carrying Kith-Kanan's child at the time.

 

    Kith-Kanan's head hurt. He kneaded his temples with strong fingers, trying to dull

 

the ache. His and Anaya's unborn son was a subject he could seldom bear to think about.

 

Four hundred years had passed since last he'd heard Anaya's voice, and yet at times the

 

pain of their parting was as fresh as it had been that golden spring day when he'd watched

 

her warm skin roughen into bark, when he'd heard her speak for the final time.

 

    The rain ended abruptly. Its cessation was so sudden and complete it jarred

 

Kith-Kanan out of his deep thoughts. The last drop fell from the water clock. Three days

 

of scarlet rain were over.

 

    His sigh echoed in the bedchamber. What would be next? He wondered.

 

                                            *   *   *   *   *

 

    "Thank Astra that foul mess has stopped!" exclaimed Rufus. "I feel like the floor of a

 

slaughterhouse, soaked in blood!"

 

    "Oh, shut up. It wasn't real blood, just colored water," Verhanna retorted. For two

 

days, in constant rain, they had tracked the elusive Kagonesti slavers with little result.

 


 

The Kagonesti's trail had led west for a time, but suddenly it seemed to vanish

 

completely. The crimson rain had ceased overnight, and the new day was bright and

 

sunny, but Kith-Kanan's daughter was weary and saddle sore. The last thing she wanted

 

to listen to was the kender complaining about his soggy clothes.

 

    Rufus prowled ahead on foot, leading his oversized horse by the reins. He peered at

 

every clump of grass, every fallen twig. "Nothing," he fumed. "It's as if they sprouted

 

wings and flew away."

 

    The sun was setting almost directly ahead of them, and Verhanna suggested they

 

stop for the night.

 

    Rufus dropped his horse's reins. "I'm for that! What's for dinner?"

 

    She poked a hand into the haversack hung from the pommel of her saddle. "Dried

 

apples, quith-pa, and hard-boiled eggs,"Verhanna recited without enthusiasm. She tossed

 

a cold, hard-boiled egg to her scout. He caught it with one hand, though he grumbled and

 

screwed his face into a mask of disgust. She heard him mutter something about "the same

 

eats, three times a day, forever" as he tapped the eggshell against his knee to crack

 

it­then suddenly let it fall to the ground.

 

    "Hey!" called Verhanna. "If you don't want it, say so. Don't throw it in the mud!"

 

    "I smell roast pig!" he exulted, eyes narrow with concentration. "Not far away,

 

either!" He vaulted onto his horse and turned the animal.

 

    Verhanna flopped back the wet hood of her woolen cape and called, "Wait, Rufus!

 

Stop!"

 

    The reckless, hungry kender was not to be denied, however. With thumps of his

 

spurless heels, he urged his horse through a line of silver-green holly, ignoring the jabs

 

and scratches of the barbed leaves. Disgusted, Verhanna rode down the row of bushes,

 


 

trying to find an opening. When she couldn't, she pulled her horse around and also

 

plunged through the holly. Sharp leaf edges raked her unprotected face and hands.

 

    "Ow!" she cried. "Rufus, you worthless toad! Where are you?"

 

    Ahead, beyond some wind-tossed dogwoods, she spied the flicker of a campfire.

 

Cursing the kender soundly, Verhanna rode toward the fire. The foolish kender didn't

 

even have his short sword anymore. In the fight with the smoke creature, Rufus's blade

 

had been broken.

 

    Serve him right if it was a bandit camp, she thought angrily. Forty, no, fifty

 

bloodthirsty villains, armed to the teeth, luring innocent victims in with their cooking

 

smoke. Sixty bandits, yes, all of whom liked to eat stupid kender.

 

    In spite of her ire, the captain kept her head and freed her sword from the leather

 

loop that held it in its scabbard. No use barging in unprepared. Approaching the campfire

 

obliquely, she saw shadowy figures moving around it. A horse whinnied. Clutching her

 

reins tightly, Verhanna rode in, ready for a fight.

 

    The first thing she saw was Rufus wolfing down chunks of steaming roast pork. Four

 

elves dressed in rags and pieces of old blankets stood around the fire. By their light hair

 

and chiseled features, she identified them as Silvanesti.

 

    "Good morrow to you, warrior," said the male elf nearest Rufus. His accent and

 

manner were refined, city-bred.

 

    "May your way be green and golden," Verhanna replied. The travelers didn't appear

 

to be armed, but she remained on her horse just in case. "If I may ask, who are you, good

 

traveler?"

 

    "Diviros Chanderell, bard, at your service, Captain."

 

    The elf bowed low, so low that his sand-colored hair brushed the ground. Sweeping

 

an arm around the assembled group, he added, "and this is my family."

 


 

    Verhanna nodded to each of the others. The older, brown-haired female was

 

Diviros's sister, Deramani. Sitting by the fire was a younger woman, the bard's wife,

 

Selenara. Her thick hair, unbound, hung past her waist, and peeking shyly out from

 

behind the honey-golden cascade was a fair-haired child. Diviros introduced him as

 

Kivinellis, his son.

 

    "We have come hither from Silvanost, city of a thousand white towers," said the bard

 

with a flourish, "our fortunes to win in the new realm of the west."

 

    "Well, you've a long way to go if Qualinost is your goal," Verhanna said.

 

    "It is, noble warrior. Will you share meat with us? Your partner precedes you."

 

    She dismounted, shaking her head at Rufus. He winked at her as Diviros's sister

 

handed Verhanna a trencher of savory pork. The captain stabbed the cutlet with her knife

 

and bit off a mouthful. It was good, sweet flesh, as only the Silvanesti could raise.

 

    "What sets you wandering the lonely fields by night, Captain?" asked Diviros, once

 

they were all comfortable around the campfire. He had a thin, expressive face and large

 

amber eyes, which gave emphasis to his words.

 

    "We're on an elf hunt," blurted Rufus between mouthfuls.

 

    The bard's pale brows flew up. "Are you, indeed? Some dire brigand is haunting

 

these environs?"

 

    "Naw. They're a couple of woods elves wanted for slaving." Food had restored the

 

kender's natural garrulousness. "They ambushed some of our warriors, then used magic to

 

get away."

 

    "Slavers? Magic? How strange!"

 

    Rufus launched into an animated account of their adventures. Verhanna rolled her

 

eyes, but only when Rufus nearly revealed Verhanna as the daughter of the Speaker of

 

the Sun did she object.

 


 

    "Mind your tongue," she snapped. She didn't want her parentage widely known.

 

After all, traveling across the wild country with only a chatty kender for company, the

 

princess of Qualinesti would make an excellent hostage for any bandit.

 

    Planting his hands on his knees and glancing at his family, Diviros told his story in

 

turn. "We, too, have seen wondrous things since leaving our homeland."

 

    Rufus burped loudly. "Good! Tell us a story!"

 

    Diviros beamed. He was in his element. His family sat completely still as all eyes

 

fastened on him. He began softly. "Strange has been the path we have followed, my

 

friends, strange and wonderful. On the day we left the City of a Thousand White Towers,

 

a pall of darkness fell over the land. My beautiful Selenara was sore afraid."

 

    The bard's wife blushed crimson, and she looked down at the tortoiseshell comb in

 

her hand.

 

    Diviros went on. "But I reasoned that the gods had draped this cloak of night over us

 

for a purpose. And lo, the purpose was soon apparent. Warriors of the Speaker of the

 

Stars had been turning back those who wished to leave the country. His Majesty feared

 

the nation was losing too many of her sons and daughters to the westward migration, and

 

he­But I digress. In any event, the strange darkness allowed us to slip by the warriors un-

 

seen."

 

    "That was lucky," Verhanna said matter-of-factly.

 

    "Lucky, noble warrior? 'Twas the will of the gods!" Diviros said ringingly, lifting a

 

hand to heaven. "That it was so was shown five days later as we traversed the great

 

southern forest amid a tempest of thunderbolts, for there we beheld a sight so strange the

 

gods must have preserved us that we might be witness to it!"

 


 

    Verhanna was growing weary of the bard's elaborate storytelling and showed it by

 

sighing loudly. Rufus, however, was in awe of so spellbinding a speaker. "Go on,

 

please!" he urged, a forkful of pork halted midway to his mouth.

 

    Diviros warmed under the kender's intense regard. "We had stopped by a large pool

 

of water to refresh ourselves. Such a beautiful spot, my little friend! Crystalline water in a

 

green bower, surrounded by a snowy riot of blooming buds. Well, as we were all

 

partaking of the icy cold liquid, a monstrously large bolt of lightning struck not a score of

 

paces from us! The flash was brighter than the sun, and we were all knocked completely

 

senseless.

 

    "It was Selenara who roused first. She knows well the sound of a child in distress,

 

and it was just such a sound that brought her awake­a mewling noise, a crying. My good

 

wife wandered up the wooded hillside into a large meadow, and lo! there a great oak tree

 

had been hit by the lightning, blasted into more splinters than there are stars in the

 

heavens! Where the broad trunk had split open, she found the one who cried so

 

piteously."

 

    Diviros paused dramatically, gazing directly into Verhanna's impatient eyes. "It was

 

a fully grown male elf!"

 

    Rufus and his captain exchanged a look. Verhanna set aside her empty trencher and

 

asked, "Who was it­some traveler sleeping under the tree when it was hit?"

 

    The bard shook his head solemnly, and once more his voice was low and serious as

 

he replied, "No, good warrior. It was clear that the fellow had been inside the tree and

 

that the lightning had released him."

 

    "Bleedin' dragons!" sighed the kender.

 

    "My good spouse ran back to the pool and raised us from our stupor. I hurried to the

 

shattered tree and beheld the strange elf. He was slick with blood, yet as my wife and

 


 

sister washed him, there was not a cut, not even a scratch, anywhere on him. Moreover,

 

there was an oval hollow in the tree, just large enough for him to have fitted in with his

 

legs drawn up."

 

    Verhanna snorted and waved a hand dismissively. "Look here," she said kindly,

 

"that's quite a tall tale you've spun, bard, but don't carry on so hard that you begin to

 

believe it yourself! You are a tale-spinner, after all, and a very good one. You almost had

 

yourself convinced."

 

    Diviros's mobile face showed only the briefest flash of annoyance. "Forgive me. I

 

did not intend to deceive, only to relate to you the marvel we encountered in this elf who

 

seemed born from a tree. If I offended, I apologize." He bowed again, but Kivinellis

 

blurted, "Tell them about his hands!" Everyone stared at the child, and he retreated once

 

more behind his mother's back. Rufus hopped up from the log he'd been sitting on.

 

    "What about his hands?" asked the kender.

 

    "They were discolored," Diviros said casually. "The elf's fingers, including his nails,

 

were the color of summer grass." His tawny eyes darted to his son, and the quick look

 

was not kind.

 

    "What happened to the green-fingered elf?" Rufus wondered aloud.

 

    "We cared for him a day or two, and then he wandered off on his own."

 

    Verhanna detected a note of resistance in his voice. In spite of Rufus's obvious

 

enjoyment of the story, the bard was suddenly reluctant to speak. The captain had never

 

known a bard to be reticent before an attentive audience. She decided to press him.

 

"Which way did this odd, green-fingered fellow go?"

 

    There was a momentary hesitation, barely discernible, before Diviros answered,

 

"South by west. We have not seen him since."

 


 

    The Speaker's daughter stood. "Well, we thank you, good bard, for your tale. And for

 

our dinner. We must be off now."

 

    She tugged Rufus to his feet.

 

    "But I haven't finished eating!" protested the kender.

 

    "Yes, you have."

 

    Verhanna hustled him to his horse and sprang to her own saddle. "Good luck to

 

you!" she called to the family. "May your way be green and golden!"

 

    In a moment, they'd left the group of elves staring in surprise after them.

 

    Back on the trail, cloaked by the robe of night, Verhanna brought her horse to a stop.

 

Rufus bounced up beside her. The kender was still babbling about their abrupt departure

 

and the premature end of his meal.

 

    "Forget your stomach," Verhanna ordered. "What did you make of that strange

 

encounter?"

 

    "They had good food," he said pointedly. When she raised a warning eyebrow, Rufus

 

added hastily, "I thought the bard was all right, but the others were a little snooty. Of

 

course, a lot of the elder folk are like that­your noble father excluded, my captain." He

 

flashed an ingratiating smile.

 

    "They were afraid of something," Verhanna said, lowering her voice and tapping her

 

chin thoughtfully. "At first I thought it was us, but now I think they were afraid of

 

Diviros."

 

    The kender crinkled his nose. "Why would they be afraid of him?"

 

    Verhanna wrapped her reins tightly around her fist. "I have an idea."

 

    She turned her horse back toward the bard's campfire. "Get your knife out and follow

 

me!" she ordered, putting her spurs to work.

 


 

    Her ebony mount bolted through the underbrush, its heavy hooves thrashing loudly.

 

Puzzled, Rufus turned his unwieldy animal after his captain, his heart pounding in

 

excitement.

 

    Verhanna burst into the little clearing in time to see Diviros shoving his small son

 

into the back of one of their carts. The bard whirled, eyes wide in alarm. He reached

 

under the cart and brought out a leaf-headed spear­hardly bardic equipment. Verhanna

 

shifted her round buckler to catch the spear point and deflect it away. Diviros planted the

 

heel of the spear shaft against his foot like an experienced soldier and stood while the

 

mounted warrior charged toward him.

 

    "Circle around them, Wart!" the captain cried before ducking her face behind the rim

 

of her shield. Verhanna and Diviros were seconds from collision when the young elf boy

 

stood up in the cart and hurled an earthenware pot at his father. The thick clay vessel

 

thudded against Diviros's back. He dropped his spear and fell to his knees, gasping for

 

air. Verhanna reined in her mount and presented the tip of her sword at his throat.

 

    "Yield, in the name of the Speaker of the Sun!" she declared. Diviros's head dropped

 

down in dejection, and he spread his hands wide on the ground.

 

    Rufus clattered up to the cart. The boy scrambled over the baggage and bounced up

 

and down in front of the kender.

 

    "You've saved us!" he cried joyously.

 

    "What's going on here?" Rufus asked, his confusion evident. He looked up at

 

Verhanna. "Captain, what in darkness is going on?"

 

    "Our friend Diviros is a slaver." Verhanna prodded Diviros with her sword tip.

 

"Aren't you?" The elf didn't answer.

 

    "Yes!" the boy said. "He was taking us all to Ergoth to be sold into slavery!"

 


 

    The two elf women were released from their cart, where Diviros had bound and

 

gagged them. Gradually the whole story came out.

 

    The Guards of the Sun, under Kith-Kanan's orders, had so disrupted the traffic of

 

slaves from Silvanesti to Ergoth that slave dealers in both lands were resorting to ruses

 

like this one. Small groups of slaves, disguised as settlers and held by one or two

 

experienced drivers, were being sent on many different routes.

 

    Verhanna ordered Diviros bound. The elf women did her bidding eagerly. Once the

 

erstwhile bard was secured, Rufus approached her and said, "What do we do now,

 

Captain? We can't keep trailing the Kagonesti with a prisoner and three civilians in tow."

 

    Disappointment was written on Verhanna's face. She knew the kender was right, yet

 

she burned to bring the crafty Kagonesti slavers to justice.

 

    "We can resume the hunt," she said firmly. "Their trail was leading west, and we'll

 

continue in that direction."

 

    "What's in the west?"

 

    "Pax Tharkas. We can turn Diviros over to my father's guards there. The captives

 

will be taken care of, too."

 

    She looked up into the starry sky. "I want those elves, Wart. They ambushed my

 

soldiers and made a fool of me with their smoke phantom. I want them brought to

 

justice!" She drove her mailed fist into her palm.

 

    They bundled Diviros into one of the carts and set Deramani, the older elf woman, to

 

watch him. The younger woman, Selenara, volunteered to drive their wagon. Rufus tied

 

Diviros's horse to the other cart and climbed in beside Kivinellis. Once Verhanna was

 

mounted, she led the caravan out of the clearing and headed west.

 

    The elf boy told Rufus and Verhanna that he was actually an orphan from the streets

 

of Silvanost. Then he proceeded to shower them with questions about Qualinesti,

 


 

Qualinost, and the Speaker of the Sun. He'd heard tales of Kith-Kanan's exploits in the

 

Kinslayer War, but since the schism between East and West, even the mention of

 

Kith-Kanan's name was frowned upon in Silvanesti.

 

    Verhanna told him all he wanted to know­except that she was the daughter of the

 

famous Speaker.

 

    Then Rufus posed a question to Kivinellis. "Hey, was that story about the elf coming

 

out of the tree true?" he asked.

 

    "Don't be ridiculous," put in Verhanna. "Diviros was lying, playing the part of a

 

bard."

 

    "Oh, no, no!" said the boy urgently. "It was true! The green-fingered elf appeared

 

just as he said!"

 

    "Well, what happened to him?" queried the kender.

 

    "Diviros tried to feed him a potion in order to steal his will so he could sell him in

 

Ergoth as a slave. But the potion had no effect on him! In the night, while we all slept, the

 

green-fingered one vanished!"

 

    Verhanna shrugged. "I don't believe it," she muttered.

 

    The red moon, Lunitari, set at midnight. The freed slaves slept in the carts, but

 

Verhanna and Rufus remained awake, and the caravan continued to move west through

 

the night.

 


 

                                              7

 

                                     The Black Amulet

 

 

 

 

    "Clear Away, clear away there! Do you want to be mashed to jelly? Get out!" The

 

dwarf overseer, Lugrim, bellowed down at one of the workers pushing a granite block ten

 

feet long, eight feet wide, and six feet high. It didn't help the grunt gang that the rotund

 

dwarf stood on top of the block, adding his own weight to their overall burden. The block

 

was sliding slowly down an earthen ramp. Other workers, human and half-human boys,

 

skipped back and forth in front of the stone, sweeping the wave of displaced dirt out of

 

the way with shovels and rakes. Theirs was a dangerous job; the block could not be

 

stopped once in motion, and if the boys got caught or fell while sweeping, the stone

 

would crush them. Only the most nimble worked as sweepers. Ulvian was embedded in a

 

mass of sweating, straining bodies, his hands flat on the block and his bare toes dug into

 

the dirt. The red rain had stopped just two days before. Its remains were evident all over

 

Pax Tharkas in the form of crimson puddles, and now the damp soil gripped like glue.

 

Five days he had been at Pax Tharkas. Five days of exhaustion, toil, and fear.

 

    "Push, you laggards!" Lugrim exhorted. "My old mother could push harder than

 

you!"

 

    "I knew your mother," Dru shot back quickly, face to the ground as he strained. "Her

 

breath could move solid rock!"

 

    The overseer turned and glared in the direction from which the voice had come. A

 

squat fellow, even by dwarven standards, he could barely see over his thick, fur-wrapped

 

belly. "Who said that?" he demanded, his eyes darting over the gang.

 


 

    "All together, lads," grunted Splint. As one, the convicts gave a hard, sudden shove.

 

The block slid forward, skewing to the left. The dwarf atop the stone lost his footing and

 

toppled over the side. He let out a loud "oof!" and lay stunned. The block ground

 

inexorably onward.

 

    Merith appeared, elegantly clad in burnished armor and a fur mantle, his fair hair

 

clean and neatly combed. Helping the fallen dwarf to his feet, he asked, "Are you all

 

right?"

 

    "Aye." Lugrim braced his arms against his back and winced, then turned ponderously

 

to face the grunt gang, who were watching him. "You think you're clever, don't you,

 

scum?"

 

    "Yes, Master Lugrim," they replied in unison, sing-songing their words like naughty

 

children.

 

    Merith easily picked out Ulvian in the crowd of twenty convicts. The prince didn't

 

meet his glance but kept his legs driving forward in the blood-colored mud. In spite of his

 

growing blond beard, the marks of his beating by Splint still showed. Gossip had told

 

Merith what happened, but the warrior refused to intervene. Kith-Kanan's son had hard

 

lessons to learn if he was to survive.

 

    Below the pinnacle where Merith stood, the two square tower keeps that were the

 

innermost defense of the fortress rose to unequal heights. Construction on the west tower

 

was farther along than on the east. Its parapets were already in place. From this distance,

 

Merith could see tiny figures walking on them and on the great wall that connected the

 

two towers.

 

    The camp was situated in the valley behind the fortress. In front of the citadel, farther

 

down the pass, two curtain walls had been erected as the first lines of defense against any

 

attacker. Tall, single gates of hammered bronze were the only openings in the walls. They

 


 

stood open now, propped apart by huge timber balks. Workers and artisans poured in and

 

out like streams of ants around a bowl of fruit.

 

    Looking down on all this, Merith could well believe the completion of Pax Tharkas

 

was not far away. A year, perhaps less. Feldrin Feldspar had done a magnificent job,

 

building the citadel not only quickly but also well.

 

    The night before, the master builder had shown him detailed drawings of the

 

underground galleries that were being hollowed out of the mountainside beneath each

 

tower. Enough food and water to last for years could be stored there, making Pax Tharkas

 

resistant to any siege. An elaborate throne room, suitable for either the King of

 

Thorbardin or the Speaker of the Sun, was also being constructed. Details such as these

 

might take a few more years to finish, but the basic fortress would be ready to occupy

 

much sooner than that.

 

    A shadow fell across Merith; a cloud had covered the sun. As he turned from his

 

study of the fortress, tiny particles peppered his face, and he inhaled grit. Vibrations

 

tingled the soles of his shoes. It was an odd, tickling sensation, and Merith shifted his

 

weight, looking down at his boots. Then he became aware of a deep humming sound, like

 

the bass drums the priests of E'li sometimes played during festivals. The dust cloud was

 

thickening. Below, workers scrambled in confusion.

 

    "Landslide!" someone shouted.

 

    Merith whirled and saw behind and to his left what he had only felt before. Boulders

 

and rain-soaked chunks of wet soil were rolling down the east face of the mountain.

 

Paralyzed, the elf warrior could only stare in amazement as tons of rock and dirt hurtled

 

toward the quarries in the high pass. The noise increased to a deafening roar, and the

 

ground shook so that he lost his footing and fell.

 


 

    Screams filled the air, piercing the thunder of the avalanche. Merith rolled about like

 

a pea shaken in its pod. He clawed at the stony earth, trying to keep his balance.

 

    The landslide hit the pass. Rock chips and boulders flew, crushing everything they

 

hit. Merith watched helplessly as a huge stone bowled over half a dozen quarry workers.

 

A pall of reddish dust descended over the scene. The roar faded. The sobbing of the

 

terrified and injured was everywhere.

 

    "Help!" A loud cry sliced through the moans of the injured and dying. "Help,

 

somebody! Help me!"

 

    Merith stumbled to his feet and ran down the earthen ramp. The overseer was lying

 

on the path on this side of the block. The convicts had scattered, as had the sweeper boys.

 

Merith knelt beside the dwarf. Lugrim had an ugly, bleeding gash on his forehead. His

 

heart beat strongly, however, so the elf warrior knew he was only knocked unconscious.

 

    "Help, in the names of the gods! The stone is moving!" The shout came again, nearer

 

this time. Merith looked up and caught his breath in a gasp. The severe vibrations from

 

the landslide had twisted the path of the granite block. It was teetering on the edge of the

 

ramp, and people lay prostrate in the very shadow of the rock.

 

    Merith left the dwarf where he lay. A few paces closer, he saw two gang members

 

close to the block. One was a Silvanesti he didn't know; the other was Prince Ulvian. The

 

prince's pant leg was caught under the block! The granite had run over his trailing hem

 

and was dragging him along. Only one of his comrades remained behind to help him.

 

    "Merithynos! Help me!" screamed Ulvian. He kicked vainly at the huge stone with

 

his left leg. His other was hard against the rock. The block crept forward on its own,

 

driven by the slope of the ramp and its skewed position. In another yard or two, it would

 

be far enough off the ramp that it would topple over on its side. Anything or anyone in its

 

way would be crushed.

 


 

         Merith and the Silvanesti pulled on Ulvian's arms, trying to tear him free. The

 

prince's forester clothing was made of deerhide and was very tough. The warrior drew his

 

knife and sawed at the leather. Too slow, too slow!

 

         "Do something!" Ulvian pleaded, tears streaking his face.

 

         "I'm trying, Your Highness!" Merith replied. The other elf stiffened for a moment,

 

staring at Merith.

 

         The lieutenant sawed harder at the deerhide and finally succeeded in making a small

 

slit.

 

         The block ground a sweeper's broom into the stony ramp. The crushing sound of the

 

wooden handle being pulverized sent fresh paroxysms of terror through the prince.

 

"Please don't let me die!" he groaned piteously. "Save me, Merith, Dru!"

 

         The enormous cube of granite wobbled on the edge of the ramp. Merith cursed and

 

tore at the leather pants with his hands. Ulvian's lower body already hung over the rim of

 

the ramp, while he was pinned on his back.

 

         The Silvanesti, Dru, grabbed Merith by his cloak and dragged him away. "Go to the

 

tent of Feldrin Feldspar," he shouted at the warrior's horrified face. "Get the onyx ring he

 

keeps on a thong around his neck!" When Merith continued to regard him with utter

 

incomprehension, Dru shook him and roared, "Go now, if you hope to save your royal

 

charge!"

 

         Merith scrambled up the ramp and sprinted toward the master builder's tent. Mobs of

 

dazed workers clustered around it, seeking Feldrin's attention. Merith had to whip out his

 

sword in order to convince them to part to let him through.

 

         Feldrin stood at the door of his hut, a cold wet cloth pressed to his head. He took it

 

away and dipped it in a bowl of fresh water. There was a goose-egg-size bruise over his

 

left eye.

 


 

    "Quick! Give me the ring!" Merith demanded.

 

    "What?" rumbled Feldrin. Merith thrust a hand into the dwarf's collar and found the

 

onyx ring on a thong, just as Dru had said. It was made of black crystal, slightly larger

 

than a finger ring, square cut, with odd glyphs engraved around the edge. Just then a

 

shriek pierced the air. Merith yanked the ring from Feldrin's neck and took off at a run.

 

The master builder bellowed for him to stop.

 

    If the prince dies, it will be my fault, Merith thought desperately. Not only Ulvian,

 

but also perhaps the entire dynasty of the House of Silvanos might come to an end under

 

that block of gray stone. Dru was a few feet from the block, kneeling, his eyes mere slits,

 

his hands clasped around the four-inch-long cylinder of onyx he constantly carried with

 

him. Ulvian was calling out to the gods, begging for a merciful, quick death. As Merith

 

approached, he saw the near end of the stone begin to lift off the ramp, about to topple

 

over.

 

    "Here!" he cried, thrusting the black crystal ring into Dru's fingers. The elf's eyes

 

snapped open. Not even the terror of the moment could overcome Merith's shock at

 

seeing the Silvanesti's eyes. They were solid black, with no white at all.

 

    Dru took the ring from the thong and fitted the cylinder of onyx into its center hole.

 

The result was an object that looked very much like a child's top-indeed, Dru balanced

 

the two onyx pieces on the tip of the cylinder and removed his hand. The piece didn't

 

topple over, but instead began to spin. All by itself.

 

    A roaring filled Merith's ears. The air above the spinning top coalesced into a tight

 

vortex, like a miniature whirlwind. Dust whirled and spun, caught up by the racing air.

 

Dru rose to his feet and walked straight into the vortex. Merith, trying vainly to shield his

 

face from the flying grit, was pressed backward. Invisible hands shoved him to his knees

 


 

and then onto his back. It was as if lumps of stone had been laid across his chest. He

 

could barely move his head, and his breath came in ragged gasps.

 

         Through a haze of flying dirt, Merith saw Dru step up to the granite block and, with

 

his bare hands, turn it over! The black-eyed elf simply grasped the lower edge of the

 

stone and lifted it, with no more strain than shifting an empty barrel. The block slammed

 

down on the ramp. Ulvian was saved!

 

         Dimly Merith saw figures move past him. Feldrin Feldspar, walking jerkily, slowly,

 

went straight to where the onyx top still rotated. The dwarf pulled a sparkling silver cloth

 

from a small leather pouch and dropped it on the top.

 

         Instantly the tremendous magical force dissipated. Blessed air filled Merith's lungs

 

with a rush. His straining muscles, freed from the terrible force, slackened, and he lay

 

limply on the ground. Through a pounding headache, he discovered a dampness on his

 

face that proved to be a nosebleed. Painfully he sat up.

 

         Armed overseers seized Dru and shoved him to the ground. A large wooden fork was

 

thrust around his neck, pinning him to the dirt. Ulvian dragged himself to the elf who had

 

saved his life and demanded in a weak voice that Dru be released.

 

         "That cannot be done," Feldrin said, grimly surveying the area. "He could slay us

 

all."

 

         Workers and artisans had gathered in a crowd around the scene. Feldrin bent down

 

and scooped up the silver cloth and onyx top, being careful to keep the black crystals

 

wrapped in the shiny covering. Merith hauled himself to his feet and stood swaying.

 

         "Come with me" Feldrin told him. "The rest of you, return to your tents! The healers

 

will come and tend to your injuries!"

 


 

    Feeling quite battered, Merith sluggishly followed Feldrin back to his tent. The

 

master builder put the onyx pieces and silver cloth in a small golden box and locked it.

 

Then he poured the grateful lieutenant a mug of Qualinesti nectar. Merith gulped it down.

 

    "That was a very dangerous thing you did," Feldrin said, crossing his powerful arms

 

over his broad chest.

 

    The room still seemed to Merith to be spinning like the magical onyx top, and he put

 

a hand to his head. "I don't understand," he protested.

 

    "That elf is Drulethen, the infamous sorcerer. For fifty years, he ruled a portion of

 

the Kharolis Mountains from his hidden keep, and he used his terrible magic to kill and

 

enslave anyone who passed by. Finally, the King of Thorbardin led an expedition of elves

 

and dwarves against him. The clerics managed to defeat his spells only with great

 

difficulty, but the warriors were finally able to storm the keep and take him prisoner."

 

    Merith's mug was empty, and Feldrin refilled it. "It was discovered that his power

 

was chiefly invested in a simple onyx amulet. When that was taken away, he was

 

powerless. We didn't know about the other piece of onyx. Drulethen must've kept it

 

hidden for just such an occasion."

 

    The nectar was sweet and strong. It sent strength coursing through Merith's veins as

 

his head cleared. "But­he saved the prince!"

 

    Feldrin sighed gustily. "Yes, thank Reorx! I don't know why he did it, but I can't

 

fault his deed."

 

    "Why don't you destroy the amulet? Or send it to Thorbardin, or somewhere else

 

where Dru can't possibly get at it?"

 

    Feldrin smote the table top with his fist. "That's the trouble! We can't! My king

 

originally took the ring to his palace in Thorbardin. While it was in his possession, he

 

was so wracked by illness and his sleep so tormented by dreadful nightmares that in

 


 

desperation he sent it back to me." The master builder lowered his voice, though they

 

were alone in the tent. "You see, my friend, the amulet is alive. It sometimes talks to

 

mortals, and indeed there are those who say it was fashioned by the Queen of Darkness

 

herself. It cannot be destroyed. Only the silver cloth can confine it once its power has

 

been unleashed."

 

    Merith asked about the cloth. "One of the most sacred relics of my people," Feldrin

 

informed him. "No less than a scrap of hide from the Silver Dragon, the same one who

 

loved and fought with the great human warrior Huma Dragonsbane."

 

    This revelation stunned the already woozy Merith. "By the gods," he breathed. "I had

 

no idea who or what I was dealing with! My only thought was to save the prince!"

 

    "No harm done, young warrior." Feldrin put a hand on Merith's shoulder. "The

 

Speaker of the Sun and the King of Thorbardin made a bargain to put the evil Drulethen

 

to work. Personally, I would have struck his head off, but my royal master believes he

 

can use the sorcerer's knowledge for his own benefit, and the great and wise Kith-Kanan

 

thinks he can actually reform Drulethen!" Feldrin shook his head. "The Speaker is always

 

trying to improve his enemies."

 

    "Aye," Merith agreed. "Ofttimes I have heard him say, 'I used to kill my foes; now I

 

make them my friends. A warrior needs as few enemies as possible, but a Speaker needs

 

as many friends as he can make'."

 

                                         *   *   *   *   *

 

    The barracks were quiet, save for the coughs of sleeping grunt gang members trying

 

to expel the dust they'd breathed all day. Ulvian lay on his side, wide awake. Aside from

 

some scrapes and an aching right leg, he was essentially unharmed by his brush with

 

death, yet he could not sleep. Over and over he replayed the scene­the block teetering

 


 

above him, Dru pushing it aside with his bare hands, the awesome presence of the power

 

in the black crystal.

 

    The prince sat up, wincing as his wrenched muscles protested. He padded on bare

 

feet to Dru's bed. Peering through the darkness, the prince realized his savior was not

 

lying down but sitting with his knees drawn up to his smooth chin.

 

    "Dru?" he whispered. "I need to talk to you."

 

    "If you answer one question for me. Are you in truth the son of Speaker

 

Kith-Kanan?" Ulvian admitted he was. "I knew the Speaker had some half-human chil-

 

dren," Dru, said softly. A gruff voice nearby rumbled a demand for silence. The sorcerer

 

rose and took Ulvian by the arm. He led the prince to the relatively open area by the

 

water barrel, where they could talk more freely.

 

    "I won't forget your deed," Ulvian began.

 

    "I should hope not." Dru said dryly. He smiled, his teeth showing white in the

 

darkness. "We are a natural pair of allies, are we not? A prince and a sorcerer, both

 

sentenced to labor on this ridiculous mausoleum, both required to hide their true

 

identities."

 

    Dru lifted a dipperful of water to his lips. Once he'd taken a long drink, he asked,

 

"What did you do to end up in such a place, Your Highness? Why did your infamously

 

just father send you here to work like a dog?"

 

    With some hemming and hawing, Ulvian explained his activities as a slave trader.

 

    "It was a harmless diversion," he insisted. "A few wealthy traders approached me

 

and asked for my patronage. I had influence and knew warriors who could be bribed to

 

look the other way. It was a mere lark, an adventure to keep boredom at bay, but my

 

enemies in Qualinost used my capture as an excuse to exile me!" His voice rose until Dru

 


 

had to quiet him. "I will reclaim what is rightfully mine," the prince finished darkly. "I

 

will fulfill my destiny!"

 

    Dru squatted and began to idly trace elaborate designs in the dirt floor. Curving lines,

 

loops, and squares took shape. "What enemies do you have, my prince? Who are they?"

 

    Ulvian hunkered down across from his friend and said, "There is my sister,

 

Verhanna, for one. The old castellan, Tamanier Ambrodel, thinks I'm immoral and

 

wicked, and his son, General Lord Kemian Ambrodel, believes he is better suited to be

 

Speaker than I. There is an old Kagonesti senator, Irthenie by name, who­"

 

    "I see."

 

    Dru brushed the designs away with his hand. "I think we should make common

 

cause, Your Highness. Your father and the king of the dwarves put me here. I've had to

 

keep my true identity hidden because some of the elves and dwarves we work alongside

 

would kill me if they knew who I really was." The sorcerer thrust his face close to

 

Ulvian's. "Together we can escape this place and regain the power and position we are

 

destined to have."

 

    "Escape?" Ulvian echoed weakly. "I­I can't. My father will declare me an outlaw if I

 

flee the country."

 

    "Who said anything about fleeing the country? You and I will go to Qualinost. There

 

must be nobles, senators, and clerics who favor you, my prince. We'll rally them round

 

you and demand a pardon. What do you say?"

 

    Ulvian rubbed his palms together. Despite the cool mountain air, his hands were

 

damp with sweat. "I­I don't know," he said faintly. Much as he loathed his current

 

situation, the prince realized that such a plan was risky at best. "When would we leave?"

 

Ulvian asked hesitantly.

 


 

    "This very night," Dru said, and Ulvian actually started at the abrupt words. "Both

 

parts of my amulet are in camp. We can break into Feldrin's tent and get them. Then no

 

power within a hundred miles can stop us."

 

    The prince sank back slowly on his haunches. Bracing himself with his hands, he

 

said, "Feldrin won't just hand­"

 

    "With your help, I'll kill the old stonebreaker," the sorcerer snapped.

 

    "No." Ulvian stood up, looking around nervously. "I can't do that. I can't murder

 

Feldrin. I plan to be vindicated and pardoned. I won't murder my way to freedom."

 

    Dru stood and shrugged expressively. "As you wish, my prince. I've been here for

 

many years, you only a short time. After you've broken your back working on this damn

 

fortress for a while longer, perhaps you'll change your mind."

 

    Ulvian was about to reply when Dru's head suddenly snapped around, as if he'd

 

heard a strange noise. He held up one hand to forestall Ulvian's words. "Wait," he said.

 

"Something's amiss."

 

    Ulvian followed the sorcerer to one of the two windows in the barracks. It seemed

 

brighter outside than it should be this late at night. As they watched, it grew brighter still.

 

The outline of the camp became clearer. Silhouetted tents gained distinct features. To

 

Ulvian's astonishment, the sun appeared in the sky directly overhead. At first, only a faint

 

red glow was visible, but then it blazed more and more brilliantly until the mountain pass

 

was bathed in the full light of noon.

 

    "What­what's happening?" Ulvian cried, shading his squinting eyes from the sudden

 

glare.

 

    Dru stroked his dirty, pointed chin. "Someone is tampering with the balance of

 

nature," he said coolly. "Someone­or something­very powerful."

 


 

    Men and dwarves emerged from their huts to stare at the bright sky and scratch their

 

heads in wonderment. By the water clocks, it was still two hours till sunrise, yet sunlight

 

flooded the tents.

 

                                         *   *   *   *   *

 

    Dust from the landslide tinted the sky over the Kharolis Mountains rusty red. The

 

gritty fog hung in the still air, unmoving. The day after the avalanche, the sun burned like

 

an orange ball through the haze. It hung fixed at the peak of the heavens. As measured by

 

notched candles and water clocks, several hours had passed, yet the sun had never

 

budged.

 

    "Master Lugrim, what o'clock is it?" called Ulvian to the overseer, whose face was

 

hidden by a dripping dipper of cool water.

 

    Lugrim poured the last few drops on his brow, which was already wet with sweat.

 

"Nigh time to work again," he growled. "Are you men or camels? How much do you plan

 

to drink?"

 

    "I'm no man," Splint said acidly, "and I'll drink how I please."

 

    " `Tis fearful hot," added a human named Brunnar in a thick Ergothic accent.

 

    Six hours had passed since the sun's abrupt appearance, and the temperature had

 

been growing steadily warmer. The air was unusually dead; no breeze wafted through the

 

pass, and no clouds shielded the workers from the sun. Only the ever-present dust

 

diffused the sunlight, coating the workers' sweltering bodies.

 

    At Feldrin Feldspar's hut, a crowd of overseers and guild masters had formed. There

 

was much debate over the strange sunrise. Some in the group insisted that work be halted

 

until the heat abated, while others argued that work should continue.

 

    "Our covenant with the Speaker of the Sun calls for us to work till sunset," the chief

 

mason complained. "We must honor our pledge."

 


 

    "Our people can't work forever," objected the leader of the carpenters' guild.

 

    "Quiet, you shortsighted fools!" rumbled Feldrin, waving his hands over his head.

 

"The sun hasn't moved for hours. Merciful Reorx! A calamity is upon us, and you quibble

 

about schedules and quotas!"

 

    The overseers and masters lapsed into embarrassed silence. Merith appeared and

 

stood on the fringe of the crowd. He'd shed his armor in the heat and wore a lightweight

 

white tunic and baggy gray trousers.

 

    "This must be yet another of the wonders," said the elf warrior. "Like the darkness,

 

the lightning, and the scarlet rain."

 

    That set off a fresh wave of contention in the group. Feldrin let them argue a while,

 

then shouted for quiet again.

 

    The chief mason wailed, "What are we to do!"

 

    "Collect all the fresh water you can," ordered Feldrin. "Fill every pot and jar in Pax

 

Tharkas. Tell the sewing women to make canopies­very large canopies. We will erect

 

them over the quarry walls to shade the workers."

 

    The master builder loosened his fur mantle and let it fall to the ground. "Let it be

 

done. And tell everyone to get rid of his heavy garments!"

 

    "Do we resume work?" asked Lugrim.

 

    "In two hours, by the water clock."

 

    Feldrin's assistants dispersed to carry out his bidding. The trumpets blew, signaling

 

an end to work, and every worker in the pass hurried indoors, out of the broiling sun.

 

Feldrin and Merith watched the teeming site become a ghost fortress in a matter of

 

minutes. The last people in sight were the dwarves who had been working on the parapet

 

of the west tower. They secured their hoist and winch, then ducked inside the massive

 


 

stone structure. For some time after that, the hoist swung to and fro, the block and tackle

 

creaking loudly.

 

    The sight of the sun-baked, lifeless fortress bothered the master builder. It was

 

unnerving. In a gloomy tone, he said as much to the lieutenant.

 

    "Why so, my lord?" asked Merith, surprised.

 

    "The other marvels were like conjurer's tricks­they seemed mysterious and

 

impressive, but they were essentially harmless. This is different. A few days of unre-

 

lieved sun could be the end of us all."

 

    Feldrin dabbed sweat from his brow with the sleeve of his yellow linen shirt. "I can't

 

help but wonder who has the power to do this. Who can stop the course of the sun itself

 

through the sky?"

 

    "Drulethen?" the lieutenant suggested.

 

    "Certainly not," Feldrin said firmly. "Even if he possessed both halves of his evil

 

talisman, he could never do such a thing." The dwarf shook his head. I wonder if even the

 

gods themselves . . ."

 

    "Nothing is beyond the gods," Merith replied reverently.

 

    "Perhaps. Perhaps."

 

    The dwarf picked up his discarded cloak and draped it over one arm. Already his

 

salt-and-pepper hair was clinging to his damp face. With a sigh, he said, "I shall retire

 

indoors now. Can't have my brain getting scrambled in this blasted sun."

 

    "A wise notion, master. I shall do likewise."

 

    Elf and dwarf parted company. Merith crossed the winding road to the fortress site

 

alone, the only living thing moving through the entire construction site. Overhead, the

 

hoist continued to sway and creak. The lieutenant thought it a mournful, lonely sound.

 


 

                                              8

 

                                        Greenhands

 

 

 

 

    Midnight in Qualinost was as bright as any noon. There had been no night at all for

 

two days, and the heat was appalling. Half the public fountains in the city had dried up

 

during the first twenty-four-hour period of the strange daylight. The people of Qualinost

 

filled the courtyards of the great temples, begging the priests and priestesses to intercede

 

on their behalf with the gods. Incense burned and chants rose to the heavens, but the sun

 

burned mercilessly on.

 

    The water clock in the chamber of the Thalas-Enthia showed it was midnight, yet the

 

senators of Qualinesti were all present. Seated in his place of honor on the north side of

 

the circular room, Kith-Kanan listened to the representatives of the people debate the

 

series of marvels they had experienced, including the current dangerous manifestation.

 

Many of the senators bore the signs of lack of slumber; not only were their duties press-

 

ing in this time of crisis, but the lack of night made it difficult for many in Qualinost to

 

sleep.

 

    "Clearly we have offended the gods," Senator Xixis said, "though I have no

 

knowledge of what the offense could have been. I propose that offerings be made at once,

 

and that they be continued until these plagues cease."

 

    "Hear! Hear!" murmured a group of senators sitting on the western side of the

 

chamber. These were known as the Loyalists, because they were loyal to the old tradi-

 

tions of Silvanesti, especially in matters of religion and royalty. Most of the full-blooded

 

elven senators were members of this extremely conservative faction.

 


 

    Clovanos, senior senator of the Loyalists, descended from his seat to the floor. The

 

Thalas-Enthia met in a squat, round tower, larger in diameter than even the Tower of the

 

Sun, though far less tall. The floor of the meeting chamber was covered with a mosaic

 

map of the country, exactly like the more famous and larger map in the Hall of the Sky.

 

High on the wall, near the ceiling, more mosaics ringed the chamber. These were the

 

crests of all the great clans of Qualinesti.

 

    Clovanos held out his hand to his friend Xixis, and the latter handed him the

 

speaking baton. A rod twenty inches long made of ivory and gold, the baton was passed

 

to whomever was addressing the Thalas-Enthia.

 

    Resting the baton in the crook of his left arm, a signal that he intended to speak at

 

length, Senator Clovanos scanned the assembly. The so-called New Landers sat on the

 

east side of the chamber. They were a loose association of humans, half-humans,

 

Kagonesti, and dwarves who favored new traditions, ones that reflected their mixed

 

society. On the south wall was the middle-of-the-road group that had come to be known

 

as the Speaker's Friends, people like Senator Irthenie, who preferred to follow the

 

personal leadership of Kith-Kanan.

 

    "My friends," Clovanos finally began, "I must agree with the learned Xixis. From the

 

strange and terrifying wonders that have been visited upon our helpless world, it is quite

 

obvious that a grave offense has been committed, an offense against the natural order of

 

life, against the gods themselves. Now they seek to punish us. Our priests have divined

 

and meditated; our people have prayed; we ourselves have debated continuously. All to

 

no avail. No one can determine why this should be so. However, very recently I received

 

some information­information that enabled me to ascertain what the dreadful sacrilege

 

was."

 


 

    A buzz of speculation swept the chamber in the wake of Clovanos's words. The

 

senator allowed it to continue for a moment, then said, "The knowledge came to me from

 

a strange place­a place close to the hearts of the Speaker's Friends."

 

    "Speak up. I can't hear you," Irthenie droned mockingly. A scattering of laughter

 

among the New Landers and Friends made Clovanos's heat-reddened face grow even

 

more florid.

 

    "My information came from Pax Tharkas," he said loudly, facing the calm Kagonesti

 

woman, "that folly of a fortress the Speaker puts so much faith in."

 

    "Get on with it! Tell us what you know!" chorused several impatient senators.

 

    Clovanos brandished the baton. The cries declined. "I received a letter from a friend

 

and fellow Loyalist," he said with heavy emphasis, "who happens to be at the site of the

 

fortress. He wrote, 'Imagine my surprise when I saw the Speaker's son, Prince Ulvian,

 

working as a common laborer in the crudest and most dangerous of jobs'."

 

    Having thus spoken, Clovanos turned quickly to face Kith-Kanan. The chamber

 

erupted. New Landers and Loyalists stood and shouted at each other. Denunciations flew

 

in the thick, hot air. Only the Speaker's Friends sat quietly, waiting for Kith-Kanan to

 

deny the report.

 

    Slowly, with great deliberation, the Speaker rose and crossed the floor to where

 

Clovanos had turned to hurl retorts at the ranks of New Landers seated above him. He

 

tapped on the senator's shoulder and asked for the baton. Clovanos had no choice but to

 

surrender the speaking symbol to Kith-Kanan. Stiffly, his face sheened with sweat, the

 

Silvanesti senator climbed the marble steps to his place among the Loyalists.

 

    Kith-Kanan held the baton over his head until the room grew still. Bare to the waist

 

in the dreadful heat, his tanned chest bore pale scars from wounds he'd received in the

 

great Kinslayer War. A simple white kilt, a wide golden belt, and leather sandals were all

 


 

he wore, save for the circlet of Qualinost atop his head. Though past midlife, his face

 

growing more lined, the white blond of his hair now more than half silver, the Speaker of

 

the Sun was still as vibrant and handsome as he had been centuries earlier when he led

 

his people out of Silvanesti.

 

    "My lords," Kith-Kanan said in a firm voice, "what Senator Clovanos tells you is

 

true."

 

    The chamber grew so quiet that a falling feather would have rung out like a gong.

 

After Clovanos's longwinded oration, the Speaker's simple statement seemed blunt and

 

harsh. "My son is indeed working as a slave at Pax Tharkas."

 

    Xixis leapt to his feet. "Why?" he shouted.

 

    Kith-Kanan turned slowly to face the senator. "Because he was taken during the

 

campaign to stamp out slave-trading and found guilty of helping such traders cross

 

Qualinesti territory."

 

    Malvic Pathfinder, a human and a New Lander, called out, "I thought the penalty for

 

slave-trading was death."

 

    A dozen Loyalists booed him.

 

    "No father wishes to sentence his own son to the block," Kith-Kanan replied frankly.

 

"Ulvian's guilt was plain, but instead of a useless death, I decided to teach him a lesson in

 

compassion. I believed, and still believe, that once he had experienced the wretched life

 

of a slave, he would never again be able to look upon people as cattle that can be bought

 

and sold."

 

    Kith-Kanan's well-muscled frame might have been carved from wood or marble. His

 

proud and noble countenance was so overpowering that no one spoke for some time.

 


 

    Finally Irthenie broke the silence. "Great Speaker, how long will Prince Ulvian be

 

held at Pax Tharkas?" she asked. Her words, spoken with quiet force, carried to every

 

bench in the chamber.

 

    "He remains at my discretion," Kith-Kanan replied, facing her.

 

    "It is wrong!" Clovanos countered. "A prince of the blood should not be forced to

 

work as a slave by his own father! This is the offense the gods are punishing us for!" The

 

other Loyalists took up his refrain. The chamber echoed with their outraged cries.

 

    "Your Majesty, will you recall the prince?" asked Xixis.

 

    "I will not. He has been there only a few weeks," Kith-Kanan answered. "If I freed

 

him now, the only lesson he would have learned is that influence is stronger than virtue."

 

    "But he is your heir!" insisted Clovanos.

 

    Kith-Kanan gripped the speaking baton tightly, his other hand clenched into a fist. "It

 

is my decision!" he replied, his voice ringing through the chamber. "Not yours!"

 

    All the arguments and accusations ceased abruptly. Kith-Kanan's blazing gaze was

 

fastened on the unfortunate Clovanos. The senator, his body quivering with anger, stared

 

balefully down at his sovereign. Breaking the tense silence, Xixis said unctuously, "We

 

are naturally concerned for the safety and future of the royal house. Your Majesty has no

 

other heir."

 

    "Your time, my lords, would be better spent finding ways to soothe the troubles of

 

the common folk, and not interfering with the manner in which I discipline my son!"

 

Kith-Kanan turned on his heel, strode to the door, and departed.

 

    Since the Speaker had taken the baton with him, that meant the Thalas-Enthia

 

session was over. The senators filled the aisles, clustering in small groups to discuss

 

Kith-Kanan's stand.

 


 

    There was no debate between Clovanos and Xixis. The two elves were in complete

 

agreement.

 

    "The Speaker will ruin the country," breathed Xixis anxiously. "His stubbornness has

 

already offended the gods. Does he think he can stand against their will? It will mean the

 

end of us all!"

 

    "He has already cost me plenty," Clovanos agreed. He couldn't forget the loss of his

 

towers during the siege of lightning. "If only we could come up with some alternate

 

plan."

 

    The din in the chamber was considerable. Xixis leaned closer to his ally. "What do

 

you mean?" he asked.

 

    "I can't speak in certainties," Clovanos replied, his words barely audible, "but

 

suppose the fortress is finished before the Speaker decides the prince has been re-

 

habilitated? Kith-Kanan has sworn to retire once Pax Tharkas is done; if Prince Ulvian is

 

still under a cloud, another candidate must be found."

 

    Xixis's mouse-colored hair was limp with perspiration, and his flowing robe clung to

 

his clammy skin. Blotting his face with one sleeve, his eyes darted around. No one was

 

listening to them.

 

    "Who, then?" he hissed. "Not that dragon of a daughter!"

 

    Clovanos sneered. "Even the open-minded people of Qualinesti would balk at having

 

a half-human female as Speaker of the Sun! No, listen. You are familiar with the name

 

Lord Kemian Ambrodel?" Xixis nodded. Lord Ambrodel was a prominent figure. "He is

 

pure Silvanesti in heritage and a notable warrior."

 

    "But he is not of House Silvanos!" Xixis cried, and Clovanos shushed him.

 


 

    "That's the beauty of my plan, my friend. If we begin a campaign to have Lord

 

Ambrodel named as the Speaker's heir, then His Majesty will feel compelled to recall

 

Prince Ulvian from Pax Tharkas."

 

    Xixis regarded his companion blankly.

 

    "Don't you see?" Clovanos went on. "Publicly the Speaker may denounce his son as

 

a failure, a weak and cruel rogue who deals in slaves. However, Kith-Kanan won't deny

 

his own family. He cannot, any more than he could have had Ulvian executed. No, the

 

Speaker, for all his harsh words, wants only his own son, the direct descendant of the

 

great Silvanos, to ascend the throne of Qualinesti. If we agitate for another heir, it will

 

force the Speaker's hand. He must recall the prince!"

 

    Xixis didn't seem convinced. "I have known the Speaker for two hundred years," he

 

said. "I fought with him in the great war. Kith-Kanan will do what he thinks is right, not

 

what's best for his family."

 

    Clovanos rose to go, smoothing his pale hair back from his face. Xixis stood also.

 

Linking his arm in the arm of Xixis, Clovanos murmured sagely, "We'll see, my friend.

 

We'll see."

 

                                          *   *   *   *   *

 

    "This air is like dragon's breath!" complained Rufus, sagging on the seat of the cart.

 

Beside him rode Verhanna on her coal-black horse, and behind the kender creaked the

 

other cart containing the freed slaves. Two days had passed, and the sun had burned

 

continuously for a day and a half now.

 

    "Have some water," Verhanna suggested, licking her dry lips. She passed her

 

waterskin to the kender. He put the spout to his lips and drank deeply. "How far do you

 

think we've ridden?" she asked. Without the moons or stars to go by, or even the passage

 

of the sun across the sky, they'd lost track of what hour or day it was.

 


 

    Rufus pondered her question. His scouting skills had grown fuzzy in the constant

 

daylight and mounting heat. "A horse can walk forty miles a day," he said slowly. His

 

freckled face screwed itself into a fearsome frown. "But how long is a day when the sun

 

doesn't shift and the stars don't shine?" He shook his small head, lashing his damp

 

topknot from side to side. "I don't know! Is there anything more to drink?" The waterskin

 

was drained.

 

    Verhanna sighed and admitted there was no more water. She'd shed her armor and

 

cloak and was down to wearing a thin white shirt and divided kilt. Her elven heritage was

 

ever more apparent in her long limbs and pale skin. The subtle influence of her human

 

blood showed in her figure, more muscular than any elven woman.

 

    "Any problems back there?" she called over her shoulder. The boy, Kivinellis, and

 

the elf woman, Deramani, sprawled atop a mound of loose baggage in the second cart,

 

waved listlessly from their perch. Selenara, driving the cart, was too weary even to

 

acknowledge Verhanna's call. Diviros himself was propped up in the first cart, driven by

 

Rufus, and his hands and feet were still tied, a gag in his mouth.

 

    No trace of the Kagonesti slavers had turned up during their drive west. Verhanna

 

had resigned herself to the fact that they had lost the slavers. Nevertheless, she felt a

 

strong sense of responsibility for the former slaves in her care. Rufus, however, insisted

 

he might still recover their trail. Ahead lay the Astradine River, and the Kagonesti would

 

have to cross it. There was no bridge, the kender recalled, just privately owned ferries.

 

Someone would have seen the Kagonesti. Someone would remember them.

 

    They rode on, their heads nodding as they drifted in and out of heat-fogged sleep.

 

The forest around them was unnaturally quiet. Even the birds and beasts were oppressed

 

by the heat.

 


 

    As he bobbed along, the kender dreamed he was back in the snow-capped peaks of

 

the Magnet Mountains, where the captain had first found him. In his mind, he climbed the

 

highest slopes and threw himself down into the drifted snow. How good it felt! How

 

sweet the wind was, how fresh the clear, cold air! The gods themselves knew no kinder

 

home than the peaks of the Magnets.

 

    No one had any business screaming in such a peaceful place.

 

    A drop of sweat slid down Rufus's nose. He batted it away. Ah, to shiver as the chill

 

air brought gooseflesh to his bare arms! The brilliance of the valley below . . .

 

Screaming?

 

    He forced his eyes open as the sound came again. Verhanna was also drowsing, and

 

it took several tugs on her arm before Rufus could get her to open her eyes.

 

    "What­what is it"" she asked languidly.

 

    "Trouble," was his matter-of-fact reply. As if on cue, the scream rang out a third

 

time. Verhanna sat up and pulled in her reins.

 

    "By Astra!" she exclaimed, "I thought I'd dreamed that!"

 

    Kivinellis ran up beside Verhanna's horse. Damp with sweat, his blond hair gleamed

 

in the brilliant sunlight. "It sounds like a lady in distress!" he announced.

 

    "So it does. Can you tell which direction, Wart?" Verhanna nervously drew her

 

sword.

 

    Rufus stood on the cart seat and slowly craned his head in a circle, trying to catch the

 

source of the sound. His pointed, elflike ears were infallible. "Ha!" he crowed at last and

 

bounced on his toes.

 

    Verhanna listened hard. Sure enough, she heard a faint crashing sound, the sort of

 

noise a person might make if he were running pell-mell through the woods. She thrust her

 

dagger and shield at Kivinellis.

 


 

    "Defend the carts!" she cried. The shrill scream split the air once more. "Grab your

 

horse, Wart. We're off!" Rufus was off the cart and on his chestnut mount before the

 

words had scarcely left his captain's mouth. They turned their horses south, off the

 

narrow track they'd been following, and plunged into the forest proper. Saplings and tree

 

limbs raked at their faces. Verhanna had her sword, but the kender was poorly armed for

 

a fight. Aside from a sheath knife, his only weapon was a kender sling. It was a light,

 

handy missile thrower, which he'd used to good effect in the fight at the slavers' camp,

 

but it would be hard to use in the close-growing trees.

 

    Indistinct shouts came from ahead, off to their left. Verhanna halted her horse and

 

waited. Someone was running.

 

    A black-haired human woman, clutching a baby to her breast, came stumbling

 

through the undergrowth. Tears streaked her face. Now and again, she looked back over

 

her shoulder and screeched in terror. Verhanna dug in her spurs and rode hard toward her.

 

The woman saw the warrior maid on horseback, sword drawn, and screamed again­this

 

time for pure joy. She threw herself at the horse's feet.

 

    "Noble lady, save us!" she whimpered. The baby in her arms was bawling loudly,

 

nearly drowning out her words.

 

    Rufus rode up beside his mistress. "Who's after you?" he asked the frightened

 

woman.

 

    "Terrible creatures­monsters. They want to eat my child!"

 

    Hardly had she finished this declaration when a trio of hideous, gnarled creatures

 

appeared in the undergrowth, obviously following the woman's trail. Verhanna's lip

 

curled in disgust.

 

    "Goblins," she said with distaste. "I'll settle with them."

 


 

    They were indeed goblins, but of the most backward and gruesome sort. All wore

 

necklaces of human or elven teeth and bones, and one wore a sort of helmet made from a

 

human skull. Their long fangs protruded over their bottom lips. Even from ten yards

 

away, it was impossible not to smell their rank odor. The goblins were armed with crude

 

maces made from lumps of rounded stone tied to thick ironwood handles. The sight of

 

Verhanna, sword in hand, did not seem to upset the angry creatures. They must be

 

desperately hungry, the captain decided, or driven mad by the suffocating heat.

 

    Verhanna rode straight at them while the kender fitted a pellet into his sling.

 

Clutching her baby tightly, the human woman crawled through the dead leaves until Ru-

 

fus's broad horse was between her and the goblins.

 

    Leaning forward, Verhanna smote the nearest creature with her keen Qualinesti

 

blade. The goblin gave an inarticulate gurgle and dropped his club, his chest split open

 

from shoulder to breastbone. The captain planted a foot on his chest and withdrew her

 

blade. The goblin was dead before he hit the ground.

 

    The other two monsters separated, one on each side of the warrior woman's horse.

 

They swept their maces back and forth, warding off her sword. The goblin on Verhanna's

 

left tried to get by to reach the woman cowering in the leaves. Before the captain could

 

turn to cut him off, Rufus had put a pellet in the center of the goblin's forehead. Stunned,

 

the cannibal creature fell facedown.

 

    "Nice shot!" Verhanna cried.

 

    "Look out!" yelled the kender at the same time.

 

    His warning came too late. Verhanna had been distracted by the first goblin and had

 

turned her back on the other. The second creature, who wore the human skull on its

 

pointed head, dropped its mace in favor of using its teeth and claws. Grabbing her with its

 

taloned hands, he yanked the captain off her horse.

 


 

    Rufus drew his knife and half fell from his mount. The goblin sank its fangs into

 

Verhanna's shoulder. She yelled loudly enough to rattle the leaves on the trees, and

 

together she and the goblin toppled to the ground. The creature wrapped its arms and legs

 

around her, entwining its rubbery black toes together. As Verhanna tried to pry it off,

 

they rolled over and over in the leaves, locked in deadly embrace.

 

    When the goblin presented its back to him, Rufus rammed his iron blade into its

 

body­once, twice, thrice. The ferocious creature howled and let go of Verhanna. It turned

 

on the little kender, murder in its bulging red eyes. Rufus held out his short blade and

 

looked startled. How would it feel to be torn to bits by a filthy, heat-crazed goblin?

 

    Wounded but not out of the fight, the captain flung herself at her sword where it lay

 

in the dead leaves. As the wounded goblin gathered itself to leap on the kender, Verhanna

 

beheaded it with one two-handed blow. Then the blade fell from her hands and she

 

collapsed.

 

    Just then the goblin that Rufus had knocked out with a pellet stirred noisily in the

 

leaves. The kender quickly dispatched it by cutting its throat, then rushed to Verhanna.

 

    "Captain, can you hear me?" he shouted.

 

    "Of course I can hear you, Wart," she muttered. "I'm not deaf."

 

    Indignation spread over the kender's mobile face. "I thought you were dead!"

 

    "Not yet. Help me up."

 

    Rufus pulled on her arm until Verhanna was able to sit up. Aside from the bite

 

wound on her right shoulder and a few cuts and bruises, she didn't seem to be seriously

 

injured.

 

    "Where's the woman and her baby?" she asked, pushing her tumbled brown hair out

 

of her eyes. Rufus looked toward his horse; there was no sign of the woman. In the

 


 

confusion of battle, she must have fled. He didn't blame her. For a moment, it had looked

 

like the goblins were going to get the best of them.

 

    "She skedaddled," he reported, wiping the noxious goblin blood from his knife blade.

 

"No sign of her or the baby."

 

    "That's gratitude for you," grumbled Verhanna, wobbling to her knees. "Ugh! These

 

goblins are the filthiest creatures I know."

 

    Studying her shoulder dispassionately, the kender said, "Your wounds should be

 

washed, but we haven't any water."

 

    "Never mind. We'll be at the Astradine soon."

 

    The captain put a hand on her scout's shoulder and heaved herself to her feet. The

 

two of them remounted their horses, and Verhanna took one last look at the bloody scene

 

before they moved on. Her shoulder burned as if a glowing coal had been set under the

 

skin. Verhanna held her reins limply in her left hand, favoring her injured side.

 

    "Wait a minute," said Rufus. "This isn't the way we came in."

 

    "Are you sure?"

 

    He scratched his head and looked all around. There was nothing but trees and brush

 

in all directions. "Blind me with beeswax! Which way do we go?" Shielding his eyes

 

with his hands, the kender squinted into the hazy sky. The immobile sun gave no clue

 

which direction they should take.

 

    "Can't you find the trail?" Verhanna asked hoarsely. "That's what I pay you for, to be

 

a scout."

 

    Rufus leapt to the ground. He sniffed the dead leaves and dry moss. He turned his

 

head, straining for any sound. Finally, in desperation, he shouted, "Ho, Kivinellfis! Can

 

you hear me? Where are you?" In spite of repeated calls, there was no answer. At last the

 

kender turned to Verhanna and shrugged helplessly.

 


 

    "Wart," she said weakly, "you're fired."

 

    Verhanna's eyes rolled up until only the white showed. Without another sound, she

 

toppled from her saddle and landed squarely on the kender.

 

    Mashed flat on his back, with only his head showing under the prostrate warrior

 

maiden, Rufus groaned loudly. "Ow! Feels like a bear fell on me!"

 

    There was no response from his captain. Finally he managed to haul himself out

 

from under her and rolled her over. Verhanna was still breathing, but her face was

 

deathly pale and her skin blazed hotter than the calm, radiant air.

 

                                           *   *   *   *   *

 

    Rufus set to work. He hadn't lived so long by his own wits without learning a thing

 

or two about sickness. His captain had been poisoned by the filthy goblin's fangs, and

 

unless he could cool her off, the raging fever would be the death of her.

 

    Among their camp gear was a short-handled spade. The kender used it to rake away

 

the layers of leaves that covered the forest floor. Within seconds, he was down to black

 

soil. Below the dry top layer, he knew the earth would be moist and cool. Disregarding

 

his parched throat and sweat-stung eyes, Rufus dug a shallow hole six feet long, two feet

 

wide, and eight inches deep. It was hard going. The forest soil was a tangle of roots,

 

rocks, and chunks of decayed wood. The captain was his friend though, and Rufus

 

intended to do everything he could to save her. An hour after she'd fallen from her horse,

 

the hole was ready for her.

 

    Dropping his shovel, the kender dragged the much larger half-elf woman to the

 

shallow pit and rolled her in so she lay on her back. Collapsing over her unmoving form,

 

he panted and puffed with the exertion. This was hard work, especially since it was like

 

toiling in a blast furnace. Not, of course, that Rufus had ever toiled in a blast furnace. . .

 


 

    After a bit, he set about heaping damp dirt around her and scattering leaves on top of

 

her. Her face he left uncovered. Steam rose from the ground, drawn out either by the hot,

 

dry air or Verhanna's fever. Finished at last, Rufus sat down near his captain's head and

 

waited.

 

    He prayed to the Blue Lady to heal Verhanna; to be fair, he also addressed the

 

goddess of healing by her Qualinesti name, Quen. Perhaps if he prayed to both her

 

incarnations, she would be more likely to heal his captain.

 

    Verhanna shifted restlessly under her covering of leaves and moist soil. The kender

 

patted her forehead distractedly and pondered his situation. If Verhanna died, should he

 

return to Qualinost with the news, or go on with the hunt for the Kagonesti slavers? And

 

if she lived, how could they go on? How could anyone find his way cross-country

 

without the sun or moons or stars to guide him?

 

    The kender chewed his lip while his mind raced. Briefly he wished that he was back

 

in the Magnet Mountains. At least there he knew his way around. Of course, life there

 

hadn't been nearly so exciting. Since meeting his captain, he had fought slave-traders and

 

goblins, met the Speaker of the Sun, and had a chance to investigate the city of Qualinost.

 

Unbidden, his hands explored the multitudinous pockets of his tunic and vest for all the

 

trinkets he'd collected. Instead of rings or beads or writing styluses, Rufus's nimble

 

fingers brought out a walnut-sized piece of lodestone. Surprise lifted his eyebrows. He'd

 

forgotten he had that.

 

    Something about lodestones made his nose itch. Rufus scratched. No, that wasn't it.

 

Something about lodestones made his brain itch. Yes, there was something important

 

about the little rock. Lodestones, mountains, and mines. What about mines? He'd once

 

sold some stones to a band of dwarf miners. In Thorbardin, the dwarves had mines that

 


 

ran for miles under the ground, where the tunnels and shafts and galleries were quite

 

confusing. How did they navigate? They never saw the sun or stars down there.

 

     Now the kender's ear itched. He swiped at it with one hand; then both ears started

 

itching. It grew unbearable.

 

     Grabbing the wide brim of his blue hat, Rufus yanked it from his head. Two

 

ravelings from the sewn headband were hanging down and tickling his ears. He started to

 

break off the annoying threads.

 

     Threads!

 

     In an instant, he remembered what he'd been trying to remember about lodestones. A

 

dwarf had told him once, "To find your direction underground, hang a sliver of lodestone

 

from a thread. It will always point north and south." Rufus had scoffed at the dwarf's

 

tale. After all, how could a dumb piece of rock know directions?

 

     Verhanna moaned loudly, interrupting the kender's darting thoughts. Recalling again

 

what he had finally remembered before about the lodestone, Rufus brought out his knife

 

and whittled the small stone, trying to get it long and narrow, like a pointer should be. His

 

blade grew dull and several fresh nicks appeared, but before long, he had the stone

 

roughly spindle-shaped.

 

     Carefully he pulled a long raveling from his hatband. The woolen strand was about

 

six inches long. He tied it around the center of the stone and let the black rock dangle

 

from his fingers. The whittled stone turned round and round, then gradually slowed and

 

stopped.

 

     The kender realized he didn't know which way was north and which was south. And

 

he wasn't entirely certain he could trust such a silly trick.

 

     "What choice have you got?" Rufus asked himself aloud. None, he answered himself

 

silently.

 


 

    He tied Verhanna's horse's reins to his saddle. Then he set about uncovering his

 

captain. She was noticeably cooler, thanks to his treatment, but still gravely ill. He had a

 

dragon's own time getting the unconscious woman out of the hole. Grunting with effort,

 

he braced her up in a sitting position on the ground.

 

    Verhanna's fever-fogged eyes opened. "Wart," she muttered. "I thought I fired you."

 

    "You haven't paid me yet, my captain. I can't leave till I get my gold!"

 

    With much wobbling, Verhanna rose to her feet. Rufus boosted her into her saddle,

 

his head and both hands pushing on her backside. In another time and place, it might have

 

been a comical scene, but now Verhanna's life was literally hanging by a thread­a woolen

 

thread from a kender's hat.

 

    The warrior maid drooped over her horse's neck. Leaving her mount tied to his

 

saddle, Rufus took his horse's reins in hand and began to lead them out. The track they'd

 

been on with the carts lay to the north, so he chose a direction and hoped it was right. His

 

eyes were glued to the sliver of lodestone he held in his other hand. He walked and

 

walked and walked. So intent was he on keeping to his course that it was some time

 

before he noticed it was getting harder and harder to see.

 

    "Just my luck!" the kender exclaimed. "I'm going blind!"

 

    But Rufus was not going blind. The sun, so long fixed overhead, was finally moving.

 

Already it was low in the sky off to his left, sinking through the trees and confirming his

 

route as northerly. Never unhappy for very long, the kender found himself feeling rather

 

satisfied. He had chosen the right path. His lodestone pointer worked.

 

    A few minutes later, he came to the track through the forest they'd left earlier. Rufus

 

danced with joy. He was the best scout in the whole world! He climbed onto his mount

 

and thumped his heels cheerily against its sides, turning its face toward the setting sun.

 


 

There was no sign of the two carts or the former slaves, but Rufus was immensely

 

relieved to be on the path again.

 

    Crickets and birds, silent during the three days of noon, sang again as shadows

 

lengthened on the trail. Rufus stopped now and then to see how his captain was doing.

 

Her breathing was shallow and quick, and her face was too warm again. That was bad.

 

How he wished he was in Balifor, where he knew several healing shamans! There was

 

one on Peacock Street who had­

 

    Water. The kender's button nose twitched. He smelled water. In a few seconds, the

 

horses detected it, too. The tired, parched animals shambled faster, eager for a refreshing

 

drink. Agreeing with them completely, Rufus let them have their heads.

 

    The trees thinned and finally disappeared. In the last of the daylight, the kender saw

 

that a wide bed of mud lay before him. The horses walked laboriously across the mud,

 

pulling their hooves free with loud sucking noises. Evidently the river had shrunk during

 

the long heat wave. Rufus wondered if there was any water left. If so, he couldn't see it. A

 

thick scroll of fog shrouded the center of the river.

 

    As they entered the fog, Rufus heard a splashing sound. He looked down. The horses

 

had found the water. They waded in up to their bellies. Rufus leaned over and drank some

 

of the sweet liquid from his cupped hand. Then he stood in his saddle and clambered over

 

to Verhanna's mount.

 

    Her hands and feet trailed in the cool stream. Standing with one foot in her stirrup,

 

the kender scooped up a hatful of water and held it to her lips. Only partly conscious, she

 

drank.

 

    Sounds from the opposite shore caught Rufus's attention­voices, axles creaking,

 

horses whinnying, Incapable of ignoring something that sounded so interesting, Rufus

 

slipped into the water and swam quietly toward the noises.

 


 

    As the kender rose out of the river, his soaked topknot fell across his face. He pushed

 

it aside. Only his head showed above water, and the fog hung close around him. When he

 

felt the oozy bottom under his toes, he walked slowly to shore.

 

    The figures in the fog resolved themselves into tall people, elves or humans, who

 

were trying to push a heavily loaded wagon out of the mud. They had foolishly steered

 

the conveyance too close to the water's edge, and now it was held fast by the thick muck.

 

As far as Rufus could see by the light of their torches, they were unarmed. Mostly they

 

were muddy, and from the sounds they were making, disgusted with their plight.

 

    He decided they must be immigrants bound for Qualinesti. Perhaps there would be a

 

healer among them. He'd have to go back and get his captain.

 

    When he returned to his horses, he remounted and started for the far shore, toward

 

the immigrants. The very center of the stream was too deep for the animals to walk, but

 

the Thoradin-bred chargers swam the short distance easily. Kender, horses, and the

 

unconscious warrior maiden splashed ashore.

 

    "Hullo there! Rufus! Rufus Wrinklecap!" called a high voice. The startled kender

 

saw a small fellow break away from the others.

 

    "Kivinellis? Is that you?" The elf boy yelped with delight and waved Verhanna's

 

dagger over his head. The other elves froze in their tracks.

 

    Rufus clapped the boy on the back, saying, "Good to see you! My captain's

 

wounded. We had a fight with some goblins, then got lost in the woods."

 

    He peered over the boy's head at the people beside the wagon. None of them looked

 

familiar.

 

    "Where're Diviros and the women?" he asked quickly. "Who are these folk?" The

 

Kagonesti at the wagon broke ranks and came toward him.

 


 

    "Oh, these are my friends," said Kivinellis. "When you and the warrior lady rode off,

 

Diviros got his legs untied and jumped down from the cart. I chased him, but he ran into

 

the woods and I was afraid to follow. Me and the womenfolk came to the river 'cause you

 

didn't come back."

 

    The Kagonesti settlers were close now, so Rufus hailed them. "Hello! My captain is

 

sick with a goblin's bite. Is there a healer among you?"

 

    One Kagonesti male, his face painted with a host of black and white dots, turned

 

away from the kender and called over his shoulder, "They have come, just as you said!"

 

    Puzzled, Rufus said to Kivinellis, "Who's he talking to?" The fair-haired elf boy

 

merely shrugged.

 

    A soft yet penetrating voice pierced the night. "Bring the woman to me."

 

    A male voice, Rufus decided. A little farther up the riverbank.

 

    Two sinewy Kagonesti lifted Verhanna from her horse and carried her ashore. Rufus

 

and Kivinellis followed, and the boy explained that his female companions had gone on

 

to Qualinost with another group of wagons. He had decided to wait at the river ford for a

 

while to see if Verhanna and the kender turned up.

 

    "Where are they taking my captain?" asked Rufus, loud enough for the elves to hear.

 

    His answer came striding out of the dark. A head taller than the Kagonesti, the

 

newcomer was also an elf, though fairer in complexion. His face wasn't painted. Yellow

 

hair hung loose around his wide shoulders. A rough horsehair blanket, with a hole cut in

 

the center for his head, covered his chest and arms. His legs were sheathed in leather

 

trews.

 

    He stopped where the grassy shore met the mud flats. "I can help you," said the

 

stranger. His words were softly spoken, yet carried easily to Rufus.

 

    "Are you a healer?" asked Rufus.

 


 

    "I can help you," he repeated.

 

    The tall, yellow-haired elf went to the Kagonesti and took Verhanna from their arms.

 

He carried the strapping warrior woman effortlessly, but with great gentleness. He turned

 

and started away from the river.

 

    "Where are you going?" called the kender. He pushed between the Kagonesti and

 

splashed through the mud till he was dogging the tall elf's heels. Kivinellis remained with

 

the Kagonesti, conversing with the wild elves. Where a line of locust trees bordered the

 

grassy bank, the stranger lowered Verhanna to the ground.

 

    "A goblin bit her," Rufus said, panting. "The wound's poisoned."

 

    The stranger's long fingers probed Verhanna's shoulder. She gasped when he touched

 

the wound itself. Sitting back on his haunches, the tall elf regarded her with rapt

 

attention.

 

    "What're you waiting for? Make a poultice. Work a spell!" The kender wondered if

 

this fellow was really a healer.

 

    The stranger held up a hand to quell the impatient Rufus. By the light of Krynn's

 

stars and two bright moons, the kender could see that his fingers were dark, as if stained

 

with dye. Rufus's penetrating vision could just make out that the stain was green.

 

    Green. Green fingers. In a flash, Rufus remembered Diviros's queer tale of the

 

lightning splitting the oak and a fully grown elf falling from the broken tree­a fully

 

grown elf whose hands were green.

 

    "It's you!" the kender exclaimed. "The one from the shattered tree! Greenhands!"

 

    "I have been waiting for you," said Greenhands. "Through days of red rain and

 

endless sun."

 

    He bent down and slipped his arms around Verhanna. Taking her limp form into his

 

embrace, Greenhands closed his right hand over the ugly, swollen wound on her

 


 

shoulder. Rufus could see the muscles in the tall elf's neck tighten as he drew Verhanna

 

closer to him, as if he were embracing a lover.

 

    "What're you­?"

 

    She groaned once, then cried out in torment as the stranger dug his odd,

 

grass-colored fingers into her wound. Verhanna's eyes flew wide. She stared over the

 

strange elf's shoulder at Rufus. What was in her eyes? Terror? Wonder? The kender

 

couldn't tell. She uttered a long, tearing wail, and Greenhands suddenly joined his voice

 

with hers. The combined scream hammered painfully at the listeners, wrenching their

 

hearts as it agonized their ears.

 

    Kith-Kanan's daughter closed her eyes with a slow flutter. Greenhands lowered her

 

carefully to the ground, straightened up, and walked away. Rufus went to his captain.

 

    Her breast rose and fell evenly. She was asleep. Beneath the filthy shreds of her linen

 

shirt, Verhanna's right shoulder was as smooth and unscarred as a baby's cheek.

 

    The kender yelped in astonishment. He jumped up and stared after Greenhands, who

 

was still walking away. "Wait, you!" he yelled. Not ten paces from where Verhanna lay,

 

Greenhands sank to the ground. The kender and elves ran to him.

 

    "Are you all right?" Rufus asked as he reached the elf. Kivinellis already knelt by the

 

stranger. It was he who noticed the change.

 

    "Look at his hand!" the boy gasped.

 

    The tall elf's right hand, the one he'd healed Verhanna's wound with, was split open.

 

A long, deep gash, from which blood oozed, ran across his palm. Black blood caked his

 

green fingers, and the smell of the suppurating goblin bite rose up like foul smoke.

 

    "He is thalmaat," said one of the Kagonesti in deeply reverent tones.

 

    "What's that?" asked Kivinellis, unfamiliar with the old dialect.

 


 

    Rufus glanced from the bloody green hand of the tall stranger to his captain, now

 

peacefully resting. "It means 'godsent'," the kender said slowly. "One who is actually sent

 

by the gods."

 


 

                                             9

 

                                         The Pact

 

 

 

 

    Rain pattered on the dry streets of Qualinost. After three days of continuous

 

sunshine, the rain was a blessing. The city dwellers, who had so fastidiously avoided the

 

crimson downpour, stayed outside, luxuriating in the refreshing, clean liquid. The wide,

 

curving streets were full of people.

 

    Once the rain had abated to a soft shower and cool breezes flowed across his capital,

 

Kith-Kanan rode with Senator Irthenie and Kemian Ambrodel through the busy streets.

 

The Speaker of the Sun was surveying the city to see how much it had suffered in the

 

three days of heat. Qualinost, he was relieved to see, didn't seem to have been much

 

damaged by the burning sun.

 

    His subjects noticed the Speaker riding among them. They tipped their hats or bowed

 

as he passed. Here and there, Kith-Kanan came upon a gang of gardeners removing some

 

tree or bush that had succumbed to the relentless heat. At the right hand of each of these

 

groups waited a priest of Astra, ready to plant a new tree in place of the old. No,

 

Qualinost had not suffered very much.

 

    The market square was less cheerful. Kith-Kanan rode ahead of his two companions

 

across the almost deserted plaza and saw all the empty stalls and ruined produce lying

 

trodden on the cobblestones. One merchant, a burly human with a leather apron, was

 

sweeping up some spoiled potatoes when Kith-Kanan reined in to speak with him.

 

    "Hello there, my good fellow," called the Speaker. "How goes it with you?"

 

    The man didn't look up from his work. "Rotten! All of it rotten! What's a man

 

supposed to do with five bushels of dried-out, split-open, rotten vegetables?"

 


 

    Irthenie and Kemian drew alongside Kith-Kanan. "So the sun ruined your crop?"

 

asked the Speaker sympathetically.

 

    "Aye, the sun or the darkness or the lightnin' or the flood of bloody rain. Makes no

 

never-mind to me which it was. It happened." The man spat on the damp stones.

 

    An elf woman with a basket of withered flowers under one arm heard their

 

conversation. With a quick curtsy to her sovereign, she asked, "Why do the gods punish

 

us so? What sin have we committed?"

 

    "How do you know the gods are punishing anyone? These strange things might all be

 

signs of some great wonder to come," Kith-Kanan suggested.

 

    The human, squatting on the ground to gather his ruined potatoes into baskets,

 

grumbled, "They say it's because Kith-Kanan has put his own son in chains to help build

 

the fortress at Pax Tharkas." He still didn't realize to whom he was conversing. At his

 

harsh words, the elf woman blushed, and Kemian Ambrodel cleared his throat loudly.

 

The human lifted his head.

 

    Even though the Speaker didn't wear the glitter and gold of state robes, the man

 

recognized him. "Mercy, Your Worship, I'm sorry!" the man gasped. "I didn't know it

 

was you!"

 

    Grimly Kith-Kanan replied, "Have no fear. I would hear everything my people think

 

of me."

 

    "Is it true, Majesty?" asked the elf woman meekly. "Did you sell your own son into

 

slavery just to finish that big castle?"

 

    Kemian and Irthenie started to remonstrate with the woman for her blunt query. The

 

Speaker held up his hands to silence them. Patiently he explained what Ulvian had done,

 

and why he had sent him to Pax Tharkas. His earlier wish to keep Ulvian's crime from

 


 

public gossip seemed hopeless. Now he felt it was more important for his people to know

 

the truth and not entertain wild imaginings.

 

    While he spoke, more people gathered­peddlers, tinkers, farmers, potters. All came

 

to hear Kith-Kanan's story of the trouble he was having with his son. To his amazement,

 

they all believed that Ulvian's exile and the twelve days of marvels were related.

 

    "Where did you get these ideas?" Irthenie asked sharply.

 

    The potato man shrugged. "Talk. Just talk . . . you know."

 

    "Shadow talk," said Kith-Kanan, too faintly for most to hear. Kemian heard, and he

 

glanced at the Speaker.

 

    "Is Lord Kemian Ambrodel to be your son now?" shouted a voice from the crowd.

 

The three mounted elves turned their heads to and fro, trying to spot the one who'd

 

spoken.

 

    "Will Lord Ambrodel be the next Speaker of the Sun?" the same voice demanded.

 

    "Who said that?" muttered Irthenie. No one answered, but others in the crowd took

 

up the cry. Keeping a steady hand on his fractious mount's reins, Kith-Kanan let the

 

shouting grow a while. He wanted to measure the sentiment of his people.

 

    Kemian, however, could not remain calm. "Silence!" the general roared. "Show

 

respect for the Speaker!"

 

    "Silvanesti!" someone shouted back at him, and it was like a curse. The young

 

warrior, in an agony of embarrassment and anger, looked to his sovereign. Kith-Kanan

 

seemed thoughtful.

 

    "Sire," said Kemian desperately, "I think you'd best assure them I am not to be your

 

successor!" His voice was tight but earnest.

 

    "Say something," Irthenie urged from the side of her mouth.

 


 

    At last the Speaker held up a hand. "Good people," he said. "The crowd instantly fell

 

silent, awaiting his response. "I understand your concern for the throne. Lord Ambrodel

 

is a faithful and valiant servant. He would make an excellent Speaker­"

 

    "No! No!" the crowd erupted. "No Silvanesti! No Silvanesti!" they chanted. In his

 

own shock at the Speaker's words, Kemian barely heard their insults.

 

    "Have you forgotten that I am of the royal house of Silvanos?" Kith-Kanan said icily.

 

"No one is more Silvanesti than I!"

 

    "You are the Speaker of the Sun! The father of our country!" a male voice answered.

 

"We don't want some Silvanesti courtier's boy to rule us. We want a ruler of your blood

 

or none!"

 

    "Your blood or none!" echoed a large segment of the crowd.

 

    Kemian snatched at his reins, ready to charge into the mass of unarmed Qualinesti

 

and put an end to these insults. Kith-Kanan leaned over and laid a hand on the warrior's

 

arm. Eyes blazing, Kemian stared angrily at the Speaker, but he didn't try to evade his

 

grasp. Reluctantly he relaxed, and Kith-Kanan let go of his mailed rm.

 

    "Go back to the Speaker's house, General," Kith-Kanan said coolly. "I shall return

 

shortly."

 

    "Sire!" Kemian saluted and wheeled his prancing horse in a tight half-circle. The

 

traders and farmers scattered from his path. The general let out a yell and spurred his

 

mount. With a loud clatter of hooves, horse and rider tore across the market square and

 

vanished down a curving street.

 

    The people cheered his abrupt departure. Disgusted with them, Kith-Kanan was

 

about to follow Kemian's exit when Irthenie abruptly got down off her horse.

 

    "I'm too old to stay up that high for so long," she proclaimed loudly, rubbing her

 

backside with exaggerated care. "For seven hundred and ninety-four years, I walked

 


 

everywhere I needed to go. Now that I'm a senator, I'm not supposed to walk anywhere."

 

Those nearest the Kagonesti woman chuckled. "One pays a price to sit in the

 

Thalas-Enthia," she said gruffly. More people laughed.

 

    Kith-Kanan slackened his reins and sat still, waiting to see what the foxy senator was

 

up to. "You people," she said loud enough to carry to the fringes of the mob, "you stand

 

here and say you don't want Kemian Ambrodel as the next Speaker of the Sun. I say, who

 

told you he would be? It's the first I've heard of it." She stepped away from her

 

dapple-gray horse, deeper into the crowd.

 

    "He's a fine general, that elf, but you're right about one thing: We don't want a bunch

 

of Silvanesti nobles ruling us, telling us we're not as good as they are. That's one reason

 

we left the old country, to get away from so many lords and masters."

 

    Irthenie's Kagonesti garb blended in well with the crowd, her leather and raw linen

 

against their homespun wool and drab cotton. She literally rubbed shoulders with the

 

people in the square. Irthenie was one of them. "When I was younger and

 

better-looking­" laughter rippled across the plaza­ "I was taken from the forest by

 

warriors. They were looking for wives, and their idea of catching one was to drag a net

 

through the bushes and see what they flushed out." The senator stopped walking when

 

she reached the center of the crowd. Every eye was on her. Kith-Kanan experienced a

 

moment of nervousness at the sight of her small figure hemmed in on all sides by the

 

mob. "I didn't much want to be a warrior's woman, so I ran away the first chance I got.

 

They caught me, and this time, they broke my leg so I couldn't run again. Vernax

 

Kollontine was hardly a loving husband. After he beat me for not washing his clothes

 

often enough and not cooking his supper fast enough, I killed him with a bread knife."

 


 

    There was a concerted gasp at this revelation. The Speaker of the Sun seemed just as

 

surprised as his subjects, and he listened to the senator's tale just as intently. Irthenie held

 

up a hand to calm the crowd, insisting, "No, no, it was a fair fight." Kith-Kanan smiled.

 

    "The point of this long and boring story is that the Speaker of the Stars at that time,

 

Sithel, ordered me sold into slavery as punishment for my crime. I lived as a slave for

 

thirty-eight years. The great war freed me, and I was in the first band of settlers who

 

came with Kith-Kanan to found Qualinost. This city, this country, is like no other in the

 

world. Here every race can live and work, can worship, and can prosper or not as they

 

please. That's freedom. That you and I enjoy it is mostly due to that fellow on horseback

 

you see over there. It was his wisdom and judgment that got us here. If you're pleased

 

with that, then you ought not doubt his wisdom regarding either his son or his successor."

 

    The square remained quiet after she finished speaking. Only the soft patter of rain

 

accompanied Irthenie's final words.

 

    "Slavery is an evil, ugly thing," she concluded. "It degrades not only the slave, but

 

the master as well. Like any good father, the Speaker is trying to save his son from a

 

terrible mistake. You should pray for him as I often do."

 

    Irthenie walked back through the calmed crowd to her horse. Kith-Kanan handed her

 

the reins, and she climbed into the saddle with a grunt. "Damn leg," she muttered. "It

 

always gets stiff when it rains."

 

    The Speaker and the senator rode on across the square. The people parted, making

 

way for them. Hats were doffed. Wool tams and felt hoods were removed in respect.

 

    Kith-Kanan kept his gaze serenely ahead. What had been a potentially dangerous

 

situation had been reversed by the words of his old friend.

 

    The cool rain felt good on his face. The air smelled sweet. Though nothing had been

 

decided or changed, Kith-Kanan felt a sudden rush of confidence. Whatever forces were

 


 

at work, he felt sure they were in his favor. Hiddukel's dire prophecies in the Tower of

 

the Sun seemed like remote threats now.

 

    "A question," he said as they rode on. "Was that story you told the crowd true?"

 

    Irthenie kicked her heels against her horse's sides. The gelding broke into a trot.

 

    "Some of it was," she replied.

 

                                         *   *   *   *   *

 

    Steam hung in the air where the cold rain hit the baked stones of Pax Tharkas. All

 

outside work had ceased, as it was too dangerous to cut stone or move blocks when the

 

ground was wet. The grunt gang was not allowed to lie idle, though. Feldrin Feldspar was

 

anxious about his rate of progress, so he put the convicts to work enlarging the tunnels

 

being sunk into the mountainside beneath the towering citadel.

 

    Ulvian hobbled about on a makeshift crutch. His right leg, the one that had been

 

caught by the runaway granite block, had stiffened to the point where he needed a crutch

 

to get around. He wasn't excused from work however, so he limped through the dim,

 

limestone tunnels, carrying waterskins to the other grunt gang members.

 

    Near the end of one long gallery, barely wider than his shoulders, he came upon Dru.

 

Ulvian paused a few feet away from the laboring elf. A small lamp burned on the tunnel

 

floor. In its brassy light, Dru's chalk-covered body appeared ghostly.

 

    "Here, friend," said the prince. "Drink while the water's still cool."

 

    Dru set aside his pick and took the skin. He pointed the spout at his lips and let a

 

stream of cold water flow into his mouth.

 

    "Don't take it all. There are others who will want a drink."

 

    Dru let the prince take the nearly drained skin. "You puzzle me," the Silvanesti said,

 

leaning against the wall. The lamp threw weird highlights from below, making the elf's

 


 

lean, angular face look like a mask. "You are a prince, the son of a monarch, and yet you

 

fetch and carry water like any base-born serf."

 

    "Hold your tongue! You may have saved my life, but I don't have to endure a lecture

 

from you!" snapped Ulvian, more like his arrogant, proud, former self.

 

    Dru smiled thinly. "That's better. That's what I want to hear." Clasping his pick, the

 

sorcerer stepped over the lamp and stood nose to nose with the son of Kith-Kanan. "If

 

you can behave like a prince and not a serf, we can be gone from this miserable prison.

 

Are you with me?"

 

    "In what?" was Ulvian's derisive reply. "Shall we run away to the mountains, just so

 

Feldrin's watchdogs can hunt us down? I'm on my good behavior here. If I sacrifice that, I

 

have no hope of gaining my father's throne."

 

    "We have only to cause a little excitement. That will distract the camp long enough

 

for us to get inside Feldrin's tent and get my amulet."

 

    So they were back to that. Ulvian folded his arms, disgust evident on his face. "I

 

won't murder Feldrin. He's a thickheaded old bore, but he's honest."

 

    Dru's smile was nasty. He turned and went to the low niche he'd already hollowed

 

out in the soft rock. He tossed his pick aside. It rang dully on the dusty floor. Slumping

 

against the wall, Dru said, "When are you going to wake up, Highness?" His tone dripped

 

irony. "I have waited a long time for someone with whom I could ally myself. No one

 

else in the grunt gang has any wit or breeding. But you and I, my friend, can go far

 

together. You spoke of enemies. I can help you defeat them. The throne of your father

 

can be yours, not in ten years or a hundred, but in two months. Perhaps sooner. With your

 

leadership and my magic, we can make Qualinesti the most powerful empire in the

 

world!"

 


 

    His words held the prince's attention. Without realizing it, Ulvian let the waterskin

 

drop from his fingers. It sloshed to the ground.

 

    "I've dreamed of the day I would see Verhanna and the Ambrodels groveling at my

 

feet," Ulvian whispered. "And the Crown of the Sun on my head." The prince's eyes were

 

distant, beholding future glory. Visions of the empire he would rule, of the grand and

 

opulent palace he would build, filled Ulvian's mind. Power and glory, comfort and ease,

 

riches beyond dreaming. His word would be law. The people would worship him as they

 

now worshiped his father.

 

    Cutting through Ulvian's golden dreams, a rough voice from farther back in the

 

tunnel called faintly, "Waterboy! Where's that waterboy?"

 

    Abruptly Ulvian focused once more on Dru. "If we can accomplish this without

 

bloodshed, count me in," he said grimly.

 

    Dru bowed his head. "As Your Highness wishes. I shall be very careful." Then he

 

quickly gave Ulvian a precise list of the things he'd need. It was a short list, but a puz-

 

zling one.

 

    "What on Krynn can you do with a pound of white clay, some chips of coal, a span

 

of leather thong, and a copper brazier?" the prince asked, confused. "None of them is rare

 

or guarded. Why don't you collect them yourself?"

 

    The sorcerer's gray eyes glittered like diamonds in the half-light. "You may not

 

realize it, my prince, but I am closely watched. No one dares kill me, but I dare not do

 

anything to cause suspicion, or my limbs would be fettered and I would be consigned to a

 

deep, dark hole." He gestured at the rough limestone walls. "Like this."

 

    Ulvian left him there. As he wended his way to the main tunnel under the central

 

citadel, he mulled over the possibilities. Dru was dangerous, but a potentially powerful

 

ally. Ulvian smiled in the dark tunnel as he limped along. Let Dru believe he was a

 


 

vainglorious fool. That was a useful illusion. The time might come when Ulvian would

 

no longer require Dru's services. . . .

 

    Rough hands seized his shirt front. "Here!" bellowed a harsh voice. "Here he is,

 

lads!"

 

    Ulvian was dragged into a side tunnel and flung to the floor. His bruised leg knifed

 

with pain. Through the gloom, he saw three grunt gangers standing over him. Two he

 

knew well­the Kagonesti Splint, and a human called Brunnar. The third was another

 

Kagonesti he knew only as Thrit.

 

    "We been waiting an awful long time for our water," snarled Splint. "The damn dust

 

down here is thicker than soup." He planted a foot on Ulvian's back. "So where's the

 

water?"

 

    Painfully the prince dragged the waterskin from beneath him. It was snatched from

 

his grasp by Thrit, who reported that it was empty.

 

    "I think our little waterboy needs a lesson," Splint growled, and kicked the prince in

 

the ribs. The three tall figures closed in.

 

    Dru swung his pick energetically at the limestone around him. He had no interest in

 

working hard for his captors; the physical activity was simply a reflection of the state of

 

fevered excitement in his mind. His time in this unnatural prison could be measured in

 

days, perhaps only hours. Soon he would be free! Surely his patron god had sent that fool

 

of a prince to be the instrument of his deliverance.

 

    A sound in the passage behind him made him pause. Pick in hand, Dru whirled. The

 

feeble glow of the fat-burning lamp didn't penetrate beyond the bend in the tunnel some

 

six feet away. He waited. The noise came again, a scraping, dragging sound. Carefully

 

the sorcerer bent down to take up the lamp, his eyes never leaving the black passage.

 


 

    A hand, pale and slim, came into view on the dusty floor. Dru crept forward until the

 

lamplight fell across the form of Prince Ulvian, sprawled on the ground. Blood matted his

 

unkempt beard, and one eye was swollen shut.

 

    Dru knelt. "Your Highness! What happened?"

 

    "Splint . . . Brunnar . . . Thrit . . . beat me." Ulvian's lips were swelling, making

 

speech difficult.

 

    Dru dragged the prince to the far end of the tunnel and propped him against the wall.

 

After making certain no one was around, the sorcerer reached under the waist of his

 

baggy trousers and brought out a small hide drawstring bag. He poured a little of its

 

contents into his hand. A pungent, sweet smell filled the air.

 

    "Take this," murmured Dru, putting his hand to Ulvian's purple lips. "It's an herbal

 

mixture of my own. It will restore you."

 

    The prince managed to swallow some of the ground herbs. In a few minutes, the

 

swelling in his eye and lips began to subside. A modicum of strength flowed into his

 

body. Though the pain of his injured leg eased, his ribs still ached from his beating.

 

    Ulvian lifted clouded eyes to the sorcerer's face and struggled to his feet.

 

    "Rest a bit longer, Highness."

 

    "No." Ulvian struggled to his feet. The magic herbs hadn't healed all his pains, but he

 

felt considerably better. "I want to proceed with our plans as quickly as possible," he

 

informed Dru. "And I've added a condition of my own."

 

    Dru tucked his herb bag away. "What's that?"

 

    "Twice Splint has laid hands on me. I want revenge!"

 

    "Easily done, Highness. Just get the items I need."

 

    Ulvian pushed Dru aside and hobbled off down the tunnel. His voice echoed back to

 

the pleased sorcerer. "I'll have it all for you tonight!" he declared grimly.

 


 

 


 

                                            10

 

                                   The Knowing Child

 

 

 

 

    Verhanna slept deeply for the rest of the night and well into the next day. When at

 

last she stirred and sat up, she saw Rufus sitting on the ground beside her. A cool

 

compress of damp moss fell away from her forehead when she moved. "What­hat is this?

 

Where are we?"

 

    "The west bank of the Astradine River," said the kender.

 

    Rufus gave her a strand of venison jerky he'd bought from the Kagonesti settlers.

 

Verhanna gnawed on the tough meat in silence for a while, then finally said, "Now I

 

remember. The goblins!That rotten scab of a creature bit me. The wound festered."

 

Suddenly she twisted around and lifted the horsehair poncho draped over her. "It's gone!"

 

she shouted. Verhanna lowered the piece of blanket. "Who healed me? My muscles aren't

 

even sore!"

 

    The kender pointed away from their campsite. "Him," Rufus said simply.

 

    Seated on a fallen log a dozen paces distant was Greenhands, bare-chested now since

 

Verhanna was using his poncho. His hair, which had appeared yellow by torchlight, was

 

revealed by the light of day to be of purest white. Kith-Kanan's daughter picked her way

 

down the mossy riverbank toward him. The strange elf was gazing placidly across the

 

sluggish stream, which was still depleted by the three-day onslaught of the sun.

 

    Verhanna opened her mouth­to demand, question, challenge­but she closed it again

 

without speaking. There was something unsettling about this elf, something compelling.

 

He was not handsome by elven standards. His cheeks were broad, but not high; his chin

 

and nose were not fashionably narrow; his lips were full, not thin; and his forehead was

 


 

massive, almost human in proportion. However, he was unmistakably elven, with

 

almond-shaped eyes, elegantly pointed ears, and exquisitely long, tapering fingers. The

 

expression on his face was serene.

 

    "Hello," the Qualinesti princess finally said. His green eyes left off their study of the

 

river and found her. A chill passed through Verhanna. She'd never seen any elf with eyes

 

that color, and his gaze was direct­unwavering and unnerving. "Can you speak?"

 

    "I speak."

 

    "Thank Astra." She paused, embarrassed at the debt she owed him and unsure what

 

to say. After a long moment, during which the elf's eyes never left her, she added rather

 

hastily, "Rufus tells me you healed me. I­I wanted to thank you."

 

    "It needed to be done," replied Greenhands. The wild elves whose wagon had been

 

stuck in the mud hailed them, and the elder Kagonesti male called for Greenhands to join

 

them.

 

    "Come along," the Kagonesti said. "We're bound for Qualinost."

 

    The strange elf replied, "I cannot go." Still his eyes remained on Verhanna.

 

    The Kagonesti father tied off his reins and jumped down from the wagon. "What's

 

that? Is this warrior holding you back?" he asked, glaring at the warrior maiden.

 

    "I am not," she replied tartly.

 

    "I must go to the west," Greenhands said. He rose and faced in that direction. "To the

 

High Place. They must come with me." He indicated Verhanna and Rufus, who had

 

managed to join them quietly for a change. Kivinellis, riding in the wagon with the

 

Kagonesti's family, jumped off and ran to Verhanna.

 

    "I want to go, too!" he declared. The father protested strongly. A young boy couldn't

 

wander around with a kender, a warrior, and a simpleminded elf.

 


 

    Verhanna ignored the Kagonesti and turned to Greenhands. "Why do you have to go

 

west with us?" she wanted to know.

 

    His brow furrowed in thought. "I have to find my father," he said.

 

    "Who is your father?"

 

    "I do not know. I have never seen him."

 

    In spite of these vague replies, Greenhands was obstinate. He must go west, and

 

Verhanna and Rufus must go with him. Defeated, the Kagonesti returned to his wagon,

 

propelling Kivinellis ahead of him. The elf boy complained all the way.

 

    "Poor little fellow," said Rufus. "Couldn't we keep him, my captain?"

 

    Verhanna's attention was all on Greenhands. "No, he's better off with a family," she

 

said distantly. "Astra only knows where we're headed­" The creak of wheels interrupted

 

her. The loaded wagon lurched onto level ground and pulled away. Kivinellis, his blond

 

head shining among the dark elves, waved forlornly from the back of the wagon. He was

 

securely held by the Kagonesti's wife. Verhanna returned the wave, then turned back to

 

Greenhands.

 

    "I need some answers," Verhanna declared. "Who are you?"

 

    "I have no name," was the mild answer.

 

    "Greenhands, that's your name," said the kender. He clasped the elf's grass-hued

 

hand in both of his small ones. "Pleased to meetcha. I'm Rufus Wrinklecap, forester and

 

scout. And that's my captain, Verhanna. Her father is Kith-Kanan, the Speaker of the

 

Sun."

 

    Greenhands seemed startled, even bewildered, by this flood of information.

 

    "Never mind," said Verhanna, shaking her head. Awkwardly she put a hand on the

 

elf's bare shoulder. His skin was warm and smooth. When she touched him, Verhanna felt

 

a tingle shoot up her arm. She didn't know if it was due to some force passing between

 


 

them or if it was simply her own nervousness. Greenhands didn't seem to notice anything

 

odd.

 

        Looking him directly in the eyes, Verhanna asked firmly, "Who are you? Really?"

 

        He shrugged. "Greenhands."

 

        A flush of irritation washed over the warrior maiden. She was intrigued by this odd

 

fellow and deeply grateful that he'd saved her life, but his naive and evasive replies were

 

getting under her skin.

 

        "I guess you'd better come with us," she stated. "My father would want me to bring

 

you to Qualinost."

 

        "What about the slavers?" asked Rufus.

 

        "This is more important."

 

        Greenhands shook his head. "I cannot go with you. I must go to the High Place." He

 

pointed west, toward the Kharolis Mountains. "There. To find my father."

 

        Verhanna's eyes narrowed, and her jaw clenched. Rufus intervened quickly. "It's not

 

so far off the track to Qualinost, my captain. We could swing by the mountains first. You

 

know," he said, changing the subject completely, "my father was a famous pot thrower."

 

        Suitably distracted, Verhanna hitched the horse blanket up on her shoulders and

 

looked at her scout. "You mean he made pots­threw them­on a wheel?" she asked.

 

        "No, he threw them at my Uncle Four-Thumbs. In the carnival."

 

        Suddenly Verhanna realized Greenhands was no longer with them. He was twenty

 

paces away, loping along with the morning sun at his back. She called out for him to stop.

 

        "You must stay with us!" she shouted.

 

        Wind stirred his long, loose hair. He stopped, eyes fixed on the western horizon,

 

while Verhanna retired to a stand of trees to dress. Now that the perishing heat was over,

 

she donned her breastplate, childrons, and greaves over a fresh haqueton. Rufus did one

 


 

of his usual vaults to reach the broad back of his red-coated Thoradin mount, and together

 

they rode to where Greenhands waited.

 

    "Do you ride?" Verhanna asked, returning the poncho to Greenhands. "There's room

 

behind Wart if you do."

 

    "There's room for most of Balifor up here," opined Rufus.

 

    Greenhands pulled the poncho on over his head. "I'll walk," he said.

 

    "It's a long way to the mountains," she warned, leaning on the pommel of her saddle.

 

"You'll never be able to keep pace with the horses."

 

    "I'll walk," he repeated, with exactly the same intonation.

 

    She shook her head. "Suit yourself."

 

    They topped a low rise and were out of the shallow valley cut by the river and back

 

on the grass-covered plain. To the south, the blue humps of the Kharolis foothills were

 

plainly visible in the clear morning sky, but Greenhands went resolutely west.

 

    So intent were Verhanna and Rufus on keeping their eyes on Greenhands that neither

 

bothered to look back at the riverbank. What had been a mud flat the night before was

 

now a blossoming meadow. Grass had sprung up knee high in a few short hours, and a

 

thousand colors of wild flowers bloomed where once there had been nothing but mud and

 

cattails. Moreover, this strange growth narrowed as it entered the upland. Eventually it

 

thinned to a point­the exact trail where Greenhands trod.

 

                                         *   *   *   *   *

 

    The day wore on, and Greenhands showed no signs of tiring.

 

    Verhanna and Rufus ate in the saddle, passing a water bottle back and forth between

 

them. Greenhands plucked a few stems of grass from the turf to nibble. He ate and drank

 

nothing else.

 


 

    By mid-afternoon the novelty of watching the strange elf had worn off. Rufus lay

 

down on his horse's back, clasping his hands behind his head and shading his face with

 

his travel-worn hat. He gave his reins to his captain, and soon high-pitched snores

 

whistled from his lips. Verhanna nodded a bit, but she was too conscious of her duty to

 

falter and fought the sleep that tried to claim her.

 

    Fatigue and the lingering shock of her healed goblin bite proved too strong, though,

 

and she, too, eventually nodded off. When her charger stumbled slightly over a gopher

 

mound, Verhanna jolted awake. Greenhands was no longer forging ahead on foot. The

 

warrior maiden reined in and looked back. In the high grass fifteen yards behind them,

 

the tall elf was kneeling.

 

    "Wake up, Wart." She called to the kender. Yawning, Rufus sat up and caught his

 

reins as she tossed them.

 

    "Hey," the kender said sleepily, "where'd all the flowers come from?"

 

    Verhanna looked past Greenhands and saw the vast trail of blooms that widened as it

 

stretched out behind him. Not only flowers, but the dry prairie grass in the area had

 

grown a foot taller.

 

    "Look you," she said, leaning down from the saddle. "What sort of magic is this?"

 

    "Quiet," he murmured. "The children call me."

 

    She bristled at his abrupt command. "I'll speak when I like!"

 

    The strange elf's tense, prayerful posture suddenly relaxed. He inhaled deeply and

 

said, "They come."

 

    Verhanna was about to make a rejoinder when a faint rumbling sound reached her

 

ears. Heavy vibrations in the ground caused her mount to shift his feet and stamp

 

nervously. Rufus sat up and called, "Captain, look!"

 


 

    To the south, a dark brown line appeared on the horizon. It bulked larger and higher,

 

and the rumbling grew louder. Swiftly the brown mass resolved into elk­thousands of

 

them. A gigantic herd, stretching far to the left and right, was coming straight toward

 

them.

 

    "By Astra, it's a stampede!" Verhanna cried. She twisted her horse around to ride

 

hard in the same direction the elk were moving. Their only chance was to go with the

 

flow and not fall under those churning hooves.

 

    "Give me your hand!" she shouted to Greenhands. "We must flee!"

 

    The elk were only a couple hundred paces off and gathering speed. Rufus turned his

 

mount and urged it next to his captain's. Bouncing to his feet in the saddle, he crowed

 

with delight, "What a sight! Have you ever seen so many deer? If only I had a bow, we'd

 

have venison for dinner forever!"

 

    "You idiot, we're going to be trampled!"

 

    Then the elk herd was upon them like a living wall of hide, antlers, and sharp

 

hooves. The musky smell of the animals mingled with the dry odor of trampled grass.

 

Thinking first of her decision to bring Greenhands to Qualinost, Verhanna threw herself

 

on top of the elf to shield him from harm. Only after an eternal, terrifying second did the

 

realization sink in that the herd had split and was flowing around them. The patch of

 

ground with Verhanna, Greenhands, Rufus, and the two horses had been spared.

 

    Thousands of elk, with liquid brown eyes and gaping mouths, rushed past them, nose

 

to flank, shoulder to hip. The noise of their passage was deafening. Verhanna raised her

 

head just enough to see the kender, still standing on his quiescent horse, hands clamped

 

over his ears. With great astonishment, the warrior maid discovered that the stupid fellow

 

was grinning. His carroty topknot was whipped back by the wind of the herd's passage,

 

and a huge smile lit his pale eyes.

 


 

     It seemed hours before the herd thinned. Alone or in pairs, the last few animals

 

bounded in wide zigzags. In minutes more, the receding herd was again a brown line on

 

the horizon. Then there was nothing but flying dust and the fading rumble of ten thousand

 

hooves.

 

     "E'li be merciful!" Verhanna breathed. "We are truly blessed!"

 

     "Move away," Greenhands grumbled from beneath her. "You smell terrible."

 

     She rolled smartly aside, and he sat up. Verhanna slipped the mail mitten back from

 

her hand and slapped the elf across the jaw. She was instantly sorry, because tears formed

 

in his vivid green eyes and his lips quivered.

 

     "It's the metal you wear," he sniffled. One tear traced a shining path down his cheek.

 

"It smells like death."

 

     "Yippee!"

 

     The two of them turned to look up at Rufus. The kender was capering atop his horse.

 

"What a sight!" he caroled gleefully. "That must be the biggest herd of elk in the world!

 

Did you feel the wind they kicked up? The ground shook like a jelly pudding! What do

 

you suppose made them run like that?"

 

     "Thirst," Greenhands said. He sniffed and touched a hand to his wet cheek. The sight

 

of his own tears seemed to confound him. "The heat of days past made them mad with

 

thirst."

 

     "How do you know?" Verhanna demanded.

 

     "They called out to me. I told them how to get to the river."

 

     "You told them? I suppose you told them not to trample us, too?"

 

     "Yes. I told the horses to stand still, and the elk would go around us."

 

     The tall elf rubbed his fingertips together till the tears were gone. Then he stood and

 

walked slowly away, not west as they had been going, but veering south. Exasperated

 


 

beyond words, Verhanna swung into her saddle and followed him. Rufus fell in beside

 

her. He could hear her grumbling and grinding her teeth.

 

    "Why so angry, my captain?" the kender asked, his eyes still bright at their encounter

 

with the elk herd.

 

    "We spend our time trailing after him like body servants!" She slapped her armored

 

thigh. "And the lies he tells! He knows more than he's telling, mark my words."

 

    The kender turned down his hat brim to shade his eyes from the lowering sun. "I

 

don't think he knows how to lie," he said quietly. 'The elk herd might've split by coin-

 

cidence, but my horse just stood like a statue. It wasn't even quivering. If you ask me my

 

opinion, Greenhands did talk to the elk."

 

 

 

 

                                             11

 

                                        Rising Son

 

 

 

 

    Kith-Kanan watched the sun set from the Hall of the Sky. He'd been alone there for

 

hours, thinking. Since the day Irthenie had calmed the crowd in the market square, there

 

had been other demonstrations in the streets in favor of Ulvian. Kemian Ambrodel, who

 

sought no higher office than the one he held, was berated everywhere he went. Once he

 

was even pelted with overripe fruit. The Speaker had to order him to remain in the

 

Speaker's house to protect the proud warrior from further humiliation or worse.

 

    Clovanos and the Loyalists were discreet enough not to be seen leading the activities,

 

but within the hall of the Thalas-Enthia, they trumpeted the popular sentiment and

 

demanded the return of Prince Ulvian. Lengthy petitions, inscribed on parchment scrolls

 

three feet long, arrived at the Speaker's house daily. The signatures on the petitions grew

 

more numerous each time, with many of the New Landers joining the Loyalists in

 


 

seeking Ulvian's confirmation as Kith-Kanan's heir. Disgusted with the senate's

 

shortsightedness, Kith-Kanan repaired to the Hall of the Sky to ponder his choices. He

 

half hoped that the gods would choose for him, that some meaningful sign would show

 

him what to do. However, nothing so mystical happened. He remained in the great plaza,

 

watching his city through the waving treetops, until at last Tamanier Ambrodel came

 

from the Speaker's house.

 

    The Speaker got up from his knees and crossed the vast mosaic map to greet his

 

faithful castellan. In spite of the worries that clouded his mind, his step was springy; no

 

one viewing the beauty of the sunset and the great elven city from this vantage point

 

could fail to be moved, and some small measure of his strength had been renewed by his

 

meditation.

 

    "Good health to you, Majesty," Tamanier said, bowing and presenting Kith-Kanan

 

with an embossed dispatch case.

 

    By the seal pressed in the wax of the lid, Kith knew the dispatch case was from

 

Feldrin Feldspar. He broke the seal with his knife tip, and while Tamanier held the box,

 

the Speaker raised the lid and drew out the papers inside.

 

    "Hmm . . . Master Feldrin's report on the progress at Pax Tharkas . . . the usual

 

requests for food, clothing, and other supplies . . . and what's this?" From between the

 

sheets of official correspondence, the Speaker pulled a small folded letter on fine vellum,

 

sealed carefully with a ribbon and a drop of blue wax.

 

    He returned the other documents to the box and opened the sealed letter. "It's from

 

Merithynos," he said, surprised.

 

    "Good news, sire?"

 

    "I'm not sure." Frowning, Kith-Kanan read the brief letter, then handed the vellum to

 

his castellan. Tamanier read Merith's account of Ulvian's near death, his salvation at the

 


 

hands of the sorcerer Drulethen, and the friendship that Merith had observed growing

 

between the prince and Dru.

 

    "Drulethen­isn't he the monster who ruled the high pass to Thorbardin during the

 

Kinslayer War?" asked Tamanier.

 

    "Your memory is still sharp. I'd forgotten the sorcerer was at Pax Tharkas. He

 

shouldn't be allowed to cultivate my son's friendship; he's far too dangerous." The

 

memory of another voice suddenly flashed into Kith-Kanan's mind. What was it the god

 

Hiddukel had said when he'd manifested himself in the Tower of the Sun? You may call

 

me Dru. It couldn't be coincidence that the god had chosen the name of the evil sorcerer.

 

Where the gods were concerned, little was left to chance.

 

    Tamanier continued to stand holding the dispatch box. After a long moment of

 

silence, Kith-Kanan's eyes focused once more on the old castellan. "Return to the house,

 

Tam," he said briskly. "Prepare for a trip. Small entourage, with a light, mounted escort. I

 

want to move quickly."

 

    The castellan's brows lifted. "Where are you going, Great Speaker?"

 

    "To Pax Tharkas, my friend. I'll leave as soon as Lord Anakardain can get back to

 

Qualinost. I want him to keep order here while I'm gone."

 

    Tamanier bowed and withdrew, head buzzing with the speed of events. Kith-Kanan

 

remained in the Hall of the Sky a while longer. Standing at the edge of the artificial

 

plateau, he looked out over his city. One by one, lamps were being lit in towers and on

 

street comers, until it seemed the star-salted sky was mirrored on the ground. As the

 

Speaker watched, lights illuminated the sweeping arch of the northern bridge directly

 

ahead of him, behind the Tower of the Sun. Kith-Kanan turned slowly to each point of

 

the compass to see the other three bridges similarly lighted. They surrounded Qualinost in

 

a sparkling embrace.

 


 

    Despite this glorious vista, something gnawed at Kith-Kanan. The great forces he'd

 

sensed behind the marvels of the past days now seemed overshadowed by evil. He'd

 

believed the wonders to be portents of some great event; perhaps they were indeed

 

portents, but of a darker nature.

 

                                          *   *   *   *   *

 

    The bells clanged, signaling the end of another day of toil at Pax Tharkas. Ropes

 

were tied off or dropped, tools piled on carts to be taken back to storage sheds, and cook

 

fires blazed in the twilight. From the parapet of the west tower, Feldrin Feldspar surveyed

 

the site as Merith stood close by.

 

    "It will stand ten times a thousand years," declared the dwarf, clasping his stout arms

 

behind his back. "An eternal bridge between Thorbardin and Qualinesti."

 

    In the ruby glow of sunset, the stones of the citadel shone a soft pink. It was a

 

magnificent yet lonely sight, the great gateway wedged between the slopes of the wide

 

pass. Merith, who didn't care for heights, kept back from the unwalled edge of the tower

 

top. Feldrin stood with his toes hanging over the edge, completely unconcerned about the

 

long drop before him.

 

    "How long until it's finished?" asked Merith.

 

    "Barring strange quirks of weather and landslides, the east tower can be completed in

 

six months. The fortress will be habitable then, though the inside details may take another

 

year to dress out." Feldrin sighed, and it was like the grunt of an old bear.

 

    He raised a hand to shade his eyes from the sun, setting behind the mountains to their

 

left. Below, the pass was a narrow valley stretching away to the north. A small stream

 

wended its way through the pass, shadowed now that the sun was nearly down. Staring

 

up into the dark hollows of the high pass, the dwarf said, "Dust. Hmm . . . could be riders

 

coming."

 


 

    Merith moved as close as he dared to the edge of the parapet and looked up the

 

valley. "From the north?" he queried. That meant Qualinost.

 

    "Probably some dandified courtier or senator from the city who expects a guided tour

 

of the fortress," growled Feldrin. "I guess this means I have to wash my hands and beard

 

and put on a clean vest." He sniffed.

 

    "It could be a courier from the Speaker," Merith suggested, "in which case you'll

 

only have to wash your hands."

 

    Feldrin caught the small smile on the fair-haired warrior's lips. "Very well! A

 

compromise, lieutenant. I'll wash my hands and beard, but I won't change my vest!"

 

    Chuckling, the two entered the stairwell sunk into the roof of the tower and

 

descended the long set of steps. By the time they reached ground level and made their

 

way outside, the rising plume of dust in the pass had been dispersed by the ever-present

 

wind. There was no further sign of riders.

 

    "Maybe they changed their minds and went home," joked Feldrin. He shrugged and

 

added, "The dust must have come from a rockslide. All the better. Let's see what rubbish

 

the cook has inflicted on us tonight."

 

    In fact, Feldrin's cook was excellent. He did amazing things with the simple fare

 

provided for the master builder's table. Dwarven food was usually too heavy for elves,

 

but Feldrin's cook managed to prepare lighter dishes that Merith found quite delicious.

 

    The lieutenant trailed after the fast-moving dwarf. Once more he looked up into the

 

pass, where they had spotted the dust cloud.

 

    "I wonder," he said softly. "Were they riders, or­"

 

    "Come, Merith! Why are you lagging?"

 

    There were no sentinels in Pax Tharkas. No night watch patrolled the sleeping

 

complex of tent, huts, and sheds. None had ever been needed. Not even the grunt gang

 


 

barracks were guarded once its single door was locked for the night. Thus it was that

 

Ulvian slipped unseen out a window of the barracks and worked his way around the

 

camp, collecting the items Dru had requested. From the plasterers' mixing shed, he got

 

more than a pound of dry white clay, as fine and pure as cake flour. The prince dumped it

 

in a wide-mouthed pottery jar and hurried on. He made for the long row of blacksmiths'

 

sheds. Coal by the peck was available there, hard black coal from Thorbardin, which the

 

dwarf smiths used to forge some of the hardest iron in the world. Ulvian crept up to the

 

closest furnace. It still glowed dull orange from the day's fire. Squatting on the dirt floor,

 

he picked through the rubbish that lay scattered around the hearth doors. He dropped

 

several pieces of coal into the jar containing the clay.

 

    The tanner's shed yielded a length of thong. Now . . . where to find a copper brazier?

 

Dru had been quite specific; only copper would do. Hugging the pot of dry clay and coal

 

to his chest, Ulvian ran across the open compound to the coppersmith's hut. Inside, he

 

found an abundance of copper plates, nails, and ingots, but no brazier.

 

    Outside once more, Ulvian huddled under the eaves of the hut for a moment,

 

pondering where he might find what he needed. Only two kinds of people used copper

 

fire pans: priests and cooks. There were no clerics at Pax Tharkas, but there were

 

certainly cooks.

 

    Half an hour later, Ulvian was back at the grunt gang barracks. He knelt by Dru's bed

 

and reached a hand out to awaken the sorcerer.

 

    Before Ulvian touched him, Dru said quietly, "Do you have it all?"

 

    "Yes­and it wasn't easy."

 

    "Good. Put it under my bed and go to sleep."

 

    Ulvian was taken aback. "Aren't you going to do anything now?"

 


 

    "At this hour? No indeed. Morning will be soon enough. Go to bed, my prince.

 

Tomorrow will be a busy day, and you'll wish you had slept tonight." So saying, Dru

 

rolled over and closed his eyes. Ulvian stared, mouth agape, at the sorcerer's back. With

 

no other recourse, the prince shoved the pot, the cooking brazier, and the leather strap

 

under Dru's bed and lay down on his own sagging, dirty cot. In spite of the excitement of

 

the night's foray, he was asleep in a few minutes.

 

                                          *   *   *   *   *

 

    The soft sound of rattling chains caused Ulvian to open his eyes. A pair of scales was

 

hanging in the air over his bed. The fulcrum of the scales was broken, and one of the

 

golden pans was tilted, its chains sagging loosely. From the tilted pan, white powder fell,

 

landing on Ulvian's chest. It looked like the clay powder he'd gotten for Dru.

 

    "What's this?" he muttered, trying to sit up. Strangely he could not. A great weight

 

seemed to settle on his chest, just where the powdered clay rested. But it was only a small

 

heap of dust, his mind protested. It couldn't hold him pinioned in his bed.

 

    The pressure grew and grew until the prince found it difficult to draw breath. He

 

lifted a weak hand to deflect the stream of powder cascading down. When his fingers

 

touched the golden scale pan, he snatched them back quickly. The pan was red hot!

 

    "Help!" he gasped, continuing his efforts to rise. "I'm suffocating! Help!"

 

    "Be still," said a soft, chiding voice. Ulvian opened his eyes and encountered

 

blackness. He was lying facedown on his bunk, his nose and mouth buried in his dirty

 

scrap of blanket. The prince bolted to his feet, flinging the blanket aside.

 

    A wild glance around showed Dru sitting cross-legged on his own bed, mixing

 

something in a wooden bowl. The grunt gang barracks were otherwise empty.

 

    "What's the matter?" Dru asked, not looking up from his task.

 

    "I­I had a bad dream," stammered the prince. "Where is everybody?"

 


 

    "It's the half-day of rest," replied the sorcerer. "They're all at breakfast." He set aside

 

his stirring stick and poured a bit more water into the bowl. The stick was thickly coated

 

with gluey white clay.

 

    Ulvian's breathing returned to normal, and he ran his fingers through his tousled hair.

 

When he was calm, he went to see what Dru was doing. The sorcerer had made a ball of

 

clay the size of two fists. He wet his hands and picked up the mass. The thong and copper

 

brazier sat on the floor by his bed.

 

    "One of the simplest kinds of spells is image magic," said Dru, sounding like some

 

sort of schoolmaster. "The sorcerer makes an image and consecrates it as the double of a

 

living person. Then whatever he does to the image happens to the living person." He

 

rolled the clay into a long cylinder and tore off smaller bits, which he dropped into the

 

bowl. "A more advanced spell creates an image that has no connection to the living. From

 

that image, another double can be born."

 

    Fascinated, Ulvian knelt on one knee. "Is that what you're doing?"

 

    Dru nodded. "With this small figure, I will generate a much larger double that will

 

do my bidding. Such clay creatures are called golems."

 

    He had molded the rough form of a stocky body. To it, he attached clay arms and

 

legs, and a round ball for a head. With chips of coal, Dru made eyes for the image.

 

Laying the clay doll on the bed, he dipped the leather thong in the damp bowl.

 

    The sorcerer tied the wet thong around the waist of the clay figure. Then he sent

 

Ulvian to get some live coals and kindling from the fireplace. With a crackling fire laid in

 

the brazier, Dru began dangling the clay figure over the flames.

 

    "Rise up, O golem. Gather yourself from the dust and arise! I, Drulethen, command

 

you! The fire is in you, the dust of the mountains! Gather yourself and do my will!"

 

Unlike his usual soft tone, the sorcerer's voice was changing, deepening, strengthening.

 


 

    Wind whistled through the chinks in the crude barracks walls. Outside, the grunt

 

gang members lounging around the breakfast wagon grumbled loudly about the dust

 

being whirled into their eyes. In the barracks, Dru twisted the thong in his fingers,

 

making the clay doll spin, first left, then right.

 

    "Rise up, O golem! Your form is here! Take the fire I give you and arise!" Dru

 

shouted. Ulvian felt his skin crawl as the sorcerer's voice boomed through the room. The

 

rafters of the poorly built barracks rattled, and bits of dried moss fell through the cracks.

 

    Steam began to rise from the white clay doll. The smell of burning hide filled the

 

prince's nostrils, threatening to gag him. The air vibrated, sending a tingling all along the

 

surface of Ulvian's skin. The walls of the building groaned, and suddenly the complaints

 

of the workers outside ceased. In seconds, hoarse shouts replaced the muttered

 

grumblings.

 

    "What's happening?" whispered Ulvian.

 

    Breathing heavily, Dru never ceased his turning of the clay figure in the flames. "Go

 

and see, my prince!" he gasped.

 

    Ulvian went to the door and threw it open. The astonished faces of the grunt gang

 

were looking off to the left, toward the quarries and the tent city. When he turned his face

 

in that direction, the prince saw that a whirlwind of white dust writhed heavenward near

 

the open pits where the limestone was cut. Elves, men, and dwarves ran from the area,

 

shouting things Ulvian couldn't understand.

 

    As Dru's invocation continued, the whirlwind coalesced into a thick, white body,

 

twice as tall as the tallest tents. The black eyes on the featureless face mimicked the coal

 

chips on the sorcerer's doll.

 

    "By the gods!" Ulvian exclaimed, turning to Dru. "You've done it! It's as big as a

 

watchtower!"

 


 

    The sorcerer's hand was nearly invisible, shrouded by the steam rising from the

 

baking clay figure. "Go!" he hissed. "The confusion will cover you. Get my black am-

 

ulet!" Dru clenched his eyes shut, and tears trickled down his cheeks. The steam was

 

scalding his hand. "Go! Hurry!"

 

    "I will, but remember our bargain. You know who I want punished!" As he left,

 

Ulvian closed the barracks door behind him. The grunt gang were all gone, and the

 

dwarves who managed the food wagon had taken refuge underneath it. The clay giant

 

was moving, striding stiffly across the camp, smashing through tents and huts as it went.

 

The ground shook each time it took a step. No one tried to stop it. The workers weren't

 

soldiers, and what arms there were in camp were of little avail against a twenty-foot-tall

 

golem.

 

    Feldrin Feldspar was in the west tower when the giant appeared. He heard the

 

commotion and came outside in time to see the monster plowing through his workers'

 

homes.

 

    "By Reorx!" he shouted. "What is that thing?" No one stopped to answer his

 

question, though he bellowed at his scattering people to stand and fight. The dwarf stood

 

at the base of the west tower, shouting, until Merith appeared, mounted and in full battle

 

armor.

 

    "What do you propose, warrior?" Feldrin said, yelling above the uproar.

 

    "Repel the monster," Merith replied simply. He drew his long elven blade. His

 

buckskin horse pranced nervously, upset by the tumult around them.

 

    "That's no natural beast!" Feldrin cried. "You'd be better off to find Drulethen. He's

 

got to be behind this!"

 

    "You find him," replied Merith. His horse turned a full circle. Touching his spurs to

 

his mount's side, Merith was off, moving against the flow of terrified workers. All the

 


 

artisans and laborers streamed toward the finished section of the citadel, seeking shelter

 

from the rampaging giant.

 

    Once clear of the panicked workers, Merith reined in and studied the monster as it

 

tramped on. As nearly as he could tell, it hadn't injured anyone yet, but it had smashed

 

about half a dozen huts with its thick feet and legs. It zigzagged around the camp as if it

 

were looking for something.

 

    Merith urged his horse forward, but the animal wanted no part of the giant. It reared

 

and danced, trying to unseat its rider. The elf warrior held on and drew a yellow silk

 

handkerchief from beneath his breastplate. It was a gift from a female admirer in

 

Qualinost, but it served to cover his horse's eyes and quieted the animal somewhat.

 

Merith wrapped the reins around his mailed fist and spurred ahead.

 

    The golem halted and bent stiffly at the waist. Bits of dried clay the size of an elf's

 

palm flaked off the giant's joints and fell to the ground.

 

    Merith watched, fascinated, as the monster's hand split apart into five thick fingers. It

 

plunged the hand into the ruins of a row of huts, and when it stood erect again, there was

 

someone struggling in its grasp. The giant had the fellow by the throat. Merith saw that

 

he was a Kagonesti elf.

 

    Snapping down the visor on his helm, he charged at the monster. It paid no attention

 

to him at all, even when Merith struck it full force with his sword. A wedge of hard white

 

clay flew from the wound, but the giant was uninjured. The impact of the blow stung the

 

elf warrior's arm. Grimacing, he struck again. Another chip of clay flew, but to no avail;

 

the poor wretch in the monster's hand ceased kicking. The giant's black eyes never

 

blinked. Opening its fingers, it allowed the Kagonesti to drop to the ground close to

 

Merith.

 


 

    Crouched under the awning of a hut, Prince Ulvian took in the scene with

 

satisfaction. The death of his tormentor, Splint, pleased him immensely. He also saw the

 

warrior, Merithynos, trying to subdue the clay giant with his sword. The prince laughed

 

out loud at the lieutenant's antics, chopping at the mass of hard clay with comic futility.

 

    Ulvian dashed down the lane, behind the busy Merith, up the hill toward Feldrin's

 

hut. The golem had stomped flat nearly every other structure around the master builder's

 

home. Ulvian burst through the door flap.

 

    The outer room was empty. He searched every box and chest, with no result. The

 

structure was divided by a canvas wall, the other half being Feldrin's bedchamber. Ulvian

 

bolted in and pulled up sharply. Feldrin himself stood guard over a small golden casket.

 

    "So," said the dwarf coolly, "you have joined forces with Drulethen."

 

    "Give me the amulet," Ulvian said in a commanding tone.

 

    "Don't be a fool, boy! He's using you. Can't you see that? He'd promise anything to

 

get his hands on that amulet again­and break every promise once he had it. He has no

 

honor, Highness. He will destroy you if he has the chance."

 

    "Save your entreaties for someone else!" Ulvian's voice was a harsh, angry rasp. "My

 

father sent me here to suffer, and I've suffered enough. Drulethen has sworn to serve me,

 

and serve me he will. You all think I'm a fool, but you'll find out differently." There was

 

a loud crash nearby, and Ulvian added impatiently, "Now surrender the amulet, or the

 

golem will crush you to jelly!"

 

    Feldrin drew a jeweled shortsword from behind his back. "You will get it from me

 

only after I'm dead," he said solemnly.

 

    Ulvian was unarmed. Feldrin's keen sword and the steely look of determination in

 

the dwarf's eyes discouraged any rash action.

 


 

    "You'll regret this!" the prince declared, edging back toward the doorway in the

 

canvas wall. "The golem won't stand and argue with you. Once he comes, you will die!"

 

    "Then it is by Reorx's will."

 

    Furious, Ulvian dashed out of the tent. He nearly bowled over Dru, who was coming

 

in his direction. The sorcerer cradled his left hand to his chest, and his ragged robes were

 

soaked with sweat.

 

    "Did you get it?" he cried, desperation glazing his eyes.

 

    "No, Feldrin is guarding it. Why aren't you with the brazier? Is the spell over?"

 

    Dru mustered his strength; his spell had exhausted him. "I hung the doll over the

 

brazier. The thong is almost burned in two. When it severs, the magic will end."

 

    The giant figure of the golem came into view over Dru's shoulder. It had nearly

 

reached the citadel. The parapets were lined with workers, many of whom were hurling

 

stones at the unheeding monster.

 

    "Can you control it?" asked Ulvian quickly. "If you can, then bring it here. It's the

 

only way to scare Feldrin into giving up the amulet!"

 

    Wordlessly the sorcerer slid to his knees. His eyelids fluttered closed. Ulvian thought

 

he had fainted, but Dru!s lips were moving slightly.

 

    Abruptly the golem did a jerky about-face and came marching toward Feldrin's hut.

 

Merith dogged its heels, no longer slashing with his sword, but keeping it in view. When

 

the elf warrior spied Ulvian and Dru, he put his head down and rode hard toward them.

 

    "Merith is coming!" shouted the prince.

 

    Still the sorcerer chanted. The golem's wide, round head swiveled down to look at

 

the mounted warrior. An arm the thickness of a mature oak limb swept down, knocking

 

horse and rider to the ground. The horse let out a shriek and lay still. Merith struggled

 

vainly but was pinned under his dead mount.

 


 

    "That got him!" Ulvian cried, leaping into the air in his excitement.

 

    "And I've got you," said Feldrin from the door of his hut. Startled, the prince stepped

 

back.

 

    The dwarf had been a fighter of some note in his youth, and he knew how to handle a

 

sword. Raising the jeweled blade high, he advanced toward Dru. The sorcerer never

 

flinched, so complete was his concentration. Ulvian flung himself at the dwarf and

 

grappled with him. The golem was only a score of yards away, and its long stride ate up

 

the distance rapidly.

 

    "Let go!" roared Feldrin. "I've no wish to harm you, Prince Ulvian, but I must­"

 

    His muscled arms pushed steadily against Ulvian's lighter strength. The prince's grip

 

was slipping. Gleaming in the morning sun, Feldrin's sword was only inches from the

 

sorcerer's skull.

 

    A wall of white fell on the prince and the dwarf. Ulvian was knocked backward

 

through the air, landing hard on a pile of torn canvas and broken tent stakes. The breath

 

was driven from his body, and the world vanished in a red, roaring haze.

 

    Hands propped the prince up. He gasped and fought for air, and at last breath

 

whooshed into his lungs. His vision cleared, and he saw Dru kneeling beside him. Ulvian

 

shook his head to clear it, for he saw a remarkable thing: The spell animating the golem

 

had obviously ended and the giant had fallen on Feldrin's hut, breaking into several large

 

clay pieces. From under a barrel-sized portion of the monster's torso, Feldrin's

 

fur-wrapped legs protruded. His feet twitched slightly. A groan sounded from under the

 

mass of clay.

 

    Dru was shaking and drenched with sweat, but his voice was triumphant as he said,

 

"Where's the amulet?" Ulvian stammered that Feldrin kept the onyx talisman in a golden

 

box. The sorcerer dashed into the ruins of the master builder's hut.

 


 

    A profound silence had fallen over the construction camp. Ulvian blinked and gazed

 

across the wrecked site. The walls of the citadel were lined with workers, all staring at

 

him. Already some were leaving the parapet, no doubt to hurry to Feldrin's rescue.

 

    Dru was tearing through the broken bits of hut, muttering. Ulvian called out, "We

 

must flee! The workers are coming!"

 

    The sorcerer didn't even respond, but kept up his frantic digging. Feldrin groaned

 

once more, louder. Ulvian picked his way through the chunks of lifeless golem. He

 

pushed a heavy slab of clay off the dwarf and knelt beside him.

 

    "I regret this, Master Feldrin, " said the prince. "But injustice requires strong deeds."

 

    The dwarf coughed, and blood appeared on his lips. "Don't go with Drulethen, my

 

prince. With him lies only ruin and death. . . ."

 

    "Aha!" shouted the sorcerer, falling to his knees. He flung aside a bit of canvas,

 

revealing the gilded box. No sooner did Dru stoop to pick it up than he shrieked in pain

 

and dropped it again.

 

    "You filthy worm!" he howled at Feldrin. "You put my amulet in a charmed case!"

 

But Feldrin had lost consciousness and was beyond Dru's maledictions.

 

    "Come here!" the sorcerer barked peremptorily. "Pick up the box."

 

    Ulvian glared at him. "I'm not your servant," he retorted.

 

    The first band of workers from the citadel appeared at the end of the wrecked street.

 

They were armed with hammers, staves, and mason's tools. Eight men went to lift the

 

dead horse off the fallen Merith. The warrior got stiffly to his feet and pointed

 

expressively toward Feldrin's tent.

 

    "There's no time for false pride now!" Dru spat. "Do you think those fools are going

 

to pat us on the back for what we've done? It's time to flee, and I can't touch that

 

wretched box. Pick it up, I say!"

 


 

    Reluctantly Ulvian did so. Then he and the shaken sorcerer ran for the corral near the

 

foot of the eastern slope. The prince snared two horses, short-legged mountain ponies,

 

and boosted the weakened Dru onto one of them. Bareback, the pair rode hell-for-leather

 

out the gate, scattering the other animals as they went. By the time the outraged workers

 

reached the corral, not a single horse remained, and the only sign of the fugitives was a

 

rapidly rising cloud of dust.

 

                                          *   *   *   *   *

 

    Merith stood by a crackling fire, which blazed in a wide stone urn outside Feldrin

 

Feldspar's hut. In spite of his badly bruised left leg, he had insisted on standing guard

 

personally outside the master builder's home. The entire camp was silent, and nothing

 

stirred but the wavering flames before him. The lieutenant kept his cloak close around his

 

throat to ward off a persistent chill.

 

    The clip-clop of horse's hooves alerted him. Quickly he stepped back from the fire,

 

back into the deep shadows cast by the hut's overhanging roof. Drawing his sword, he set

 

his shield tightly on his forearm. The hoofbeats drew nearer.

 

    A tall figure, mounted on a rather tired-looking sorrel, emerged from the night. The

 

newcomer's face and figure were obscured by a long, monkish robe with a deep hood.

 

The rider approached the fire and dismounted. He peeled off a pair of deerskin gloves and

 

held his long, tapered fingers to the heat. Merith watched carefully. Short plumes of

 

warm breath issued from the stranger's hood. Though he waited long minutes, the

 

newcomer made no threatening moves. Warming his icy hands and body seemed to be

 

his greatest concern. The lieutenant stepped out of the shadows and faced the robed

 

figure.

 

    "Who goes there?" he demanded.

 


 

    "A weary traveler," answered the stranger. He spoke through the lower edge of the

 

hood, and his words were muffled. "I saw your fire from a distance and stopped to warm

 

myself."

 

    "You are welcome, traveler," Merith said warily.

 

    "A naked sword is a strange welcome. Are you troubled by bandits hereabouts?"

 

    "Not bandits. A single elf did all this. A sorcerer."

 

    The hooded one jerked his hands back from the fire. "A sorcerer! Why would a

 

sorcerer trouble a lonely outpost such as this?"

 

    "The evil one was a captive here, a prisoner of the King of Thorbardin and the

 

Speaker of the Sun," Merith explained. "Through treachery, he regained his powers,

 

wrecked the camp, and escaped."

 

    The visitor passed a hand across his hidden brow. Merith caught the glint of metal at

 

the fellow's throat. Armor? Or just a decorative torc?

 

    The stranger asked how the sorcerer had escaped. The elf warrior told him briefly

 

about the golem, though he didn't mention Ulvian's part in the affair. The visitor asked

 

endless questions, and Merith found the late-night conversation tired him. His leg ached

 

unmercifully, and his heart was heavy with the news he must send to his sovereign. The

 

hooded stranger must be a cleric, he decided. Only they were so talky and inquisitive.

 

    Weariness was banished instantly when Merith saw a pair of horses appear at the far

 

end of the path. One of the riders was wearing armor. Merith lifted his sword and shield.

 

The hooded stranger waved at him soothingly.

 

    "Put down your weapons, noble warrior. These are friends of mine," he said. In a

 

swirl of dark robes, the hooded one turned and hailed the two mounted fellows.

 

    "Is something the matter, sire?" called the armored rider.

 

    "Sire?" wondered Merith.

 


 

    The stranger faced Merith and tossed back his hood. Pale hair gleamed in the

 

firelight. It was Kith-Kanan himself.

 

    "Great Speaker!" Merith cried. "Forgive me! I had no idea­"

 

    "Be at ease." Kith-Kanan waved, and Kemian Ambrodel and his father, Tamanier,

 

rode up to the crackling fire.

 

    "Are there just the three of you, Majesty?" asked Merith, scanning the path for more

 

riders. "Where is your entourage?"

 

    "I have a small party at the high end of the pass," Kith-Kanan explained. "I came

 

down with the Ambrodels to find out what had happened. Even in the dark, the camp

 

looks like a cyclone hit it."

 

    Merith told the story of Drulethen, Ulvian, and the golem in detail, this time leaving

 

out nothing. "I led a band of fifty trusted workers along the trail Prince Ulvian and

 

Drulethen made," he finished, "but we couldn't hope to catch up on foot."

 

    "Never mind, Lieutenant. Is Feldrin Feldspar well?" asked the Speaker.

 

    "He has some broken ribs, but he will survive, sire." Merith managed a smile.

 

    Kemian relieved the younger warrior and sent Merith to bed. Once the lieutenant was

 

gone, Kith-Kanan shed his monkish habit, revealing full battle armor.

 

    "I had a premonition something evil would happen," Kith-Kanan said grimly. "Now

 

it is up to me to set things right. Tomorrow Lord Kemian and I will take the escort

 

cavalry and go after Drulethen."

 

    Tamanier said, "And Prince Ulvian?"

 

    The silence in the camp was unbroken except by the soft snapping of the fire in the

 

urn before them. The Speaker stared into the flames, the light giving his face and hair a

 

ruddy glow. When the castellan was certain his sovereign wasn't going to answer,

 

Kith-Kanan looked up and said evenly, "My son will face the consequences of his deeds."

 


 

 


 

                                              12

 

                               The Green and Golden Way

 

 

 

 

    The high plains in summer were a harsh place. Dry and barren, they were frequently

 

swept by grass fires that would burn right up to the stony bases of the Kharolis Mountains

 

before dying out from lack of tinder. Yet as Verhanna, Rufus, and Greenhands ascended

 

the sloping plain toward the distant blue peaks, the grassland was not only green, but also

 

covered with flowers.

 

    "Aashoo!" The kender sneezed loudly. "Where did all dese flowers come fum?" he

 

muttered through a clogged nose. The air was thick with blowing pollen, released by the

 

thousands of wild flowers. Verhanna wasn't much bothered by it, though she was startled

 

by the vigor and variety of the flowers around them. The plain was an ocean of crimson,

 

yellow, blue, and purple blossoms, all nodding gently in the breeze.

 

    "You know, I've been this way before, on the way to Pax Tharkas," she said. "But

 

I've never seen the grasslands bloom like this. And in the heat of midsummer!"

 

    Ahead of them, his rough horsehair poncho coated with yellow dust, Greenhands

 

walked steadily onward. His simple, sturdy features took on a special nobility in the

 

warm light of day, and Verhanna found herself studying him more and more as they

 

traveled.

 

    "Ushwah!" barked Rufus. "Dis is tewwibuh! I cand bweathe!"

 

    The warrior maiden dug deep into her saddlebag. In a moment, she brought out a thin

 

red pod, shriveled into a curl. "Here," she said, tossing it to her scout. "Chew on that. It'll

 

clear your head."

 


 

    Rufus sniffed the tiny pod, but to no avail; nothing could penetrate his stuffy nose.

 

"Whad is id?" he asked suspiciously.

 

    "Give it back, then, if you don't want it," Verhanna said airily.

 

    "Oh, all wide." The kender stuck the stem end of the seed pod in his mouth and

 

chewed. In seconds, his look of curiosity was replaced by one of horror.

 

    "Ye-ow!" Rufus's shriek rent the calm, flower-scented air. Greenhands halted and

 

looked back, startled out of his unvarying gait. "Dat's hot!" protested the kender, his

 

small face purpling in distress.

 

    "It's a dragonseed pod," Verhanna replied. "Of course it's hot. But it will clear your

 

head." Despite its fearsome name, dragonseed was a common spice plant grown in the

 

river delta region of Silvanesti. It was used to make the famous vantrea, a hot, spicy dried

 

fish that was beloved by southern elves.

 

    Their horses overtook Greenhands. Verhanna reined in and said, "Don't worry. Wart

 

was complaining about the pollen, so I did a little healing of my own."

 

    Tears running down his cheeks, Rufus sluiced his tingling mouth out with water.

 

Then he sniffed, and a pleased expression spread across his florid features. "What do you

 

know! I can breathe!" he declared.

 

    Greenhands had been standing between their two horses. Now he headed out once

 

more, and they rode after him.

 

    Verhanna urged her mount forward until she was alongside the silver-haired elf. The

 

day was quite warm, and he had flipped back the front edges of his makeshift poncho,

 

exposing his chest to the sun. In secret, sidelong glances, the warrior maiden admired his

 

physique. With a little training, perhaps he could become a formidable warrior.

 

    "Why do you stare at me?" asked Greenhands, intruding on the captain's thoughts.

 


 

    "Tell me the truth, Greenhands," she said in a low voice. "How is it you're able to do

 

the things you do? How did you heal my shoulder? How did you turn aside a herd of wild

 

elk? Raise flowers out of dry soil?"

 

    There was a long pause before he replied. Finally he said, "I've been thinking about

 

those things. There seems to be something with me. Something I carry . . . like this

 

garment." He passed a hand over the coarse fabric of the blanket he wore. "I feel it

 

around me and inside me, but I can't set it aside. I can't separate myself from it."

 

    Intrigued, Verhanna asked, "What does it feel like?"

 

    Shutting his eyes, he lifted his face to the golden sunlight. "It's like the heat of the

 

sun," he murmured. "I feel it, yet I can't touch it. I carry it with me, but I can't take it off."

 

He opened his eyes and regarded her. "Am I mad, Captain?"

 

    "No," she said, and her voice was soft. "You're not mad."

 

    A piercing whistle cut her off. "Hey!" Rufus called from behind them. "Are you two

 

going to walk right off the edge?"

 

    Greenhands and Verhanna halted, taking in their surroundings. Not five paces in

 

front of them was a deep ravine, cut through the grassy sod by some winter flood. They

 

had been so absorbed in their conversation, neither had noticed the danger.

 

    They turned and paralleled the rift for a dozen yards. Behind them, Rufus rode up to

 

the lip of the ravine and gazed across. On the other side, the sere plain was covered with

 

dry brown grass. At the kender's back, the landscape was carpeted with lush green grass

 

and a riot of blooming flowers.

 

    "Wha-how!" A neck-snapping sneeze wrenched the kender. His nose felt like it was

 

filling even as he sat. Kicking his heels against his horse's red flanks, Rufus hastened

 

after his captain. He hoped she could discover another dragonseed pod in her saddlebag.

 

                                            *   *   *   *   *

 


 

    Late in the afternoon, the trio was well into the shadowed presence of the Kharolis

 

Mountains. Peaks welled up on three sides, and the open ground was ever steeper in

 

grade. Hereabouts there was only one path through the mountains wide enough for

 

horses, and it funneled directly to Pax Tharkas.

 

    Once the carpet of grass and flowers thinned, Rufus found his head much clearer. He

 

occupied his time by tootling discordantly on a reed pipe he'd made back at the Astradine

 

River. The shrill cacophony got on Verhanna's nerves, and finally she snatched the reed

 

from the kender's lips.

 

    "Are you trying to drive me mad?" she snapped.

 

    He bristled. "That was a kender ballad, 'You Took My Heart While I Took Your

 

Rings'."

 

    "Ha! Trust a wart like you to know a love song with theft in it." Verhanna tossed the

 

reed flute away, but Greenhands detoured from his path to retrieve it. The warrior maiden

 

sighed. "Don't you plague me with that thing either," she warned.

 

    Unheeding, the elf put the flute to his mouth and blew a few experimental notes. His

 

fingers ran up and down the scale, and the instrument trilled melodically. Rufus raised his

 

head and peered down at Greenhands.

 

    "How did you do that?" he asked. Greenhands shrugged, a gesture he'd only lately

 

acquired from Verhanna. Rufus asked for his flute back. When he had it, he piped several

 

notes. Verhanna grimaced; it still sounded like the death throes of a crow.

 

    Before she could voice her protest again, Rufus thrust the reed flute back at

 

Greenhands. "You keep it," he said generously. "It's not refined enough for kender

 

music."

 

    His captain snorted. The elf accepted the instrument gravely and walked along

 

slowly, playing random notes. Without warning, a red-breasted songbird settled on his

 


 

shoulder. The tiny bird regarded Greenhands curiously, its beady black eyes almost

 

intelligent.

 

     "Hello," Greenhands said calmly. Verhanna and Rufus stared. The strange elf put the

 

flute to his lips and played a fluttering trill. Much to his companions' astonishment, his

 

feathered friend imitated the sound perfectly.

 

     "Very good. Now this." He sounded a slightly more complex series of notes. The

 

redbreast repeated the notes exactly.

 

     A second bird, slightly larger and duller in color, circled the elf's head and settled on

 

the opposite shoulder. A funny sort of musical trio began, as Greenhands and the little

 

songbird exchanged perfectly pitched notes, while the brown thrush added off-key

 

harmonics.

 

     "The big bird sounds like you," Verhanna commented to the kender. Rufus answered

 

her with a rude noise.

 

     The captain's mount danced in a circle. The greenfingered elf had attracted more and

 

more birds; in seconds, he was wrapped in a cloud of wildly singing creatures. He

 

seemed unworried by them, continuing to walk steadily forward as his flute trilled.

 

However, the birds were unnerving the horses.

 

     "Stop it !" Verhanna called to Greenhands. "Send them away!" He couldn't hear her

 

over the shrill sound of birdsongs. More and more birds appeared, zooming around the

 

group, dipping, soaring, diving. Wing tips and tails grazed their faces. Their mounts

 

bucked and danced.

 

     "Yow!"

 

     A sizable starling thudded into the kender's back. He yanked off his hat and began

 

swinging it at the darting creatures without success. A careening purple martin flew too

 

close to Verhanna and smacked solidly into her neck. She quickly pulled her visor down

 


 

to protect her eyes. Though her hands were full trying to calm her frantic horse, she

 

managed to draw her sword.

 

    With a loud war cry, the captain drove her nervous mount hard at Greenhands. Birds

 

thumped off her armored head and against her horse. Verhanna pushed through the

 

swarm. Completely unaware of the havoc he was causing, the elf was walking along in

 

the center of an avian maelstrom, playing Rufus's flute.

 

    Verhanna struck the pipe from the elf's hands with the flat of her blade. The instant

 

the notes ceased, the birds stopped their mad whirling and dispersed quickly in all

 

directions.

 

    Greenhands stared at the broken flute lying in the grass. He picked up the two halves

 

and then turned accusing eyes upon Verhanna.

 

    "Your playing drove those birds mad," she explained, panting. He clearly had no idea

 

what she was talking about. "We could've been killed!"

 

    Understanding dawned on his face, and he apologized. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to

 

make trouble."

 

    Rufus rode up, brushing feathers from his topknot. "Blind me with beeswax! What

 

was that all about?"

 

    Verhanna pointed to the chastened Greenhands. "Our friend here doesn't understand

 

the power he has."

 

    Humbly he repeated, "I'm sorry."

 

    They resumed their march, guided by Greenhands. Though he honestly disavowed

 

any knowledge of the fortress, it was obviously their destination.

 

    The flowering grassland gave way to piles of boulders spotted by patches of dark

 

green lichen. Coolness crept into the warm air of daytime, promising a brisk night. The

 

sun sank behind the mountain peaks, washing the sky in gold, crimson, and finally

 


 

deepest burgundy. As the last of the light was dying from the day, Verhanna dismounted.

 

They had come to a wide spot in the pass, only a few hundred paces from the entrance.

 

"We can camp here for the night," she decided.

 

     The kender and the elf were agreeable. They tethered their horses and built a

 

campfire. Rufus did the cooking for the little band. Considering a kender's ideas about

 

dinner, things weren't bad. He busied himself warming a soup of dried vegetables, bread

 

crumbs, and water while his captain curried their animals.

 

     Greenhands settled down by the fire, staring unblinking into the flames. The yellow

 

light made his green eyes and fingers stand out against the dark background of his

 

poncho. Verhanna found herself peering at him over the back of her horse. Her right

 

hand, wielding the curry comb, slowed and stopped in its motion as her scrutiny of the elf

 

intensified. The light tan of his skin was deepened by the golden glow of the firelight.

 

Though at rest, his well-formed body showed a lithe grace and beauty she found

 

arresting. His profile was somehow quite attractive. Strong brow, rather a long nose, firm

 

lips, a good chin. . ..

 

     She brought herself up short. What was she doing? So many unfamiliar thoughts

 

tumbled in her head. But one, quite odd, idea took precedence.

 

     Could Greenhands be the husband she never thought she'd find?

 

     A smile tugged the corners of her mouth upward. Wouldn't her father be surprised?

 

He'd wanted her to marry for a long time. Though he never pushed openly, the warrior

 

maiden knew he longed for her to be wife and mother. As quickly as this thought

 

occurred to her, a sharp chill set her to shuddering. The mountain air had cooled rapidly

 

with the setting of the sun.

 

     When she'd finished with the horses, Verhanna wrapped her bedroll around her

 

shoulders and settled by the fire. The kender was just downing the last of his soup. He

 


 

handed her a bowl and, while she ate, he skipped around the campsite, humming his

 

tuneless kender songs.

 

    "What are you so happy about?" Verhanna asked him with a smile.

 

    "I like the mountains," he said. "When the air is thin and the nights are cold, then

 

Rufus Wrinklecap is at home!"

 

    Verhanna laughed, but Greenhands' eyes were closed, and gentle snores issued from

 

his mouth. Though still sitting upright, the elf had fallen fast asleep.

 

    The kender scaled a pile of boulders resting against the sheer wall of the mountain

 

behind the warrior maiden. When she asked what he was doing, Rufus replied, "In these

 

parts, it's not wise to lie on low ground."

 

    Her brow wrinkled in thought. "Why not?"

 

    "Falling rocks, sudden floods, prowling wolves, poisonous snakes ...." The kender

 

spoke a cheerful litany of disaster. He stopped and added a blithe "Good night, my

 

captain. Sleep well!"

 

    How well could she sleep after his listing of all those dangers? Her brown eyes

 

searched the darkness beyond their dying fire. Moonlight and starlight washed the

 

mountain pass, and the air was filled with the faint but normal sounds of night. The

 

warrior maiden set her empty soup bowl down and sidled around the fire until she was

 

close to Greenhands. Laying her head down by his crossed legs, she reasoned that since

 

he seemed so connected to the wild, then he was probably safe from any natural disasters

 

or creatures of the night.

 

    The strange elf still slept upright, his head drooping toward the embers. The white

 

light of Solinari washed his hair in silver. The dying firelight tinged the silver with rose.

 

A single coral-hued strand had fallen across his closed eyes. Verhanna put up a hand to

 


 

brush it away, but as her finger drew near, she shivered violently. It wasn't the cold of the

 

night, for under her bedroll, by the fire, she was quite warm.

 

    It must be tiredness, she decided, and the lingering effects of the goblin bite. The

 

Qualinesti princess withdrew her hand and put her head down to sleep.

 

    Verhanna's rest was troubled. She wasn't usually prone to disturbing dreams, but on

 

this occasion, visions appeared in her mind, images of magic and power in a dark forest

 

peopled by her father, Ulvian, Greenhands, and some others she didn't recognize. One

 

countenance appeared frequently­a Kagonesti woman unknown to her. The wild elf

 

woman had eyes the same brilliant green as Greenhands, and her face was painted with

 

yellow and red lines. Her expression was ineffably sad, but in spite of the barbaric face

 

paint, it was also regal and proud.

 

    A faint noise intruded on Verhanna's visions. The warrior maiden's trained senses

 

brought her fully awake. Only her eyes shifted as she tried to discover what had disturbed

 

her. The fire was out, though a thin ribbon of white smoke rose from the bed of cinders.

 

Her half-human eyes weren't as sharp as those of her fullblooded elf kin, but they were

 

better than any human's. The moons had set, but the light of the stars was enough for her

 

to make out a dark shape hovering over their pile of baggage, only a few yards from

 

where she lay.

 

    Kender, if you're trying to scare me, I'll have your topknot for a feather duster, she

 

vowed silently. The black shape rose from its crouch. It was far too tall to be Rufus

 

Wrinklecap.

 

    In a flash, Verhanna rolled to her feet and drew her sword. She'd been lying on it,

 

just in case Rufus was right about wolves. The intruder flinched and backed away. She

 

heard hooves striking the stony ground. Her opponent must be mounted.

 

    "Who are you?" Verhanna demanded. A strong animal smell invaded her nostrils.

 


 

    More hoofbeats thumped in the shadows beyond Verhanna's line of sight. She was

 

getting worried; there was no telling how many foes she faced. Advancing to the firepit,

 

she kicked some of the kindling Rufus had piled up onto the coals. The dry bark caught

 

quickly and blazed up.

 

    "Kothlolo!" With a loud bass cry, the thing near their baggage threw up an arm to

 

shield its eyes. Verhanna gasped when she saw it clearly­it had the head, arms, and torso

 

of a man, but four legs and a swishing horse's tail. A centaur!

 

    "Kothlolo!" shouted the centaur again. The circle of firelight caught the movement of

 

other centaurs a few paces away. Verhanna shouted to Rufus and Greenhands to wake up.

 

    "Rufus! Rufus, you dung beetle! Where are you?" she called.

 

    "Here, my captain." He was just behind her. She wrenched her gaze from the nearest

 

centaur long enough to spy the kender sitting atop a large boulder. "Who are your new

 

friends?" he asked innocently.

 

    "Idiot! Centaurs murder travelers! Some of them are cannibals!"

 

    "Ho," rumbled the nearest centaur. "Only eat ugly two-legs."

 

    She almost dropped her sword in surprise. "You speak Elven?"

 

    "Some." On Verhanna's left and right, half-man, half-horse creatures pressed in

 

toward the fire. She counted seven of them, five brown and two black. They carried rusty

 

iron swords and spears or crude clubs made from small tree trunks. The one who had

 

spoken to Verhanna carried a bow and quiver of arrows slung across his body.

 

    "You do not fight, we do not fight," he said, cocking his brown head at her.

 

Verhanna put her back against the boulder and kept her sword ready. Above her, Rufus

 

loaded his sling.

 

    "What do you want?" asked the warrior maiden.

 


 

     "I am Koth, leader of this band. We follow the jerda, we hunt them," said the

 

centaur. He held up hairy brown fingers to his forehead to imitate horns. Understanding

 

dawned on Verhanna. He meant the elk herd. "Jerda ran hard, and we lost them. Kothlolo

 

are very hungry."

 

     Kothlolo must be the centaur word for "centaur," Verhanna decided. "We haven't

 

much food ourselves," she said. "We did see the elk herd. It was heading toward the

 

Astradine River."

 

     A black-coated centaur picked up her saddlebags and pawed through them. He found

 

a lump of bacon and shoved it in his mouth. Immediately those nearest him swarmed over

 

him, trying to snatch the smoked meat from his lips. The centaurs dissolved into a

 

bucking, scrabbling fight, with only the bass-voiced Koth remaining aloof.

 

     "They are pretty hungry," Rufus observed.

 

     "And numerous," mumbled Verhanna. She couldn't very well start a fight with so

 

many centaurs. She and Rufus might well end up as the main course at a losers' banquet.

 

     "Where's Greenhands?" she said softly, looking around.

 

     Through all the talking and squabbling over food, Greenhands had sat unmoving,

 

lost in slumber. So complete was his sleep, Verhanna felt obliged to see if he was

 

breathing. He was.

 

     "By Astra, when he sleeps, he sleeps," she muttered.

 

     A centaur found Rufus's store of walnuts in his ration bag. The others tore at his

 

hand, scattering the nuts over the campsite. A few landed on Greenhands' head, and he

 

finally stirred.

 

     "You're alive," Verhanna said caustically. "I thought I was going to have to beat a

 

gong."

 


 

    The elf's face was blank. He licked his dry lips and said, "I've been away. Far away. I

 

saw my mother and spoke to her." Looking up at Verhanna, he added, "You were with

 

me for a time. In the forest, with others I did not know."

 

    Had they been sharing the same dream? At another time, Verhanna might have been

 

curious, but just now she had other worries. "Never mind that now," she said to the elf.

 

"We've got a camp full of wild, starving centaurs."

 

    Greenhands started in surprise. He jumped to his feet and walked right up to the

 

centaur leader.

 

    "Greetings, uncle," he said. "How fare you?"

 

    As Rufus and Verhanna exchanged looks of consternation, Koth bowed and replied,

 

"I am a dried gourd, my cousin. And my cousins here are likewise empty."

 

    "My friends have little to eat, uncle. May I show you to a stand of mountain apples?

 

They are nearby and very sweet."

 

    The centaur laughed, showing fearsome yellow teeth. "Ho, little cousin! I am not so

 

young in the world that I think there are apples in early summer!"

 

    Greenhands pressed a hand to his heart. "They are there, uncle. Will you come?"

 

    The sincerity of his manner won over the centaur's natural skepticism. He snapped an

 

order to his squabbling comrades, and the band of centaurs formed behind Greenhands.

 

Then, without a brand to light the way, he stepped into the darkness, up the far slope. The

 

centaurs followed, their small, worn hooves fitting deftly into the clefts in the rocks.

 

    Rufus jumped off his boulder and started after them. "You, too?" snorted the warrior

 

woman.

 

    "My captain, I doubt nothing about that elf."

 

    Sheathing her sword, Verhanna found herself alone by the campfire. With a

 

long-suffering sigh, she reluctantly followed the troop. Rufus made his way easily up the

 


 

slope; the going was less easy for her, being larger and burdened with armor. Soon Rufus

 

pulled away from her, and the only sign she had of him was the steady trickle of pebbles

 

he dislodged on his way up.

 

    The slope ended suddenly. A ravine plunged down in front of Verhanna, and she

 

almost fell face first into it. She flung her hands wide on the crumbling, gravelly soil and

 

cursed herself for following Greenhands in the middle of the night. Once she'd gotten to

 

her feet and dusted the dirt from her palms, Verhanna looked down into the shallow

 

ravine. She was amazed by what she saw. There, nestled close to the sheer wall of the

 

rising mountain, was a stand of apple trees, heavy with fruit. The Qualinesti princess

 

moved down for a closer look.

 

    The ground around the trees was littered with fallen apples, some rotten-soft, and the

 

air was spiced by their fermented odor. The centaurs appeared to esteem these, for they

 

galloped up and down the ravine, filling their arms with the fallen fruit. Greenhands,

 

Rufus, and Koth, the centaur leader, were standing together under the largest apple tree.

 

The ancient tree was warped by wind and frost, yet its gnarled roots gripped the stony

 

earth tenaciously.

 

    "How did you know these were here?" Verhanna asked.

 

    Greenhands looked at the laden branches close to his head. "I heard them. Old trees

 

have loud voices," he said.

 

    Verhanna was speechless. His words seemed completely ridiculous to her, yet she

 

couldn't dispute the find.

 

    Rufus went to the tree and climbed up to a triple fork of branches. He inched out on a

 

branch until he could just reach a ripe fruit still hanging from the tree. Before his fingers

 

could close on it, Greenhands was there, his moss-colored fingers wrapping tightly

 

around the kender's wrist.

 


 

    "No, little friend," he chided. "You mustn't take what the tree has not offered!"

 

    Koth popped a whole apple in his mouth and chewed it up­stem, seeds, skin, and all.

 

He grinned at Verhanna. "Your cousin with the green fingers is one of the old ones," he

 

said.

 

    "Old ones" was a common epithet given to members of the elven race. Verhanna,

 

still ill-at-ease around the centaur band, said, "He's not my cousin."

 

    "All peoples are cousins," answered Koth. Bits of overripe apple flew from his

 

mouth. The other centaurs were racing around the ravine, yelling and dancing. Verhanna

 

realized that the fermented fruit was making them tipsy. Soon the centaurs were singing,

 

arms looped around their fellows' shoulders. Their bass and baritone voices sounded

 

surprisingly harmonious.

 

    Koth sang:

 

 

 

 

    "Child of oak, newly born,

 

    Walks among the mortals mild,

 

    By lightning from his mother torn.

 

    Who knows the father of this child?

 

    Who hears music in the flowers' way

 

    And fears no creature in the wild

 

    Shall wear a crown made far away

 

    And dwell within a tower tiled."

 

 

 

 

    "You made up a song about Greenhands," Rufus said admiringly. "That part about

 

crowns, though­"

 


 

    "It is a very sad song," Koth interrupted. "My grandfather's grandfather sang it, and

 

'twas ancient then."

 

    Verhanna was growing tired of the drunken, bumptious centaurs. When one thumped

 

into her for the second time, she announced she was going back to get some sleep. She

 

strongly hinted that Rufus and Greenhands should do likewise.

 

    "Cousin," said Koth to Greenhands, "You travel far?"

 

    The centaurs quieted down and gathered around the green-fingered elf. "Yes, uncle.

 

My father awaits me in a high place of stone," replied Greenhands.

 

    "Then take this with you, gentle cousin." Koth took a ram's horn that hung by a strap

 

around his neck and gave it to the elf. "If ever you need the Sons of the Wind, blow hard

 

on this horn and we shall come."

 

    "Thank you, uncle, and all my cousins," Greenhands said, looping the strap around

 

his neck.

 

    He led the warrior maiden and the kender back to their camp. No one spoke. The

 

shouts of the centaurs echoed once more through the peaks, slurred now as they

 

continued to eat the fermented apples. Greenhands returned to the same boulder he'd sat

 

by before, and he was asleep nearly as soon as he sat down. Rufus climbed back up to his

 

safe perch, and Verhanna curled up by the dying fire. The smell of the centaurs lingered

 

in her nostrils a long time. So did the words to Koth's ancient song.

 


 

                                              13

 

                                  The Great Stone House

 

 

 

 

    Dru and Ulvian rode all day without stopping. The rugged mountain ponies were

 

hardy beasts, but even they rebelled at such treatment. By evening, they were panting and

 

balking. In a fury, Dru lashed at his mount with a cut sapling switch. The pony responded

 

by throwing the short-tempered sorcerer to the ground and galloping away.

 

    Ulvian, sitting calmly on his own mount, watched Dru's fall and the flight of the

 

abused pony. Dru scrambled to his feet and shouted, "After him! Worthless nag! I'll flay

 

him if I ever get my hands on him!"

 

    "Seems unlikely, from where I sit," remarked the prince. He slid off his horse,

 

wincing. Riding bareback through the mountains for six hours had taken its toll on his

 

aching backside.

 

    Dru scowled and threw the hair back from his eyes. His manner had changed

 

considerably since they left Pax Tharkas; his respectfulness, never sincere, had vanished

 

completely. Sitting on a convenient boulder, he stared daggers in the direction of the

 

fleeing pony.

 

    All anger at the horse was forgotten, though, when Ulvian pulled the golden box out

 

of his ragged cloak. The gilt flashed in the failing daylight. Dru licked his thin lips

 

expectantly as Ulvian set the box on the ground between his feet. The prince produced

 

the only tool he had, a mason's trowel he'd picked up near Feldrin's tent. He poked and

 

scraped at the box. The gilt covering was supple, like leather, but the hard dwarven iron

 

of the trowel didn't even scratch it. A charmed box indeed. Ulvian examined the hinges,

 

the hasp in front, and the seal that held the box closed.

 


 

    "Well?" Dru demanded peevishly. "What are you waiting for? Open it!"

 

    "I shall. There's no sense blundering into it, though." The sorcerer slapped his thigh

 

in frustration.

 

    Ulvian lifted the seal on its silken string. He guessed that Feldrin wouldn't rely on a

 

flimsy wax seal alone to protect the black amulet. Hooking the tip of the trowel inside the

 

loop of silk, he broke the seal. Dru inhaled sharply.

 

    "Now," he breathed. "Open it!"

 

    The prince set the box down. The hasp was loose. Very gently he inserted the tip of

 

the trowel under the lid and, with a sudden jerk, flipped the lid up. Something moved

 

with blinding speed toward his hand. Ulvian recoiled and drove the trowel like a knife

 

into the yellowgreen thing that had leapt at him.

 

    Dru peered over his shoulder. "What is it?"

 

    Skewered neatly on the tool was a large spider with a red rectangle on its belly.

 

    "A headstone spider," Dru said. His tone was admiring. "One bite means certain

 

death. Old Feldrin wasn't such a fool after all."

 

    The prince flung the dead spider aside. Inside the box was a folded piece of silver

 

cloth. Though there was little light remaining, the silver material threw off scintillas of

 

light. When Ulvian touched it, its surface rippled with iridescent colors. The lumpy shape

 

of the onyx amulet was obvious beneath the supple material. Without removing the cloth,

 

he surreptitiously pushed the cylinder out of the ring, separating the halves of the magic

 

talisman.

 

    "Give it to me," Dru ordered imperiously. "Why are you so slow? Give me my

 

amulet!"

 

    Ulvian's hazel eyes glittered like cold metal as he looked at the sorcerer. "And if I

 

don't? Will you flay me like the tired pony?"

 


 

        The sorcerer balled his fists and nudged Ulvian sharply with his knee. "Don't be a

 

fool!" he thundered. "The whole point of our escaping was to get my amulet back! It's of

 

no use to you. Give it to me!"

 

        Ulvian stood abruptly and presented the point of the trowel to Dru's throat. Reddish

 

blood, the poisonous blood of the headstone spider, covered the tool's sharp tip. Dru

 

blanched and turned his head away.

 

        "You seem to forget that I am a prince," Ulvian snapped.

 

        Dru swallowed hard and forced a smile. It was the ghastly expression of a grinning

 

skull. "My friend," he said, striving for a soothing tone, "be at ease. I was­I am­very

 

nervous about getting my property back. Did I not save you from the stone block? Didn't

 

my golem avenge the insults inflicted on you by Splint? We are free now, my prince, but

 

vulnerable. Only my magic can protect us from the wrath of your father and the dwarf

 

king."

 

        The trowel was lowered a few inches. "I am not afraid of my father. I have no

 

intention of hiding from him," Ulvian said slowly. "My only thought in aiding you was to

 

escape those thugs in Pax Tharkas who seemed bent on murdering me. Now that we are

 

free, I intend to make my way back to Qualinost."

 

        "But, Highness," Dru objected, "How do you know your father won't simply return

 

you to Pax Tharkas? Your supposed crimes are now compounded by mayhem, murder,

 

and escape. I would not trust the Speaker's mercy. Better to return with me at your side,

 

my prince, fully armed with all my black arts and ready to defend you!"

 

        Ulvian bent over and lifted the wrapped amulet. Dru's eyes bulged. Color flooded his

 

face, and his breath hissed out. Ulvian shook the silver cloth, and a single piece of

 

onyx­the ring­fell out into Dru's hands. He put the cloth back in the box and closed the

 

lid.

 


 

    "What's this?" Dru all but shrieked. "The other­"

 

    "I don't trust you enough to give it all to you. If you behave and do as I tell you, then

 

I'll give you the other half. Maybe."

 

    A scream of outrage welled up in the sorcerer's throat, but it died before it could

 

escape his lips. Instead, Dru closed his fingers around the black stone ring, and his tight

 

lips pulled back in a smile. "As you wish, Highness. I, Drulethen, am your servant."

 

    The sorcerer told Ulvian that the onyx ring solved his transportation problem; he no

 

longer needed a pony. The ring allowed its possessor to shape-change. Before Ulvian's

 

wide eyes, Drulethen the elven sorcerer expanded like a water-filled bladder. His skin

 

split, and feathers sprouted. His fingers curved into talons as his arms were transformed

 

into wings. A ripping scream issued from his swollen throat, and a hooked yellow beak

 

burst through Dru's face. The sorcerer's eyes, as gray as storm clouds, were slowly

 

suffused with a yellow tint. The transformation was too horrible to watch. When next

 

Ulvian looked, a giant falcon stood before him, preening his shiny, golden-brown

 

feathers.

 

    So warlike was the expression in the great bird's eyes, Ulvian fell back a pace.

 

Uncertainly he asked, "Dru? Can you speak?"

 

    "Har! Yes!"

 

    Ulvian put the golden box under his cloak and walked to his pony, which was

 

straining against its tied reins. The sight of the six-foot-tall hawk was unnerving it. As the

 

prince mounted, he said, "Where shall we go?"

 

    "Har! My home. Black Stone Peak. Har!"

 

    So saying, the giant falcon spread its wings and lifted into the air. It was completely

 

dark, but Dru's eyes glowed yellow, allowing Ulvian to mark his position. Calling out his

 

harsh cries, the transformed sorcerer circled overhead, guiding Ulvian along the narrow

 


 

path. A few hours ride, Dru promised, and they would reach his stronghold, the ancient

 

pinnacle known as Black Stone Peak.

 

                                         *   *   *   *   *

 

    Twenty elven warriors, armed with lance and shield, formed ranks in the pass above

 

Pax Tharkas with Kemian Ambrodel and Kith-Kanan at their head. Each warrior carried

 

three days' worth of water and dried food, a thin blanket roll, and a clay cup. Kith-Kanan

 

told his soldiers that the eyrie occupied by Drulethen was at the very highest ridge of the

 

Kharolis, up a steep trail. The warriors would need to travel fast and light.

 

    The peak of his conical helmet flashed in the clean mountain sunlight. No

 

ceremonial headpiece, Kith-Kanan's helmet had served him all through the Kinslayer War

 

and bore its hammered-out dents and broken rivets with pride. Mounted on his

 

snow-white charger, the Speaker looked back over his small band of fighters, none of

 

whom had served with him against the armies of Ergoth. He marveled at their youthful

 

seriousness. When the young blades of Silvanesti had first gone to war against the

 

humans, they had done so with singing and shouting and tales of valor ringing in their

 

ears.

 

    Every one of them imagined himself a hero in the making. But these warriors with

 

their solemn faces­where did these pensive young elves come from?

 

    He raised his hand and ordered Kemian to lead the warriors forward. Tamanier

 

called out, "When will you return, Great Speaker?"

 

    "If you do not see my face five days hence, summon all the Wildrunners,"

 

Kith-Kanan replied. "And find Verhanna. She must know, too."

 

    Touching his heels to his horse's snowy sides, Kith-Kanan cantered to the head of the

 

double column. The old castellan watched the riders go. The constant breeze sweeping

 


 

down the pass fluttered the small pennants on their lance tips. Tamanier was afraid, but

 

he couldn't decide whom he feared most­his own son, Prince Ulvian, or Kith-Kanan.

 

    Leaning heavily on his staff, the castellan walked back to the camp. It was alive with

 

the sound of saws and hammers, as the damage wrought by the golem was being speedily

 

repaired.

 

 

 

 

    The head of the pass gave onto three paths. One was the way down to Pax Tharkas;

 

the one to Kith-Kanan's left, north, was the route to Qualinost; and trickling off to the

 

Speaker's right, southward, was a narrow goat path that led to the higher reaches of the

 

Kharolis Mountains. It was that way they must go.

 

    "Single file. Tell the warriors," Kith-Kanan said in quiet, clipped tones. It was

 

strange how easily the old ways of war and campaign came back, even after a long time.

 

    "Who shall ride point?" asked Kemian.

 

    "I will." The young general would have protested, but Kith-Kanan forestalled him by

 

adding, "Drulethen and my son have had no time to set traps. Speed is the essential thing

 

now. We must catch them before they reach the sorcerer's stronghold."

 

    Kemian turned his horse around to spread the word to the others. He asked in

 

parting, "Where is it this Drulethen is going? A castle?"

 

    "Not exactly. It's called Black Stone Peak. The mountaintop was once a nest of

 

dragons, who hollowed out the spire and made a warren of caves through it. Drulethen,

 

with the help of his dark masters, took over the empty peak and made it his stronghold.

 

You see, many years ago, during the great war, Drulethen extracted tribute from the

 

dwarves as well as from any caravan crossing the mountains. He used to fly out on a tame

 

wyvern and carry off captives to his high retreat. It took a concentrated assault by the

 

dwarves and the griffon corps to overcome him."

 


 

    "It must have been an amazing battle, sire. Why have I not heard of it? Why is it not

 

sung?" he asked.

 

    Unaccountably Kith-Kanan's eyes avoided his. "It was not a proud fight," he said,

 

"nor an honorable one. I will say no more about it."

 

    Kemian saluted and rode off to give the troopers their orders. The warriors strung out

 

in a long, single-file line. The path was so narrow the riders' boots scraped rock on both

 

sides as they negotiated the passage. Their lances proved troublesome in the close

 

quarters as well. They were constantly banging against the overhanging wall of rock,

 

making quite a clatter and bringing a barrage of pebbles down on the riders' heads. This

 

narrow trail persisted for some hours, until Kith-Kanan emerged from it onto a small

 

plateau. Once hemmed in by rock, the warriors were now exposed. The plateau was

 

turtlebacked, paved with large stones worn smooth by centuries of wind and the runoff of

 

melting ice. The heavy cavalry horses stumbled on the rocks. Dru's and Ulvian's ponies

 

were far better suited to this terrain.

 

    A cloud passed between the sun and the valley below. They were so high up, the

 

cloud sailed along below them. The elves admired the view, and Kith-Kanan allowed

 

them to rest for a few minutes while he scouted ahead. Kemian turned his horse to follow

 

the Speaker.

 

    "Any sign, Majesty?" he asked.

 

    "Some." Kith-Kanan pointed to where moss had been scuffed off some stones by the

 

hooves of ponies. "They are nearly a half day ahead of us," he reported grimly.

 

    Water bottles were tucked away, and the ride resumed. They crossed the plateau to a

 

steeply climbing trail. Kith-Kanan spotted a glint of metal on the ground. He raised his

 

hand to halt the troopers and dismounted. With his dagger tip, he fished the object out

 


 

from a cleft in the rocks. It was the broken lock from Feldrin's golden casket. A cold

 

pressure constricted the Speaker's heart.

 

    "They have opened the box," he said to Kemian. Standing, Kith-Kanan held the

 

broken lock in his gauntleted palm and studied the surrounding slopes. "Yet there's no

 

sign of any magic being unleashed. Perhaps Drulethen does not possess the amulet yet."

 

Perhaps his son was smarter than he reckoned, Kith-Kanan silently added. The only hope

 

Ulvian had for survival was to keep the talisman from the sorcerer's hands. The Speaker

 

could only pray that his son realized that. Of course, Drulethen might be in such a hurry

 

to reach his stronghold that he simply hadn't used the power he possessed.

 

    The Speaker remounted and dropped the broken lock into his saddlebag. "Pass the

 

word: Be as silent as possible. And quicken the pace."

 

    Kemian nodded, his blood racing. This was far more challenging than rounding up

 

bands of scruffy slavers. The chill air seemed charged with danger. The general rode

 

down the line, conferring with the warriors in a hushed voice. The young fighters tugged

 

at harness straps and armor fittings, tightening everything.

 

    Kith-Kanan remained in the lead. He shifted his sword handle forward for easier

 

drawing. Alone among all the rest, he was armed with sword and small buckler, instead

 

of lance and full shield. His charger took the slope easily, its powerful legs propelling

 

horse and rider up the hill. The warriors followed, but it was a slow process going up so

 

steep a grade in single file. The column strung out until a half-mile separated Kith-Kanan

 

and the last rider.

 

    A covey of black birds started up in front of Kith-Kanan's horse. The animal snorted

 

and tried to rear, but the Speaker's strong hands on his reins brought him down. With

 

soothing pats and almost inaudible words, Kith-Kanan calmed his nervous mount. The

 

black birds circled overhead, twittering. Staring up at the ebony whirlwind, Kith-Kanan

 


 

experienced a sudden flash of memory, of a time long ago when crows had watched him

 

as he struggled to find his way through a deep and mysterious forest. They had led him to

 

the boy, Mackeli, who in turn had brought him to Anaya.

 

    A shout from behind snapped Kith-Kanan's head around. One of the warriors had

 

seen something. He twisted his horse around in time to see the elf lower his lance and

 

charge into a small passage Kith-Kanan had passed a hundred paces back down the trail.

 

There was a fearful scream. The nearest warriors crowded into the passage. Kith-Kanan

 

rode hard down the slope, shouting at them to clear the way.

 

    Just before he reached the mouth of the side ravine, the warriors sprang apart, some

 

losing their lances in the process. A dark brown form hurtled by, veered between the tall

 

chargers, and bolted down the trail. Seconds later, a sheepish-looking warrior appeared,

 

unharmed, from the narrow passage.

 

    "Your Majesty," said the elf, scarlet to his ear tips. "Forgive me. It was a stray pony."

 

    The warriors, keyed up for a fight or to face some unknown horror, began to chuckle.

 

The chuckles grew into guffaws.

 

    "Brave fellow!" "How big was the pony's sword?" "Did he kick you with his little

 

hooves?" they gibed. Kith-Kanan called them down, and they rapidly fell silent. The

 

Speaker glared at them.

 

    "This is not a pleasure ride!" he snapped. "You are in the field, and the enemy could

 

be near! Deport yourselves like warriors!"

 

    He ordered the soldier who'd charged the pony to report exactly what had happened.

 

    "Sire, I saw something large and dark move. I called out, and it didn't answer. When

 

I challenged it again, it looked like it was trying to avoid being seen. So I couched my

 

lance and went after it."

 

    "You did correctly," Kith-Kanan replied. "You say it was a pony?"

 


 

    "Yes, sire. Its mane was clipped short, and there was a brand on its left flank­a

 

hammer and square."

 

    "The royal brand of Thorbardin," Kemian observed. "The pony came from Pax

 

Tharkas."

 

    Kith-Kanan agreed. "It must be one of the stolen ones. Why is it free, I wonder?" he

 

mused. It didn't make sense for two escaping prisoners to abandon one of their mounts.

 

The animal must have gotten away by accident.

 

    "Luck is with us!" he announced. "Our quarry has lost half its mobility. If we ride

 

without pause, we should overtake them!"

 

    The elves hurried to their mounts. Kith-Kanan scanned the sky. The sun was

 

subsiding in the west, throwing long shadows across the western peaks. They moved on,

 

traveling into the setting sun, which made seeing distant objects difficult. However, the

 

lost pony was a good omen. Drulethen could hardly be in full possession of his powers if

 

he let a small horse get away.

 

    A leaden sensation hit Kith-Kanan's stomach like a hammer blow and his hands

 

clenched the reins. Suppose the pony hadn't bolted. Suppose Dru simply didn't need it

 

anymore. Because Ulvian wasn't with him. Because Ulvian was already dead.