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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
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
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
"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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
"If you wish, sire, I can have Lady Verhanna assigned to the city guard," he said
"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
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,"
"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
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
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
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
"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
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
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.
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!"
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
"Ulvian! What are you doing here?" Verhanna asked, shock reducing her voice to a
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!
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
"What I do is none of your affair," he said, annoyed. "Nor anyone else's, for that
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
"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
"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
"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
"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--
"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
"Save your gratitude, my prince. I meant what I said; you will be given over to your
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,
"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
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
"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
"Majesty! Are you ill?"
Tears glistened in Kith-Kanan's brown eyes. "I am all right," he murmured. "Leave
"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.
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
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
"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
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
Suddenly the someone stood. Kith-Kanan glimpsed her beautiful red hair and his
"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
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
"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,
"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
"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
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
"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
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
"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
"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
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
"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.
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
"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
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
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.
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
"I hope you will, Son. I hope you will."
A second crash of thunder finished the confrontation. Merith led the prince
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
"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
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
"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
"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
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
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
"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,
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,
"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
"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
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
* * * * *
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
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
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
* * * * *
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
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
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.
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
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
"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
"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
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
"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
"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
"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.
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
"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
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
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 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.
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
"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
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
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
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!
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
"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
"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
"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
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-
"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
"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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
"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 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
"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
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
"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,
"Yes, Master Lugrim," they replied in unison, sing-songing their words like naughty
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
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
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
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
"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
"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
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
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
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"
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.
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
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
"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
"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
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.
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.
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
"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
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
"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
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
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
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
"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
There was no debate between Clovanos and Xixis. The two elves were in complete
"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
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.
* * * * *
"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
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 . . .
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
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
"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
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
"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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
"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
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.
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."
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
Grimly Kith-Kanan replied, "Have no fear. I would hear everything my people think
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
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-
"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,
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
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
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.
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
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?"
"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
"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
"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
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
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
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
"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
"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."
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
"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."
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
"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
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
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
"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
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
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'
"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
"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
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
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
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
"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
"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."
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
"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
"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
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
"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
"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.
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
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
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
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
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
"You're alive," Verhanna said caustically. "I thought I was going to have to beat a
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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
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.
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
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
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
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
"Give it to me," Dru ordered imperiously. "Why are you so slow? Give me my
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
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
"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
So warlike was the expression in the great bird's eyes, Ulvian fell back a pace.
Uncertainly he asked, "Dru? Can you speak?"
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
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
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
"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
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.
Kith-Kanan's heart argued against it. The sorcerer had no reason to dispense with the
prince yet. They had found no body, no sign of str