Tales I

volume I

The Magic of Krynn

 

Edited by

Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman

 

FOREWORD

 

"No! No! Please don't leave!" cried Tasslehoff Burrfoot and, before

we could stop him, the kender grabbed hold of our magical device that

would have transported us out of Krynn and ran off with it down the

road!

So here we are, back again, ready for more adventures. If you are

one of our long-time fellow travelers, we welcome you along. If you

have never journeyed with us through the DRAGONLANCE worlds, we hope

this anthology will serve as an interesting and exciting introduction.

A favorite fantasy theme is magic and those who practice it. In

these pages, you will find tales of the magic of Krynn. Some were

written by us, some written by old friends, and some written by new

friends we've met along the way.

Riverwind and the Crystal Staff is a narrative poem that describes

a haunting search for a magical artifact. A Stone's Throw Away is the

story of that irrepressible kender, Tassle- hoff Burrfoot, and his

comic, perilous adventure of the tele- porting ring.

The Blood Sea Monster tells about "the one that got away." Dreams

of Darkness, Dreams of Light recounts the tale of Pig-Face William and

the magical coin.

Otik the innkeeper has unusual problems in Love and Ale. The young

mage, Raistlin, faces danger in the Tower of High Sorcery in The Test

of the Twins. Draconians stumble into a mysterious village of elves in

Wayward Children.

Finding the Faith is a high-adventure tale of the elf maid,

Laurana, and her search for the famed dragon orb in Icewall Castle. A

young Tanis and his friend, Flint the dwarf, learn about love that

redeems and love that kills in Harvests.

Finally, in the novella, The Legacy, a young mage must face the

fact that his evil uncle-the powerful wizard, Raistlin - may be trying

to escape eternal torment by stealing his nephew's soul!

 

Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman

 

Riverwind and the Crystal Staff

Michael Williams

 

I

 

HERE ON THE PLAINS WHERE THE WIND EMBRACES

LIGHT AND THE ABSENCE OF LIGHT,

WHERE THE WIND IS THE VOICE

OF THE GODS COME DOWN,

THE RUMOR OF SONG BEFORE SINGING BEGINS,

 

HERE THE PEOPLE UNDER THE WINDS

ARE WANDERING EVER TOWARDS HOME,

FOREVER IN MOVEMENT AN OLD MAN IS SINGING

THE SONG OF AN ABSENT COUNTRY,

BEAUTIFUL, HEARTLESS AS SUNLIGHT,

COLD AS IMAGINED WINDS

BEHIND THE EYE OF THE RAIN,

AND WIDE BEFORE US, MY SONS AND FATHERS,

THE SONG OF THE COUNTRY CENTERS AND SWOOPS

LIKE A HAWK IN A SLEEPING LAND,

BORNE UPON HUNGER AND THERMALS,

SINGING FOREVER, SINGING:

 

It was not always

after the wars, it was

a time once when fire

did not rise on its own

out of the dead grass,

a time of waters

and of vanishing light,

when we did not imagine

new country arising

out of the long mirage

of countries remembered

from mother to daughter

in a ruinous dream

that would not have let this happen,

nor did the dance of the moons,

the opened hearts of hawks,

nor did the wind itself

foresee the fires

hot as shrew's blood

in the veins of the land

consuming our dream

while we slept in our journeys,

while these things came to pass.

 

The outrunners found

the child among waves

of grass and darkness,

on the night when the moon and the moon

wed one another and canceled their light

and the sky was black

except for a wedge of silver

turned like a blade

in the heart of the heavens.

 

And the night they found him

was his naming night,

and the years unnamed

were the years behind him,

the time among leopards

who must have raised him

in the waves of grass and darkness,

though he did not remember this,

did not recount the graves upon graves

to which he gave infancy,

where he buried the first words of childhood,

 

And the night they found him

was his naming night.

Riverwind the name he borrowed,

borrowed for him

out of the grass and the darkness moving,

out of their fear of the sky

and the blade of the swallowed moon.

 

And honored he was among families,

as the source of the blood

was lost in the people,

as the path of the eland,

the high call of the hawk

buried themselves in words

and the long wind died

at the back of his head

as he moved and he moved,

as the Que-Shu contained him,

becoming his country,

as the dream of the Que-Shu

wed to his dreaming

like dark to the moon,

until he remembered

the plains and the wind

and the wandering only.

 

II

 

Riverwind, borrowed from night,

grew as the eyes of the People,

reading the air, the descending wind,

the back of his mind

a prophet, a jackal,

while the cry of the leopard,

unheard by the People

except at the place

where the world falls over, choired

at the back of his head.

And his hand, with the grace

of the falconer's hand

or the falcon herself,

unjessed in the diving air,

was the hand of the People,

the left hand, the off-hand,

the hand that steadies the bow.

And so it would be, my sons and fathers,

until the night

of the dancing moons

when the sky to the east

was silver and black,

red the sky in the westland falling,

the night when we bring forth the daughters.

Robed in the friends of the people,

robed in eland, robed in the fox,

in the falcon's high feathers

ten winters counting,

came forth the daughter of chieftains,

the daughter unwed to man or to sorrow,

unwed to the things she could not be.

Grace of the fathers

dove through her veins

like a wind that the world obeyed.

 

Heart of the hunter she was

at the heart of the wandering,

gold of the eyes imagining

gold of the moon descended her naming night,

and Riverwind knew that the journey,

the truce with horizons, was ending

in light and the promise of light.

And holy the days he drew near her,

holy the air that carried

his songs of endearment,

the country behind him

a song like a choir of bees

at the edge of hearing, telling him

HERE IS GREAT SWEETNESS HERE IS PAIN

AND YOU WILL HAVE TO LEARN ABOUT THIS.

 

And seven the summers

in which she eluded him, winters

in which the cold and the country

collapsed on the words CHIEFTAIN'S DAUGHTER.

The halved heart of the eland

steamed from the spinning ground below him

and Old Man, Grandfather,

Wanderer, reader of skies,

reading the face of the boy arising

out of the face of the man,

as the binding of moons on his naming night,

repeating the words like a charm, like a warding,

CHIEFTAIN'S DAUGHTER, the old

enduring story of love and of distance,

of the borders at which

the heart bows down.

 

But the eyes of Wanderer

never the lone eyes watching

as these things came to pass,

in the eyes of the daughter

the leopard's eye reflected

upon reflection, until

it mirrors itself into forever

like the thoughts of a long hall

never the lone eyes watching,

and the eyes of Goldmoon

for the Chieftain looked on

at the dance of the eyes and whispers,

looked on from the place of judgment

deciding this could not be,

and he set for River-wind

three tasks unapproachable, saying

PAY COURT TO MY DAUGHTER ONLY

WHEN YOU CAN RETURN TO MY HEARTHSIDE

BEARING THE MOON IN YOUR HANDS,

THE STARS ON A DYING BLANKET,

AND WHEN YOU CAN COME FROM THE EAST,

BEARING THE CRYSTAL STAFF,

THE ARM OF THE GODS IN FORGOTTEN COUNTRY,

THE SOURCE OF THE MAGICS.

And Wanderer hearing this

heard the NO and again the NO

at the heart of the words,

and knew that the magic

was fractured light,

the light at the heart of a crystal,

bending and bending upon itself,

forever becoming nothing.

Knew that the magic was fractured light

when Riverwind spread his cloak on the dew,

when the waters gathered, spangling stars,

and the hunter cupped water

alight in the palms of his hands,

and returned to the Chieftain, bearing

the moon in his hands, the stars

trapped on a dying blanket.

And the third task then

was the terrible one,

for the others were easy, were riddles

set before children

set before huntsmen

set before those

whom the Chieftain could never remember,

and the heart and the mind

of Wanderer bent like the light

of the one true crystal, turning

to words and to whispers,

to the counsel that Riverwind heard

that night at the brink of the journey,

and traveling eastward

under the reeling moons

toward the source of the light

in the heart of the Staff,

again that night was his naming night.

 

Ill

 

The plains are long as thought, my fathers,

as memory, where the traveler

sees at the edge of the sky

the dead children walking,

and closer, as the sky recedes,

the children accept his name,

in the terrible dust

becoming, as the sky recedes,

the skins of himself

he abandoned in wandering.

 

Or this is the way it always happens,

the story they tell us of blindness

in the country of leopards

when our eyes say NO MORE,

SAY WE ARE DONE WITH LOOKING,

WITH THE CHILDREN,

WITH SKINS AND WITH DUST AND WITH MEMORY.

 

But the time of the Staff was no time,

as Old Man told him it would be,

knowing, reading the hawk's heart,

reading the switch of the wind,

knowing the Staff was calling,

changing the country,

changing the heart and the way

the memory wanders the heart.

And the moons crossed

at impossible angle,

Solinari to rest in the source of the sun,

Lunitari to rest in the dragons.

So Riverwind knew

when the leopard approached him,

skin full of light, of dark,

of darkness boiling in light,

bone and muscle giving way

in imagined tunnels

of plains and movement.

Something behind him

sang with the leopard,

his left eye shining

straight through the leopard

to the edge of the world,

and behind him something saying

LIE DOWN, GIVE THIS AWAY AT ONCE,

GIVE THIS AWAY BEFORE IT BEGINS,

OUR SON, OUR YOUNG ONE,

FOR YOU CAN LEARN NOTHING OF THIS MYSTERY,

NOTHING FROM THIS MYSTERY

BUT DRY GRASS BUT DARK BUT YEARNING

BUT THE GRAVES OF YOUR CHILDHOOD

OPEN TO MOONLIGHT,

AND THE DEAD

THE UNSPEAKING DEAD YOU SEE

WHERE THE SKY MEETS THE PLAINS

WILL BE ALWAYS YOUR OWN, APPROACHING.

 

And he knows that he dreams

this story out of wandering

out of night and the long singing he kept

away from the People

from Goldmoon from the Chieftain

from Old Man himself,

the weaver of blood,

a dream that he cannot remember

where the hawk scuttles over the ground,

dragging its wing like a trophy, a kill,

surrendered wind in its eyes.

And as he approaches,

the leopard, the hawk

vanish like water,

reflections of moon over moon

at the heart of the place of the Staff.

He follows each vanishing,

awaiting the snares of the moon,

and OLD MAN, he whispers, OLD MAN,

I AM LEARNING THIS MAPLESS COUNTRY.

 

But the wanderer travels

through hunger's ambush,

through the thirst of the country

that drives away knowing and knowledge,

and the words of the Old Man

translate the country behind him

but the country before him

is rumors of water,

is crystal arising

distorted by moonlight,

by thought and the absence of thought,

and water arises

like blue crystal before him.

THIS TIME THE DREAMING IS OVER, he thinks,

AND THIS TIME AND THIS TIME

but the water escapes him

bearing the moons

in its depths like memories,

like the speculations of gods,

until the water is standing before him

and down in the water he sees

himself looking upwards,

the knotted moons at his shoulders,

and kneeling to drink he drinks too long,

for out of the water his arms are rising,

terrible, cold as the wind,

and drawing him downward

to moons and to darkness

to peace past remembering,

peace that whispers

JOIN ME MY BROTHER MY DOUBLE

over his vanishing face,

and the words of the Wanderer

returning, drawing him upwards,

the air in the words

sustaining him after belief

falls to the floors

of the waters that never were,

for somewhere the Old Man is saying,

is saying BELIEF IS A FACET OF CRYSTAL

THAT TURNING, CATCHES THE LIGHT

AND BENDS IT TO SHAPES AND MIRAGES,

BENDS IT TO FOXFIRE

THAT LIES AT THE HEART OF THE CRYSTAL,

WHERE NOTHING LIES BUT THE LIGHT

THAT IS DAMAGED AND BROKEN

BEYOND THOSE THINGS

YOU REMEMBER, MY SON, YOU REMEMBER,

and Riverwind, doused and redeemed

by the words, by the saving air,

is saying, OLD MAN, I HAVE PASSED THIS, TOO,

I AM LEARNING THIS MAPLESS COUNTRY.

 

Learning until the red of the moon,

the silver, combine in the air

and the light was gold

as the perfumed candles

of Istar, forgotten perhaps terrible,

and Goldmoon walks like a leopard

there at the edge of hearing and faith

saying LIE DOWN, GIVE THIS AWAY AT ONCE,

GIVE THIS AWAY BEFORE IT BEGINS,

OUR DARLING, OUR YOUNG ONE,

FOR YOU CAN LEARN ALL OF THIS MYSTERY,

ALL FROM THIS MYSTERY

DRY GRASS AND DARK AND YEARNING,

THE SOURCE OF THE CHILDREN

BLOSSOMS FOR YOU IN THE WINTER.

LIE DOWN, MY LOVE, LIE DOWN.

 

Still he walks toward the daughter of the chieftains,

and still she recedes, the story

of days and of years

circles like diving water

and Old Man, he whispers. Old Man,

I am learning this mapless country,

but still she recedes

into the arms and the keeping

of son after chieftain's son

rising like skins of the dead

spangled in stars forever before him,

forever embracing her as she turns,

her eyes green steeples of light,

her eyes his eyes in the twisting moon,

as she smiles, as she gives him to warriors,

and Old Man, he whispers. Old Man,

I AM GIVING THIS KNOWLEDGE AWAY,

THIS TERRIBLE DREAM OF THE STAFF

IS A TERRIBLE DREAM WHEN THE STAFF SURRENDERS,

and under the moons he follows

his losses until his skin turns against him,

dappling, gold upon black upon gold,

his strong hands remember a nest of knives

and the front of the head bows down

to the hot wind to the choir of leopards

and in her golden throat

in the throat of her numberless chieftains

the blood is dancing is rising

like a mirage like a thermal,

and there are no words for this

as he dreams this dream and the throats unravel.

 

Forward he moves, remembering nothing,

no movement and cry of the People

no hunt at the head of the movement

no horizons no crossing moons of the naming

nights.

He has left them behind him utterly,

surrendering all to the skin full of light,

of dark, of darkness boiling in light,

bone and muscle giving way

in imagined tunnels

of plains and movement.

Something behind him

sings in his ear, his left eye shining

straight through mirages

to the edge of the world,

and the smell of the blood is fading

to the smell of rock of water

and of things below rock and water

wise and lethal and good beyond thought.

Upright, out of the leopard's salvation

he stalks into light,

his first and his last skin

recalled and surrendered,

robed once more in the long dream shining.

There in a temple of rock,

cold, insubstantial as rain

cold as the silence of stone,

lies the Staff it is singing, singing

ARISE, YOU HAVE EARNED THIS PEACE

AT THE EDGE OF THE WORLD,

BEHIND YOU A VANISHING COUNTRY.

TAKE ME UP LIKE A TROPHY,

LIKE A THIRD MOON IN THE SKY FAMILIAR,

AND INSTEAD OF THE ARM OF THE CHIEFTAIN, BECOME

THE CHIEFTAIN HIMSELF,

THE LORD OF A LAND OF LEOPARDS,

and Riverwind cold

as the silence of stones,

remembering the edge of the sky,

the dead children walking,

and the staff shines sudden

in the reach of his hand refusing.

There in his grasp the world rolls,

at the back of his head the voice of the leopard

descends into words, is singing

LIE DOWN, GIVE THIS AWAY AT ONCE,

GIVE THIS AWAY BEFORE IT BEGINS,

OUR SON, OUR YOUNG ONE,

FOR YOU CAN LEAM NOTHING OF THIS MYSTERY,

NOTHING FROM THIS MYSTERY

BUT DRY GRASS BUT DARK BUT YEARNING

BUT THE GRAVES OF YOUR CHILDHOOD

OPEN TO MOONLIGHT,

AND THE DEAD

THE UNSPEAKING DEAD YOU SEE

WHERE THE SKY MEETS THE PLAINS

WILL BE ALWAYS YOUR OWN, APPROACHING.

 

In the light of the Staff he surrenders the Staff.

More brightly it bums

as it shines on the country of trials,

on the three moons balancing now,

on the night turning in on the heart of the night

creating blue light, the light of the crystal

brought forth by the hand of the warrior

out of the lineage of leopards,

the long heart of the people

remembered past memory,

but Riverwind, cold as the silence of stones,

laughs the first time

since the west has vanished,

for this is the country

he knows he has failed in winning,

for under the plains lies nothing,

and victory walks in the skins of the children

through damaging years of light.

 

IV

 

The rest of the story is known to you,

how Riverwind, bearing the staff,

returned to the People,

the darkness of stones in his eyes,

what the Chieftain ordered,

(I was there to see it

my words this time could not stop them)

what the Staff in the hand of Goldmoon accomplished.

But this you may not know:

that in the pathways of light

from the plains to the Last Home riding

she said to him, NOW ARE YOU WORTHY,

NO LONGER IN MY EYES ONLY,

BUT NOW IN THE FALCON'S EYE OF THE WORLD

FOREVER THE STORY IS WALKING FOREVER THE STORY,

 

But Riverwind NO, and NO again

No to the fractured light of the staff,

for caught in the light his hand was fading,

through facet and facet unto the heart of the light,

and not of this earth was the third moon rising,

and the heart of the Staff

was his naming night.

 

HERE ON THE PLAINS WHERE THE WIND EMBRACES

LIGHT AND THE ABSENCE OF LIGHT,

WHERE THE WIND IS THE VOICE

OF THE GODS COME DOWN,

THE RUMOR OF SONG BEFORE SINGING BEGINS,

 

HERE THE PEOPLE UNDER THE WINDS

ARE WANDERING EVER TOWARDS HOME,

FOREVER IN MOVEMENT AN OLD MAN IS SINGING

THE SONG OF AN ABSENT COUNTRY,

BEAUTIFUL, HEARTLESS AS SUNLIGHT,

COLD AS IMAGINED WINDS

BEHIND THE EYE OF THE RAIN,

AND WIDE BEFORE US, MY SONS AND FATHERS,

THE SONG OF THE COUNTRY CENTERS AND SWOOPS

LIKE A HAWK IN A SLEEPING LAND,

BORNE UPON HUNGER AND THERMALS,

SINGING FOREVER, SINGING.

 

The Blood Sea Monster

Barbara Siegel and Scott Siegel

 

Out of breath - and nearly out of hope - I ran across the wet sand,

looking for a place to hide. After the terrible storm earlier that day,

running along the muddy beach felt like running in a huge bowl of thick

mush. But I ran just the same because Thick-Neck Nick, the village

baker, was dead-set after me.

I had lost Thick-Neck when I made a quick dash between

two buildings and headed down toward the sea. I

knew he might realize that I had come this way, but then I

saw my salvation: along the shore was a long row of fishing

boats.

Clutching the stolen loaf of bread close to my body, I

looked back over my shoulder. Thick-Neck hadn't yet

reached the beach. I took my chance and dove into the very

first boat.

After covering myself with a heavy netting, I took in

deep drafts of air, trying to catch my breath. I knew that if

Thick-Neck Nick lumbered by, he was sure to hear me.

I don't know how much time passed. When you're scared,

breathless, lying in rainwater up to your lower lip, and have

heavy fish netting on top of you shutting out the light, nothing

moves slower than time. Absolutely nothing.

But my heart started picking up its pace when I heard fast-

approaching footsteps. I cringed down at the bottom of the boat.

The rainwater covered my mouth. I had to breathe through my

nose.

The steps came closer.

It was useless. I raised my mouth up out of the water and took a

bite of the bread. If Thick-Neck was going to beat me, at least I

wanted to have something in my stomach to show for it.

Despite my dry mouth, I hurriedly began to chew.

The steps came closer. Did he see the netting move? Did he

hear my heavy breathing? Did he hear me chewing his bread?

Though I hadn't swallowed my first mouthful, I took another bite,

and then another, and another, until my cheeks were so puffed out

they looked as if they had the wingspan of a dragon. Well, maybe

not that big, but there was more bread in my mouth than there was

left in my hand-and I hadn't swallowed a single mouthful. At

least, not yet.

The footsteps stopped right next to the boat. I closed my eyes,

the bread stuck in my throat.

I started to choke!

The netting flew off me. Even as I tried to breathe, I covered

my face, hoping to ward off Thick-Neck's blows.

But there were no blows.

I peeked out between my arms as big chunks of bread spewed

out of my mouth.

"What is this?" asked a bewildered old man staring down at me.

"A young elf, all by himself?"

I didn't answer. I kept coughing, spitting out wads of half-

chewed bread into the bottom of the boat.

The old man shook his head with exasperation and began

slapping me on the back.

When I was finally able to breathe again, I looked past the old

man and saw that the beach was empty. Thick-Neck Nick was

nowhere in sight.

"You in trouble, elf?" asked the old man, seeing my furtive

look.

I nodded my head, figuring to play on the old man's

sympathies. "Thick-Neck Nick doesn't like me," I said.

"Thick-Neck Nick doesn't like anybody," agreed the old man

with a sigh. Then he looked at me with a sly grin and added, "He

especially hates one particular elf who has a habit of stealing his

bread."

My face reddened.

"What's your name, elf?" he demanded.

"Duder," I told him.

"That's all? Just Duder?"

"It's enough," I replied, not wanting to say any more on that

subject. "What's yours?"

"Folks call me Six-Finger Fiske."

My gaze immediately shifted to his hands.

"Don't expect to see an extra digit, elf," the old man said with a

harsh laugh. "Had a drunk doctor at my birthing, and the fool

thought he saw six fingers on my hand. My mother didn't know

enough to count them herself, and, well, nicknames have a way of

catching on. Know what I mean?"

I nodded. What else could I do?

Without warning, the old, leathery fisherman picked me up by

my shoulders and set me down on the muddy beach. "You're a

funny-looking little fellow," he said. "Don't see too many elves

around here. But you can't stay in my boat. I'm heading out to sea

now."

"You're going fishing?" I sputtered, astonished. "Everyone

stayed in port because of the storm," I pointed out. "And now it's

too late to go out. It'll be dark in just a few hours."

"The fish bite best after a heavy rain," replied Six-Finger

Fiske. "Besides," he added mysteriously, "there is one fish that I

must catch-and my time is running out."

I didn't know what he was talking about. The truth? It didn't

really matter to me. All I cared about was keeping out of Thick-

Neck's sight; a hard thing to do in such a small fishing village.

"I'll go with you," I quickly offered. "If you head out onto the

Blood Sea so late, it'll be dark by the time you come back. I have

really good eyes and I'll be able to help you find your way back

into port."

The old man laughed. "I don't need you to help me navigate in

the Blood Sea," he said. "I've been fishing in these waters since

before you were born."

I was sixty-two years old-just an adolescent for an elf-but

just the same I didn't doubt that Six-Finger Fiske had outlived me

by a good ten or fifteen years. I had to find another way to

convince him to take me along.

"If you've been fishing for as long as you say," I said slyly,

"then you're not quite as young as you look."- Unlike most elves,

I can stretch the truth until it's almost ready to snap.-"But if

you're as old as you say, Mr. Fiske, " I continued, "then I'd be glad

to offer my rowing services to you for just the modest fee of ten

percent of your catch."

"You're a clever one, elf," the old man said with admiration in

his voice.

"Please, call me Duder."

"All right, Duder. Though you don't look like you can row

worth a damn, your company on a dark night might keep these

tired eyes of mine from closing. But if you really want to go with

me, you need to know that I'm setting out to catch the Blood Sea

Monster."

I couldn't help it. I laughed.

"So, you're one of those who doesn't believe it exists," he said

without anger.

"I've heard stories," I admitted. "But that's all they are.

Everyone knows that. Even kender."

"Just the same," the old man said doggedly, "it's the Blood Sea

Monster that I intend to catch. Do you still want to go?"

I certainly didn't want to stay around to face Thick-Neck Nick.

So, I bit my tongue to keep from laughing in his face again, and

said, "Yes, I still want to go."

Before he could say another word, I started pushing his little

fishing boat toward the lapping waves of the Blood Sea, hoping he

wouldn't have second thoughts.

Suddenly, he called out to me, "Duder?"

"Yes?"

"You'll get two percent of my catch. And that's final."

I smiled to myself. I was going fishing!

 

I pulled the oars of the fishing boat until the shore began to

shrink out of sight. But our progress was slow because the Blood

Sea was still roiling from the storm.

I thought I might get sick from the boat's constant dips into the

trough of every wave. Six-Finger must have seen my suffering, but

a deal was a deal; he didn't take the oars from me. He offered only

one consolation. "Don't worry," he said. "The water will calm

down by dusk. It always does."

He was right. As the sun set into the Blood Sea, dazzling

crimson lights sparkled on the now-smooth surface of the water.

The sea was at peace. And, finally, so was my stomach. Not that

there was anything in it, mind you.

It suddenly occurred to me that Six-Finger hadn't cast his line.

"You can't catch anything-except your death of cold-without

putting your hook in the water," I said.

"Giving orders already, huh?" growled the old man. "I've

fished these waters before and I'll not find the Monster

hereabouts."

With my stomach calm, I was getting hungry. I'd eaten raw

fish before, so I asked, "Do you mind if I use your line and see

what I can catch? After all," I reminded him, "I get a percentage of

your take."

He shrugged his shoulders. "If you're going to fish," he said

gruffly, "give me the oars." Six-Finger heaved on the wooden oars,

turning his head away from me as he stared out into the gathering

twilight.

My line splashed into the red water, trailing behind the boat as

we moved farther out to sea. I closed my eyes, enjoying the steady,

rhythmic movement of the old man's rowing.

This is a good way to live, I thought. Someone to row for me,

and dinner just waiting to be caught. But then, as always, I started

dreaming of more: I'd have a whole fleet of fishing boats with

scores of old men bringing in a huge catch every day. I'd be

generous and give them ten percent of the profits. Then I stopped

and thought, no, I'd give them just two percent.

I smiled to myself and sighed with satisfaction.

I'd be known as Duder, Captain of the Blood Sea. And I'd be

the richest elf in the world. The other elves would envy me. They

would be sorry they had treated me so badly. I had been expelled

from my homeland;

punished for a youthful indiscretion; shunned, made to travel all

alone-oh, how I hated being by myself. But when the elves

needed my fish, needed my money, needed my power and

influence .. . they'd come to me then and say, "Duder Basillart,

we're sorry. Come home." And I would just grin and tell them-

"Ouch!" The fishing line was nearly torn out of my hands. My

eyes opened wide as I clutched at the line, thinking that though my

reverie had come to an end, my dinner was just about to begin.

"Looks like you've got something big," said the old man as he

watched me pull on the line.

"I told you I'd be good to have along," I boasted. "This fish

will bring in plenty of money. Don't forget," I added, "I get two

percent!"

"I remember."

Hand over hand, I pulled on the line. I was counting my money

even before my catch broke the surface. But when it did, I stopped

my efforts. I had caught a dead man.

 

"I'm not surprised," said Six-Finger after he helped me haul a

drowned sailor up onto the lip of the boat.

"You're not?" I asked, astonished. "Do you catch dead men on

your line every day?"

His ancient face showed little emotion. "There is an old folk

tale about storms on these waters," he said. "Whenever there's a

storm, you can be sure that a ship has been sucked down into the

whirlpool at the center of the Blood Sea."

I shivered at the thought; in my lonely travels I had seen so

many storms blow across these waves.

"Too bad our fishing expedition had to end like this," I said

sadly, figuring that we would head back to shore with the body.

"Don't be silly," said the old man. And with that, he cut the line

and let the dead man splash back down into the water.

"What are you doing?" I cried.

"The proper place to bury a sailor is at sea," he calmly

explained. "Besides, there is the one fish I've been after all of my

life. Tonight, perhaps, I'll finally catch that creature."

It was only then, as I watched the body float away from the

boat, that I fully realized the old man's desperation. He was tired-

worn out-and he knew he wouldn't have many more chances to

catch his fabled Blood Sea Monster.

Six-Finger didn't look back as the sailor's body sunk below the

waves.

It wasn't long after I picked up the oars and began to row that I

saw wreckage floating nearby from the dead sailor's ship. Cracked

and broken pieces of wood were strewn about the water. And then

I saw a plaque that must have been part of the ship's bow. In the

fading light I read the words, THE PERECHON. And then the

plaque tumbled away on a wave and disappeared.

Was it a big ship? Had a great many sailors died? I would

never know. To me, it was just another ship that would never see

land again, just another crew of sailors who would never see the

sun again, just another shipload of souls who would never go

home again . . . like me.

It seemed like every passing day took me farther away from

my home. And now I was in a little boat, far away from land,

somewhere out in the darkness of the Blood Sea in the dead of

night. Worse than that, I was sailing with an old fisherman who

actually thought he could catch a creature that existed only in the

mind of man.

I'm not cruel by nature, but I thought I'd have some sport with

Six-Finger. While I rowed, I asked, "What does this Blood Sea

Monster look like?"

"I don't know," the old man replied. "No one has ever seen the

creature and lived."

"Then how do you know it exists?" I smirked.

"It does," he insisted. "I'm sure of it. Though no one has ever seen

it directly, there are stories-hundreds of stories-about the great

Blood Sea Monster." He looked away from me, gazing out onto

the water. "Some say it's as big as a thousand fishing boats. Others

say it isn't the size of the beast, it's the length of its teeth and claws

you have to watch out for. But nobody really knows. I knew one

man, though, who claimed he saw the beast's reflection in a mirror.

He said it had a scaly, blood-stained face that oozed black pus. But

it doesn't matter what it looks like. What matters is that I catch it!"

"Why?"

His eye narrowed and his voice grew thick with anger. But he

wasn't angry with me. His rage was aimed at the creature he

sought. "It killed my father," he said. "And it killed his father, too.

It killed my only brother, my sons, my nephews-fishermen, all-

it took them to their deaths on this sea of blood. In the end, my

wife died of ... neglect . . . grief. Now I'm alone. No family.

Nobody. An old man with nothing in his heart but the desire for

revenge." He lifted his head and stared at the sky with a fire in his

eyes. "And I'll have that revenge!" he shouted into the night. "I

swear it!"

If Six-Finger kept yelling like that, he was going to scare away

the fish. He had already scared me.

I forgot all about his ravings when he offered me one of his

wheat cakes. I gobbled it down so fast that the old man offered me

a piece of fruit from his bag. "What about you?" I asked, not

wanting to appear unmindful of my host (and wanting to keep his

mind off the Blood Sea Monster). "Aren't you going to eat?"

"My appetite isn't what it used to be," he said with a sigh. "I

don't eat half of the things I bring along. Most of the time I throw

my leftover food overboard for the fish to eat. A man can't take

from the Blood Sea without giving something back," he said

reverently. "If the fish live and multiply, then so will the

fishermen."

It was a nice thought, but I was hoping he wouldn't throw

anything overboard that night, because I was awfully hungry.

He must have been reading my mind, because he took a

sweetcake for himself and then handed his food bag over to me,

saying, "Take as much as you like."

I took it all.

 

The moon was halfway across the sky by the time I finished

eating. And, then, finally, the old man tossed his fishing line into

the water.

We bobbed on the gentle sea, neither one of us talking. I

wondered how long we would stay out that night before the old

man grew tired and gave up. And I wondered what I would do

when we reached shore. Would I move on and steal my bread

from another baker, in another town? I wanted more from life than

just crumbs. I had a restless craving for ... experience. That was

why I had stolen the elven leader's locket, back in my homeland. I

thought that the locket held a secret incantation that would give

me power and wisdom. Instead it only brought me misery. When

my thievery was discovered, I was banished from my home. Cast

out, I had become a dark elf, a renegade. But where was I running

TO7

The boat, as well as the night, drifted along with my thoughts.

I had no idea of the time. I liked that about the sea. The

timelessness. The old man was intent upon his fishing and I was

intent upon my dreaming- until there was a splash in the water!

"I've got something!" Six-Finger exclaimed.

His line went taut. The bow of the boat tipped down as the

creature at the other end dove deep with the hook in its mouth.

He didn't really think he had caught the Blood Sea Monster,

did he?

Expertly, the old fisherman gave the diving fish some slack and

let him run. Then, as the fish let up, the old man tugged back,

reeling him in. When the fish tried to pull away, the old man

patiently repeated the process. Yet I could tell that Six-Finger was

straining. Whatever was at the end of the line was something

powerful, something that wouldn't give up without a terrible fight.

But Six-Finger stayed with the creature until it finally broke

the surface again, splashing just off the stem of the boat.

"It's big!" I cried despite myself, seeing the shadow that it cast

in the moonlight.

The old man simply scowled. He knew what he had-and it

wasn't what he wanted. Still, he reeled the fish in. I helped get it

out of the water by using the old man's net.

When I dumped it on the bottom of the little boat, I could see

what the old man had caught: a rare-and very feisty-Bela Fish. I

had heard of them but had never seen one before because

fishermen always throw them overboard. You see, the Beta Fish

tastes terrible, and there is no market for it. It's also bad luck to kill

a Bela Fish because it's one of the rare fish that can communicate

with land creatures.

And the Bela Fish wasn't shy about communicating with us. ...

"The hook hurts!" it cried. "Take it out of my mouth!"

I immediately got down on my knees and carefully removed

the hook.

"Thank you," said the fish. "Now, if you would be so good as

to get me back in the water?"

I didn't hesitate. I started putting my hands underneath the

body of the Bela Fish, but the old man slapped my wrists. "Leave

him be," said Six-Finger. "I think we'll keep him. He'll make good

bait."

Upon hearing the old man's words, the Bela Fish started

flopping all over the bottom of the boat, desperately trying

to wriggle over the side. But it was no use. "Please,"

begged the fish, "let me go!"

I was stunned. I couldn't believe that the old man could

be so cruel. How could a man share his food so generously

in one moment and then torture an innocent creature in the

next?

"Let the Bela Fish go," I demanded. "If he doesn't get

back in the water soon, he will die."

"Then he'll die," replied Six-Finger steadfastly. "But I'll

give this fish one chance to save his life. And one chance

only."

"What is it?" cried the Bela Fish. "I'll do anything."

"Tell me where I can find the Blood Sea Monster,"

demanded the old man.

The Bela Fish looked at me and then at the old man.

"You don't want to know that," it said.

"I do, indeed," insisted Six-Finger. "If you want to live,

you will tell me. And you'll tell me right now."

"If YOU want to live, you'll head right back to shore,"

retorted the fish.

My eyes opened wide at the meaning of the fish's words.

"You mean there is such a beast, then?" I cried.

"There is, yes, oh, without question-yes," said the Bela

Fish. "And I can tell you that we swim away as fast as we

can when we hear that it's near."

"Why?"

The Bela Fish blinked. "You mean you don't know?"

"No."

The fish tried to laugh, but it was quickly losing its

strength. Instead, in a weak voice, it said, "There is a reason

why no one has ever seen the Blood Sea Monster and lived.

It moves through the water like a dark shadow. And the

water in its wake is cold, empty . . . dead."

"I don't understand," I said, confused.

"You'll understand all too well if you continue your foolish

quest," it replied. "I beg of you, don't-"

"Enough!" exploded the old man, cutting off the Bela Fish. He

picked up the fish in his two hands and demanded, "Where is the

beast? It's that, or I'll eat you myself, bad taste and all!"

"I was just trying to save you," it gasped. "But if you want to

know so badly, I'll tell you."

"Speak up, then, and don't delay," said the old man harshly,

leaning close to hear the Bela Fish's words.

"The beast you seek is close by, near the center of the Blood

Sea, where a ship was sucked into the whirlpool's maelstrom. You

see, it's the monster's ever-swinging tail that causes the whirlpool,

and it's the steam that rises from its body that causes the raging

storm that never leaves the center of the sea."

I shuddered, remembering the body and the wooden plaque

with the name. THE PERECHON.

The old man grunted with satisfaction. The Bela Fish's words

had not frightened Six-Finger Fiske the way they had frightened

me. Finally, after all these years, his revenge was at hand.

In fulfillment of his bargain, the old man threw the Bela Fish

overboard. Then Six-Finger feverishly took the oars in hand and

began rowing toward the deadly center of the Blood Sea. But even

as Six-Finger rowed, the Bela Fish swam up close beside the boat

and warned, "You're making a mistake. Turn away! Don't go!"

When the old man ignored the fish, the creature turned toward

me and cried, "You were kind to me. I want to help you. Listen to

what I say, and jump overboard. Save yourself!"

The sea elves are cousins of my people, but that didn't mean that I

could swim like a fish. We were miles from shore and the thought

of jumping into the middle of the Blood Sea seemed akin to taking

my own life. Despite my fear, I chose to stay with the old man.

But I would have stayed anyway. There was something about

the old man's fierce determination that hit a nerve inside of me. He

was so sure of himself, so unafraid, that it inspired my confidence.

I had been impressed by the old man's sureness in the boat-how

he caught the Bela Fish and reeled him in so expertly. But, most of

all, I thought how wonderful it would be to witness this great feat

if the old man really did catch the monster fish. Six-Finger Fiske

would be famous, yes, but so would I! I'd be part of the greatest

adventure of our time; I'd be the most famous elf in the entire

world if I helped catch the Blood Sea Monster.

 

The old man pulled on the oars for a long time, his breath

growing ragged.

"Let me row for a while," I offered. "You'll need your strength

if the monster strikes your line."

"That's true," agreed Six-Finger. "I'm glad you came along."

His approval put a smile on my face. I dipped the oars into the

water and rowed as hard as I could.

It wasn't long before the moon and stars were obscured by

swirling clouds. We were entering the edge of the storm that

hovered over the center of the sea. The winds blew raw and cold.

And the water itself began to grow rough beneath the boat. We

were getting close to the whirlpool . . . close to the monster.

"Pull in your oars," ordered the old man. "I'll cast my line from

here."

I was tired from the rowing and was glad to stop. I rubbed my

aching arms as I watched the old man cast his line into the dark

scarlet sea.

My eyes were fixed on the line dangling out of the boat,

figuring that we'd immediately get a strike. But soon my eyes

became as tired as my arms and I slumped down into the boat,

snuggling into the netting to keep warm. Out of the wind, I felt

better, safer. With my excitement ebbing, exhaustion finally crept

up on me and I drifted off to sleep.

I don't know how long I dozed, but when I opened my eyes, I

heard the old man cough and grumble. I felt sorry for him, sitting

up in the cold, damp night, fighting to keep his dream alive of

catching this one great fish before he died. It seemed like a dream

that would go unfulfilled, for the night was passing and he hadn't

had a single bite on his line.

Not a single bite.

My breath caught in my throat. In all that time, it was

impossible that the old man hadn't had a single nibble, unless the

waters here were DEAD. And if that was true . . .

A terrible fear gripped me, and I wanted to tell the old man to

pull up his line. But I didn't get the chance. In that very moment,

he shouted, "I've got a strike!"

The fishing line went so taut it almost snapped. And even

though the old man was letting out more line to let the fish on the

other end run, he couldn't do it fast enough.

The little boat was being pulled through the water!

At first we moved sluggishly across the choppy sea, but then

the boat was pulled still faster and, like a dragon in flight, we soon

found ourselves soaring across the tops of the waves.

The old man knew better than to hold the line in his bare hands.

He had cleverly jammed an oar into the prow of the boat and then

wrapped the line around it.

Clever, but not clever enough. The fishing line burned through the

wood as the creature on the other end kept pulling farther and

farther away.

The old man, fearing that he would run out of line and lose his

catch, tied the end of the cord around his body and then held on for

the final struggle.

Seeing the old man's bold action, I jumped to the front of the

boat to help him. If there was going to be glory, I wanted my

share. I took hold of the rope alongside him and tugged at it, trying

to stop the fish's run.

Six-Finger Fiske ignored my effort. Instead, he shouted up to

the sky, "I've caught the Blood Sea Monster! I've got him, and I'll

never let him go!"

'I followed Six-Finger's gaze up into the heavens, but all I saw

were heavy, ominous clouds. That's when I realized our direction.

The great fish was pulling our boat straight toward the maelstrom!

If we didn't change direction soon, we'd be sucked into the whirl-

pool and perish at the bottom of the Blood Sea.

"We've got to turn it!" I cried. "Look where it's taking us!"

The old man heard me and understood what I meant. He took a

deep breath and pulled on the line with every ounce of strength in

his aged body. And I pulled right along with him.

The line suddenly went slack. It worked!

"We won!" Six-Finger Fiske cried with joy. "Don't you see?

It's exhausted, beaten. It's given up the struggle!"

The old man was short of breath. But though weak, his chest

heaving from the battle, he hurriedly began reeling in the monster.

I fell back, watching with glee as he pulled in arm's-length after

arms-length of line. We had really done it. The old man would be

a legend. And when we hauled the beast up onto shore, I would

stand there next to Six-Finger Fiske. People would say, "Look,

Duder Basillart was a thieving dark elf, but see what he did? He

helped that old fisherman catch the Blood Sea Monster."

I leaned over the side of the boat, anxious to see our catch.

After all, I was entitled to two percent. I would remind Six-Finger

of his promise when we neared the shore. There was no doubt in

my mind that two percent of THIS catch would be worth a fortune.

As I stared down into the water, looking for the fish, the sea

began to bubble. And then I heard a roaring sound that seemed to

be coming from underneath the boat. No matter what direction I

looked, I saw the sea beginning to foam and chum.

"What's going on?" I cried.

The old man didn't say a word. He stopped reeling in his line

and just sat there with a look of awe on his face.

The sea started rolling beneath us in a mighty turmoil, and I

knew then with a terrible certainty that it wasn't the old man that

had caught the Blood Sea Monster. It was the other way around.

"Cut the line!" I screamed. "Let it go!"

The old man seemed undecided. His desire for revenge fought

with his desire for life.

The sea began to rage and the little boat was buffeted from

wave to wave. And still the old man would not make up his mind.

Was it his father he was thinking of? His brother? His sons? Or his

poor, unfortunate wife? I didn't know what rooted him in place; I

only knew that if he waited any longer, we would surely join his

descendants in the darkness of death.

The roaring that I heard from underneath the sea grew even

louder, and steam began to rise in a cloud, covering us like a

shroud.

The cry of the beast and the enveloping whiteness seemed to

finally shake the old man from his moorings. He reached for his

knife, intending to cut the line. Except his hands were trembling

and he fumbled with the knife, dropping it to the bottom of the

boat.

At that moment the sea in front of the boat erupted in a mighty

spray. Something hideous thrashed up out of the deep. I couldn't

see very much of it because millions of gallons of blood-red water

were running down off its massive body. Huge flapping wings

made the wind blow so hard I could barely expel my own breath

against its awesome force. I could see nothing else except Six-

Finger Fiske's huge, shiny metal hook caught between two

massive teeth in the beast's otherwise dark, obscured face.

Without his knife, the old man couldn't cut the line. His only

hope was to pull the hook free of the monster, and so he wrenched

on the line as hard as he could.

The beast's scream of fury made me throw my arms around my

face and cower at the bottom of the boat. I heard something clatter

down beside me, but I was too afraid to look.

And I'm glad I didn't, because above the thundering sounds of

beast and sea, I heard something that I knew I didn't want to see. It

was the old man, going mad, calling out to the beast as if he knew

him! Six-Finger Fiske actually laughed-a bitter laugh. "Only a

fool would seek you out before his time-and I am that fool!" he

shouted. And then, calmly, as if in answer to a question that only

he could hear, he said, "Yes, I should have known. It isn't I who

sought you, but you who sought me." And then he suddenly called

out, "The light!"

It was still dark. I didn't know what he meant. But the fact is, I

didn't care. I only cared about myself. And in that moment I

thought I was going to die.

"It's not your time," a raspy voice rumbled deep in my head, as if

in response to my fear. It was a voice that had the weight of

countless years upon it.

In the next moment, I heard a huge splash, and a gigantic wave

rose up out of the sea and picked up the fishing boat. I clung to the

boards at the bottom of the boat, fearing that the wave would crash

on top of me and throw me out into the sea. But the boat hung on

the crest of that wave, and it rushed headlong for miles and miles,

until the wave finally spent itself.

When the boat lolled to a stop, I found the courage to open my

eyes.

The old man was gone. Disappeared.

In my fear and confusion, I scanned the waters all around the

boat hoping to find some sign of Six-Finger Fiske. But there was

none. It was still dark and I was utterly, thoroughly alone.

"It's not my time," I whispered, the great monster's words

reverberating in my head.

As I was sitting in the bottom of the boat, my fingers brushed

against something sharp. I flinched. The cut went deep into my

thumb. I quickly brought my hand up to my mouth to suck away

the blood and sooth the wound.

When I looked down to see what had cut me, I was astonished

to find a giant, cracked tooth lying near my feet.

At first, I was afraid to go near it. Using an oar, I pushed it to

the far side of the little boat. The very thought of the gaping jaws

that had held that tooth made me quiver with fear.

I wanted to get away from this cursed Blood Sea and away

from the memory of this awful night.

It was still dark, but I could tell by the stars that the night would

soon be over. I was desperate for sun to warm my soul.

I grieved for Six-Finger Fiske; I truly did. I couldn't stop thinking

of him and his strange words before he vanished beneath the

waves. But I had to take care of myself, so I fixed my position by

the stars and began rowing toward shore. And the more I rowed,

the more joyously grateful I was to be alive. I had survived. And

as I slowly rowed the boat back toward the little fishing village

where the adventure began, I started to think . . .

I saw it all in my minds eye. Me, Duder Basillart, had faced the

great Blood Sea Monster and I had lived to tell the tale. Dwarves,

minotaurs, kender-everyone- would come from all comers of

the world to hear me tell how I had valiantly tried to catch the

mighty sea beast;

h6w I had heaved on the rope with all my might and turned the

monster from its course. How I had tried to save the old man by

yelling for him to cut the line. And I would tell them about the

evil, awesome creature with its wings and its deep rumbling voice.

Yes, I'd tell them how it SPOKE TO ME! How it spared me

because of my bravery. Yes, that's what I'd say.

And who would doubt it?

After all, didn't I have the monster's tooth? Was there another

creature's tooth like this anywhere else in the world? No, I had the

evidence of my miraculous adventure and my future was now

secure. More than secure; it was perfect!

I couldn't afford to lose the Blood Sea Monster's tooth. I

realized that, without it, I was nothing. Instead of fearing it, I

embraced it, using what was left of Six-Finger's fishing line to

hang the broken tooth around my neck. It was so long that it

dangled down to my waist. I would let nothing come between me

and my glorious find. Nothing.

I became so excited by the thought of my future that I rowed even

faster toward port. A whole new life awaited me on the dawning.

And then I rowed even harder, thinking about all the presents I

would re ceive, the fine food I'd be served. They would be sorry

that they cast me out, made me a dark elf. Yes, they would be

sorry, because my name would be on the tongues of millions. I'd

be the most envied elf that ever walked Krynn!

The sky was beginning to lighten. The dawn would be

approaching soon. There, on the horizon, I could see a dark

smudge that could only be land.

Faster and faster I rowed, my mind aflame with thoughts of

greatness-until the sea around me suddenly began to churn and

foam. The waves rose and fell, and the little boat was buffeted out

of my control.

No! Please! Land was so close!

I lost one of my oars. It slipped from my hand and splashed into

the heaving water near the side of the boat. I had to get to land. I

needed that oar. I reached out over the side of the boat-and saw

the Blood Sea Monster storm up out of the depths right in front of

me.

"NOW, it's your time!" I heard the same raspy voice whisper

inside my head.

I looked up into its face-and was stunned to see my own face

reflected there. The image changed so quickly. It was young, then

old, then ravaged by time until only the bones and empty eye

sockets remained. Yet it was me. Always me.

I wanted to argue, fight, run. But inside my head the voice said,

"Some die old, content with their wisdom. Some die young with

silly dreams in their heads. I come for them all."

I clutched at the tooth; it was supposed to change my life. And

it did. I had leaned too far over the side, and when the boat rocked

from the waves, the weight of the tooth around my neck sent me

plummeting overboard.

It was then that I saw the bright, blinding light.

Now I see everything. And nothing.

 

A Stone's Throw Away

Roger E. Moore

 

The citadel of the Magus sprawled atop the

bleakest peak in all of Krynn. A black thunderhead rose in the sky

above it, raining lightning down on the barren slopes. The small

traces of life and dust that clung to the rocks were buffeted by a

cold and endless wind.

For three centuries, no living mortals traveled closer than

sighting distance of the peak, their journeys and curiosity warned

away by the boiling storm. Lords and kings turned their attention

to other matters;

great wizards investigated less dangerous secrets.

So it was when, upon finding an intruder within the castle, the

citadel's master became at once confounded, enraged, and

fascinated. He ordered his unliving servants to bring the intruder to

his study for questioning, then retired there to await the arrival.

Catching the intruder was no mean feat, since he was quite

skilled at evading pursuit. In due time, however, two of the

manlike automatons which served the Magus entered the study, the

intruder suspended between them by his arms.

The Magus looked carefully at the intruder, who stopped

kicking the moment he saw the Magus. The intruder was

barely four feet in height and thinly built; he had bright

brown eyes and the face of a ten-year-old human child.

Narrow, pointed ears pressed against his light brown hair,

which was pulled into a sort of pony tail on top of his head.

The Magus recognized him as a kender, an annoying minor

race that shared the world with him.

The Magus was accustomed to seeing terror on the faces

of his captives. It disarmed him to see this one look upon

him with open-mouthed surprise and lively curiosity. The

captive then smiled like a boy caught with one hand in a

pastry jar.

"Hey," said the intruder, "you must be one of those

necro-guys-necromantics, thaumaturboes, what-cha-

callums." He craned his neck and surveyed the study as if it

were the living room of a friend. "Nice place you've got

here."

Mildly annoyed, the Magus nodded. "I have not had

visitors here for many years. Today, I find you here within

my fortress. For the sake of courtesy, I will first ask your

name before I demand an explanation of how you got in

here."

The intruder struggled for a moment, but he accom-

plished nothing against the grip of his eight-foot-tall

captors. With a sigh, he resigned himself to talking his way

out.

"My name is Tasslehoff Burrfoot," he began brightly.

He almost added, "My friends call me Tas," but decided not

to bother. "Could your guards put me down? My arms hurt"

The Magus ignored his request. "Tasslehoff. An un-

familiar name, though I recognize Burrfoot as common

among the kenderfolk. How did you get into this fortress?"

Tasslehoff smiled, all innocence, though he was sure that

his arms were getting bruised. "Oh, I dunno, I was wandering by

and saw your place up here, so I thought I'd step in, see how you

were doing-"

The Magus hissed as if he were a viper that had been stepped

upon. Tasslehoff's voice faded away. "That's not going to work, is

it?" Tasslehoff finished lamely.

"Wretch!" said the Magus savagely. His pale, skull-like face

grew dead white with rage. "I am wasting time on you. Speak

plainly!"

Though kender love to infuriate and tease, they can tell when

they have pushed someone too far. "Yes, well," Tasslehoff began,

"I don't know how I got in here. I mean, uh, I put this ring on"-he

nodded toward his left hand, still held tightly by an automaton-

"and I teleported in, but, um, I don't know why I did. It just, uh,

happened."

A fragile silence reigned. The Magus stared at the kender

speculatively. "That ring?" he said, gesturing toward the heavily

engraved device with the enormous emerald that rested on the

kender's third finger.

"Yes," Tasslehoff said, sighing. "I found it last week, and it

looked interesting at the time; well, I put it on, and then I

teleported." The kender grinned in mild embarrassment. "I can't

seem to stop teleporting now."

For a moment Tasslehoff thought the Magus didn't believe him.

"You put it on and appeared here. A ring that teleports the wearer."

The Magus appeared to consider this possibility.

Tasslehoff shrugged. "Well, it's got its positive and negative

aspec-"

"Take it off," said the Magus.

"Take it off?" Tasslehoff questioned weakly, his grin fading.

"Uh, well, I'll try if your big friends will let go of me."

The Magus gestured, and the undead automatons released their

grip on the kender's arms, dropping him to the floor. Getting up,

the prisoner rubbed his muscles, sighed, then grasped the

ring tightly. He pulled and tugged until his face turned red,

but his actions had no effect.

"Let me try," said the Magus.

Instinctively, Tasslehoff hid his ringed hand. Though he

didn't fear the Magus, he was not eager to have the Magus

approach him, either.

The Magus spoke a few words, and the air was suddenly

charged with power. A nimbus of light appeared around the

Magus's right hand, which he held out in Tasslehoff's

direction.

"Show the ring," said the Magus.

Tasslehoff reluctantly held up his hand, hoping the spell

would not blast his arm off. With gentle confidence, the

Magus reached out and touched the ring.

A blinding flash of green light filled the room, followed

by a loud thump. Tasslehoff jerked his hand away in

surprise, but he was uninjured. When his vision cleared,

Tasslehoff watched as the Magus slowly crawled into an

upright position on the other side of the room. The flash

had tossed the Magus away like an old stick.

"Wow!" said the kender, his eyes widening. "The ring

did that? I had no idea . . ."

A long hiss escaped the Magus's lips. Tasslehoff stopped

speaking immediately. For perhaps a minute the Magus

said nothing, then he dusted off his robes and looked at the

automatons.

"Take him," the Magus whispered. His voice reminded

Tasslehoff of the closing of a mausoleum door.

 

"Well," Tasslehoff said to himself, his voice echoing

from the walls of his cell, "I guess I've been in worse

predicaments."

Unfortunately, he couldn't think of any worse than the one

he was in now. He almost believed that the gods of Krynn

were angry with him and that they were toying with his

final punishment even now.

He racked his brain for some sin he may have com-

mitted, other than cursing or borrowing things without

putting them back where he found them. Other people

called it theft, but that term made him wince. It was

handling, borrowing, not stealing. There was a difference,

though the distinction was rather hazy to Tasslehoff and

he'd never quite worked it out.

He rolled over and sat up. The automatons had cast him

in the cell after leaving the Magus's chamber, and he had

only a low-burning candle for light. Tangled spiderwebs

hung from the ceiling. Listlessly, Tasslehoff tapped his

hand against the floor, and the ring clicked out a lonely

rhythm.

I SHOULD'VE LISTENED TO MOTHER AND GOTTEN

INTO THE SCRIBE BUSINESS, he mused, BUT MAPPING

AND TRAVELING WERE ALWAYS MORE INTERESTING

THAN KEEPING ACCOUNT LEDGERS. As a child, he had

filled his room with dozens of maps and had memorized the

names on each of them. This made it easy to invent unlikely

tales about his travels, which always amused and

entertained his friends.

Tasslehoff had often tried to make his own maps, but he

had no head for the exacting patience it took to draw one

accurately. Instead, he thought of himself as an explorer

who didn't have to make accurate maps, relying on those

who came after him to clear up such details as the direction

in which north lay. Being there first, not drawing it up

afterward, was what counted.

For years now, he'd walked the world and remembered

many sights, great and small. On a high gray mountain, he

had watched a golden chimera fight a bloody-tusked

manticore to the death. The Qualinesti, the elven people of

the high meadows, took him to witness the coronation of a

prince of their wooded realms, dressing Tasslehoff in silver and

silk of rare design. He'd spoken with wayfarers of a dozen nations

and all polite races, and a few races not so polite.

Once in a while, Tasslehoff would run into an old adventuring

friend from years ago, and they'd travel together. He'd sketch

crude maps of his journeys to show his friends, elaborating on his

adventures for effect, waiting for the listeners to smile. He loved

story-telling over a map.

Mapmaking was not his only hobby, however. Occasionally,

Tasslehoff would see something small and interesting within easy

reach. When no one was looking, he'd borrow the item to admire

it; oftentimes when he finished looking at it, the owner was gone.

With a sigh, he'd drop the item in one of his many pockets and

move on. He never meant to steal anything. Things just came out

like that.

A week ago, Tasslehoff found the ring.

Tasslehoff scratched his nose in the dim light and remembered.

He was in his home town, a farming community called Solace.

He'd gotten up early to get hot pastries from a nearby bakery.

While waiting for the shop to open, he heard two men having a

shouting match in an alley.

Argument turned to scuffling, then came a hideous cry that

made the kender jump. Three watchmen walking past immediately

rushed toward the alley as the killer fled from it.

The thin-faced murderer was almost too hasty to escape. He

stumbled on a loose rock and opened a clenched hand to catch

himself. A glittering bauble fell from his palm and bounced beside

Tasslehoff, who was hiding behind a wooden box by the bakery

door. With a slight move, Tasslehoff covered the ring from view.

The murderer hesitated, cursing the ring's loss, but continued

fleeing upon seeing the watchmen advance his way. Within

seconds, both pursued and pursuers were out of sight. Tasslehoff

pocketed the ring with a careless flourish and went off to examine

it.

It was very impressive, no doubt about that: solid gold, inlaid

with small green emeralds, topped with a great faceted emerald

that made Tasslehoff's head spin.

Undoubtedly, the ring was worth a fortune and could alone buy

a small mansion or virtually anything Tasslehoff could imagine.

Out of curiosity, he compared his left ring finger with the ring's

diameter, then put the ring on to admire it.

It was then he discovered that the ring would not come off. He

tugged, pulled, and used soap and water, all to no avail. A few

minutes after he gave up a last attempt to remove it, the ring

flashed, saturating the kender's vision with velvety green light. At

the same moment, it teleported him into the ocean, which was

supposed to be hundreds of miles away.

The change was so sudden that he almost drowned before he

had the presence of mind to paddle to keep himself afloat. He

struggled, growing wearier with each passing minute. Then a tall

wave slapped him and he choked, and the ring flashed green again

and teleported him away-into a woodland full of scratchy briars.

This process continued for days. Every few hours the ring

would send him off to a new place he'd never seen before. If

danger threatened, the ring would jerk him out of it and carry him

elsewhere. He knew that the ring was cursed and uncontrollable

and that he'd better find a way to stop the teleporting before he was

dropped into a volcano. At least, he was learning to swim quickly

enough.

It didn't take long before he noticed the distance between

hops was decreasing; eventually, he was tele-porting only a

mile or so at a time, though more frequently. By making a

mental note of landmarks, he also judged that he was

moving in a straight line; and this heartened him: the ring

was taking him somewhere. An adventure, indeed!

This pleasant feeling was lost completely when the giant

thunderhead came into view over the horizon. Below it,

illuminated by flickering lightning, was a vast and barren

mountain capped by a black stone citadel. He was heading

straight for it.

Tasslehoff said a word he'd once heard an angry

barbarian use. He liked adventures, but there were limits.

As if piqued by his comment, a second later the ring

teleported him to within a mile of the mountain itself.

Kender know no fear, but they know a bad thing when

they see it. Judging the thunderstorm, mountain, and citadel

to be such bad things, Tasslehoff scrambled over rocks and

debris in a mad attempt to flee. The ring flashed again, and

he reappeared within fifty feet of the pitiless walls of the

castle.

"No, no! Stop!" he yelled as he tried to bash the ring

with a fist-sized stone. "Whoa! Let's go back to the ocean! I

don't wanna g-"

 

A green flash in his cell cut the kender off in mid-

thought. A spider eyeing Tasslehoff from the safety of the

cell's darkened ceiling coiled its legs in surprise. It was now

the cell's only occupant.

At first Tasslehoff thought he had teleported into a cave.

The flash blinded him as usual, and when the effects wore

off, he was still unable to see a thing in the darkness. By

feeling about with his hands, he could tell he was in a narrow,

square tunnel only three feet high. He crawled slowly in a random

direction, testing the floor for traps or deep pits (of which there

seemed to be none). Soon he saw a faint light ahead and quickly

made for it.

A small, barred opening resembling a window was set in the

wall to his right; carefully, he peered through it. Beyond the

opening was a vast carved chamber, perhaps a hundred feet across

and half as high as it was wide. The window was set two-thirds of

the way up from the floor. Logic told Tasslehoff that he was in

some sort of ventilation shaft; he had noticed a gentle air current

while crawling along but had paid it no heed.

Within the chamber, light flickered from dozens of firepots

laid out in a broad circular pattern on the floor. As he stared at the

pattern, Tasslehoff realized it was a conjuration circle, such as

wizards used to call up spirits from the invisible worlds. Faint

traceries of colored chalk faded into the shifting darkness around

the motionless flames below.

With a start, Tasslehoff saw that the room was occupied. Far

below, striding quietly to the edge of the circle of firepots, was a

dark-robed figure. It took but a moment for Tasslehoff to realize

that it was the Magus. He briefly considered hiding, but his

curiosity got the better of him, so he pressed closer to the bars.

The Magus stopped ten feet from the edge of the circle, within

a smaller chalk-drawn circle beside it. For a time he appeared to

contemplate the flames before him. Ruddy light played over his

drawn face, white like a ghost's; his dark eyes drank in light,

reflecting none.

Slowly, the Magus raised his arms and called out to the circle of

fire in a language the kender had never before heard spoken. At

first the flames crackled and jumped; but as the Magus continued

speaking, the fires dimmed and lowered until they were almost in-

visible. The air grew colder, and Tasslehoff shivered, rubbing his

arms for warmth.

Tasslehoff's attention was suddenly drawn to the center of the

conjuring circle. Red streaks appeared in crisscross patterns on the

floor, within the design of the firepots, as if the floor were

breaking apart over red lava. A dull haze clouded the chamber, and

the firepots burned more brightly. A strange roaring like a great

ocean wave coming in to the shore filled the room by degrees,

growing to a thunder that made the very rock tremble. Tasslehoff

gripped the bars before him, wondering if an earthquake had been

conjured by the sorcerer's powers.

Far below, the Magus called out three words. After each word,

light and flame burst from the center of the conjuring circle. Each

flash stung the kender's eyes, but he could not look away from the

sight. Yellow magma glowed with superheated radiance within the

circle, dimming the light from the firepots around it. A wave of

heat reddened Tasslehoff's face and arms where the furs he wore

did not cover him. The Magus did not seem affected by the heat at

all.

One last time the dark figure called out, speaking a single

name. Tasslehoff thought his heart would stop when he heard and

recognized it. The thundering roar vanished instantly, and an eerie

silence filled the air for the space of six heartbeats.

With a screaming whistle, the lava in the circle vanished

entirely and was replaced by darkness streaked with an eye-

burning violet light, resembling an impossible opening into the

night sky. Tasslehoff was straining to see into the pit when a thing

of titanic size arose from it, out of the night-pit and into the room.

Tasslehoff had heard rumors about the thing that stood before

him, but he had never truly believed them until now. The thing

towered over the Magus, three times the height of a man. Two

great tentacles dangled from its shoulders in place of normal arms,

and two heads maned with black fur rested where one head should

be. Scales glittered over its skin, and in the light of the firepots the

kender saw its feet were clawed like those of a bird of prey. Slime

and oil fell from it, the droplets smoking when they struck the

stony floor.

The heads gazed down upon the Magus. Inhuman mouths

spoke, their rasping voices out of time with one another by a

fraction of a moment.

"Again," the voices said, "you call me from the Abyss to defile

my presence with your own. You summon my divine person to

fulfill your petty desires, and you tempt my everlasting wrath.

Sorely, I wish to have vengeance on this world for giving you

birth, you who toy with the Prince of Demons like a slave. I thirst

for your soul like a dying man for water."

"I did not summon you to hear your problems," responded the

Magus in a cracked, thin voice. "Bound you are to me, bound by

the circle. You shall hear me out."

With screams that made Tasslehoff jerk from the bars and

cover his ears, the thing's heads shot down at the Magus-and

were thrown back by unseen forces that sparked and flashed like

lightning. The thing's tentacles writhed and flailed the air like

titans' whips.

"AAAHIEEE!!! Wretch! To speak to me so! Ten thousand

times you are cursed should these bonds fade! Ten thousand times

will I break you in my coils, until your dark soul rots!" For several

minutes the demon roared out its rage. The Magus stood before it,

unmoved and silent.

In time the thing ceased to cry out. Its breathing became a slow,

ragged thunder.

"Speak," said the heads venomously.

"There is an adventurer in my fortress," said the Magus, "who

wears a green-stoned ring. The ring will not leave his hand and

defies magical attempts to remove it. It teleported the adventurer

into my citadel when it was not his intention to do so. What ring is

this? How do I remove it? What are its powers?"

The thing twisted its necks. "You summon me to identify a

RINGI"

"Indeed," said the Magus, and waited.

The twin heads dipped closer to the Magus. "Describe the

largest stone."

"An emerald the size of my thumb, rectangular cut with six

tiers and no flaws. The face is engraved with a hexagonal sign,

with a smaller hexagon set within and another in that one."

Silence filled the darkened room; even the thing's writhing

arms were stilled. After a pause, the thing stood upright. Its heads

turned about independently of each other. Tasslehoff shrank back

against the opposite wall of the tunnel as a head turned his way.

The head stopped when it looked into the barred window of the

airshaft. Red fires arose in its eyes and ran through Tasslehoff like

spears.

Tasslehoff Burrfoot had never known fear, though he had seen

sights that made hardened men shake with terror. When the eyes of

the thing were upon him, he shook without breathing, his soul

filled with a new emotion.

Something like a smile ran over the lips of the thing's face. The

head turned slowly away.

"Magus," said the thing, "concern yourself not with the ring. Turn

your pleasure to other matters. You probe the reaches of unseen

planes and manipulate the destiny of worlds. Neither the ring nor

its wearer will be your concern past the setting of the sun this

day."

There was a long silence during which neither monster nor

summoner moved.

"That is not the answer I asked of you," said the Magus.

For a time, there was no response from the thing. Then its

heads chuckled heavily, and the sound rolled across the room.

"I have spoken," it said, then vanished into the circle of violet

light and darkness as if it had been a shadow.

The Magus stood before the circle long afterward, head bowed

in thought. Just as it occurred to Tasslehoff that he would have to

breathe or explode, the Magus turned and walked to a hidden door

that closed quickly behind him.

Tasslehoff, bathed in sweat, leaned against the wall. If the

Magus caught him now, he would die. He looked down at the

emerald ring and wondered how long he would be able to hide

before the Magus found him at last.

 

Twenty minutes later Tasslehoff arrived at another barred

window, this one looking into a musty library lit by candles on a

tabletop. Struggling and gasping, the kender squeezed through the

bars and dropped onto a bookshelf, climbing down to the floor

from there.

He wiped gray dust from his hands and looked around.

Shadows flicked against the stone walls. Towering shelves filled

with browned volumes bound in exotic leathers and sealed with

glyphs surrounded him. As he looked at the tomes, his curiosity

got the best of him again.

He cautiously pulled a large volume from a stack on the table

before him. A glance at the cover confirmed that the writing was

unreadable and probably magical in nature. He opened the

book, and ancient pages rustled and fell open in the

candlelight.

Tasslehoff flipped the book shut with a gasp. Hesitantly,

he reached for another, hoping it was less loathsomely

illustrated. To his relief, the next book was written in the

common tongue of the land and had no pictures at all.

"BEING A COMPENDIUM OF MYSTIC

PROTECTIONS AND SORCEROUS INSCRIPTIONS FOR

THE SUMMONING OF CREATURES FROM THE DARK

WORLDS," he read aloud. The book appeared to be well

used. A thought occurred to him, and he flipped through the

volume, his eyes running over the pages in search of the

name of the thing he had seen. At the end of the text was a

list of creatures one could summon, and the thing's name

was among them.

Silently, he read the passage under the list of names,

absorbing every word of it. His hand grew cold and damp at

the implications of the text. Finished, he closed the book

and returned it to the stack with care, arranging the other

volumes to disguise his prying.

"Well," he said aloud, wiping his hands. Some of his

confidence was returning, though strained by the cir-

cumstances. "Summoning is more dangerous than I thought.

If the wizard messes up, boot! Off he goes, taken away

forever. Demons don't forgive . . ."

His eyes glazed slightly as he thought about some

variations on this possibility. Mentally, he crossed off the

occupation of sorcerer from those he wished to leam more

about. This was better left to people like-

He heard a door, hidden by racks of books, open.

Tasslehoff dropped to all fours and crawled under the table.

The floor creaked. Thick robes rustled and fell silent.

There was no sound for what seemed like ages of time.

"Tasslehoff," said a wavering voice.

There was no reply.

"You poor wretched puppy, you cannot escape me." The door

creaked and thumped shut. "You watched in the Room of

Conjurations when I spoke with the demon lord. I knew you were

there. Come out now. No use hiding, Tasslehoff."

Robes swished softly and slowly behind a bookcase. His eyes

sparkling, Tasslehoff pressed against a table leg.

"You're behind the bookcase, under the table." The wavering

voice hardened. "Come out."

A long shadow, stepping from behind the shelves, appeared

against a far wall.

"Tasslehoff." The Magus raised his hand and pointed a finger.

Green light burst across the room. Tasslehoff fell back on the

floor as the room blinked out and a new one flashed in.

Now he was in the Room of Conjurations. He ran for a corner

and tried to climb the wall. Falling back, he ran for the doorway he

hoped would be an exit.

The Magus stepped through that very doorway into the

chamber. Tasslehoff stopped dead, crouched and ready to jump in

any direction.

"Pleased you could join me," said the Magus.

 

"I must confess," the Magus said, "that I don't understand why

the ring you're wearing teleports you about as it does. You're at its

mercy, yet it pulls you out of my reach and keeps you safe. It's

kept you alive for days and days, bringing you to this castle to me.

I don't understand it, and I know I don't like it."

Tasslehoff watched his opponent like a hawk. "I'm not dancing

about it either," he said. "I'd rather be home in a tavern."

"I don't doubt that," the Magus retorted, walking slowly around

the kender. The sorcerer scratched at his cheek with a bony finger.

"Circumstances, however, dictate otherwise. I want to finish this

now, before the sun sets. You're the first person ever to invade my

castle. You deserve a special fate."

"You wouldn't want to be friends and let me go home, would

you?" Tasslehoff asked faintly.

The Magus smiled, the skin pulling across his face like dry

paper. "No," he said.

Tasslehoff darted for the open door. The Magus gestured, and

Tasslehoff slammed into the door as it flew shut. Stunned, he

found his nose wasn't broken, though his eyes streamed tears.

Light arose behind him. Tasslehoff turned and saw that the

firepots of the conjuring circle were burning. A dark figure with

arms stood before the circle, chanting in a low voice.

Tasslehoff felt in his pockets for some last trick, something to

pull him out of danger. He found six feet of string, a silver piece

with a hole in it, a sugar bun, a crystal button, someone else's

tinderbox, a bluejay feather, and a river pebble two inches across.

No miracles . . .

He beat and kicked the door until he ached. Thunder rattled his

teeth; waves of cold and heat washed over him.

When he heard the Magus call the name of the thing, he gave

up. Setting his back to the door, he turned to face the spectacle. If

he couldn't escape, he could at least go out like an explorer. He

would have lived longer as a scribe, but this was better in a way.

Scribes lived such boring lives. That thought comforted him as the

scaled shape of the thing arose from the pit of violet lightning and

darkness.

The thing's eyes glowed, one head fixed on Tassle hoff and the

other on the Magus. "Twice in one day, Magus?" questioned the

thing, hissing. "You have company as well. Am I now a circus

exhibit?"

"Hear me!" the sorcerer shouted. "There stands an offering to

you, a soul you may eat at your leisure! I bind you with words and

enchantments of power, under threat of eternal torture and

debasement, to take this kender to the Abyss with you until time is

no more! Take him away!"

Tasslehoff's mind went blank. His fist, thrust into a pocket,

clenched the stone that he had collected some time ago and

admired ever since because of its smoothness. In an instant he

snatched the stone out of his pocket and threw it.

The Magus gasped and staggered as the stone smacked the

back of his skull. Stumbling, his hands clutching his head, he

stepped forward. A slippered foot scuffed over the pale chalky

lines that surrounded him.

The glowing runes and tracings on the floor went dark like a

candle snuffed out. Silently and easily, an oily tentacle reached for

the Magus and caught his foot. The Magus screamed.

"Thousands of years ago," said the thing, its voices trembling

with peculiar emotion, "it occurred to me that I would need a

defense against those who abused my status as Prince of Demons,

those who would use me as a footstool on which to rest their

pride. Some-day, something would be needed to turn the odds in

my favor should this ever happen."

The thing's tentacle lifted the Magus high in the air, turning

him around slowly as a man would a mouse caught by the tail. "I

devised many such defenses, but the one of which I am most proud

now is the ring you wear, kender."

Tasslehoff glanced at the ring. The emerald was glowing faintly.

"The ring," the thing continued, "only activates when I need its

services. It defends the wearer against death, though it may not

make the wearer comfortable. By leaps and bounds it teleports him

to my vicinity. It prevents all attempts to remove it until the wearer

performs a boon for me, accomplishing what I most desire. You

were my tool unknowing, but most serviceable."

Tasslehoff looked at the thing, his mouth dry with the

realization of what he'd done.

"Take off the ring," the thing's voices rasped, "and you will be

teleported back to your home. I have no more need of you."

Tasslehoff carefully pulled the ring free from his left hand. As

it left his finger, it flashed a brilliant, fiery green and dropped to

the floor. And in that same instant, Tasslehoff was gone.

The heads of the thing roared with laughter. The Magus

screamed, and screamed, and . . .

 

Tasslehoff finished his drink and pushed it away. Across the

tavern table, two old friends, a man and woman, blinked as the

thread of the tale snapped and drifted away.

"That," said Kitiara with a shake of her head, "was the most

incredible story I've ever heard out of you, Tasslehoff." A grin

slowly appeared on her face. "You've not lost your touch."

The kender sniffed, disappointment showing on his face. "I

didn't think you'd believe me."

"That was supposed to be true?" Sturm asked, staring at

Tasslehoff. His eyes were bright with amusement. "You actually

mean to say you met a demon prince, helped destroy a wizard,

found and lost a magic ring, and crossed half a world?"

The kender nodded, a playful grin reflected on his face.

For a few seconds, the listeners made no response. The man

and woman looked at each other and then at the kender.

"Merciful gods, Tasslehoff," the woman breathed, pushing her

chair back. "You could make a goblin believe rocks were

valuable." She rose to her feet, tossed a few coins on the tabletop,

and waved at kender and warrior. "I think I'll go on to bed with

that one."

Sturm groaned in mild embarrassment. Granted, the kender's

tale was fantastic, but there was no need to rub his nose in it. He

turned back to Tasslehoff with a self-conscious grin, meaning to

apologize, and stopped.

Tasslehoff was looking after Kitiara with a strange, wistful

gaze. His left hand rested on the tabletop beside the half-melted

candle. A pale band was visible around his ring finger, wider than

most rings would leave. The skin on either side of the band was

scarred and discolored, as if someone had tried to remove a ring

once worn there.

Tasslehoff turned to Sturm, missing his gaze, and shrugged.

"Well," he said, "maybe it wasn't much of a tale at that. It's about

time to turn in, after all." He smiled and pushed his chair back.

"See you tomorrow."

Sturm half-waved his hand. The kender left him alone in the

inn with his thoughts.

 

Dreams of Darkness, Dreams of Light

Warren B. Smith

 

William Sweetwater was a short man - five-foot-three,

one hundred and eighty pounds, pig-faced, snout-nosed-

and he was lost in a universe of nightmares. Eons ago, or so it

seemed, the neutral gray mist surrounded his body and drew him

into the void. Groping, stumbling, frightened of each step, he wan-

dered through the mysterious fog.

Screams roared through the vapors. Harsh, intermittent,

guttural shouts blared out. He heard constant whispers in the mist,

low murmurings that were sly, insinuating, often obscene. At other

times the mist echoed with the howl of banshees, followed by the

grisly noise of feral animals feeding on some bony substance.

An intuitive impulse caused William to stop and assess the

nature of his situation. He shivered in the swirling fog and tried to

get a sense of direction.

Gradually, he discovered he was standing at the edge of a

large, seething pit. He stiffened like a carven stone idol, afraid to

move. The mist parted, and his gaze focused on a frothing mass of

black slime.

The thick fluid was in a stage of fermentation. Dark, reptilian

forms bubbled to the surface. Their evil, grotesque shapes blocked

his vision. They remained in his view for a short time, then

vanished as other forms rose to the surface.

The putrifying mixture seemed to engulf the universe. Entrails

of odorous steam boiled up from the surface. Images of angry

faces were reflected off the sides of giant bubbles. They were dark,

resentful faces with eyes glittering with hatred.

A panorama of scenes and sounds assaulted his senses. Here, a

disembodied leg stomped endlessly on a bloody face. There, a man

in a military uniform snatched an infant from a lace-trimmed crib.

The soldier slammed the baby against a stone wall. A band of

ghouls rose out of the slime and performed a macabre dance on the

black surface. They sank back into the percolating liquid as a

tanged lizard wrapped itself around a screaming maiden. An

obscene altar flashed into view. A young man and a woman were

tied spread-eagled on a filth-strewn slab of stone. A dog-faced

priest with minotaur horns raised a dagger to pierce their hearts.

". . . JUMP!"

"... You belong here! You're like us!" This voice was low,

feminine, almost a motherly whisper.

". . . JUMP! JUMP!"

"... Everyone does it! You're no different," rasped a deep,

resonant voice.

". . . JUMP! JUMP! JUMP!"

"... Roll us over in the slime," sang a guttural chorus.

He wavered.

A part of his being, some ancient reptilian gene, urged him to leap

into the abyss and wallow in the slime. As part of the odorous

mass, he could act out any evil impulse. He could torture and kill

without re morse ... if only he would accept the pit as his home.

The voices knew of his secret hatreds and lusts, knew that William

Sweetwater sometimes dreamed of dark deeds.

With the last remnant of his will power, William teetered on

the edge of the abyss. He fought the dark urge.

Then, all of a sudden, the rolling mass stopped bubbling. The

fermenting halted, images vanished. The voices went silent as the

surface of the putrid slime lay still, unmoving.

Out of the pit rose a comely young maiden with platinum

blonde tresses and (and this is the strangest thing, William

thought) a hideous serpentine monster straining at the end of a

chain leash.

The huge monster towered high above the mist and slime,

writhing and coiling. William cringed as the reptile's head parted

and became five separate entities twisting above the demented

maw.

"Oh, pay no attention to that confounded show-off," huffed the

maiden in a surprisingly baritone voice. She gave the leash a

violent tug and the hideous creature was jerked, choking and

sputtering, into an attentive pose.

At least the maiden appeared to be young-and beautiful to

gaze upon. But William thought he heard the sound of creaking

joints, a sort of arthritic crackle, and there was a frostiness in her

smile that made him shudder.

"Your name?"

"William Sweetwater."

She seemed to be perched on a giant mottled toadstool with an ink

bottle, quill pen, and sheet of parchment at the ready. She wore a

black robe. Two black velvet slippers poked from beneath her

garment. A battered wooden staff rested at her side. The hideous

serpent creature was trying its hardest to peek over her shoulder as

she furiously began to scribble, but she took malicious delight in

fidgeting this way and that in order to block its view.

"Race?"

"Human."

The maiden frowned and wrote a strange symbol on the

parchment.

"Age?

"Thirty-eight."

"Where were you born?"

"Port Balifor."

The comely maiden hissed a smile. "Ah, one of my favorite

areas. Your people have been kind-hearted since the beginning of

Krynn. Now, William, do you have any living relatives?"

"No. My mother died when I was a baby."

"And your father?"

"He was a sailor whose ship was lost. That happened when I

was eighteen. There were bad storms that year."

"Tragic," said the maiden, though she was still smiling. "Now,

William, have you lived a life of grace?"

"What does that mean?"

"Have you worshipped the true gods in a faithful manner?"

William shook his head, negatively. "I've not given much

thought to worshipping gods."

The maiden frowned. "Do you have courage?"

"I'm a coward," answered William truthfully. "I dream about

doing something brave, but I never do it."

"Follow your instincts in matters of courage," said the maiden

in a waspish tone. "Now, are you committed to anyone?"

"What does that mean?"

The maiden raised an eyebrow. "You know ... do you fiddle-

faddle around with any females?"

"Women like their men to be handsome. I have a face that only

a mother could love." William's hand moved across his porcine

features. "Folks say a pig overturned my crib when I was a baby.

My face was supposed to have been marked by the experience."

One of the serpent heads left the reptilian cluster and glided

forward to inspect William's snouted face. Hard, reptilian eyes

examined his features as a long forked tongue darted in and out of

the salivating mouth. The mouth of the snake-if indeed, it was a

snake-opened wide, exposing two ghastly fangs. Abruptly, the

creature began to guffaw, horridly, a foul unearthly noise that

shook William's fast-beating heart and prompted him to draw back

in horror.

The comely maiden jerked the chain leash, and the serpent

monster retreated to its position, hovering silently, for the moment,

behind her.

But she too leaned forward and gazed with more intensity upon

William. Her breath is not felicitous, thought William. Her eyes

grew bold and harsh and glitteringly metallic-like. Reflected in

them was a pathetic, shrinking William and the deepening fog and

mist.

In general she stinks, thought William, as the maiden drew

closer. Perhaps she ought to consider bathing or perfuming.

The maiden had set down the quill pen and now her fingers

were closing around her staff. As she spoke again, William

remembered thinking how suddenly her face had become distorted

and grotesque, how loud and grating her voice had become, like . .

. like metal scraping against the sea bottom.

"So, my dear Pig William," she remarked, edging forward, "in

other words, you have no relatives, no mate, and nobody fool

enough to grieve for you when you are . . . GONE!"

Her voice broke into harsh, strangled laughter which rose

in deafening volume. The monstrous five-headed serpent,

thrashing at its leash, dove to within an arm's-length of

William's face. All five death-heads bared their fangs and

slithered closer. William could smell the decay, the venom,

the evil. The laughter of the maiden had become hysterical,

gibberish, smothering rage. Waves of chillbumps cascaded

over poor William's shivering body.

William inched backward toward sanctuary, choking,

gasping, sobbing for deliverance.

Encircling him was the mist and the dreadful black pit.

Moving with him, glowing in the darkness, were the

serpent's five heads. The maiden's screaming was so painful

he had to put his hands over his ears.

THE CHAIN LEASH SNAPPED.

A hard, tightening force fastened onto his shoulder.

A scream started deep down in his throat.

 

"William, wake up!" The voice was loud, guttural. Snorting

in terror, William Sweetwater opened his eyes and stared up

into the face of his friend, Sintk the Dwarf. William made

an oinking sound, wrenching himself out of slumber into a

moment of confusion before becoming oriented to reality.

William was sitting on a stool behind the polished bar of

the Pig and Whistle. Sintk the Dwarf leaned across the bar,

his hand firmly gripping and shaking William's shoulder.

The dwarf was a muscular man, big in the shoulders, with a

blunt, tanned, half-smiling face. His light gray eyes

reflected good humor. His thick brown hair had begun to

thin on the top. The dwarf and William had known each

other since childhood; they shared a love of good

conversation and good ale.

"You must've been napping," said Sintk, who was the

cobbler in Port Balifor. "I came in and heard you snorting

like a-" The dwarf paused for dramatic effect "-boar

being led to slaughter."

William blinked at the familiar surroundings of his

beloved Pig and Whistle. The tavern was a long, wide room

with a long mahogany bar and heavy wooden stools.

Numerous tables and chairs were in the back of the room

overlooking a small stage.

Everything in the Pig and Whistle was in a neat,

carefully maintained condition. Woodwork was oiled and

polished, the brasswork shiny and free of tarnish. The walls

and floors were clean. The neatness of the room was an

indication of William's respect and love for his inn.

Except for Sintk and a couple of strangers at a far table,

the bar was deserted. Port Balifor had been an occupied

town for several months-overrun by armies of the

Highlords, whose ships had sailed into the bay and

disgorged the hideous draconians and hobgoblins.

The people of Port Balifor, who were mostly human and,

like William Sweetwater, mostly meek and cowardly, felt

sorry for themselves. The occupation had come without

warning. Because of their geographical isolation, most of

the citizens had little knowledge of the outside world. They

would have counted their blessings if they knew what was

happening in other parts of Ansalon.

Not that the Dragon Highlords were particularly interested

in this easternmost territory. The land was sparsely

populated: a few poor scattered communities of humans like

Port Balifor and Kendermore, homeland of the kender. A

flight of dragons could have leveled the countryside, but the

Dragon Highlords were concentrating their strength elsewhere.

And as long as ports such as Balifor remained open, the Highlords

had use for the region.

Though business had improved at the Pig and Whistle with the

arrival of the troops, the presence of the motley soldiers had

caused many of William's old customers to stay away. The

draconians and hobgoblins were well-paid, and strong drink was

one of their weaknesses. But William had opened the Pig and

Whistle to enjoy the companionship of his friends and neighbors.

He disliked the repulsive draconian soldiers who snarled and

fought like animals once the alcohol had dulled their tiny brains.

The hobgoblins were equally obnoxious customers. They were

self-centered and arrogant, trying to wheedle free drinks for

themselves and their cohorts.

So William had promptly raised the price of his drinks. The Pig

and Whistle was three times more expensive than any other inn in

Port Balifor. He also watered the ale. As a result, his bar was

mostly deserted except for his old friends and the odd traveler,

and, once again, William enjoyed being an innkeeper.

Sintk waved a hand in front of William's piggy face.

"Are you dozing off again?" he asked. "William, I realize sleep

is a good way of forgetting about draconians and those nasty

hobgoblins. But, sad it is, a person wakes up and those sculpin are

still prowling about town, snooping in everyone's business and act-

ing like they belong here. Which, as a matter of fact, they don't,

and I would be the first to say so, if I were so bold. Now, do you

feel like yourself, or should I run to the herbalist's shop for a

potion?"

William shook his head vigorously to expel the list-lessness in

his mind. "I'm fine."

"What happened?" The dwarf looked suspicious.

"Business was slow. I fell asleep."

"You must have been daydreaming," the dwarf said. "You

were sleeping when I came in for my afternoon pint. You were

heaving and snorting like a man possessed by demons."

"I have seen demons and all sorts of things." William opened

his hand. A large oval coin was lying in his palm. The polished

metal disc glistened in the light. "Remember that coin the Red

Wizard used for his tricks?"

"Raistlin?" Sintk looked surprised. "I trust that faker and his

gang of misfits aren't back in town. And I hope you're not going to

start up with that magic coin business again. . . ."

"But there IS something magical about it," William insisted. "I

traveled from here and had a ... a ... strange encounter with a

beautiful maiden and a fearsome beast. I journeyed through a

mysterious fog and almost fell into a black pit containing demons,

snakes, ghouls, and all sorts of bad things."

"Things get confused when you are daydreaming," said Sintk.

"But being you're yourself again and not grunting like a boar, I'll

have a nice tankard of your finest brew."

"It wasn't a dream," William said sulkily. "It felt more like it

was reality and this . . . this ... is only the shadow of what my life

could be."

William drew two tankards of ale and set them across from his

friend, Sintk. Then he launched into a detailed account of his

daydream-er, vision-while Sintk, parched with thirst, diligently

quaffed both tankards. But it was William's story, which was

vaguely familiar, that had Sintk yawning presently, not the ale,

which was delicious.

"Oh," Sintk rubbed his lips with the back of his hand at a pause

in the recounting, "what's that about a black pit?"

"The abyss at the end of the universe," replied William.

"Oh, THAT black pit," said the dwarf. "I should have known."

He gazed fondly at the row of tankards behind the bar and licked

his lips. "You're barmy."

Sighing, William got up from his stool and drew two more

tankards of ale.

"I wasn't daydreaming," he declared, setting the drinks on the

bar. "Look, touch the coin. It became hot in my hand. Like it was

pulsating with life." He held out the large round coin-which truth

to tell, looked quite ordinary, resting there in his palm.

"Body heat," said Sintk, wearily. "The coin is nothing. A piece

of cast metal."

"Magic!" insisted William.

"Is not," said Sintk.

"Is!" said William, most uncharacteristically raising his voice.

"Why don't you let me be the judge?" said a surly voice behind

them.

William and Sintk whirled to see the fiendish countenance of a

barrel-chested draconian in smelly armor. It was Drago, captain of

the prison guards, who, despised and friendless even among his

fellow dracon-ians, took an occasional meal and tankard alone in

the Pig and Whistle. The fact that his presence was so repugnant to

William Sweetwater and his friends made it all the more

pleasurable to Drago.

William remembered too late to close his fist around the magic

coin, for it was suddenly gone. Drago held it aloft in his scaly paw,

leering. "A magic coin, is it?" he barked to nobody in particular,

for there were only a couple of other customers and they were

studiously avoiding his gaze. "It looks like a beggar's token to

me," he said. Drago bit down on the coin with his yellow,

mucousy teeth.

Pale with shame, William was staring at his shoes.

"That's right," said Sintk weakly. "It's just a common,

worthless ..." His voice trailed off. His eyes, too, were lowered.

Drago was rubbing the coin against one of his grease-stained

sleeves. "I wish ... I wish ..." he uttered grandly, "I wish I had a

one-year vacation from stinking Port Balifor, and two wives to

shine my boots, and . . . and ... a mountain of gold coins to last a

lifetime of ale and mutton."

Everybody in the Pig and Whistle looked up just a little bit,

hoping maybe the coin truly was magic. Drago might have his

wishes granted, and disappear.

"Bah!" snorted Drago. He reached across the bar and grabbed

William by the collar, squeezing until the innkeeper turned pink.

"It was given to him by Raistlin the mage!" blurted Sintk.

Drago squeezed harder.

"He was a faker," gulped William, gasping for breath. "But I

am worse. A FOOL. I took the coin as payment in kind, because I

believed him when he told me it was magic, but it is ... nought.

You may . . ." He stared directly into Drago's blazing eyes. "You

may have it, my friend."

"Bah!" said Drago, and let William go. With a flick of his

hand, he sent the coin spinning across the bar. Around and around

it spun, sending off glints of light. William grabbed for it and

clasped it dearly, feeling its warmth. But Drago had already turned

away and settled his bulk at a table.

"Bring me ale and the usual rotten stew!" shouted Drago,

without a backward glance. "And be quick about it. Pig-face!"

William bustled about fulfilling Drago's edict, while Sintk

unhappily drained two more tankards.

 

*

 

Later, as the sun was setting, William locked up the Pig

and Whistle. It was not unusual for the innkeeper to close

early these days. Few honest wayfarers visited Port Balifor.

The ominous presence of the Highlords' troops made

everyone uneasy.

Besides, William liked to spend the sunset hour walking

with Sintk along the harbor. The stroll was the highlight of

his day. This particular evening was warm. The sky was

cloudless and a light breeze blew in from the bay. The

dimming light had that peculiar quality found only in

twilight time along the seacoast.

As William and Sintk walked along a street that led to

the harbor, they were surprised to see a large sailing vessel

tied up at the pier. They stood in the center of the street,

looking down toward the wharf, as dracon-ian troops

crowded the deck of the unfamiliar ship.

"A supply ship?" asked Sintk.

William shook his head. "Their regular ship was here last

week. This must be the patrol boat I heard about. The

Highlords are upset because so many citizens are deserting

the town and fleeing to the hills."

Draconian crewmen were moving swiftly across the deck

of the ship. Then, a door opened and several humans were

shoved out of a cabin. The prisoners were linked together

with leg chains. Their hands were manacled. They huddled

together as the troops pushed them toward the gangplank,

which was lowered to the wharf. Several heavily armed

draconian guards under the command of a hobgoblin officer

waited on the wharf.

Sintk whispered, "Look, the old man in the back. That's

Thomas the tailor. Why would Old Tom be in chains? He's

a good tailor who wouldn't harm a bug."

Clawed feet on cobblestones sounded behind the two

friends. William looked back and saw a group of draconians

marching down the street. William and Sintk kept their eyes to the

ground. They walked to the front of the Missionary's Downfall, a

waterfront bar with a garish facade, where they sat down on a

weathered bench in front of the establishment. The tavern was the

most notorious dive in eastern Ansa-lon, not a respectable place

like the Pig and Whistle.

They watched as the prisoners shuffled down the gangplank.

Faces bruised, shoulders slumped, the manacled men and women

moved with a listless step. They were ordered about by a muscular

draconian, who carried a short, metal-tipped whip.

Their thoughts were interrupted by a loud creaking noise

behind them. A moment later, Harum El-HaIup stepped out of the

Missionary's Downfall. The mino-taur was owner of the tavern, a

rugged individual with a bestial face, a massive chest, thick arms

and legs.

A fugitive from a sentence of death in his minotaur homeland,

Harum El-Halop had found sanctuary in Port Balifor. He had

quick wits, fighting ability, and the nerve of someone with nothing

to lose. He had quickly gained a reputation as the toughest fighter

on the brawling waterfront.

A high-stakes gambler, the minotaur had won the Missionary's

Downfall in a card game with the previous owner. Nowadays the

tavern was patronized by thieves, cut-throats, and troops from the

dragonarmy. It was also the favorite drinking spot for off-duty

hobgoblins, who stole supplies from the quartermaster and

exchanged the contraband for drinks.

"Why is Thomas being held prisoner?" William asked the

minotaur, who stood there, observing the scene with them.

"I told them the plan wouldn't work," sneered Harum. His bestial

face looked horrible in the shadowed light. "Thomas and the others

wanted to escape by sea. They paid a hobgoblin to steal a boat for

them to use at dawn. But hobgoblins are informers, and this one

was a low-life who plays everyone off the dragon-army. As soon

as the boat was launched, the hobgoblin made his report to the

draconians."

William protested. "But Thomas is an honest man. He is no

thief."

"He was on the boat," said the minotaur. "Likely he'll end up in

the dungeons with the others. The drag-onarmy can't allow people

to come and go as they please, without permission. Bad for their

reputation. Old Tom knew that." The minotaur made a clucking

sound with his tongue. "Thomas will be lucky to last a month in

that slime pit under the castle."

William shuddered. He had heard tales of the torture of

prisoners in the dungeon. Knowing Drago's cruelty as he did, he

didn't find the tales hard to believe. Poor Tom. He had always

been a good friend to everyone in Port Balifor.

Sintk asked in a forlorn tone, "What can we do?"

"Meat for the dungeon," replied Harum. "Stay out of it."

William looked down, ashamed. If only he had the courage ... if

only he had some idea of how to fight back ... if only . . .

"Now, William," said Harum, "what the people of Balifor need

is a leader. Someone to lead a rebellion against these creatures.

You're liked and respected. People will do what you ask of them."

Harum's ugly face took on a quizzical look, and William had

the idea he was burrowing into his private thoughts. Or was he

teasing him?

"Why don't you do it?" William asked the minotaur, thinking, if

he were as big and strong as Harum, certainly he'd have little

hesitation.

"Oh, I am not a native of Port Balifor," Harum replied

nonchalantly, "and I am not sure I care so very much. And people

know I serve thieves and scoundrels at the Missionary's Downfall,

so they would suspect my motivation. Also, I am a fugitive from

my own kind, and people don't follow leaders with such flaws. But

they would stand behind someone like you, someone responsible

and upstanding. You would have their trust."

"I couldn't do it." William felt weak. He didn't want to look at

the minotaur. Instead, he turned his gaze back to the harbor.

The prisoners were being marched off the wharf by the troops

and the hobgoblin officer. The last prisoner in the coffle was the

tailor, a gray-haired, elderly man with a wrinkled face. His eyes

were dull with fatigue. Thin and tall, about six feet in height, the

tailor had stooped shoulders from years of leaning over his nee-

dles.

The guards may have been careless, for the leg irons around

Old Tom's ankles were loose.

Suddenly, without attracting attention, the tailor stepped out of

the leg irons and bolted from the shuffling line of prisoners. His

escape would have been successful, if he had not stumbled over a

rope and fallen to his knees.

"Seize him!" cried the hobgoblin officer.

Now, Tom the tailor was up and running across the weathered

boards of the wharf, heading for the street ahead. There was a

moment's confusion among the guards before they began running

after the old man, so Tom had a head-start.

Even so, one soldier began to overtake the tailor. As William,

Sintk, and Harum El-Halop watched helplessly, the grim-faced

draconian thrust its hand out to grab the tailor's flapping tunic. The

tailor stopped abruptly, spun around, and swung his fist at the dra-

conian.

The force of the blow knocked both the tailor and the draconian

off their feet. The tailor fell back on the cobblestones. The

draconian weaved to a halt on rubbery legs, its hands clawing at its

injured throat.

Within moments, the desperate tailor got to his feet and fled up

the street, past the Missionary's Downfall, where William and his

friends were still standing, mouths agape. A second later, he

vanished into an alley. Two soldiers pursued the fleeing prisoner.

Harum the minotaur grinned in derision as the hobgoblin

officer in command bustled past, his fat belly bouncing like jelly

above his wide leather belt. The hobgoblin noticed his audience

and stopped, his face twisting with anger. Ignoring the powerful

minotaur, he focused on poor William and drew his sword,

pressing the tip of the blade against the front of William's throat.

"Maybe you'd like to come along with us instead," the

hobgoblin snarled.

William trembled. He shoved his shaking hands into his

pockets to hide his fear from his friends. His stubby fingers closed

over the coin as he prayed fervently for deliverance.

If only . . .

"I'm waiting for your answer," sneered the hobgoblin.

William made a grunting noise like the excited squeal of a

frightened piglet. The hobgoblin cocked his head for an instant,

looked at Sintk and Harum, then lowered his sword. He chuckled

as William's body shivered with fright.

A sudden shout came from the alley. Then, two draconian soldiers

came out of the lane with the tailor held fast between them. He

jerked and twisted to break free of their grasp. The hobgoblin

officer sheathed his sword and walked away to join his troops.

"Close," whispered Sintk.

"Poor Tom," said William.

Harum El-HaIup stood quietly with his arms folded over his

chest. He watched imperiously as the troops prodded the coffle of

prisoners toward the castle. Then the minotaur shrugged and

slapped William on the shoulder.

"Every dog has its day," Harum said. "Old Tom should have

known better. I told him to mind his own business, keep sewing,

and not get ambitious with his thinking. But, my friends, let us

slake our thirst and forget about having those reptiles in town. And

some-day we will throw them over, and you, William, will be our

leader." He laughed.

Accompanied by Harum, William and Sintk walked gloomily

into the murkiness of the Missionary's Downfall. The bar was

crowded with dwarves, humans, hobgoblins, and a group of hard-

looking draconians drinking in the back. Several half-elves were

noisily testing their mental prowess with a game of riddles. A

drunken hobgoblin lay passed out beside his chair. Two bartenders

hurried to keep up with requests for drinks. Harum leaned against

the end of the bar. He motioned to a bartender, who hastened over

with three tankards of ale.

William and Sintk were never completely at ease in the minotaur's

establishment. The tavern's reputation for brawls and free-for-all

fights was widely known. Bystanders and onlookers were often

drawn into me-lees that ended in what were known as "Harum's

wall-bouncing parties." Harum enforced a rule that weapons had to

be checked at the door, but it was not completely effective when

applied against magic-users and the lowest criminal element.

In addition to fights, the Missionary's Downfall was also widely

known for a painting on the ceiling. Some time before, an itinerant

artist wandered into Port Ba-lifor with a talent for painting and a

yen for ale. The artist hired out to the minotaur for room, board,

and all the ale he could drink. The artist erected scaffolds and

worked for two years to create an oil mural on the ceiling.

The painting depicted a satyr gamboling with maidens in a

pastoral setting. Neither the satyr nor the maidens were

particularly shy, a fact that delighted customers of the bar. Some

folks claimed the mino-taur's regulars could be recognized by the

crook in their necks.

Now, after a long drink of ale, William drew the coin from his

pocket. It lay coldly in his palm, a lifeless piece of metal.

"What's that?" asked Harum. His thick fingers plucked the coin

from William's hand.

"It was a gift from someone special," said William.

Sintk the Dwarf chimed in. "William thinks the coin has

magical powers."

The minotaur cocked his head and held the coin up to the light

of an oil lamp on the wall. "What does it do?"

"It helps my mind go off to other places." William was pleased

that the minotaur had not ridiculed his beliefs about the coin.

Harum asked, "You mean soul-travel?"

William looked startled. "What's that?"

Harum grinned. "Back home, I was given a sentence of supreme

shunning. Solitary confinement without contact with anyone. You

can't imagine the terrible loneliness. You get crazed from the need

for companionship. My mind was becoming quirky and dull, un til

I taught myself to take mental trips. Flights of the imagination. It

helped me keep my sanity."

Sintk asked dubiously, "This was all in your mind?"

"Who knows for sure?" The minotaur shrugged his thick

shoulders. "But if you can escape this life now and then with such

a magic coin, then you are a lucky man, William."

William beamed. "I told you it was magic," he said to Sintk.

Just then, a shout came from the far end of the bar. One man

slammed down his tankard, then drove a fist into the stomach of a

loud, argumentative drinking companion. The unexpected blow

knocked the loudmouth backward; he crashed into the table where

the half-elves were sitting. Their table was upended against the

wall.

With wine coursing through their veins, the half-elves leaped

up to defend themselves. One fell over the slumbering hobgoblin;

another was knocked down by a long-bearded dwarf. The

hobgoblin on the floor roused himself, opened his eyes, and rose to

a sitting position. A booted foot slammed into his head; he

promptly lapsed back into an unconscious state.

Customers rushed from every side of the Missionary's

Downfall for a better view of the ruckus. Another half-elf

stumbled into a human, who slugged the offender on the chin.

Within moments, most of the tavern's patrons were throwing

punches, kicking, biting, howling, and exchanging blows in a loud

and violent manner.

"Pardon me," growled the minotaur. He handed the coin to

William, walked over, and grabbed a half-elf by the neck and

trousers. He heaved the elf against a wall of the tavern. Then,

Harum grasped the end of a beard and propelled a screaming

dwarf into the wall.

William's terror was mixed with awe of Harum.

"Let's get out of here," he said in a quavering voice. "You go"

The dwarf was rubbing his hands in glee. "I've never been to a

wall-banging before." Sintk dashed into the fight. William

pocketed the coin and dashed for the door.

 

William was sitting behind the bar of the Pig and Whistle. He

had been alone most of the evening, turning the coin over and over

in his hand. He was thinking about Old Tom the tailor, and how

peaceful and carefree life had been before the draconians had over-

run Port Balifor. The coin shone in the lamplight as William

pondered it. It IS an unusual and beautiful coin after all, thought

William.

"William . . . come quickly!"

The voice was a whispered hiss followed by a light, discreet

knocking on the back door of the inn.

He got off his bartender's stool, picked up an oil lamp, and

walked to the back of the inn. He unfastened the latch on the door,

opened it, and noticed shadowy forms in the gloomy darkness.

William stepped back as Sintk and Harum El-Halop entered the

room. They stank of too much ale.

"We're going to rescue Tom," said Sintk with unaccustomed

fervor. "You'll go with us, won't you?"

"You are drunk," said William.

"We have been drinking," said the minotaur, "but we are not

drunk. There is a difference, which you, as a tavern owner, ought

to know."

William considered this. "What is your plan?"

"Not much of one," admitted the minotaur.

But he looked at the faces of Sintk and Harum, and decided

they were serious. He held the coin very tightly in his hand.

Well, why not?

"I've got a mask and sword for you." The minotaur opened a small

cloth bag and pulled out a long piece of black cloth.

William took the short, curved sword and scabbard offered by

the minotaur, tied the belt around his waist and the mask around

his head. He was feeling . . . positively . . . different. He gazed

proudly at his reflection in the curved glass behind the bar and

thought to himself, William Sweetwater, you do not need any

magic coins to be a hero tonight.

The town was dark and quiet as the three companions slipped

out the back door of the Pig and Whistle. Noiselessly, they moved

through the back lanes of Port Balifor. They halted on the outskirts

of town. Moonlight outlined the dark stone castle a short distance

away on the flat plain. There was a grotesque, evil eeriness about

the ancient structure. The castle had been abandoned for as long as

anyone in Port Balifor could remember.

The companions crept closer to the castle without seeing a

single sentry. The draconians were too arrogant; they could not

anticipate that anyone would dare storm their fortress. The only

light came through a partly open gate leading to the inside of the

perimeter. The courtyard was dimly lit by a torch that burned low

and cast a glow on a guard sprawled sleeping inside the gate.

"We're lucky," Harum whispered. "They're careless. Stay here.

I'll take care of the guard."

The minotaur moved carefully onto a small wooden bridge that

spanned the moat. He tested each plank to be certain the old wood

did not squeak. Then, Harum entered the courtyard and crept

silently into the shadows. Next, the minotaur pulled a strangling

rope from his trousers. The short rope had a wooden peg on each

end. The strangling rope stretched tautly between thick hands, the

minotaur moved close and tapped the guard s arm with his toe.

The guard awakened instantly, fumbling for the sword in its

scabbard. The minotaur dropped the rope around the draconian's

neck, then wrapped the pegs into a strangler's knot.

The guard clawed at its throat, making tiny strangled gasps. Its

mouth went wide open to suck air into its lungs. Its head twisted to

and fro, then Harum's heavy boot smashed into the sentry's

midsection.

The guard went down on its face. The minotaur looked on

without emotion as the draconian died. Then, he motioned for

William and Sintk to join him.

William held tightly to the coin as they crossed the bridge.

They moved rapidly past the guard, through the courtyard, and

then up three massive flights of stone steps at the castle entrance.

William pulled on the iron handle of a massive black door, which

opened with a loud squeaking sound. His heart was racing, his

head pounding with excitement. Emboldened, he drew his sword

as he went through the portals, ready for whatever was inside.

They entered an empty room at least fifty paces square, a cold

and uninviting area barren of furniture or other decorations. The

walls and floor were stone. The room was ill-lit by torches resting

in metal holders fastened to the smoke-smeared marble walls. A

maze of corridors branched off from this entryroom. The

companions moved swiftly and quietly, searching for a stairway

leading down into the dungeon.

William discovered a set of stone steps winding down into the

bowels of the castle. He made a tiny oinking sound to alert his

friends. Sintk and Harum hurried to his side. William grabbed a

torch and led the way down the narrow passageway.

The stairs led to a central guardroom that was brightly lit by

several flickering torches. Two draconians sat at a battered old

table playing a game of blackjack. The two jailers did not

look up until William's shadow fell over the cards.

"Who in the Abyss are you?" growled the nearest jailer.

It dropped its cards and grabbed the hilt of its sword. The

other jailer started to rise out of its chair.

William threw his torch on the floor. He grasped his

sword with both hands and rammed the blade deep into the

draconian's chest. The ease with which the steel pierced

flesh and bone amazed William.

William withdrew the sword, expecting the jailer to fall.

The burly draconian's clawed hands grabbed the table for

support and, with a low guttural cry, kicked out at William.

The innkeeper moved swiftly out of danger, then slashed

his blade against his opponent's throat. He tried to pull back

his weapon, but the blade seemed stuck into gristle or bone.

"Quick!" snapped Sintk. "Pull it out! He'll turn to

stone."

William mustered all his strength with both hands on

the hilt and pulled the sword free. Green blood spurted out

onto the draconian's tunic. A sidelong glance showed

William that the minotaur and Sintk had the other jailer on

the floor. The dwarf's blade was buried deep into the

draconian's belly.

The draconians made feeble dying motions. William

stepped over his victim and grabbed a large ring of keys off

a wooden peg on the wall.

"The prisoners are over here!" hissed the dwarf. "Come

quick! Bring the keys."

At the end of one of the corridors they found a large cell

carved out of solid stone with heavy metal bars and a large

locked door.

Dozens of prisoners were crowded up against the front of

the cell. Gaunt and skeletal, ragged and hungry, they were

the living dead, marked for torture or execution. Their

crimes had been petty: pickpocket-ing, insulting a

draconian, trying to escape Port Bali-for. Now they

stretched out raw, bony fingers, pleading for help.

"Hurry, lads, hurry!" said Tom the tailor, pushing to the

front.

"Bless you," husked another prisoner.

"Shut up!" growled the minotaur. "You'll have the whole

army down on us."

Everyone was silent as William fumbled with the ring,

fitting one, then another of the large metal keys into the

lock. Just as he began to think none of the keys would fit,

the heavy door swung free. William stepped back as the

first prisoner stepped out on wobbly legs into the smoky

passageway.

Altogether, there were maybe fifty of them, lucky to be

still alive. They bunched together, pathetically, waiting for a

command from William.

Old Tom the tailor squinted through the dimness at his

masked rescuers. He pointed his finger at William and

raised his voice so the others could hear. "That's William of

the Pig and Whistle. He had the courage to help us. And

Sintk the cobbler. And no one can mistake Halum the

minotaur over there."

"Keep moving," snapped Halum, "and save your jabber."

The stone floor of the main guardroom was slippery with

green blood from the dead draconians. William almost

slipped in the sticky blood, then righted himself and took

the lead. Pressing his fingers against his lips for silence,

William started up the staircase.

Then he lurched to a halt. Directly above him, coming

down, was Drago and three hobgoblin lieutenants. They

were armed with swords and battle-axes, which they waved

ominously in anticipation of blood-letting. Drago was

eagerly walking ahead of his three wary pals. He glared directly

at William, but in his eyes was no recognition.

"Come on! Come on!" sneered Drago, his mouth twisted

viciously. "We don't often have visitors here. We would like to

make your stay a memorable-and long-one."

Hastily, William and the prisoner horde retreated backward

into the central guardroom, where they huddled at the bottom of

the stairwell. They were trapped. Sintk raised his weapon.

From above, William could hear the troops of the dragonarmy

being roused into action. A horn blew in the distance. The thud of

heavy boots sounded on stone steps and corridors. Doors slammed,

shouts blared and echoed as troops came hurrying into the entry

room above. Harum motioned the others to stay back and crept up

to stand by the door to the guardroom, his back pressed against the

wall.

The first to poke his head in through the doorway was the

fierce, eager Drago. The captain of the prison guards held his

battle-axe at shoulder height, ready to strike out at anyone who

came into view.

As Drago reached the lower stairway, the mino-taur's arm shot

out with a quick movement, and his strong fingers fastened on

Drago's neck. Harum's powerful arms propelled the draconian

brute across the room. Led by Sintk, the prisoners leaped on the

draconian, pummeling him with their bare hands. Sintk finished

the brute with a swift dagger stroke.

Hearing nothing from their leader, the three hobgoblins

hesitated on the stairs, then came to an abrupt halt. The soldiers

behind them were bottled up in the stairwell, but they too were not

anxious to enter the guardroom and face the aroused minotaur. But

it would only be a matter of time . . .

Meanwhile, William had noticed that the torches on the wall of

the guardroom were flickering-and always in the same direction

and it wasn't coming from the door! Crawling along the wall, he

discovered a draft whistling around a huge block of stone. Pushing

against it, he found it opened into a dark passage.

"This way!" he yelled.

Everyone scrambled after him. The passageway was dark and

spooky. Maintaining a fast pace, William led them for several

hundred yards, until he saw a silver fingernail of moonlight. He

gestured for them to pull up.

William crept up to a barred outlet that looked out onto a

moonlit landscape. The tunnel exit was near the sea and the wind

was directed into the tunnel by a curving stone sea wall. Across

the flat plain could be seen the winking lights of Port Balifor, no

more than half a mile in the distance.

Unfortunately, their escape was barred by a heavy metal grating

that covered the end of the tunnel.

"We're trapped," said Sintk.

Tom the tailor began to moan.

"They're following," warned a kender among the prisoners. The

firm voice of the commander could be heard ordering his troops

into the tunnels.

"Let me see those bars," said Harum, pushing forward.

The minotaur came up alongside William, and his massive

hands began to test the metal barrier. Finally he said, "Stand back."

Harum placed his shoulder against one side of the bars. The

moonlight gave a thin, gray cast to the top of the minotaur's face.

Then, he sucked in a deep breath through his mask.

Harum's shoulder put mighty pressure on the bars. He grunted

and strained to tear the metal away from the stone sockets. Once,

twice, Harum threw every ounce of his strength against the barrier.

"They're coming this way!" cried Sintk.

Everyone looked back and saw the flare of torches moving into

the tunnel.

"To the rear!" exclaimed William bravely to Sintk. He took the

dwarf's arm, and they pressed through the prisoners, swords ready

for defense.

Now, the minotaur tried the other side of the bars. They were

also unyielding. He made several mighty lunges and, once, the

metal bent-but still remained fast in the stone.

Exasperated, the minotaur told everyone to get back. "Give me

some running room," he spat.

Harum ran back through the tunnel, stopping within sight of the

forward line of searching troops. The soldiers sent up a mighty

roar of yells and curses. Unmindful of them, Harum El-Halop

dropped down into a sprinter's position. Giving of roar of his own,

he ran forward, gaining speed with each step. Then, just before he

reached the iron barrier, Harum twisted his body and leaped into

the air. He flew backward and struck the bars with a sickening

thud.

The bars gave a metallic screech and jerked loose from their

sockets in the walls. Everyone cheered as the barrier fell out onto

the ground. Harum went rolling across the ground, kicking up dust

in the pale moonlight. He came up on his feet with a snort.

"Get the bars back in place," William yelled as the fleeing

prisoners streamed out of the tunnel.

Sintk led the others in raising the bars, while William and the

minotaur raced to grab the end of a large piece of old timber.

Everyone helped to wedge the timber so it would hold the bars

tight.

Seconds later, the dragonarmy troops came rushing up to the

barred exit. They howled and roared, pounding against the bars, as

the companions sped off into the night.

Outside, William looked up and saw a detachment of mounted

draconians ride out of the castle gate. The leader sent his men in a

circular direction around the castle. Good, thought William. That

will buy some time. His thinking was calm and collected, he was

feeling no fear. His eyes swept ahead.

Then, the wedging timber must have given way, because troops

came pouring out of the tunnel. Seeing the flare of their torches,

William and his group raced on until they came to the water's

edge. There, down by the shore, were a dozen oak-ribbed fishing

boats with Balifor oarsmen at the alert.

"Your plan?" asked a surprised William.

"Not much of one," replied the minotaur.

One by one, the boats were loaded and pushed off, until there

was a small flotilla of prisoners bobbing on the blue-black waves.

The last boat was a smaller one and into it climbed William, Sintk,

and Harum El-Halop, who had been defending the rear. But they

were in no danger; they were out of earshot by the time the first

draconians stumbled to the shore.

A mile out to sea, the small vessels hesitated outside Port

Balifor.

"You have a head-start on the patrol boats!" shouted William to

Tom the tailor over the crashing waves. "You can make a run for it

and, with luck, live elsewhere long and happily and free of

chains!"

"What about you?" yelled Tom, cupping his hands.

William did not have to ask Sintk, who was already snoring

under a cowhide, or Harum, who was doing the rowing of four

men. Drago was dead. They could slip into the harbor and never be

suspected.

"Port Balifor is our home!" he shouted into the wind. But he

doubted if they heard him, as the string of boats had already

moved onward, to the west.

Harum and William let Sintk sleep until they had glided safely

into the harbor. The minotaur tied up the boat, and they scrambled

to their feet at the end of a small commercial pier. There was

frantic activity, fireballs, and shouting from draconian ships at the

other end of the harbor, but their dock was practically deserted,

and no one was around to pay them any mind.

They slapped each other on the shoulders and Harum hurried

away into the fog. Sintk and William kept to the back lanes until

the Pig and Whistle hove into view. Sintk continued on to his

cobbler's shop.

Inside his inn, William ripped off his mask and tossed the cloth

onto a refuse barrel. He hung the sword and scabbard on a wood

peg on the wall. Breathing heavily from the night's activities,

William went behind the bar and poured himself a tall drink of

dwarf spirits.

 

William came to with a snorting noise. He was sitting on the

bartender's stool at his inn. His head ached, and pain was

beginning to move deep into his muscles. For an instant, William

thought he had caught a case of ague. His thick, short fingers

opened and the coin dropped on the bar. The metal was warm to

his touch.

What a wonderful dream, he thought. He had been so brave.

Sighing heavily, William decided to retire for the night. He

pocketed the coin and picked up an oil lamp with a low flame. He

yawned as he came around the bar.

Suddenly, a heavy pounding sounded on the front door of the

Pig and Whistle. "Open up in the name of the Highlord!" cried a

guttural voice.

Shrugging, William headed for the door. Then he stopped,

staring in horror.

On a refuse barrel lay a torn black mask ..

 

Love and ale

Nick O'Donohoe

 

"An inn," Otik puffed, "is blessed or cursed by its

ale." He set the barrow-handles down, noting with approval

that the cloth-covered wheel had not marred the lovingly polished

Inn floor. "The ale is blessed or cursed by its water and hops."

Tika, staggering in from the kitchen, poured one of her two

buckets into the immense brewing tun as Otik pried the top free. "I

know, I know. That's why I have to haul fresh spring water up, a

bucket at a time, instead of using rainwater from the cistern-

which I wouldn't need to pull up." She showed him the rope-marks

in her palms. At fifteen, she lacked the patience for brewing.

"Better a bucket than a barrel." Otik slapped the tun. "The

innkeeper before me thought cleaning a brewing tun each time was

too much work. He just mixed the hops, malt, and sugar into an

alewort inside each keg, prying the lids up and recoopering

without ever cleaning." He washed the spring water around the

sides, checking for the tiniest dirt or stain.

"Well, if we couldn't do that, couldn't we at least not haul the

water up?"

"I've tried other ways myself. My very first batch with this tun

I made down below, at the foot of the tree."

"Couldn't we do that?" Tika said wistfully. "We could just roll

the empty kegs out the garbage-drop with ropes tied to them so

they wouldn't smash on the ground. We wouldn't have to haul any

water at all, just pipe it to the foot of the tree." She automatically

patted the living vallenwood on which the bar was built. The

people of Solace were more aware of growing wood than any folk

alive. "Then when the ale was all aged and ready, we could fill the

kegs-" Her eyes went wide, and she put a hand to her mouth.

"That's right." Otik was pleased that she understood. "I made a

batch at ground level, then had nothing to carry it up in but fifty-

weight kegs, up forty feet of stairs. Or I could run down a hundred

times with empty pitchers, filling the upstairs barrels." He rubbed

his back automatically. "I tied safety ropes on the kegs and rolled

them up, one at a time. Took the yeast an extra month to settle, and

I was in bed for three days with sore muscles."

"Poor Otik." But Tika laughed. "I wish I'd seen it. Nothing

exciting happens when we make ale."

"Shame on you, child." He was teasing. "The autumn batch is

always exciting. Today, a shipment of hops from the Plains of

Abanasinia will arrive. I'm the only innkeeper around who sends

far away for rich hops."

"You're the only innkeeper around, in Solace." But she added,

"And you'd be the best anyway, if there were a thousand."

"Now, now." Otik was pleased. He patted his belly. "It's a

labor of love, and the Inn has loved me back. Now fetch more

water."

As if in answer, there came a call from the kitchen. Otik said,

"See? The cook has hauled up more for you. That should make

you happier."

"I'm ecstatic. Thank Riga for me." And she went.

Otik, carefully not thinking of the long day ahead, went through

the necessary preparations as though they were ritual. First he

cleaned a ladle thoroughly and dried it over the fire. While it

cooled, he set a tallow candle into another ladle, centered in the

bowl so as not to drip, and lowered it into the brewing tun,

checking the sides for cracks and split seams. Ale leaking out was

not so damaging as air leaking in. He did the same with each of the

kegs into which he would pour the fully made wort.

Finally he put down his candle and lowered the cooled, dry

ladle into the spring water and sipped, then drank deeply. "Ah."

Forty feet below, near the base of the tree that held and shaped the

Inn of the Last Home, spring water bubbled through lime rock.

Some said the lime rock went down many times farther than a man

could dig, and the spring channeled through it all. Otik was not a

traveled man, but he knew in his heart that nowhere in the world

was there water as sweet and pure as this. Finding hops and malt

equal to it was difficult.

As Tika struggled back with the buckets, she panted, "Otik?

I've never asked why you named the inn-?"

"I didn't name it, child. The Inn of the Last Home was named

by-"

"Why the Last Home?"

"I've never told you?" He glanced around, taking in every scar in

the wood, every gouge half-polished out of the age-darkened

vallenwood. "When the people of Solace built their homes in the

trees, they had nowhere left to go. The Cataclysm left no choices;

starving marauders, crazed homeless folk, were destroying villages

and stealing everything they could. The folk of Solace knew that if

they did not defend themselves well, these trees would be their last

home."

"But they survived. Things returned to normal. They could

have moved back to the ground."

Otik lifted the barrow-handles. "Follow me."

At the pantry he stopped. "The man who built this inn was

Krale the Strong. They say he could tuck a barrel of ale under his

arm and climb up the tree itself, one-handed. For all he knew, his

inn would be in ruins in a year." Otik tapped the store-room floor.

"You've been here a thousand times. Have you ever thought about

this floor?"

Tika shrugged. "It's just stone." Then it hit her. "A stone floor?

But I thought the fireplace-"

"Was the only stonework. So it is. This is a single stone, set in

to keep the ale cool, forty feet above the ground. Krale made a

rope harness and hauled it up himself. Then he chopped this

chamber out of the living wood, and laid the floor. This was his

people's last home, and he built it to last forever."

Otik stamped the floor. The edges were rounded, where the

living wooden walls had flowed over the stone, a nail's-breadth a

year. "And when the danger was over and the folk of Solace could

go back to the ground, they didn't. These were their last homes. In

all the world, no place else can be home for them." He finished, a

little embarrassed at the speech. "Or for me. Bring out more water,

young lady."

As they worked, Tika hummed. She had a sweet, soft voice,

and Otik was glad when she finally broke into full song. The

ballad was a hill tune, melodic and plaintive; Tika, with great

enjoyment, sang it as sadly as she could.

By the second verse she had dropped her scrub-rag and shut her

eyes, oblivious to Otik. He listened qui etly, knowing that if she

remembered his presence, she would blush and fall silent. Lately,

Tika had become awkward and shy around men-a bad trait for a

barmaid, but at her age, quite natural. He kept patient, knowing

how soon that shyness would end. Tika sang:

 

THE TREE BY MY DOOR

I'VE WATCHED TURN BEFORE

AND I'VE WATCHED AS IT'S BRANCHED OUT AND GROWN;

WHEN IT TURNS NEXT YEAR,

WILL I STILL BE HERE,

AND WILL I BE HERE ALONE?

 

WHEN MY LOVE WAS THERE,

BIRDS SANG IN THE AIR,

AND THEY SOARED LIKE THE DREAMS THAT WE HAD;

NOW HE'S OFF TO WAR,

THEY SING LIKE BEFORE,

BUT ALL OF THEIR SONGS ARE SAD.

 

MY GOOD FRIENDS, I KNOW,

WILL MARRY AND GO,

AND FAREWELL WITH A KISS AND A TEAR,

WITH LOVERS TO TELL,

AND CHILDREN AS WELL,

WHILE I WAIT ANOTHER YEAR.

 

THEIR FUTURES ARE BRIGHT,

THEY SING DAY AND NIGHT,

AND I'M HAPPY TO THINK THEM SO GLAD . . .

THE BIRDS THAT I SEE

STILL SING BACK TO ME,

BUT ALL OF THEIR SONGS ARE SAD.

 

Otik enjoyed the tune without recognizing it. He watched Tika,

her eyes shut and her arms waving in the air as she sang, and he

thought with a sudden ache, "She's old enough for her own place."

Tika had lived with him for a long time; she was as close to a

daughter as he would ever have. Before that, for many years, he

had lived alone happily. Now he could not imagine how he had

stood it.

Finally she finished, and he said, "Nicely sung. What was

that?"

"That?" She blushed. "Oh, the song. It's called The Song of

Elen Waiting.' I heard it last night."

"I remember." The singer had been all of twenty-three, most of

his listeners fifteen. He had curly dark hair and deep blue eyes, and

by his second song half the girls of Solace were around him.

"Some young man sang it, didn't he?"

"You're teasing me." Tika scowled, even when Otik smiled and

shook his head. "You don't take me seriously."

"Oh, but I do, I do. This young man that sang-"

"Rian." She said it softly, and the scowl went. "He wasn't so

young. Do you know, he had seven gray hairs?"

"Really? Seven, exactly?"

She didn't notice the tease, but nodded vigorously, her own

hair bouncing off her shoulders. "Exactly. He let three of us count

them after he was done singing, and we all came up with the same

number."

"Nice of him to let you."

"Oh, I think he liked it," Tika said innocently. Then she

frowned. "Especially when Loriel did it."

"Which one was Loriel?" There'd been a lot of them. After Rian

had sung, the young women had walked around the Inn with their

heads high, thinking noble thoughts, to Otik's vast amusement.

One young man, a red-haired, spindly local with wide eyes, sat in

the corner afterward determinedly mouthing lyrics to himself. His

friends had seemed afraid he might sing.

Tika scrubbed fiercely at one of the barrels, tipping it. Otik

steadied it for her as she said casually, "Loriel? Oh, you know.

Turned-up nose, too many freckles, shows her teeth when she

laughs-it's a shame they're not straight-and she's the one with

all that hair, you know, the yellow stuff?"

"Oh, is she the one with all that pretty blonde hair?" She was

around a lot lately. She laughed too often for Otik's taste, but the

boys her age seemed to like it. She also had a habit of spinning

away from people so that her hair flew straight out and settled

back. Otik had twice caught Tika practicing it.

"Do you think it's pretty, then?" Tika tried to look surprised.

"That's nice. Poor thing, she'd be pleased." Scrub, scrub.

She began to daub her eyes. "Oh, Otik! He liked HER and not

me."

"There now." Otik put an arm around her, thinking (not for the

first time) that if he'd only found a wife, there'd be someone more

sensitive to help the poor girl. He barely knew Tika's friends.

"There, now. It's not like he's your own true love, just an older lad

with a good voice. You don't want him."

Tika laughed and wiped her eyes on her arm. "That's true. But

Loriel's supposed to be my friend- what does he see in HERI"

"Ah." Now he understood. "Well, she's older than you."

"Only a little. A year isn't so much." She sniffed.

"Don't cry again." He added, to get a smile from her, "You'll

salt the ale." It almost worked. "You must be patient, like that

woman in the song. How did it go again?"

Tika looked wistful, forgetting her own sorrow. "It's about a man

who kisses his love good-bye and goes away forever, only she

doesn't know that, and waits for him until she's old and lonely and

she dies-"

"Birds sang where she died."

Tika sighed happily. "And all their songs were sad. Otik, am I

going to end like that? Do you think I'll end up living all alone,

with nobody to love or to live with, sleeping by myself and

making meals for one?"

Otik looked for a long time in the mirror at the long bar's end.

Finally he turned around. "Sometimes it happens. Surely not to

you, though. Now go, pretty young one, and get the last cask."

He scrubbed the tun hard, perhaps harder than it needed.

 

It was noon, but there were no spiced potatoes cooking, no

shouts for ale. Otik had hung a tankard upside down on the post at

the bottom steps, so that even the unlettered would know not to

climb up needlessly. Otik closed for every brewing, opening only

when the alewort was made.

The brewing tun was clean and filled with spring water, waiting

behind the bar for the malt syrup. The syrup was warmed and

waiting. The yeast, the final addition to the alewort, was in a bowl

on the bar.

But the hops had not yet arrived, and Otik was as impatient as

Tika. before he heard slow, heavy steps on the stairs.

"Tika," he called, "come out." She came from the kitchen,

wiping her hands on her apron as he said, "Hear that? Someone

carrying a burden. Our hops have come." He cocked an ear,

listening with the knowledge of long years. "Not as heavy as I

thought. Did Kerwin not bring a full load?"

The Inn door flew open and a burlap bag waddled in, seemingly

under its own power, and leaped to the floor before the tun. A

kender, still doubled from his load, peered through his arched

brows at them and grinned suddenly.

"Moonwick." Otik did not say the kender's name with pleasure.

Among men, the short, mischievous kender were famous for

practical joking and for disregarding other people's property, and

Moonwick Light-finger was famous among kender. It was said,

even by sober travelers, that once when Moonwick was at

Crystalmir Lake, the partying crew of a small fishing boat had

woken in full gear, on deck, to find their boat lodged thirty feet off

the ground between two trees. The topmost tree branches bore

pulley marks, but the pulleys had been removed. It took eight men

two days to get the boat down.

It was further rumored, in stories possibly started by the kender

himself, that Moonwick had on separate occasions stolen the tail

from a cat, the blonde hair from a human woman, and, on a night

of unexplained eclipse, the moonlight itself-which was how he

got his name. Otik subscribed to the more popular theory that the

kender's name was a flattering corruption of Moonwit.

Moonwick smiled up at Otik. "Here's your hops, and gods how

I prayed a thousand times that they'd hop themselves here. Where's

my reward?" He added, "Gold will do."

Otik did not smile back. "Kerwin was bringing the hops. What

happened to him?"

"You paid him in advance. He had money. He wanted to

gamble." The kender said earnestly, "I said we could do it for

anything: buttons, rocks, things in our pockets-but he wouldn't

listen. He said he felt lucky."

Otik stared at the kender. "So he gambled for money with you?

Lady of Plenty, look after your witiing orphans. What happened to

him?"

Moonwick looked sad. "He lost."

Otik said dryly, "I'm shocked." As Moonwick opened his

mouth in protest, Otik went on, "Never mind. Why are you

carrying the hops?"

Now Moonwick did look embarrassed and sincerely angry.

"Kerwin said that since I had his wages, I should do his work. I

said that was foolish, and we argued, and finally we agreed to

gamble for who made this trip."

"Naturally you accepted. Can't pass up a game. And?" Otik

suspected, but could not believe, the outcome.

The kender burst out, "He won. I can't imagine how that could

have happened. He must have cheated."

"Undoubtedly. Well, you've been paid for your trip, but I'll give

you ale for your trouble, and a meal if you wish." Otik knelt and

opened the bag, running his hands through the hops.

"I ate on the road. I shared lunch with-well, with another

traveler." The kender twiddled at the end of the short hoopak stick

angled into his belt. The stick, at once the best weapon and chief

musical instrument of kender, seemed to trouble him.

Years of innkeeping had made Otik alive to evasion. "What sort

of traveler?"

"Human." Moonwick shrugged, grabbing again at the hoopak

stick as it slipped in his belt. "This thing doesn't seem to be

balancing properly."

Otik suddenly understood the kender's reluctance to speak of

the fellow traveler. "Perhaps that has to do with the purse hooked

onto the end of it," he observed.

"Purse?" The kender whirled around. The stick, naturally,

whirled with him. "I see no purse."

"Look over your shoulder. No, the other shoulder. The drawstring

is twisted over the end of your stick." Otik sighed as the kender

peered this way and that in apparent disbelief that he should ever

end up with another man's belongings.

"Why, look at that! A purse, just as you say. Imagine that. How

could that happen?"

"Seems incredible," Otik agreed politely.

"And yet . . . Yes, I know exactly how it might have happened.

You know how we use hoopaks?"

"Vaguely." Kender could move a hoopak stick, in combat or to

make a noise, faster than men could see. Otik had once seen a

drunken swordsman lose a fight with an apparently unarmed

kender. At the start of the fight, the kender had been five feet from

the hoopak.

"Yes. Well, I was singing, and accompanying myself by

whirling my hoopak to get a high note-on a dry day with a little

wind, I can get two notes at once- and I twisted it with my wrist

as I spun it, and I must have caught the purse-string just as I

twisted."

"Ah. That must be it."

"You can see how it would happen." Moonwick spun the

hoopak over his head and, incidentally, over the bar and nearly

against the back wall. "Because it's hard to see exactly where the

'pak-end moves when it twists-"

"I see that." Otik deftly retrieved the tankard which had

slipped, seemingly of its own will, over the end of the stick.

"Accidents will happen."

"Of course." Moonwick looked at him with insistent

innocence. "Because I would never, ever, ever simply steal a purse

from someone."

"Of course not."

"Especially from this man. He was so nice, and so

knowledgeable." Moonwick leaned on his staff. "We shared our

lunches, and traded for variety, and he told the best stories. He'd

swum to the bottom of Crystalmir Lake for stonefish, and

picked plants from the edge of Darken Wood. He once

climbed a dead tree by moonlight, and he told the funniest

story about speaking to the ghost of the grandmother that

never respected him. His name was Ralf. He was on his way

to see his mother, he said." The kender added thoughtfully,

"She must like jewelry; he had lots of little gifts for her, and

he kept mixing up her name. Said he had a powder to feed

Gwendol, then Genna, then Gerria-"

"A mage?" Otik was uneasy near magic.

"Oh, no." Moonwick shook his head violently. "Just a

charm vendor: potions, powders, elixirs, amulets- nothing

serious. Why, this is probably quite harmless." He held the

bag toward Otik. "Probably the poor man will be here any

day, looking for this. Would you take-"

"No"

"Just overnight; surely you're not-"

"No."

"What possible harm could there be-"

"I have no idea what harm there could be," Otik said

firmly. "I don't intend to find out. I keep away from magic."

The kender looked pityingly. "You miss a lot of ex-

citement that way."

"Long ago I took a vow. I'm devoting my life to missing

a lot of excitement."

"All right, then." Moonwick bounced the bag on his

palm. "I'll return it myself. Someday."

"Good of you. In the meantime, I'm sorry you don't need

a meal. Why don't you take-" With a quick wrist

movement, Otik caught Moonwick's arm as it flashed across

the bar-"a mug of ale, for your throat."

"Good idea." The kender grabbed a mug. "Maybe I

could stay here the night," he said wistfully.

"No." Otik sighed. "I'm still replacing forks from the last time."

Moonwick waved a hand. "Surely you don't blame me-

Wasn't that a cry from the kitchen?"

It was. It sounded like a buried cook. Otik grunted. "Pantry

shelf's fallen again." He trotted for the kitchen door, then whirled.

"Touch nothing without invitation while I'm gone."

"Sound advice," the kender murmured. As Otik disappeared

through the door, the kender held his lips still.

The tap on the counter-keg said in a squeaky voice, "Have a

refill, Moonwick."

"I will," the kender said happily, "and thank you for the

invitation." While he drank, for practice he made the buried-cook

sound come from one of the packs at his side.

He stuck his hoopak straight out and spun it, balancing the

purse on the end. When the drawstrings came undone he caught

the purse neatly, then smelted it. "What an odd odor." He opened it

and tilted it sideways. A pinch of powder like cinnamon drifted to

the floor. He made a face. "It's a charm. Something terrible, too-

icky-sweet and spice-filled. It's not even labeled; it could be

anything. How does Ralf expect people who find his purse by

accident to know what to do with it?" He sighed. "Magicians are

so untrustworthy."

Moonwick poked the purse itself. "Nice bag, though." He

looked behind the bar for a place to empty out the useless dust,

then saw the loose-lidded tun of alewort. He grinned, lifted the lid

and emptied the contents of the pouch inside.

When Otik came back, he checked the bar carefully. Nothing

seemed to be missing. He eyed Moonwick, who smiled innocently

at him. "Nice ale," the kender said.

"It's my own recipe." The innkeeper added, "Thanks to your

contribution, this batch will be even better."

The kender choked. Otik stooped to pat his back, then retrieved

an empty purse from the floor. "What's this?"

"Mine." The kender deftly plucked it from the innkeeper's

hands. "I hope to fill it someday."

"Not in my inn." Otik added, as the kender rose to leave, "My

thanks, Moonwick. Leave the door open, so the brew smell will air

out. Come back next full moon, if you wish to taste what you

carried."

"Best I hurry on," Moonwick said regretfully. Which was

true-sooner or later Ralf might come looking for him. "I do hope

I can return to sample that batch." He shook hands with Otik, who

checked his ring after-ward.

Otik listened to the reassuring thump of the ken-der's departure

down the stairs, and sighed. He said to himself, "There's one

source of trouble gone, and no harm done. Now to heat the

alewort." He walked to the back, looking for Tika.

While he was away, two fire swallows, a male and a female,

flew in the open door and pecked at the fine spicy powder spilled

from the purse. The two of them flew out in circles, squawking,

billing, and frenziedly pressing against each other's bodies.

 

After pouring the hops in the tun, Otik cleaned the stream-

rounded heating stones and scrubbed the iron tongs he used on

them. The whole Inn grew warm as he built up the fire and opened

a wind-vent to blow the coals. The stones he laid on a flat clean

slab of the hearth; as each stone heated he lowered it with the

tongs into the wort. Soon he was sweating freely from the heat. He

set the tongs down to wipe his forehead.

Without being asked, Tika picked them up, re moved several

stones from the tun and swung heated ones in, lowering them

gently to avoid splashing. Otik puffed and watched, proud of her.

When he was younger, he would have needed no rest. For that

matter, when Tika was younger, he would not have let her spell

him at the heating.

As the tun began steaming, Otik thought again to himself,

"She's old enough for her own place." He shook his head, cast the

problem from his mind, and tried to think only of the new ale.

After the heating, Tika and Otik poured off the ale into smaller

casks. Otik took care to fill each cask only four-fifths full, because

the alewort bubbled as it worked, and a full cask could explode.

Once, when Otik was young, he had overfilled one; it had taken

weeks to get the smell out of the Inn.

Each cask they finished they rolled carefully against the tree

and set upright where it would be in sunlight but away from

outside walls. For the first seven days, the casks would be warm

and working, and the yeast would be settling out of it. After that,

they would move the casks, as gently as possible, into the store-

room with the stone floor, and give them until the next full moon

to age in cool and quiet. If they had extra casks by then, and if they

had the energy, Otik and Tika would pour the beer into freshly

washed containers for its final aging. Often, Otik cast about for ex-

cuses to avoid that stage; scrubbing twice for each batch, and

repouring half-done beer, seemed an awful lot of work for a

pleasant drink.

For now, though, the hard part of the brewing process was over,

and it seemed to them both that the alewort already smelled

delicious. Tika, her troubles forgotten, or at least submerged,

sang another verse to 'The Song of Elen Waiting':

 

WILL SOMEONE WHO KNOWS

WHERE ALL THE TIME GOES

COME AND LEAD ME AWAY BY THE HAND,

I KNOW DAY BY DAY

I'M FADING AWAY;

IT'S MORE THAN MY HEART CAN STAND.

 

IT'S NOT THAT HE KNEW

MORE THAN ANY MEN DO,

BUT HE KNEW ALL MY HEART EVER HAD;

THE BIRDS WATCH AND HEAR

AND WAIT EVERY YEAR,

BUT ALL OF THEIR SONGS ARE SAD.

 

Otik, resealing another cask, felt a shadow of what Tika heard

in the song. "That's pretty." He looked at the worn and time-

darkened casks. "We had songs like that when I was a lad, too."

"Like that one?" The girl was appalled. Surely no one had ever

written a song that deep and meaningful before.

"As good or better." He grinned at her. "Some of them even

talked about birds."

Birdsong exploded outside, and Otik glanced out a window

near the door. "I wouldn't say that all their songs were sad, though.

If this weren't autumn, I'd swear the fire swallows were mating."

"You're teasing me again."

"So I am." Otik sniffed the steam from the alewort, and gave

her a quick affectionate hug. "Wonderful, perceptive young lady,

would you help me drain the wort into smaller casks?"

Tika did. It was a pleasant, sunny afternoon; after-ward it

seemed to them both that they had never felt so much like father

and daughter.

The next full moon shone through the thick branches, huge and

fresh-risen, when Otik rolled the first of the new casks out. It was

barely past sunset, and Otik was acting like a bridegroom.

Some innkeepers held back the first cask, only opening it after

second or third rounds. Otik despised that:

what better way to feel the full flavor of an ale than taste it all

evening, uncut and by itself? It was a risk, he knew. Some inns

took years for their reputations to recover from bad batches of

brew; even strangers who drank little Would shun lodging, judging

the service and bed to be as poor as the drinks. But, a good house

gave its best, and Otik had never failed to open his new casks with

the first mug served after sunset.

A slender man in his twenties, a peddler by the look of his bag,

stood in the doorway beating road-dust from his clothing. Otik

approved silently, but withdrew approval when the tradesman

agreeably beat dust from a knight as well-and easily lifted a

purse.

Otik coughed loudly. The man in the door looked started,

shrugged, and put back the purse. The knight slapped him on the

shoulder and drew him in. "I thank you, sir. Now, when you are in

your dotage, you may tell your wondering children how you once

polished the armor of Tumber the Mighty."

The tradesman rubbed his shoulder and said politely, "I am

sure that when I am in my dotage I shall speak of you often." The

knight nodded in satisfaction and sat down. The tradesman turned

to Otik. "I was cleaning a spot under his purse and neglected to put

it back. Thank you for-hmmm-reminding me."

"My pleasure, sir." Otik added, with emphasis, "I like to keep

my customers mindful of such things."

"Oh, I don't think I'll be absent-minded again." He was looking

back and forth alertly. "Tell me, sir innkeeper-"

"Otik." As always, Otik offered his hand.

"And I am Reger, called Reger the Trader-mostly." He let go

of Otik's hand, looked at his own in surprise, and passed Otik's

ring back. "Imagine that. I'm forgetful again. And you watching

me . . ." He smiled blandly at Otik.

Otik laughed. "Smoothly done. I take your point, Reger.

Instead of watching, I ask your cooperation tonight."

"You'll have it." For the first time, he looked tired. "I've

traveled long and hard. A good meal and good ale, that's all I

want."

"I'll bring the meal out directly. As for the ale-" Otik

shrugged nervously. "Well, I think you'll be pleased."

"I'm sure I will." Reger bowed courteously, then leaned

forward. "Tell me, since I imagine you know these folk well: Has

anyone local complained this fall of poor kitchen goods, little

machines that don't do what they are said to, or that break, or that

bark the knuckles?"

Otik, mystified, shook his head. "Not one."

Reger straightened again. "In that case," he said more

confidently, "do you know any good men or women, even perhaps

yourself or your cook, who, troubled with the toil of meal-making,

might wish to find their labors light, their peeling paltry, their

slicing simple, and all with the amazing, freshly invented, ab-

solutely swom-to-save-time-" He fumbled in his bag.

Otik said bluntly, "I have a labor-saving device. It's called a

cook. The cook has a peeling and slicing device. It's called a knife,

and it's very sharp. The cook has a bad temper and a long memory.

I don't advise selling here, sir."

"Well." Reger pulled his fingers out of the bag and drummed

them at the bar. "Perhaps I'll merely rest this night. I could use

rest."

Otik sighed. "So could we, sir."

Tika, walking by with too much coy tilt to her head, stumbled.

Roger's left arm flashed up and caught the tray, balancing it

without effort. His right hand caught her elbow. "Are you all

right?"

Tika blushed. "I'm fine. I must have caught my foot-" She

looked at her dress in dismay. "I stepped on it. It's filthy. I look

awful."

"You look lovely." He pulled the tray from her completely.

"Far too comely to walk around with a terrible stain, like a patch

on a painting."

She blushed as he smiled at her. "You're teasing me."

He winked. "Of course I am. I think I do it well. Go clean off;

I'll take this tray around."

Tika looked questioningly at Otik, who nodded. She curtseyed,

folding the skirt to hide the dirty streak. "Thank you." She skipped

out.

Otik said, "I'll take the tray."

Reger shook his head. A lock of straight hair fell below his

cowl, and he suddenly looked young and stubborn. "I told her I'd

do it. Best I keep my word." He glanced back at her, smiling again.

"Sweet little thing. I have a sister that age, back home."

Otik warmed to Reger. "Take the potato bowls to the far table.

Four plates, four spoons to a table, except for the common table.

I'll be by with your meal as you finish, and thanks."

"Why, it is my pleasure." Reger, back to being smooth, hoisted

the tray over his shoulder and glided between tables, humming.

Otik watched him go.

At the first table two men, drovers by the style of their clothes

and the faintly bovine look such men get, dove for the potato bowl

as Tumber the Mighty, spoon in air, rehearsed a combat for their

benefit.

"And, sirs, picture it if you will: a mage and two men, tall and

steeped in evil, glowing before me, and me fresh out of a stream,

armorless and unclad. Picture the mage frowning and preparing to

cast his death-bolt, and picture me, sirs." He straightened. Even in

armor, his stomach bulged. "Picture me naked."

"Please," the balding drover muttered, "I'm eating." The other

snorted and covered his mouth and nose hastily. Tumber the

Mighty took no notice.

"What could a man do?" He looked around as though expecting

an answer, apparently from the ceiling beams. "Ah, but what might

a hero do?" He thumped the table, bouncing the potato bowl. "I

dove." He ducked forward, and both drovers ducked back. "I

rolled." He swayed to one side, barely missing Reger, who nimbly

side-stepped him. "I grabbed my sword, this very sword at my

waist, and with bare knuckles and an uncharmed blade, I parried

that magic bolt back at him." Tumber folded his arms tri-

umphantly. "He died, of course. I named my sword Death-bolt, in

honor of that day."

His triumph became discomfort as the drovers, not applauding,

looked at him cynically while they chewed in unison. He glanced

around for other listeners and noticed a local woman with striking

red hair and well-muscled arms who was staring at him, her mouth

open. She said, "Where was this?"

"Ah. Where indeed." He spun to her table and sat. "A land so

far from here, so strange to you, that if I spoke of it-"

"Do," she said hungrily. "I love talk about strange places, about

heroes and battle and magic. I could listen to it all day, if I hadn't

my work to do." She raised a well-scrubbed hand awkwardly. "I

am Elga, called Elga the Washer," she half-muttered.

He nodded courteously over the hand. "And I am Tumber." He

paused for effect. "Called Tumber the Mighty." He made the

impression he wanted, and smiled on her. "If you will dine with

me, I will give you tales of battle and glory, magic and monsters,

journeys and shipwrecks, all of which I have seen with my own

eyes." It was quite true. Tumber could read, and had seen and

memorized the best tales.

Elga didn't care whether he was a real hero or not. "Tell me

everything. I want to hear it all. I wish I could see it all," she added

without bitterness. Her eyes shone more brightly than the

highlights in her auburn hair.

While Tumber spoke, a slender woman in her forties moved

gracefully to the bar. She wore a shawl and carried a small satchel

at her waist. "Am I too late for a meal?" Her voice was clear and

cultured.

Otik, who had been judging her by the simplicity and travel

stains of her clothes, said hastily, "No, lady. There are potatoes,

and venison, and cider, and-"

"It smells lovely." She smiled. "And do call me Hil-lae, which

is my name."

Tika stared in awe at the woman's hair. It flowed nearly to her

waist and was jet black with a single gray streak to one side. Tika

said, "Inns serve late on full-moon nights. People travel longer. I'd

think you'd know that, from the road."

Hillae laughed. "So I look road-worn? No, don't blush; I HAVE

traveled for years, but customs differ." Tika nodded and backed

away. The woman turned again to Otik. "I would love a meal."

"Certainly." Otik hesitated, glancing at the drovers and at an

arriving stranger with an eye-patch. "If you wish, I could serve

your dinner in a private room, Hillae."

She shook her head. "No such luxuries for me now." She looked

Otik in the eye and said frankly, "And I have eaten more meals

alone than I care to."

Otik smiled back at her now, suddenly an equal. "I know what

you mean, ma'am. I'll seat you in a bright corner; you'll not lack

for company."

"Thank you." Hillae looked back at Tika, who was shyly

watching the stranger with the eye-patch. He winked at the girl,

and she looked away. "The barmaid is lovely. Your daughter?"

"Foster daughter." Otik added suddenly, "If you know much

about young women and romance, ma'am, you might have a word

with her. If you don't mind, I mean. She's got a broken heart every

week, these past few months. I don't know what to say to her, and

maybe you-" He spread his hands helplessly.

"She'll learn about broken hearts fast enough without my help.

They grow up fast at that age." She patted Otik's hand, though Otik

was years her senior. "But send her over when she's free. I'd love

the company-as you knew." Hillae glided away, and Otik, for all

he felt foolish, was glad he had asked her.

Now the locals were drifting in, for a night of gossip and

warmth after their meals at home. First to come were the red-

haired, gangly Patrig and his parents. Otik nodded to them.

"Frankel. Sareh. Sorry, Patrig; no singers tonight."

"Are you sure?" he croaked. His voice, changing, hadn't come

in right yet.

Patrig's mother leaned forward. "He talks all the time about the

singers he's heard here. He loves music so."

so.

"Loves it from afar," Frankel said, and chuckled as he mussed

Patrig's hair. "Can't sing a note himself."

Patrig ducked and muttered, and the three of them went to sit

down. On the way the young man passed Loriel, newly arriving,

who flashed her hair at him as she spun away.

A voice at Otik's elbow crackled, "Music and flirtation. All

young folk want now is music and flirtation. It's not like the old

days."

Otik nodded respectfully to Kugel the Elder. "I imagine not, sir.

Though I did like a dance myself, in my younger days."

Kugelk scowled. "I mean long before then, young man. Back

when life was simple and dignified, and there wasn't'all this

shouting about romance."

"I'm sure, sir. There's a seat waiting for you by the fire. Do you

need any help?"

Kugel's wife, a bird of a woman, stepped from behind him. "I'm

all the help he's ever needed-though the goddesses know he's

needed all of that."

Kugel waved an angry hand at her, but let himself be guided

around a huge farmer, who tipped a hat to him reverently but put it

back on and drew up a chair not far from Elga and the knight. Otik

returned to his work.

Though a few folk stopped for meals at noon, it wasn't until

dusk on normal days and well after moonrise that the Inn attracted

many weary travelers and locals. Few would waste the light, and

fewer still were so desperate to reach destinations that they would

travel late. With their meals Otik served hot cider and the old ale,

warm spiced potatoes and, by request only, a venison "that

warmed winter hearts," as he said. Outside there were already thin

patches of ice on the brooks, and the trees were leafless. Early in

the evening most of the venison was gone. Otik could scarcely

remember an evening when the Inn was so busy and full.

The stranger with the eye-patch, looking more battered than

rough, approached the bar. "Ale." He looked at the mugs, then

with more respect at the polished tankards on their pegs behind the

bar. "Tankard."

"A moment, sir." Otik gestured to Tika, who passed him the

tap. He held it and closed his eyes, moving his lips, then pushed it

against the side of the cask and hammered it home through the

sealer with one sure stroke.

The stranger spun his coin meaningfully, but Otik only smiled.

"Put your coin away, sir. The first draw of a new batch is always

my gift."

"Thank you kindly." With his good eye, the stranger stared

hungrily at the foaming outpouring as Otik turned the tap. "Looks

good, it does." He smiled at Tika, who edged behind Otik.

With a polished stick Otik cleared the foam from the tankard.

His heart rose as he saw the rich nut-brownness of the ale. Proof

was in tasting-which Otik never did until his last guest had tried

the new batch-but this ale was rich, eye-catching, as lovely as the

gleaming wood of the Inn itself. "You're right, sir. Looks good."

He sniffed it, and put an arm around Tika as he felt a wave of

affection. "Tika and I made this ourselves, sir. We'd like your

opinion."

The stranger took the tankard too hastily, then tried to

compensate by judiciously staring at it, smelling it, holding it up to

the stained-glass as though moonlight could help him see through

pewter. Finally he tipped it up, steeply enough to be staring into

his own beer as he drank. He froze there and said nothing, his

throat quavering.

Otik froze with him. Ah, gods, was the man choking? Was this

Otik's first bad batch?

The one-eyed man slammed his empty tankard down, foam

ringing a wide, happy smile. "I love it."

The other patrons applauded. Otik had not even known they were

watching; he waved to them and began drawing off mug after mug

after tankard after tankard. Soon he was circulating among a

talkative, appreciative, friendly crowd. On the first pass he set ale

in front of Tumber the Mighty and in front of Elga the Washer, in

front of the bulky farmer (whose name was Mort), and in front of

Reger.

The trader was tired and dusty, and looked at his ale longingly.

Still, Reger kept to his own tradition of eyeing all the other patrons

before drinking. Sometimes a former customer of his was nearby.

Once, after nodding absently to a man he should have known, he

had been knocked from his chair by a cropper wielding an apple

squeezer that worked well as a bludgeon. Since Reger occasionally

promised more than his trade goods could deliver, it was better to

see such folk before they saw him.

The people of Solace, a pretty rustic bunch, were all he saw.

He looked at Farmer Mort drinking in the corner near the door, at

the scrawny Patrig near his parents at the central table, last and

appreciatively at Elga, the muscled auburn woman at the next

table. He thought, briefly, of going over to her, perhaps buying her

ale.

On the other hand, Tumber the Mighty was already speaking to

her, and she clearly loved his stories, if not him. Besides, she

looked to have some anger in her, and as a tradesman, Reger had

learned, young as he was, to look for that in people. It didn't look

like a good time to interrupt her.

He shrugged. Maybe later. Reger reached for his tankard-

And was shoved back in his chair by a hand in the breastbone.

It was the burly farmer, and he was glaring down at him. "None of

that."

"None of what?" He squinted at the big man, who still had farm

boots on. From his muscles. Farmer Mort looked to juggle cows

for a living.

The farmer ignored the quesiton. "Who do you think you are?"

"Who do you think I am?" Reger asked cautiously.

"Don't wise-mouth. I hate that. I hate it as much as I love her.

Stop looking at my woman that way." Farmer Mort glanced,

pulled almost helplessly, back toward the woman at the next table,

Elga the well-muscled Washer.

"Your woman?" Reger looked back at her. "A moment ago you

weren't even with her."

"Well, I love her. I love her more than anything, and you can't

look at her that way."

"I wasn't looking at her." The tradesman fingered the short

club at his waist. Some nights were for fighting, some weren't;

surely this one wasn't, much as Reger loved a good fight. "My

friend, you're only reading your own affection for her into all of

us. Surely you can't think that I would interfere between you and a

woman you've known for-how long did you say you'd known

her?"

"Forever and ever." Farmer Mort shook his head wonderingly.

"I've known her since I was a little hopper, coming in with Dad's

cattle and stopping to get my dress clothes cleaned at her mother's

shop before her. Why, I've even had this very shirt cleaned by her.

Those hands have washed dirt and dung out of this-" He fingered

the material, looking as though he might kiss it.

"Nice of her. How long have you loved her?"

"I don't know. A while, anyway." He scratched his head. "I

just noticed after I finished my beer, see. That I loved her, I mean."

"Exactly. And you only just found out that you loved her, even

though you've known her forever and-excuse me-you seem a

discerning gentlemen." Reger winked in a friendly manner.

"Perhaps she's an acquired taste."

"Are you saying she's ugly?" The farmer knotted a huge fist,

product of a hand-plow, and waved it in the tradesman's face. "I

won't have that now. She's the woman I love, and she's the most

beautiful-the loveliest-"

Drunk, then. The tradesman sighed. "Look, just tell me what

you want me to say and I'll say it. There's no need to be angry." He

took a deep pull from his ale; no sense waiting until this lout

spilled it.

Farmer Mort shook his shoulder. "Don't ignore me, and don't

make fun of her. Do you want to fight?"

Reger put his tankard down, and the light in his eyes was

strange and bright. "I wouldn't make fun of the most beautiful

woman in the world."

The farmer squinted piggily at him. "You said you didn't love

her."

"I lied." Reger added earnestly, "I do, you know." He took

another drink.

"Here now!" The farmer shook him again. "Don't you do it to

me." He repeated, "Do you want to fight?"

Reger set down the empty tankard and beamed at the aubum-

haired Elga. There was a high buzzing in his ears. "A fight?" He

smiled happily and reached for his club. "I LOVE fighting."

The first blow caught the slack-jawed farmer in the stomach.

Reger dusted his hands, bowed to one and all, and stood gaping at

Elga until Farmer Mort, rising, caught him on the chin and sent

him backward into the table.

Otik saw their table fall over, but there was no time to do

anything. Brawling was to be suffered, now and then, but

something even more mysterious was afoot. It seemed as if the

entire room was humming with mischief. And those who weren't

busy fighting were . . . well, courting and sparking.

Generally, on his rounds, Otik would tactfully bump any couple

that was getting too affectionate for the comfort of his other

customers. It didn't happen often. Tonight he was moving from

couple to couple almost at a run, and some of them he had to pull

apart. Everyone seemed to be edging into the private corners

created by the irregular trunk of the vallen-wood. What was wrong

with these people?

He recoiled from the last pair with shock. Kugel the Elder,

forced from the arms of his wife, glared up at him and hissed

through the gaps where his teeth had once been. "Leave us alone,

boy."

Otik backed away, appalled. Kugel was the oldest man in

Solace. And to Otik, the fact that Kugel was embracing his own

wife only made it worse. WHAT WAS WRONG WITH

EVERYBODY?

He touched Tika's elbow. "Be freer with the ale. It may be the

moon, or something in the air, but we'd best make this bunch

sleepy just as quickly as possi- ^ ble." Tika, clearly upset by the

goings-on around her, nodded and fairly sprinted toward the bar

and the new casks.

In the center of the room, Patrig hopped clumsily onto the

common table. He had a slopping tankard in hand, and waved it

dangerously over people's heads. They clapped and ducked,

stealing kisses from each other as they nearly bumped heads.

Sareh stopped embracing her husband long enough to say, "Patrig,

get down; you could get hurt."

He ignored his mother, spread his arms, and sang passionately

but with little tune:

 

NO ONE CAN LOVE-

QUITE LIKE MY LOVE-

BECAUSE HER LOVE-

IS ALL I LOVE-

 

He coughed and added,

AND IN HER LOVE-

I FIND MY LOVE-

AND THEN HER LOVE-

IS JUST LIKE LOVE-

 

He went on for twenty lines, sipping ale after each line. Otik

felt the boy was getting undue applause for his efforts; apparently,

his theme had a lot of appeal tonight. Loriel, Tika's young rival,

was gaping up at Patrig as though she was seeing the full moon for

the first time. Her own mug was empty. Rian, of the seven gray

hairs, was temporarily forgotten.

Finally, too excited to sing, Patrig threw up his arms, shouted,

"Love, love, live," and crashed off the table. Otik made sure he

wasn't hurt or dead, then ran to a corner table where two drovers,

swearing fealty to each other, were strangling a stranger.

The raven-haired Hillae was gazing into her half-empty mug

thoughtfully. "I wonder about her," Tika said dreamily to the

frenzied Otik, who wasn't listening. "She is so beautiful, and

perhaps wise. She has gone places. Done things. She has lived a

life already. And who knows what secrets she might impart to me,

if only we were friends."

Tika moved forward to refill her mug, and Hillae took another

sip, set it down, and said aloud, but mostly to herself, "Farin would

be thirty-three now. Gods rest him, a body like oak, and it still fell

easily enough to fever." There were tears in her eyes. Tika re-

treated.

Meanwhile, Otik was refilling the mug of Elga the Washer, who

was completely absorbed in Tumber's stories. The knight had

drunk vast quantities of ale, and seemed most in love with himself;

with every second breath he proclaimed his romantic and military

prowess, and his adventures grew more outrageous. She didn't

seem to notice, any more than she noticed the wobbly attentions of

Reger or Farmer Mort whenever they popped up to proclaim their

love of her before smashing each other down again.

Elga stared, elbow in hand, at the knight. When her mug was

full, she tossed the ale down her throat and threw the empty mug

sideways into Tumber's forehead. He didn't seem to notice, just

went on describing an improbable epic of love and battle involving

an opposing army, two warrior maids, a sea serpent, and a lute.

Elga stood full upright, threw her head back, and shouted,

"Gods, goddesses, men and women, I am sick of laundry, cooking,

children, and trees!"

Someone shouted approval, and she smashed her fist on the

table. "Show me steel. Show me armor. Show me a battle, and

something worth fighting for, and never stand between me and

those things. I love adventure. I lust for glory. I crave-"

"And you shall have it," Tumber slurred. "All of it and more, in

my great person. Come, queen of my battles, and worship my

greatness. Thrill to watch my adventures. Glory in my talents, my

prowess, my-"

"My god." Heads turned; Elga was no soft speaker. "YOUR

battles? YOUR greatness? YOUR adventure?" Tum-ber almost

cringed. "I'll have none of that. My battles, my conquest, MY wars.

Give me that!"

He gaped at her. She shoved him backward, hit his exposed jaw

with her left fist, and caught his sword as he sprawled. She waved

it above her head. "Now let all the world forget Elga the Washer

and beware Elga the Warrior. I leave Solace, to seek the combat,

the ad venture, and the glory I love!"

"You can't take my sword," Tumber said from the floor. "It's

my honor. It's my only battle companion- before you, of course.

It's my LIVING" He wavered. "It's borrowed," he finished

miserably as he rose.

"Borrowed?" She hefted it, spun it with a supple wrist, pointed

it at him.

He put his arms up. "Well, yes. From a knight in financial

straits. But I really have used it a little." He added desperately,

"Come, love, and we'll seek glory together. Really, I'll let you use

it some, if you'll just give it back-"

She pulled the sword away as he reached. "Borrowed, is it?

Now it's twice borrowed." She shouted, in a voice that made the

tankards vibrate, "Off to fortune and glory!" A few lovers cheered

her between kisses. Otik moved to block her exit, but Elga swung

the stolen sword menacingly in the doorway. Otik ducked aside,

and she was gone.

Tumber the Mighty scuttled past Otik, throwing coins at him.

"For her drinks and mine. Really, I don't know what got into her.

Wonderful girl, actually; she loved my stories almost as much as I

do. Wait, love!" he called down the stairs, and dashed out of sight,

knocking Otik sideways.

Otik nearly backed into a raised arm; a middle-aged, peasant

couple were waving arms at each other, their eyes locked. "Did

you or did you not look at her with pure desire, you great wobble-

cheeked fool?" asked the woman.

"Anyone would," the man answered, loud enough to be heard

several trees over. "Especially if he were married to a wretched

mass of gripes and dimples like you, cow. And you're one to talk,

aren't you-ogling that skinny little sly-looking traveler back-"

He turned to point at Reger, wavering when all he could see was

an occasional flailing fist or arm. "Back there, somewhere.

Tramp."

"Pig." They grabbed each other's throats and vanished under the

table.

Tika watched, hand to her mouth. Grunts and heavy breathing

emerged from under the table. Otik wondered, trotting past to the

next crisis, if the two were still fighting, or . . . ?

Tika rushed by him, nearly spilling ale from the pitcher. Otik

grabbed her arm as she passed. "Did you give them full-strength

ale?"

At first he thought he had grabbed her too hard;

then he realized that her tears were from panic. "I did. Strong as

can be, straight from the new kegs. But they all get worse, not

better. They're not even sleepy."

"Impossible." Otik sniffed at the ale. So did Tika. "Then what's

happening?" wondered Otik.

From just the sniffing, Tika's eyes were already bright and

restless. Otik knew the answer almost as soon as he had asked the

question.

"Moonwick." Otik remembered speaking of magic, and he

remembered leaving the kender alone with the alewort. "The

empty purse he dropped." A love potion! "If that damned thief-

trickster ever returns-"

Just in time he saw the man with the eye-patch raise his

tankard, staring directly at Tika. Her eyes leveled in return. Otik

gave a start and shoved her hastily behind the bar, setting a barrel

in her place. The man licked his lips and came forward, tankard in

hand. At the time, setting out the barrel seemed a clever feint, but

it opened unforeseen floodgates. Despite Otik's protest-"I'm

sorry, there seems to be something wrong with the ale"-the

stranger methodically rolled out every last cask. The Inn guests

cheered, looking up briefly from their loving and fighting. And the

ale continued to pour.

After that, things became confused. The drovers had

started several small fights, wandering off and losing

interest between drinking rounds, then embracing each

other passionately before starting up again. Patrig and

Loriel were dancing in the middle of the room. Patrig's

mother and father were kissing against the tree trunk. Hillae

had disappeared somewhere, and Reger was riding Farmer

Mort horseback in circles around the room. Their whoops

and cries were indistinguishable from whatever was going

on over there, and there, in the shadows.

Tika said, "Can ale do all that?" She looked interest-ediy

at the mug on her tray. "Otik, what if I-"

"No."

"But it looks like so much-"

"No. It looks like too much, that's what it does." Otik

pulled her away from a line of dancing old men and women.

"But if Loriel can-"

"No, no, and no. You're not Loriel." Otik made a de-

cision. "Here's your cloak. Wear it. Here's mine; sleep in it.

Find a place, go, and don't come back to the Inn tonight."

"But you can't manage without me."

Otik gestured at the room now frenzied with activity. "I

can't manage WITH you. Go."

"But where will I sleep?"

"Anywhere. Outside. Someplace safe. Go, child." He

cleared her way to the door, pulling her with one hand.

As she stepped into the night, she said in a hurt voice,

"But why?"

Otik stopped dead. "Well, we'll talk about that later. Go,

child. I'm sorry."

He tried to kiss her good night. Tika, angry, ducked and

ran. "I want a place of my own!" she cried. Otik stared after

her, then closed the door and tried to get back to the fire.

The best he could do was edge to the bar. The dancers and

fighters had split into smaller but more boisterous groups, shouting

and singing to each other. Otik, unable even to feed the fire,

watched helplessly as the bodies became struggling silhouettes, the

silhouettes coupled shadows, the shadows a noisy dark. That night

the inn was full of joyous and angry voices, but all he could see,

by a single candle held near the mirror, was his own face, alone.

 

The next morning Otik stepped dazedly over broken mugs and

intertwined bodies. Most of the benches lay on their sides, one

completely turned over. It was like a battlefield, he thought, but for

the life of him he couldn't tell who won. There were bodies on

bodies, and clothing hung like banners over chairs, and out-flung

arms and wayward legs sticking from under the few pieces of

upright furniture. Tankards lay on their sides everywhere, and

everywhere pieces of pottery rocked on the floor as people snored

or groaned.

The fire was nearly out. Not even during the worst nights of

Haggard Winter had that happened. Otik put tinder on the last

embers, blew them into flame, added splinters, and laid the legs of

a broken chair on.

He moved the skillet as quietly as possible, but inevitably the

eggs sizzled in the grease. Someone whimpered. Otik tactfully

pulled the pan from the fire.

Instead he tiptoed around, gathering dented tankards, pottery

shards, and a few stray knives and daggers. A haggard young

stranger grabbed his ankle and pleaded for water. When Otik

returned, the man was asleep, his arm wrapped protectively around

the raven-tressed Hillae. Instead of making him look protective, it

made him seem even younger. She smiled in her sleep and stroked

his hair.

The steps thudded too loudly; someone was stamping up them.

Otik heard more whimpers. The front door boomed against the

wall, and Tika, her hair pulled primly back, stepped through and

looked disapprovingly at the debris and tangled bodies. "Shall we

clean up?" she said too loudly.

Otik winced as the others cringed around her. "In a while.

Would you go fetch water? We'll need more than the cistern holds,

I'm afraid."

"If you really need it." She slammed the inn door. The thump of

her tread down the stairs shook the floor.

"Can't we kill her?" Reger the trader groaned. His right arm

was wrapped around both his ears, and his head was cradled on the

sleeping farmer's chest. A few weak voices croaked

encouragement.

"Even think that again," Otik said quietly, "and I will bang two

pots together."

It was quiet after that.

Gradually the bodies disentwined. A few rose, shakily. Hillae

approached the bar with dignity and passed some coins. "Thank

you," she said quietly. "Not the evening I'd planned, but interesting

enough, I suppose."

"Not the evening I'd planned either," Otik agreed. "Will you be

all right then?"

"Tired." She pulled her hair back over her shoulders. "It's time I

was back home. I have a bird, you know, and it needs feeding."

"Oh, a caged bird, then." Otik realized he wasn't at his sharpest.

"Songbird?"

"Lovebird. The mate is dead. You know, I really ought to set it

free." She smiled suddenly. "Good day." She bent quietly over,

kissed the cheek of her sleeping partner, and walked silently and

gracefully out.

Tika struggled back in, knocking buckets against the

doorframe. A few patrons flinched, but glared at Otik through red-

rimmed eyes and said nothing.

He took the water from her. "Thank you. Now go tell Mikel

Claymaker that I need fifty mugs." He passed her a handful of

coins. "There's my earnest for the order."

She stared at the money. Otik was as casual with his coin today

as he was with his help. "Shouldn't I stay here?" she said loudly.

"You'll need someone to mop the floor-" She stamped on it to

shake the dust for emphasis.

'"This is how you can best help me," he said softly. She looked

puzzled, but nodded.

A body detached itself from the chair on which it had been

draped like a homemade doll. "Tika-"

"Loriel?" Tika couldn't believe it. "Your hair looks like a bird's

nest." She added, "Sea bird. Sloppy one."

"It does?" Loriel put a hand up, then dropped it. "No matter.

Tika, the most exciting thing. Patrig told me last night that he likes

me. He said so again this morning."

"Patrig?" Tika looked around. A pair of familiar boots stuck out

from under the main table, toes spread. "Loriel, he spoke this

morning?"

"For a while. Then he fell back asleep." Her eyes shone. "He

sang so beautifully last night-"

"I remember," Tika said flatly. She couldn't imagine anyone

admiring his singing, and Loriel was musical. "Walk with me, and

tell me about it."

They ran down the stairs together.

After that, painfully, the patrons gathered their belongings-in

some cases their clothes-and paid up. Some had to walk quite a

distance to find everything. Purses and buskins and jerkins lay

throughout the room, and knapsacks hung from all points and

pegs- one, incredibly, from a loose side-peg in a ceiling cross-

beam. For a while Otik watched, attempting to prevent thievery.

Eventually he gave up.

Reger the Trader slapped the bar with a snake-embossed

foreign coin and said, "This will cover my lodgings, and could I

buy a marketing supply of that ale? In this weather it would keep

for the road-"

Otik bit the coin and rejected it, dropping it with a dull clank.

"Not for sale."

"Oh. Yes, well-" Reger fumbled for real money. "If you

change your mind, I'll be back. There." He counted the change,

then added a copper. "And give breakfast to my friend there. He

may not feel too well." He gestured at Farmer Mort, who had a

huge lump behind his right ear.

"I see that. Good day, sir." Otik watched with approval as

Reger took the stairs lightly and quickly. On instinct, as when a

kender left, he checked the spoons. Some were missing.

Patrig woke healthy and whole, as the young will, and left

singing-badly. He asked after Loriel on his way out. Kugel the

Elder and his wife tiptoed out bickering, hand in hand. They

turned in the door and frowned disapprovingly at the other

couples.

The couple that had fought, or whatever, under the tables, left

separately. A man whom Otik had barely noticed the night before

paid for a room-"so that my friend can sleep if she wishes."

When Otik asked when his friend wished to wake up, he blushed

and said, "Oh, don't wake her. Not for half a day. Longer, in fact."

Otik noticed, as innkeepers will, the circular groove on the man's

third finger, where he usually wore a ring.

The rest were sitting up, looking around embar-rassedly, testing

their heads and tongues. Otik stepped to the center of the common

room and said diffidently, "If the company believes it is ready for

breakfast-" he looked through the stained glass to the long-risen

sun-"or early lunch-" He nodded at the murmur of assent and

put the skillet of eggs back on the fire. At the kitchen door he

called to Riga the cook for potatoes, but not too loudly.

By mid-moming he had assessed the night's damage and its

profit. After re-hammering the tankards and replacing the mugs, he

would still have the greatest profit he had ever made from one

night, and not half the lodgings paid up yet. He lifted the pile of

coins. It took two hands, and shone in the light from a broken rose

windowpane.

All the same, when the man with the eye-patch croaked that he

wanted a farewell mug "to guard against road dust," Otik laid

hands on the final keg and said firmly, "No, sir. I will never sell

this ale full strength again." He added, "You may have a mug of

the regular stock."

The man grunted. "All right. Not that I blame you. But it's a

shame and a crime, if you intend to water that batch. How can you

water ale and not kill the flavor?"

He drained the mug and staggered out. Otik marveled that such

a seasoned drinker didn't know the secret of watering ale. You

watered ale with ale, of course.

He looked back at his last cask of the only magical brew he had

ever made and, gods willing, the only batch he ever would make.

He took his corkscrew in one hand and the pitcher in the other,

and he carried the funnel looped by the handle over his belt. Each

cask, one by one, he un-stoppered, tapped a pint to make room,

and poured in a pint of the new ale. It took most of the morning,

and almost all of his last fresh cask.

When he finished at midday, every last barrel was forty or fifty

parts ale to one part liquid love, and he had one-half pint of the

new ale left. He was sweating, and his biceps ached from drawing

stoppers and pounding them back. He slumped on the stool back of

the bar and turned around to look at the casks.

The store-room was floor to ceiling with barrels. For as long as

the barrels lasted, the Inn of the Last Home would hardly have a

fight, or a grudge, or a broken heart.

Otik smiled, but he was too tired to maintain it. He wiped his

hands on the bar-rag and said hoarsely, "I could use a drink."

The last half-pint sat on the bar, droplets coursing down its

sides. Circular ripples pulsed across it as the wind moved the tree

branches below the floor.

He could offer it to any woman in the world, and she would

love him. He could have a goddess, or a young girl, or a plump

helpmate his own age who would steal the covers and tease him

about his weight and mull cider for him on the cold late nights. All

these years, and he had barely had time to feel lonely.

All these years.

Otik looked around the Inn of the Last Home. He had grown

up polishing this bar and scrubbing that uneven, age-smoothed

floor. Most of the folk here were friends, and strangers whom he

tried to make welcome. He heard the echo of himself saying to

Tika, "In all the world no place else can ever be home for them."

He smiled around at the wood, at the stained glass, at the

friends he had, and at the friends he hadn't met yet. He raised his

glass. "Your health, ladies and gentlemen."

He drank it in one pull.

 

Wayward Children

Richard A. Knaak

 

"A fool's errand, that's what this is!"

Though the words were little more than a hiss, B'rak heard

them all too well. He also agreed with them, but it was not his

place to say so-especially as he was captain of this patrol.

Others heard the complaint as well. "If you cannot keep your

warriors in line, captain, I will be glad to do so for you!"

B'rak hissed angrily at the tall figure wrapped in black cloth. If

there was one point on which B'rak agreed with humans, it was

that magic-users were not to be trusted, much less liked. But he

had no choice:

they were assigned to all patrols. He unfurled his wings to

emphasize his displeasure at having a mage along on this scouting

mission. His metallic silver skin glistened in the light as he pointed

a talon at the other.

"The Dragon Highlord commanded that you accompany us,

Vergrim, not that you lead us. I will deal with my men as I see fit."

Vergrim's answering smile made even draconians uneasy.

Nevertheless, he nodded acceptance of B'rak's words and turned

his attention back to the wilderness around them.

They had been wandering for days among the rich

woodland just north of the New Sea. Their mission was to

assure headquarters that this region was empty of resistance,

something that even now made B'rak question the

leadership of the Dragon Highlord. He and his men should

be fighting for the glory of the Queen. Of what use were his

tactical skills against a random elk, several birds, and trees

as far as the eye could see?

Sith, his lieutenant, tapped him on the shoulder and

pointed to the right. Reptilian eyes narrowed as the patrol

captain studied the woods. They widened equally as

quickly. Was that an upright figure he saw in the distance?

Eagerly, he studied it. That was no animal. An elf or, more

likely, a human. Elves were generally more difficult to

notice. Secretly, he would prefer a human. Elves were sly,

more prone to use tricks than face a warrior one-on-one.

Humans knew how to fight. With humans, B'rak could

generally assure himself of an entertaining battle.

Some of the warriors in back muttered quietly, their

wings rustling. He waved them to silence, though he could

well understand their eagerness. This was the first sign of

activity they had come across. B'rak fairly quivered with

excitement. Had the Highlord known more than the orders

had stated? The captain glared at Vergrim, but the

draconian magic-user's attention was focused completely on

the shadowy figure moving through the trees. If the mage

knew something, he was hiding it well. That was not at all

like Vergrim.

B'rak dispatched two of his best trackers to follow the

figure. The stranger might be just a single hunter, but the

captain would not take that chance. There might even be a

village up ahead, though how it could have escaped their

notice when they were searching earlier was beyond his

imagination.

The wait for the trackers to return was long. It was not helped

by the constant muttering that arose from Vergrim's need to

memorize his spells. More than one warrior was forced to stretch

stiffened wings. B'rak tapped his sword impatiently. The day

neared its finish.

The trackers returned two hours later. They reported that the

figure had led them from one spot to another for no apparent

reason. Just when they were convinced that he knew of their

presence, the solitary traveler had stepped into the clearing around

a small village. The inhabitants of the village were elves.

B'rak was slightly disappointed on hearing this, but he pushed

the thought aside. Here, at least, would be some action. One of the

trackers handed him a map showing the location of the village. It

was some distance to the northeast. They would arrive just before

dark.

Vergrim studied the map with great interest, but uttered no

comment. B'rak ignored him; this was a possible battle situation

and his authority was supreme in that respect. The magic-user

could advise, but nothing more.

They moved cautiously through the woods in the general

direction of the village. B'rak sent men ahead in order to avoid an

ambush. As he walked, he noticed his head beginning to throb. An

unusual occurrence, he was not subject to such weakness. For-

tunately, the pain was not severe enough to affect his judgment.

-They met no resistance whatsoever. This might have been virgin

forest, with the draconians the first intelligent life to pass through

it. B'rak's warriors relaxed, their minds turning to thoughts of

looting. The captain frowned; discipline was slipping. He avoided

looking at Vergrim, knowing the other would be wearing that

mocking smile.

The village, when they came to it, was so small as to be almost

unbelievable. It couldn't house more than a dozen families. The

homes were simple, more like one might have expected humans to

live in than elves.

B'rak saw immediately that even with only twenty warriors and

the magic-user, he could still have taken it easily. He spat on the

ground, the throbbing in his head increasing his anger tenfold. Too

simple.

Unrest was spreading through his patrol. Even Sith, always

calm and quiet, was shifting impatiently. It Had been far too long

since any of them had seen action, and now it appeared that they

had been deprived of it once more. B'rak finally gave the signal.

The patrol advanced into the clearing.

At first, they saw no one. Then, gradually, heads appeared in

windows and doorways. Surprisingly, there were no looks of

anger, no shouts of hate. The elves stepped out into the openings

and stared. Just stared. They seemed to be waiting for something,

looking for someone.

The draconians stopped abruptly, alarmed at the unusual

reaction of the elves. B'rak turned to Vergrim.

"Well? Are we in any threat of attack here?"

The hooded figure shook his head in distaste. "We have nothing

to fear from these weaklings! I read only the desire to help and

care for us. Pfah! Even their el-ven kin would be disgusted at such

tolerance as I feel."

Sith leaned close. "Shall we destroy the village?"

B'rak waved him away. "It is not worth the trouble now. If this

is an example of what we can expect, the Highlord has little to fear

from this region." He studied the elves, frowned, and turned back

to his companions. "Where are their young? I see only adults-and

most of those are silver-haired."

One of the trackers came up and bowed before him. "We

studied the village for a long time before reporting back, captain.

Not once did we see any young."

The throbbing in B'rak's head had become little more than a

nuisance, but it was just enough to unleash his anger. He shouted

to the elves, "I want your leaders here now! If they do not appear,

my men will raze this village and kill everyone!"

The elves did not speak, but some of them stepped aside,

opening a path for the oldest elf any of the draconians had ever

seen. His beard was a sparkling silver and came near to matching

his arms in length. He wore only a simple cloth robe, apparently

the village's only form of clothing since the other elves were clad

in a similar fashion. He carried a long wooden staff, which he also

used as a crutch. As he neared the dra-conian leader, his eyes

sparkled. The ancient male wore no sign of authority that B'rak

could identify, but the captain had no doubt whatever that this was

indeed the village elder.

Vergrim hissed. "Careful, B'rak. He may be a cleric. This

whole village smells of a shrine or something. See how they all

dress, how they all act."

"Do you detect any threat from this old one? From the look of

things, he can barely stand."

"No. As with the others, I detect only the wish to help.

Curious." The Black Robe sounded almost disappointed, B'rak

noted.

The elder paused before the reptilian warriors. "I am Eliyah,

the Speaker for this village. We bid you welcome and offer you

our humble hospitality."

The captain waved away the offer for the moment and went

immediately to the point that concerned him. "Where are your

young? Your children? I warn you, if they do not appear, I shall

give the order to have you all put to death."

Eliyah sighed and a sadness seemed to sweep over the entire

elven population. B'rak was taken aback by the intensity of the

emotion. Had some plague struck down the young? Were he and

his patrol in danger? He quickly discarded the thought; no plague

he knew of would take the young and strong and leave the old and

sickly.

The elder waved a feeble hand at the group of elves that had

closed in behind him. "These are all you will find here. Our

children have been turned from our ways and no longer recognize

us. We pray they will return to us, but our hope grows faint."

Draconians are not known for their sympathy. B'rak, however,

found it impossible not to feel some of the hurt the elves bore.

Even Vergrim looked downcast for a moment.

The pain in the captain's head brought him back to reality. He

cursed harshly, clutching at his head. Eliyah touched his shoulder

in a gesture of concern. Sith came to his commander's aid.

"Are you all right, captain?"

"My head pounds, that is all. We will stay here for the night.

Secure the area. Post a guard. Secure hostages."

There was a commotion at the back of the patrol. B'rak

steadied himself but could not see what was happening. Vergrim,

who stood taller, looked at the commotion and then came up to

B'rak.

"One of your men appears to have collapsed. Exhaustion,

perhaps. I will see to him."

"Captain . . ."

B'rak turned once more to the Speaker. "What is it, old one?"

"You and your companions need food and rest. Come. You have

nothing to fear from us. My people will see to your men. Food,

shelter-whatever they wish."

Sith jumped on the last statement. "A trick! They will poison

the food."

"Unlikely. We will take hostages if necessary. They will not

dare harm any of us if their kin are in danger. Any attempt to do so

will be answered with the total destruction of this village." B'rak

summoned two of his warriors. "You two will come with me." To

the elf, he said, "I will accept your hospitality-by staying at your

home."

Sith opened his mouth to protest, but decided against it. He

merely glared at the elven Speaker and then stalked off to do his

duty. Eliyah bowed respectfully and turned, his face having

revealed no animosity toward his sudden houseguest. His pace was

so slow that the captain had ample time to study the other villagers

as they walked along.

As a whole, they were a sorrowful people. B'rak wondered

what could have brought elves to such a state. They did not seem

to fear draconians and were certainly not hostile to them. There

were no signs of plague or destruction. The entire place was an

enigma. What had really happened to their children? He chuckled.

Boredom, perhaps.

The dwellings of the elves proved to be even more dismal up

close. All were constructed from wood and generally consisted of

one room. With that in mind, the home of the Speaker appeared

comparatively luxurious. It rested against one side of an enormous

tree and was no more than a few yards from the main village. Like

the others, it was of wood, but large enough to house the entire

population. B'rak suspected the structure doubled as a meeting

house and contemplated future uses for it.

An elven woman with long, flowing tresses of silver mixed with

flakes of gold greeted them at the entrance. Though obviously old,

she was still a handsome woman. B'rak, though, could not think of

her as anything but someone's grandmother.

"My greetings to our guests."

Eliyah hugged her briefly and then turned back to the draconian

commander. "This is my mate, Aurilla Starleaf. She will prepare

food for you while I show your men where they may rest. Is that

acceptable?"

B'rak blinked. Acceptable? The question made him smile. He

was beginning to like these people and their ways. With a flourish

that would have done the Highlord justice, B'rak gave his

approval. The Speaker left and his mate entered the building. The

captain hesitated before following her and turned to the guards.

"See that I am not disturbed. Keep an eye on those two old

ones, too. Sith will see to it that you are relieved. Until then, I

expect you to be on your guard."

They saluted. B'rak nodded, turned, and sauntered inside,

feeling every inch the conqueror.

 

If the outside appearance of the dwelling hinted simplicity, the

inside stated it quite bluntly. There were few pieces of furniture,

save a table and two chairs. From the pillows and blankets

scattered around, B'rak guessed that the elves here had little use

for such things.

The female called Aurilla stepped into the room, a hot bowl in

her tiny hands. She gestured to the table. "Please sit. I have made

you some broth. I am sure you will find it to your liking."

B'rak purposely displayed long rows of sharp teeth designed for

tearing. He much preferred meat to plants and broths. Fresh meat,

especially. The elf was unaffected by his act. She smiled and

placed the broth on the table. The draconian sniffed. It did smell

good. There was meat in it, too, judging by the aroma. He made

his way to the table and sat down in one of the chairs.

The bowl was small, allowing him to swallow the contents in

three gulps. He looked up, tongue clearing away the last vestiges

of the broth. Aurilla was already there, a second bowl in her hands.

B'rak grunted his satisfaction, and she smiled like a mother who

had just been complimented by her favorite child. The draconian

could not help chuckling at the odd picture that presented.

He took longer with the second bowl. His headache was

nagging. Sleep was now becoming an urgent need. He grew

impatient for the Speaker's return. One taloned hand gripped the

now-empty bowl and crushed it. As if on cue, the ancient elf

returned.

"I have prepared sleeping quarters for you with your men. Or

you may stay here if you wish."

"I will stay here. My second and the mage will be allowed in

here as well. My warriors will be satisfied with whatever they can

find." Such are the privileges of rank, the captain added mentally.

There was suddenly a commotion at the entrance. B'rak,

hearing draconian voices raised in anger, pulled out his sword. A

trap! I've been a fool! They've led me on a leash! He rushed

through the doorway.

Vergrim was there, looking very sinister and very upset. The two

guards blocked his path. B'rak cursed;

he had not meant they should prevent the magic-user from

entering. No doubt the only thing holding Vergrim back from

retaliating was the fact that he believed they were only following

their leader's orders. The patrol leader sheathed his weapon and

stepped forward to try and rectify the situation.

"Hold, all of you! What is it, Vergrim? Why do you disturb

me?"

The Black Robe straightened his hood and glared at the two

guards. "If I may be permitted to speak with you in private?"

B'rak waved the two aside. "Come inside."

"I will not go in there. It is tainted by the weak creatures who

live in it."

"I'll remember that when I'm sleeping in there. What is it you

want?"

"I said I would speak with you in private. Send these away."

The captain stretched his wings. "You try my patience,

Vergrim. Very well. You two, seek out Sith. Tell him you are to

be fed. Return here immediately after, however."

The guards responded eagerly. B'rak turned his attention once

more to the mage. Vergrim stared past the patrol leader and

frowned. B'rak twisted around and discovered both the Speaker

and his mate standing in the entranceway. Both wore looks of

concern.

"Await me inside. Go!"

They reluctantly stepped back inside the dwelling. B'rak

focused on Vergrim and prayed that this time he would hear what

the magic-user was so distraught about. Each delay was costing

him sleep. To make matters worse, his head was now buzzing

worse than before.

"You have three minutes. Speak!"

"I have inspected the warrior who collapsed. His name is

S'sira."

"I know him. Quiet but deadly. Go on."

"He is not suffering from fatigue. He complains of headaches

and dizziness, but it is not due to a lack of rest. I cannot say for

sure, but I believe he may be suffering from some disease."

The captain folded his arms. "You believe it has something to

do with the villagers."

"Look for yourself. Where are all the young? The strong? It

would explain much."

B'rak laughed harshly. "It explains nothing. I have already

thought of that. What disease, pray tell, kills the young and strong

while allowing one such as the Speaker to go untouched? Sickness

is nothing new to me. If you cannot care for S'sira, it shall be in the

Queen's hands."

"You are a fool. Like all warriors. Your own life may be in

danger."

"Have a care, mage!" B'rak hissed. Vergrim turned away, thus

ending any further conversation. The patrol leader clutched his

head; the buzzing was now at a level where it hurt to think. He

stalked back into the Speaker's home and shouted for the elf.

Eliyah was already there, a silent spectre. B'rak, already in a

foul mood, cursed at him. The elder smiled sympathetically and

asked if he wished to rest now. The draconian muttered an

affirmative.

The sleeping room proved to be as drab as the rest of the

speakers hovel, though it mattered little to B'rak at this point. He

only wanted to lie down and forget the buzzing in his head. He

wanted to forget Black Robes and struggles for domination. When

Eliyah finally stopped before a pile of pillows and blankets, the

captain virtually flung himself to the ground. It was not the most

comfortable position for one of his kind, with his wings all

crunched up, but he was beyond caring about such trivial things.

The Speaker made to leave, but the draconian summoned him

back.

"See to it that I rest peacefully, elf. No one, especially the

Black Robe, is to disturb my slumber."

Eliyah looked down at him with great seriousness. "You shall

not be disturbed, my son. We shall see to that."

B'rak smiled and drifted off, oddly assured by the statement.

 

Soaring like a bird. High in the heavens. Below him, some of

the creatures cursed to a life on one level trudged along their

dreary way. He swooped down on them, frightening the lot. They

scattered hither and yonder, calling out his name in terror.

He had not meant to frighten them. Not really. They were an

interesting group, these small creatures. Dwarves, most likely. He

landed gracefully and called to them, telling them that he meant no

harm, was only trying to have a little fun.

It took much coaxing to get them to come out of their hiding

places. When they did, it was carefully and in small groups of two

and three. He smiled in order to reassure them. They smiled back.

When they were close, he let loose the flame.

They shrieked and ran. He could not tell if he had burned any

of them. Truly, he had only meant to play with them. He was

horrified at himself. With a terrible cry, he shot into the heavens.

The clouds were not high enough for him. He flew up and up,

seeking the stars and the powers behind them. His cry ripped

through the fabric of reality, touching the ears of the gods

themselves.

They were there. Opposites. The Queen of Darkness and the

brilliant figure clad in platinum armor. Both reached for him. He

heard the countless voices crying to him, calling to him as a parent

calls for a child who is lost. Almost he came to them.

The light frightened him, though. It wanted to twist him, make

him other than he was. B'rak turned and fled, flying to the safety

and security of the Queen of Darkness. She welcomed him back.

All turned to black. The voices wailed at the loss and then faded

away.

 

B'rak woke with a start. He hissed loudly in the darkness,

having taken it for part of his dream. Someone stirred nearby. The

draconian sniffed. Sith. No one else. Vergrim had apparently

decided to seek rest elsewhere.

Sith hissed in his sleep, apparently the victim of dreams not to

his liking. B'rak stood up, his eyes now accustomed to the lack of

light, and rubbed his head. The buzzing was still there, but at a

level barely noticeable. The nightmare was all but forgotten now;

the feeling of unease was not. B'rak flexed his wings in thought

and then suddenly departed the lodge.

He made his way quietly past the sleeping elves in the other

room and stepped outside. The sun was not yet up. The captain

hissed to himself. He turned to one of the two guards at the

entrance and kicked him. The figure cursed and clutched its leg.

B'rak tittered a quiet but direct order-along with the

consequences of slow obedience. The warrior quickly stood at

attention.

B'rak breathed into his face. "Seek out the trackers and have

them report to me. Now!"

The soldier scurried away. B'rak switched to the remaining

guard, who now stood poised and ready for battle. The draconian

commander moved so that he stood eye-to-eye with the other.

"Where is the Black Robe? Have you seen him or were you

asleep all night?"

"He is with the stricken one, captain-S'sira."

"Where would that be?"

The voice floated through the waning night. "There is no need

to look for me, captain. I am here."

B'rak whirled. Even in the darkness, he could make out the

burning eyes of Vergrim. The magic-user was buried deep within

the black cloak which seemed almost an extension of his own

form. The mage looked grim.

"It is odd that you should come seeking me, captain. I was just

on my way to speak with you. Interesting, don't you think? Tell

me, is your headache better?"

"Why do you ask?"

"I shall tell you when you have answered my question. Is your

headache better?"

"Yes. It only buzzes slightly now. I found it difficult to sleep."

The hood bobbed up and down as Vergrim nodded. "I

suspected as much. You might be interested to know that a number

of the men have also complained of headaches and buzzing. S'sira

is apparently the only one to have been stricken badly. He babbles

like a madman and his form is contorted from pain."

The first rays of light broke through the darkness. B'rak bared

his teeth. "He wasn't that sick before. When did this start?"

"Soon after the patrol settled down. Most of those touched

were asleep. Shortly after waking, they grew better."

At that moment, the other guard returned with the trackers.

They saluted. B'rak ignored them at first, his thoughts on a

hundred possibilities. At last, he came to a decision. He turned to

the newcomers.

"Did you survey the surrounding forest?"

The two trackers looked at one another. B'rak's eyes narrowed.

"That is standard procedure, is it not?"

The senior of the two spoke. "Captain, we did survey the

forest. It is just that we found nothing to report. You saw the map.

Nothing but trees and grass for miles."

The patrol leader nodded. "I see. Very well, you are dismissed."

The trackers departed with great haste. B'rak looked at the

Black Robe. "You detect nothing from these elves?"

"Only the same as before-the desire to help and care for us. I

have not really paid much more attention to them. They are worth

less than gully dwarves. At least those creatures know no better.

These elves are purely pathetic."

"Then, what do you believe the cause of this-this illness to

be?"

"I know not. I felt it necessary to report my feelings and

possibly warn you."

B'rak grunted. "Consider me warned."

Vergrim hissed. "I shall see what else I can do for your man. I

fear it will not be enough, though."

"May we be of service?"

The elven Speaker and his mate stood behind them. The

captain had no idea how long they had been there, but he was

pleased to see that the Black Robe was just as startled. He looked

from one elf to the other. "How can you help?"

"Our knowledge covers a span of countless generations. It may

be that there is something in it that relates to your ill warrior. We

only wish to help."

B'rak eyed them skeptically. "Vergrim?"

The mage's voice was barely audible. "I still sense nothing but

worry and care for us. I do not understand it, but it is there. They

may be of some use. I shall, however, trust them only so far."

"Shall I dispatch a guard to assist you?"

Vergrim scoffed. "I think I can safely handle two aged elves."

The draconian commander nodded. To the elves he replied, "Very

well. Go with the magic-user. Be warned-he shall watch your

every move! If my warrior dies, you two will follow immediately."

"We understand, captain. We will do what we can."

Vergrim hissed and motioned them to follow him. They did so,

maintaining a respectable distance from the magic-user. B'rak

watched them depart and rubbed a leathery hand across his chin.

"Sith!"

His second, looking half-dead, stumbled out of the Speaker's

dwelling. The captain allowed him a moment to organize himself.

"Captain?"

"You are in charge for now. Organize the patrol for action. I

shall return shortly."

"Yes, captain."

B'rak adjusted his sword belt and set out toward the forest

himself. Now and then, he would pass one of the elves. All refused

to meet his gaze. He hissed softly; there was a difference in their

attitude. What it was he could not place. He only knew there was a

difference. The sadness was there, but something had changed.

He walked for some time. The woods replaced the village.

Eventually he paused at what he estimated to be a fair distance

from the community. The land was hilly; another two hours would

bring him to one of the lesser mountain ranges in this region. The

hills, though, would serve his purpose.

He chose the tallest, most jagged of the hills. One side ended in

a sheer cliff. The slight breeze tempted him. Though his wings

were of little use for actual flight, he could easily glide some

distance. That, however, was not his purpose for being here.

As he had surmised, the hill gave him an excellent view of the

surrounding landscape, including the village. Far to the southwest

lay what looked like the edge of the New Sea. On either side, vast

mountains thrust up from the earth, like great walls protecting the

region. The flatter lands consisted only of forest. Virgin forest.

Massive trees and lush fields.

His suspicions confirmed, B'rak made his way swiftly down the

hill. He prayed Sith had obeyed his instructions and mobilized the

patrol. There was still a chance for victory if he had done so. At

the very least, the draconians would not be unprepared when the

elves made their move.

A trap. Even elves left signs of their existence other than a

single, tiny village. B'rak knew of the elaborate dwellings formed

from nature, knew of the cities created by the artistic race. A

population, though, must eat, and B'rak, a veteran of many battles,

knew that even the elves cultivated food and traded with their own

kind. Eliyah and his people, though, had no fields, no groves of

fruit-bearing trees, no cities coexisting with nature.

In short, the village existed only for the patrol's benefit. A lure.

Somehow, they had known his patrol would be coming. After that,

it was a matter of waiting.

The draconian cursed his blindness. Sorcery had to be involved.

Such colossal errors in judgment were not possible, at least not by

a veteran such as himself. Even Vergrim had fallen prey to it.

Vergrim with his power, his spells, his ability to read what others

felt. All the Black Robe had found was the desire to help.

That was the piece of the puzzle still hidden. They could have

killed him, several times over. He had certainly been careless

enough, pretending to be the mighty conqueror of a handful of

peaceful elves. They could have killed him in his sleep.

They had done nothing.

He reached the outskirts of the village, half-expecting battle. The

elves were nowhere to be seen. Neither was Vergrim. But Sith and

the patrol were awaiting him. His second-in-command jumped to

attention.

"Your orders, captain?"

B'rak surveyed the village, the trap, and hissed, "I want this

village burned to the ground! I want the elves slaughtered, their

bodies burned! Start with the hostages! The responsibility is yours.

Be prepared for battle! This is a trap! I must seek the Black Robe

out before it is too late!"

Sith grinned as the captain hurried by. His teeth glittered in the

sun as he barked out orders. Here, at last, was what he had been

waiting for. Here was action. He pulled a burning stick out of a

fire some of the warriors had built earlier. Others followed his

example.

It was then a race to see who would be the one to start the

inferno.

 

B'rak was nearly spent by the time he reached the dwelling

where the elves had housed the stricken warrior. It was apart from

the rest of the village. Behind him, the shrieks of his warriors

could be heard. He hoped they would not accidentally burn down

the forest in their enthusiasm. At least, not until the patrol was

well on its way.

He was met by Vergrim at the entrance to the hut. The Black

Robe, looking drawn, eyed him in a peculiar manner.

"What have you done, B'rak?"

"This is a trap, mage! Just as you originally believed! A very

subtle trap!"

The Black Robe continued to stare at him. "What have you

done?"

"My patrol is even now burning this village to the ground! I have

ordered these elves to be slaughtered before their kinsmen can

arrive! They are crafty, Ver grim! Crafty enough to fool the senses

of a magic-user!"

The other draconian nodded slowly. "True. It was all for

nothing, though. The plan failed. Nothing could be done. The

Queen's spell was stronger than we had imagined."

B'rak hissed angrily. "We? What spell? What are you talking

about? Where is the elf and his mate? What have they done to you,

mage? You're acting even stranger than usual!"

Vergrim moved to one side of the entrance. "You had best see

for yourself, captain."

Pushing the mage aside, B'rak burst into the hut. The darkness

of the interior prevented him from seeing anything at first and he

wondered why there were no windows. Within moments, though,

his eyes had adjusted completely.

The draconian backed up a step in horror, every oath to the

Queen of Darkness escaping from his mouth as he sought to avoid

looking at the thing on the blanket. It was S'sira-and it was not.

The form changed constantly, as if two forces sought domination

and could not successfully defeat one another, the commander

thought.

Disgusted, he pulled the sword from its sheath and forced

himself to stand over the shifting mass. One stroke cut off what

should have been the head. B'rak picked up a large piece of cloth,

intending to use it to clean his weapon. The cloth turned out to be

part of a dark robe which had once belonged to Vergrim. The

magic-user's charred body lay crumpled in a corner.

"The Queen's hold is too great." The voice was that of the mage,

but the form was that of an elf. Looking at him closely, feeling an

unreasonable fear creep over him B'rak saw that it was Eliyah . . .

and yet it wasn't Eliyah. "We should have never believed she

would honor an agreement."

"Some of us refused to believe there was no hope," the elf

continued. "We were determined to bring back our children. If the

Queen could turn them into hateful monstrosities, we could turn

them back."

The draconian captain stepped forward. "You are my prisoner,

old one! I have uncovered your trap! Even now, my men are

slaughtering your people and burning this mockery of a village."

Eliyah shook his head sadly. "I had hopes for you, especially. I

knew you for mine when I saw you. The same determination, the

same strength. The dream almost caught you. Just as it almost

caught the other one." One hand pointed to the still form on the

blanket. In the dim light, the elf's hand looked almost leathery.

Eliyah went on. "There was little time to prepare an actual

village. Magic did what was necessary, causing you to accept what

should not have been acceptable. It was not enough, though. Only

one of you truly responded to our spell, despite its intensity. He

would not have survived the transformation, however, and was

therefore better dead-though I could not bring myself to do it,

having come so close to success."

"What transformation?" B'rak backed away. The elf did not act

like a prisoner, and his appearance had taken on an odd aspect.

The face was broadening, becoming more reptilian.

"You were the next generation. Our pride and joy. Our dear

children. Long ago, while we slept, the Queen and her evil dragons

stole our eggs and held them hostage, forcing us to swear an oath

that we would not interfere in her wicked designs to conquer the

world. She promised to leave the eggs unharmed, but she lied.

Using her dark arts, she perverted them into creatures such as you.

I tell you this, my son, so you know that we do what we now do

out of love for what you should have been-if not for the foul

Queen."

Wings spread. All vestiges of elf melted away into a towering

form of brilliant silver. The draconian fell backward, one hand

brandishing the sword in a feeble attempt to defend himself. The

walls of the hut, no longer able to hold in the expanding form,

burst apart like parchment. B'rak was forced to dodge parts of the

roof.

The massive head stared down. A sigh escaped the great jaws.

"Forgive us, your parents, for failing you."

Everything was fire.

 

The fire was contained in the village. They made sure of that.

Not one draconian escaped. Their very act of attempting to burn

the village had assured their presence when the moment came.

For three days, the parents mourned the loss. Three days of

sorrow, of singing to those twisted by the Queen. When that was

done, the dragons-some silver, some gold, some speckled with

each-flew off to join their kin in the terrible war.

Behind them, they left only ashes.

 

The Test of the Twins

Margaret Weis

 

The magician and his brother rode through the mists toward the secret

place.

"We shouldn't have come," Caramon muttered. His large,

strong hand was on the hilt of his great sword, and his eyes

searched every shadow. "I have been in many dangerous places,

but nothing to equal this!"

Raistlin glanced around. He noticed dark, twisted shadows and

heard strange sounds.

"They will not bother us, brother," he said gently. "We have

been invited. They are guardians who keep out the unwanted." He

did, however, draw his red robes closer around his thin body and

move to ride nearer Caramon.

"Mages invited us ... I don't trust 'em." Caramon scowled.

Raistlin glanced at him. "Does that include me, dear brother?"

he asked softly.

Caramon did not reply.

Although twins, the two brothers could not have been more

different. Raistlin, frail and sickly magician and scholar, pondered

this difference frequently. They were one whole man split in two:

Caramon the body, Raistlin the mind. As such, the two needed and

depended on each other far more than other brothers. But, in some

ways, it was an unwholesome dependence, for it was as if each

was incomplete without the other. At least, this was how it seemed

to Raistlin. He bitterly resented whatever gods had played such a

trick that cursed him with a weak body when he longed for

mastery over others. He was thankful that, at least, he had been

granted the skills of a magician. It gave him the power he craved.

These skills almost made him the equal of his brother.

Caramon-strong and muscular, a born fighter- always

laughed heartily whenever Raistlin discussed their differences.

Caramon enjoyed being his "little" brother's protector. But,

although he was very fond of Raistlin, Caramon pitied his weaker

twin. Unfortunately, Caramon had a tendency to express his broth-

erly concern in unthoughtful ways. He often let his pity show, not

realizing it was like a knife twisting in his brother's soul.

Caramon admired his brother's skill as a magician as one

admires a festival juggler. He did not treat it seriously or

respectfully. Caramon had met neither man nor monster that could

not be handled by the sword. Therefore, he could not understand

this dangerous trip his brother was undertaking for the sake of his

magic.

"It's all parlor tricks, Raist," Caramon protested. "Riding into

that forsaken land is nothing to risk our lives over."

Raistlin replied gently-he always spoke gently to Caramon-

that he was determined on this course of action for reasons of his

own and that Cannon could come if he so chose. Of course,

Caramon went. The two had rarely been separated from one

another since birth.

The journey was long and hazardous. Carmen's sword was

frequently drawn. Raistlin felt his strength ebbing. They were near

the end now. Raistlin rode in silence, oppressed with the doubt and

fear that shrouded him as it had when he first decided on this

course of action. Perhaps Caramon was right, perhaps he was

risking their lives needlessly.

 

It had been three months ago when the Head of the Order

arrived at his master's home. Par-Salian had invited Raistlin to

visit with him as he dined-much to the master's surprise.

"When do you take the Test, Raistlin?" the old man asked the

young conjurer.

"Test?" Raistlin repeated, startled. No need to ask which

Test-there was only one.

"He is not ready, Par-Salian," his master protested. "He is

young-only twenty-one! His spellbook is far from complete-"

"Yes," Par-Salian interrupted, his eyes narrowing. "But you

believe you are ready, don't you, Raistlin?"

Raistlin had kept his eyes lowered, in the proper show of

humility, his hood drawn over his face. Suddenly, he threw back

his hood and lifted his head, staring directly, proudly, at Par-

Salian. "I am ready. Great One," Raistlin spoke coolly.

Par-Salian nodded, his eyes glittering. "Begin your journey in

three months' time," the old man said, then went back to eating his

fish.

Raistlin's master gave him a furious glance, rebuking him for

his impudence. Par-Salian did not look at him again. The young

conjurer bowed and left without a word.

The servant let him out; however, Raistlin slipped back through

the unlocked door, cast a sleep spell upon the servant, and stood,

hidden in the alcove, listening to the conversation between his

master and Par-Salian.

"The Order has never tested one so young," the master said.

"And you chose him! Of all my pupils, he is the most unworthy. I

simply do not understand."

"You don't like him, do you?" Par-Salian asked mildly.

"No one does," the master snapped. "There is no compassion in

him, no humanity. He is greedy and grasping, difficult to trust. Did

you know that his nickname among the other students is the Sly

One? He absorbs from everyone's soul and gives back nothing of

his own. His eyes are mirrors; they reflect all he sees in cold,

brittle terms."

"He is highly intelligent," Par-Salian suggested.

"Oh, there's no denying that." The master sniffed. "He is my

best pupil. And he has a natural affinity for magic. Not one of

those surface users."

"Yes," Par-Salian agreed. "Raistlin's magic springs from deep

within."

"But it springs from a dark well," the master said, shaking his

head. "Sometimes I look at him and shudder, seeing the Black

Robes fall upon him. That will be his destiny, I fear."

"I think not," Par-Salian said thoughtfully. "There is more to

him than you see, though I admit he keeps it well hidden. More to

him than he knows himself, I'll wager."

"Mmmmm," the master sounded very dubious.

Raistlin smiled to himself, a twisted smile. It came as no

surprise to learn his master's true feelings. Raistlin sneered. Who

cares? he thought bitterly. As for Par-Salian-Raistlin shrugged it

off.

"What of his brother?" Par-Salian asked.

Raistlin, his ear pressed against the door, frowned.

"Ah!" The master became effusive. "Night and day. Caramon is

handsome, honorable, trusting, everyone's friend. Theirs is a

strange relationship. I have seen Raistlin watch Caramon with a

fierce, burning love in his eyes. And the next instant, I have seen

such hatred and jealousy I think the young man could murder his

twin without giving it a second thought." He coughed,

apologetically. "Let me send you Algenon, Great One. He is not as

intelligent as Raistlin, but his heart is true and good."

"Algenon is TOO good," Par-Salian snorted. "He has never

known torment or suffering or evil. Set him in a cold, biting wind

and he will wither like a maiden's first rose. But Raistlin-well,

one who constantly battles evil within will not be overly dismayed

by evil without."

Raistlin heard chairs scrape. Par-Salian stood up.

"Let's not argue. I was given a choice to make and I have made

it," Par-Salian said.

"Forgive me. Great One, I did not mean to be contradictory,"

the master said stiffly, hurt.

Raistlin heard Par-Salian sigh wearily. "I should be the one to

apologize, old friend," he said. "Forgive me. There is trouble

coming upon us that the world may not survive. This choice has

been a heavy burden upon me. As you know, the Test may well

prove fatal to the young man."

"It has killed others more worthy," the master murmured.

Their conversation turned to other matters, so Raistlin crept

away.

The young mage considered Par-Salian's words many times

during the weeks that followed while he prepared for his journey.

Sometimes he would hug himself with pride at being chosen by

the Great One to take the Test-the greatest honor conferred on a

magician. But, at night, the words may WELL PROVE FATAL

haunted his dreams.

He thought, as he drew nearer and nearer the Towers, about

those who had not survived. Their belongings had been returned to

their families, without a single word (other than Par-Salian's

regrets). For this reason, many magicians did not take the Test.

After all, it gave no additional power. It added no spells to the

spellbook. One could practice magic quite well without it, and

many did so. But they were not considered "true" magic-users by

their peers, and they knew it. The Test gave a mage an aura that

surrounded him. When entering the presence of others, this aura

was deeply felt by all and, therefore, commanded respect.

Raistlin hungered for that respect. But did he hunger for it

enough to be willing to die trying to obtain it?

"There it is!" Caramon interrupted his thoughts, reining his

horse in sharply.

"The fabled Towers of High Sorcery," Raistlin said, staring in

awe.

The three tall stone towers resembled skeletal fingers, clawing

out of the grave.

"We could turn back now," Caramon croaked, his voice

breaking.

Raistlin looked at his brother in astonishment. For the first time

since he could remember, Raistlin saw fear in Caramon. The

young conjurer felt an unusual sensation-a warmth spread over

him. He reached out and put a steady hand on his brother's

trembling arm. "Do not be afraid, Caramon," Raistlin said, "I am

with you."

Caramon looked at Raistlin, then laughed nervously to himself.

He urged his horse forward.

The two entered the Towers. Vast stone walls and darkness

swallowed them up, then they heard the voice: "Approach."

The two walked ahead. Raistlin walked steadfastly, but

Caramon moved warily, his hand on the hilt of his sword. They

came to stand before a withered figure sitting in the center of a

cold, empty chamber.

"Welcome, Raistlin," Par-Salian said. "Do you consider

yourself prepared to undergo your final Test?"

"I do, Par-Salian, Greatest of Them All."

Par-Salian studied the young man before him. The conjurer's

pale, thin cheeks were stained with a faint flush, as though fever

burned in his blood. "Who accompanies you?" Par-Salian asked.

"My twin brother, Caramon, Great Mage." Raist-lin's mouth

twisted into a snarl. "As you see. Great One, I am no fighter. My

brother came to protect me."

Par-Salian stared at the brothers, reflecting on the odd humor

of the gods. TWINS! THIS CARAMON IS HUGE. SIX FEET

TALL, HE MUST WEIGH OVER TWO HUNDRED POUNDS. HIS

FACE-A FACE OF SMILES AND BOISTEROUS LAUGHTER;

THE EYES ARE AS OPEN AS HIS HEART. POOR RAISTLIN.

Par-Salian turned his gaze back to the young man whose red

robes hung from thin, stooped shoulders. Obviously weak, Raistlin

was the one who could never take what he wanted, so he had

learned, long ago, that magic could compensate for his

deficiencies. Par-Salian looked into the eyes. No, they were not

mirrors as the master had said-not for those with the power to see

deeply. There was good inside the young man-an inner core of

strength that would enable his fragile body to endure much. But

now his soul was a cold, shapeless mass, dark with pride, greed,

and selfishness. Therefore , as a shapeless mass of metal is

plunged into a white-hot fire and emerges shining steel, so Par-

Salian intended to forge this conjurer.

"Your brother cannot stay," the Mage admonished softly.

"I am aware of that. Great One," Raistlin replied, with a hint of

impatience.

"He will be well cared for in your absence," Par-Salian

continued. "And of course, he will be allowed to carry home your

valuables should the Test prove beyond your skill."

"Carry home . . . valuables . . ." Caromon's face became grim

as he considered this statement. Then it darkened as he understood

the full meaning of the Mage's words. "You mean-"

'Raistlin's voice cut in, sharp, edged. "He means, dear brother,

that you will take home my possessions in the event of my death."

Par-Salian shrugged.

"Failure, invariably, proves fatal."

"Yes, you're right. I forgot that death could be a result of this . .

. ritual." Caramon's face crumped into wrinkles of fear. He laid his

hand on his brother's arm. "I think you should forget this, Raist.

Let's go home."

Raistlin twitched at his brother's touch, his thin body

shuddering. "Do I counsel you to refuse battle?" he flared. Then,

controlling his anger, he continued more calmly. "This is my

battle, Caramon. Do not worry. I will not fail."

Caramon pleaded. "Please, Raist . . . I'm supposed to take care

of you-"

"Leave me!" Raistlin's control cracked, splintered, wounding

his brother.

Caramon fell backward. "All right," he mumbled. "I'll. . . I'll

meet you . . . outside." He flashed the Mage a threatening glance.

Then he turned and walked out of the chamber, his huge

battlesword clanking against his thigh.

A door thudded, then there was silence.

"I apologize for my brother," Raistlin said, his lips barely

moving.

"Do you?" Par-Salian asked. "Why?"

The young man scowled. "Because he always . . . Oh, can't we

just get on with this?" His hands clenched beneath the sleeves of

his robe.

"Of course," the Mage replied, leaning back in his chair.

Raistlin stood straight, eyes open and unblinking. Then he drew in

a sharp breath.

The Mage made a gesture. There was a sound, a shattering

crack. Quickly, the conjurer vanished.

 

A VOICE SPOKE FROM THE NETHER REGIONS.

"WHY MUST WE TEST THIS ONE SO SEVERELY?"

PAR-SALIAN'S TWISTED HANDS CLASPED AND

UNCLASPED. "WHO QUESTIONS THE GODS?" HE

FROWNED. "THEY DEMANDED A SWORD. I FOUND ONE,

BUT HIS METAL IS WHITE HOT. HE MUST BE BEATEN . . .

TEMPERED. . . MADE USEFUL."

"AND IF HE BREAKS?"

"THEN WE WILL BURY THE PIECES," MURMURED THE

MAGE.

 

Raistlin dragged himself away from the dead body of the dark

elf. Wounded and exhausted, he crawled into a shadowy corridor

and slumped against a wall. Pain twisted him. He clutched his

stomach and retched. When the convulsion subsided, he lay back

on the stone floor and waited for death.

WHY ARE THEY DOING THIS TO ME? he wondered through a

dreamy haze of pain. Only a young conjurer, he had been

subjected to trials devised by the most renowned Mages-living

and dead. The fact that he must pass these Tests was no longer his

main thought; survival, however, was. Each trial had wounded

him, and his health had always been precarious. If he survived this

ordeal-and he doubted he would-he could imagine his body to

be like a shattered crystal, held together by the force of his own

will.

But then, of course, there was Caramon, who would care for

him-as always.

HA! The thought penetrated the haze, even made Raistlin laugh

harshly. No, death was preferable to a life of dependence on his

brother. Raistlin lay back on the stone floor, wondering how much

longer they would let him suffer . . .

. . . And a huge figure materialized out of the shadowy

darkness of the corridor.

THIS IS IT, Raistlin thought, MY FINAL TEST. THE ONE I

WON'T SURVIVE.

He decided simply not to fight, even though he had one spell

left. Maybe death would be quick and merciful.

He lay on his back, staring at the dark shadow as it drew closer

and closer. It came to stand next to him. He could sense its living

presence, hear its breathing. It bent over him. Involuntarily, he

closed his eyes.

"Raist?"

He felt cold fingers touch his burning flesh.

"Raist!" the voice sobbed. "In the name of the gods, what have

they done to you?"

"Caramon," Raistlin spoke, but he couldn't hear his own voice.

His throat was raw from coughing.

"I'm taking you out of here," his brother announced firmly.

Raistlin felt strong arms slip under his body. He smelled the

familiar smell of sweat and leather, heard the familar sound of

armor creak and broadsword clank.

"No!" Raistlin pushed against his brother's massive chest with a

frail, fragile hand. "Leave me, Caramon! My tests are not

complete! Leave me!" His voice was an inaudible croak, then he

gagged violently.

Caramon lifted him easily, cradled him in his arms. "Nothing is

worth this. Rest easy, Raist." The big man choked. As they walked

under a flickering torch, Raistlin could see tears on his brothers

cheeks. He made one last effort.

"They won't allow us to go, Caramon!" He raised his head,

gasping for breath. "You're only putting yourself in danger!"

"Let them come," Caramon said grimly, walking with firm

steps down the dimly lit corridor.

Raistlin sank back, helpless, his head resting on Caramon's

shoulder. He felt comforted by his brother's strength, though he

cursed him inwardly.

YOU FOOL! Raistlin closed his eyes wearily. YOU GREAT,

STUBBORN FOOL! NOW WE'LL BOTH DIE. AND, OF

COURSE, YOU WILL DIE PROTECTING ME. EVEN IN DEATH

I'LL BE INDEBTED TO YOU!

"Ah . . ."

Raistlin heard and felt the sharp intake of breath into his

brother's body. Caramon's walk had slowed. Raistlin raised his

head and peered ahead.

"A wraith," he breathed.

"Mmmm . . ." Caramon rumbled deeply in his chest-his

battle-cry.

"My magic can destroy it," Raistlin protested as Caramon laid

him gently on the stone floor. BURNING HANDS, Raistlin thought

grimly. A weak spell against a wraith, but he had to try. "Move,

Caramon! I have just enough strength left."

Caramon did not answer. He turned around and walked toward

the wraith, blocking Raistlin's view.

Clinging to the wall, the conjurer clawed his way to a standing

position and raised his hand. Just as he was about to expend his

strength in one last shout, hoping to warn off his brother, he

stopped and stared in disbelief. Caramon raised his hand. Where

before he had held a sword, now he held a rod of amber. In the

other hand, his shield hand, he held a bit of fur. He rubbed the two

together, spoke some magic words-and a lightning bolt flashed,

striking the wraith in the chest. It shrieked, but kept coming, intent

on draining Cara-mon's life energy. Caramon kept his hands

raised. He spoke again. Another bolt sizzled, catching the wraith in

its head. And suddenly there was nothing.

"Now we'll get out of here," Caramon said with satisfaction.

The rod and the fur were gone. He turned around. "The door is just

ahead-"

'"How did you do that?" Raistlin asked, propping himself up

against the wall.

Caramon halted, alarmed by his brother's wild, frenzied stare.

"Do what?" The fighter blinked.

"The magic!" Raistlin shrieked in fury. "The magic!"

"Oh, that," Caramon shrugged. "I've always been able to. Most

of the time I don't need it, what with my sword and all, but you're

hurt real bad and I've got to get you out of here. I didn't want to

take time fighting that character. Don't bother about it, Raist. It can

still be your little specialty. Like I said before, most of the time I

don't need it."

THIS IS IMPOSSIBLE, Raistlin's mind told him. HE

COULDN'T HAVE ACQUIRED IN MOMENTS WHAT IT TOOK

ME YEARS OF STUDY TO ATTAIN. THIS DOESN'T MAKE

SENSE. FIGHT THE SICKNESS AND THE WEAKNESS AND

THE PAIN! THINK! But it wasn't the physical pain that clouded

Raistlin's mind. It was the old inner pain clawing at him, tearing at

him with poisoned talons. Caramon, strong and cheerful, good and

kind, open and honest. Everyone's friend.

Not like Raistlin-the runt, the Sly One.

ALL I EVER HAD WAS MY MAGIC, Raistlin's mind shrieked.

AND NOW HE HAS THAT TOO!

Propping himself against the wall for support, Raistlin raised

both his hands, put his thumbs together, and pointed them at

Caramon. He began murmuring magic words, but different from

those that Caramon had spoken.

"Raist?" Caramon backed up. "What are you doing? C'mon! Let

me help you. I'll take care of you- just like always . . . Raist! I'm

your brother!"

Raistlin's parched lips cracked in a grin. Hatred and jealousy-

long kept bubbling and molten beneath a layer of cold, solid

rock-burst forth. Magic coursed through his body and flamed out

of his hands. He watched the fire flare, billow, and engulf

Caramon. When the fighter became a living torch, Raistlin sud-

denly knew from his training that what he was seeing simply could

not be. The instant that he realized something was wrong with this

occurrence, the burning image of his brother vanished. A moment

later, Raistlin lost consciousness and slumped to the ground.

 

"Awaken, Raistlin, your trials are complete."

Raistlin opened his eyes. The darkness was gone;

sunshine streamed through a window. He lay in a bed. Looking

down at him was the withered face of Par-Salian.

"Why?" Raistlin rasped, clutching at the Mage in fury. "Why

did you do that to me?"

Par-Salian laid his hand on the frail young man's shoulder.

"The gods asked for a sword, Raistlin, and now I can give them

one-you. Evil is coming upon the land. The fate of all this world

called Krynn swings in the balance. Through the aid of your hand

and others, the balance will be restored."

Raistlin stared, then laughed, briefly and bitterly. "Save Krynn?

How? You have shattered my body. I can't even see properly!" He

stared in terror . . .

. . . For, as Raistlin watched, he could see the Mage's face

dying. When he turned his gaze to the window, the stones he

looked at crumbled before his eyes. Wherever he looked,

everything was falling into ruin and decay. Then, the moment

passed, and his vision cleared.

Par-Salian handed him a mirror. Raistlin saw that his own face

was sunken and hollow. His skin was a golden color now, with a

faint metallic cast; this would be a symbol of the agony he had

endured. But it was his eyes that caused him to recoil in horror, for

the black pupils were no longer round- they were the shape of

hourglasses!

"You see through hourglass eyes now, Raistlin. And so you see

time, as it touches all things. You see death, whenever you look on

life. Thus you will always be aware of the brief timespan we spend

in the world." Par-Salian shook his head. "There will be no joy in

your life, Raistlin, I fear-indeed, little joy for anyone living on

Krynn."

Raistlin laid the mirror face down. "My brother?" he asked, his

voice barely a whisper.

"It was an illusion that I created-my personal challenge for

you to look deeper into your own heart and examine the ways in

which you deal with those closest to you," Par-Salian said gently.

"As for your brother, he is here, safe . . . quite safe. Here he comes

now."

As Caramon entered the room, Raistlin sat up, shoving Par-

Salian aside. The warrior appeared relieved to see that his twin had

enough energy to greet him, but Caramon's eyes reflected a certain

sadness that comes from learning an unpleasant truth.

"I didn't think you would recognize the illusion for what it was,"

Par-Salian said. "But you did; after all, what magic-user can work

spells, carrying a sword and wearing armor?"

"Then I did not fail?" Raistlin murmured hoarsely.

"No." Par-Salian smiled. "The final of the Test was the defeat

of the dark elf-truly superb for one of your experience."

Raistlin looked at his brother's haunted face, his averted eyes.

"He watched me kill him, didn't he?" Raistlin whispered.

"Yes," Par-Salian looked from one to the other. "I am sorry I

had to do this to you, Raistlin. You have much to learn, mage-

mercy, compassion, forebear-ance. It is my hope that the trials

you face ahead of you will teach you what you lack now. If not,

you will succumb in the end to the fate your master foresaw. But,

as of now, you and your brother truly know each other. The

barriers between you have been battered down, though I am afraid

each of you has suffered wounds in the encounter. I hope the scars

make you stronger."

Par-Salian rose to leave. "Use your powers well, mage. The

time is close at hand when your strength must save the world."

Raistlin bowed his head and sat in silence until Par-Salian had

left the room. Then he stood up, staggered, and nearly fell.

Caramon jumped forward to help him, but Raistlin, clinging to

the wooden staff, caught himself. Fighting the pain and dizziness

that assailed him, Raistlin's golden-eyed gaze met that of his twin.

Caramon hesitated . . . and stopped.

Raistlin sighed. Then, leaning on the Staff of Ma-gius, the

young mage pulled himself upright and walked, slowly and with

faltering steps, out the door.

Head bowed, his twin followed.

 

Harvests

Nancy Varian Berberick

 

Flint squinted up at the patches of fading blue sky

showing through the forest's skeletal cover. Golden

light slanted down from a westering autumn sun. The thought of

another night in this gloomy woods did nothing to improve his

mood, already soured by two restless nights. Wicked whispers and

dread-filled moans were this forest's night song. He shivered and

caught himself tapping the haft of his battle-axe. There was

something wrong in these woods, and thoughts of Solace and

home never seemed more welcome to the old dwarf than they had

on this journey.

The dwarf glowered at Tanis. Blast the young half-elf's curious

nature! So he hadn't been out of his homeland of Qualinesti that

long. Did that mean he had to lead them down every cowpath in

search of adventure? And wasn't he, Flint Fireforge, a respectable

dwarven businessman, old enough to know better?

Flint heaved a disgruntled sigh. He guessed not-or he

wouldn't be in this predicament, lost in some gloomy forest that

wasn't on his map.

"Are you going to be peering at the dirt much longer," he

grumbled, "or can we look for a camp site?"

Tanis, moving on Flint's heels and inspecting the ground to the

left of the root-webbed path, gestured for Flint to join him. "Look

at this."

The bushes and frost-seared grass to the side of the path were

bent and trampled, marking a departure into the forest. A scrap of

brown wool still fluttered in the sharp-toothed grasp of a young

prickly ash.

"It looks like someone went through here," Flint said. "And

recently, at that."

Tanis peered into the forest in the direction the lone traveler

had taken. The song of water racing and tumbling over rocks

played a faint counterpoint to the whispering rustle of leaves in the

cooling breeze. But then from nearer by he heard the soft sound of

something or someone breathing in the hard, short gasps that

clearly spoke of fear.

"Flint?" he whispered.

"I hear it."

Tanis reached for his bow and nocked an arrow with the quick,

almost absent moves of one who has used it with familiarity for

years. It took only a gesture and a nod from him to tell the old

dwarf to follow quietly.

Elf-silent, making no more noise than a hunted fox, Tanis

stepped off the path and into the darkening woods.

Close-growing oaks and then underbrush crowded together,

forming a broad wall of trunks and forbidding shadow. Tanis

moved quickly from one oak to the next, keeping cover. Several

growths thick, the trees ended abruptly in a clearing carpeted with

their wide-fingered bronze leaves.

The girl crouched at the edge of the clearing was the most

bedraggled creature Tanis had ever seen. Her hair, the color of

frost-kissed aspen leaves, tumbled around her shoulders and

straggled across her face. It did not hide the scratches and cuts,

signs of a careless passage through the prickly ash, that scored her

cheeks.

She could not have been more than seventeen and that was

young, Tanis thought, even by the standards of short-lived

humans. Crouched in the thick shadows of an ancient oak's trunk,

she held perfectly still. There was that in her blue eyes that

reminded the half-elf of a doe caught in a hunter's aim.

Flint breathed a startled oath. As though the old dwarf's

whisper was the impetus she needed, the girl bolted.

"No, wait!" Tanis called. But the girl plunged through the trees,

too terrified to cast even a backward look. Tanis leaped after her,

slinging his bow and returning the arrow to the quiver as he ran.

Behind him he could hear Flint angling toward the stream. Above

them a raven screeched hoarsely and took noisy wing from a tall

oak.

Tanis caught up with the girl at the stream. "Lady, wait!"

She skittered down the mossy bank. Once there she dropped to

her knees, groping along the edge of the water for a rock. Her

hand, raw with cold and trembling with fear, clutched a large

stone. She hurled it at the half-elf with all her strength and

awkward aim.

Tanis ducked and heard the rock drop harmlessly into the brush

behind him. Flint breached the woods just a little upstream from

the girl. He moved silently down the water's edge. While her

attention was still on Tanis, who took the banks in two long leaps,

Flint caught her by the elbows. He pinned her arms behind her,

and brought her up to her feet.

"That will be enough of that, young woman," he said gruffly.

"We've no interest in harming you."

Her eyes wide and wild with terror, the girl looked from the old

dwarf to the young half-elf. Gasping, she struggled against Flint's

hold. Tanis took another step toward her, showing her his hands,

free of weapons.

"He means it, lady. We won't harm you. Flint, you can let her

go."

"I'll be happy to-if she promises not to try to break our heads

with rocks."

Tanis smiled at the girl. "She'll promise that, won't you, lady?"

Her chin came up, and though her lips trembled, she eyed Tanis

defiantly. "And what warrant do you make?"

"I'll make you two," Tanis said gently. "That neither of us will

harm you and that we'll offer you a warm fire for the night. Are

they acceptable?"

Her whispered "yes" carried such mingled notes of hope and

fear that it went right to Tanis's heart. In the twilight gloom now

settling on the forest, he saw the sparkle of tears in her eyes. He

took her hand and helped her up the bank.

He glanced over her head at Flint, but the dwarf only shrugged.

Still, Tanis knew that his friend pondered the same question that

he did: what was the girl doing alone in these woods?

 

Tanis managed to bring down two fat hares while Flint and the

girl made camp. Riana, she'd said her name was, but she

volunteered no information after that. It was Tanis's thought that

she'd speak more willingly once she was fed and warm.

Riana was silent through all the time it took to roast the hares,

though some of her fear seemed to leave her as she listened to

Tanis's easy banter and Flint's gruff answers. She did not speak

during the meal but to thank them for the food and finally to offer

to clean the cookware at the stream.

Tanis listened to her careful progress down the bank. A cold wind

scampered through the clearing, rustling the leaves and causing the

bare branches of the trees to rub and clack together. These were

the only sounds in a forest fallen silent before winter's approach.

The sky had been clear at sunset, but now thick clouds crawled

up from the north. Though Lunitari's crimson glow had lighted

each of their nights before this, it would not tonight; Solinari,

could she be seen, was only a slim new curve. Beyond the fire's

glow the trees' gnarled hands scratched at the grim sky. Ghostly

mist drifted between their dark trunks, obscuring the ground and

lowest growths.

In Flint's pack was a small pouch containing nothing but blocks

of wood. Tanis smiled as he watched his friend reach into the

pouch, taking the first one he touched. The size of his hand, the

block was smooth and white, taken from the heart of a maple.

Flint's dagger gleamed in the firelight as he made himself

comfortable before the fire. In the companionable silence that fell

between the two, the little block of wood became a rabbit, one ear

dipped, one standing at the alert. The rabbit s nose, nostrils flared

as though sniffing the frosty night air, required only a few last cuts

when the soft dirge-like moaning that had haunted their nights

began again.

Tanis shivered. "In the name of the gods, Flint, why is a child

like that traveling alone in this miserable forest?"

But before Flint could answer, Riana's shadow fell across the

fire, sharp and black. Her voice trembled. "I was not alone when I

set out. My brother and-and Karel were with me." She set the

cookware by the fire to dry and came to sit close to the warmth.

Tanis poked at the fire and watched the bright flames lick

higher. "Where are they now, Riana?"

The girl shuddered, hunching closer into the poor shelter of her

ragged cloak. "I-I don't know. It happened two nights ago. We

were camping farther north, returning from our journey to Haven.

Our village lies north of here. You might know it-Winding

Vale."

Flint worked at his whittling and did not look up. "We know

it," he said quietly. "What happened to your brother and this

Karel?"

"Our camp-it was attacked!" The wind mourned long and low

in the trees. Riana drew her knees up close to her chest, huddling

for warmth. "It was attacked by-things, phantoms, ghosts-I

don't know what they were. I only know that they were horrible.

And when Karel ran his sword through one it-it didn't die. It

laughed and the sound froze the heart in me. I've never seen such

fear in Karel before! And I've known him all my life. He looked at

me- It was as though he pleaded for my help. Or bade me

farewell." She stopped, a sob caught in her throat, grief and an

almost witless despair in her wide blue eyes. "And then it touched

him, took his hand, and another one took Daryn, my brother,

and-and they were gone."

She dropped her forehead to her knees and rocked there in

silent misery. Moved by her sorrow, Tanis put his arm around her.

She leaned against him, shivering. In the stillness of the black

night the fire's crackling seemed too loud.

"And you've been lost these two days, wandering?"

"No!" Her voice was muffled against his shoulder. Tanis could

feel her stiffen in anger. "I'm not lost, I'm trying to FIND them!"

"It seems to me," Flint muttered, his eyes still on his whittling,

"that it amounts to about the same thing."

"It's not the same thing." Riana pulled away from Tanis and

brushed at the hair straggling across her tear-streaked face.

"I see. Then perhaps you have an idea where these ghosts or

phantoms have taken your brother and his friend?"

"If I knew that I'd be going there."

"Lost and wandering."

Before Riana could protest, Tanis took her hand and silenced

Flint with a sharp look. "Riana, whatever the case may be, you

cannot be alone in these woods. Our way lies northeast to Solace.

We would be glad of your company that far."

"No. Thank you, but no. I must find my brother and Karel.

Haven't you heard what I've said?" She looked from Tanis to Flint,

then suddenly understood the hard line of Flint's questioning. "You

don't believe me, do you?"

Tanis shook his head. "No, Riana, it's not that-"

"You don't. What do you think? Do you think I've done away

with them? My own brother and the man-who has been a friend

to us both for all our lives? Or do you think that I'm fey enough to

wander these wretched woods alone for pleasure?" Her voice rose,

sharp in the cold dark. "My brother and Karel have VANISHEDL"

"Riana, let us help you. Let us take you to Solace."

"I must find them. I'll not find them in Solace." Her tone was

bitter, cooling now with disappointment. "But I thank you for your

fire tonight and the food. I'll be on my way in the morning."

Tanis took her hand again and suddenly Flint sensed his

friends thought as clearly as he could sense the frost on the night

air.

HE'S GOING TO TAKE UP THIS FOOLISH GIRL'S QUEST!

He sat forward quickly to protest, but before he could speak,

Tanis said, 'Then you won't go alone, Riana."

The girl's eyes lighted, her lips parted in a genuine smile of

surprise and hope. "You'll help me?"

"I will."

Flint watched through narrowed eyes while Riana and Tanis

talked together for a short time longer. He made no effort to join

their conversation, but sat, brooding before the fire. When Riana,

tired at last, bade him goodnight, he answered with only a short

nod.

Once the girl was well settled and sleeping, wrapped in Tanis's

blanket, Flint sat forward, still grimly silent.

But Tanis did not speak. Long experience had taught him that

the best defense against Flint's disapproval was silence. Faced with

no argument against which to vent his objections, Flint would,

sooner or later, find a way to challenge Tanis's silence. With

studied care, Tanis checked the fire and took up the arrows he'd

used to bring down the hares. The green and gold fletching that

marked them as his own was damaged. Tanis worked over them

quietly until Flint at last spoke.

"Well?"

Tanis looked up from his work. "Well?"

"It's late to play word games, Tanis," Flint growled. "What

made you offer to take up this foolishness?"

"What are we supposed to do, leave her here?"

"We could escort her to Solace."

"She won't go."

"How do you know that? You didn't press very hard."

Tanis smoothed the stiff feathers of one of the arrows. "It

seems clear enough to me."

"What seems clear to me is that you've committed yourself to a

hopeless task. Tanis, we don't even know what truth there is in the

girl's story. Ghosts? Bandits, I might believe. But phantoms who

laugh at cold steel?" The old dwarf shook his head. "The girl is ei-

ther lying or a lack-wit."

"No, Flint. She's neither."

"You're so sure?"

Tanis wasn't completely certain. He only knew that her

determination to go on, to find her brother and their friend, was

real. Her eyes had glittered with it, her words held the passion of

one who would not be gainsaid. And, too, though he could point to

nothing that supported his feeling, Tanis was certain that the girl

spoke the truth. He shook his head. At least the truth as she

believed it.

"I'm sure, though I can't say why. Flint, the girl is terrified.

There is something wrong in this forest. We've both felt it. And

still she'll go on, with or without anyone's help. I can't let her go

alone."

"I'll not deny that there is an evil feel to this place. I can almost

smell it, and it grows stronger every day we journey north. Lad,

you're not too old to be reckless, but I am."

Tanis looked from his old friend to Riana, sleeping quietly, one

hand pillowing her head, the other fisted as though she clutched

her courage even in sleep. Whatever doubts could be had about her

story, he knew that she would go on, if she had to, without his

help. And likely she would come to quick grief. He couldn't let

that happen.

"Flint, I haven't committed you. I don't want to go alone. But I

will if I have to."

Smoke drifted up from the fire, a thin veil between them. Even

so, Flint could see the regret in his friend's eyes. Despite his

words, he knew there was no decision to be made. "No, I noticed

you were careful not to do that. Though I wonder that you'd think I

would let you go alone." He reached for the arrows Tanis had

abandoned. "Here, you'll lose these to the flame if you're not

careful."

"Then you'll come with me?"

The wind whispered evil secrets to the night. The groaning of the

trees under the frost might have been the mourning of lost souls.

Flint shuddered, remembering the girl's tale of phantoms and

ghosts. "I still have little enough faith in the girl's story of ghosts.

But it's clear to me that the two of you will need someone with

sense along on this fool's errand."

Tanis thanked him gravely, knowing that it would not do now

to smile.

 

On the black stone parapet of his castle, the old mage Gadar

turned his face up to a cold sky. Lunitari's red light leaked from

behind the clenched fists of crimson clouds. Shadows drifted

across the ground. Like dark breaths they twined around the gray

trunks of stiffly ranked pines and slid down the mountain's slopes.

A night-hawk, talons flashing in the moon's rising light, dropped

from her nest: she was an arrow irrevocably launched toward her

prey. The rabbit screamed, its first and last voicing, a brief song of

the life it had lived and protest of death's agony.

Behind the mage, in a chamber red with the flame of torch and

hearth, a raven cawed as though to warn him that time was

passing. Gadar turned his back on the mountains and returned to

the chamber.

The raven croaked again, cocked its head specula-lively, and

preened its wings.

"I know," Gadar murmured wearily. "They could be trouble.

But they will be dealt with."

The preening stopped then. The raven tilted its head back

toward the long table standing before the hearth and eyed with

deep mistrust the wooden coffer that lay in its center. Made of

finely polished rosewood, hinged and latched with silver, the chest

was the one thing that reflected no light from the fire.

"Yes, yes, my friend, you'd best leave while you can."

The bird did not hesitate. It lifted with awkward striving and

cleared the window, drifting out into the frost-nipped night.

Alone again, Gadar took up the coffer. With careful

movements he released the delicately crafted silver latch and

closed his eyes. The words of the summoning spell came quickly,

filling him with the power and demanding of him the strength of

will needed to direct what it was he summoned.

 

KNOW WHO CALLS YOU:

HE WHO HOLDS WHAT YOU HAVE ABANDONED.

 

He lifted the lid of the coffer, hardly feeling the silky wood

beneath his fingers, not aware of the soundless swing of the

hinges. He opened his eyes, dropped his gaze to the rich amber

velvet cushioning the treasure housed within. Cool and bright,

silver chased with gold, the four bejeweled sword hilts lay, each

touching the other to form a cross.

 

KNOW WHO GUIDES YOU:

HE WHO KEEPS WHAT YOU HAVE LOST.

 

The fire in the hearth leaped, dancing high and roaring with the

hollow voices of unhoused spirits. A wind, cold as though it had

swept across glaciers, moaned through the room.

 

KNOW WHO SENDS YOU:

HE WHO OWNS WHAT YOU HAVE SOLD.

 

Black as night, insubstantial as the smoke of a funeral pyre, the

four phantoms formed before the mage. Their bodies were only

shades of what they had once been, living men. Their eyes were

red as the flame in the hearth, their hearts as empty as

winter's wind.

"Where?" the darkest one, the longest dead, asked.

"A day's journey from here. You should be able to reach

them before dawn. A girl, a dwarf, and a half-elf."

"Bring them?"

Gadar hesitated.

The phantom laughed, and the hair shivered along the

mage's arms. The spirits were his to control, but he feared

them nonetheless. Still, he feared more any interference in

his plans. He could not allow himself to be stopped now.

Tomorrow was the night when the spell must be cast;

tonight the night when one must be chosen from the two

young men who waited in his dungeons. He must set these

four phantoms prowling again. It must be certain that

nothing could occur to thwart the spell.

"Stop them."

"It is done," the leader whispered.

And it was, Gadar thought as he watched the incorporeal

bodies of the spirits thin and fade. It was done. These

creatures had never failed to serve him before. They would

not fail now.

Regret stirred in the old mage's heart. But it never rose

strong enough to call him back from the shadowed path he

walked. His remorse was bound by chains, made up of links

forged by the deaths that he had caused. And those chains

were heavy ones, colored red by the fire of his need.

Riana's sleep had been brief. Having wakened just when

Flint roused Tanis to take the second of the night watches,

she had drawn close to a fire that she kept blazing high with

whatever fuel came to hand. She had not been a talkative

companion, Tanis thought now as he watched her stirring the

fire to greater brightness, but had spent most of the last watch star-

ing into the dancing flames.

Now he stood and gently took the long, smoke-blackened stick

from her hands.

"Enough," he said, tossing the stick aside. "You put us in

danger of roasting to death." He was sorry to see her flinch. He'd

meant his words lightly, for the mist that had made black ghosts of

the trees earlier in the night had deepened. And though dawn was

only an hour away, warmth and light were welcome.

"Pardon," she murmured. She drew her cloak closer around her

shoulders, holding it closed with a hand that trembled. Still she did

not take her eyes from the fire.

Tanis could taste the bitterness of her fear. "You do well to be

afraid, Riana. If you are considering abandoning your search, you

have nothing to be ashamed of."

"No!"

Flint stirred where he lay wrapped in his blankets against the

cold, damp ground.

"Hush," Tanis whispered. "He's done his watch. Let him sleep."

When she spoke again Riana's voice was low and trembling. "I

will not abandon Karel or Daryn." She bit her lower lip, worrying

it until Tanis thought it must bleed. "I hate this forest. I am not the

fool your friend thinks I am. I-I would like nothing better than to

go with you to Solace. But-I cannot. Can you not see that I must

at least try to find them? They are all the family I have . . ." Her

words trailed away, as though she did not wish to contemplate a

life without her brother or her friend.

In the silence Tanis shivered as the wind grew suddenly sharper.

The flames leaped high and then dropped almost to embers.

Smoke, thick and acrid, billowed from the campfire, stinging his

eyes to quick tears. Above him he could hear a deep-throated roar-

ing, the sound wind makes racing across the treetops. Though for

an instant he could not see her, Tanis knew that Riana was on her

feet. He heard her coughing, a choking sound filled with ragged

gasping. Behind him, Flint was up and complaining bitterly about

people who could not keep a simple camping fire from burning

down an entire forest.

The wind kicked harder at the fire, scattering bright embers

around their feet, sucking at the smoke until it rose in a black

column to vanish into the unseen limbs of the trees above their

heads. Fear danced up Tanis's spine.

"Riana?" he called.

Her voice was small and pinched, only a whimpering response.

Then, as swiftly as it had risen, the wind died as though it had

never been. Tanis looked around in the stillness, placed Riana

where she stood, frozen, across the fire from him, and Flint who

braced just behind him, his axe in his hand. He read the danger in

the old dwarf's eyes and spun back, his hand on the hilt of the

dagger at his belt.

They might have been creatures of the smoke, so dark and

insubstantial were they. But their eyes, four sets of crimson

embers, spoke of some kind of unholy life. One separated from

the group, taller, darker than the rest, and took a bold step toward

where the camp-fire, now scattered coals, had been.

Riana's gasp was a shuddering sound of terror and dread. Tanis

saw his sword lying just out of his reach and felt his heart sink

even as he realized that these must be the creatures who had

attacked Riana's camp three nights before. If her tale was true, no

sword or dagger would prevail against these phantom raiders now.

As though he realized Tanis's thought, the leader of the black

shadow attackers laughed, a high keening sound that chilled the

very bones of those who heard it.

"Do not regret your sword," it said, its voice hollow and fell. "It

would do you no good did you have it."

"Who-" Tanis's words caught in his throat, constricting with

his fear, and he drew a sharp, tight breath. "Who are you?"

"It cannot matter to you. What matters is that we have been sent

to stop you." The phantom's red eyes glowed hotly as it laughed

again. "And you are stopped."

Riana's little moan of fear was only a whisper. She bowed her

head and covered her face with her hands. "No," she sobbed, "no,

not again . . ."

The phantom turned its attention to her, recognition flaring in

its bright eyes. "Yes, little one, again. And this time is the last." It

reached for her, the motion as smooth as smoke drifting on the

wind.

Tanis dove for his sword, scattering the hot coals of the

campfire as he ran. He caught up the scabbard and tore the blade

from its sheath, whirling just in time to see another of the

phantoms flowing toward him. The third, though, swirled away as

the glowing embers tumbled like orange jewels at its feet. It feared

the fire!

"Flint! Fire! The fire!"

But Flint, faced with attack from the fourth phantom, could not

make a move toward the dying fire. Fighting with an instinct that

denied Riana's tale of enemies impervious to honest steel, he

swung his axe with deadly force at his attacker. It was a blow that

would have separated a mortal enemy's head from his shoulders.

The blade passed harmlessly through the phantom's neck,

whistling in the cold predawn air.

Cursing in both anger and fear, the old dwarf ducked beneath his

attacker's reach and dodged to the side, passing close enough to

the phantom raider to feel the deathlike chill emanating from its

transparent body. He scrambled out of reach, dashed his foot

against one of the tumbled stones of the fire ring, and crashed to

his knees. As his hand hit the ground to brace for an upward thrust

to turn and defend again, burning coals stabbed his palm.

"Flint! Fire!"

"Fire," the dwarf snarled. "I KNOW it's fire-"

Tanis stood between Riana and the leader of the phantom

attackers, his sword useless as a defense. Suddenly Flint

understood what he meant, and knew what was wanted to fend off

these ghostly warriors.

Moving quickly, not daring to look behind to see if the creature

he had just escaped was moving to renew the attack, Flint grabbed

for the largest pieces of wood that still bore traces of the night's

fire. Heedless of their burning teeth, he swept them together into

the broken fire ring. He snatched up the scattered kindling from

their carefully gathered pile, and heaping it onto the smouldering

embers and coals, forced himself to gather more than the shallow

breaths of fear necessary to fan the sparks into flame.

"Flint!"

"I'm trying, I'm TRYINGI" Two of the phantom warriors

converged on the dwarf, one from the left and one from the right.

Ice was at his back. The wind howled above his head with the

threat of fury and a grisly death. And the thing that reached for

Tanis was about to lay its blood-freezing hand on his neck.

Riana screamed. It might have been the signal for light.

Flames leaped high, whirling and licking at the brittle kindling,

snapping loud on the night air. Flint snatched a brand from the fire

and tossed it to his friend. He did not wait to see whether Tanis

had it, but caught up another and rounded on his attackers.

But there were none to fight. They were gone, vanishing before

the bright flames. Only their high, wailing voices were left,

lingering in the graying light of day.

Shuddering, Flint retrieved his axe and went to stand as near

the fire as he dared. It was not warmth he sought, however, but

light. He lifted his burned fingers to his mouth, eyeing Tanis and

Riana over his knuckles.

Tanis drew the girl close into the shelter of his arm, dropped

his sword's point, and walked her to the fire. Silently he helped her

to sit, gathered up their scattered blankets, and wrapped her in

them. He whispered a word to her and waited for her answering

nod. When he left the bright circle of the fire, he gestured for Flint

to join him. The old dwarf moved away from the light with great

reluctance, still nursing his stinging hand.

"Are you all right?" Tanis asked, turning Flint's hand palm

upward.

"No," Flint snapped, "I am not! I am burned and scared

witless!"

"Badly burned?"

Flint scowled and snatched his hand away. "Badly enough," he

growled. But when he saw the real concern in his friend's eyes, he

shrugged. "But not so that I can't wield my axe if need be. Though

what good that will do us against ghosts, I'd like to know."

"So you revise your opinion of Riana then?"

"That she is a liar? Aye, she's no liar."

"And a lack-wit?"

Flint snorted and shook his head. "I stand by that. And I'll add

that we're both lack-wits if we continue on through this cursed

forest."

"I'll go on."

"I thought you would. Well, then, so will I." He glared down at

his palms, scowling at the blisters that were already beginning to

form there. "I owe someone for this, and I do not like unpaid

debts."

 

Wretched dawn silvered the eastern sky, blighting Gadar's

certainty that his work of the coming night would be undisturbed.

His phantom warriors had failed in their task, leaving him exposed

and vulnerable. They could not be called into service again until

darkness swallowed the days light. By that time the intruders

might well have found him.

Or they might not. It was a chance that he would have to take.

The time was right for the casting of his spells, the victim had been

chosen. One night hence would be too late.

For a moment, regret, sharp and even bitter, touched Gadar's

heart. It was ever this way when he was faced with this task. The

young man was full of youth's bright flame. The blood ran quick

and sparkling in this one, as it had in the others. Youth would

dance in his eyes, sing in his veins, and light his face with his

golden hopes.

The groaning that had begun with the dawn's coming now

increased in persistence, telling of one who struggled against the

black prison of unconsciousness, pushing against it with feeble

strength and stronger heart. It would have been easier to sink back,

rest for a moment, then try again. But this was a strong-willed

young man. This, then, would be the one who would give his life's

essence.

"Boy," Gadar whispered, "if there were another way-" But there

was no other way. Any other way had been lost to him the first

time he'd set his foot on this dark path. What was one more life

now balanced against the many he had taken and the one he must

preserve at the price of even his own soul? There was no profit,

and only dangerous distraction, in regret.

Gadar crossed the chamber, stopped at a large table, and

checked the components of the spell that he would work tonight.

Everything was ready: the wormwood, the powdered dust of a

crushed sapphire, the rosemary sprigs, the dark heart s blood of a

breeding doe.

Gadar had no intention of trapping the spirit of his chosen

victim in any temporal prison, and this was the difficult part of the

spell. Were he to simply thrust the spirit of the young man into an

en-mazed prison, he would not achieve his purpose. He had a

better use for his victim's life.

For that reason he had chosen the stocky young man with the

thick chestnut hair. Daryn, his name was, and he seemed strong

enough to provide the life essence the mage needed.

At least until he could find someone stronger.

The mage paused, glanced again at the lightening sky. It might

be, he thought, testing a new idea, that it was not such a bad thing

that his ghostly assassins had failed in their dark charge. It might

be that, were he to let the intruders find him, he would be well

rewarded. There was no use for the persistent girl or the old dwarf.

But a half-elf, young and strong as this one, would give life for

many, many more years than the pathetic young humans he'd been

using till now.

"Yes," he whispered, running his fingers along the edge of the

table, "and peace, for a time, at least, and a rest from this weary

work."

He could not send his phantoms for the half-elf now. Not with

the sun's bright light shining. But the half-elf would come on his

own. Gadar smiled coldly. That persistent girl would see to it. He

would let them find him then. He would put no more obstacles in

their way than he needed to gain the time to work this spell now.

Daryn's young life would buy him the time he needed. And

time was, after all, the purchase he'd always sought to make.

 

The forest had darkened long before the sun set. The

whisperings of the night before became ominous growlings in the

underbrush, sobbing wails in the boughs of the trees. A wild wind

danced. The little party of three moved upward, carefully picking a

barely seen path through the giant pines. They were touched by a

chill that put Tanis in mind of winter.

That morning, in grim jest, Flint had suggested that if they

simply let the forest's evil feel guide them, they'd no doubt come

upon their ghostly attackers.

Tanis had not taken the suggestion seriously until, moving

north for lack of any better direction, they each began to feel the

same nameless dread.

"Like a foul odor, a clammy touch," Riana had whispered. Her

hands, clenched in white-knuckled fists at her sides, trembled

when she spoke. Some fearful thing seemed to hover just beyond

their sight, breathing in the trees like no wind that Tanis had ever

heard before. It groaned piteously, and wept with winter's dying

sign.

Shivering in the raw wind, Tanis nodded to Flint. "We could

follow this feeling like a well-marked road."

"Aye, well we could," Flint said, running his thumb along the

haft of his axe. "But what would we find? Nothing we'd like to, I'll

guess." The memory of the phantoms sent more chill through him

than the real wind stinging his face now.

The faint path broadened for a while, a rocky trail barren even of

dirt, leading them ever upward. It seemed, at times, that the wind's

voice really was the wail of dead things keening for life's loss. The

trees, naked and stunted, warped as though by some de mented

hand, were only ugly growths clinging to life by the whim of cruel

nature. Then, when no thing grew at all, when the forests had been

left far behind and their breath was coming hard and fast in the bit-

ter, thinning air, the path narrowed again, fading to a pass between

high peaks. It vanished suddenly at the top of a boulder-strewn

cliff. Behind them lay the dark forest, before them, and far below,

a narrow vale.

Riana, shivering and exhausted, took the last few yards of the

pass with Tanis's help. But the steely determination that had

brought her this far still glimmered in her eyes. SHE'S GOT

MORE HEART THAN STRENGTH, Tanis thought.

"We'll rest here a moment, Riana. We all need it."

She nodded dumbly, too tired to speak, and sank to a seat on an

ice-kissed boulder. Tanis eyed her doubtfully for a moment, then

went to join Flint at the cliff's edge.

"She's not going to be able to go much farther, Tanis. The girl's

exhausted."

"I know. And she isn't the only one. You've been quiet these

few hours, Flint. How are you?"

Flint blew on fingers that were stiff and achingly cold. "My

bones are freezing. I suppose this is what comes of listening to the

wild stories of pretty young women who lose their brothers and

lovers in the forest?"

"Lover? Who, Karel? What makes you say that?"

Flint snorted and shook his head. "Anyone who's heard her

story can tell that. Though its likely news to her, too. She's

doubtless devoted to her brother, but it's been this young Karel

we've heard about time and again, hasn't it? Young girls don't

generally blush quite so deeply when they are talking about family

friends."

"Flint, you surprise me."

"Why, because I can use my eyes? I'm not so old as all that,

youngster. But that's not what concerns me now. What I want to

know is where in the Abyss we are."

Tanis looked down into the valley, a deep cleft in the

mountains shrouded in a thick mist. "I think we're about where we

set out to be. Look." He pointed to a cleared patch in the mist far

below.

Black, built from the heart and bone of the mountains, a vast,

turreted castle rose, a jagged skeletal finger. The setting sun was a

fiery wound in the brittle blue sky, bleeding light across the

forbidding dark stone. Around them the sobbing wind mourned

and gibbered.

"Can you feel it, Flint?"

The sense of evil that had been their guide to this place seemed

to boil and rumble in the vale below as though this were the source

of the keening winds and icy fear.

"Aye, I can feel it. And I don't much like it." The dwarf

glanced over his shoulder at Riana, who sat hunched and

shivering, her eyes on the frozen rocks at her feet. "Tanis, I could

well believe that those ghosts came from this vale." He looked out

into the valley again and felt the touch of something colder than

the bitter wind brush up against his soul. "And I think, too, that

something knows we're here."

Were he not so tired, Tanis would have smiled. He'd known

the hard-headed old dwarf too many years not to be surprised by

the fanciful turn of his thoughts. He looked closely at his old

friend. What he saw in Flint's eyes made him shiver. It was sure

knowledge that made Flint say what he had. Though the wry twist

of his smile told Tanis that he'd no idea where the knowledge

came from.

"Just a feeling," the dwarf muttered.

"I think you're right. And I think, too, that whatever knows

we're here will not let us turn back now. It will be dark soon, and

none of us is up to a trip down to that castle at night. We'd best be

going."

"Aye, well, consider this, Tanis: when they attacked her camp,

those phantom raiders seemed to have little interest in Riana. It

was only Daryn and Karel they ghosted away. And there is

something that tells me, too, that they will have small enough

interest in an old dwarf."

Tanis did smile then. "Are you claiming to have The Sight,

Flint?"

"No. I'm remembering her story."

He remembered it all the way down to the valley. Though it

should not have been beyond his skill to find the thin, shale path,

Flint, a hill dwarf who'd spent many years in the Kharolis

Mountains, thought the trail came too easily to hand. He would

not have sworn his oath that it had not been there before. Still, it

had the look of a thing misplaced.

"Like it hasn't been here long," he grumbled to Tanis. "But it

looks old."

"And it's the next best thing to vertical," Tanis said, catching

hold of Riana, who slid on the loose shale. "The sooner we're off

it, the safer our necks will be."

Flint had his doubts. And from the look of barely controlled

fear in her eyes, he thought Riana shared them. Still, she righted

herself with the same hard-eyed purpose that had brought her this

far. Flint felt a new and grudging respect for her. He reached back

and took her hand.

"This way, Riana. And have a care, the shale gets looser and

smaller. I've no wish to tumble down the rest of the path."

"Riana?" RIANA . . . RIANA . . . RIANA . . . Karel's whisper

echoed in his mind with all the force of thunder crashing

overhead. The flags of the stone floor were hard as

midwinter's ice beneath his cheek. His leather jerkin was no

protection against the chill draft wandering across the floor.

"Daryn?"

Slowly he became aware that he was alone. No chain

held him, no manacle bound him to this floor. Still, he was

unable to move even a finger. And Riana and Daryn were

gone.

Alone! But where? Though he struggled hard with

reluctant memory, Karel could not fill in the gap between

the icy grasp of the disembodied warrior who'd touched his

hand-how long ago? a day? two?-and the chill of this

stone floor now. Yet some time had passed. He could see

Lunitari riding dark clouds just beyond the window above

his head. When he'd last seen the crimson moon she'd been

still waning. Now she waxed, though only slightly.

Where was he?

"Where are you?"

Fear raced through Karel then, but so firmly held was he

that he could not move. The voice was old but hard and

touched with deadly power. Like the whisper of a ghost, he

heard an aching answer.

"Here, within your reach."

"Give me your true name."

"Daryn, Teorth's son."

Though it was his friend's voice that answered the

formally posed question, Karel barely recognized it. Dull,

will-bereft, it held none of the steady confidence he knew

as Daryn's. He trembled inwardly, nauseated by the

realization that it was not Daryn's will that made his friend

answer, but someone else's.

Somewhere, out of his sight, Karel heard the snap and

sign of a fire. The bitter scent of burning wormwood

tainted the cool air.

"Hear me, Daryn, Teorth's son."

Karel squeezed his eyes shut as that commanding voice

dropped to a secret, murmuring chant. He felt the stone floor start

to hum and vibrate. Magic!

Tension, so thick and real that he might have been able to reach

out and touch it, filled the very air of the chamber. Leaping flames

cast black shadow and lurid light through the room. The tension of

the magic's power burst and filled the chamber with the dancing

rainbows of light.

Daryn moaned. The sound came from deep within his heart,

winding and writhing, and touched Karel's soul with dread. He

struggled against his invisible bonds. His muscles shrieked with

the effort, his head filled to bursting with pain. The sweat of his

effort stung his eyes, splintered the shimmering rainbows of

magic's light into shards of furious color.

"Daryn!" he gasped. But Daryn did not respond. He could not.

In a bloody circle, stunned with magic, dazed by his own

horrified realization that Gadar clutched his soul, Daryn screamed.

 

Though Tanis scouted carefully once they'd crossed the scree

and entered the little valley, he found no sign that the black castle

was guarded. But even as he returned to his companions,

darkness, thick and black as a mourner's cloak, fell with startling

suddenness.

Riana gasped, but Flint only shook his head as though to say

that he expected something of the sort. "Night's dark is never this

heavy," he muttered. He saw his companions as faint reddish

outlines in the unrelieved blackness. Tanis, too, would be able to

see. But he knew that Riana, with only her human night vision,

weak by the standards of dwarves and elves, must be nearly

sightless.

"Tanis, give her a minute," he whispered. To Riana he said,

"Close your eyes for a moment, then see if you can't get yourself

adjusted to this darkness."

She did, bowing her head in concentration. But when she

opened her eyes again she only shook her head.

"It's like being blind!"

"Aye," Flint agreed, "and likely that's how you're meant to

feel." He took her hand and guided it to his shoulder. "Get your

bearings, girl. Tanis, what did you find out there?"

"Nothing much. There is a postern gate around the north side.

We can make for that. The main entry is unguarded, but I'd like to

make as quiet an entrance as we can. Let's head for that postern."

"I'll not argue. Lead on then."

The path Tanis led them along was narrow and rocky, curving

around the north side of the valley and down through a small

decline to a tall, slim tower thrusting up from the main keep.

Staying close to the black wall of the tower, Tanis crept slowly

toward the weathered wooden door where he waited for Flint and

Riana, still clinging to the old dwarf's shoulder, to join him.

The door opened immediately onto a tall flight of dark slippery

stairs. Cracked and shattered by age, they were dangerous with

sickly gray moss and only wide enough for one to walk.

"Be careful," he whispered. He waited until Riana was between

him and Flint, then took the first steps carefully. So dark was the

tower that they could make their way up only by slow, cautious

steps. Silent as shadows they crept up and up until Flint was

certain that the stairs must end on the mountain peaks.

And then, after an endless time of searching blindly for step

after step, groping along crumbling stone walls for balance, Flint

heard Tanis whisper back that the stairs ended in a corridor.

Light leaked into a high-ceilinged hallway from an intersection

several hundred feet to the west. In the barely relieved darkness

Flint saw Tanis reach for Riana's hand and help her up the last few

steps.

Drawing a long slow breath, glad to be off the treacherous

stairs, Flint reached behind him to adjust the balance of his axe,

then stepped into the corridor. The dark stone walls wept with

moisture, the floor beneath his feet was slick with green-scummed

puddles.

It was then he realized that a wind was moaning where no

wind should be. And beneath that moaning he heard voices, cold

and gibbering.

"Tanis, I don't like this."

Riana turned, fearful questions in her eyes, her hand slipping

away from Tanis's grip. Shadows leaped and danced around them

as though cast there by a torch in a mad dancer's hand. Like bats

smoked from a cave, the hollow, heartless voices of the dead

swept round the high vaulted ceiling. The corridor filled with a

tomb's chill.

Thickening suddenly, the shadows swirled to form into

something black and vaguely manlike.

Before Flint could move or even shout a warning, a dark

spectre reached to touch his friend, freezing him to stillness with

its grasp. Horrified, he saw Tanis, his eyes suddenly still and

glazed, his face like a carved death mask, turn.

Flint leaped, diving for Tanis, thinking to pull him away from

the deadly hold of the black ghost. But, fast as he moved, he was

too late. He felt for a moment the hard, real warmth of Tanis's arm

beneath his hand. Then he felt nothing.

"No!" he howled, hitting out at the clammy stone wall in his fear

and anger. "Tanis!" But Tanis was gone, vanished as though he

had never been there. "No!" Flint struck the wall again, not feeling

the sharp sting of stone tearing at his knuckles. "Tanis! Damn!

Where are you!"

He would have hit the wall again in fury and an almost blind

need to feel something solid and real, but a slim hand grasped his

wrist, pulling his fist down.

"No, please stop!" Riana cried, "Flint, stop."

Flint rounded on the girl, his eyes flashing dangerously.

"Where is he?"

"He's gone-they took him, the way they took Ka-rel and

Daryn. I don't know where he is!"

Voices whispered beneath the screams that filled the air, telling

of torture and shattering agony. Gone, Flint thought furiously,

holding onto his anger to warm the ice of fear from his blood.

Gone! And left me here, damn it!

Down the corridor, toward where the gray light straggled in

from some unknown source, he saw a dead torch in an old cresset.

Flint ran for it, found another, and snatched them both up.

Working quickly, he lighted both and shoved one into Riana's

hands.

"Hang onto this," he growled, "and don't let it go out.

Whatever these demons are, they do their filthy work in the dark.

Aye, they had no love for our campfire: they'll keep their distance

from our torches. We're going to look for Tanis. And I've no doubt

that where we find him we'll find your brother and his friend."

Riana grasped her torch with both hands, to steady it. In the

careening shadows Flint's eyes were hard and frightening. "How-

how will we find him?"

Flint shifted his own torch to his left hand and hefted his

battle-axe in his right. "We'll find him," he growled. "Have no

doubt about that, girl. We'll find him." AND WHEN I DO, he

thought, still fanning his anger against his fear, HE'LL BE LUCKY

IF I DON'T KICK HIM FROM HERE TO SOLACE

FORGETTING ME INTO THIS NIGHTMARE!

When they began to find the first bodies, Flint's fury turned to

hollow fear. Riana, weeping openly now, stood rooted in the

corridor, staring at the lifeless husks that had once been the strong

bodies of young men. None of the bodies, some mouldering still,

some whitened skeletons bleached by time's passage, showed the

marks of a fight: no broken bones, no shattered skulls. Not one of

them had battled his way to death.

They littered the corridor like discarded toys, used, broken, and

cast aside.

Steeling himself to find what he knew he would not be able to

bear to see, Flint moved carefully among them, searching. His

blood pounded painfully in his head, his breathing was ragged,

whispered fragments of prayers to gods few people acknowledge.

Slowly, almost gently at times, he toed over one corpse after

another, his hands locked in a death-hold on his axe. But none of

the bodies was Tanis, and the most recently dead were still too

long gone to have been either Karel or Daryn.

Breathing hard with his relief, he went back to Riana, took her

hands in his own, and led her past the dead.

 

"No, there is no use struggling. You cannot move." Despite his

own warning, Karel instinctively tried to reach a hand to the

stranger. He grimaced and whispered again, "Don't try, you'll

waste your strength. And you'll need it."

The words echoed in Tanis's head, bounding and leaping so that

he could barely make sense of them. Where was he? He

remembered, with heart-stopping clarity, the touch of hard, cold

fingers on his wrist, the grip of a skeletal hand, and a groaning,

beckoning voice urging him to follow. And he'd followed, incap-

able of refusal. Then darkness, bitter as dead hope, covered him,

filling him with dread and piercing fear.

Flint? Riana? With a dark and hopeless feeling he recalled

Flint's words on the cliff: THOSE PHANTOM RAIDERS SEEMED

TO HAVE LITTLE INTEREST IN RIANA . . . THEY WILL HAVE

SMALL ENOUGH INTEREST IN AN OLD DWARF. Where are

Riana and Flint? Dead? Dead. He heard his own groan of fear and

knew, then, that he could speak.

"Who is that? Where are you?"

"Here, beside you." Karel's whispered laugh was sour. "If you

could turn your head, you'd see me. As it is, you'll have to be

content to stare at the ceiling, friend. Wait until he's deep into the

spell again. Then try to move."

Light, splitting and dancing in all the colors of a rainbow,

leaped before Tanis's eyes, arcing and splashing across the field of

his vision. He squeezed his eyes closed, trying to shut out the

needle-sharp pain. "Who are you?"

"Karel. Hush!"

"Daryn." The mage's word was thunder, rolling across the

chamber, filling the air with danger. "Rise!"

Beside him, Tanis heard Karel gasp. He gritted his teeth and

forced himself to move. The effort should have taken him to his

feet. He was only able to turn onto his side. It was enough to allow

him to see the whole chamber, and enough to let him shudder with

horror at what he saw.

It was a small man who spoke those commands, and very old.

He wore his years with little grace. They lay upon him like unholy

burdens. His eyes blazed with his magic, his red robes swirled

about him as he lifted his hand.

Crimson blood circled a weakly struggling young man. Daryn,

Tanis thought, Riana's brother! The soft murmuring of the mage's

chant rose and fell in tones that were sometimes coaxing,

sometimes commanding.

Then, with jerky, heartless strength, Daryn staggered to his

feet. His hands twitched, his legs threatened to buckle, then

stiffened as his feet found their purchase upon the stone floor.

Dried rosemary leaves rustled in the mage's hand. The fire in the

brazier sighed. With a practiced flourish, he sent the dust of a

powdered sapphire, blue and sparkling as a high autumn sky,

leaping across the distance between him and the bloody circle. It

paused in mid-air, an azure halo above Daryn's head, then settled

gently, with great precision, inside the blood circle, to form an-

other border.

Imprisoned within Gadar's circles of magic, Daryn stood, his

face drawn and white. In that moment, complete understanding

rippled through him, carving at his face with the sharp tools of

terror.

And in that moment, the door that Tanis could barely see

across the wide chamber burst open with a splintering crash.

Weird light broke along the finely honed blade of Flint's axe,

leaping and dancing.

Karel's sob of fear when he saw Riana standing behind Flint

might have been the voice of Daryn, standing mute and terrified in

double circles of enchantment. Or it might have been the voice of

Tanis's own dread. Gadar spun quickly, his eyes wild and filled

with hatred and thwarted purpose. White light leaped from his

fingers, deadly arrows of flame.

"Flint! Down!"

But Tanis's cry wasn't needed to send the old dwarf dodging

and scrambling for cover, dragging Riana with him. Karel slapped

his leg hard and shouted,

"Now! Up, friend, we can move!"

The mage screamed, a mountain cat's howl of rage, and turned on

Tanis and Karel. Halfway to his feet, Tanis dropped again to the

stone floor. White-hot arrows of light darted past his face, stinging

and burning, filling the air with a sulphurous, acrid stink. Out of

the corner of his eye, Tanis saw Karel bolt across the chamber to

where Daryn hung, trapped, in the enchanted circle of blood.

Daryn moaned, and Karel, crouched outside the bloody circle,

reached out his hand to his friend. He cried out in pain, flung back

by the spitting, stinging force of Gadar's magic.

Riana screamed, and Tanis leaped for the mage, caught him

around the knees and brought him crash-ihg to the floor. From

some hidden place in his sleeve, Gadar found a knife. Its cold

blade flashed once, then again in the dancing torchlight, raking

along the back of Tanis's hand.

Hardly feeling the pain, Tanis flipped the mage onto his belly

and dashed his knife hand against the floor. The steel blade hit

stone and rang loudly. Tanis jerked first one hand, then the other

tightly behind the mage's back and held him firmly with a knee in

the small of his back.

Frightened, filled with terror and despair, Riana's moaning sobs

came to the half-elf. A bitter oath in dwarven told him that Flint

was unharmed.

"Let Daryn go, mage," Tanis ordered tightly. "It's over. Let him

go."

Shuddering and gasping for breath, Gadar twisted his head to

glare at his captor. His voice, as hard as ice and steel, was a

grating snarl. "It is not over until the spell-caster declares it over.

And do not think to try to free him from the magic's circle.

Whoever crosses its borders now will not live an instant."

"There is no reason to hold him now. Let him go."

"No reason in your eyes, reason enough in mine." Gadar coughed

and shuddered. For a moment Tanis thought he saw the old man's

eyes dim, the black glitter of hatred awash with grief. "But even

that may be gone now, vanished at last, despite all I have done."

Grim purpose darkened the mage's face again. "No! I will fight to

the end! Fight as I have always fought!"

Knowing that he must strike before Gadar could begin to work

his magic, Tanis raised his fist. But Gadar was an old man! And

tired, by the look of him. OLD AND WEARY, a dry, cracked voice

whispered in his mind, AND IT WILL TAKE ONLY ONE BLOW,

YOUNG MAN, ONLY ONE IF YOU CHOOSE TO DEAL IT OUT

AGAINST SO FRAGILE AN OPPONENT. WHAT STRENGTH

HAVE I AGAINST THE HARD HAND OF YOUR YOUTH? Weary

age, ancient burdened grief filled the voice, and blurred images of

pitiful but valiant striving coalesced into pictures in the half-elf's

mind, as clear as though they were his living memories. In the

wavering torchlight the shadow of his own fist seemed a black and

evil thing. HE IS AN OLD MAN!

Tanis relaxed his hold on the mage and started to release him.

Then, as he turned his head, shamed by the thought of striking so

helpless an opponent, he saw Gadar's lips move slowly, silently

chanting the words of a deadly spell. His black eyes glittered like

those of an ancient snake coiled to strike.

It took only one blow to still the mage. But as magic's rainbow

light surged to life again, pulsing and throbbing in the air, Tanis

knew he'd struck too late.

Karel hunched his shoulders, his head bowed intending to butt

through the wall of Gadar's power.

"No!" Riana screamed.

"Karel!" It was not Riana who cried out then, but Daryn.

Something of himself flickered in his eyes. He reached out his

hand as though he would stop Karel where he crouched, ready to

leap through the blood-etched circle. Daryn's eyes were black with

fear, then finally, free of the puppet-master's influence of the

mage's will, understanding. At last his own will animated his

limbs. He staggered toward Karel, crashed into the pulsing wall of

magic, and thrust his hand into the free air of the chamber.

"No, Karel!" His voice was hollow, echoing already with the

abandoned agony of the phantoms who haunted the castle.

The chamber shrieked with thwarted power, magic set free of

the channels Gadar had forced it into. Daryn grasped his friend's

shoulder, shoved him hard, and sent him spinning to the floor.

Writhing in agony so hideous that he could force no sound

from his gaping mouth, Daryn collapsed, twitching and hunching

against the pain. Then, hissing and spitting, the rainbow lights

faded, drifted aimlessly for a moment, and vanished.

There was no longer a life to capture within the enchanted

circle.

In the stricken silence, surrounded by the thinning power and

the dawning knowledge of the sacrifice Daryn had made, Tanis

moved instinctively to Riana.

Stunned, she took a stumbling step toward the now-harmless

circle where her brother lay. Tanis caught her back and guided her

carefully to Karel. On his knees, his head bowed, Karel reached

blindly for her hand.

"Why?" she asked, the question torn painfully from her

weeping heart. "Why, Karel?"

Karel held her closely but did not reply. He looked up at Tanis

as though to ask the same question. But Tanis had no answer.

Behind him he heard the mage groan, stir, and then fall quiet. For

all the sound of his own harsh breathing and Riana's weeping, the

chamber seemed suddenly silent. The old mage no longer

breathed.

There must be answers, but the mage was not going to give them

now. Tanis wondered if he would have found them sufficient or

even comprehensible had he been able to hear them.

What twisted purpose, he thought, his head aching with the

wondering, would move a man to this warped use of magic?

An old man, his skin the color of parchment, his hands gnarled

claws, crawling with thick, twisted veins. Age? Was that the thing

the mage had thought to stave off with the life spirit of young

Daryn? Had he been pirating the youth of others to keep himself

alive? Disgust, empty even of pity, filled Tanis until his stomach

knotted.

Wearily he turned, looking for Flint. He found the dwarf in the

darkest comer of the chamber, kneeling beside a small, richly

clothed bed. In that bed, covered with thick robes and blankets, lay

a slim, frail boy.

For one long moment Tanis thought that the boy was dead. His

breathing, so slight that it might have been the play of shadows

across his chest, made no sound.

"Flint?"

The old dwarf shook his head. "He lives, but only barely."

The boy sighed, then opened his eyes, and Tanis felt an echoing

throb of the pain that he saw there. It seemed an ancient pain, long

suffered and too long denied. Then, for a moment, the eyes filled

with pleading, darkened with fear.

"Father?"

"No," Tanis said, dropping to his knees beside the bed.

"Father, no more."

Tanis looked to Flint, who shook his head. The boy was so weak

he could barely see, so weary he could not know that Tanis was

not the father he spoke to. Aching pity filled Tanis then, and he

took the boy's hand in his own.

"Be still now," he whispered.

But the boy tried weakly to lift his hand. "No. No more. Father.

Please, I cannot. No more."

"Hush, now, lad. Rest."

"Please, Father. I would-I would stay if I could. Please,

Father. No more. I-want no more of these stolen lives."

Even as he heard Flint's shuddering gasp, Tanis knew why the

mage had fought so bitterly for Daryn's life. It was for the boy!

The boy might have been but twelve or thirteen, but his eyes spoke

of many more years than that. And those years, Tanis realized sud-

denly, had all been winters.

"Father? Let me go. I am so weary ... let me go. Father?"

"Tanis, give him what he wants." Flint sat heavily down on the

cold stone floor, his back against the boy's bed. It was as though,

Tanis thought, the old dwarf could not look at the boy any longer.

And, in truth, he would have turned away, too. But he could

not, though he thought he could drown in the need he saw in the

boy's eyes.

"He wants death, Flint."

The boy shivered and stirred again, groping for Tanis's hand.

The quiet rustle of his bedclothes was like the sound of Death's

soft-footed approach.

"Tanis, help him," Flint whispered. "He thinks you are his

father."

Tanis gathered the boy gently in his arms and held him carefully.

He wanted to hold the thin spark of life within the boy, as though

his pity alone would keep it burning. Across the room he could see

Riana, weeping in Karel's arms, one hand stroking her brother's

face. Against his neck he could feel the faint breath of the dying

boy, warm yet with the life that faded with each moment. He

doesn't want death, Tanis realized then, but only permission.

"Yes." Tanis whispered the word the boy wanted to hear, the

blessing the mage never gave. Weakly, the boy looked up,

searching, and then smiled.

"I love you. Father."

"I know it," Tanis breathed, choking on the words. "But go,

now, and go with my love." For one moment he would have taken

back his words. Then the boy sighed, a small shudder like the

fluttering of a moth's wings. Tanis's arms tightened around the frail

body, empty now of life, and he bowed his head.

After a long while, he heard Flint stir beside him. The half-elf

did not resist when his friend lifted the boy from his arms and set

him gently back on the bed.

"Are you all right, lad?"

Tanis nodded.

"What are you thinking about?"

"That all these people were moved by love to do what they did.

Riana and her brother, Karel, and even the mage and his son. But

look how bitter the harvests were."

"Aye," Flint said, reaching down to help him to his feet. "Some

fruits are bitter."

Tanis touched the peaceful face of the boy on the bed, thinking

that it might only have been sleep that smoothed away the sharp

lines of pain and not death. "And some are never harvested at all."

Flint was silent for a long moment. Then he smiled, as though

to himself. He took Tanis's arm and turned him gently away from

the boy's bed. "Bitter, some, and un-harvested, others. A harvest

depends on the soil in which the seed is planted, lad, and the care it

is given." He nodded to Riana, quiet now in Karel's arms. "Don't

you think that theirs could yet be sweet?"

 

Finding the Faith

Mary Kirchoff

 

The heat of the camp's communal peat fire warmed

my old hands, numb from a hard days work. I, Raggart

Knug, true cleric of the Ice Folk, had just completed the long, cold

task of forging another frostreaver. Sighing with contentment, I

munched on raw fresh fish, wiggling my toes a little closer to the

flames.

As the sun dipped below Icemountain Bay, others of the camp

came to warm themselves as well.

"Tell us again about the time of the strangers!" Men-dor

pleaded, his eyes shining with excitement.

Laina, a pretty girl with hair the color of melted walrus blubber,

joined in. "Yes, tell us how the beautiful elf woman and her

companions charmed an ice bear and fought the wicked Highlord

with-"

"Wait a moment! Who's telling this story?" I interrupted her

with a chuckle.

Tired though I was, I could not resist the chance to tell my

favorite story, about the time I became a true cleric. Wiping greasy

hands on the skins of my leggings, I leaned forward to begin the

tale, moving away from this time to another, just yesterday it

seemed, when . . .

Nine strangers came from the north, from Tarsis they said. The

guards noticed them some distance from the camp, their colorful

robes and thin animal skins making them stand out like spring

flowers against the whiteness of the glacier.

I did not wish to join those sent to meet the intruders. With the

talk of raiding bands of minotaurs, I was forging the Ice Folk's

favored weapon, the fros-treavers, as quickly as possible. Even so,

the making of each one still took many, many days. I was alone in

my work since, as cleric of the Ice Folk, I am the only one on

Krynn with the knowledge, passed down through my family, of

how to forge these remarkable battle-axes from solid chunks of

incredibly dense ice. I hoped to complete the one I was working on

before the sun left the sky, so I kept my face down when our

leader came searching for men to go confront the strangers. It

didn't work. For reasons of his own, the Great Harald ordered me

to join the party.

Grumbling, I snatched up my staff and pack of curatives before

heading for the harbor. Almost absent-mindedly, I poked the

frostreaver I was working on into the pack. I have no idea why I

did that, since I was not strong enough to use it. I had seen sixty

winters, and my muscles just weren't what they used to be.

Besides, my job would be to moderate with the strangers, not fight

them. Although I was once the most knowledgeable guide among

the Ice Folk, I saw less and less of the world beyond the camp as

the years went by.

My old bones creaked belligerently as I climbed the ladder over

the wall of hard-packed snow and made my way to the boats in the

harbor. Soon, our lone iceboat, sail extended like a billowing

cloud, skittered across the frozen wasteland, carrying twelve Ice

Folk toward the dot of color that marked the strangers.

"There are nine," called Wilmar, Harald's lookout, perched on

the port bow.

"And a polar bear, a good omen!" Harald exclaimed. "Trim the

sail!" Admired for their strength and endurance, polar bears have

long been revered by Ice Folk.

The iceboat swept in a wide, graceful arc, stopping about one

hundred feet from the group of travelers. With a wave of his hand,

Harald ordered us to advance on the strangers.

Harald, his massive form swaying, stepped ahead of us some

twenty feet. "I am Harald Haakan, chieftain of the Ice Folk, the

people whose land you trespass. Return from wherever you came

and we will not harm you."

"Harm us?" a young, heavily armored man scowled. His

moustache bristled with disdain. "Derek Crownguard, Knight of

the Crown, is ordered by no one!"

I watched as irritation swelled Harald's seven-foot frame to full

size and weight. In a moment he would order us to attack.

Suddenly, a young, slender elven maiden twisted her way past

the knight to stand before the strangers. I must confess, my breath

caught in my throat at the loveliness of the woman. Her skin was

clean and creamy, not like the soot-stained complexions of the

women of the camp. She looked as fragile as an icicle, yet her eyes

held the strength of its cousin, the frostreaver.

"I am Laurana, princess of the Qualinesti elves," she began, her

voice light, musical, enchanting. She introduced the rest of the

party, though I was so entranced by the sound of her voice that I

was only half aware of their names. But I knew Harald might ask

my counsel, so I forced myself to listen to her words.

There was another elf among them, a quiet, handsome

young man Laurana introduced as her brother. He said little,

but his eyes flashed with love every time he looked at his

sister.

There were three other men dressed like Derek, ob-

viously knights as well, though there the similarity ended.

The one named Aran, tall and red-haired, seemed easygoing

and affable, though it was only an impression- there was

nothing to laugh about in our encounter. Another, a quiet

one named Brian, exuded a subtle strength.

The fourth knight was more interesting than the rest,

mainly because he was not so easy to read. Laurana called

him Sturm. There was something unsettled and mysterious

about the knight with the double moustache. He stood tall

and proud, and honesty shone from his eyes. But

surrounded by people, he seemed oddly alone.

"We mean you no harm," Laurana continued. "We are

traveling from Tarsis to Icewall Castle on a mission vital to

the safety of Krynn."

Harald's chest stopped heaving with anger, but he

remained cautious. "You did not bring the bear from

Tarsis," he growled.

The maiden paled at his accusatory tone. "No, he was

being tortured by minotaurs, so we freed him," she

explained hastily. "We released him, but-"

"He's fallen in love with Laurana!" a small, childlike

creature with a long tassle of hair cried, leaping forward

with delight.

Completely undaunted by Harald, the creature started

forward, small hand extended. "How do you do? My name

is Tasslehoff Burrfoot and . . ."

"Hush up, you doorknob," a stocky dwarf growled,

yanking the excited kender back by the arm, "or I'll feed

you to a minotaur myself!"

Laurana smiled embarrassedly and glanced at the

massive white bear. "He does seem rather fond of me."

Like Harald, I found the presence of the ice bear in-

triguing. I knew the bear was young from its awkward,

clumsy gait. I'd seen many of these lumbering creatures on

the glacier, but never had I seen one willingly serve any

master, human or otherwise. An iron collar strained at the

bear's thick neck and deep red welts marred its white fur,

witness to the elf woman's story of the minotaur's tortures.

But Harald's interest turned to the talk of minotaurs.

"How many bull-creatures were there? Did you kill them?"

I could see the elf woman trying to gauge Harald's

reaction. Perhaps the Ice Folk were friendly with minotaurs.

"There were seven-and yes"-she gambled, watching him

closely-"we killed them all. We've seen no others since."

Though Harald's wide face spread into a grin, I could see

that he did not trust these strangers yet. "Bull-men have

long plagued us. We owe you a great debt. Come to our

camp and rest. We will feed and clothe you properly before

you continue across the glacier."

This was not just mere politeness. I knew that Harald

wanted to question the strangers further and he felt more

comfortable back on his own ground. And, if he did not like

their answers . . . they would never leave our village alive.

The sour-faced dwarf stepped forward and hitched up his

gear. "Well, I certainly could use some warm food and

clothing," he grumbled. "This wild-goose chase the kender

has us on for some silly dragon orb we know nothing about

is enough to freeze a man's bones!"

The knight, Derek, could hold himself in check no longer.

"We can't waste time in revelry! Besides, how do we know we can

trust these barbarians? I say we leave immediately!" Reaching out,

Derek grabbed hold of Laurana, intending perhaps to emphasize

his point by forcing her to look him in the eyes.

It didn't work.

The huge white bear had been standing calmly next to Laurana.

When Derek caught hold of the elf maid, the bear roared in anger

and suddenly stood up on its hind legs. Its massive frame stretched

to a height that dwarfed even Harald, and it swayed menacingly

over the knight, snarling and growling as if daring him to move

again. All color drained from Derek's face; he hastily dropped the

maiden's arm. The Ice Folk around me fell back slightly, knowing

the bear's sharp, protruding claws had the power to rip out Derek's

throat in a second. The frigid air fairly crackled with tension,

broken only by Derek's ragged breathing.

"D-d-down, bear," the elf maiden finally managed to stammer.

But the creature remained suspended over Derek. Realizing that

she alone had the power to persuade it, Laurana bravely reached

up a slender hand to pat the beast reassuringly. "Down!" she com-

manded more firmly. The bear hesitated for a moment, then,

reluctantly, it dropped back to all fours, eyeing Derek and giving

one last snarl. Though obviously relieved that the bear no longer

threatened him, Derek's face burned red with humiliation.

So THAT'S why this slender young female is a leader of men, I

thought to myself. The bear has chosen her. I saw Harald take note

of this, too.

At that moment, a bearded man whose presence I had overlooked

stepped gingerly past the bear. I judged him to be older than most

of his companions but younger than myself. He spoke to the elf

maid in mild, firm tones and I could tell, from her respectful

attitude, that he had long been her counselor. "Derek is right about

one thing, Laurana, my dear: we have no time to waste. Tanis may

already be waiting for us in Sancrist."

"I have not forgotten, Elistan," Laurana said softly, a strange,

almost wistful look in her eyes.

She turned to Harald slowly. "We regretfully decline your kind

offer of hospitality," she began. "My . . . that is ... friends wait for

us." Coughing, she cleared her throat. There was a note of pain in

her voice. "And we have an important mission to fulfill before we

can join them," she explained.

"I'm afraid you misunderstood me, princess," Harald said, his

friendly tone gone. "It was not an offer, but a demand. You see, we

Ice Folk are at war-we cannot afford to trust anyone." He gave a

tight-lipped smile. "You will return with us." Accustomed to being

obeyed, Harald turned to leave. He did not, therefore, see Derek

draw his sword or Laurana grip the knight's arm, forcing him to

put the sword back to its sheath.

"What can I do to convince you we mean you no harm, that we

are not spies?" she demanded of Harald's back. "Our mission is

vital-it cannot wait!"

Harald swung around slowly, irritation turning his face even

redder than its normal shade. He did not like complications-and

this maiden was proving stubborn. Suddenly, his expression

brightened as an idea struck him.

"You have my leave to go on this 'mission' of yours, then," he

said. "But leave several of your number here as-"

"As hostages?" Laurana finished for him coolly.

"No, I prefer to think of them as a sign of good faith." Harald

smiled slightly. "And as a sign of our good faith, I vow to spare

their lives for the seven days I give you to return, as long as we

meet with no harm during that time. That is fair, I think?

"I would, of course, prefer that you leave your fighters,"

he added, his eyes going to the well-armed knights, "and the

bear, as a token of luck."

Laurana's mouth twisted in shock and outrage. Her thin

frame shook as she struggled for control. "Without

knowledge of the glacier, it is impossible for us to know

how long it will take us to reach Icewall Castle. And

without fighters, what chance have we of retrieving that

which we seek?"

Harald shrugged. "I did not say I wanted a77of your

fighters. These two will do," he said, pointing to Aran and

Brian. "And the ones called Flint and Gilthanas must stay

behind. You will be more inclined to return for your brother

and your friend." He eyed Derek. "You may keep the sulky

one."

"This is an outrage!" Derek snarled, once again putting

his hand on the hilt of his sword. "There are only twelve of

them. I say we take our chances and-"

But Laurana cut his words off, her voice clipped. "When

it comes to retrieving the orb, I will take no chances. If you

insist on fighting, Derek, then you will fight alone." The

knight called Sturm moved nearer to her, nodding in

support. "I suggest you instruct your men to join Harald,"

Laurana added, her voice breaking, "as I will my friends

and my brother."

The dwarf glowered at this. "No, Laurana," he said

stubbornly. "I won't allow you to traipse across this frozen

wasteland looking for Reorx-knows-what without me! It's

too dangerous!" Realizing his voice had risen, Flint eyed the

bear warily and dropped his tone. "Tanis would never

forgive me!"

"Nor would our father," Laurana's brother added grimly.

"I'd rather we turned around and forgot that orb than to let

you go off unprotected!"

With a sad smile, Laurana placed her hands in theirs.

"You both know retrieving the dragon orb may be Krynn's

only hope, and everyone is counting on us. Besides, I won't

be alone-Sturm, Elistan, and Derek will be with me. If

there were any other way," she added, "I'd take it. But we

have no choice but to accept their terms, it seems. Please

don't make this more difficult for me than it is already."

Flint searched her eyes, sighing heavily. "Very well," he

said gruffly. "Besides, you don't want a grumpy old dwarf

slowing you down."

Gilthanas nodded slowly, but I could tell he wasn't

happy. He started to argue, but she continued to look at him

intently, pleadingly, until he shrugged angrily. "I'll stay, if

that's what you want," he said.

Sighing, Laurana turned back to Harald.

"What proof have we that you'll keep your end of the

bargain and will not harm them?" she asked.

Scratching his bearded chin, Harald thought about that

for a moment. Propped up against my staff, I watched

absently as the old man called Elistan came over to stand

beside Laurana.

It was then that I noticed the medallion around the old

man's neck. My breath caught in my throat, though this time

in fear-the hazy winter sun glistened off a golden

medallion in the shape of a platinum dragon, the symbol of

the true god, Paladine. I could not believe my eyes. Long

ago, right before the Cataclysm, all clerics of the true gods

had vanished from the world, my own great-great-great

grandfather among them. With them vanished the ability of

the clerics to work the will of the gods in the world, to

perform healing and other magical spells. Many said that

this was because the true gods themselves had forsaken

Krynn, but my family did not believe this. Since that day,

we had pledged ourselves to wait for some sign of the return

of the true gods. None had lived to see that day. Nervously,

I rubbed at my eyes with grubby fists, hoping to erase the

image.

But when I looked up again, the medallion still hung

from Elistan's neck. A sickness grew in my stomach. I had

always prayed that I would be the one to discover a true

cleric-one who could perform miracles-as a sign that the

true gods had returned. But in my heart of hearts, I never

really believed I would. Face to face with the symbol

heralding that discovery, I still did not-could not-believe

it! He must be a charlatan, and I wanted nothing more than

to escape someone who would try to trick us.

"You drive a hard bargain, elf woman " Harald finally

said to Laurana. "I like you-I don't trust you entirely-but

I like you." His laughter pounded against the frozen glacier.

"As a sign of our good faith, and to aid you in returning

within seven days, we will send with you a guide." He

clapped me on the back. "Our cleric is the best one among

us. He will accompany you to the castle."

Harald's words echoed in my aching head, echoed across

the glacier. Could the fates be so cruel? Had I heard right?

Harald's beefy hand on my shoulder assured me that I had.

My words came to my ears as if spoken by another.

"I cannot-I mean, I don't want to guide them," I

mumbled, avoiding Harald's eyes. "I don't trust them."

Harald's huge face turned as red as his hair. "Just sol" he

bellowed. "They will not attack us without their fighters,

and they will not harm you while we hold their friends." He

swung his face down to meet mine, his fishy breath fanning

my face. "Do you question my judgment?"

My cheeks drained of color as I struggled to force words

from my throat. "No-no. It's just that-" Could I tell him

of my fears?

"Spit it out, man," Harald roared impatiently. "Men

freeze while you sputter!"

I forced down the lump in my throat. "The human,

Elistan-he wears the symbol of the true god, Pala-dine! He

is a charlatan!"

Harald's features relaxed from anger to a look of

confusion. "But, Raggart, surely you and every member of

your line have pledged your life to meet one such as this!"

he said. "This is your chance!"

The simple logic of Harald's words turned my fear to

dogged stubborness. "That is why I am suspicious!" I

whispered. "Would such an important person just appear on

the glacier one day?"

My eyes narrowed. "What is this dragon orb, anyway?

And if it's so valuable, who would keep it in a frozen,

abandoned castle at the farthest edge of the glacier?

Someone with something to hide, that's who!"

Harald shook his head firmly. "I cannot say. The gods

move in mysterious ways." He shook me slightly. "But

whether he is a true cleric or an enemy scout sent to

determine our strength, we need our best guide to watch

them. That someone is you."

I, Raggart Knug, cleric of the Ice Folk, looked into my

chieftain's icy blue eyes and knew that only death would

save me from guiding the strangers to Icewall Castle.

 

We were just preparing to depart when the kender, who

had been standing next to Laurana, shifting impatiently

from one foot to the other, said cheerfully, "Well, who

wants me?"

"They do!" both sides cried, pointing to the other. It

seemed tempers were going to flare again, Derek refusing to

take Tasslehoff and the dwarf insisting that the kender be

packed off to Icewall Castle without delay. In the end, it was

Harald who decided Tasslehoffs fate.

"The kender goes!" he said firmly.

I thought even Laurana appeared a bit downcast at this

decision.

The ice bear also proved difficult. He refused, quite violently I

might add, to leave Laurana until she spoke with him at length. I

wonder how much he understood; I think her tone convinced him.

The bear accompanied Harald, and I noticed that our leader kept

his distance from the sulking bear as he led the search party back

to the ice boat.

-Finally my party and I started off in search of this dragon orb

or whatever they were after. Using my staff to propel my old

bones along, my body slowly adjusted to the rigors of exploring

the glacier. Though time and the elements had changed the

landscape, I still knew what to look for, how to avoid snow-

covered crevasses. Despite the nature of the trek across the glacier,

I enjoyed the feeling of the cold, icy wind across my leathery

cheeks, the sight of swirling eddies of snow. I had been cooped

inside my hut forging frostreavers for too long.

Remembering my situation, I looked back at my wards and was

grateful that Harald had insisted we take peat for nighttime fires on

the open glacier and that we dress in the Ice Folk pelts of bear and

otter. The strangers' borrowed furs made them much less

conspicuous than their colorful robes against the snowy backdrop.

I did not mind the danger. Everyday life at our camp held dangers.

Besides, I had lived a full life and did not particularly fear the

possibility of death. Still, I did not want my life to end

accompanying a band of tricksters in the name of the true god! The

irony of the situation nearly made me chuckle; fate had a wry

sense of humor.

Unfortunately, Derek did not. Nothing I did pleased him. I

walked too slow. I walked too fast. It was too cold. The furs made

him hot. I had no love for the knight, but I knew that answering his

complaints would only provoke him further. I remained silent, my

head bent against the swirling snow as I picked our path across the

glacier toward Icewall Castle.

Krynn's sun rose and set on three cold days as we crossed the

snowy wastelands. Each day, five travelers from warmer lands

struggled behind me through bitter winds and man-swallowing

drifts.

The kender proved as much a handful as any ten children from

the village. More than once did I catch sight of him in the corner

of my eye as he wandered off the path I had chosen. Once I

collared him just as the snow beneath his little feet slid away,

revealing a crevasse.

"Wow, would you look at that?" he marveled. "I wonder what's

down there? Perhaps I'll make a map of this-maybe it's a shortcut

to the other side of Krynn!" Tasslehoff reached into a pouch for

some paper.

"Don't be any sillier than you can help," Derek grumbled,

trudging through snow that reached his knees. "I'd be the first to

fall down it if it led to someplace warmer!"

Tasslehoffs face fell only slightly. "I suppose," he mumbled.

Though I vowed to keep to myself and merely guide them as

ordered, I could not help but wonder about the others. I had a lot of

time to observe them, after all.

My first impressions of Sturm Brightblade never changed; he was

a man alone. For some reason, the older knight, Derek, seemed

determined to break the younger knight's will, but Sturm never

wavered in his loyalty to Laurana. And though provoked

enough for ten men, he never raised his voice to the older

knight. Some dark secret rode Sturm's shoulder like a black

beast, but I never discovered what it was.

Though Elistan was silent most of the time and never

complained-or maybe because of those things-I still did

not trust him. Every now and then he smiled serenely to

himself for no obvious reason as his eyes scanned the bleak

horizon. He couldn't be enjoying the trip, I reasoned. Was

he laughing at me, at tricking a gullible old cleric who

waited for the return of the true faith? The thought made my

legs move faster, to hasten the moment when I would leave

him behind.

But I must confess that, much as I tried, I could not look

forward to the time when I would leave Laurana. When

we'd first met, I'd thought it strange that a slight young

woman would lead eight men, four of whom were knights.

Then I'd believed, as Derek did, that her power over the

group came from the bear.

"My quest is to retrieve that orb," the knight growled

one night after he'd lost another debate to Laurana. "That

bear is no longer here to fight your battles!"

Derek's threat struck me as foolishly hollow, marking in

my mind the moment when I first knew Laurana had

enchanted me, though not in a romantic way. Each night

when we stopped and lit a small fire to warm ourselves and

eat our meager rations, Elistan sat whispering to Laurana,

advising her, giving her the moral strength to go on. The

sight filled me with jealousy. I wanted to be the one whose

advice she sought, to receive her grateful smile. Beyond her

physical beauty was an inner strength that made me want to

follow her even without the bear.

We were all grateful when, on the morning of the fourth

day, the sun rose behind the distant silhouette of Icewall

Castle, shining upon the jagged promontory of Icewall.

Before the Cataclysm, the castle, made of stone, stood upon

a rocky island in the seas south of Tarsis. But the Cataclysm

turned those seas to ice and snow, as well as the island

below the castle, creating Icewall. Wordlessly, our pace

quickened, each of us heartened by the sight. Soon I would

be free of the strangers . . .

Within a few hours we stood at the base of Icewall. Forty

or so paces to our right, icy remnants of a stairway snaked

up the cliff face as far as the eye could see. Perched on the

top of Icewall was our goal, Icewall Castle.

"That's it-the mighty Icewall Castle?" the kender's

high-pitched voice screeched loudly in the chill air.

Terrified, I tried to clap a hand to his mouth, but I was too

late. "Why, it's nothing but a big block of ice, not nearly as

attractive as other castles I've seen!" he shouted.

As I had feared, a slow groaning sound shook Ice-wall,

sending a snowy avalanche thundering down toward us.

"Run!" I shrieked. Pumping as fast as my legs and deep

snow would allow, I could only hope that the others

followed my lead. When Icewall finally quieted down, only

the kender, to his own delight, had been swallowed by snow

up to his neck.

"Oh, my, did I cause that?" he asked innocently as Sturm

plucked him out by the armpits. "Look!" he gasped

abruptly. "The avalanche opened up a cave or something!"

He pointed skyward to a dark, shadowy spot halfway up the

face of Icewall. "It must be a shortcut into the castle-I'm

sure of it! And I found it," he added proudly.

Derek's face twisted into a grim smile. "That's precisely

why we should avoid it. To say nothing of the fact that it's

foolish to climb toward a dark spot that may or may not be a

cave opening-which may or may not lead into the castle."

His eyes narrowed as he leaned menacingly toward the

kender. "And suppose it is an opening-who do YOU

suppose made it?"

"I'm sure I don't know," said the kender, shrugging. His

eyes lit up. "But it would be interesting to find out."

Derek snorted. "'Interesting' isn't a word I would use to

describe whatever's guarding a powerful artifact such as this

orb!"

Laurana's brow creased with concern. "I hadn't even

considered that!" she said, looking chagrined. "I assumed

that since it was stuck out here on the glacier, Icewall Castle

would be deserted. But Derek's probably right. Raggart, you

know this area better than any of us. What do you think? Is

there likely to be someone or something inside the castle?"

I hesitated for a moment to determine what I DID think. I

did not wish to alarm her unnecessarily, but she had to

know the truth.

"There have been reports of a white dragon coming and

going from the castle," I told her reluctantly. "Any number

of other creatures may have taken up residence-you have

already met the minotaurs."

"I don't know why I did not think of that before!" She

sighed, then squinted up at the icy cliff. "What route should

we take?"

I followed her gaze. "I believe the kender is right- that

is a cave opening which may lead into the castle. Though

we don't know what awaits us inside, we chance the same

thing climbing to the top, with half the risk of being spotted

from above. Whatever you decide, the climb would be safer

if we rope ourselves together."

"The old barbarian doesn't know what he's saying,"

Derek scoffed, "though his idea about the rope seems

reasonable enough. Let's waste no more time-an orb

awaits us above!" He tied a length of rope to his waist and

held the end to Sturm. "Come, Brightblade, link yourself to

me and we'll find the base of that stairway!"

Sturm's brows lifted in question. "Laurana?"

"Raggart is our guide," she said confidently. "We'll climb

to the opening."

Suddenly her expression changed to fear. Like a curtain

falling, we were engulfed in shadows. Startled, I followed

her gaze. There, high above Icewall, I saw the massive

underbelly of a white dragon as it soared from the castle's

balustrade.

"Get down!" I hissed. Thankfully, everyone dropped to

his stomach without question, even the kender. They knew,

as did I, what would happen if the dragon spotted us. I

shuddered at the thought and prayed that with our light-

colored furs, we blended in with the snow.

Without a backward glance, the dragon sped away in the

direction we'd just come, pulling its massive shadow along.

A sudden fear knotted my stomach. When the dragon was a

mere dot in the distant horizon, I stood up and, turning,

started heading back.

"Wait, Raggart! Where are you going?" Laurana shouted,

stumbling after me to catch hold of my arm.

"Now we know that the reports about a dragon are true.

Given its general direction, I'm afraid it's headed for my

village. I have to go back immediately!"

Laurana looked sympathetic, but she shook her head.

"We cannot abandon our search for the orb, especially when

we're this close to it," she said.

"What is this dragon orb? How can it be more important

than the lives of my kinsman?" I demanded.

"I understand your concern," Laurana said, "but a lone dragon

would scarcely attack an entire village. And IF it wanted to, it

would have long before this. Think, Raggart," she commanded,

grasping my shoulder. "Even if we left immediately, we would

reach your village days behind the creature, too late to help

anyone. Then we would neither save your village nor retrieve the

orb."

"Then what about our lives? Are they worth nothing?" I

shouted. "The presence of the dragon convinces me that Icewall

Castle is far more dangerous than any of us imagined." Even to my

own ears, I sounded like a frightened old man. That only made me

angrier. "I am not an old coward, but neither am I a young fool!"

"Of course you're not!" Laurana's eyes glittered brilliantly.

"The orb we seek has the power to control dragons. Though you

may not understand or believe me, Raggart, more people will

suffer if we do not find it before someone who would use it for

evil gains."

Laurana grasped my hand. "I know Harald instructed you to

watch-I mean guide us, but I would not blame you if you chose

to return without us." Her voice picked up momentum. "But,

Raggart, time is of the essence if we are to save our friends-save

Krynn. We-/need your help. Will you continue on with us?"

Derek snorted with disgust and began looking for footholds in

the icy cliff face.

I was momentarily torn with indecision. Though her words had

convinced me my fears were largely unfounded, I still hesitated. In

the end, I decided to continue with them for three reasons: for

good or bad, I needed to know the truth about Elistan; Laurana

wanted me to go; and Derek did not.

I did not like the thought that my life in any way de pended on

Derek, but lashed to him as I was, it did. After me came Laurana,

then Elistan, then Tas; Sturm pulled up our rear. Though Derek

had complained heartily on the glacier, he took too much pride in

his physical strength to give in to the exhaustion that plagued us all

on the back-breaking climb up Icewall. His tenacity may well have

saved our lives more than once. Whenever I faltered or lost my

footing, Derek's hand was there to pull me to safer ground.

The cliff face provided even less protection from the elements

than the open glacier. Forced to look up to find our way, our faces

were exposed to icy, blistering winds that blasted flesh till it was

raw. Fingers permanently bent, my arms ached from the strain, my

toes throbbed from struggling to find new footholds. Even my

jaws hurt from being clenched too long.

But as much as I suffered, at least I was used to the cold. I

knew the rest must feel it tenfold. Behind me, Laurana struggled to

swallow involuntary whimpers of pain. Below her, Elistan

wheezed until I thought his lungs would burst.

"I don't mean to complain," I heard the kender say wearily, "but

is anyone else tired? I'm all for adventures, and I know we have to

find the orb, but I haven't been this exhausted since that time with

the woolly mammoth. I HAVE told you about that, haven't I?"

"Yes, Tas, we've all heard it," was Sturm's patient reply. "Save

your energy for climbing now."

"I'm quite sure Raggart hasn't heard it," Tas said a bit

petulantly, "but perhaps you're right," he added, gasping for

breath.

Hours, seeming more like days, passed as we slowly made our

way up the glassy crags of Icewall. Behind me, the cleric, Elistan,

sighed loudly. Though I was still suspicious of him, he seemed a

kind enough man, not at all inclined to jokes or tricks. What had

I-what had Knugs for generations-expected? Since I seldom left

the village anymore, let alone the glacier, just where was I

expecting to find this messenger from the gods if not on the

glacier?

"Aren't we nearly there?" Tas spoke the words everyone else

longed to ask. "I feel as though we've climbed to the top and back

down again!"

"It 7's getting near sunset," Laurana pointed out. "Perhaps we

should stop."

I, too, had noticed our lengthening shadows upon the cliff face.

Soon the moons would rise.

"If we're not likely to reach that opening soon," Sturm called up

to us, "I say we find a ledge on which to spend the night and rest."

"For once I agree with Brightblade," Derek said, finally giving

in to the strain. Wiping his brow with his fur-covered arm, he

stopped climbing, prompting everyone else to do the same.

We'd used up all the peat crossing the glacier. The thought of a

night spent clinging to this frigid mountain, the wind whistling

louder than Harald's snoring, did nothing to raise my spirits. I

squinted up Icewall past Derek. Though twilight turned every icy

crag dark, one not very far off was larger and blacker than all the

rest.

I cleared my throat, for I had not spoken since we started our

climb that morning. "I think we're almost there. Look," I said,

pointing to what I believed to be the cave opening.

"You're just saying that because I suggested we stop!" Derek

barked without looking up, exhaustion making him even more

churlish.

"You know, Derek," Tasslehoff said shrilly, "people would be

more inclined to listen to you if you were pleasant, like Laurana or

Sturm-"

"Not now," Sturm warned the kender in a low tone.

"I'm sure Derek appreciates being told this," Tasslehoff

continued, unperturbed. "Flint once called me a thief. It was all a

terrible misunderstanding, of course, something about a bracelet.

Anyway, he explained to me that people might mistake my

motives, you know, think I'm a thief when I'm really just

protecting their interests. Now I know not to take it personally.

Derek understands what I mean," the kender finished confidently.

"NOT NOW, TASI" Sturm hissed, eyeing Derek's purple face,

noting his clenched fists.

"Yes . . . well. . ." Laurana coughed uncomfortably, perhaps

swallowing a laugh. "I think we'd better hurry if we intend to

continue."

Derek's hands slowly unclenched as he struggled for control.

With a grim glance at the oblivious kender, he turned and squinted

into the growing darkness, then continued up the cliff face,

practically jerking the rest of us along in his wake.

Fortunately, we hadn't far to go.

"Well, what do you know?" Derek breathed up ahead of me.

Scrambling over a jagged crag, he disappeared from sight.

Frowning, I forced my reluctant muscles to move faster. When I

reached the spot where I'd last seen him, I stopped and caught my

breath.

We'd found the cave.

And it was beyond all imaginings. Walls, ceiling, and floor

were made of ice smooth as glass. Though the cave should have

been pitch-black, a rainbow of muted colors glowed from inside

the glassy surfaces, colors I'd never seen in my whole life danced

on the bleak, black-and-whiteness of the glacier. I stood rooted to

the spot.

"Raggart, what is it?" Laurana pushed past me to climb onto the

ledge. "Oh, my!" she gasped. "It's beautiful!"

"It's also magical," Elistan said uneasily, as we helped him onto

the ledge. Tas and Sturm followed. "And of the Black Robes, I

believe."

"What does that mean?" the Render asked.

"I'm afraid it means we're probably not alone up here," Sturm

said grimly. "Someone possessed of very powerful-and evil-

magic created this effect."

"I know some very powerful magic-users," Tas chimed in.

"There's Raistlin-have you heard of him?" he asked me, not

waiting for an answer. "Then there's Fizban, although he's not very

powerful," the kender's brow wrinkled, "or alive for that matter."

Derek glanced at Tasslehoff as he would an irritating fly. "We

can't afford to rest here, then," he said decisively. 'This could be

that dragon's lair, for all we know!"

"I don't think so, Derek, this cave's too small. Besides, we're

exhausted!" Laurana said wearily. "What good will we be if we're

too tired to defend ourselves should the need arise?"

But I was scarcely aware of their debate. Inside my head a

question went round and round, louder with each revolution.

Elistan had not indicated that he was a magic-user. Though I knew

what the answer would be, I had to ask my question aloud.

"How does he know the effect is magical?" I asked, pointing to

the old man.

Laurana shrugged, unconcerned. "Elistan is a true cleric of

Paladine. His god has told him that this place is created by magic."

She turned to Elistan. "Do you think it's safe to rest here for a

while?"

I looked into the calm, though weary face of one who claimed

to be a true cleric. I saw his love for Laurana-for everyone-and

I began to dare to believe.

"I think it safe to rest for a few moments, but then I think we

should press on, as Derek suggests," Elistan said diplomatically.

Derek snorted derisively at his partial victory. Refusing the

walrus blubber I offered him, he began to pace about the cave.

Laurana, on the other hand, calmly laid down a skin and curled up

like a kitten to nap in what precious time there was.

I divided the remainder of our blubber between the other three

and myself. Sturm stood alone, chewing absently on his, watching

Derek pace.

Elistan found a distant comer and assumed a meditative pose.

Was he praying to Paladine-or some false god instead? I longed

for the ability to read minds. If Paladine really did exist and

Elistan was his cleric, why didn't he give me a sign?

"If you don't mind my saying so," Tasslehoff interrupted my

thoughts, "this stuff is awful. Don't get me wrong-I truly

appreciate you sharing your food- but do your people really eat

this all the time?"

"No," I said, grinning. "Sometimes we eat raw fish."

The kender's small face wrinkled with distaste. "Really? No

spiced potatoes, no dwarf spirits?" He shuddered. "I guess you

can't help being what you are-but I'm glad I was born a kender

and not an Ice Folk!"

I did not tell him so, but I was glad as well.

 

Derek paced till he could stand it no more. "May we please

continue looking for the orb now?" he asked with sarcastic

politeness. Laurana jerked awake.

"What?" she mumbled, dazed. "How long have I been asleep?"

With a grimace, she forced herself to her feet.

"Not long enough," Sturm muttered, giving Derek an irritated

glance.

Wincing, Laurana rubbed at the knotted muscles of her lower

back. "Never mind." She tried to sound energetic. "Let's see if this

cave leads anywhere."

"It had better," Derek said pointedly, glaring at me before

storming off toward the back of the cave. "Hurry up, Brightblade."

Smothering a grin, Sturm clapped me encouragingly on the

back and strode after the impatient knight. Assuming his usual,

disturbingly serene expression, Elistan gathered his furs closer and

joined Laurana.

Thankfully, the cave did lead to a tunnel, though where the

tunnel led to was anyone's guess.

We would soon find out.

"You know, I get the feeling we're overlooking something,"

Tasslehoff muttered, dashing between us to press his face to the

cold, glassy walls. "I get this creepy feeling we're being watched."

"You are," Sturm said, fondly tugging the kender's topknot, "by

me."

Tasslehoff frowned. "Make fun if you like, Sturm, but my

Uncle Trapspringer says-"

Sturm clapped his hands to his ears and snorted. "Not an Uncle

Trapspringer story!"

Derek's head jerked around. "Hush!" he snarled. Suddenly his

face contorted in surprise. "Whoa!" The tunnel had ended abruptly

in a deep, dark chasm! One foot over the edge, Derek swung his

arms wildly to keep from sliding over entirely.

Instinctively, Laurana reached for his out-flung arm, and Sturm

grabbed her. Together they pulled the struggling knight back from

the edge. Wheezing and panting, he collapsed momentarily in a

heap. Then, remembering himself, he struggled to his feet, brush-

ing off the helping hands.

"Great! Now where do we go?" he demanded.

Laurana frowned. "I don't see any reason-or way-to cross

the chasm. There's nothing but an icy wall on the other side. I

guess we'll have to retrace our steps and continue up the cliff face

after all," she finished wearily.

"Not necessarily!" sang out Tasslehoff, whom I must confess

I'd forgotten. He was on his knees, tapping on the left wall with his

knuckles. Suddenly he looked up at Elistan, reaching for the mace

hanging from the cleric's belt. "May I borrow this?" he asked

politely. Without waiting for an answer, he grabbed the mace and

smashed it into the icy wall, sending glassy shards flying about the

tunnel.

"Tasslehoff, what on Krynn are you doing?" Laurana

demanded, reaching out to prevent his next swing. She stopped

abrubtly as the kender's blows revealed a hole into another area.

Before she could say more, Tasslehoff hopped through the jagged

opening.

"Tas, wait!" she cried, hurrying after him.

"Oh, no," Sturm muttered, as if this scene were nothing new to

him. Hitching up his gear, he followed the golden-haired elf. The

rest of us hastily followed.

Stepping through the opening, I found the others in a vast room

formed of rough-hewn stone blocks. In one corner was stacked a

pile of dried peat, ready for burning. In another were huge wooden

barrels in neat rows. Weapons and tools hung from racks on the

walls. A dilapidated door swung from one hinge on the wall

opposite me. We seemed to be in some sort of storeroom-but for

whom? A shiver of apprehension raised the hair on my scalp.

"I knew we were overlooking something!" Tasslehoff cried,

scurrying about the room in excitement.

Elistan strode up to the kender, his palm outstretched. "Yes,

you were. . . . My mace, please," he reminded Tas.

"Oh, this?" Tas asked, pulling the mace from his pack, where

he'd obviously placed it for safe-keeping. "Yes, well, I was talking

about something else. Listen."

The kender's voice hushed, the room became strangely,

uncomfortably quiet. Tasslehoff crept slowly toward the center,

cocking his head from side to side. As if frozen, we all stood

watching him. "Do you hear it, Sturm?" he asked softly. "It sounds

like . . . like clicking, or scratching. Raggart?"

All eyes turned to me as if I should somehow know the source

of the strange noise. I reached up to pull down my fur hood so that

I could hear better, when Derek bellowed in sudden fury, his

sword flashing from its sheath. Before any of us had time to

comprehend what was happening, the room exploded into snarling,

screaming chaos. Minotaurs, creatures with the bodies of men and

the heads of bulls, and thanoi, another bizarre mix of human and

walrus, burst through the doorway and fell on the two knights and

the kender.

Surprised, Sturm had barely time enough to draw his weapon

from under his furs. Surging forward with Derek, he strove to push

the gruesome creatures back to the door. But the thanoi, hungry for

the blood of intruders, were crazed. Swinging wildly with axes and

clubs, they forced the two knights back into the center of the room.

My eye caught sight of Laurana's flaxen hair as she drew her

blade and lunged forward to join the attack. The sight of the

plucky fighter made me realize I'd done nothing to help. But what

could I-a tired old man-do?

Tormented with indecision, I saw the kender disappear among

the rows of barrels. It wasn't like him to hide from something this

exciting. What was he up to? I wondered.

Suddenly, a blood-thirsty roaring filled my ears. Jerking my

head around, I saw a minotaur press past the warriors, bent for

Elistan and me. But the creature's face changed from delight to

surprise as he tripped and fell at my feet for no apparent reason.

From among the barrels I heard a childish giggle, and the reason

became clear. "Now!" shouted the kender, and I guess he was

talking to me, for suddenly I knew what to do.

First, I raised my staff and bashed the minotaur over the head

with it as hard as I could. Then I dashed over to the first row of

barrels and tugged on the rim of one of the heavy things until

whatever was inside sloshed, swaying the barrel ever so slightly.

"Elistan, help me!" I called to the cleric, who stood on the edge

of the battle, mumbling prayers. Seeing my intention, he drew his

hands from his cuffs and pulled on the rim of the barrel with me,

until, with a ground-jarring thump, the cask dropped onto its

rounded side on the floor. Wordlessly, we stepped back and ran at

the barrel full-tilt, sending it rolling like a loosened boulder at the

prone minotaur.

Groggy from his fall and my bashing, the creature looked up

just in time to see a spiraling wooden barrel about to smash into

the tips of his horns. Then the minotaur's eyes saw no more,

squashed as they were by the mammoth barrel.

But my triumph was shortlived as I quickly realized my error.

The barrel was still rolling, headed straight for Laurana, Sturm,

and Derek. Still engaged with thanoi and minotaurs in the center of

the room, they did not see their danger. I panicked and yelled to

the only one who faced me.

"Sturm!"

The knight's blood-spattered face jerked up, his eyes widened

slightly. Without missing a beat, he slashed viciously at the thanoi

before him. Leaning to his right, he shoved Derek away from the

minotaur he fought, then bowled Laurana over to his left, not a

second ahead of the swiftly turning barrel. It knocked the

remaining minotaur and thanoi to the floor, then the barrel

stopped, pinning or squashing whatever happened to get in its way.

Unfortunately, that included Derek's foot. Surprised by Sturm's

shove, the stubborn knight had tried to stand his ground,

apparently slipped in a pool of blood, and crashed to the floor, just

as the barrel arrived. Though obviously in great pain, the knight

hacked at the furry thanoi fingers that desperately groped at him

from under the barrel.

Raising her sword, Laurana strode forward and ended the lives

of the struggling creatures, as Sturm hoisted the end of the barrel

pinning Derek's foot.

"This is your fault, Brightblade," Derek growled, nearly

spitting on Sturm's proffered hands. He struggled to stand alone,

though the effort cost him. Sturm caught the Knight of Solamnia

by the armpits as he slumped toward the floor.

As the cleric of my tribe, it was my duty to heal, as best I

could, the wounds of my people. I rushed to Derek's side to

examine his foot. Even with his boot on, I could see that it was

twisted unnaturally. Gently slipping the furry glove off, my hand

touched the jagged edge of a bone. Blood flowed freely from the

purple, swollen wound. Swallowing a gasp of revulsion, I searched

my mind for an answer. But I had none. I hadn't the power to heal

this man.

Derek, thankfully, had passed out from the pain. I gently

maneuvered the bone back to what I thought was its intended

position, then let Derek's foot slide from my hand to rest on the

cold ground. Looking up suddenly, I found Sturm's eyes on me.

"Great job, Raggart," he said, smiling warmly. "Your trick with

the barrel was an excellent idea."

My mouth dropped in shock. How could he say that? Not only

had I crushed Derek's foot, but I'd given Sturm's enemy more

cause to hate him. Derek would never forgive Sturm for my

mistake! I couldn't bare the shame anymore. I spun around to flee,

but a firm hand gripped my shoulder.

"Do not blame yourself, Raggart." Elistan's soothing voice

enveloped me. "Sturm is right. Your quick thinking saved our

lives-including Derek's." He knelt down next to the unconscious

knight and laid a hand to his forehead.

Though his words were intended to reassure me, they only

increased my shame. I hung my head and turned away, my face

burning. No matter what anyone said, I knew that my thoughtless,

though well-intended action had caused Derek's injury. Not only

had I caused it, I couldn't even cure him! Some cleric I was!

"Laurana, Sturm!" the kender squealed. I'd forgotten all about

him again. "I think I know where the orb is!"

"Tasslehoff Burrfoot, what have you been up to?" Laurana

demanded sternly. "You haven't been off exploring by yourself,

have you?"

"Well, not exactly." The kender looked sheepish. "I thought I

saw one of those walrus-looking men running out the door, so I

thought I'd better find out what mischief he was up to. When I

realized I'd lost sight of him, I looked up and found myself in a

library-here in this frozen castle!" His face was flushed with

barely contained excitement. Though I said nothing, I noticed that

his pack had new bulges.

"That does it," Laurana said firmly. "Our battle here will likely

draw more attention. Let's get moving." She brushed a tangle of

hair from her face. "Will Derek be able to travel, or must we

carry him?"

"I will carry myself!" Derek growled. To my surprise, he

pushed past Elistan to pull himself to his feet. "Never let it

be said that Derek Crownguard slowed anyone down!"

"No one would ever accuse you of that," Laurana

muttered, the double edge in her words lost to Derek. "Let's

go find this library of Tas's."

Gingerly, Derek placed his weight on his foot. I waited

for him to crumble like softened snow. But as he headed for

the door, a slight limp was the only indication that he'd hurt

his foot. Having seen the extent of his wound, I was

stunned! Could sheer force of will allow Derek to walk on

the bloody stump I had just examined?

What startled me almost as much was that no one else

was surprised. I was about to demand an explanation when

Elistan caught my eye. That serene, half-smile lit his face as

he winked at me knowingly. My mind balked at the only

possibility. Could it be true? . . . Elistan . . .?

"Come on, Raggart!" Tasslehoff's high-pitched voice

prodded me. Shaking my head, I looked around the

storeroom to find I was alone with dead minotaurs and

thanoi. Everyone waited for me at the doorway at the far

side of the room. I'd think about Elistan and Derek's foot

later, I told myself as I hurried to join them.

Sturm poked his head out the door and peered about for

signs of life. With a jerk of his head, he signaled us to

follow him into the area beyond.

We stepped into what must have been the central courtyard

of a once-beautiful castle. Five or more doors led off in a

semi-circle to the right, and three more curved around to our

left. The courtyard was otherwise empty, save for a massive

fountain shaped of water-spurting dragons. The fountain

immediately struck me as strange- Why hadn't it frozen?

"Magical," Elistan said abruptly, as if reading my thoughts.

"The water has curative properties."

But instead of thrilling me, for I had many aches and pains a

few swallows might cure, Elistan's prediction made me

apprehensive. Someone or something very magical and intelligent

was at work in Icewall Castle.

"The library's over here!" Tasslehoff whispered loudly, slipping

off to one of the rooms to our left. "There was a trap on this door,"

he added proudly, his hand on the knob, "but I fixed it." He

disappeared through the opening, only to thrust his head back out

again. "By the way," he chimed, pointing to a spot before the door,

"don't step on this big, flat stone."

"Kender!" muttered Derek, but I noticed he stepped across the

stone before continuing into the room beyond. Sturm and Laurana

followed, with Elistan and me behind.

Several candles, nearly burned to their bases, lit the small room

that was filled with racks and shelves of books, scrolls, and loose

papers. Tasslehoff was everywhere at once, ducking under tables

and peering between shelves.

"What makes you think the orb is in here, kender?" asked

Derek. "We shouldn't stay long. We can't afford to get caught in

here. I can barely turn around, let alone fight."

"Derek's right, Tas," said Laurana. "Let's search quickly and get

out of here," Derek cast a surprised glance at Laurana, caught off

guard by her support. "Raggart, keep an eye on the courtyard."

Following her instructions, I moved back to stand in the doorway,

an eye on both areas.

"I didn't say the orb was in here," Tasslehoff said de-

fensively, "I only said it MIGHT be. Whoever owns this

library must certainly read a lot, though how he finds the

time ... Of course, what else has he to do in the middle of all

this boring ice and snow-no offense, Raggart."

I smiled to let him know none was taken. Frankly, I

found the landscape a bit dull at times, too. But my smile

slipped as I read the spines of several books- spellbooks, I

noted with growing apprehension.

"I've not felt such all-consuming evil since . . . since Pax

Tharkas." Elistan shuddered, though I didn't understand the

reference. "I think we're near the orb, but I do not believe it

is in this room."

Abruptly, Laurana stopped pulling books from shelves.

Looking resolute, she said grimly, "Then we'll just have to

search every room in this frozen castle until we find it."

"I knew better than to trust a kender," Derek scoffed,

striding toward the door.

"You're the one who insisted back in Tarsis that I come

along," Tasslehoff pointed out, his little chin thrust forward.

"A demand I've come to regret more than once," Derek

muttered.

"Then I don't suppose you want to know about the room

hidden behind this wall?" the kender asked coyly.

Derek's face turned dark.

Laurana stepped up between them. "What room, Tas?"

she asked in that sweet voice of hers.

Tasslehoff shot a triumphant glance at Derek before turning

an excited grin on Laurana. "I think there's one behind this

bookcase," he said, striding up to the shortest wall in the

room, directly opposite the doorway I stood in. Tas knocked

twice on the middle sup port of the bookcase. The whole wall

swung back, almost knocking the kender off his feet in the

process. "See?"

"I see," Derek said, pushing past the startled kender to peer

into the room beyond. "I see another empty, orbless room!"

Derek took a few steps into the room, disappearing from my

view. "Whoa-what the-?" He gasped suddenly. "Hey!" It was a

shriek of frustration, not pain. Everyone pressed forward. Though I

knew I should stay by the door no matter what, I could not resist

looking too.

There, in a bedchamber the same size as the library, stood

Derek, his hands frozen to his sides. I could not understand it until

I saw the slender form of an elf in chainmail and black robes, a

black longsword gleaming in his hand. He wore a strange helmet

with horns over his head. I did not know it then, but I was getting

my first glimpse of a Dragon Highlord.

"He's a dark elf wizard and he's put some kind of hold on

Derek!" Elistan cried. "Keep him from casting spells!"

Before anyone could reach the dark elf, he slammed the hilt of

his sword into Derek's face. The knight crumpled into what I

hoped was only unconsciousness.

Instantly, Laurana and Sturm ran into the room, their arrival

drawing the dark elf wizard away from the helpless Knight of

Solamnia. The Highlord started to attack them, but he hesitated for

a moment at the sight of Laurana.

"An elf, and a woman yet, dares invade the castle of Feal-Thas,

Dragon Highlord of the White Wing?" the wizard snarled, and

suddenly began slashing at her with his sword.

Ducking his blow, Laurana lost her footing and fell, hitting her

head on a wooden desk. For a moment, she could not move, but

crouched on the floor, holding her head in her hands. Seeing his

opening, Feal-Thas closed in, his sword raised.

"It was high and mighty elves like you who cast me out!" Feal-

Thas cried. "You will pay!" But in his thirst for Laurana's blood,

the wizard had forgotten Sturm.

The knight lunged forward to strike the sword from the dark

elf's hand. But with a speed and agility unknown to most humans,

the Highlord read Sturm's intentions and whirled about, slashing

the knight's own sword hand. Sturm's gasped, holding his bleeding

wrist. His moment of weakness cost him dearly. In a single,

lightning-swift motion, Feal-Thas snatched a dagger from his

sleeve and hurled it toward the knight. A hideous shriek gurgled

out of Sturm's mouth as he clutched at his throat, and blood

streamed down his fur cloak. He collapsed.

"Sturm!" Laurana cried out at the sight of her fallen friend. Her

beautiful face contorted with rage as she whirled on Feal-Thas.

With grim determination, Laurana wiped the blood from her eyes

and fought her enemy, though it was easy to see that each blow

drained her by half. Feal-Thas appeared to enjoy playing with her,

seeming to delight in parrying her waning blows without striking

back.

Elistan, whose strategy so far had been to stay out of the way of

the fighters in the small chamber, could hold back no longer.

Seeing Laurana alone, he hurled himself at the wizard, bashing

him repeatedly in the back with his mace. Though the attack

caught him unaware, Feal-Thas used his magic to toss the cleric

from him as he would a fly. A huge, phantom hand reached out,

grabbed the cleric, and threw him aside. Elistan slammed into the

far wall and slid silently to the floor.

And there I stood, rooted to the spot, useless as a dwarven

doorknob. What had my strategy-my excuse-been? I wasn't

even watching our rear anymore. What could I do? I remembered

the kender- where was he? He'd come through for me before,

tripping the minotaur. But he was nowhere to be seen. There

weren't any barrels here to save my unworthy life.

I watched in despair as Laurana, exhausted from her lone

struggle, dropped to one knee. She tried desperately to regain her

footing, but Feal-Thas leaned forward and plucked the sword from

her bloodstained, aching hands. Eyes dim with angry tears, she

swung desperately at him with her fist. The dark elf grabbed her

wrist and laughed.

"What a pity," he murmured, the patronizing sound of victory

in his voice. He held the tip of her own sword to the throbbing

vein in her throat. "You appear to be an elf of some breeding-not

entirely unattractive either. I could spare your life if you gave me

good reason," he offered suggestively.

Laurana, breathing heavily from her struggles, turned her gaze

from the knife in Sturm's throat and his blood-soaked chest to look

at the Highlord. She swallowed hard. "Are you suggesting I join

you as a Highlord?" she asked in a seductively coy tone I would

never have thought her capable of using.

I was shocked. Why on Krynn was she toying with this evil

Highlord while her friend lay dying at her feet? Suddenly, I saw

the knuckles of her hands, clenched and white with anger, and I

knew she must be stalling for time, hoping to regain her strength.

"What I'm suggesting has nothing to do with being a Highlord,"

the wizard said, leering. Encouraged that she might entertain the

thought, confident that she no longer had the strength to fight, and

obviously discounting me completely, the wizard lowered his

sword. "If we cleaned you up a bit, you might be worthy."

Laughing, he looked over at the bed and even reached out his

hand to smooth the silken sheets.

I thought I might choke on the bile in my throat, as I longed to

strangle the life from the evil creature. Suddenly, I remembered

my frostreaver! (I know now that the thought came from Paladine

himself.) But I was not strong enough to wield it-only fighters

were. I looked at the bent form of the courageous woman warrior.

Could Laurana . . . ? No one but Ice Folk had ever been allowed to

use frostreavers. But these were extraordinary people I traveled

with. Faith overcame tradition.

Sliding the axelike weapon from my pack ever so quietly, I

crept forward. Time seemed to grind to a halt. The wizard was still

pawing the bed and laughing, his foul suggestions of what he

intended to do to the elven maid burning my heart.

Softly, I tip-toed up behind Laurana and slipped the glistening

frostreaver to the princess of the Qualinesti elves, praying to

Paladine to give her strength that I did not have.

Laurana's fingers curled around the haft of the icy 'reaver.

Raising it over her head, she sprang up like a wolf and lunged at

the unsuspecting elf wizard just as he turned around for his

answer. Candlelight glinted off the frigid edge of my painstakingly

crafted frostreaver as it bit into Feal-thas's throat. A scream, the

wizard's last on Krynn, pierced the air. The floor of the small

chamber ran red with the blood of the dead Highlord.

Dry, wracking sobs shook Laurana's body as she stumbled over to

kneel beside Sturm. Selfconsciously, I moved forward to wrench

the icy weapon from her shaky fingers. She laid her hands

awkwardly on the knight's bloody chest, not quite knowing what to

do. Biting her lip, she forced her right hand forward to close

around the hilt of the dagger in his throat. A heart-breaking moan

escaped her lips as, mustering all her strength and courage, she

pulled the dagger out. Blood welled from the wound;

she pressed a small cloth to it timidly, uselessly. My throat grew

thick with tears as I watched the life drain from her friend.

Somehow I became aware of other sounds in the room. Derek

stirred slowly, then spun onto his back.

"Be careful, Laurana!" he cried, jumping to his feet as if pulled

by a rope, his sword aloft. "He's a magic-user!" Spinning about,

the Knight of Solamnia blinked in bewilderment. His eyes traveled

from the dead body of the Highlord to Laurana as she knelt at

Sturm's side. Understanding and admiration lit his eyes. He bowed

his head respectfully for the dying knight.

Suddenly there came a muffled pounding on the wall behind

Elistan, rousing the unconscious cleric. Shaking his head to clear

it, he stood slowly and stepped away from the wall.

Oh, no! I thought. The wizard's allies! We are doomed!

Brows narrowed in a frown, Derek raised his weapon as a

small crack spread on the wall in the shape of a door.

Suddenly, out popped the kender!

"Who's been blocking the door?" he demanded testily. "I've

been pounding and pounding, but you've all been too busy doing

who knows what to notice!" He saw Laurana's tear-stained face,

then the bloody pool on the floor. His eyes widened in disbelief.

"Sturm!" he cried, dropping to the floor by Laurana. "Sturm, wake

up! Flint would never forgive me if I let anything happen to

you while he was away!" The kender choked. "You know

how grouchy he can be when he thinks I've fouled things up

again! Oh, Sturm!" The kender's voice trailed away into

sobs.

Wringing my hands helplessly, I searched my mind for

some way to comfort them. I felt even more useless than I

had when Derek's foot had been crushed.

Then, "Elistan!" Laurana cried, motioning for the cleric.

I stared at her in sorrow. Now we would see Elistan for

the fake he was. I wished, for her sake alone, that he was

what he claimed to be.

-Furry robe rustling softly on the floor, Elistan's face was

composed as he knelt beside the dying knight.

"We will ask for Paladine's aid, but it may be that this

man's life has been fulfilled. If so, we must give thanks that

he died as he would have wished, defending those he

loved." Drawing the golden medallion from under his furs,

Elistan held it tenderly and mumbled words I could not

understand. Moments passed and nothing happened. I held

my breath, hoping, and yet not daring to believe. I kept my

eyes on Sturm. Elistan continued to pray, his voice

gathering intensity and momentum.

Suddenly, blood stopped oozing from Sturm's throat.

Fear grabbed me. Was this the end? Had the knight's heart

simply given up?

And then a miracle happened. I can close my eyes and, to

this day, see again what I saw in that small room in Icewall

Castle. Color returned to Sturm's cheeks. Slowly, so slowly

I couldn't be certain of my eyes, the wound sealed shut.

Sturm moaned as life again flowed through him.

"He will live," Elistan pronounced heavily, obviously

drained. Tears flowing from my eyes, I bowed my head and

dropped to my knees before Paladine's cleric.

But Elistan pulled me to my feet. "Do not worship me. I am but

Paladine's messenger on Krynn, as you will soon be."

I heard the words of promise as if in a dream I could scarcely

believe.

"Hey, I almost forgot!" Tasslehoff hiccuped, his tears drying. "I

found it!"

"Found what?" Laurana asked, preoccupied with Sturm.

A look of extreme patience crossed the kender's face. "What

have we been looking for? The orb, that's what! I must say, it

doesn't look like much compared to the picture I saw in the book

in the Great Library. Oh, it's round and carved and all that, but it's

awfully small. It looks like there's something red inside it- I'd

love to break it and find out what it is!"

"Don't you dare!" Derek shouted, heading for the small door

Tas had just used. He returned a few moments later holding a

small crystal globe that randomly shifted in color from misty white

to blue.

It didn't look like much to me either, but almost instantly,

fighting broke out over it. Laurana wanted to hold it, for she

intended to give it to her people, the elves. Derek demanded to

keep it to return it to the council of the Knights. They agreed only

to disagree- and to let me, as a disinterested third party, hold it

until we reached the Ice Folk camp, where they would rejoin their

friends.

With Paladine's help, Sturm slowly returned from death's grip.

We spent the rest of the night in Feal-Thas's library, warmed there

by the fire, protected from minotaur and thanoi. But we were not

attacked. After we deposited the remains of the Highlord's body in

the courtyard, his former minions did not disturb us. I think they

fled. I didn't blame them. He didn't appear to have been a kindly

master.

Or perhaps they sensed that in the next room, while a

courageous elf maiden, a precocious kender, and two very

different knights slept. Good struck another blow in its

battle against Evil. Elistan and I discussed this, as we

prayed and talked all through the night. When the two

moons gave way to the sun that mom-ing, I, Raggart, cleric

of the Ice Folk had became a long-awaited true cleric of

Paladine.

 

I settled back from the flames, my voice scratchy from

the lengthy tale. Though tired, I was reluctant to leave the

warmth of the fire and my memories. Closing my eyes, I

breathed deeply.

"Did the great chief Harald keep his promise to not harm

Laurana's friends?" Laina asked, though she knew the

answer from previous tellings of the tale.

"He did, but while we fought minotaurs and thanoi in

Icewall Castle, others of their races attacked our village in

what has become known as the Battle of the Ice Reaches.

Many of our people were killed, as well as the knights Aran

and Brian. I'm told they fought valiantly."

"And Laurana and Sturm and the others?" Mendor

asked. "What became of them?"

My eyes flew open. This was a new question. "The

woman who could charm an ice bear ..." I said at last. "I can

only hope Laurana joined her Tanis, as I've come to think of

him.

"Derek and Sturm . . . both driven by some dark secret,"

I mumbled, my eyes narrowing. "Though I believe Sturm

conquered his, I fear Derek's had grown too powerful."

I rubbed my chin. "I don't know for certain," I continued

more slowly. "But I imagine Flint growing to a ripe old age

under a shady tree somewhere, grumbling happily.

"The kender?" I chuckled. "It's anyone's guess with a

kender. But before our adventure in Icewall Castle was

over, Tas uncovered yet another secret in the castle-the

dragonlance. Tas told me more than he was supposed to, of

course. But I must confess the details are lost to me . . ."

I stared, unblinking, into the flames. "Elistan spent his

life in the work of Paladine," I continued with certainty.

"And if he has not already left Krynn to join the true god, he

will one day soon."

With that, I, Raggart Knug, true cleric of Paladine, rose

to my feet. Looking for the constellations in the sky, I

thought wistfully of the day I, too, would join Paladine.

Straightening my weary back, I left the fire for my hut and

sleep. Tomorrow I would begin forging another frostreaver.

 

The Legacy

Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman

 

CHAPTER ONE

 

Caramon stood in a vast chamber carved of obsidian. It was so

wide, its perimeter was lost in shadow, so high its ceiling was

obscured in shadow. No pillars supported it. No lights lit it. Yet

light there was, though none could name its source. It was a pale

light, white-not yellow. Cold and cheerless, it gave no warmth.

Though he could see no one in the chamber, though he could

hear no sound disturb the heavy silence that seemed centuries old,

Caramon knew he was not alone. He could feel the eyes watching

him as they had watched him long ago, and so he stood stolidly,

waiting patiently until they deemed it time to proceed.

He guessed what they were doing and he smiled, but only

inwardly. To those watching eyes, the big man's face remained

smooth, impassive. They would see no weakness in him, no

sorrow, no bitter regret. Though memory was reaching out to him,

its hand was warm, its touch gentle. He was at peace with himself,

he had been for twenty-five years.

As if reading his thoughts-which, Caramon supposed, they

might well have been-those present in the vast chamber suddenly

revealed themselves. It was not that the light grew brighter, or a

mist lifted, or the darkness parted, for none of that happened. Cara-

mon felt more as though he were the one who had suddenly

entered, though HE had been standing there upwards of a quarter

hour. The two robed figures that appeared before him were a part

of this place just like the white, magical light, the ages-old silence.

He wasn't-he was an outsider and would be one forever.

"Welcome once again to our Tower, Caramon Ma-jere," said a

voice.

Caramon bowed, saying nothing. He couldn't-for the life of

him-remember the man's name.

"Justarius," the man said, smiling pleasantly. "Yes, the years

have been long since we last met, and our last meeting was during

a desperate hour. It is small wonder you have forgotten me. Please,

be seated." A heavy, carved, oaken chair materialized beside

Caramon. "You have journeyed long and are weary, perhaps."

Caramon started to state that he was just fine, a journey like

this was nothing to a man who had been over most of the continent

of Ansalon in his younger days. But at the sight of the chair with

its soft, inviting cushions, Caramon realized that the journey HAD

BEEN rather a long one-longer than he remembered it. His back

ached, his armor appeared to have grown heavier, and it seemed

that his legs just weren't holding up their end of things anymore.

Well, what do you expect, Caramon asked himself with a

shrug. I'm the proprietor of an inn now. I've got responsibilities.

Someone's got to sample the cooking. . . . Heaving a rueful sigh,

he sat down, shifting his bulk about until he was settled

comfortably.

"Getting old, I guess," he said with a grin.

"It comes to all of us," Justarius answered, nodding his head.

"Well, most of us," he amended, with a glance at the figure who

sat beside him. Following his gaze, Caramon saw the figure throw

back its rune-covered hood to reveal a familiar face-an elven

face.

"Greetings, Caramon Majere."

"Dalamar," returned Caramon steadily with a nod of his head,

though the grip of memory tightened a bit at the sight of the black-

robed wizard. Dalamar looked no different than he had years

ago-wiser, perhaps, calmer and cooler. Ninety years of age, he

had been just an apprentice magic-user, considered little more than

a hot-blooded youth as far as the elves were concerned. Twenty-

five years mattered no more to the long-lived elves than the

passing of a day and night. Now well over one hundred, his cold,

handsome face appeared no older than a human of thirty.

'The years have dealt kindly with you, Caramon," Justarius

continued. "The Inn of the Last Home, which you now own, is one

of the most prosperous in Krynn. You are a hero-you and your

lady-wife both. Tika Majere is well and undoubtedly as beautiful

as ever?"

"More," Caramon replied huskily.

Justarius smiled. "You have five children, two daughters and

three sons-"

A sliver of fear pricked Caramon's contentment. No, he said to

himself inwardly, they have no power over me now. He settled

himself more solidly in his chair, like a soldier digging in for

battle.

"Your two eldest sons, Tanin and Sturm, are soldiers of

renown"-Justarius spoke in a bland voice, as though chatting

with a neighbor over the fence. Caramon wasn't fooled, however,

and kept his eyes closely on the wizard-"bidding fair to outdo

their famous father and mother in deeds of valor on the field. But

the third, the middle child, whose name is . . ." Justarius hesitated.

"Palm," said Caramon, his brows lowering into a frown.

Glancing at Dalamar, the big man saw the dark elf watching him

intently with slanted, inscrutable eyes.

"Palm, yes." Justarius paused, then said quietly, "It would seem

he follows in the footsteps of his uncle."

There. It was out. Of course, that's why they had ordered him

here. He had been expecting it, or something like it, for a long time

now. Damn them! Why couldn't they leave him alone! He never

would have come if Palin hadn't insisted. Breathing heavily, Cara-

mon stared at Justarius, trying to read the man's face. He might as

well have been trying to read one of his son's spellbooks.

Justarius, Head of the Conclave of Wizards, the most powerful

magic-user in Krynn. The red-robed wizard sat in the great stone

chair in the center of the semicircle of twenty-one chairs. An

elderly man, his gray hair and lined face were the only outward

signs of aging. The eyes were as shrewd, the body appeared as

strong-except the crippled left leg-as when Cara-mon had first

met the archmage twenty-five years ago.

Caramon's gaze went to the mage's left leg. Hidden beneath the

red robes, the man's injury was noticeable only to those who had

seen him walk.

Aware of Caramon's scrutiny, Justarius's hand went self-

consciously to rub his leg, then he stopped with a wry smile.

Crippled Justarius may be, Caramon thought, chilled. But only in

body. Not in mind or ambition. Twenty-five years ago, Justarius

had been the leading spokesman only of his own Order, the Red

Robes, those wizards in Krynn who had turned their backs upon

both the Evil and the Good to walk their own path, that of

Neutrality. Now he was Head of the Conclave of Wizards, ruling

over all the wizards in the world, presumably-the White Robes,

Red Robes, and the Black. Since magic is the most potent force in

a wizard's life, he swears fealty to the Conclave, no matter what

private ambitions or desires he nurses within his own heart.

Most wizards, that is. Of course, there had been his twin

Raistlin . . .

Twenty-five years ago.

Par-Salian of the White Robes had been Head of the Conclave

then. . . . Caramon felt memory's hand clutch him more tightly

still.

"I don't see what my son has to do with any of this," he said in

an even, steady voice. "If you want to meet my boys, they are in

that room you magicked us into after we arrived. I'm sure you can

magic them in here anytime you want. So, now that we have

concluded social pleasantries- By the way, where is Par-Salian?"

Caramon demanded suddenly, his gaze going around the shadowy

chamber, flicking over the empty chairs next to Justarius.

"He retired as Head of the Conclave twenty-five years ago,"

Justarius said gravely, "following the . . . the incident in which you

were involved."

Caramon flushed, but said nothing. He thought he detected a

slight smile on Dalamar's delicate elven features.

"I took over as Head of the Conclave, and Dalamar was chosen

to succeed Ladonna as Head of the Order of Black Robes in return

for his dangerous and valiant work during-"

"The incident," Caramon growled. "Congratulations," he

added.

Dalamar's lip curled in a sneer. Justarius nodded, but it was

obvious he was not to be distracted from the previous topic of

discussion.

"I would be honored to meet your sons," Justarius said coolly.

"Palin in particular. I understand that the young man is desirous of

becoming a mage someday."

"He's studying magic, if that's what you mean," Car-amon said

gruffly. "I don't know how seriously he takes it, or if he plans to

make it his livelihood, as you seem to imply. He and I have never

discussed it-"

Dalamar snorted derisively at this, causing Justarius to lay his

hand on the dark elf's black-robed arm.

"Perhaps we have been mistaken in what we have heard of your

son's ambition, then?"

"Perhaps you have," Caramon returned coolly. "Palin and I are

close. I'm certain he would have confided in me."

"It is refreshing to see a man these days who is honest and open

about his love for his sons, Caramon Ma-jere," began Justarius

mildly.

"Bah!" Dalamar interrupted. "You might as well say it is

refreshing to see a man with his eyes gouged out!" Snatching his

arm from the old wizard's grasp, he gestured at Caramon. "You

were blind to your brother's dark ambition for years, until it was

almost too late. Now you turn sightless eyes to your own son-"

"My son is a good boy, as different from Raistlin as the silver

moon and the black! He has no such ambition! What would you

know of him anyway, you . . . you outcast?" Caramon shouted,

rising to his feet in anger. Though well over fifty, the big man had

kept himself in relatively good condition through hard work and

training his sons in the arts of battle. His hand went reflexively to

his sword, forgetting as he did so, however, that in the Tower of

High Sorcery he would be as helpless as a gully dwarf facing a

dragon. "And speaking of dark ambition, you served your master

well, didn't you, Dalamar? Raistlin taught you a lot. Perhaps more

than we know-"

"And I bear the mark of his hand upon my flesh still!" Dalamar

cried, rising to his feet in turn. Ripping his black robes open at the

neck, he bared his breast. Five wounds, like the marks of five

fingers, were visible on the dark elf's smooth skin. A thin trickle of

blood trailed down each, glistening in the cold light of the

Chamber of Wizards. "For twenty-five years, I've lived with this

pain. . . ."

"And what of my pain?" Caramon asked in a low voice, feeling

memory's hand dig sharp nails into his soul. "Why have you

brought me here? To cause my wounds to open and bleed as well

as your own!"

"Gentlemen, please," said Justarius softly. "Dalamar, control

yourself. Caramon, please sit down. Remember, you two owe your

lives to each other. This establishes a bond between you that

should be respected."

The old man's voice penetrated the shouts that still echoed in

the vast chamber, its cool authority silencing Caramon and

calming Dalamar. Clasping his torn robes together, the dark elf

resumed his seat next to Justarius.

Caramon, too, sat down, ashamed and chagrined. He had sworn

he would not let this happen, these people would have no power to

shake him. And already he'd lost control. Trying to assume a

relaxed expression, he leaned back in the chair. But his hand

clenched over the hilt of his sword.

"Forgive Dalamar," Justarius said, his hand once again on the

dark elf's arm. "He spoke in haste and anger. You are right,

Caramon. Your son, Palin, IS a good man-I think we must say

MAN and not BOY. He is, after all, twenty-"

"Just turned twenty," Caramon muttered, eyeing Justarius

warily.

The red-robed archmage waved it aside. "And he is, as you say,

different from Raistlin. How not? He is his own person, after all.

Born to different parents, under different, happier circumstances

than faced you and your twin. From all we hear, Palin is

handsome, likeable, strong, and fit. He does not have the burden of

ill health to bear, as did Raistlin. He is devoted to his family,

especially his two elder brothers. They, in turn, are devoted to him.

Is all this true?"

Caramon nodded, unable to speak past the sudden lump in his

throat.

Looking at him, Justarius's mild gaze suddenly became sharp

and penetrating. He shook his head. "But in'some ways you are

blind, Caramon. Oh, not as Da-lamar said,"-seeing Caramon's

face go red with anger-"not the way you were blinded to your

brother's evil. This is the blindness that afflicts all parents, my

friend. I know"-Justarius smiled and gave rueful shrug-"I have

a daughter . . ."

Glancing at Dalamar out of the comer of his eye, the archmage

sighed. The handsome elf's lips twitched in a hint of a smile.

Dalamar said nothing, however. He simply sat staring into the

shadows.

"Yes, we parents can be blind," Justarius murmured. "But that

is neither here nor there." Leaning forward, the archmage clasped

his hands together. "I see you growing impatient, Caramon. As

you guessed, we have called you here for a purpose. And, I'm

afraid it does have something to do with your son, Palin."

This is it, Caramon said to himself, scowling, his sweating hand

clenching and unclenching nervously around the hilt of his sword.

"There is no easy way to say this, so I will be blunt and direct."

Justarius drew a deep breath, his face became grave and sorrowful,

touched with a shadow of fear. "We have reason to believe that the

young man's uncle-your twin brother, Raistlin-is NOT DEAD."

 

CHAPTER TWO

 

"This place shivers my skin!" Tanin muttered, with a sideways

glance at his youngest brother.

Slowly sipping a cup of tarbean tea, Palin stared into the flames

of the fire, pretending not to have heard Tanin's remark, which he

knew was addressed to him.

"Oh, in the name of the Abyss, would you sit down!" Sturm

said, tossing pieces of bread at his brother. "You're going to walk

yourself right through the floor, and the gods only know what's

beneath us."

Tanin only frowned, shaking his head, and continued his

pacing.

"Reorx's beard, brother!" Sturm continued almost

incomprehensibly, his mouth full of cheese. "You'd think we were

in a draconian dungeon instead of what might pass for a room in

one of the finest inns in Pa-lanthas itself! Good food, great ale-"

he took a long pull to wash down the cheese-" and there'd be

pleasant company if you weren't acting such a doorknob!"

"Well, we aren't in one of the inns in Palanthas," said Tanin

sarcastically, stopping in his pacing to catch a hunk of thrown

bread. Grinding it to bits in his hand, he tossed it on the floor.

"We're in the Tower of High Sorcery in Wayreth. We've been

spirited into this room. The damn door's locked and we can't get

out. We have no idea what these wizards have done with Father,

and all you can think of is cheese and ale!"

"That's not ALL I'm thinking of," Sturm said quietly with a nod

of his head and a worried glance at their little brother, who was

still staring into the fire.

"Yeah," Tanin snapped gloomily, his gaze following Sturm's.

"I'm thinking of him, too! It's HIS fault we're here in the first

place!" Moodily kicking a table leg as he walked past, Tanin

resumed his pacing. Seeing his little brother flinch at his older

brother's words, Sturm sighed and returned to his sport of trying to

hit Tanin between the shoulder blades with the bread.

Anyone observing the older two young men (as someone was at

this very moment) might have taken them for twins, although they

were-in reality-a year apart in age. Twenty-four and twenty-

three respectively, Tanin and Sturm (named for Caramon's best

friend, Tanis Half-Elven, and the heroic Knight of Solamnia,

Sturm Brightblade) looked, acted, and even thought alike. Indeed,

they often played the part of twins and enjoyed nothing so much as

when people mistook one for the other.

Big and brawny, each young man had Caramon's splendid

physique and his genial, honest face. But the bright red curls and

dancing green eyes that wreaked such havoc among the women the

young men met came directly from their mother, who had broken

her share of hearts in her youth. One of the beauties of Krynn as

well as a renowned warrior, Tika Waylan had grown a little

plumper since the days when she bashed draconians over the head

with her skillet. But heads still turned when Tika waited tables in

her fluffy, low-necked, white blouse, and there were few men who

left the Inn of the Last Home without swearing that Caramon was

a lucky fellow.

The green eyes of young Sturm were not dancing now, however.

Instead, they glinted mischievously as, with a wink at his younger

brother-who wasn't watching-Sturm rose silently to his feet

and, positioning himself behind the preoccupied Tanin, quietly

drew his sword. Just as Tanin turned around, Sturm stuck the

sword blade between his brother's legs, sending him to the floor

with a crash that seemed to shake the very foundation of the

Tower.

"Damn you for a lame-brained gully dwarf!" roared Tanin,

falling flat on his face. Clambering to his feet, he leaped after his

brother, who was scrambling to get out of the way. Tanin caught

him and, grabbing hold of the grinning Sturm by the collar of his

tunic, sent him sprawling backward into the table, smashing it to

the floor. Tanin jumped on top of his brother, and the two were

engaged in their usual rough and tumble antics that had left several

bar rooms in Ansalon in shambles when a quiet voice brought the

tussle to a halt.

"Stop it," said Palin tensely, rising from his chair by the fire.

"Stop it, both of you! Remember where you are!"

"I remember where I am," Tanin said sulkily, gazing up at his

youngest brother.

As tall as the older two young men, Palin was well-built. Given

to study rather than sword-play, however, he lacked the heavy

musculature of the two warriors. He had his mother's red hair, but

it was not fiery red, being nearer a dark auburn. He wore his hair

long-it flowed to his shoulders in soft waves from a central part

on his forehead. But it was the young man's face-his face and his

hands-that sometimes haunted both the dreams of mother and

father. Fine-boned, with penetrating, intelligent eyes that always

seemed to be looking right through one, Palin's face had the look

of his uncle, if not his features, the unseen observer noted. Palin's

hands were Raistlin's, however. Slender, delicate, the fingers quick

and deft, the young man handled the fragile spell components with

such skill that his father was often torn between watching with

pride and looking away in sadness.

Just now, the hands were clenched into fists as Palin glared

grimly at his two older brothers lying on the floor amid spilled ale,

pieces of bread, crockery, a half-eaten cheese, and shards of

broken table.

"Then try to behave with some dignity, at least!" Palin

snapped.

"I remember where I am," Tanin repeated angrily. Getting to

his feet, he walked over to stand in front of Palin, staring at him

accusingly. "And I remember who brought us here! Riding

through that accursed wood that damn near got us killed-"

"Nothing in Wayreth Forest would have hurt you," Palin

returned, looking at the mess on the floor in disgust. "As I told you

if you'd only listened. This forest is controlled by the wizards in

the Tower. It protects them from unwanted intruders. We have

been invited here. The trees let us pass without harm. The voices

you heard only whisper to you the fears in your own heart. It's

magic-"

"Magic! You listen, Palin," Tanin interrupted in what Sturm

always referred to as his Elder Brother voice. "Why don't you just

drop all this magic business? You're hurting Father and Mother-

Father most of all. You saw his face when we rode up to this

place! The gods know what it must have cost him to come back

here."

Flushing, Palin turned away, biting his lip.

"Oh, lay off the kid, will you, Tanin?" Sturm said, seeing the

pain on his younger brother's face. Wiping ale from his pants, he

somewhat shamefacedly began trying to put the table back

together-a hopeless task considering most of it was in splinters.

"You had the makings of a good swordsman once, little brother,"

Tanin said persuasively, ignoring Sturm and putting his hand on

Palin's shoulder. "C'mon, kid. Tell whoever's out there"-Tanin

waved his hand somewhat vaguely-"that you've changed your

mind. We can leave this cursed place, then, and go home-"

"We have no idea why they asked us to come here," Palin

retorted, shaking off his brother's hand. "It probably has nothing to

do with me! Why should it?" he asked bitterly. "I'm still a student,

it will be years before I am ready to take my Test. . . thanks to

Father and Mother," he muttered beneath his breath. Tanin did not

hear it, but the unseen observer did.

"Yeah? And I'm a half-ogre," retorted Tanin angrily. "Look at

me when I'm talking, Palin-"

"Just leave me alone!"

"Hey, you two-" Sturm the peacemaker started to intervene

when the three young men suddenly realized they were not alone

in the room.

All quarrels forgotten, the brothers acted instantly. Sturm rose

to his feet with the quickness of a cat. His hand on the hilt of his

sword, he joined Tanin, who had already moved to stand

protectively in front of the unarmed Palin. Like all magic-users,

the young man carried neither sword nor shield nor wore armor.

But his hand went to the dagger he carried concealed beneath his

robes, his mind already forming the words of the few defensive

spells he had been allowed to learn.

"Who are you?" Tanin asked harshly, staring at the man

standing in the center of the locked room. "How did you get in

here?"

"As to how I got here"-the man smiled broadly- "there are

no walls in the Tower of High Sorcery for those who walk with

magic. As for who I am, my name is Dunbar Mastersmate, of

Northern Ergoth."

"What do you want?" Sturm asked quietly.

"Want? Why-to make certain you are comfortable, that is

all," Dunbar answered. "I am your host-"

"You? A magic-user?" Tanin gaped, and even Palin seemed

slightly startled.

In a world where wizards are noted for having more

brains than brawn, this man was obviously the exception.

Standing as tall as Tanin, he had a barrel of a chest that

Caramon might well have envied. Muscles rippled beneath

the shining black skin. His arms looked as though he could

have picked up the stalwart Sturm and carried him about the

room as easily as if he had been a child. He was not dressed

in robes, but wore bright-colored, loose-fitting trousers. The

only hint that he might have been a wizard at all came from

the pouches that hung at his waist and a white sash that

girdled his broad middle.

Dunbar laughed, booming laughter that set the dishes

rattling.

"Aye," he said, "I am a magic-user." With that, he spoke

a word of command, and the broken table, leaping to its

legs, put itself back together with incredible speed. The ale

vanished from the floor, the cracked pitcher mended and

floated up to rest on the table, where it was soon foaming

with brew again. A roasted haunch of venison appeared, as

did a loaf of fragrant bread, along with sundry other

delicacies that caused Sturm's mouth to water and cooled

even Tanin's ardor, though they did not allay his suspicions.

"Seat yourselves," said Dunbar, "and let us eat. Do not

worry about your father," he added, as Tanin was about to

speak. "He is in conference with the heads of the other two

Orders. Sit down! Sit down!" He grinned, white teeth

flashing against his black skin. "Or shall I make you sit

down? . . ."

At this, Tanin let loose the hilt of his sword and pulled up a

chair, though he did not eat but sat watching Dunbar warily.

Sturm fell to with a good appetite, however. Only Palin

remained standing, his hands folded in the sleeves of his white

robes.

"Please, Palin," said Dunbar more gently, looking at the young

man, "be seated. Soon we will join your father and you will

discover the reason you have been brought here. In the meanwhile,

I ask you to share bread and meat with me."

"Thank you. Master," Palin said, bowing respectfully.

"Dunbar, Dunbar . . ." The man waved his hand. "You are my

guests. We will not stand on formalities."

Palin sat down and began to eat, but it was obvious he did so

out of courtesy only. Dunbar and Sturm more than made up for

him, however, and soon even Tanin was lured from his self-

imposed role of protector by the delicious smells and the sight of

the others enjoying themselves.

"You . . . you said the heads of the OTHER Orders, Mast-

Dunbar," Palin ventured. "Are you-"

"Head of the Order of the White Robes. Yes." Dun-bar tore off

a hunk of bread with his strong teeth and washed it down with a

draught of ale which he drank in one long swallow. "I took over

when Par-Salian retired."

"Head of the Order?" Sturm looked at the big man in awe.

"But-what kind of wizard are you? What do you do?"

"I'll wager it's more than pulling the wings off bats," Tanin

mumbled through a mouthful of meat.

Palin appeared shocked, and frowned at his older brother. But

Dunbar only laughed again. "You're right there!" he said with an

oath. "I am a Sea Wizard. My father was a ship's captain and his

father before him. I had no use for captaining vessels. My skills

lay in magic, but my heart was with the sea and there I returned.

Now I sail the waves and use my art to summon the wind or quell

the storm. I can leave the enemy becalmed so that we can outrun

him, or I can cast bursting flame onto his decks if we attack. And,

when necessary"-Dunbar grinned-"I can take my turn at the

bilge pump or turn the capstan with the best of them. Keeps me

fit." He pounded himself on his broad chest. "I understand you

two"-he looked at Sturm and Tanin-"have returned from

fighting the minotaurs who have been raiding the coast up north. I,

too, have been involved in trying to stop those pirates. Tell me, did

you-"

The three were soon deeply involved in discussion. Even Tanin

warmed to the subject, and was soon describing in vivid detail the

ambush that had stopped the minotaurs from leveling the city of

Kalaman. Dunbar listened attentively, asking intelligent questions,

making comments, and appearing to enjoy himself very much.

But though the wizard's shrewd gaze was concentrated on the

warrior brothers, his attention was in truth on the younger.

Seeing the three deep in conversation and himself apparently

forgotten, Palin thankfully gave up all pretence of eating and went

back to staring into the fire, never noticing Dunbar watching him.

The young man's face was pale and thoughtful, the slender

hands twisted together in his lap. So lost in his thoughts was he

that his lips moved and, though he did not speak aloud, one other

person in the room heard the words.

"Why have they brought me here? Can they read the secrets of

my heart? Will they tell my father?"

And, finally, "How can I hurt him, who has suffered so much

already?"

Nodding to himself as if he had found the answer to some

unasked question, Dunbar sighed and turned his complete attention

back to fighting minotaurs.

 

CHAPTER THREE

 

"You're wrong," said Caramon calmly. "My brother is dead"

Raising his eyebrows, Justarius glanced at Dalamar, who just

shrugged. Of all the reactions they had been prepared for, this

calm refutal by the warrior-turned-innkeeper had not been one of

them, apparently. His expression grave, seeming uncertain what to

say, Justarius looked back at Caramon.

"You talk as though you have proof."

"I have," said Caramon.

"May I ask what?" Dalamar inquired sarcastically. "The Portal

to the Abyss closed, after all-closed WITH YOUR BROTHER'S

HELP-leaving him trapped on the other side." The dark elf's

voice dropped. "Her Dark Majesty would not kill him. Raistlin

prevented her entry into this world. Her rage would know no

bounds. She would take delight in tormenting him eternally.

DEATH would have been Raistlin's salvation-"

"And so it was," said Caramon softly.

"Sentimental drivel-" Dalamar began impatiently, but

Justarius once again laid his hand upon the dark elf's arm, and the

black-robed mage lapsed into seething silence.

"I hear certainty in your voice, Caramon," Justarius said

earnestly. "You have knowledge, obviously, that we do not< Share

this with us. I know this is painful for you, but we face a decision

of grave importance and this may influence our actions."

Caramon hesitated, frowning. "Does this have something to do

with my son?"

"Yes," Justarius replied.

Caramon's face darkened. His gaze went to his sword, his eyes

narrowed thoughtfully, his hand absently fingering the hilt. 'Then I

will tell you," he said, speaking reluctantly, yet in a firm, low

voice, "what I have never told anyone-not my wife, not Tanis,

not anyone." He was silent a moment more, collecting his

thoughts. Then, swallowing and brushing his hand across his eyes,

keeping his gaze on the sword, he began.

"I was numb after . . . after what happened in the Tower in

Palanthas. After Raistlin . . . died. I couldn't think. I didn't want to

think. It was easier to go through the day like a sleepwalker. I

moved, I talked, but I didn't feel. It was easy." He shrugged.

"There was a lot to do to keep me occupied. The city was in ruins.

Dalamar"-he glanced briefly at the dark elf-"was nearly dead.

Revered Daughter Crysania hurt badly. Then there was Tas-

stealing that floating citadel." Caramon smiled, remembering the

antics of the merry kender. But the smile soon faded. Shaking his

head, he continued.

"I knew that someday I'd have to think about Raistlin. I'd have

to sort it out in my mind." Raising his head, Caramon looked at

Justarius directly. "I had to make myself understand what Raistlin

was, what he had done. I came to face the fact that he was evil,

truly evil. That he had jeopardized the entire world in his lust for

power, that innocent people had suffered and died because of

him."

"And for this, of course, he was granted salvation!" Dalamar

sneered.

"Wait!" Caramon raised his hand, flushing. "I came to realize

something else. I loved Raistlin. He was my brother, my twin. We

were close, no one knows how close." The big man could not go

on, but stared down at his sword, frowning, until, drawing a

shaking breath, he lifted his head again, proudly. "Raistlin did

some good in his life. Without him, we couldn't have defeated the

dragonarmies. He cared for those who . . . who were wretched,

sick . . .like himself. But even that, I know, wouldn't have saved

him at the end." Caramon's lips pressed together firmly as he

blinked back his tears. "When I met him in the Abyss, he was near

to victory, as you well know. He had only to reenter the Portal,

draw the Dark Queen through it, and then he would be able to

defeat her and take her place. He would achieve his dream of

becoming a god. But in so doing, he would destroy the world. My

journey into the future showed that to me-and I showed the

future to him. Raistlin would become a god-but he would rule

over a dead world. He knew then that he couldn't return. He had

doomed himself. He knew the risks he faced, however, when he

entered the Abyss."

"Yes," said Justarius quietly. "And, in his ambition, he chose

freely to take those risks. What is it you are trying to say?"

"Just this," Caramon returned. "Raistlin made a mistake-a

terrible, tragic mistake. And he did what few of us can do-he had

courage enough to admit it and try to do what he could to rectify it,

even though it meant sacrificing himself."

"You have grown in wisdom over the years, Caramon Majere.

What you say is convincing." Justarius regarded Caramon with

new respect, even as the arch-mage shook his head sadly. "Still,

this is a question for philosophers to argue. It is not proof. Forgive

me for pressing you, Caramon, but-"

"I spent a month at Tanis's, before I went home," Caramon

continued as if he hadn't heard the interruption. "It was in his

quiet, peaceful home that I thought about all this. It was there that

I first had to come to grips with the fact that my brother-my

companion since birth, the person that I loved better than

anyone else on this world-was gone. Lost. For all I knew,

trapped in horrible torment. I... I thought, more than once,

about taking the edge off my pain with dwarf spirits again.

But I knew that was only a temporary situation." Caramon

closed his eyes, shuddering.

"One day, when I didn't think I could live anymore

without going mad, I went into my room and locked the

door. Taking out my sword, I looked at it, thinking how

easy it would be to ... to escape. I lay down on my bed, fully

intending to kill myself. Instead, I fell into an exhausted

sleep. I don't know how long I slept, but when I woke up, it

was night. Everything was quiet, Solinari's silver light

shone in the window, and I was filled with a sense of

inexpressible peace. I wondered why . . . and then I saw

him."

"Saw who?" Justarius asked, exchanging quick glances

with Dalamar. "Raistlin?"

"Yes."

The faces of the two wizards grew grim.

"I saw him," said Caramon gently, "lying beside me,

asleep, just like when . . . when we were young. He had

terrible dreams sometimes. He'd wake, weeping, from them.

I'd comfort him and . . . and make him laugh. Then he'd

sigh, lay his head on my arm, and fall asleep. That's how I

saw him-"

"A dream!" Dalamar scoffed.

"No." Caramon shook his head resolutely. "It was too real.

I saw his face as I see yours. I saw his face as I had seen it

last, in the Abyss. Only now the terrible lines of pain, the

twisted marks of greed and evil were gone, leaving it

smooth and ... at rest-like Crysania said. It was the face of

my brother, my twin . . . not the stranger he'd become."

Caramon wiped his eyes again, running his hand down over

his mouth. "The next day, I was able to go home," he said

huskily, "knowing that everything was all right. . . . For the

first time in my life, I believed in Paladine. I knew that he

understood Raistlin and judged him mercifully, accepting

his sacrifice."

"He has you there, Justarius," boomed a voice from out

of the shadows. "What do you say to faith like that?"

Looking around quickly, Caramon saw four figures

materialize out of the shadows of the vast chamber. Three

he recognized and, even in this grim place with its

storehouse of memories, his eyes blurred again, only these

were tears of pride as he looked upon his sons. The older

two, armor clanking and swords rattling, appeared

somewhat subdued, he noticed. Not unusual, he thought

grimly, considering all they had heard about the Tower both

in legend and family history. Then, too, they felt about

magic the way he himself felt-both disliked and distrusted

it. The two stood protectively, as usual, one on either side of

Car-amon's third son, their younger brother.

It was this youngest son that Caramon looked at anxiously

as they entered. Dressed in his white robes, Palin

approached the Head of the Conclave with his head bowed,

his eyes on the floor as was proper for one of his low rank

and station. Having just turned twenty, he wasn't even an

apprentice yet and probably wouldn't be until he was

twenty-five at least. That is the age when magic-users in

Krynn may choose to take the Test-the grueling

examination of their skills and talents in the Art which all

must pass before they can acquire more advanced and

dangerous knowledge. Because magicians wield such great

power, the Test is designed to weed out those who are

unskilled or who do not take their art seriously. It does this

very effectively-failure means death. There is no turning

back. Once a young man or woman of any race- elven,

human, ogre-decides to enter the Tower of High Sorcery

with the intent of taking the Test-he or she commits body

and soul to the magic.

Palin seemed unusually troubled and serious, just as he

had on their journey to the Tower-almost as if he was

about to take the Test himself. But that's ridiculous,

Caramon reminded himself. The boy is too young. Granted,

Raistlin took the Test at this age, but that was because the

Conclave needed him. Raistlin was strong in his magic,

excelling in the art, and-even so-the Test had nearly

killed him. Caramon could still see his twin lying on the

blood-stained floor of the Tower. . . . He clenched his fist.

No! Palin is intelligent, he is skilled, but he's not ready. He's

too young.

"Besides," Caramon muttered beneath his breath, "give

him a few more years and he may decide to drop this fool

notion. . . ."

As if aware of his father's worried scrutiny, Palin raised

his head slightly and gave him a reassuring smile. Caramon

smiled back, feeling better. Maybe this weird place had

opened his son's eyes.

As the four approached the semicircle of chairs where

Justarius and Dalamar sat, Caramon kept a sharp eye on

them. Seeing that his boys were well and acting as they

were supposed to act (his oldest two tended to be a bit

boisterous on occasion), the big man finally relaxed and

studied the fourth figure, the one who had spoken to

Justarius about faith.

He was an unusual sight. Caramon couldn't remember

having seen anything stranger and he'd traveled most of the

continent of Ansalon. He was from Northern Ergoth, that

much Caramon could tell by the black skin-the mark of

that sea-faring race. He was dressed like a sailor, too, except

for the pouches on his belt and the white sash around his

waist. His voice was the voice of one accustomed to

shouting com mands over the crashing of waves and the roaring

of the wind. So strong was this impression that Caramon glanced

around somewhat uncertainly. He wouldn't have been the least

surprised to see a ship under full sail materialize behind him.

"Caramon Majere, I take it," the man said, coming over to

Caramon, who rose awkwardly to his feet. Gripping Caramon's

hand with a firmness that made the warrior open his eyes wide, the

man grinned and introduced himself. "Dunbar Mastersmate of

Northern Ergoth, Head of the Order of White Robes."

Caramon gaped. "A mage?" he said wonderingly, shaking

hands.

Dunbar laughed. "Exactly your sons' reaction. Yes, I've been

visiting with your boys instead of doing my duty here, I'm afraid.

Fine lads. The oldest two have been with the Knights, I

understand, fighting mino-taurs near Kalaman. We came close to

meeting there, that's what kept me so long." He glanced in apology

at Justarius. "My ship was in Palanthas for repairs to damage taken

fighting those same pirates. I am a Sea Wizard," Dunbar added by

way of explanation, noticing Caramon's slightly puzzled look. "By

the gods, but your boys take after you!" He laughed, and, reaching

out, shook Caramon's hand again.

Caramon grinned back. Everything would be all right, now that

these wizards understood about Raistlin. He could take his boys

and go home.

Caramon suddenly became aware that Dunbar was regarding

him intently, almost as if he could see the thoughts in his mind.

The wizard's face grew serious. Shaking his head slightly, Dunbar

turned and walked across the chamber with rapid, rolling strides,

as though on the deck of his ship, to take his seat to the right of

Justarius.

"Well," said Caramon, fumbling with the hilt of his sword, his

confidence shaken by the look on the wizard's face. All three were

staring at him now, their expressions solemn. Caramon's face

hardened in resolve. "I guess that's that," he said coldly. "You've

heard what I've had to say about . . . about Raistlin. . . ."

"Yes," said Dunbar. "We ALL heard, some of us-I believe-

for the first time." The Sea Wizard glanced meaningfully at Palin,

who was staring at the floor.

Clearing his throat nervously, Caramon continued. "I guess

we'll be on our way."

The wizards exchanged looks. Justarius appeared

uncomfortable, Dalamar stem, Dunbar sad. But none of'them said

anything. Bowing, Caramon turned to leave and was just

motioning to his sons when Dalamar, with an irritated gesture, rose

to his feet.

"You cannot go, Caramon," the dark elf said. "There is still

much to discuss."

"Then say what you have to say!" Caramon stated angrily,

turning back around to face the wizards.

"I will say it, since these two"-he cast a scathing glance at his

fellow wizards-"are squeamish about challenging such devoted

faith as you have proclaimed. Perhaps they have forgotten the

grave danger we faced twenty-five years ago. I haven't." His hand

strayed to the torn robes. "I never can. My fears cannot be

dispelled by a 'vision,' no matter how touching." His lip curled

derisively. "Sit down, Caramon. Sit down and hear the truth these

two fear to speak."

"I do not fear to speak it, Dalamar." Justarius spoke in rebuking

tones. "I was thinking about the story Caramon related, its bearing

upon the matter-"

The dark elf snorted, but-at a piercing look from his superior-

he sat back down, wrapping his black robes around him. Caramon

remained standing, however, frowning and glancing from one

wizard to the other. Behind him, he heard the jingle of armor as his

two older boys shifted uncomfortably. This place made them

nervous, just as it did him. He wanted to turn on his heel and walk

out, never returning to the Tower that had been the scene of so

much pain and heartbreak.

By the gods, he'd do it! Let them try to stop him! Caramon

clasped the hilt of his sword and took a step backward, glancing

around at his sons. The two older boys moved to leave. Only Palin

remained standing still, a grave, thoughtful expression on his face

that Caramon could not read. It reminded him of someone though.

Caramon could almost hear Raistlin's whispering voice, "GO IF

YOU WANT TO, MY DEAR BROTHER. LOSE YOURSELF IN

THE MAGICAL FOREST OF WAYRETH AS YOU MOST

SURELY WILL WITHOUT ME. I INTEND TO REMAIN ..."

No. He would not hear his son say those words. Flushing, his

heart constricting painfully, Caramon seated himself heavily in the

chair. "Say what you have to say," he repeated.

"Almost thirty years ago, Raistlin Majere came here to take his

Test," Justarius began. "Once inside the Tower, taking his Test, he

was contacted by-"

"We know that," Caramon growled.

"Some of us do," Justarius replied. "Some of us do not." His

gaze went to Palin. "Or at least, they do not know the entire story.

The Test was difficult for Raistlin-it is difficult for all of us who

take it, isn't it?"

Dalamar did not speak, but his pale face went a shade paler,

the slanted eyes were clouded. All traces of laughter had vanished

from Dunbar s face. His gaze went to Palin and he almost

imperceptibly shook his head.

"Yes," Justarius continued softly, absently rubbing his leg with his

hand as though it pained him. "The test is difficult. But it is not

impossible. Par-Salian and the Heads of the Orders would not have

granted Raistlin permission to take it-as young as he was-if

they had not deemed it likely that he would succeed. And he

would have! Yes, Caramon! There is not a doubt in my mind or in

the minds of any who were present that day and witnessed it. Your

twin had the strength and the skill to succeed on his own. But he

chose the easy way, the sure way-he accepted the help of an evil

wizard, the greatest of our order who ever lived- Fistandantilus."

"Fistandantilus," Justarius repeated, his eyes on Pa-lin. "His

magic having gone awry, he died at Skullcap Mountain. But he

was powerful enough to defeat death itself. His spirit survived, on

another plane, waiting to find a body it could inhabit. And he

found that body. He found Raistlin."

Caramon sat silently, his eyes fixed on Justarius, his face red,

his jaw muscles stiff. He felt a hand on his shoulder and, glancing

up, saw Palin, who had come to stand behind him. Leaning down,

Palin whispered, "We can go, father. I'm sorry. I was wrong to

make you come. We don't have to listen . . ."

Justarius sighed. "Yes, young mage, you do have to listen, I am

afraid. You must hear the truth!"

Palin started, flushing at hearing his words repeated. Reaching

up, Caramon gripped his son's hand reassuringly. "We know the

truth," he growled. "That evil wizard took my brother's soul! And

you mages let him!"

"No, Caramon!" Justarius's fist clenched, his gray brows drew

together. "Raistlin made a deliberate choice to turn his back upon

the light and embrace the darkness. Fistandantilus gave him the

power to pass the Test and, in exchange, Raistlin GAVE

Fistandantilus part of his life force in order to help the liche's spirit

survive. THAT is what shattered his body-not the Test. Raistlin

said it himself, Caramon! 'This is the sacrifice I made for my

magic!' How many times did you hear him say those words!"

"Enough!" Scowling, Caramon stood up. "It was Par-Salian's

fault. No matter what evil my twin did after that, you mages

started him down the path he eventually walked." Motioning to his

sons, Caramon turned upon his heel and walked rapidly from the

chamber, heading for what he hoped (in this strange place) was the

way out.

"No!" Justarius rose unsteadily to his feet, unable to put his full

weight upon his crippled left leg. But his voice was powerful,

thundering through the chamber. "Listen and understand, Caramon

Majere! You must, or you will regret it bitterly!"

Caramon stopped. Slowly, he turned around, but only half-

way. "Is this a threat?" he asked, glaring at Justarius over his

shoulder.

"No threat, at least not one we make," Justarius said. "Think,

Caramon! Don't you see the danger? It happened once, it can

happen again!"

"I don't understand," Caramon said stubbornly, his hand on his

sword, still considering.

Like a snake uncoiling to strike, Dalamar leaned forward in his

chair. "Yes, you do!" His voice was soft and lethal. "You

understand. Don't ask for us to tell you details, for we cannot. But

know this-by certain signs we have seen and certain contacts we

have made in realms beyond this one, we have reason to believe

that Raistlin lives-much as did Fistandantilus. He seeks a way

back into this world. He needs a body to inhabit. And you, his

beloved twin, have thoughtfully provided him with one-young,

strong, and already trained in magic."

Dalamar's words sank into Caramon's flesh like poisoned

fangs. "Your son . . ."

 

CHAPTER FOUR

 

Justarius resumed his seat, easing himself into the great

stone chair carefully. Smoothing the folds of his red robes

about him with hands that looked remarkably young for his

age, he spoke to Caramon, though his eyes were on the

white-robed young man standing at his father's side. "Thus

you see, Caramon Majere, that we cannot possibly let your

son-Raistlin's nephew-continue to study magic and take

the Test without first making certain that his uncle cannot

use this young man to gain entry back into the world."

"Especially," added Dunbar gravely, "since the young

man's loyalties to one particular Order have yet to be

established."

"What do you mean?" Caramon frowned. "Take the

Test? He's long way from taking the Test. And as for his

loyalties, he chose to wear the White Robes-"

"You and Mother chose that I wear the White Robes,"

Palin said evenly, his eyes avoiding his father. When only

hurt silence answered him, Palin made an irritated gesture.

"Oh, come now. Father. You know as well as I do that you

wouldn't have considered letting me study magic under any

other conditions. I knew better than to even ask!"

"But the young man must declare the allegiance that is in

his heart. Only then can he use the true power of his magic.

And he must do this during his Test," Dun-bar said gently.

"Test! What is this talk of the Test! I tell you he hasn't even

made up his mind whether or not to take the damn thing.

And if I have anything to say about it-" Caramon stopped

speaking abruptly, his gaze going to his son's face. Palin stared at

the stone floor, his cheeks flushed, his lips pressed tightly together.

"Well, never mind that," Caramon muttered, drawing a deep

breath. Behind him, he could hear his other two sons shuffling

nervously, the rattle of Tanin's sword, Sturm's soft cough. He was

acutely aware, too, of the wizards watching him, especially of

Dala-mar's cynical smile. If only he and Palin could be alone!

Caramon sighed. It was something they should have talked about

before this, he supposed. But he kept hoping. . . .

Turning his back on the wizards, he faced his youngest son.

"What . . . what other loyalty would you choose, Palin?" he asked

belatedly, trying to make amends. "You're a good person, son!

You enjoy helping people, serving others! White seems obvious..."

"I don't know whether I enjoy serving others or not," Palin

cried impatiently, losing control. "You thrust me into this role, and

look where it has gotten me! You admit yourself that I am not as

strong or skilled in magic as my uncle was at my age. That was

because he devoted his life to study! He let nothing interfere with

it. It seems to me a man must put the magic first, the world second

. . ."

Closing his eyes in pain, Caramon listened to his son's words,

but he heard them spoken by another voice-a soft, whispering

voice, a shattered voice - A MAN MUST PUT THE MAGIC FIRST,

THE WORLD SECOND. BY DOING ANYTHING ELSE, HE

LIMITS HIMSELF AND HIS POTENTIAL-

He felt a hand grasp his arm. "Father, I'm sorry," Palin said

softly. "I would have discussed it with you, but I knew how much

it would hurt you. And then there's Mother." The young man

sighed. "You know mother . . ."

"Yes," said Caramon in a choked voice, reaching out and grasping

his son in his big arms, "I know your mother." Clearing his throat,

he tried to smile. "She might have thrown something at you-she

did me once-most of my armor as I recall. But her aim is terrible,

especially when it's someone she loves. . . ."

Caramon couldn't go, but stood holding his son. Looking over

his shoulder at the wizards, he asked harshly, "Is this necessary,

right now? Let us go home and talk about it. Why can't we wait-"

"Because this night there is a rare occurrence," Justa-rius

answered. "The silver moon, the black, and the red are all three in

the sky at the same time. The power of magic is stronger this night

than it has been in a century. If Raistlin has the ability to call upon

the magic and escape the Abyss-it could be on a night like this."

Caramon bowed his head, his hand stroking his son's auburn

hair. Then, his arm around Palin's shoulder, he turned to face the

wizards, his face grim.

"Very well," he said huskily, "what do you want us to do?"

"You must return with me to the Tower in Palan-thas," said

Dalamar. "And there, we will attempt to enter the Portal-"

"The Tower? Let us ride as far as the Shoikan Grove with you.

Father," Tanin pleaded.

"Yes!" added Sturm eagerly. "You'll need us, you know you

will. The road to Palanthas is open, the Knights see to that, but

we've had reports from Porthios of draconian parties, lying in

ambush-"

"I am sorry to disappoint you, warriors," said Dalamar, a slight

smile upon his lips, "but we will not be using the roads between

here and Palanthas. Conventional roads, that is," he amended.

Both the young men looked confused. Glancing warily at the

dark elf, Tanin frowned as though he suspected a trick.

Palin patted Tanin's arm. "He means magic, my brother. Before

you and Sturm reach the front entry-way, Father and I will be

standing in Dalamar's study in the Tower of High Sorcery in

Palanthas-the Tower my uncle claimed as his own," he added

softly. Palin had not meant anyone to hear his last words, but-

glancing around-he caught Dalamar's intense, knowing gaze.

"Yes, that's where we'll be," muttered Caramon, his face

darkening at the thought. "And you two will be on your way

home," he added, eyeing his older sons sternly. "You have to tell

your mother-"

"I'd rather face ogres," said Tanin gloomily.

"Me, too," Caramon said with a grin that ended in a sigh.

Leaning down suddenly to make certain his pack was cinched

tightly, he kept his face carefully in the shadows. "Just make

certain she's not standing where she can get hold of the crockery,"

he said, keeping his voice carefully light.

"She knows me. She's been expecting this. In fact, I think she

knew when we left," Palin said, remembering his mother's tender

hug and cheery smile as she stood at the door to the Inn, waving at

them with an old towel. Glancing behind him as they had been rid-

ing out of town, Palin recalled seeing that towel cover his mother's

face, her friend Dezra's arms going around her comfortingly.

"Besides," said Caramon, standing up to glare at his older two

sons, his tone now severe, "you both promised Porthios you'd go

to Qualinesti and help the elves handle those draconian raiding

parties. You know what Porthios is like. It took him ten years to

even speak to us. Now he's showing signs of being friendly. I

won't have sons of mine going back on their word, especially to

that stiff-necked elf. No of tense," he said, glancing at Dalamar.

"None taken," said the dark elf. "I know Porthios. And

now-"

"We're ready," interrupted Palin, an eager look on his

face as he turned to Dalamar. "I've read about this spell

you're going to cast, of course, but I've never seen it done.

What components do you use? And do you inflect the first

syllable of the first word, or the second? My Master says-"

Dalamar coughed gently. "You are giving away our

secrets, young one," he said in smooth tones. "Come, speak

your questions to me in private." Placing his delicate hand

upon Palin's arm, the dark elf drew the young man away

from his father and brothers.

"Secrets?" said Palin, mystified. "What do you mean? It

doesn't matter if they hear-"

"That was an excuse," Dalamar said coldly. Standing in

front of the young man, he looked at Palin intently, his eyes

dark and serious. "Palin, don't do this. Return home with

your father and brothers."

"What do you mean?" Palin said, staring at Dalamar in

confusion. "I can't do that. You heard Justarius. They won't

let me take my Test or even keep on studying until we know

for certain that Raistlin is ... is ..."

"Don't take the Test," Dalamar said swiftly. "Give up

your studies. Go home. Be content with what you are."

"No!" Palin said angrily. "What do you take me for? Do

you think I'd be happy entertaining at country fairs, pulling

rabbits out of hats and golden coins out of fat men's ears? I

want more than that!"

"The price of such ambition is great, as your uncle

discovered."

"And so are the rewards!" Palin returned. "I have made

up my mind . . ."

"Young one"-Dalamar leaned close to the young man,

placing his cold hand upon Palin's arm. His voice dropped

to a whisper so soft that Palin wasn't certain he heard its

words spoken or in his mind- "why do you think they are

sending you-truly?" His gaze went to Justarius and

Dunbar, who were standing apart, conferring together. "To

somehow enter the Portal and find your uncle-or what's

left of him? No"-Dalamar shook his head-"that is

impossible. The room is locked, one of the Guardians stands

constant watch with instructions to let no one in, to kill any

who tries. THEY know that, just as they KNOW Raistlin

lives! They are sending you to the Tower-HIS Tower-for

one reason. Do you know the old legend about using a

young goat to net a dragon?"

Staring at Dalamar in disbelief, Palin's face suddenly

drained of all color.

"I see you understand," Dalamar said coolly, folding his

hands in the sleeves of his black robes. 'The hunter tethers

the young goat in front of the dragon's lair. While the

dragon devours the goat, the hunters sneak up on him with

their nets and their spears. They catch the dragon.

Unfortunately, it is a bit late for the goat.... Do you still

insist on going?"

Palin had a sudden vision of his uncle as he had heard of

him in the legends-facing the evil Fistandan-tilus, feeling

the touch of the bloodstone upon his chest as it sought to

draw out his soul, suck out his life. The young man

shivered, his body drenched in chill sweat. "I am strong," he

said, his voice cracking. "I can fight as HE fought-"

"Fight him? The greatest wizard who ever lived? The

archmage who challenged the Queen of Darkness herself

and nearly won?" Dalamar laughed mirthlessly. "Bah! You

are doomed, young man. You haven't a prayer. And you

know what I will be forced to do if Raistlin succeeds!"

Dalamar's hooded head darted so near Palin that the young

man could feel the touch of his breath upon his cheek. "I must

destroy him-I WILL destroy him. I don't care whose body he

inhabits. That's why they're giving you to me. THEY don't have the

stomach for it."

Unnerved, Palin took a step back from the dark elf. Then he

caught himself, and stood still.

"I... understand," he said, his voice growing firmer as he

continued. "I told you that once. Besides, I don't believe my uncle

would harm me in ... the way you say."

"You don't?" Dalamar appeared amused. His hand moved to

his chest. "Would you like to see what harm your uncle is capable

of doing?"

"No!" Palin averted his eyes, then, flushing, he added lamely,

"I know about it. I've heard the story. You betrayed him-"

"And this was my punishment." The dark elf shrugged. "Very

well. If you are determined-"

"I am."

"-then I suggest you bid farewell to your brothers-a final

farewell, if you take my meaning. For I deem it unlikely that you

will meet again in this world."

The dark elf was matter-of-fact. His eyes held no pity, no

remorse. Palin's hands twitched, his nails dug into his flesh, but he

managed to nod firmly.

"You must be careful what you say." Dalamar glanced

meaningfully at Caramon, who was walking over to Justarius.

"Your brothers mustn't suspect. HE mustn't suspect. If he knew, he

would prevent your going. Wait"-Dalamar caught hold of the

young man-"pull yourself together."

Swallowing, trying to moisten a throat that was parched and

aching, Palin pinched his cheeks to bring the color back and wiped

the sweat from his brow with the sleeve of his robe. Then, biting

his lips to keep them steady, he turned from Dalamar and walked

over to his brothers.

His white robes rustled around his ankles as he approached

them. "Well, brothers," he began, forcing himself to smile as his

brothers turned to face him, "I'm always standing on the porch of

the Inn, waving good-bye to you two, going off to fight something

or other. Looks like it's my turn now."

Palin saw Tanin and Sturm exchange swift, alarmed glances

and he choked. The three were close, they knew each other inside

out. How can I fool them? he thought bitterly. Seeing their faces,

he knew he hadn't.

"My brothers," Palin said softly, reaching out his hands.

Clasping hold of both of them, he drew them near. "Don't say

anything," he whispered. "Just let me go! Father wouldn't

understand. It's going to be hard enough for him as it is."

"I'm not sure I understand," Tanin began severely.

"Oh, shut up!" Sturm muttered. "So we don't understand. Does

it matter? Did our little brother blubber when you went off to your

first battle?" Putting his big arms around Palin, he hugged him

tightly. "Good-bye, kid," he said. 'Take care of yourself and ... and

... don't be gone . . . long. . . ." Shaking his head, Sturm turned and

walked hurriedly away, wiping his eye and muttering something

about "those damn spell components make me sneeze!"

But Tanin, the oldest, remained standing beside his brother,

staring at him sternly. Palin looked up at him pleadingly, but

Tanin's face grew grim. "No, little brother," he said. "You're going

to listen."

Dalamar, watching the two closely, saw the young warrior put his

hand on Palin's shoulder. He could guess what was being said. The

dark elf saw Palin drawn away, shaking his head stubbornly, the

young man's features hardening into an impassive mask that

Dalamar knew well. The wizard's hand went to the wounds in his

chest. How like Raistlin the young man was! Like, yet different, as

Caramon said. Different as the white moon and the black. . . . The

dark elf's thoughts were interrupted when he noticed that Caramon

had observed the conversation between his two sons, and was

taking a step toward them. Quickly, Dalamar interceded. Walking

over to Caramon, he placed his slender hand on the big man's arm.

"You have not told your children the truth about their uncle,"

Dalamar said as Caramon glanced at him.

"I've told them," Caramon retorted, his face flushing, "as much

as I thought they should know. I tried to make them see both sides

of him. . . ."

"You have done them a disservice, particularly one of them,"

Dalamar replied coldly, his glance going to Palin.

"What could I do?" Caramon asked angrily. "When the legends

started about him-sacrificing himself for the sake of the world,

daring to go into the Abyss to rescue Lady Crysania from the

clutches of the Dark Queen-what could I say? I told them how it

was, I told them the true story. I told them that he lied to Crysania.

That he seduced her in spirit, if not in body, and led her into the

Abyss. And I told them that, at the end, when she was of no more

use to him, he abandoned her to let her die alone. I told them. My

friend Tanis has told them. But they believe what they want to

believe. . . . We all do, I guess," Caramon added with an accusing

glance at Dalamar. "I notice you mages don't go out of your way to

refute those stories!"

"They've done us good," Dalamar said, shrugging his slender

shoulders. "Because of the legends about Raistlin and his

'sacrifice,' magic is no longer feared, we wizards no longer reviled.

Our schools are flour ishing, our services are in demand. The city

of Kala-man has actually invited us to build a new Tower of High

Sorcery there." The dark elf smiled bitterly. "Ironic, isn't it?"

"What?"

"By his failure, your brother succeeded in what he set out to

accomplish," Dalamar remarked, his smile twisting. "In a way, he

HAS become a god. . . ."

 

"Palin, I insist on knowing what's going on." Tanin laid his

hand on Palin's shoulder.

"You heard them, Tanin," Palin hedged, nodding toward

Dalamar, who was talking with his father. "We're going to travel to

the Tower of High Sorcery in Palanthas, where the Portal is

located, and . . . and look in. ... That's all."

"And I'm a gully dwarf!" growled Tanin.

"Sometimes you think like one," Palin snapped, losing his

patience and thrusting his brother's arm away.

Tanin's face flushed a dull red. Unlike the easygoing Sturm,

Tanin had inherited his mother's temper along with her curls. He

also took his role of Elder Brother seriously, too seriously

sometimes to Palin's mind. But it's only because he loves me, the

young man reminded himself.

Drawing a deep breath, he sighed and, reaching out, clasped

his brother by the shoulders. "Tanin, you listen to me for a change.

Sturm's right. I didn't 'blubber' when you went off to battle that

first time. At least not when you could see me. But I cried all

night, alone, in the darkness. Don't you think I know that each time

you leave may be the last time we ever see each other? How many

times have you been wounded? That last fight, that minotaur arrow

missed your heart by only two fingersbreadth."

Tanin, his face dark, stared down at his feet. "That's different," he

muttered.

"As Granpa Tas would say, 'A chicken with its neck wrung is

different from a chicken with its head cut off, but does it matter to

the chicken?' " Palin smiled.

Swallowing his tears, Tanin shrugged and tried to grin. "I

guess you're right." He put his hands on Palin's shoulders, looked

intently into his pale face. "Come home, kid! Give this up!" he

whispered fiercely. "It isn't worth it! If anything happened to you,

think what it would do to Mother . . . and Father. . . ."

"I know," Palin said, his own eyes filling despite all his best

efforts to prevent it. "I have thought of that! I must do this, Tanin.

Try to understand. Tell Mother I... I love her very much. And the

little girls. Tell them I'll ... I'll bring them a present, like you and

Sturm always do . . ."

"What? A dead lizard?" Tanin growled. "Some moldy old bat's

wing?"

Wiping his eyes, Palin smiled. "Yeah, tell 'em that. You better

go. Dad's watching us."

"Watch yourself, little brother. And him." Tanin glanced at his

father. "This will be pretty tough on him."

"I know." Palin sighed. "Believe me, I know."

Tanin hesitated. Palin saw one more lecture, one more attempt

to dissuade him in his brother's eyes.

"Please, Tanin," he said softly. "No more."

Blinking rapidly and rubbing his nose, Tanin nodded. Cuffing

his little brother on the cheek and ruffling the auburn hair, Tanin

walked across the shadowy chamber to stand near the entryway

with Sturm.

Palin watched him walk away, then, turning, he went the

opposite direction, toward the front of the great hall, to bid his

parting respects to the two wizards.

"So Dalamar has spoken to you," Justarius said as the young man

came to stand before him.

"Yes," said Palin grimly. "HE has told me the truth."

"Has he?" Dunbar asked suddenly. "Remember this, young one.

Dalamar wears the Black Robes. He is ambitious. Whatever he

does, he does because he believes it will ultimately benefit him."

"Can you two deny what he told me is true? That you are using

me as bait to trap my uncle's spirit if it still lives?"

Justarius glanced at Dunbar, who shook his head.

"Sometimes you have to look for the truth here, Palin," Dunbar

said in answer, reaching out his hand to touch Palin gently on the

chest, "in your heart."

His lip curled in derision, but Palin knew what respect he must

show two such high-ranking wizards. So he simply bowed.

"Dalamar and my father are waiting for me. I bid you both

farewell. The gods willing, I will return in a year or two for my

Test, and I hope I will have the honor of seeing you both again."

Justarius did not miss the sarcasm, nor the bitter, angry

expression on the young man's face. It made him recall another

bitter, angry young man, who had come to this Tower over thirty

years ago. . . .

"May Gilean go with you, Palin," the archmage said softly,

folding his hands in the sleeves of his robes.

"May Paladine, the god you are named for, guide you, Palin,"

Dunbar said. "And consider this," he added, a smile creasing his

black face, "in case you never see the old Sea Wizard again. You

may learn that-by serving the world-you serve yourself best of

all"

Palin did not reply. Bowing again, he turned and left them. The

chamber seemed to grow darker as he walked back across it. He

might have been alone, he could see no one for a moment, not his

brothers, not Dalamar and his father. . . . But as the darkness

deepened, the white of his robes gleamed more brightly, like

the first star in the evening sky.

For an instant, fear assailed Palin. Had they all left him?

Was he alone in this vast darkness? Then he saw a glint of

metal near him-his father's armor, and he breathed a sigh

of relief. His steps hurried and, as he came to stand beside

his father, the chamber seemed to lighten. He could see the

dark elf, standing next to Caramon, pale face all that was

visible from the shadows of his black robes. Palin could see

his brothers, could see them lift their hands in farewell.

Palin started to raise his, but then Dalamar began chanting,

and it seemed a dark cloud covered the light of Palin's

robes, of Caramon's armor. The darkness grew thicker,

swirling around them until it was so deep that it was a hole

of blackness cut into the shadows of the chamber. Then

there was nothing. The cold, eerie light returned to the

Tower, filling up the gap.

Dalamar, Palin, and Caramon were gone.

 

The two brothers left behind shouldered their packs and

began the long, strange journey back through the magical

Forest of Wayreth, thoughts of breaking this news to their

red-haired, fiery-tempered, loving mother hanging around

their hearts with the weight of dwarven armor.

Behind them, standing beside the great stone chairs,

Justarius and Dunbar watched in grim silence. Then, each

speaking a word of magic, they, too, were gone, and the

Tower of High Sorcery at Wayreth was left to its shadows,

only memories walked the halls.

 

CHAPTER FIVE

 

"'He came in the middle of a still, black night,'" Dalamar

said softly. " The only moon in the sky was one his eyes

alone could see.'" The dark elf glanced at Palin from the

depths of the black hood that covered his head. "Thus runs

the legend about your uncle's return to this Tower."

Palin said nothing-the words were in his heart. They

had been there, secretly, ever since he was old enough to

dream. In awe, he looked up at the huge gates that barred

the entrance, trying to imagine his uncle standing where he

now stood, commanding the gates to open. And when they

did- Palin's gaze went farther upward still to the dark

Tower itself.

It was daylight in Palanthas, it had been mid-morning when

they left the Tower of High Sorcery in Wayreth, hundreds

of miles to the south. And it was mid-morning still, their

magical journey having taken them no more than the

drawing of a breath. The sun was at its zenith, shining right

above the Tower. Two of the blood-red minarets atop the

Tower held the golden orb between them, like blood-stained

fingers greedily grasping a coin. And the sun might well

have been nothing more than a coin for all the warmth it

shed, for no sunshine ever warmed this place of evil. The

huge black stone edifice-torn from the bones of the world

by magic spells-stood in the shadow of the spell-bound

Shoikan Grove, a stand of massive oak trees that guarded

the Tower more effectively than if each tree had been a

hundred knights-at-arms. So powerful was its dread

enchantment that no one could even come near it. Unless

protected by a dark charm, no one could enter and come out alive.

Turning his head, Palin glanced from the folds of his white

hood at the Grove's tall trees. They stood un-moving, though he

could feel the wind from the sea blowing strong upon his face. It

was said that even the terrible hurricanes of the Cataclysm had not

caused a leaf to flutter in the Shoikan Grove, though no other tree

in the city remained standing. A chill darkness flowed among the

trunks of the oaks, reaching out snaking tendrils of icy fog that

slithered along the paved courtyard before the gates, writhing

about the ankles of those who stood there.

Shivering with cold and a fear he could not control, a fear fed

by the trees, Palin looked at his father with new respect. Driven by

love for his twin, Caramon had dared enter the Shoikan Grove, and

had very nearly paid for his love with his life.

He must be thinking of that, Palin thought, for his father's face

was pale and grim. Beads of sweat stood upon his forehead. "Let's

get out of here," Caramon said harshly, his eyes carefully avoiding

the sight of the cursed trees. "Go inside, or something. . . ."

"Very well," replied Dalamar. Though his face was hidden once

again by the shadows of his hood, Palin had the impression the

dark elf was smiling. "Although there is no hurry. We must wait

until nightfall, when both the silver moon, Solinari, beloved of

Pala-dine, the black moon, Nuitari, favored by the Dark Queen,

and Lunitari, the red moon of Gilean, are in the sky together.

Raistlin will draw upon the black moon for his power. Others-

who might need it- may draw upon Solinari-if they choose. . .

." He did not look at Palin as he spoke, but the young man felt

himself flush.

"What do mean-draw upon its power?" Caramon demanded

angrily, grabbing hold of Dalamar. "Palin's not a mage, not yet.

You said you would deal with everything-"

"I am aware of my words," Dalamar interrupted. He wrenched

his arm free of Caramon's grip with an ease astonishing in the

slender elf. "And I will deal with . . . what must be dealt with. But

things strange and unexpected may happen this night. It is well to

be prepared." Dalamar regarded Caramon coolly. "And do not

interfere with me again or you will regret it. Come, Palin. You

may need my assistance to enter these gates." Dalamar held out his

hand.

Glancing back at his father, Palin saw his eyes fixed on him.

"Don't go in there," his anguished gaze pleaded. "If you do, I will

lose you . . . ."

Lowering his own eyes in confusion, pretending he hadn't read

the message that had been as clear as the very first words his father

taught him, Palin turned away and laid his hand hesitantly upon

the dark elf's arm. The black robes were soft and velvety to the

touch. He could feel the hard muscles and, beneath, the fine,

delicate bone structure of the elf, almost fragile to the touch, yet

strong and steady and supportive.

An unseen hand opened the gates that had once, long ago, been

made of fluted silver and gold but were now black and twisted,

guarded by shadowy beings. Drawing Palin with him, Dalamar

stepped through them.

Searing pain pierced the young man. Clutching his heart, Palin

doubled over with a cry.

Dalamar stopped Caramon's advance with a look. "You cannot

aid him," the dark elf said. "Thus the Dark Queen punishes those

not loyal to her who tread upon this sacred ground. Hold on to me,

Palin. Hold on to me tightly and keep walking. Once we are inside,

this will subside."

Gritting his teeth, Palin did as he was told/moving

forward with halting footsteps, both hands gripping

Dalamar's arm.

It was well the dark elf led him on for, left on his own,

Palin would have fled this place of darkness. Through the

haze of pain, he heard soft words whisper, "Why enter?

Death alone awaits you! Are you anxious to look upon his

grinning face? Turn back, foolish one! Turn back. Nothing

is worth this. . . ." Palin moaned. How could he have been

so blind? Dala-mar had been right . . . the price of ambition

was too high. . . .

'"Courage, Palin . . ." Dalamar's voice blended with the

whispering words.

The Tower was crushing him beneath the weight of its

dark, magical power, pressing the life from his body. Still

Palin kept walking, though he could barely see the stones

beneath his feet through a blood-red film blurring his eyes.

Was this how HE felt when HE first came? Palin asked

himself in agony. But no, of course not. Raistlin had worn

the Black Robes when he first entered the Tower. HE came

in the fullness of his power. Master of Past and Present.

FOR HIM, THE GATES HAD OPENED. . . . ALL DARK

AND SHADOWY THINGS BOWED IN HOMAGE. Thus

went the legend. . . .

For him, the gates had opened. . . .

With a sob, Palin collapsed upon the threshold of the

Tower.

"Feeling better?" Dalamar asked as Palin raised himself

dizzily from the couch on which he lay. "Here, a sip of

wine. It is elven. A fine vintage. I have it 'shipped' to me

from Silvanesti, unknown to the Silvanesti elves, of course.

This was the first wine made following the land's

destruction. It has a dark, faintly bitter taste-as of tears.

Some of my people, I am told, cannot drink it without weeping."

Pouring a glassful, Dalamar held the deep purple hued liquid out to

Palin. "I find, in fact, that even when I drink it, a feeling of sadness

comes over me."

"Homesick," suggested Caramon, shaking his head as Dalamar

offered him a glass. Palin knew by the tone of his father's voice

that he was upset and unhappy, frightened for his son. He sat

stolidly in his chair, however, trying to appear unconcerned. Palin

cast him a grateful glance as he drank the wine, feeling its

warming influence banish the strange chill.

Oddly enough, the wine WAS making him think about his

home. "Homesick," Caramon had said. Palin expected Dalamar to

scoff or sneer at this statement. Dark elves are, after all, "cast from

the light" of elven society, banned from entering the ancient home-

lands. Dalamar's sin had been to take the Black Robes, to seek

power in dark magic. Bound hand and foot, his eyes blindfolded,

he had been driven in a cart to the borders of his homeland and

there thrown out, never more to be admitted. To an elf, whose

centuries-long lives are bound up in their beloved woods and

gardens, to be dismissed from the ancestral lands is worse than

death.

Dalamar appeared so cool and unfeeling about everything,

however, that Palin was surprised to see a look of wistful longing

and swift sorrow pass over the dark elf's face. It was gone as

quickly as a ripple over quiet water, but he had seen it nonetheless.

He felt less in awe of the dark elf. So something could touch him,

after all.

Sipping the wine, tasting the faint bitterness, Palin's thoughts went

to HIS home, the splendid house his father built with his own

hands, the inn that was his parent's pride and joy. He thought about

the town of Solace, nestled among the leaves of the great

vallenwood trees, a town he had left only to attend school as

must all young, aspiring magic-users. He thought of his

mother, of the two little sisters who were the bane of his

existence-stealing his pouches, trying to peek under his

robes, hiding his spellbooks. . . . What would it be like-

never seeing them again?

. . . never seeing them again . . .

Palin's hand began to tremble. Carefully, he set the

fragile glass down upon the table near his chair, fearing he

might drop it or spill his wine. He looked around hurriedly

to see if either his father Dalamar had noticed. Neither had,

both being engaged in a quiet discussion near the window

overlooking the city of Palanthas.

"You have never been back to the laboratory since?"

Caramon was asking, his voice low.

Dalamar shook his head. He had removed the hood of

his robes, his long, silky hair brushed his shoulders. "I went

back the week you left," he replied, "to make certain all was

in order. And then I sealed it shut."

"So everything is still there," Caramon murmured. Palin

saw his father's shrewd gaze turn to the dark elf, who was

staring out the window, his face cold and expressionless. "It

must contain objects that would grant a tremendous power

to a wizard, or so I would guess. What is in there?"

Almost holding his breath, Palin rose from his chair and

crept silently across the beautiful, luxurious carpet to hear

the dark elf's answer.

"The spellbooks of Fistandantilus, Raistlin's own

spellbooks, his notes on herb lore and, of course, the Staff

of Magius-"

"HIS staff?" Palin said suddenly.

Both men turned to look at the young man, Cara-mon's

face grave, Dalamar appearing faintly amused.

"You told me my uncle's staff was lost!" Palin said to his

father accusingly.

"And so it is, young one," Dalamar answered. "The spell I put

upon that chamber is such that even the rats do not come anywhere

near it. None may enter on pain of death. If the famed Staff of

Magius were at the bottom of the Blood Sea, it could not be more

effectively lost to this world than it is now."

"There's one other thing in that laboratory," Caramon said

slowly in sudden realization. "The Portal to the Abyss. If we can't

get in the laboratory, how are we supposed to look inside the

Portal or whatever fool thing you wizards want me to do to prove

to you my twin is dead?"

Dalamar was silent, twirling the thin-stemmed wine glass in

his hand thoughtfully, his gaze abstracted. Watching him,

Caramon's face flushed red in anger. "This was a ruse! You never

meant it, any of you! What do mean, bringing us here? What do

you want of me?"

"Nothing of you, Caramon," Dalamar answered coolly.

Caramon blenched. "No!" he cried in a choked voice. "Not my

son! Damn you, wizards! I won't allow it!" Taking a step forward,

he grabbed hold of Dalamar . . . and gasped in pain. Yanking his

hand back, Caramon flexed it, rubbing his arm that felt as though

he had touched lightning.

"Father, please! Don't interfere!" begged Palin, going to his

father's side. The young man then glanced angrily at Dalamar.

"There was no need for that!"

"I warned him," Dalamar said, shrugging. "You see, Caramon,

my friend, we cannot open the door from the outside." The dark

elf's gaze went to Palin. "But there is one here for whom the door

may open from the INSIDE!"

 

CHAPTER SIX

 

FOR ME, THE GATES WILL OPEN. . . .

Palin whispered the words to himself as he climbed the

dark and winding stairs. Night had stolen in upon Palanthas,

sealing the city in darkness, deepening the perpetual

darkness that hung about the Tower of High Sorcery.

Solinari, the silver moon beloved of Pala-dine, shone in the

sky, but its white rays did not touch the Tower. Tjiose

inside gazed upon another moon, a dark moon, a moon only

their eyes could see.

The stone stairs were pitch-black. Though Cara-mon

carried a torch, its feeble, wavering flame was overwhelmed

by the darkness. Groping his way up the stairs, Palin

stumbled more than once. Each time, his heart pulsed

painfully, and he pressed himself close against the chill

wall, closing his eyes. The core of the Tower was a hollow

shaft. The stairs ascended it in a dizzying spiral, protruding

from the wall like the bones of some dead animal.

"You are safe, young one," Dalamar said, his hand on

Palin's arm. "This was designed to discourage unwelcome

intruders. The magic protects us. Don't look down. It will be

easier."

"Why did we have to walk?" Palin asked, stopping to

catching his breath. Young as he was, the steep climb had

taken its toll. His legs ached, his lungs burned. He could

only imagine what his father must be feeling. Even the dark

elf appeared to be at a loss for breath, though Dalamar's

face was cold and impassive as ever. "Couldn't we have

used magic?"

"I will not waste my energies," Dalamar replied. "Not on

this night of all nights."

Seeing the slanted eyes observing him coolly, Palin said

nothing, but began climbing again, keeping his eyes staring

straight ahead and upward.

"There is our destination." Dalamar pointed. Looking up

the stairs, Palin saw a small doorway.

FOR ME, THE GATES WILL OPEN. . . .

Raistlin's words. Palin's fear began to subside, ex-

citement surged through him. His steps quickened. Behind

him, he heard Dalamar's light tread and his father's heavier

one. He could also hear Caramon's labored breathing, and

felt a twinge of remorse.

"Do you want to rest, father?" he asked, stopping.

"No," Caramon grunted. "Let's get this foolishness over

with. Then we can go home."

His voice was gruff, but Palin heard a strange note in it, a

note he had never heard before. Turning slowly around to

face the door, Palin knew it for what it was-fear. His

father was afraid. Palin knew then a secret feeling of joy-

one his uncle must have known. His father. Hero of the

Lance, the strongest man he knew, who could-even now-

wrestle the brawny Tanin to the ground and disarm the

skilled swordsman, Sturm. His father was frightened,

frightened of the magic.

He is afraid, Palin realized, and I am not! Closing his

eyes, Palin leaned back against the chill wall of the Tower

and, for the first time in his life, gave himself up to the

magic. He felt it bum in his blood, caress his skin. The

words it whispered were of welcome, of invitation. His

body trembled with the ecstasy of the magic and, opening

his eyes, Palin saw his exultation reflected in the dark elf's

glittering gaze.

"Now you taste the power!" Dalamar whispered. "Go

forward, Palin, go forward."

Smiling to himself, cocooned in the warmth of his euphoria,

Palin climbed the stairs rapidly, all fear forgotten. For him, the

door would open. He had no doubts. Why or by whose hand, he

did not speculate. It did not matter. Finally, he would be inside the

ancient laboratory where some of the greatest magic upon Krynn

had been performed. He would see the spellbooks of the legendary

Fistandantilus, the spellbooks of his uncle. He would see the great

and terrible Portal that led from this world into the Abyss. And he

would see the famed Staff of Magius. . . .

Palin had long dreamed of his uncle's staff. Of all Raistlin's

arcane treasures-this intrigued Palin most. Perhaps because he

had seen it portrayed so often in paintings or because it always

figured prominently in legend and song. Palin even owned one

such painting of Raistlin in his black robes, the Staff of Magius in

his hand, battling the Queen of Darkness. If my uncle had lived to

teach me, and I had been worthy of him, perhaps he might have

given me the staff, Palin thought wistfully every time he looked at

the painting of the wooden staff with its golden dragon claw

clutching a shining, faceted, crystal ball.

Now I will get to see it, perhaps even hold it! Palin shivered in

delicious anticipation at the thought. And what else will we find in

the laboratory? he wondered. What will we see when we look into

the Portal?

"All will be as my father said," Palin whispered, feeling a

momentary pang. "Raistlin is at rest. It must be! Father would be

hurt, so terribly hurt otherwise. . . ."

If Palin's heart was whispering other words, the young man

ignored them. His uncle was dead. His father had said so. Nothing

else was possible, nothing else was to be wished for. . . .

"Stop!" hissed Dalamar, his hand closing about Palin's arm.

Starting, Palin halted. He had been so lost in his thoughts, he had

scarcely noticed where he was. Now he saw that they had come to

a large landing, located directly below the laboratory door.

Looking up the short flight of stairs that led to it, Palin drew in his

breath with a gasp. Two cold, white eyes stared at them out of the

darkness-eyes without a body, unless the darkness itself was their

flesh and blood and bone. Falling back a step, Palin stumbled into

Dalamar.

"Steady, young one," the dark elf commanded, supporting

Palin. "It is the Guardian."

Behind them, the torchlight wavered. "I remember them,"

Caramon said hoarsely. "They can kill you with a touch!"

"Living beings," came the spectre's hollow voice, "I smell your

warm blood, I hear your hearts beating. Come forward. You

awaken my hunger!"

Shoving Palin to one side, Dalamar stepped in front of him.

The white eyes glistened for an instant, then lowered in homage.

"Master of the Tower. I did not sense your presence. It has

been long since you have visited this place."

"Your vigil remains undisturbed?" Dalamar asked. "None have

tried to enter?"

"Do you see their bones upon the floors? Surely you would, if

any dared disobey your command."

"Excellent," Dalamar said. "Now, I give you a new command.

Give me the key to the lock. Then stand aside, and let us pass."

The white eyes flared open, a pale, eager light shining from

them.

"That cannot be. Master of the Tower."

"Why not?" Dalamar asked coolly. His hands folded in the

sleeves of his black robes, he glanced at Caramon as he spoke.

"Your command. Master, was to Take this key and keep it for all

eternity. Give it to no one,' you said, 'not even myself. And from

this moment on, your place is to guard this door. No one is to

enter. Let death be swift for those who try.' Thus were your words

to me, Master, and-as you see-I obey them."

Dalamar nodded his hooded head. "Do you?" he murmured,

taking a step forward. Palin caught his breath, seeing the white

eyes glow even more brightly. "What will you do if I come up

there?"

"Your magic is powerful. Master," said the spectre, the

disembodied eyes drifting nearer Dalamar, "but it can have no

effect on me. There was only one who had THAT power-"

"Yes," said Dalamar irritably, hesitating, his foot upon the first

stair.

"Do not come closer. Master," the eyes warned, though Palin

could see them shining with a lust that brought sudden visions of

cold lips touching his cringing flesh, drinking away his life.

Shuddering, he sagged back against the wall. The warm feeling

was gone, replaced by the chill of this horrible creature, the chill of

death and disappointment. He felt nothing inside now, just empty

and cold. Perhaps I will give it up, it isn't worth it. Palin's head

drooped. Then his father's hand was on his shoulder, his father's

voice echoing his thoughts.

"Come, Palin," Caramon said wearily. 'This has all been for

nothing. Let's go home-"

"Wait!" The gaze of the disembodied eyes shifted from the

dark elf to the two figures that huddled behind him. "Who are

these? One I recognize-"

"Yes," said Caramon, his voice low, "you've seen me before-

"

"His brother," murmured the spectre. "But who is this? The

young one. Him I do NOT know. . . ."

"C'mon, Palin," Caramon said gruffly, casting a fearful glance at

the eyes. "We've got a long journey-"

Caramon's arm encircled Palin's shoulders. The young man felt

his father's gentle urging and tried to turn away. But his gaze was

fixed on the spectre, who was staring at him strangely.

"Wait!" the spectre commanded again, its hollow voice ringing

through the darkness. Even the whispers fell silent at its

command. "Palin?" it murmured softly, speaking questioningly, it

seemed, to itself ... or to someone else. . . .

A decision was reached, apparently, because the voice became

firm. "Palin. Come forward."

"No!" Caramon grasped his son.

"Let him go!" Dalamar ordered, glancing around with a

furious look. "I told you this might happen! It is our chance!" He

gazed coldly at Caramon. "Or are you afraid of what you might

find?"

"I am not!" Caramon returned in a choked voice. "Raistlin is

dead! I have seen him at peace! I don't trust you mages! You're not

going to take my son from me!"

Palin could feel his father's body trembling near his, he could

see the anguish in his father's eyes. Compassion and pity stirred

within the young man. There was a brief longing to stay safe

within his father's strong, sheltering arms. But these feelings were

burned away by a hot anger that surged up from somewhere inside

of him, an anger kindled by the magic.

"Did you give Tanin a sword, then bid him break it?" Palin

demanded, breaking free of his father's grip. "Did you give Sturm

a shield and tell him to hide behind it? Oh, I know!" Palin

snapped, seeing Caramon, his face flushed, about to speak. "THAT

is different. THAT is something you understand. You've never un-

derstood me, have you. Father? How many years was it before I

persuaded you to let me go to school, to study with the Master who

had taught my uncle? When you finally relented, I was the oldest

beginning student there! For years, I w.as behind the others,

working to catch up. And all the time, I could sense you and

mother watching me anxiously. I could hear you talking at night,

saying that maybe I'd outgrown this 'fancy.' Fancy!" Palin's voice

grew agonized. "Can't you see? The magic is my LIFE! My

LOVE!"

"No, Palin, don't say that!" Caramon cried, his voice breaking.

"Why not? Because I sound like my uncle? You never

understood him, either! You aren't intending to let me take the

Test, are you. Father?" ' Caramon stood without moving, refusing

to answer, staring grimly into the darkness.

"No," said Palin softly. "You aren't. You're going to do

everything in your power to stop me. Maybe even this!" The

young man turned to look at Dalamar suspiciously. "Maybe this is

some foul stew you and your friends here have cooked up to feed

to me so that I'll quit! It gives you all the perfect excuse! Well, it

won't work." Palin's cold gaze went from Dalamar to his father. "I

hope you choke on it!"

Stepping past the dark elf, Palin put his foot on the first step,

his eyes on the spectre above him.

"Come, Palin"-a pallid hand appeared from nowhere,

beckoning-"come closer."

"NO!" Caramon screamed in rage, jumping forward.

"I will do this, Father!" Palin took another step.

Caramon reached out his hand to grasp his son. There came a

spoken word of magic, and the big man was frozen to the stone

floor. "You must not interfere," Dalamar said sternly.

Glancing back, Palin saw his father-tears streaming down his

face-still struggling in impotent fury to break free of the spell

that bound him. For a moment, Palin's heart misgave him. His

father loved him. . . . No. Palm's lips tightened in resolution. All

the more reason for letting me go. I will prove to him I am as

strong as Tanin and Sturm. I will show him I am not a child,

needing his protection.

Palin saw Dalamar start to ascend the stairs behind him. But

then the dark elf himself came to a halt as two more pairs of

disembodied eyes suddenly materialized out of the darkness.

"What is this?" Dalamar demanded furiously. "Do you dare

stop me-the Master of the Tower?"

"There is only one true Master of the Tower," the Guardian

said softly. "He who came to us long ago. For him, the gates

opened."

As the Guardian spoke, it held out its hand to Palin. A silver

key lay within its skeletal palm.

"Palin!" Dalamar shouted, fear and anger tightening his voice.

"Don't enter alone! You know nothing of the Art! You have not

taken the Test! You cannot fight him! You could destroy us all!"

"Palin!" Caramon begged in agony. "Palin, come home! Can't

you understand? I love you so much, my son! I can't lose you-

not like I lost him. . . ."

The voices dinned in his ears, but Palin didn't hear them. He

heard another voice, a soft, shattered voice whispering in his

heart. "Come to me, Palin! I need you! I need your help . . ."

A thrill tingled in his blood. Reaching out, Palin took the key

from the spectre and, his hand shaking with fear and excitement,

finally managed to insert the silver key into the ornate silver door

lock.

There was a sharp click. Placing the tips of his five fingers on

the oaken panel, Palin gave a gentle push.

For him, the door opened.

 

CHAPTER SEVEN

 

Palm entered the dark laboratory, slowly, exultantly, his body

shaking in excitement. He glanced back to see if Dalamar was

behind him (to gloat a little, if the truth must be told) when the

door slammed shut. There was a click, a snap. Sudden fear assailed

Palin, trapped alone in the darkness. Frantically, he groped for the

silver door handle, his fingers trying desperately to fit the key in

the lock-a key that vanished in his hand.

"Palin!" On the other side of the door, he heard his father's

frantic shout, but it sounded muffled and far away. There was a

scuffling sound outside the door, muttered words of chanting and

then a thud, as though something heavy had struck it.

The thick oaken door shivered, light flared from beneath it.

"Dalamar's cast a spell," Palin said to himself, backing up. The

thud was probably his father's broad shoulder. Nothing happened.

From somewhere behind him, Palin noticed a faint light beginning

to glow in the laboratory. His fear diminished. Shrugging, the

young man turned away. Nothing they did could open that door.

He knew that, somehow, and he smiled. For the first time in his

life he was doing something on his own, without father or brothers

or Master around to "help." The thought was exhilarating. Sighing

with pleasure, Palin relaxed and looked around, a tingle of joy

surging through his body.

He had heard this chamber described to him only twice-once by

Caramon and once by Tanis HalfElven. Caramon never spoke

about what had happened that day in this laboratory, the day his

twin had died. It had been only after much pleading on Palin's part

that his father had told him the story at all-and then only in brief,

halting words. Caramon's best friend, Tanis, had been more

elaborate, though there were parts of the bittersweet tale of

ambition, love, and self-sacrifice about which Tanis could not

even talk. Their descriptions had been accurate, however. The

laboratory looked just as Palin had pictured it in his dreams.

Walking slowly inside, examining every detail, Palin held his

breath in reverent awe.

Nothing and no one had disturbed the great chamber in

twenty-five years. As Dalamar had said, no living being had dared

enter it. The gray dust lay thick on the floor, no skittering mice

feet disturbed its drifted surface, as smooth and trackless as

newfallen snow. The dust sifted from the window ledges where no

spider spun its web, no bat flapped its leathery wings in anger at

being awakened.

The size of the chamber was difficult to determine. At first,

Palin had thought it small, logic telling him it couldn't be very

large, located as it was at the top of the Tower. But the longer he

stayed, the larger the chamber seemed to grow.

"Or is it me that grows smaller?" Palin whispered. "I am not

even a mage. I don't belong here," said his mind. But his heart

answered, "You never really belonged anywhere else. . . ."

The air was heavy with the odors of mildew and dust. There

lingered still a faint spicy smell, familiar to the young man. Palin

saw the light glint off rows of jars filled with dried leaves, rose

petals, and other herbs and spices lining one wall. Spell

components. There was another smell, too; this one not so

pleasant-the smell of decay, of death. The skeletons of strange

and unfamiliar creatures lay curled at the bottoms of several large

jars on the huge, stone table. Remembering rumors of his uncle's

experiments in creating life, Palin looked hurriedly away.

He examined the stone table, with its runes and polished

surface. Had it really been dragged from the bottom of the sea as

legend told? Palin wondered, running his fingers lovingly over the

smooth top, leaving behind a spidery trail in the dust. His hand

touched the high stool next to the table. The young man could

picture his uncle sitting here, working, reading. . . .

Palin's gaze went to the rows of spellbooks lining shelf after

shelf along one entire wall of the chamber. His heart beat faster as

he approached them, recognizing them from his father's

description. The ones with the nightblue bindings and silver runes

were the books of the great archmage, Fistandantilus. A

whispering chill flowed from them. Palin shivered and stopped,

afraid to go nearer, though his hands twitched to touch them.

He dared not, however. Only mages of the highest ranking

could even open the books, much less read the spells recorded

therein. If he tried it, the binding would burn his skin, just as the

words would burn his mind-eventually driving him mad.

Sighing with bitter regret, Palin turned his gaze to another row of

other spellbooks, these black with silver runes-his uncle's.

He was wondering if he should try to read, what would happen

if he did, and was just starting to examine them closer when he

noticed, for the first time, the source of the light illuminating the

laboratory.

"His staff!" he whispered.

It stood in a corner, leaning up against a wall. The Staff of

Magius. Its magical crystal burned with a cold, pale light, like the

light from Solinari, Palin thought. Tears of longing filled his eyes

and ran, unheeded, down his cheeks. Blinking them back so that he

could see, he drew nearer the staff, hardly daring to breathe,

fearful the light might go out in an instant.

Given to Raistlin when he successfully completed his Test by

the wizard, Par-Salian, the staff possessed untold magical power. It

could cast light at a word of command, Palin recalled. According

to legend, however, no hand but his uncle's could touch the staff or

the light would extinguish.

"But my father held it," Palin said softly. "He used it-with my

dying uncles help-to close the Portal and prevent the Dark Queen

from entering the world. Then the light went out and nothing

anyone said could make it glow again."

But it was glowing now. . . .

His throat aching, his heart beating so it made him short of

breath, Palin reached out a trembling hand toward the staff. If the

light failed, he would be left alone, trapped, in the smothering

darkness.

His fingertips brushed the wood.

The light gleamed brightly.

Palin's cold fingers closed around the staff, grasping it firmly.

The crystal burned brighter still, shedding its pure radiance over

him, his white robes glowed molten silver. Lifting the staff from

its corner, Palin looked at it in rapture and saw, as he moved it,

that its beam grew concentrated, sending a shaft of light into a

distant corner of the laboratory-a corner that had previously

stood in deepest darkness.

Walking nearer, the young man saw the light illuminate a heavy

curtain of purple velvet hanging from the ceiling. The tears froze

on Palin's face, a chill shook his body. He had no need to pull the

golden, silken cord that hung beside the velvet, no need to draw

aside those curtains to know what lay behind.

The Portal.

Created long ago by wizards greedy for knowledge, the Portals

had led them to their own doom-into the realms of the gods.

Knowing what terrible consequences this could have for the

unwary, the wise among all three Orders of wizards came together

and closed them as best they could, decreeing that only a powerful

archmage of the Black Robes and a holy cleric of Paladine acting

together could cause the Portal to open. They believed, in their

wisdom, that this unlikely combination could never come about.

But they had not counted upon love.

So Raistlin was able to persuade Crysania, the Revered

Daughter of Paladine, to act with him to open the Portal. So he had

entered and challenged the Queen of Darkness, thinking to rule in

her stead. The consequences of such ambition in a human would

have been disastrous-the destruction of the world. Knowing this,

his twin brother, Caramon, had risked all to enter the Abyss and

stop Raistlin. He had done so, but only with his twin's assistance.

Realizing his tragic mistake, Raistlin had sacrificed himself for the

world-according to legend. He closed the Portal preventing the

Queen from entering, but at a dreadful cost. He himself was

trapped upon the Other Side of this dread doorway.

Palin came nearer and nearer the curtain, drawn to it against

his will. Or was he? Was it fear making his steps falter and his

body shake-or excitement?

And then he heard that whispering voice again, "Palin . . . help

. . ."

It came from beyond the curtain!

Palin closed his eyes, leaning weakly upon the staff. No! It

couldn't be! His father had been so certain. . . .

Through his closed eyelids, the young man saw another light

begin to glow, coming from in front of him. Fearfully, he opened

his eyes and saw the light radiating from around and above and

beneath the curtain. A multicolored light, it welled out in a

fearsome rainbow.

"Palin . . . help me . . ."

Palin's hand closed over the golden drawstring of its own

volition. He had no conscious thought of moving his fingers, yet

found himself holding onto the cord. Hesitating, he looked at the

staff in his hand, then glanced back behind him at the door leading

into the laboratory. The thudding had stopped, no lights flashed.

Perhaps Dalamar and his father had given up. Or perhaps the

Guardians had attacked them. . . .

Palin shivered. He should go back. Abandon this. It was too

dangerous. He wasn't a even a mage! But as the thought crossed

his mind, the light from the crystal atop the staff dimmed-or so it

seemed to him.

No, he thought resolutely. I must go on. I must know the truth!

Gripping the drawstring with a palm wet with sweat, he pulled

it hard, watching, holding his breath as the curtain slowly lifted,

rising upward in shimmering folds.

The light grew more and more brilliant as the curtain lifted,

dazzling him. Raising his hand to shade his eyes, Palin stared in

awe at the magnificent, fearful sight. The Portal was a black void

surrounded by the five metallic dragon's heads. Carved by magic

into the likeness of Takhisis, Queen of Darkness, their mouths

gaped open in a silent scream of triumph, each head glowing

green, blue, red, white, or black.

The light blinded Palin. He blinked painfully and rubbed his

burning eyes. The dragon's heads only shone more brilliantly, and

now he could hear them each began to chant.

The first. From DARKNESS TO DARKNESS, MY VOICE

ECHOES IN THE EMPTINESS.

The second. FROM THIS WORLD TO THE NEXT, MY

VOICE CRIES WITH LIFE.

The third. FROM DARKNESS TO DARKNESS, I

SHOUT. BENEATH MY FEET, ALL IS MADE FIRM.

The fourth. TIME THAT FLOWS, HOLD IN YOUR

COURSE.

And finally, the last head. BECAUSE BY FATE EVEN

THE GODS ARE CAST DOWN, WEEP YE ALL WITH ME.

A magical spell, Palin realized. His vision blurred and

tears streamed down his cheeks as he attempted to see

through the dazzling light into the Portal. The multicolored

lights began to whirl madly in his vision, spinning around

the outside of the great, gaping, twisting void.

Growing dizzy, Palin clutched the staff and kept his gaze

on the void within the Portal. The darkness itself moved! It

began to swirl, circling around an eye of deeper darkness

within its center, like a maelstrom without substance or

form. Round . . . and round . . . and round . . . S