Tales

Volume 2

 

KENDER, GULLY DWARVES, and GNOMES

 

Edited by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman

 

featuring "Wanna Bet?"

by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman

Interior Art by STEVE FABIAN

PENGUIN BOOKS

 

Foreword

 

"Tas? Tasslehoff Burrfoot!" we shout sternly, peering

down the road. "Come back with our magical time-traveling

device, you doorknob of a kender!"

"I'll come out," shouts Tas, "if you tell me some more

stories!"

"Promise?" we ask, peering behind bushes and into

ravines.

"Oh, yes. I promise!" says Tas cheerfully. "Just let me

get comfortable." There is a tremendous sound of rustling

and tree-branch cracking. Then, "All right, I'm ready. Go

ahead. I love stories, you know. Did I ever tell you about

the time I saved Sturm's life - "

Tas goes on to tell US the first story in this new

anthology set in the world of Krynn. "Snowsong," by

Nancy Varian Berberick, relates an early adventure of the

companions. Sturm and Tanis, lost in a blizzard, have only

one hope of being rescued - Tasslehoff Burrfoot!

"The Wizard's Spectacles," by Morris Simon, is a "what-

if" story. Tas always SAID he found the Glasses of Arcanist

in the dwarven kingdom. But what if ...

A storyteller tells his tales not wisely but too well in

"The Storyteller," by Barbara Siegel and Scott Siegel.

"There's a lesson you could learn from that!" we yell to

Tas, but he ignores us and goes on to relate "A Shaggy

Dog's Tail," by Danny Peary. It is a kender favorite,

undoubtedly passed down from generation to generation

although Tas, of course, swears that he knew EVERYONE

involved PERSONALLY!

Next, we hear the TRUE story of the demise of Lord

Toede in "Lord Toede's Disastrous Hunt," by Harold Bakst.

The minotaur race is the subject of "Definitions of Honor,"

by Rick Knaak. A young knight of Solamnia rides to the

rescue of a village, only to discover that his enemy

threatens more than his life.

"Hearth Cat and Winter Wren," by Nancy Varian

Berberick, tells another of the Companions' early

adventures in which a young Raistlin uses his ingenuity to

fight a powerful, evil wizard.

"All right, Tas!" we call. "Will you come out now? We

really MUST be going!"

"Those were truly wonderful stories," yells the kender

shrilly from his hiding place. "But I want to hear more

about Palin and his brothers. You remember. You told me

the story last time about how Raistlin gave Palin his magic

staff. What happens next?"

Settling ourselves down on a sun-warmed, comfortable

boulder, we relate "Wanna Bet?", Palin's very first

adventure as a young mage. And certainly NOT the type of

heroic quest the brothers expected!

Still sitting on the boulder, we are somewhat startled to

be suddenly confronted by a gnome, who thrusts a

manuscript at us. "Here, you! Tell the TRUE story about the

so-called Heroes of the Lance!" the gnome snarls and runs

off. We are truly delighted to present for your enjoyment,

therefore, "Into the Heart of the Story," a "treatise" by

Michael Williams.

"Now, Tas!" we call threateningly.

"Just one more?" he pleads.

"All right, but this is the last!" we add severely. "Dagger-

Flight," by Nick O'Donohoe, is a retelling of the beginning

of DRAGONS OF AUTUMN TWILIGHT as seen from a

weird and deadly viewpoint - that of a sentient dagger!

"Tas, come out now!" we shout. "You promised."

Silence.

"Tas?"

No answer.

Looking at each other, we smile, shrug, and continue on

our way through Krynn. So much for kender promises!

 

SNOWSONG

Nancy Varian Berberick

 

Tanis let the hinged lid of the wood bin fall. Its hollow

thud might have been the sound of a tomb's closing. Hope,

cherished for all the long hours of the trek up the mountain,

fell abruptly dead. The wood bin was empty.

A brawling wind shrieked around the gaping walls of the

crude shelter, whirling in through the doorless entry and the

broken roof. The storm had caught Tan-is and his friends

unaware at midday. Far below, in the warmer valleys, the

autumn had not yet withered under winter's icy cloak. But

here in the mountains autumn had suddenly become

nothing more substantial than a memory. Esker was a day

and a half's journey behind them. Haven was a two-day trek

ahead. Their only hope of weathering the storm had been

this shelter, one of the few maintained by the folk of Esker

and Haven as a sanctuary for storm-caught travelers. But

now, with the blizzard raging harder, it seemed that their

hope might be as hollow as the empty wood bin.

Behind him the half-elf could hear Tas poking around the

bleak shelter, his bright kender spirit undaunted by the toll

of the journey. There wasn't much to find. Shards of

crockery lay scattered around the hard-packed dirt floor.

The one narrow table that had been the shelter's only

furnishing was now a heap of broken boards and splintered

wood. After a moment Tanis heard the tuneless notes of the

shepherd's pipe that Tas had been trying to play since he

came by it several weeks ago. The kender had never

succeeded in coaxing anything from the shabby old

instrument that didn't sound like a goat in agony. But he

tried, every chance he got, maintaining - every chance he

got - that the pipe was enchanted. Tanis was certain that the

pipe had as much likelihood of being enchanted as he had

now of getting warm sometime soon.

"Oh, wonderful - the dreaded pipe," Flint growled. "Tas!

Not now!"

As though he hadn't heard, Tas went on piping.

With a weary sigh Tanis turned to see Flint sitting on his

pack, trying with cold-numbed hands to thaw the frozen

snow from his beard. The old dwarf's muttered curses were

a fine testament to the sting of the ice's freezing pull.

Only Sturm was silent. He leaned against the door jamb,

staring out into the blizzard as though taking the measure of

an opponent held, for a time, at bay.

"Sturm?"

The boy turned his back on the waning day. "No wood?"

"None." Tanis shivered, and it had little to do with the

cold. "Flint," he called, "Tas, come here."

Grumbling, Flint rose from his pack.

Tas reluctantly abandoned his pipe and made a curious

foray past the empty wood bin. He'd gamboled through

snow as high as his waist today, been hauled, laughing like

some gleeful snow sprite, out of drifts so deep that only the

pennon of his brown topknot marked the place where he'd

sunk. Still his brown eyes were alight with questions in a

face polished red by the bite of the wind.

"Tanis, there's no wood in the bins," he said. "Where do

they keep it?"

"In the bins - when it's here. There is none, Tas."

"None? What do you suppose happened to it? Do you

think the storm came up so suddenly that they didn't have a

chance to stock the bin? Or do you suppose they're not

stocking the shelters anymore? From the look of this place

no one's been here in a while. THAT would be a shame,

wouldn't it? It's going to be a long, cold night without a

fire."

"Aye," Flint growled. "Maybe not as long as you think."

Behind him Tanis heard Sturm draw a short, sharp

breath. If Tas had romped through the blizzard, Sturm had

forged through with all the earnest determination he could

muster. Each time Tas foundered, Sturm was right beside

Tanis to pull him out. His innate chivalry kept him always

ahead of Flint, blocking the wind's icy sting, breaking a

broader path than he might have for the old dwarf whose

muttering and grumbling would never become a plea for

assistance.

But for all that, Tanis knew, the youth had never seen a

blizzard like this one. He's acquitted himself well, and

more's the pity that I'll have to take him out with me yet

again, the half-elf thought to himself.

A roaring wind drove from the north, wet and bitter with

snow. The climb to this tireless shelter had left Tanis stiff

and aching, numb and clumsy with the cold. He wanted

nothing less than to venture out into the screaming storm

again. But his choices were between sure death in the long

black cold of night and one more trip into the storm. It was

not, in the end, a difficult choice to make.

"It won't come to that, Flint. We're going to have a fire."

Flint's doubt was written in the hard set of his face. Tas

looked from the wood bin to Tanis. "But there's no wood,

Tanis. I don't see how we're going to have a fire without

wood."

Tanis drew a long breath against rising impatience.

"We'll get wood. There was a stand of pine trees along our

way up. No doubt Sturm and I can get enough from there

and be back before nightfall."

Tas brightened then. Now there would be something to

do besides spending a long cold night wondering what it

would feel like to freeze solid. Shrugging closer into the

warmth of his furred vest, he started for the doorway. "I'll

come, too," he announced, confident that his offer would be

gratefully accepted.

"Oh, no." Tanis clamped both hands on the kender's

shoulders and caught him back. "You're staying here with

Flint."

"But, Tanis - "

"No. I mean it, Tas. The snow is drifting too high. This

is something that Sturm and I will do."

"But you'll NEED my help, Tanis. I can carry wood, and

we're going to need a lot of it if we're not to freeze here

tonight."

Tanis glanced at Flint. He thought he might hear a

similar argument from his old friend. He forestalled it with

a grim shake of his head, and Flint, recognizing but not

liking the wisdom of Tanis's decision, nodded agreement.

With a dour sigh Flint went to gather up the splintered

wood that had once been the shelter's table.

"It's something," he muttered. "Sturm, come give me a

hand."

Alone with Tas, Tanis went down on his heels. Mutiny

lurked in Tas's long brown eyes. There was a stubborn set

to his jaw that told Tanis that the only way he'd get the

kender to stay behind would be to give him a charge that he

considered, if not as interesting, at least as important as the

task of gathering fuel for a fire.

"Tas, now listen to me. We don't have many choices.

I've never seen a storm like this one come up so suddenly or

so early. But it's here, and tonight it will be so cold that we

will not survive without a fire."

"I know! That's why - "

"No. Let me finish. I need you to stay here with Flint.

It's going to be a dangerous trip out for wood. The tracks

we made only a short while ago are gone. I'll barely be able

to find the landmarks I need to get back to the pines. I have

to know that you'll both be here if we need you."

"But, Tanis, you'll NEED me to help with the wood-

gathering."

The offer, Tanis knew, was sincere . . . for the moment.

But as clearly as he might see through a stream to the

sparkling sand below, that clearly did he see the

mischievous kender-logic dancing in Tas's brown eyes. Tas

had no fear of the killing cold, the battering winds. The

prospect of the journey back to the pines held only joyous

anticipation and a chance to satisfy some of that

unquenchable curiosity that had brought the kender to the

crumbling edge of many a catastrophe before now.

Well, I'm afraid! he thought. And it won't hurt for Tas to

know why if it keeps him here.

"Tas, the best way to make certain we don't survive this

night is to scatter, all four of us, all over this mountain. That

will be the fastest way to die. We're going to be careful. But

Sturm and I have to be able to depend on you two being

here just in case one of us needs to come back for help.

Understand?"

Tas nodded slowly, trying to ease his disappointment

with the sudden understanding that Tanis was trusting him,

depending on him.

"And I can count on you?"

"Yes, you can count on me," Tas said solemnly.

Privately he thought that staying behind, no matter how

virtuous it made him feel right now, might be just the least

bit boring.

Despite the cold and the bitter wind chasing snow in

through the open doorway, Tanis found a smile for the

kender. "Good. Now why don't you give Flint a hand, and

tell Sturm that we should be leaving."

For a moment it seemed to Tanis that his charge

wouldn't hold. He saw the struggle between what Tas

wanted to do and what he'd promised to do written on his

face as easily as though he were reading one of the kender's

precious maps. But it was a brief war, and in the end, Tas's

promise won out.

Sturm emptied both his and Tanis's packs. He took up

two small hand axes, tested their blades, and prepared to

leave. Tanis, preferring his bow and quiver if danger should

arise, left his sword with Flint.

"I won't need the extra weight, I think," he said, handing

the weapon to the old dwarf.

"Tanis, isn't there another way? I don't like this."

Tanis dropped a hand onto his friend's shoulder. "You'd

be alone if you did like it. Rest easy; it's too cold out there

to keep us gone long. Just keep Tas safe here with you. He

promised, but . . ."

Flint laughed grimly. "Aye, BUT. Don't worry. We'll

both be here when you get back." A high squealing, Tas at

the pipe, tore around the shelter. Flint winced. "Although

whether both of us will yet be sane is another matter."

With grave misdoubt Flint watched Tanis and Sturm leave.

Tas sidled up beside him, standing close to the old dwarf.

He called good luck after them but he didn't think that they

could hear him above the storm's cry.

"Come along, then," Flint growled. "No sense standing

any closer to the wind than we have to. We might as well

find the best kindling from that wood. When those two get

back they'll be fair frozen and needing a fire as quickly as

we can make one."

Tas stood in the breached doorway for a long moment.

The white and screaming storm quickly swallowed all trace

of Sturm and Tanis. Already he had begun to regret his

promise to stay behind.

I could find those trees straight off! he thought. For Tas,

to think was to do. He tucked his pipe into his belt and

stepped out into the blinding storm. The wind caught him

hard, and he laughed from the sheer pleasure of feeling its

bullying push, hearing its thundering roar. He hadn't taken

many steps, however, before two hard hands grabbed him

by the back of his vest and dragged him back inside.

"No, you DON'T!"

"But, Flint - "

The fire in the old dwarf's eyes could have warmed a

company of men. His face, Tas thought, certainly shouldn't

be that interesting shade of red now that he was out of the

wind.

"I only want to go a little way, Flint. I'll come right back,

I promise."

Flint snorted. "The same way you promised Tanis to stay

here in the first place? That lad is a fool to put stock in a

kender's promise." He glared from Tas to the storm raging

without. "But he CAN put stock in mine. I said I'd keep you

here, and here you'll stay."

Tas wondered if there would be a way to get around the old

dwarf standing between him and the doorway. Well, there

might be, he thought, considering a quick run under Flint's

arm. Grinning, he braced for the dash, but then caught the

darkly dangerous look in Flint's eyes and decided against it.

There was, after all, his promise to Tanis, spider-web thin

but still holding after a fashion. And he could, he supposed,

manage to pass the time trying to find the magic in his pipe.

It was going to be, each thought, a very long, cold

afternoon.

 

Under the sheltering wings of the broad-branched pines

the storm seemed distant, deflected by the thick growing

trunks and the sweep of a rising hill. Deadfalls littered the

little stand. Tanis made right for the heart of the pines

where the snow was a thinner mantle covering the ground

and the fallen trees.

"Gather what you can first," he told Sturm. "It will be

easier if we don't have to cut any wood."

It had taken longer than he had hoped to reach the pines.

Though he could see little difference in the light under the

trees, he knew from some sure instinct that night had fallen.

The driving snow was no longer daytime gray, but brighter.

Only an hour ago the sky had been the color of wet slate.

Now it was an unreflecting, unforgiving black. It FELT like

a night sky for all that Tanis could see no moons, no stars.

The air was as cold and sharp as frozen blades.

They worked as fast as awkward hands would permit,

filling their packs with as much wood as they could carry.

Carefully used it would be enough to keep them from

freezing in the night.

Tanis shoved the last of the wood into his pack, lashed it

tight, and looked around for Sturm. He was a dark figure

hunched against the cold, kneeling over his own pack.

"Ready?" Tanis called.

Sturm looked around. "Aye, if you'll give me a hand

getting this on."

It was the work of a few moments to help Sturm with the

heavily laden pack. "Set?" Tanis asked, watching the boy

brace and find a comfortable balance.

"Set. Your turn."

The half-elf clenched his jaw and bit back a groan as

Sturm settled the burden on his shoulders. "Gods," he

whispered, "if I could wish for anything, it would be that I

were a pack mule strong enough to carry this with ease!"

For the first time that day Sturm smiled, his white teeth

flashing in the gloom beneath the pines. "It is an odd wish,

Tanis. But were it granted, I promise I would lead you

gently."

Tanis laughed and, for a moment, he forgot the cold.

Sturm's smile was like the sun breaking from behind dark

clouds, always welcome for coming so seldom. At the

beginning of the trip Tanis had wondered about the wisdom

of taking the youth along. It had been Flint, to Tanis's

surprise, who had urged that Sturm be included in the party.

"You argue his inexperience," the dwarf had said, "but

I'd like to know how he's to come by any if he spends all his

time in Solace."

It was, Tanis thought at the time, a telling point. But he

had not been swayed until he heard in Flint's careful silence

the echo of memories of another inexperienced youth:

himself. That was no argument against which he might win.

In the end he had been persuaded to include Sturm among

the party. It was, after all, to have been a brief trip, with no

diversions.

And Sturm, to his credit, did not rail against the hardships

of the unlooked-for storm, but accepted the challenge and

deferred, with a solemn and graceful courtesy that

contrasted oddly with his youth, to Tanis's leadership.

Well, we've certainly been diverted now, the half-elf

thought, settling his pack and stamping numb feet in the

snow in a vain effort to urge into sluggish circulation the

blood that surely must be near frozen.

"Come on, Sturm. The sooner we get back, the happier

we'll all be. Tas's promise to stay behind will only hold for

so long. Were you inclined to gamble, I'd wager you

anything you like that though we've a long trudge ahead of

us, it is Flint who is beset with the worse trial."

When they stepped out into the rage of the storm again,

Tanis thought that were wishes to be granted he would

forsake a mule's strong back and ask instead for a dog's

finely developed instinct for finding home. The wind had

erased any tracks they'd made coming into the stand.

 

Flint glared out into the night, thinking, as Tanis had,

that this was to have been an easy trip. It had been a

journey of only a few days to reach Esker. The wealthy

headman of the village had welcomed them eagerly and

been well pleased with the pair of silver goblets he'd

commissioned the previous summer. The goblets, with their

elegantly shaped stems, gilded interiors, and jeweled cups,

were to be a wedding gift for the man's beloved daughter.

Flint had labored long over their design, obtaining the finest

jewels for their decoration and the purest silver for their

execution. His client had been well pleased with them and

not inclined toward even the ritual dickering over their cost.

Aye, Flint thought now, they were beauties. And like to

cost us our lives.

The weird, atonal wailing of Tas's shepherd's pipe keened

through the shelter, rivaling the whine of the storm,

drawing Flint's nerves tighter with each moment that

passed. It never seemed to find a tune, never seemed to

settle into anything he recognized as even remotely

resembling music.

"Tas!" he snapped. "If you're bound to fuss with that

wretched thing, can't you at least find a tune and play it?"

The piping stopped abruptly. Tas got to his feet and

joined Flint near the door. "I would if I could. But this is the

best I can do."

Before Flint could protest, Tas began to play again. The

awful screech rose in pitch, splintering his temper, never

very strong where Tas was concerned, into shards as sharp

and hard as needles of ice.

"Enough!" he snatched the pipe from Tas's hand. But

before he could fling it across the shelter, the kender leaped

up and caught it back handily.

"No, Flint! My magic pipe!"

"Magic! Don't tell me you're going to start that again.

There's no more magic than music in that thing."

"But there is, Flint. The shepherd told me that I'd find

the magic when I found the music. And I'd find the music

when I wanted it most. I really do want it now, but I don't

seem to be able to find it."

Flint had heard the story before. Though the

circumstances and some finer details varied from one

telling to the next, the core of the tale was always the same:

a shepherd had given Tas the pipe, swearing that it was

enchanted. But he wouldn't tell the kender what the magical

property of the pipe was.

"You will discover its use," he'd supposedly said, "when

you unlock the music. And when it has served you, you

must pass it on, as I have to you, for the magic can be used

only once by each who frees it."

Like as not, Flint thought, the instrument had been

acquired the same way a kender comes by most anything. A

quick, plausible distraction, a subtle movement of the hand,

and a shepherd spends the next hour searching for his pipe.

He probably should have counted himself lucky that half

his flock hadn't vanished as well!

"There's no magic in this," Flint said. "More likely

there's a flaw in the making. Give over now, Tas, and let me

wait in peace."

With a sigh that seemed to come straight from his toes,

Tas went back to where he'd been piping. He dropped onto

the frozen dirt floor and propped his back up against his

pack. In his head he could hear the song he wanted his pipe

to sing. In some places it was soft and wistful. Yet, in

others it was bright, almost playful. It would be a pretty

tune, a song for the snow. Why, he wondered, couldn't the

pipe play the music?

The blizzard raged, shaking the walls of the little shelter.

Night now held the mountain in its freezing grip. It

occurred to Tas that Sturm and Tanis had been gone much

longer than they should have been.

Likely, he thought, drifting with the memory of the tune

he heard but couldn't play, it only SEEMED that the waiting

was long. Probably Tanis and Sturm had only been gone a

few hours at most. It would take them that long to get to

where the trees were, find the wood, and fill their packs. He

was certain, though, that if he'd been with them, it wouldn't

take nearly that long to get back. And three could carry

more wood than two. Tanis's reasons for extracting his

promise seemed less clear to Tas now. He wished he had

gone with them!

It might have been the cold that set him to shivering deep

down in his bones. Or the sudden strange turn that the

storm's song took. Whatever it was, Tas found that his

music had faded and left him.

The wind roared and screamed. The snow, falling more

heavily now than it had in the afternoon, was like a gray

woolen curtain. Frustrated, Tas laid aside his pipe and went

to stand by the door.

"Doesn't the wind sound strange?"

Flint did not answer, but stayed still where he sat,

peering out into the storm.

"Flint?"

"I heard you."

"It sounds like ... I don't know." Tas cocked his head to

listen. "Like wolves howling."

"It's not wolves. It's only the wind."

"I've never heard the wind sound like that. Well, once I

heard it sound ALMOST like wolves. But it was really more

like a dog. Sometimes you hear a dog howling in the night

and you think it's a wolf but it's not because wolves really

do sound different. More ferocious, not so lonesome. This

does sound like wolves, Flint, don't you think? But I've

never heard of wolves hunting in a blizzard unless they

were REALLY starving." Tas frowned, remembering a story

he'd heard once. "There was a village way up in the

mountains in Khur that was attacked by wolves in a

blizzard. I didn't see it. But my father did, and he told me

about it. He said it was really interesting the way the

wolves came down after dark and stalked anything that

looked like good food. And he said it was AMAZING what

wolves consider good food when they're starving - "

"Will you hush! And while you're at it, stop imagining

things that aren't there!" Gritting his teeth against his anger

and the fear that the kender's tale of starving wolves and

blizzards fanned, Flint climbed to his feet. He was stiff and

aching with the cold. "If you must do something, come help

me start a fire."

"With what. Flint?"

"With those old boards and - " Flint thought of the

blocks of wood in his pack. He sighed heavily, regretting

the loss of his whittling wood. "And whatever I have in my

pack."

"All right." But Tas lingered at the doorway. It WAS

wolves howling, he decided firmly, and not the wind. In his

mind's eye he could see them: big, heavy-chested brutes,

gray as a storm sky, eyes bright with hunger, fangs as sharp

as the blade of his own small dagger. They would leap

across the drifts and slink through the hollows, pause to

taste the air with their noses, howl in eerie mourning for

their empty bellies, and lope on again.

His father had also told him that the big gray wolves

could be almost invisible against a snowy sky. Lifting his

head to listen, he thought the howling was closer now. He

wouldn't have to go very far to get just a quick glimpse of

the beasts. Forgetting his promise to Tanis, forgetting the

uncooperative pipe, Tas decided that he simply had to see -

or not see - the wolves.

Checking to be sure that Flint was not watching, Tas

grinned happily and slipped out into the storm.

 

"Tanis!" He was but an arm's length behind the half-elf

yet Sturm could see Tanis only as a vague, dark shadow. He

hardly heard his own voice, bellow though he did above the

wind's scream, and he knew that Tanis had not heard him at

all. He caught Tanis's arm and pulled him to a halt.

"Listen!" Sturm shouldered his pack to an easier perch

on his back and moved in close. "You're not going to tell

me again about how that's the wind, are you? Those are

wolves!"

They were indeed. The fiction of the wind had been partly

for Sturm's sake, partly for his own. Tanis abandoned it as

useless now. "I know! But we have to push on, Sturm! We

can't let them get between us and the shelter!"

"Run? You want us to run?" The thought of fleeing from

danger sent a spasm of disgust across the youth's face.

Beneath that revulsion, though, was an instinctive fear. It

was not hidden, Tanis saw, as well as Sturm might have

hoped.

Tanis's humorless laughter was caught by the wind and

flung away. "I do! But the best we can do is slog on. There

is no shame in this retreat, Sturm. We're no match for a

pack, and Flint and Tas won't appreciate our courage at all

if they have to consider it while freezing to death."

Though carefully given, it was a reprimand. Sturm

recognized it and took it with considered grace. "I'm not

accustomed to flight, Tanis," he said gravely. "But neither

am I accustomed to abandoning friends. Lead on."

Sturm, Tanis thought, seeking his bearings, you're too

solemn by half for your years! But, aye, I'll lead on ...

And that was another matter. How far had they come?

Tanis could no longer tell. He was storm-blind now, hardly

able to keep his eyes open for the merciless bite of wind-

driven snow and ice. The bitter wind had battered at their

backs when they'd left the shelter. As long as it roared and

screamed in their faces, clawing at their skin, tearing at

their clothing, he could be fairly certain that they were

moving in the right direction. He did not like to think what

might happen should the storm suddenly change direction.

Likely someone would find our bones in spring and

wonder and pity. Putting aside the grim thought, Tan-is

hunched his shoulders and bowed his head before the

storm's blast, protecting his eyes as best he could. His legs

were heavier and harder to move with each step. His neck

and shoulders ached beneath his burden of wood. And the

wolves were howling closer.

It only SEEMS A never-ending journey, he told himself

as he waded through still another drift. Before the night was

much older they would be back at the shelter. Then the

storm could tear across the mountains, then the wolves

could howl until they were hoarse. It wouldn't matter. Tanis

could almost hear Flint scolding and grumbling about two

young fools who couldn't come right back, but must linger

to catch their deaths in the storm. Beneath it all would run

Tas's chattering and incessant, never-ending questions.

Their miserable burdens of fuel would feed a crackling fire

to thaw hands and feet they could no longer feel.

Thinking to share the encouragement with Sturm toiling

silently behind, he turned, squinting into the blinding snow.

"Sturm! Soon!" he shouted.

Sturm looked up. Ice rimned his hair, long streaks of

white scored his face where the cold had bitten. "What?"

"Soon! We're almost - "

It might have been instinct that made Tanis slip

immediately out of his pack and reach for his bow and

quiver. Or it might have been the look of wide-eyed horror

on Sturm's face. He never heard the wolf's roar, or the

slavering snarl of its mate. He only felt the heavy weight

where it caught him behind the knees and drove him with

all the force of its hundred pounds face first into the snow.

His bow was beneath him, his dagger still sheathed at his

belt. Fear raced through him like a hot river. He shoved his

chin tight to his chest and locked his hands behind his head,

protecting his neck and throat. The wolf's hot breath,

stinking of its last kill, gagged him. Powerful jaws

snapping, unable to reach his neck or throat, the wolf

fastened on his shoulder, worrying at the thick cloth of his

cloak, tearing through it and his leather tunic to lay his flesh

bare to dripping fangs. Its eyes were gleaming green fire, its

mouth a roaring crimson maw.

Bucking and kicking, his mind empty of all thought but

survival, Tanis heaved onto his back. His head still low, he

freed his hands and found his dagger. The wolf rose up,

scrambling to regain position, belly exposed for an instant.

Tanis gripped his dagger hard. The icy air stung in his

lungs. He thrust upward with all his strength. The blade

drove into the wolf's belly to the hilt. Gasping hard, he

dragged until he struck breastbone. The beast fell away,

dead as it hit the snow.

Shuddering, locked for one painful moment in the rictus

of fear, Tanis lay on his back. Sweat froze on his face,

nausea churned in his belly. His breath, ragged and hurting,

sounded like the pumping of a bellows. Dark blood pooled,

steaming in the freezing night.

Behind and above him another wolf roared. That

challenge was followed swiftly by deadly snarling and then

a shocked scream of pain. So horrible was the sound that

Tanis could not tell if it had come from the lungs of man or

beast.

Sturm! Coppery, musty, the stench of fresh blood filled

the air. Tanis scrambled to his feet. The storm wind blinded

him, tore at him. He couldn't see!

Though he'd always wielded his blade well in practice

bouts with a confidence seldom disappointed, Sturm had

only blooded his sword once and that against a human

opponent whose moves could, to some extent, be gauged.

Could he have gone against a wolf who would charge in

under a sword's reach with the desperation of a predator

starving?

Sliding in the freezing snow, Tanis ran to where he

imagined the scent of blood was strongest. He crashed to

his knees and, cursing, regained his feet.

"Sturm!" he howled. He thought in that moment that no

blizzard wind could sound a cry as desolate. "Sturm!

Where are you?"

Tanis found him sitting in the snow, bending over

drawn up knees. The second wolf lay sprawled behind him,

its head nearly severed from its neck. Beside it, slick with

rapidly congealing blood, lay Sturm's sword. Tanis slid to

his knees beside his friend. The rest of the pack had to be

nearby! They had to get out of here!

"Sturm, are you hurt?"

The boy braced and straightened. The leather of his

tunic had been shredded by the wolf's fangs. A trail of

blood and ragged wounds whose edges were even now

freezing white showed Tanis where fangs had raked from

collarbone to breast. His hands trembling, the half-elf tried

to gently separate leather from freezing blood. A hiss of

indrawn breath, Sturm's only protest against the handling,

made Tanis wince for the pain he caused.

"A moment, lad, just a moment longer. There." The

leather came away, and Tanis heaved a long sigh of relief.

The wound was ugly and long. But though he had dreaded

to see the white glare of bone or the dark shadow of

exposed muscle, he did not. Working with hands made

awkward by the cold, Tanis tore thick strips of cloth from

his cloak and made a bandage.

"If we can bless the cold for anything, it's that it will

prevent you from bleeding overlong. Can you move your

arm?"

Sturm lifted his shoulder, tried to reach. He managed a

grim smile. "Yes," he said, his voice rough with the effort

not to groan. "But I'll not be lifting a sword for a time."

Tanis shook his head. "The gods willing, you won't have

to. Sturm, we have to go on. Those two cannot have been

hunting alone. Can you walk?"

For an answer Sturm got to his feet. He stumbled a little,

but righted himself quickly. The hard gleam in his eyes

told Tanis what he needed to know. But when he made to

reach for his pack, Tanis stopped him.

"No. Leave it. We have to get out of here. It will only

slow us down."

"Tanis, we need the wood."

"DAMN the wood!"

"Tanis, no! The need for fire is still the same. And

without a guard fire, won't we have to face the rest of the

pack at the shelter? I can drag the wood."

Sturm was right. Tanis snatched up his pack and

shouldered it with a snarled oath. He retrieved Sturm's

sword, wiped it clean on his cloak, and helped the youth to

scabbard it. An arrow lay ready against the bow's string.

Don't rush! he told himself. Get your bearings now!

But that was not so easily done. The wind no longer

pushed from any one direction, but seemed to bellow and

thunder from all four. Tanis cast about him, searched the

snow to see if he could tell by the tracks where he'd been

standing when the wolves attacked.

There was no sign.

"Which way, Tanis?"

"I - I can't tell. No, wait. Up, we were moving up the

hill." He squinted into the wind. "There! That way."

Behind them, silent phantoms in the night, the rest of the

wolf pack moved in to do a starving predator's grisly honor

to fallen comrades. *****

Flint roared curses into the screaming wind. That

wretched, straw-brained Tas! If there was a god of mischief

and deviltry, he would be no god at all but a kender! He'd

not turned his back for a moment! But a moment, he

thought bitterly, was all it took to send Tas out into the

snow. What had he been off after? Tanis and Sturm? Likely

not. That would have been too sensible a motive to ascribe

to a kender.

"Tas!" he shouted, flinging up an arm to protect his eyes

against the wind's teeth. "Tas!"

The surest way to die, Tanis had said, was to scatter all

over the mountain. "Well and fine, and here we are," Flint

snarled, kicking furiously at the snow drifting past his

knees. "Scattered all over the mountain. If I had half the

brains I curse that kender for NOT having, I'd leave him out

here to freeze as a warning to the rest of his empty-headed

kind."

Then he heard, mourning above the wind, the howling of

the wolves he'd thought to deny. Fear shivered through the

old dwarf. They were close now. He hunched his shoulders

against the wind.

Wolves! Aye, and likely hungry enough not to turn aside

from stone-headed kender or young idiots who can't hie

themselves back from a simple wood-gathering trip in

decent time. . . .

"Tas! Where ARE you?!"

The snow erupted right at Flint's feet. Scrambling for

balance he slipped, tried to catch himself and, tripping over

a snow-mantled boulder, tumbled into a drift.

"Flint! Wait! Flint! Where'd you go?"

His long brown eyes ablaze with laughter, his face bright

with merriment, Tas leaped into the drift, narrowly missing

Flint's head. Tugging and pulling, then shoving and

pushing, he got the dwarf righted and on his feet again.

"Flint, it's a little cold for playing games, don't you

think? Look at you, I can't find your beard for the snow!"

His impish laughter skirled high above the wind's roar.

"What are you doing out here, Flint? I thought you said we

were to wait at the shelter. You know, you're really going to

be sorry later. There might not be a fire, after all, and you're

so wet you'll freeze solid. You should have stayed inside."

There WERE words, Flint thought later, to express his

fury. And a pity it was that he could not have found them

when he needed them; they would easily have melted the

last inch of snow from the mountain.

"I should have stayed inside?" Flint took a quick swipe

at the kender's head, missed, and slipped to his knees. "I

should have stayed?" He flung off the hand that Tas offered

him and climbed to his feet again. "I'd not be out here at all

if it weren't for you!"

"Me?" Tas's eyes went round with surprise. "You came

out after me? But I'm fine, Flint. I just went out for a look. I

thought I might be able to see a wolf. Or not see one. They

say they're almost invisible against a storm, you know." His

eyes darkened for a moment with disappointment. "But I

didn't see any. Or I didn't NOT see any. I'm not sure which.

And I didn't get very far. You know, Tanis was right. You

can hardly see where you've been out here. You certainly

can't see where you're going. On the whole," he decided,

reaching out a tentative hand to help Flint dust the snow

from his back, "I'd really rather be inside where it's

warmer."

The logic was too tortuous for Flint to follow, and he

was too cold and wet - nearly frozen to death, he thought

furiously - to work it out now. He turned and stamped back

toward the shelter, growling and cursing.

Cold, but undaunted, frolicking like a half-grown pup

taken to play, Tas scampered ahead. "You'll feel better once

we get inside," he called back. "It's not much warmer there,

but it is drier. And I've been thinking about my magic pipe

while I was out looking for the wolves. I think I'd be able to

find the music if I tried just a little harder."

Oh, fine, Flint thought, trudging stiffly behind, the

dreaded pipe! It wasn't enough that he had to contend with

blizzards and promises to people who haven't the sense to

come in out of a storm, with brainless kender and wolves.

No. On top of all of that had to be laid a "magic" pipe.

When he stumbled, shaking and wet, into the shelter he

saw Tas sitting crosslegged and absent-eyed, hunched over

his pipe. The high, tortured wailing that had tormented Flint

all afternoon filled the air, rising almost loud enough to

compete with the wind and the wolves' howls.

"The dreaded pipe," he sighed.

He returned to his task of coaxing a fire from the broken

boards and fine, smooth blocks of his whittling wood. It

would barely be enough to thaw his frozen clothing. It

would not be enough to light the lost back to safety.

 

Tanis negotiated the gently descending slope as though it

were a vertical cliff face, and slid to a ragged halt at the

bottom. Sturm skidded past him, overbalanced by his pack,

and dropped to his knees in a drift that seemed to swallow

him to the shoulders. Tanis helped his friend to his feet. His

stomach lurched in fear when he saw a dark red spot of

fresh blood on Sturm's bandage.

"Don't stop!" he cried above the wind's scream. "We've

got to go on!"

"Aye, Tanis, we do! But WHERE? We're lost!"

They were. Or they might be. Tanis didn't know any

more. He was fairly certain of his direction. This hollow

was familiar, more filled with snow and drifts, but still

familiar. Or was that only hope, the last thing inside him

that hadn't frozen yet? He could not see ahead the length of

his arm. Had they come to the shelter? Had they passed it?

He couldn't think, and he did not see anymore how it

mattered. Now it only mattered that they keep moving.

The deadly lethargy of freezing had been dogging them

with patient tenacity. To give in now to aching limbs, to sit

down just once to rest, to ease the burning of their lungs,

the fire licking behind their eyes, would be to die.

And we'll not freeze to death an arm's length from that

damned shelter! Tanis vowed.

But Sturm went down a few moments later and did not

rise. He tried, foundered in a drift, and fell back. For a

moment fury blazed so bright in his brown eyes that Tanis

could see it despite the blizzard's concealing curtain.

He dropped to his knees beside his friend, shouted and

tried again to pull him to his feet. He could get no purchase

in the drifted snow, no grip with his frozen hands.

"Tanis, no."

How could he have heard Sturm's whisper above the

wind's scream? Or was it that he read the protest in the

boy's eyes?

"Tanis . . . take the wood . . . go."

"No! We'll rest. Just for a moment. We'll rest." There

was more danger, he knew, in resting than in going on. The

very wind that tore at them now would carry the scent of

fresh blood to the wolves who must be trailing behind. But

he, too, was not accustomed to abandoning his friends.

Tanis went down on his knees again in the snow and

drew Sturm as close to him as he could, hoping to protect

the boy from the worst of the piercing wind. Just for a

moment, he promised himself. Just until Sturm can recoup.

So gentle is the paradoxical warmth that suffuses a man

just before freezing, so entrancing, that Tanis did not

recognize it for what it was. He only wondered briefly that

he had enough body warmth left to feel, then closed his

eyes wearily and forgot to open them.

 

The note, coming suddenly amid the squeaks and

protests of the pipe, startled Tas. It was soft, gentle, and

reminded him of the sigh of a mourning dove. He moved

his numb fingers over the holes, drew another breath, and

found the note again. And then he found another, higher,

and a third, lower. Almost it was a tune, and Tas caught the

change. He tried again.

There was a rabbit in the storm. Caught away from its

burrow, too young to know that it must dig into the snow

for its insulating warmth, it scurried this way and that, as

though it might outrun the cold. Home! screamed through

the rabbit's veins with the frantic pumping of panic-driven

blood. Home! But home, a burrow snug and warm,

smelling of good brown earth and the comforting odor of

safety, was too far away.

Tas heard the rabbit's frightened squeak above the

faltering tune he played. How could he have heard the

rabbit's cry? He didn't know, but he squeezed his eyes

tightly shut, let the pipe fall silent, and lost the image and

the sound. Before he could think of absurdity, before he

could decide that the pipe had nothing to do with the rabbit,

he hunched over it again and continued to play.

There was a deer, its antlers almost too heavy with the

snow's burden to bear. There was a mountain goat,

foundered in a drift, its bleating protest wailing and lost in

the biting wind.

Tas drew a sharp breath, knowing that the deer would

soon go to its knees in surrender, that the mountain goat

would thrash and surge against its snowy restraints and

surely break a leg.

If his attention was a vagrant thing, his heart was a kind

one. Poor rabbit! he thought, poor brave deer! He wanted,

as much as he had ever wanted anything, to go out to find

them, to show them a way out of the storm. He wanted this

more than he'd wanted anything before. More, even, than

he'd wanted to find the magic in his little pipe.

In Tas's mind there was something dark and still. It was

a man - it was Sturm! And beside him knelt Tan-is! They

might have been ice sculptures so cold and motionless were

they.

Though it was no doing of his - and yet perhaps it was -

a long ache of sadness drifted through Tas's music when he

realized that they might be dead. Like the rabbit or the deer

or the mountain goat, there was no way to tell where they

were, near or far, no way to find them and help. There was

only the pipe. He played, then, with all his heart and trusted

to the magic that it would not be a song of farewell.

 

There was a rabbit in the doorway. Ears aslant, pink nose

twitching, it paused for a second beneath the slight

overhang of the roof as though asking permission to enter.

Where he sat before a fire dwindled to meager embers and

dying coals, Flint saw the ice frozen on its back, the snow

clumped between its toes. Part of him sighed for pity, and

part decided he must bid his wits goodbye.

And behind him the horrible squealing of Tas's pipe settled

gently into a sweet, low song.

The rabbit moved then, hunched forward, and fell onto

its side, eyes wide as though it could no more believe that it

now waited a foot away from the old dwarf than Flint

could.

The storm, Flint told himself, it's only seeking shelter. . .

. Easier to believe that than to believe that his wits had

frozen solid around some mad dream. Moving slowly, he

reached his hand out to the rabbit. He had not Tanis's way

with animals. That lad could call a bird to hand, silence a

chattering squirrel in the tree with a whisper. Or so it had

often seemed to Flint. But the rabbit accepted the old

dwarf's touch and quivered only a little.

He gathered up the little creature in both hands, felt the

quick race of its heart, and moved his thumb carefully over

its broad feet. The snow fell away. Under the warmth of his

hands the ice melted from the rabbit's back.

"There," he whispered, amazed. He turned the rabbit

back toward the door. "Off with you."

But the rabbit did not, as Flint had expected, dart away

in fear. It paused in the doorway, seemed for a moment to

consider the storm, and turned, bounding back past Flint

and into the shelter. Flint saw it scamper into the shadows

behind him and vanish into the darkness. Tas, still bent over

his pipe, looked up only briefly to laugh.

Puzzled, Flint turned back to the door and gasped.

Looming like some dream beast was a rough-coated

mountain goat. To the left of the goat, its antlers heavy with

snow, a dark-eyed deer waited.

Dipping its antlers - courteous beast, Flint thought and so

thinking abandoned his sense and logic - the deer stepped

into the shelter. The goat, as though hanging back to await

the passage of mountain royal ty, entered last.

Nothing Flint had ever seen was brighter than the delight

shining in Tas's eyes. His pipe still in hand, the kender

leaped to his feet, ducked around the deer, patted the goat,

and scurried to the door.

"Flint! Look! Do you see? I brought them here!"

Flint shook his head. I can't be seeing this! he thought,

stubbornly. And I'm not!

"It's the pipe! It's the pipe, Flint! Listen!"

Again that enticing, gentle song. Behind him Flint heard

the thick flap of wings. He ducked only in time to miss

being struck by a wide-eyed owl. Two white-bellied mice

darted past his feet, saw the owl, and dove screaming

behind Tas's pack.

"Tas! Stop!"

"No, Flint! It's the magic! They heard it! I wanted them

to hear, and they did."

Magic? Flint turned this way and that, and everywhere

he looked he saw what he knew he shouldn't be seeing.

Sputtering protest, stammering questions, he received no

answers from Tas.

The kender was on the floor again, bent over his pipe,

his eyes squeezed shut in fierce concentration. He'd brought

the rabbit and the deer. The mountain goat had heard and

found him. And two mice and an owl. Soon, surely, his

song would bring Tanis and Sturm.

Numbly, too stunned to know where to look first, Flint

clapped his hands to his ears. After a moment he closed his

eyes because there was a deer pawing at the frozen dirt

floor, an owl preening its wings in the rafters, and a goat

nibbling delicately at the straps of the dwarf's pack. He felt

something soft and warm touch him and looked down to

see the rabbit asleep against his foot.

He'd never heard that one of the first signs of freezing was

a wild slipping away of the wits. But he imagined that it

probably was because he still could not believe that what he

saw was real.

 

Get up, the words whispered. Get up! Come back, they

urged. Come back! Lies, they sighed. The cold is telling

lies! Like dreams of a blazing hearth seen through frosted

windows, the words wandered through Tanis's mind. Gently

they coaxed and encouraged. Beneath the simple words

danced the light, bright notes of a shepherd's pipe. Behind

the tune, beyond the words, flickered images of a place

where the cold had no power to touch him.

The wind, he thought, pulling away from Sturm. Or just

my sanity slipping away . . .

But there was no wind. Its howl was silenced. And when

he lifted his face to the night sky he no longer felt the

snow's deadly kiss. Beside him Sturm moved, slowly, but

with the deliberate care of a man marshalling strength.

"Tanis, do you hear?"

"The wind - it's died down."

"Aye," Sturm agreed, as though it had only just come to

his attention. "That, too."

Tanis looked at him in surprise. "You hear music?"

"Yes. It sounds like a shepherd's pipe. . . ." His words

wandered away, lost in surprise and sudden realization.

"Tas's pipe, Tanis! We must be near the shelter!"

Tas's pipe! But that poor, crippled little instrument, the

"dreaded pipe" Flint called it, had never given Tas music

this sweet. And yet, what other could it be? Tanis climbed

wearily to his feet and helped Sturm to rise.

"We'll follow it," he said. "No, leave your pack. If the

shelter is that close, I can come back for the wood. And

I've still got mine." HOME, the music sang, COME

HOME. . . .

 

Snow ghosts! The spirits of the storm-killed. Or so they

would have been called in the faraway mountains of his

homeland. Flint watched the eerie blue race of breaking

clouds across the white mantle of the snow. He shivered,

more from the memory of an old legend than from the cold.

Behind him Tas's pipe faltered, then fell silent.

In an odd little exodus, as soon as the snow had stopped

falling, moments after the wind finally died, Tas's strangely

assorted menagerie of storm refugees had filed past him

into the night. Still, even after the last creature had left, Tas

had continued to play, hoping that Tanis and Sturm would

hear the pipe's music, feel the call of its magic.

Magic! Flint thought now. The word felt bitter and hard

in his mind. He told himself that he never had believed.

Some wild coincidence, some quirk had led the animals to

the shelter. It hadn't been, after all, any of the pipe's doing.

Though he could still feel, in memory, the frightened race

of the rabbit's heart against his palms, and later the

confiding warmth of it where it lay against his foot.

Nonsense! The poor little beast was too exhausted and

frozen to care where it finally collapsed. He refused to

remember the deer and the goat, the mice or the owl. He

sighed and kicked at the blackened embers of the fire. We

can go out and look now, he thought. He would not allow

himself to think further. He did not want to consider what

they must find.

"They're home." Tas's voice was oddly hollow.

Flint turned slowly, the skin on the back of his neck

prickling. "What did you say?"

The kender's face was white, etched with weariness. But

his eyes were bright with some pleasure or satisfaction that

Flint did not understand. "They're home, Flint. They're

back." He put his pipe aside. Wobbling to his feet, he went

to stand beside the dwarf. He was tired, but it was the best

tired he'd ever felt.

Flint peered out into the night. Two shadows intersected

those pouring across the gleaming snow. They were darker

and more solid than that weird blue flow. Snow ghosts?

Shivering, the old dwarf squinted harder. Not yet! he

thought triumphantly. Not yet, they're not! But one of them

was staggering, leaning on the other.

Flint grasped Tas's shoulders and hurried him back

inside the shelter. "Stay here, Tas. STAY HERE. They're

back!"

Tas smiled and nodded. "Of course they're back. I TOLD

you they were. They heard the pipe, they felt the magic -

Flint! Where are you going?"

Yawning mightily, forgetting Flint's warning to stay

inside the shelter, Tas retrieved his pipe and jogged out into

the snow.

 

As he had for the past two mornings, Tanis leaned

against the door jamb, smiling at the winter sun as though

hailing a well-met friend. Beside him Sturm gingerly lifted

his pack.

"You're certain you are well enough to travel?"

The youth nodded once. "Yes." He was pale yet, but the

dressing covering his wound had come away clean with its

last two changings.

"You did well, Sturm."

Sturm's solemn eyes lighted, then darkened. "No. I

almost cost you your life, Tanis. I couldn't go on, and you

stayed."

"I did. It was my choice. And," he said quickly, forestalling

further protest, "it was a choice, at the time, of freezing

with you or a few yards farther on. Where you did well was

in another place altogether."

"I don't understand."

"You are a good companion, lad, and one I would not

hesitate to travel with again."

Plainly Sturm still did not understand. But he took the

compliment with a notable absence of youthful

awkwardness.

In the silence fallen between them Tanis heard the

beginnings of an argument between Tas and Flint that had

become all too familiar these last two days.

"There was no mountain goat," Flint growled.

But Tas was insistent. "Yes, there WAS. And not only

that, there was a deer - "

"There was no deer."

Grinning, Tanis went to join them.

"Flint, there WAS! You saw them. And the field mice,

and the owl. And what about the rabbit, Flint? It slept

against your foot all the time."

This time Flint made no firm denial. "Kender stories," he

snorted. He glanced sidelong at Tanis and veered sharply

away from the subject of magic pipes. "Are you certain

Sturm is ready to travel?"

"So he says, and I think he is."

"I'd like to check that bandage once more."

Tas watched him leave, then reached over to finger a

broken pack strap that had been giving the old dwarf

trouble. "Look, Tanis."

"Frayed, but it should hold with repair."

"No. Look. It's not frayed. The goat chewed it."

"Yes, well. . ." Tanis smiled and quietly relieved Tas of

Flint's small whittling knife. "Fell out of the pack, did it?"

Tas's eyes widened innocently. "Oh! I guess it did. Good

thing I found it. Flint wouldn't have been happy to leave it

behind. But what about the pack strap?"

"It looks frayed to me." He patted Tas's shoulder. "Come

on, now. It's time to go."

"I don't know why no one believes me, Tanis."

Tanis wished then, for the sake of the wistful hope in the

kender's voice, that he could believe in the magic pipe. But

it sounded too much like all of Tas's fantastic stories.

Some, doubtless, were true. But Tan-is had never been able

to separate those from the soaring flights of imagination

that Tas passed off as adventures.

"You know," he said kindly, "enchanted or not, your

piping saved our lives. If we hadn't heard it, Sturm and I

would have died out there."

"I'm glad it did, Tanis, I really am. But, still, I wish

someone would believe I found the magic. I don't know

why Flint won't. He saw the deer and the goat and the mice

and the owl. And the rabbit WAS sleeping against his foot."

That rabbit, Tanis realized then, was not among the

things that Flint denied. In matters of magic, that might be,

where Flint was concerned, considered avowal.

When he looked up again Tas had gone. Rising to join

the others, he caught sight of something small and

abandoned on the floor. "Tas, you forgot your pipe." He

picked it up and then saw words carved into the wood that

he had not seen before.

FIND THE MUSIC, FIND THE MAGIC.

"Did you carve this?"

Tas did not turn. "Yes," he said, reluctantly. "I have to

leave it."

"But, Tas, why?"

Tas squared his shoulders as though firming some resolve.

But still he did not turn. "Because the shepherd said that it

could only be used once. That's why I can't get the pipe to

play that song again - or any song. I've used the magic." He

took a deep breath and went on. "And he said that once I

found the magic I had to pass the pipe on." He paused and

then he did turn, a scamp's humor in his long brown eyes.

"It's going to be a long winter. I'm going to leave it here for

someone else to find."

Suddenly, as sharply as though he was yet there, the

half-elf saw himself crouched in the snow, too aching and

exhausted to move. He felt again the bitter whip of the

wind, the life-draining cold. He heard, very faintly, the

coaxing tune that had called him back from freezing.

Maybe, he thought, seeing the earnest belief in the kender's

brown eyes. Maybe . . .

But no. If there were any magic in the shabby little pipe

at all, it lay in the fact that Tas, that inveterate and

inevitable collector, could be induced to believe that he

must leave behind a pipe he swore was enchanted.

Tanis grinned again. That, he supposed, was magic

enough for one pipe.

 

The Wizard's Spectacles

Morris Simon

 

Nugold Lodston shook a gnarled fist at his youthful

tormentors.

"Get away! Pester somebody else! Leave me alone!"

The old hermit shielded his face with his forearm from

another flurry of pebbles amid the laughter of the dirty

street urchins and their audience of amused onlookers. He

despised these trips into Digfel and longed for the quiet

solitude of his cave on the banks of the Meltstone River.

"We don't want your kind in Digfel, you old miser. Go

home to Hylar where you belong, and take your worthless

gold with you!"

The aged dwarf squinted in the general direction of the

adult voice. His eyesight was terrible, even for his four

hundred years. A blurry outline of a heavy human figure

loomed in front of him, barring his way into Milo Martin's

shop. It was obvious that he had to either push past the

abusive speaker or retreat through his delinquent henchmen

without buying winter provisions.

"Remove your carcass from my path, and take your ill-bred

issue with you!" Lodston shouted. Several of the spectators

laughed at the old hermit's taunt. The blurry-faced speaker

leaned closer, revealing his florid cheeks and filthy,

tobacco-stained mouth to the dwarf's faded eyes.

"You heard what I said, scum! Get out of Digfel before I

feed your scrawny bones to my dogs!" blustered the fat

townsman. Lodston smelled the odors of stale wine and

unwashed human skin even before he could see the man's

quivering red jowls. He grinned and gestured toward the

beggar children.

"If those are your mongrels, you ought to be more

careful when you mate. You'll ruin your bloodline!"

Lodston sneered and shook his quarterstaff in the drunk's

face, which was darkening with rage as the catcalls grew

louder.

"You gonna let him talk to you like that, Joss?" someone

goaded the drunk.

"Kick that uppity dwarf in the teeth, if he's got any!"

yelled one of the urchins.

The drunken bully sputtered a curse and raised a beefy

hand. In the same instant, Lodston muttered a single word

with his bearded mouth pressed against the smooth shaft of

his heavy staff. The stick of rare bronzewood glowed

suddenly with an inner light and began to vibrate in the

hermit's hand. The old dwarf seemed almost as surprised as

everyone else by the force within the enchanted weapon

and nearly dropped it. He clutched its shaft more tightly,

feeling its inner power throbbing as it lifted itself in the air

above the bully's head.

Suddenly the staff descended repeatedly, faster than the

eye could see, upon the head of Nugold Lodston's assailant.

It appeared to the astonished onlookers as if it were a

drumstick in the hands of a practiced drummer. Each blow

landed with vicious force and accuracy, producing

lacerations and bruises on the startled bully's scalp and face.

"Run, Joss! It's a magical staff! He'll kill you!" The bully's

eyes were blinded with his own blood from the wounds on

his forehead. He backed away from Lodston's flashing staff,

his hands raised in front of his face to ward off the unerring

blows of the enchanted weapon. To the hermit's failing

eyes, the scene was a muddled image of fleeing shapes as

the street emptied. Digfel was a superstitious town,

especially in the rough section where Milo Martin kept his

store.

"Get in here, Nugold, before they come back!" Martin's

rotund figure was standing in the doorway of his shop. He

was gesturing frantically for the hermit to come inside. The

staff had already lost the aura summoned by the ancient

command word, but the merchant's bulging eyes were

staring greedily at it.

The hermit grunted a minor dwarvish epithet to himself

and pushed past the excited shopkeeper into the store.

Smells of candlewax, oil, and soap mingled with those of

wood smoke, spices, and leather - the comfortable and

familiar odors of Martin's General Store. Lodston came to

Digfel no more than four or five times a year, and this was

one of the few places he liked to shop for provisions. Digfel

was a rowdy human mining town on the outskirts of the

dwarven mountains, steeped in fears and prejudices dating

to the Cataclysm. Milo Martin's shop had a reputation as a

brief haven amid the turmoil of the times, perhaps because

Martin himself was such a tolerant man. The jolly but

enterprising little merchant sold his goods to anyone with

iron coins in his pockets, whether dwarf, human, or elf.

Only kender, those notorious shoplifters, were unwelcome

in his store.

"You old fool! Don't you know you can't fight all of those

bumpkins by yourself, with or without a magic staff?"

Milo's gentle reprimand was undercut by an excited sparkle

in his crisp blue eyes. The merchant was thrilled at the

promise of something new to talk about at the Pig Iron

Alehouse. He was also bursting with curiosity about the

mysterious bronzewood stick that seemed to have a life of

its own.

"Bah!" spat the dwarf. "You humans think that you know

everything. My people mined these mountains before you

farmers learned how to grow your nauseating vegetables.

We dig more than potatoes out of the dirt, I'll tell you that

much!"

Martin nodded judiciously, although he knew that the

old hermit's dwarven pride was only momentary. Lodston

lived alone because he had alienated his own people as

much as he had the humans in Digfel. The merchant wanted

to divert the conversation toward the staff. He certainly did

not want to provoke a long-winded discourse on past

dwarven glories and present human frailties.

"That's a fascinating quarterstaff, Nugold," he probed.

"If you tell me how you came by it, I might pay good iron

ingots for it. I've been needing a fine old stick like that!"

Lodston's bearded mouth curled in a sly smirk. Martin's

face was a mere blur to him, but the silkiness in the wily

human's voice betrayed his usual greed.

"How much?" he demanded quickly, cocking his head at

the shopkeeper's fuzzy features.

"Enough to pay what you owe me, and maybe for this

trip as well - IF the staff is worth that much," Martin added

shrewdly.

"Oh, it's worth ten times the trash you sell in this place,"

vowed the dwarf. "I got it from an elven wizard!"

If the hermit's vision had been sharper, he might have

recognized the immediate frown on the shop keeper's face

as a look of disbelief.

"There aren't any elves in Hylar! No elf I've ever met

would have anything to do with a dwarf!"

"There's one who would, all right, and he lives in my

cave!" Lodston retorted defiantly. The hermit pulled a small

keg of pickled fish closer to the fireplace and sat on it. He

clutched the magical staff in front of him as if he were

guarding it from the merchant's covetous gaze. Then he

reached into a pocket and handed Martin a crumpled piece

of parchment.

"He wrote down what we need. You fetch all those

things while I rest my legs, and I'll tell you the strangest tale

you'll ever hear in this ugly town of simpletons."

Milo Martin's frown deepened as he grabbed the list

from the hermit's filthy fingers. He expected to see a barely

literate scrawl, and was astonished when he recognized the

fine penmanship of a scholar on the crude parchment. Each

character was fashioned with elegant swirls, while the

spelling and phrases were archaic.

"'Balls of twyne, a sette of three;

"Grinded millett, so fyne as to pass through a tea

sieve;

"Twin hyves of honey, with compleat combs for

the waxxe . . .'"

It was obvious that the old dwarf hadn't written the list.

Martin doubted if the hermit was literate at all, and he was

positive that those gnarled hands and failing vision would

be incapable of such careful strokes of a nib.

"This is quite a list, Nugold," he admitted. "I might not

have it all. Tell me about this 'elven wizard' who lives in

your cave while I gather whatever I can to suit you and

your guest."

"His name's Dalamar," the dwarf began. "I found him on

the riverbank last month, half-starved and out of his head. I

knew he was strange, because of his white skin and long

hair as jet black as his sorcerer's robe. 'This ain't no human,'

I says to myself. Then I drug him into my cave and made

him a bed by the fire. When he woke up, I thought he'd be

afraid, but he was just as calm as he could be. He acted like

he knew where he was, and like he knew me, too. Even

called me by name, he did!"

Milo Martin paused with some candles in his hand.

"Black hair, you say? Not just dark?"

"Nay!" Lodston replied irritably. "I said black, and I

meant it! It be black as soot, and his skin like white linen,

so white that it shines like a full moon in a night sky."

The merchant stroked his chubby chin, considering the

dwarf's words. "Well, if he's an elf as you say, I'd guess that

he was from Sylvanesti. I've heard that the eastern elves

look like that, but I've never seen one of them."

The dwarf nodded excitedly. "That's it!" he exclaimed.

"Sylvanesti is where he said he was from! You beat all I've

ever seen with those wild guesses, Milo!"

The shopkeeper shrugged. It was no guess, but he

decided to let the hermit believe that he possessed such an

unpredictable skill. People were more reluctant to cheat

someone who could "outguess" them.

"Go on with your story. Tell me about the staff," urged

Martin as he turned toward his shelves to collect more

items on the list.

"Well, he asks me right off if I found his box. When I tell

him not to fret about some box after I save him from

drowning, he doesn't say anything. He just stares at the fire

for a long time. Then he gets up and heads for the door.

'Wait!' I calls. 'You ain't fit enough to walk!'

'Come to the river with me,' he says in this strange voice.

It was like his words were stronger than I was! Before I

knew what I was doing, I was up to my ankles in mud,

helping the elf find this staff and that danged box."

"What kind of box?" Milo Martin had stopped gathering

items from the list and was leaning against his counter. His

curiosity had grown too great to bother hiding.

"A little wooden chest bound with brass strips," Lodston

replied. "I carried it back to the cave after we found the

staff. When we both was dry and warm again, he told me

his name and said he used to be a wizard for some king

named 'Lorac.' "

The name meant nothing to Martin. The enthralled

shopkeeper motioned for Lodston to continue.

"Dalamar said he got into some kind of trouble back at

this Sylvanesti place for changing his robes from white to

black or something like that. Said he had to leave before the

king killed him. When I told him I didn't think a king'd

worry that much about the color of a man's clothes, he just

smiled and laid his head back against the hearth."

Martin knew very little about magic and wizards, but he

did know more than old Lodston. The shopkeeper's pudgy

face flushed as he flaunted his superior knowledge of

matters arcane.

"Idiot! Don't you even know the difference between

white-robed and black-robed sorcerers? You ever heard of

an evil elf, much less an evil elven wizard?"

"Evil?" demanded the hermit. "You mean like Joss out

there and his scum-brained kids?"

"No!" Martin growled. "I don't mean simple pickpockets

and drunks. If you'd ever got out of that cave of yours,

you'd know that some dark force is sweeping over Krynn,

and it sounds to me like your new buddy is part of it!"

The shopkeeper's crisp eyes clouded. The normally jolly

and mercurial man seemed suddenly overwhelmed with

melancholia. "I thought Digfel was too little to get involved

in this thing," he muttered sadly. "I thought everybody

would leave us alone as long as we supplied them with steel

for their swords and spears."

"What in Reorx's name are you mumbling about?"

Lodston demanded.

"I'm talking about that guest of yours!" Martin replied

angrily. "He and his evil friends will bring the war to

Digfel!"

"War? What war? I don't understand what . . ."

"Go on with your story," the shopkeeper urged,

interrupting the dwarf's flurry of questions in a calmer

voice. The hermit's naive ignorance of the outside world

was incorrigible. Martin could barely explain the sinister

events of recent years to himself, much less to the reclusive

dwarf.

"Harrumph!" snorted Lodston. He was too old and

battle-weary to listen to human war stories. Vivid memories

of THE war still lingered in his aged brain, the war which

had forced the mountain dwarves from their traditional

homes.

"Well, as I was saying," he continued, "Dalamar's been

wandering around in the west ever since they threw him out

of this Sylvanesti place. He said he had to take some kind

of 'test' at Wayreth to be a wizard, and it made him sick. I

asked him if his stomach hurt, but he just said I wouldn't

understand if he told me. He was up at Solace when a

Seeker priest tried to kill him. So he made this raft and

sneaked away on the river just before they came to bum

him as a witch."

"Are they after him now?" Martin demanded quick ly.

Digfel had been free of the Seeker insanity, and he hoped

that Lodston's refugee would not attract the zealous witch-

hunters to this rough but quiet comer of Krynn.

"You got me there," Lodston replied. "I think they lost

his trail during the storm that wrecked his raft. Nobody'd

ever believe that he could have drifted this far downstream,

all the way through the Qualinesti woods. I told him I'd

hide him from them maniacs till he was well enough to take

care of himself. He didn't thank me or anything, just rolled

over and went to sleep."

"Did you search his belongings while he was sleeping?"

Milo Martin asked eagerly. The opportunistic shopkeeper

was imagining what he would have done under the same

circumstances.

"What am I, a kender?" cried the insulted dwarf.

"Anyway, I didn't need to snoop. He showed me what was

in his box."

The hermit paused to retrieve a blackened clay pipe

from beneath his fur cloak and gestured toward the tobacco

jar on the counter.

"How's about some of that weed, the kind you sprinkle

with honey wine? And maybe a little ale and biscuits to go

with it," he added as Martin fetched the tobacco. The hermit

might have been nearly blind, but he knew when he had

hooked a listener on a story. The shopkeeper thrust a

foaming mug of freshly brewed stout at the dwarf, who

waited until his pipe was well-fired before accepting it. He

was enjoying tempting Milo Martin's curiosity.

"Ahhh!" exclaimed the hermit, wiping ale from his

mouth with a sleeve.

"Get on with it!" demanded the impatient shopkeeper.

"What was in the chest?"

"Scrolls and books!" Lodston replied in a coarse whisper.

"Dozens of them! And a pair of funny old glasses with wire

rims."

"What was on the scrolls?" cried Martin.

"Spells, I reckon," growled the dwarf. "How should I

know? I can't read!"

The shopkeeper's pudgy face clouded. "Then how do you

know they were magic?"

" 'Cause I saw Dalamar using one to see the future!"

Martin said nothing for several moments. His eyes were

wide with imagination as he speculated to himself about the

value of such a treasure - if the old dwarf was telling the

truth.

"It was a couple of nights ago. We just ate some fish

stew and bread. I'm sitting by the fire smoking some wild

tobacco, nothing like this stuff, when Dalamar puts on them

glasses. He unrolls a piece of parchment like it was holy

and stares at the fire for a long time before he starts to read

it. I ask him what he's doing, but he acts like he don't hear

me."

Lodston took a long swig of ale and a few more puffs of

the fragrant cured tobacco before resuming his story.

"Dalamar reads the words out loud, but they's in a

language I never heard before. The words had a lot of 'ssss'

and 'ffff sounds that ended in 'i's or 'o's. You ever hear

somebody talking like that?"

"No!" blurted his impatient listener. "Forget the

language! What happened then?"

"Settle down, and let me finish the story! There was this

light, kind of a white glow like moonshine, that got stronger

with every word he read. It was coming from the scroll, but

it spread all over his body. By the time he finished reading

them words, it got so bright in my cave that it hurt my eyes

to look at him."

"How long did it last?" Milo Martin asked breathlessly.

"I reckon not more than two or three minutes after he

stopped reading," said the hermit. "Soon as it was gone, he

stands up and heads for the door. He steps outside and

looks around the cave, like he's checking the ground for

footprints or something. 'What are you doing?' I asks him.

'What was that bright light in there?'

" 'They're not here yet,' he says.

" 'Who's not here?' I asks him, but he just comes back

inside and sits by the fire again. That's when I looked at the

scroll he was reading."

"Well? What did it look like?" Martin prompted.

"Nothing," the dwarf answered. "There was nothing on

it at all. Dalamar wrote that list on it this mom-ing!"

The startled shopkeeper dropped the parchment onto the

counter as if it were a hot coal. Then he retrieved it and

studied the writing more carefully. He even held it near a

candle to see if the heat would reveal hidden characters of

any kind. Regardless of the events at the hermit's cave, the

"magic scroll" was now nothing more than a grocery list.

"See what I told you?" said Lodston. "The spellwords

are gone. All I know is that whatever he saw last night

scared him."

"Why do you say that?"

"Because he didn't go right to sleep. He made a sign

with some ashes on the inside of the door and then bolted it

like he thought somebody was going to try to break in. In

the morning, he gave me that list and told me to get the

stuff in a hurry. He handed me his staff and said I needed to

take it with me; that's when he whispered the secret word in

my ear to make it work."

"What secret word?" demanded Martin, his eyes riveted

to the enchanted weapon.

"None of your business," replied the dwarf, "and I can't

give you this staff. It's the elf's, not mine. Now give me

those goods, and let me get back to the cave before dark. I

don't know why he wanted all this stuff, but he told me to

hurry."

"You promised me . . ."

"I never promised you anything, Milo Martin!"

countered the hermit. "But if you want me to tell Dala-mar

that you wouldn't loan him the things on that list . . ."

"All right, all right!" growled the cautious merchant.

Martin was angry with himself for letting Nugold Lodston

trick him into another extension of his credit, but he was

also hoping to find a way to acquire much more than just

the staff.

"Tell this Dalamar that I want to meet him," the

shopkeeper said in a calmer voice. "I have a few business

ideas that may interest him. Knowledge like this can be a

valuable piece of merchandise. I know of several people

who would pay fortunes to get a single glimpse of the

future."

"Like you?" Lodston snorted sarcastically. He collected

the provisions in a bulky sack and headed for the door.

"Don't forget to tell him what I said!" Martin called as

the hermit stumbled into the empty street without looking

back.

Lodston's "cave" was actually an abandoned dwarven gold

mine. For centuries before he was born, the hermit's people

had tunneled into the mountainside near the Meltstone

River, enriching both themselves and the local human

merchants with great amounts of the yellow metal. When

iron ingots replaced gold and silver as the most precious

substance on Krynn - to make weapons of steel - the rich

Hylar dwarves near Digfel became paupers. Only a handful

of the sturdy miners remained in human towns in the

foothills of the dwarven highlands, becoming blacksmiths

and armorers. Human prospectors took their place as

miners, but of iron ore rather than softer metals such as

gold and silver.

Nugold Lodston chose to remain in the Hylar hills,

making cheap golden toys and baubles for local children.

He cherished the gleaming metal more than he had ever

loved anyone, dwarf or human. He also could not bear the

tedium of toiling over a blistering iron forge to produce

weapons and tools of burnished steel. Humans craving such

products of the dwarven metallurgists regarded Lodston as

a traitor, one who had critical skills but refused to use them.

Even the few of his own race left in Digfel spat on the

ground whenever he passed, a sign of ultimate rejection

among the Hylar dwarves.

"Dalamar! Come help me!" the hermit called from the

trail by the river. "I've carried these things far enough

already!"

Lodston waited, staring up the riverbank toward the

entrance to the mine shaft, but there was no sign of

movement. Then he noticed that the door was ajar. The

worried elf had slammed and barred the thick portal behind

him seconds after Lodston had left for Digfel. Why would

Dalamar be leaving the door open now?

Dropping the heavy cloth sack on the sandy trail, the old

hermit broke into a doddering run up the hill to his cave. He

sensed that some terrible event had befallen the elven

sorcerer even before he saw the footprints in the dirt outside

the shaft entrance. There were scores of boot marks with

low heelprints in the soft earth, as well as the tracks of

several large hounds. The dwarf dropped closer to the

ground to focus his failing sight on the muddy threshold

where the searchers had entered his home. Four large

symbols had been drawn in black soot on the timber over

the gaping door, but the illiterate hermit could not

understand the inscriptions.

"Dalamar!" he called softly, hesitant to push the door. In

his nightmares, unseen evils always lurked within silent

doorways like this one. "Are you in there?"

Only the constant sound of the river below the shaft

broke the ominous silence. Lodston finally mustered the

courage to squelch his imagination and kicked the door

open wide enough to peer into the antechamber of the

ancient mine shaft.

It was empty. The fire was still warm, and a lamp had

been lit beside the small table. There were no remnants of

death and dismemberment, as he had expected to see - not

even a sign of a struggle. The door leading into the

abandoned network of shafts was bolted securely on the

antechamber side. Dalamar and his box of scrolls had

vanished, perhaps taken without a struggle by the strangers

with the dogs. The enchanted staff in Lodston's gnarled

hands seemed to be all that remained of his strange guest.

The hermit scrambled down the steep bank in the failing

light of dusk and retrieved the sack of provisions. When he

returned to the mine shaft, he slammed the door and slid the

heavy wooden bar into place to guard it from whomever

had come for the elven sorcerer. Then he threw another log

on the fire and fumbled among the large ingots of gold in a

basket beside the table for one to melt into a toy figure. He

saw the end of a parchment case as soon as he moved the

first bar of gold. It was one of the elf's scrolls!

"Ah! They left one behind!" he exclaimed aloud. The

familiar echoes of his own voice inside the mine's entry

chamber was a friendly, reassuring sound. Lod ston's

tension melted, giving way to excitement. The old hermit

fumbled clumsily with the scroll case, finally managing to

dump the neatly rolled white parchment into his filthy hand.

Trembling with anticipation, he pressed an end of the

scroll to the table and unrolled it beneath the light of the

lamp. There was a hasty line drawing at the top of the page,

just above some undecipherable characters in Dalamar's

flourishing script.

"Hey, that's me!" Lodston croaked, peering at the

drawing. Sure enough, Dalamar had drawn a crude

caricature of the hermit's profile. The bulbous nose and

bushy eyebrows were unmistakable. Beside the face, the

wizard had drawn his own spectacles, equally obvious

because of their curious hexagonal lenses and wire rims. A

dotted arrow led from the glasses to Lodston's profile, and a

solid arrow from his eyes to the text below the drawing.

Even a child could understand the simple diagram.

"He wants me to put on his glasses, but where are they?"

muttered the hermit.

He began rummaging through the room, his excited

imagination blossoming into full-blown frenzy. After

searching inside, under and on top of everything in the

sparsely furnished chamber, the only thing he discovered

was the absence of his oldest cloak, a tattered, floor-length

garment of crudely woven wool. He sat down heavily in the

chair and stared once more at the elf's drawing.

Suddenly he knew where the glasses had to be. He whirled

around toward the basket of gold ore and began tossing the

heavy nuggets on the floor. The wire-rimmed spectacles

were at the bottom of the pile, wrapped in thick goatskin

and wedged into a crevice between two huge nuggets to

protect them from the weight of the ore. Lodston thrust the

wire rims around his hairy ears and peered again at the

parchment.

The black characters beneath the drawing began to swim

and wriggle before his eyes. The motion was so distracting

at first that Lodston felt a little lightheaded and dizzy. Soon,

though, the characters settled into firmer images, more in

the dwarf's mind than on the scroll.

"I can't read," he muttered in amazement, "yet I know

exactly what this says!" The elf's message in wizard-scrawl

was brief but clear:

 

THE QUALINESTI MAGE HAS FOUND ME.

GUARD MY SCROLLS AND BOOKS WITH YOUR

LIFE. IF I FAIL TO RETURN WITHIN A MONTH, YOU

MUST TAKE THEM TO LADONNA, MISTRESS OF

BLACK ARTS IN THE TOWER OF HIGH SORCERY AT

WAYRETH. YOU WILL FIND THEM BEHIND THE

OLD DOOR. GO INTO THE TUNNEL AND TURN

LEFT AT THE FOURTH PASSAGE. WALK TWELVE

PACES AND LOOK UP. MY STAFF AND THESE

DWARVEN GLASSES OF TRUE SEEING WILL REPAY

YOU FOR YOUR PAST AND FUTURE KINDNESSES.

DO NOT TRY TO READ THE OTHER

PARCHMENTS! THEIR POWER WOULD DESTROY

YOU AND ATTRACT MY ENEMIES.

DALAMAR

 

Lodston removed the enchanted glasses, only to see the

magical writing encode itself again in his mind. He

experimented with them a few more times, feeling the

message swim in and out of his awareness each time he

donned and removed the spectacles. He also noticed that he

could see his surroundings perfectly whenever he was

wearing the magical lenses.

" 'Glasses of True Seeing,' huh? Now that's some piece of

sorcery!" he exclaimed aloud. "Healing an old dwarf's

eyesight and teaching him to read secret spells all at the

same time!" Lodston could not have known that the

"healing" effects were accidental. The lenses, which some

unknown dwarven wizard had used to fashion the

enchanted spectacles, just happened to have the right angle

of refraction to improve Lodston's failing vision.

The jubilant hermit unbolted the inner door and ran into

the tunnels, following Dalamar's directions to the letter. At

the twelfth step in the fourth passageway, he looked

upward, using the lamplight and his wondrous new glasses

to study the shadows of the ceiling. The small chest was

wedged between the tunnel roof and a loose timber, just as

the parchment had promised. He quickly pried it loose and

scurried back to the antechamber to study his newfound

treasure.

Lodston opened the unlocked lid of the chest and

dumped its contents on the table in the lamplight. Dalamar's

voluminous robe tumbled onto the rough wooden surface,

forming a black cushion for dozens of small parchment

cases and several slender books covered in purple silk and

bound with leather straps.

"So he traded me his fine black robe for my old cloak,

huh? Sorcerers might be brainy, but they're short on

common sense," Lodston muttered to himself. The hermit

picked up each scroll separately, weighing it in his hands

and examining it with his powerful new spectacles. Still he

saw nothing unusual about any of them.

"Why didn't he put labels on them?" mumbled the

curious dwarf. "What good are enchanted glasses if there's

nothing to read with them? At least they should have titles

so I'd know what I'm guarding 'with my life.' "

For several minutes of agonizing temptation, Lodston

stared first at the scrolls, then at the note from Dalamar.

Finally, he snorted and started returning the cases, one-by-

one, to the chest. He held the last one in his hand a moment

too long, letting curiosity win the battle with judgment.

With a muffled growl of surrender, he squinted behind the

tiny glasses perched upon his huge nose and opened the

scroll case.

Once again, the magical glyphs on the parchment

writhed into a meaningful form, the words of an incantation

in some unknown language forcing themselves from the

dwarf's throat.

"DRISH FETTS, DRISH FETTS, LORGON TRITS," he

heard his own voice pronouncing, but he could not

understand what he was saying.

Lodston found it difficult to recall which of several

things happened first at the instant he uttered the last

syllable of the strange incantation. The scroll itself flared

with a yellow light, then disintegrated into fine ashes in his

hands. At the same time (it seemed) a huge sphere of

orange flames formed itself from the yellow glow of the

scroll and shot forward, away from the hermit. In a

blinding, deafening explosion, the fireball struck the pantry

wall with such stunning force that Lodston was slammed to

the rock floor of the antechamber.

"Great Reorx!" he swore when he was able to stagger to

his feet. The pantry, with its dirty dishes and utensils, plus

some sacks of food, had been completely destroyed! The

nearest comer of the ancient mine chamber was charred and

bare of everything. The wooden shelves had disintegrated

into smoking embers on the floor. Lodston looked at the

pile of seemingly harmless scroll-cases in the chest and

slammed its lid shut with a fearful cry.

"I won't touch another one of the damnable things!" he

vowed in a ringing shout, as if he were promising the

absent Dalamar that he would never disobey him again.

"You and this 'Ladonna' can have these evil things to

yourselves!"

The old dwarf's dreams that first night were filled with

images of black-robed sorcerers who were fighting him

with deadly magic. He had no way of imagining Dalamar's

enemy, this "Qualinesti mage," but his mind constructed a

spectral figure in a hooded white robe, the face hidden by

the cowl except for terrible red eyes gleaming from its

shadows. Lodston woke from his nightmare with a shudder

and lay awake staring at the dying embers in the fireplace.

"What am I supposed to do if this mage from Qualinesti

comes for your scrolls and books?" he cried in a hushed

voice, as if Dalamar could hear and advise him. "I don't

know anything about magic. I wouldn't even know which

spell to read until it was too late. Why should I have to fight

your enemy when you ran away from him yourself?"

The silence that followed his desperate cry for help

offered no solace. Lodston fumbled in the darkness for the

staff and the glasses. When he had found both magical

items, he crawled to the door. The only thing he could do, it

seemed, was leave this business to Dalamar and the mage

from Qualinesti, whoever he was. He remembered stories

from his childhood about the Kinslayer Wars between

different elven clans and wondered fleetingly if that was the

"war" that Milo Martin had mentioned.

"It's none of my business, any way you look at it!" he

muttered at the door. Then he slid the wooden bar aside and

stepped into the darkness outside his dwarf-made cave. By

the silver light of the white moon, he could see the curious

inscription on his front door which he hadn't been able to

read before. The runes flowed together under the power of

the Glasses of True Seeing, startling the hermit with their

stark warning.

DEATH TO TRAITORS AND TO THOSE WHO HIDE

THEM! it read.

Lodston felt his skin prickle with fear as he read his own

death sentence. He whirled around and probed the darkness

with the aid of his new glasses, hoping to spot one of

Dalamar's enemies in the thick shadows of the cliff side

bushes.

"And death to you!" he shouted into the darkness with a

shake of the quarterstaff. "This is my home! Leave me

alone! I want nothing to do with elven squabbles!"

The old dwarf tensed himself, prepared to fight anyone

who responded to his challenge, but the stillness remained

unbroken save for the steady gurgle of the Meltstone River

below him.

"Well, if magic's your game, then that's what you'll get

from Nugold Lodston!" the hermit shouted into the night.

With that burst of bravado, he darted back inside the mine

chamber and bolted the door behind him. Then he opened

the chest and looked at the mute wooden scroll cases.

Finally he shut his eyes behind the wizard's spectacles and

reached inside for another parchment.

He was more cautious this time. The gnarled fingers

shook as he unfurled an inch or two of the scroll's top edge

and examined its surface carefully with the aid of his

enchanted spectacles. A single line of glyphs began to twist

themselves into a meaningful phrase in his mind.

TISNOLLO'S WONDROUS INCANTATION OF

SUGGESTION read the parchment's title.

Encouraged by the fact that nothing dangerous had

happened, Lodston unrolled another few inches of the scroll

and continued to read.

"To win powerful control over the thoughts and body of

one's subject, the adept must focus his occult energies upon

the . . ."

Aha! Wait until I spring this one on Milo! he thought

gleefully. Lodston's childish excitement stifled his

immediate curiosity. He re-rolled the parchment tightly and

returned it to its case. Then he made a small mark on the

polished wood with a charred stick from the fireplace. He

couldn't write, but he might at least mark the scrolls to

distinguish those which seemed safe from those which were

more dangerous. Then he reached for another of the

powerful parchments.

By sunrise, the would-be wizard had catalogued each of

the scrolls into one of four categories: "tricks," which meant

(he thought) harmless spells he wanted to use on people he

knew, such as Milo Martin; "guard spells," which seemed

to protect their caster from harm; "attack spells," whose

titles suggested more aggressive results; and "unknown

spells," whose results the untrained hermit could not predict

even by reading and understanding the first few lines.

A sorcerer needs a sorcerer's robe, Lodston thought,

delighted with the promise of new and unusual powers. He

lifted Dalamar's black robe from the table and let it fall

loosely over his head. A blend of cloying fragrances

stormed his nostrils from the hundreds of hidden pockets

which had contained the wizard's spell components and

ingredients for herbal potions. The pockets were empty

now, but residue of their exotic contents remained to

perfume the silken fabric.

The hermit had planned to gather the voluminous garment

at the waist to adjust its length, but the robe seemed to

sense his shorter height. At the moment the light but strong

fabric settled on his shoulders, Lodston felt Dalamar's

power surging in the robe and spreading into his own body.

The flawless stitches seemed to shrink closer together,

drawing the garment's hem from the floor until it barely

covered the dwarfs boots.

Suddenly, the dark elf's lingering dweomer flooded

Lodston's mind with alien thoughts and impulses, confusing

the dwarf with flashing images of fire, pain, and dark

presences. Just as the psychic turmoil was becoming

unbearable, it stopped. The powerful memories melted and

receded into Lodston's aged brain, merging with his own

dim recollections of the past. A wave of energy swept into

his arthritic limbs, dulling their pain and moving him

toward the door. The black-robed figure that descended the

cliff and strode confidently toward Digfel bore little

resemblance to the reclusive dwarf who made golden toys

for children.

 

Four days later, the Pig Iron Alehouse was buzzing with

gossip about Lodston and his guest from Sylvanesti.

"He must be an evil sorcerer, part of that trouble in the

north," someone whispered.

"Nobody's ever seen him, but look at old Lodston!"

"I saw him reading a spell from a scroll!" claimed one

witness. "He called up a lightning bolt and set the

blacksmith's shop on fire, just because the smith spat on the

ground when he walked past! Old Lodston always was an

ornery cuss, but never that mean. I think that elf has cast an

evil spell on him."

"Dwarves don't know anything about magic," scoffed a

less superstitious townsman. "I heard that was some kind of

family feud - something to do with the old gold mine. The

hermit probably kept the blacksmith busy while the elf set

the fire."

"I know what I saw!" protested the witness. "He had on

some funny glasses and was reading from a piece of

parchment when the lightning came right out of his hands

just before the scroll blew up!"

"I heard Lodston tell Tidbore Ummer that his sheep were

going to die, and they did - every one of them! Tidbore said

the old fool told him he read the future from a magic

scroll."

"That old gold-hound can't read!"

"Read? By Paladine, he can't even see!"

"Well, he can now! I heard that this elf is a healer, not a

wizard, and that he made some glasses to heal the dwarf's

eyesight," someone whispered.

There was a nervous titter as a flurry of gossip about

healing spectacles spread among the tables.

"If that were true, the Seekers from Solace would be

crawling all over us. A healer in Krynn? Don't be a fool!"

"To me, the biggest puzzle is why a dwarf would take up

with an elf. They're supposed to hate each other, you

know."

"That wouldn't be a special problem for Nugold Lodston.

He hates everybody and everything, except gold, that is!"

"That's not any harder to believe than an elf in black

robes, I tell you. If you ask me, it's got something to do

with all that mess in the north."

"Maybe he and this Dalamar like something else about

each other, if you know what I mean!"

The drunken insinuation cut through the underlying

tension of the conversation, causing peals of laughter to fill

the tavern. During the raucous outbreak of crude jokes

about Lodston and Dalamar, a man clad in a rough wool

cloak flipped the hood closer around his face. Then he

tossed an iron coin on the table and left the tavern.

While the patrons of the Pig Iron Alehouse were debating

over the nature of his relationship with Dalamar, Nugold

Lodston was on the other side of Digfel, shaking his stick in

Milo Martin's flushed face. Even his voice had changed in

the last several days, developing an impatient edge and a

curious clipped accent.

"You heard what we want! We'll expect delivery, as

usual, before nightfall!"

"I can't do that, Nugold," Martin insisted. "My cart was

in the blacksmith's shop when you . . . uh, when it caught

fire. It'll be a week before I'm able to bring all this stuff out

to you. Tell Dalamar it's not my fault!"

Martin looked away from the dwarf's angry gaze behind

the curious hexagonal glasses. Though he had never met the

elf, he now feared Lodston's guest. The powers which the

elven wizard had bestowed upon his unlikely dwarven

friend were more than the shopkeeper wanted to face.

Hadn't they changed the irascible but harmless old hermit

into a fearsome sorcerer with a more dangerous temper?

Hadn't the elf somehow healed the dwarf's failing vision

with the enchanted spectacles perched upon Lodston's huge

nose?

"Well, bring it as soon as you get your cart fixed,"

growled the dwarf as he turned to leave Martin's shop. "Just

remember what I said about the door, if you value your

life!"

"I know, I know!" the man mumbled. "You and the elf

have placed a curse on it. No thief in his right mind would

try to steal anything from you or your new 'friend.' "

Lodston smirked behind his whiskers and stepped through

the doorway onto the street. The curious little glasses

perched on his thick nose sparkled in the late morning sun.

The bully, Joss, interrupted a conspiratorial discussion with

a pair of teenaged pickpockets and muttered a hasty

warning. The unscrupulous trio darted into the shadows,

away from Lodston's path. The hermit scowled in their

direction, wishing he had a suitably vindictive spell to cast

upon the fleeing threesome.

I've used all the scrolls I understand, he mused on his

way home. I guess I'll just have to take a chance on a

strange one, if I mean to keep these human clods on their

toes.

When he reached the mine, Lodston headed

immediately for the chest. He had already used all of the

"fun" and "attack" spells and was ready to risk reading one

or two incantations in his "unknown" category in order to

strengthen his image in Digfel as a dangerous sorcerer. The

hermit unrolled the first scroll he found with four black

marks and began to read it.

 

HAPGAMMITON'S MODE OF INTERPLANAR GATING

 

TO SUMMON OTHER INTELLIGENCES RESIDING

ON OTHER PLANES OF EXISTENCE, IT IS

ESSENTIAL FOR THE CASTER TO PREPARE

HIMSELF FOR FIVE CONSECUTIVE NIGHTS PRIOR

TO UTTERING THE INCANTATION. FAILURE TO

PURIFY HIMSELF BEFOREHAND WILL RENDER

THE INCANTATION EITHER POWERLESS OR

UNPREDICTABLE.

Bah! I already knew it was unpredictable! Lodston

thought. The worst that can come of it is that it'll fail. In

that case, I can just pick another one. Undaunted, the

amateur wizard skipped the rest of the page and began

reading the ancient words at the bottom of the parchment.

His pronunciation and understanding of the forgotten

elvish dialect had grown more accurate with each reading

of Dalamar's scroll's. This time, his dwarven accents had

dwindled to a mere trace, as had much of his original

personality before it was dominated by the dark elf's spells

and robe. Lodston intoned the ancient words perfectly,

letting the scroll's dweomer fuse with the vestiges of

Dalamar's power within his mind and body.

 

MARGASH JORAS NOLLEN

GRATH GRISSIT DORSI, GRISSIT

BLUDE;

ITEL FOMA DRILID SHUDE;

MARGASH NEPPS U HALLEM GRATH!

 

OBEY THESE WORDS OF POWER

WATCHERS OF THE THRESHOLD, WATCHERS AT

THE GATE,

UNBAR THE GUARDED DOOR;

OBEY THE COMMAND OF THIS SERVANT OF

POWER!

 

Beneath the dwarf's feet, the firm rock floor seemed to

quiver as he spoke the final spellwords. Lodston's untrained

concentration shattered completely when a thin stream of

opaque light seemed to slice through both floor and ceiling

of his sturdy artificial cave. The frightened hermit collapsed

in a babbling heap on the floor, shielding his face from the

intensifying light.

Suddenly the beam began to split, as if a doorway were

opening onto a new yet darker dimension. Peering through

his trembling fingers, Lodston saw moving forms just

inside the opening, monstrous forms with scaly appendages

and tentacles writhing and lurching toward the threshold

produced by Dalamar's scroll.

The dwarf began to moan and crawled toward the door.

Just as he was reaching for the bar, the stout wooden

timbers exploded from some terrible force on the outside.

The blast drove scores of thick splinters into the dwarf's

head and chest and dashed him against the far wall with

such force that he crumpled to the floor in a daze. The

Glasses of True Seeing fell from his face into his lap,

adding natural blindness to the old hermit's stupor. He

could still see the gaping doorway because of the sunlight

outside the entrance. He could also see a bulky figure clad

and cowled in rough wool framed by the shattered sill.

"Idiot! What have you done?"

Dalamar's distinctive accent boomed in the small

chamber.

"Dalamar!" the hermit tried to cry. "Help . . ."

"Quiet, you ignorant fool! I must try to undo what you've

done before the gate widens!"

Blood from several gashes in his head blinded the dwarf

even more. He was growing weaker and was clutching

desperately to consciousness. Through the haze, he could

barely see Dalamar marking the floor with a bit of chalk.

Tentacled paws and stranger appendages were probing the

air above the dark elf's head while he began chanting a

singsong phrase over and over again from within the

sanctuary of the hastily drawn pentagram.

For a moment it seemed that the horde of unearthly

creatures Lodston had freed would swarm into the chamber

and engulf the wizard. Yet he faced the monstrous beings

with unflinching, intense concentration until the "gate"

began to close. Then Dalamar raised both hands and his

voice, crying the same phrase as loudly as he could. The

final surge of energy was enough to dissipate the rest of the

ethereal light. Silence and semidarkness enveloped the

hermit's fading thoughts.

Dalamar glanced first at the dwarf and then at the crude

table that held the open chest with his spellbooks and the

remaining scrolls. The dark elf began removing the magical

writings from the chest, examining each one for signs of

damage.

"H ... H ... Help me, D ... D ... Dalamar," Lodston pleaded

weakly. He crawled forward, trailing blood from his many

wounds, until he could grasp the elf's ankle in his gnarled

hand. "I n ... n ... need some w ... w ... water."

Dalamar pulled his leg firmly away from the hermit's

clutching fingers.

"You'll need nothing in a moment or two, old dwarf," he

told the hermit. "You will have peace, but you will have

paid dearly for your disobedience. Already the dweomer of

your bumbling incantations has spread northward to

Qualinesti, if not farther. This quiet village will be drawn

into the Dark Queen's war, thanks to you and your

meddling. But you will have peace."

Dalamar watched in grim silence while Lodston's

grasping fingers relaxed on the floor at his feet. Then he

threw the hermit's crude cloak to one side and stooped to

retrieve his black robe from the dwarf's body.

 

Milo Martin could see that something was very wrong

the moment he arrived at the riverside trail leading to

Lodston's gold mine. He left the sacks of provisions on the

trail and picked his way stealthily among the bushes until

he could see the darkened entrance.

Fragments of the heavy door were hanging from its sill by

only one hinge. Some terrible force had blasted the thick

portal inward, shattering it as if it had been an eggshell. The

nervous storekeeper crept closer to examine the ground for

tracks. The sandy soil was riddled with hundreds of

footprints, tracks of boots with low heels, the kind

commonly worn by elves. He also noted pawprints of large

dogs, possibly bloodhounds used to track criminals.

Satisfied that none of Lodston's visitors were still in the

vicinity of the mine, Martin crossed warily to the gaping

doorway. Then he called in a low, halting voice, as though

he dreaded either an answer or no answer at all.

"Nugold! Nugold Lodston! It's Milo Martin, with your

goods!"

Somehow the silence seemed more ominous than a reply

might have to the cautious shopkeeper. He entered the

murky chamber, stepping over the debris from what had

been the door. The chamber had been ransacked, and the

stench of rotten flesh nearly sickened him. Packages of

food from his own store were broken and scattered

everywhere. A fine layer of flour had settled throughout the

antechamber, lending an eerie white cast to everything in

the room.

Martin lit a lamp he found on a small table. Its light

shone through the haze of flour which he had disturbed

when he entered. At the rear of the room, he saw another

shattered door leading into a pitch-black tunnel. Whatever

force had blasted the heavy timbers of those doors was

more than a mere battering ram. In fact, the inner door

appeared to have been blown completely off its hinges.

The merchant was just starting toward the tunnel when

his feet stumbled over something soft beside the table. He

held the lamp closer and realized that it was the old dwarf's

tattered woolen cloak. It was draped over something much

firmer, something which was the obvious source of the

stench in the small chamber. Martin lifted a corner of the

filthy rag just enough to verify what he suspected. The old

hermit's rotting body was lying inside some kind of

mystical diagram with its bloated face staring vacantly at

the ceiling. The head and chest were riddled with sharp

splinters from the outer door, and the back of the scalp was

badly gashed and bruised.

"What did they do to you, old friend? Where's your fine

sorcerer's robe now?" Martin mumbled sourly, a few tears

moistening his blue eyes. Despite Lodston's crankiness, the

merchant knew that he'd miss the dwarfs trips to Digfel.

"You were playing with fire when you let that elven wizard

teach you magic!" he scolded the silent corpse.

Martin shook his head and turned away from Lodston's

body. Being a practical man, he found an empty flour sack

and began to rummage through the rubble, looking for

anything of value which he might resell in his store. He

found a metal cup and spoon in a scorched comer, as well

as several half-finished golden figurines and a bit of cheap

tobacco he could soak in wine to disguise its harshness. In

the lamplight, he could see footprints where the searchers

from Qualinesti had tracked flour into the mine. Just inside

the mine passage, he could see a sturdy little chest lying

empty on its side.

Whatever might have been in that box, magic or

otherwise, belongs to the dark elf or his friends now, Martin

thought grimly. Just as he was leaving, he noticed the light

from the doorway glinting on something under the table,

something made of metal and glass.

"Aha! The famous healing spectacles, I'll wager," Martin

muttered. He wiped them free of flour and gore from the

bloody floor, then balanced them on his nose. The thick

lenses distorted his vision so badly that his head began to

hurt almost instantly.

Humph! I don't know anybody in Digfel with eyesight

bad enough for these glasses. What a waste of good

workmanship! he thought. Still, some traveler might have a

need for them. Martin frowned and removed the glasses,

sticking them impulsively into one of his trouser pockets.

Then he turned toward the failing sunlight outside

Lodston's shattered door.

 

The Storyteller

By Barbara Siegel & Scott Siegel

 

Spinner Kenro, you're under arrest!" announced the

dragonarmy officer, the point of his blade at my throat.

I swallowed hard, hoping my bobbing adam's apple

wouldn't be sliced by the edge of his sword. Struggling to

keep my voice from quivering, I said, "I haven't broken any

laws. On what charge are you arresting me?"

The officer, a human, his face a mottled mass of burn

scars surrounding dead, gray eyes, growled, "You were

warned, Kenro, to stop telling your stories. The Highlord

doesn't give second chances."

I was standing near the fireplace in the main room of the

Paw's Mark Inn. I had just finished telling one of my tales

to the assembled audience. How strange it was to see them

all in one place; the kender, with their comically bright-

colored clothes, stood out like stars in a dark sky against the

somber gray beards of the fastidious dwarves and the earthy

brown skin of the ever-so diligent gnomes.

The dragonarmy officer seemed to pay them no mind. I

suppose he had little fear because his fellow soldiers had

entered the inn just behind him and had stationed

themselves at every exit.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw the kender, Quinby

Cull, strut forward. His face had turned red, and his cheeks

were puffed out. Though Quinby was unarmed and half the

size of the dragonarmy officer, he seemed thoroughly

unafraid. I wish I could have said the same for myself.

"Spinner is our friend, and you've no right to arrest him!"

declared Quinby.

"There's room for you in the Highlord's prison, too,

kender," the dragonarmy officer said darkly.

Quinby seemed to mull that over before he innocently

asked, "How much room is there in the Highlord's prison? I

thought it was already full."

The officer pulled the edge of his sword away from my

throat and stepped forward to threaten Quinby.

I grabbed the officer's arm. "He doesn't mean anything

by it," I quickly said. "Leave him be."

Quinby had become a good friend since I arrived in

Flotsam just a few short weeks ago. I had been disheveled

and my spirit nearly broken until my long, meandering

journey from the outskirts of Solace ended in this dark,

forbidding city. I had traveled more than half a continent

searching for an audience for my stories. And here, at last, I

had found one. But more than that, I had found friendship. .

. .

"Please," I begged, hanging onto the soldier's arm.

The dragonarmy officer slowly lowered his sword.

"It's all right, Quinby," I said. "I'll go with this soldier

and get everything straightened out. I'm sure," I added with

more confidence than I felt, "that I'll be free by morning."

A dwarf named Vigre Arch suddenly stepped up beside

Quinby and said boldly, "I don't like this. You'd better stay

here with us, Spinner."

The dragonarmy officer's eyebrows raised in alarm.

Dwarves and kender in agreement? "The Highlord was

right," he muttered.

"Right about what?" I asked.

"That you're a dangerous man. Enough of this talk. Let's

go, Kenro, or I'll lop off your head right now. That'd put a

quick end to your storytelling, now, wouldn't it?" he

sneered.

Not having any choice, I started following the officer out

of the inn. Both Quinby and Vigre Arch were shouldered

aside, but there was a growing rumble among the crowd.

"Where are you taking Spinner?" one of the kender

cried.

"We want another story!" shouted a dwarf at the far side

of the room. "Let Spinner go!"

"Yeah! Let Spinner go," yelled a young gnome, taking

up the cry.

Soon everyone in the room - except, of course, the

dragonarmy soldiers - began to chant, "Let Spinner go! Let

Spinner go!"

The kender, dwarves, and gnomes who crammed the inn

had never joined together for anything - except to fight

among themselves - and that had made it easy for the

Highlord to rule. But the dragonarmy soldiers were seeing

something that opened their eyes to a new and startling

reality. The three races had united in my defense!

Frankly, it amazed me, too.

The angry crowd - they easily numbered more than two

hundred - began to surge forward.

"Tell them to stop!" ordered the officer.

I saw the dragonarmy soldiers raise their crossbows.

This was madness.

"Listen," I said to the officer, "let me tell them a story. It

will calm them down."

The soldier looked at the ugly mob and his nervous

troops. He shrugged and then reluctantly said, "Make it a

short one."

I held up my hands for quiet.

Everyone quickly settled down into an expectant

silence. I was relieved. And so was the officer.

"I have to go with these men, but first let me tell you a

simple tale to end this rather remarkable afternoon." I

pointedly glanced at the officer who still had not sheathed

his sword. He glared back at me.

I took a deep breath and began, "This is a story as old as

time but as short as man's memory. It's a story of three

orphans growing up in a city not unlike Flotsam."

"It's a sad story," sighed Vigre Arch. "I love it when

Spinner makes me cry."

There was a sniffle in the audience as several dwarves

began to weep in anticipation of my tale.

"Yes, it's a sad story," I said, "but there is a lesson to be

learned in it. You see," I continued, "the orphans were

starving, and they fought each other over every scrap of

food they found. This was not a poor city, mind you, no.

This was a city rich with power, wealth, and finery. Only

not for our three little wretches. They were looked down

upon, spat upon, and abused by the city elders."

The dragonarmy officer eyed me closely. His knuckles

turned white on his sword handle.

I hurried on with my story.

"One day, the three orphans were at the edge of the city.

And it was there that they came upon a Great Red Clarion,

that fierce and magical bird that even some of the smaller

dragons fear. If they could catch the Clarion and hold its

magic in their hands, the orphans would never be laughed at

or go hungry ever again.

"The Clarion's wing was broken, and it couldn't fly

away. But its talons were sharp, and its beak made a

formidable weapon.

"Here, finally, was a chance for the three orphans to

make new lives for themselves, and all they had to do was

work together to capture the magical bird."

I swept my arm out in front of my body and pointed at

my audience. "But did they work together to capture the

Clarion's magic? No!" I declared. "So hungry, so desperate,

were these poor orphans that they didn't even think of

joining forces. Instead, they fought each other over the

Clarion. And while they fought, the city elders sneaked up

behind them and captured the bird - and its magic - for

themselves!"

"Oh, how could those orphans be so foolish and stupid!"

cried Quinby.

"It's a terrible shame!" declared Vigre, agreeing with the

kender. "The three orphans should have known better." The

dwarf saw Barsh wiping tears from his eyes. He gently

patted the leader of the gnomes on the shoulder.

The gnomes looked up to Barsh, not because he was the

tallest of them, but because he was the greatest, most

inspired of their inventors. Vigre, on the other hand,

thought of Barsh as a hopelessly confused creator of

useless, impossible machines. But at that moment, Vigre

and Barsh were of the same mind.

Barsh turned to look up at his new friend, Vigre, and

sobbed, "They should have designed a way to work

together. Then they could have taken all the power and

riches away from those cruel city elders!"

The dragonarmy officer who stood next to me hissed in

my ear, "You're a clever one, Kenro, but I'm not deceived. I

know what you're up to. End this story now, or I'll end your

life, instead."

A storyteller is nothing if his tales don't have the ring of

truth. And this story had but one true ending. . . .

"My friends," I said softly, making them all lean forward

and strain their ears to hear, "THE THREE ORPHANS ARE

HERE IN THIS ROOM."

The officer began to raise his sword.

At the same time, however, the kender began shouting,

"Where are they? I don't see them! Are they under the

tables?"

"You doorknobs!" roared the dwarves, glaring at the

kender in disgust. They knew what I was talking about. As

for the gnomes, they became instantly agitated, but they all

spoke so fast that no one could understand a single word

they were saying.

The officer laughed at all three races. "The fools," he

said. Then he prodded me with the tip of his sword. "Out

the door, Kenro," he commanded.

 

I had come from a small woodland village and had never

known the intoxicating effect of hearing a crowd chant my

name. But Jawbone Jekson had. Now there was a man who

could weave a tale. People would walk two days to reach

our village in order to hear him. Their return trip, however,

always seemed to go faster because their heads were filled

with his wondrous tales.

When I was a child, I traipsed after Jawbone wherever he

went. I learned his stories, his little vocal tricks, the way he

moved his body at the climax of a tale. He took me under

his wing and taught me still more. Jawbone was more than

a teacher, he was a father to me - a father who told bedtime

stories from morning till night. But I was never as good as

he was, and no one wanted to listen to me when Jawbone

Jekson could be called upon to tell his tales. Despite

everything I had learned, I was unneeded, unwanted,

useless.

It was clearly time for me to go off on my own, but I was

afraid to leave. What if no one listened?

Late one night, Jawbone walked with me along the Patch

River and - what else? - he told me a story. In his little tale I

became a hero, a myth, a storyteller whose name lasted

through the ages. As I listened, I could see myself standing

high on a hill, the sun shining down on me, as hundreds -

no, thousands - of people gathered below to hear my words.

Despite my terrible fears, I left my home and sailed into

the unknown on a wispy cloud of Jawbone's words. Such

was his story telling power.

I traveled across Krynn, telling my own tales in little

villages and towns with barely a tear being shed or a laugh

being loosed. I thought myself a dismal failure. But then I

came to Flotsam. There were no storytellers among the

kender, dwarves, and gnomes. When they heard me tell my

tales, it was as if the first dragon had taken wing. Their eyes

opened wide, and they listened and stared with awestruck

fascination.

Once, soon after arriving in Flotsam, I told a story in a

tannery to a small group of kender in exchange for a meal.

The tanner was crying by the end of my tale. One of his

friends took me home to feed me. As I ate, he told me that

the tanner's daughter had died during the last new moon.

The father did not cry at the funeral, yet he clearly loved his

little girl. "Why," he asked me, "could the tanner weep for

the people in my story and not for his daughter?"

I wanted to say that I was such a wonderful storyteller that

I could make a stone cry. But I didn't. I had no answer -

until now. I remember that Jawbone once said that stories

are the windows of life. They let everyone peek inside to

see that they are not alone in their suffering. It's that

knowledge that gives them hope when their world is bleak,

makes them laugh when they see their own folly, makes

them cry when tears are the only answer. Without that

window, he said, the greatest emotions are sometimes never

touched, never felt, and never shared.

Oh, how I wished Jawbone could have been there to see

the huge crowd in the Paw's Mark Inn chanting my name.

He would have been proud of me. I had opened a lot of

windows.

 

I was brought before the Dragon Highlord. She had long,

slender legs that were only partially hidden by her armor.

And there were tantalizing glimpses of flesh above her

breastplate. But it was her face, with blazing green eyes and

high cheekbones, that riveted me in place. She was the kind

of woman storytellers usually make the love interest of their

tales. Perhaps that's the difference between stories and

reality.

As I waited on my knees in front of her, the Highlord

whispered something to one of her generals. All I heard was

the name Tanis and an order to ready the dragons to attack

a ship that had just left the harbor. She obviously wasn't

planning on spending much time on my case.

"How do you plead?" she demanded, finally turning her

attention toward me.

"Plead?" I asked. "How can I plead when I don't know

the charge?"

Her full lips opened into a mirthless smile that revealed

sharp, white teeth.

"The charge," she said with surprising gentleness, "is

treason." Still smiling, she continued. "We need the kender,

dwarves, and gnomes working day and night if we are to

conquer Krynn. But now they shirk their jobs to come and

hear you prattle on about nonsense. Your silly stories have

turned them into hapless dreamers who stare into space and

ignore their work."

"Please," I began, answering her smile with one of my

own. "You must understand that telling stories is no crime.

The imagination is part of the soul. Without it, my

audience might as well be animals."

At that, the Highlord laughed. "Animals. Exactly. That's

what those races are. And that's what they shall remain.

Work animals. Now, how do you plead?"

I didn't know what to say. It is true I hated the tyranny

of the dragonarmy, but I had never regarded my story

telling as treason. "Not guilty," I said.

"In the interest of justice," announced the Highlord as

she rose to a standing position, "I have always given the

people of this court a chance to defend themselves." The

smile reappeared. "But I am the final judge of truth and

falsehood. And you, Spinner Kenro, are guilty as charged."

I began to rise from my knees to protest, but two

soldiers clamped their hands on my shoulders and held me

down.

"I sentence Spinner Kenro to death by hanging," she

proclaimed. "The sentence shall be carried out tomorrow

morning at dawn. Be sure that his fate is known throughout

the city. Our 'citizens' " - she sneered - "must learn what

happens to those who lose themselves in dreams."

 

While awaiting my execution, I was thrown into a cell

with a young half-elf named Davin. He was quiet and didn't

speak a word. But I did.

I told him my story.

While I was telling him who I was, what I was, and what

was to become of me, something miraculous was happening

out beyond the prison walls.

QUINBY CULL, THAT FEARLESS KENDER, BRAVELY

CROSSED OVER INTO THE DWARF SECTION OF THE

CITY AND SOUGHT OUT Vigre Arch.

"Did you hear about Spinner's sentence?" he demanded

of the dwarf. Before Vigre could answer, Quinby declared,

"We've got to help our friend. If he dies, there will be no

more stories."

Vigre Arch dug his boot heel into the hardpacked

ground before he finally said, "You know how I feel about

humans. They aren't worth the skin they're packed into.

You just can't trust them. But," he added, looking Quinby

straight in the eye, "Spinner is different. He isn't like the

other humans. And he certainly isn't like those dragonarmy

soldiers. I like him just as much as you do. Maybe more."

Quinby sniffed. "That's ridiculous," he said. "I like

Spinner more than you, and he likes me best of everyone."

"Does not," said the dwarf.

"Does so," countered the kender.

"Does not," said the dwarf.

"Does so," insisted the kender.

This debate might have gone on all night had not Barsh,

the gnome, suddenly arrived in a rush.

"Spinner is to be hanged at dawn!" declared the gnome.

Quinby and Vigre stopped their argument and soberly

nodded their heads. "We know," said Vigre.

"It's terrible," exclaimed Barsh. "If the Highlord kills

him, there will be no more beautiful females who bring the

dead back to life with a kiss, no more exciting chases

through walls of fire, and no more great heroes who fight

and die for freedom. How dull everything will be if he is

killed."

Vigre Arch looked at these two creatures, the kender and

the gnome, both of whom he and his people had never

much liked. But just then he felt a kinship with them that

stirred his heart. They had a common bond in their love of

Spinner Kenro. And maybe that was enough to help them

unite the way those three orphans in Spinner's story should

have done. Vigre smiled to himself. It struck him as a funny

coincidence that Spinner's story was so similar to their

present dilemma. But he shrugged it off. There were more

important matters at hand.

"What if we tried to rescue Spinner?" suggested the

dwarf.

"What?" asked Barsh, not quite believing his ears.

"He said, 'What if we tried to rescue Spinner?', "

repeated the kender helpfully.

"I heard him," said Barsh.

"Then why did you ask, 'What?'," questioned the

kender.

Vigre Arch sighed deeply. Sometimes there was just no

talking to kender.

"Never mind all that," piped up Barsh. "We've only got

until dawn before they hang Spinner. Between now and

then we have to find a way to break into the prison, free

him, and spirit him to safety before the Dragon Highlord

and her soldiers can stop us. Once he's free, we'll protect

him and hide him so he can always tell us his stories."

"The Highlord won't like it," said Vigre.

"Since when do you care what the Highlord thinks?"

asked Quinby.

The dwarf had to grin. "I never really have."

"Me neither," said Quinby.

"The same goes for me," added Barsh. "The Highlord is

no friend of mine. But Spinner is. And I say we save him

tonight!"

The three of them agreed that Spinner had to be saved.

They shook hands on it and went immediately to work on a

plan.

*****

It fell to Barsh and his gnomes to quickly create a device

that would help them scale the prison walls and open the

gate. It was up to Quinby to rally every kender in the city to

storm through the prison gates once they were open, then

hold them long enough so that Vigre and his dwarves could

race through the prison and return with Spinner Kenro

safely in tow.

Word of the impending attack on the prison swept

through the city. Every kender, dwarf, and gnome knew of

the plans, and they all readied themselves for the battle to

come.

The Highlord and her soldiers thought of these little

people as foolish and simple, so they suspected nothing.

But facing death was not foolish or simple. And everyone

who prepared for the coming battle knew that he might

never see the rising sun.

The life of Spinner Kenro, however, was worth the risk.

Yet it was more than Spinner's life that they were fighting

for. It was the spark of their souls, the light of their minds,

the richness of their imaginations that spurred them on that

memorable night. Somewhere inside each of them there

was an epic tale bursting to be told and they sensed it, knew

it, believed it, and were willing to die for it.

As the night wore on, hundreds of gnomes stumbled

through the dark, windswept streets of Flotsam carrying

heavy joints, long poles, and hundreds of tree branches still

sprouting their leaves. These were the basic elements of

their wall-scaling device which they carried past

dragonarmy patrols who merely shrugged their shoulders at

yet another gnome oddity.

Barsh's hastily conceived invention was quickly

assembled in a big, empty barn just beyond the rear prison

walls. Nearly a thousand gnomes had gathered there to put

the finishing touches on the wall-scaling device, and they

were anxious to put it to the test.

The invention, a huge, rectangular ladder, was as long as

the entire southern wall of the prison. Two hundred fifty

gnomes could climb it at one time. The tree branches

attached to the top of the ladder were meant to camouflage

the ladder as they approached the enemy fortress.

Just before dawn, the kender began arriving at the Paw's

Mark Inn. At first they filled the main room. Then their

numbers swelled into the garden in the back. Luckily, the

garden was surrounded by trees and bushes that kept the

small army of kender hidden from the dragonarmy soldiers

who watched the streets.

Quinby Cull had given his fellow kender strict

instructions to remain perfectly quiet. They knew that to do

otherwise might mean death and the failure of their

mission. And failure meant the end of Spinner Kenro.

Nonetheless, Quinby heard little shouts of surprise,

followed by titters and giggles, as his fellow kender

constantly poked each other with their hoopaks, swords,

and lances, curious to see if the weapons were in good

working order.

Not far from the Paw's Mark Inn, in a hidden ravine dug

deep into a hillside near the prison, Vigre Arch complained

bitterly about the cold wind - and that wasn't all he grumped

about. "How come we're out here?" he mumbled angrily.

"Barsh and his gnomes are warm inside that barn, and

Quinby and his kender are drinking and having a fine old

time in the Paw's Mark Inn. It isn't fair! Maybe," he

muttered, "we ought to just go home and get some sleep

and forget this nonsense."

But Vigre didn't utter any such orders. He was proud of his

people that night. And he was proud of himself. If their plan

to free Spinner Kenro failed, Vigre vowed that it wasn't

going to be because the dwarves didn't do their part.

It seemed, somehow, that the stars were moving more

swiftly across the sky than usual. It was nearly time.

The gnomes were to lead the attack. But because the

original idea had been Quinby Cull's, the kender was given

the honor of giving the signal to start the battle. . . .

 

Quinby looked out the window of the Paw's Mark Inn. It

had stormed all night, but the sky was beginning to lighten.

It was now or never. He looked at his fellow kender and

smiled with satisfaction. If he had been a painter he would

have drawn the scene inside the inn so that he'd never

forget it. Perhaps Spinner, when he was a free man, would

tell a story about this glorious adventure. It occurred to

Quinby that Spinner might even make him a hero in the

tale. Wouldn't that be something? he thought. But then

Quinby laughed at himself. How could a kender be a hero?

he scoffed, shaking his head. Such things never happened.

Yet, in his imagination, stoked by the stories that Spinner

had told, Quinby Cull held on to the dream.

With those thoughts circling in his mind, the kender

opened the door of the inn. He took a horn made of bone

from his waistband and lifted it to his lips.

 

The shrill, piercing sound of Quinby's horn echoed

throughout the silent city. Vigre heard it. Barsh heard it.

And so did the dragonarmy guards who stood atop the

prison walls.

The Highlord's soldiers rubbed the sleep from their

eyes, wondering what that strange sound might mean.

It didn't take them long to find out.

Suddenly, they heard shouts and cries coming out of the

darkness. Then, illuminated by the torch light from the

parapets, one guard saw the forest moving first one way,

then another, and yet in a third direction.

"What magic is this?" cried the guard, staring at the

gyrating woods.

Suddenly, a gnome popped his head through the front of

the forest and shouted, "It's this way, you idiots!"

"We can't see!" a chorus of voices answered.

An entire squad of gnomes came forward and began

chopping the branches off the wall-scaling device in full

view of the startled dragonarmy guard. But even then, the

Highlord's soldier had no idea what the gnomes were doing.

At least not until the shrubbery was fully hacked away and

the gnomes charged with their massive ladder.

When they leaned it against the prison wall, though, the

top of the ladder soared far beyond the top of the

battlements.

"It's the wrong way!" cried Barsh, exasperated. "Turn it

down on its side!"

By this time, of course, the dragonarmy guard had

yelled for help. As the correct side of the ladder finally

settled down across the battlement, the Highlord's soldiers

rushed to the rear of the prison. But the wall-scaling device

was so heavy with gnomes climbing upon it that the enemy

couldn't push the ladder away from the wall. And soon the

gnomes were climbing over the parapets!

The first gnome to stand on the prison wall was Barsh

himself. A tall dragonarmy guard swung a heavy

broadsword at Barsh's head. The gnome ducked under the

blade and dove at the feet of the soldier. As the guard

prepared to swing his sword down on Barsh's back, the

gnome pulled the soldier's legs together while another

gnome whacked the enemy in the belly with a stick. The

soldier lost his balance, falling off the battlement and

landing with a heavy thud on the prison grounds below.

Barsh couldn't believe that he was still alive.

And not only was Barsh alive, but his fellow gnomes

were swarming onto the parapet, overwhelming the small

number of dragonarmy soldiers who had been on watch.

"To the gate!" cried Barsh, leading his people along the

battlement to the front of the prison.

Even as they worked their way toward the gate, prison

guards were racing out of their barracks to fight the

intruders. If the gnomes couldn't get the gates opened

quickly, they'd be destroyed by the powerful dragonarmy

soldiers. It was only with the help of the kender as

reinforcements that they had a chance of holding out

against the fierce soldiers of the Dragon Highlord.

The kender, with Quinby Cull urging them on, had

already begun their charge. The Paw's Mark Inn was just a

short distance from the prison, and now the kender were

racing like an angry wind toward the gate.

Quinby could see the battle unfolding up on the parapet.

The gnomes were fighting furiously to reach the gate's

pulley system. Quinby knew that if they failed, he and his

kender army would be racing toward death.

He saw gnomes dying. A dragonarmy soldier pierced

one of them in the chest with his sword. Another gnome

was thrown over the wall. And still another had his head

split open with an ax. But the gnomes fought on, gallantly

pushing the prison guards away from the gate. Until . . .

"It's opening!" cried Quinby just as he and his army of

kender were about to give up hope. Without having to

break their stride, they surged under the rising metal gate

and plowed right into a phalanx of dragon-army soldiers!

"Are we supposed to fight KENDER?!" demanded one

of the enemy with contempt in his voice.

Quinby heard the soldier and, filled with fury, he

shouted in return, "On this day you will not only fight

kender, you will die at our hands!" The soldier thrust his

sword's point toward Quinby's throat. But the kender

nimbly parried, then lunged forward and stabbed the

enemy clean through the heart.

Scores of kender and gnomes witnessed Quinby's bold

declaration and even bolder swordplay. A great cheer went

up when the dragonarmy soldier fell. For, in that moment,

Quinby Cull had done more than simply kill one enemy.

He had shown that the kender were a force to be reckoned

with. He had given dignity back to his race. And he had

shown that a kender could be a hero!

On the heels of Quinby's dramatic battle, the kender

drove the better-armed and better-trained dragon-army

force away from the gate as they fought for control of the

prison grounds.

But the Highlord's soldiers quickly formed a new battle

line. Their bowman sent one withering volley after another

into the kender ranks. In their fearless-ness, the kender

didn't let the arrows stop them. Even with bloody shafts

sticking in their stomachs, shoulders, and legs - many of

them dying on their feet - the kender troops charged

headlong into the dragonarmy lines. They swung crude

swords and knives at the soldiers until their enemy was

finally routed.

It was then that a shockingly small number of dwarves

led by Vigre Arch came streaming through the open gate.

"Where are the rest of your people?" demanded Barsh.

"You promised you would have an army of dwarves,"

echoed Quinby. "There are barely a hundred of you here.

What's going on?"

Vigre took a deep breath and told them the bad news.

"Dragonarmy soldiers are coming this way," he reported.

"We saw them from the top of the ravine. There must be at

least two thousand of them marching through the city. We'd

all be trapped in the prison if they got here before Spinner

was freed. So I ordered most of our people to meet the

dragonarmy soldiers in the street and fight them there. It

was the only way to stall for time."

Barsh and Quinby turned pale. A ragtag group of

dwarves didn't have a chance against two thousand crack

dragonarmy troops. Vigre's people were going to be

slaughtered. They must have known their fate, yet they

were willing to sacrifice their lives for stories they would

never hear. Truly, thought Quinby, this was the stuff of

legend. He put his hand on Vigre's shoulder and said, "If I

were a dwarf, I'd be proud on this day. Then again," he

added, considering, "I'm not a dwarf."

Vigre looked at the kender trying to decide what Quinby

meant.

"No matter what happens," Quinby went on, oblivious to

Vigre's questioning stare, "your people belong in Spinner's

stories. Not all of his stories," he hastily added. "Just one of

them."

Vigre gave up trying to figure out the kender's intentions

and simply said, "Spinner could make a fine, though tragic,

tale of the battle in the city. So let's make sure that he lives

to tell it. I'll take what's left of our force and fight our way

through the prison till we find our storyteller."

"But there aren't enough of you," Quinby declared.

"You're going to need help. I'll take some kender and go

with you."

"And I'll come, too," volunteered Barsh. "I'll bring a

small troop of gnomes along."

Vigre couldn't refuse. He knew they were right. There

was no telling how many of the Dragon Highlord's soldiers

were waiting for them inside the prison's labyrinth of cells.

"Come on," he said. "Spinner must be wondering what

all the noise is about."

 

I was, indeed, wondering what all the noise was about.

The night had nearly passed, and I waited for the dawning,

resigned to my fate. My cellmate, Davin, had listened to me

throughout the night, offering not a word of his own.

Then I heard shouts and screams filtering down to the

depths of the filthy dungeon where I had been left to

languish until my death.

"What's going on?" I called out to a dragonarmy guard

who raced past the cell.

He ignored me.

"What do you think is happening?" I asked Davin. He

shook his head.

The noise grew louder. It sounded like battle. There was

the clash of steel on steel. There were howls of pain, boots

running on stone, and shouts of ... MY NAME!

"Here!" I cried. "I'm here! This way!"

I couldn't believe my own senses. But yes, it was the

voice of Quinby Cull calling out to me! Then I heard Vigre

Arch. My mind was reeling when even that clever gnome,

Barsh, made his presence known.

"It's impossible!" I exclaimed. And then I turned to Davin.

"Do you hear them, or have I gone mad? Are my friends

really here to save me?"

My cellmate was about to answer, but then, instead, he

shouted, "Look out!"

Too late. A prison guard had suddenly appeared at my

cell and grabbed me through the bars. "I'll see you dead

before they free you," he vowed. And then he lifted his

dagger and plunged it toward my chest.

Davin was faster than I was. He lunged forward and

grabbed the guard's wrist just before the knife could strike

me. He twisted the man's arm against the iron bars until

there was an audible crack. The guard screamed as the knife

clattered to the floor. He ran in terror as Quinby, Vigre, and

Barsh led a legion of their people toward my cell.

"Keys!" crowed Barsh, dangling them happily in the air.

"We took them from an officer at the landing,"

explained Vigre. "You're going to be free."

"We're glad to see you," said Quinby, standing back

from the door with tears of joy in his eyes.

"YOU'RE glad to see me?" I cried in disbelief. "To be

sure, it's the other way around!"

The cell door flew open.

"Come with us," said Quinby. "We came to save you.

Now you and your stories can live forever!"

 

Spinner Kenro ended the long tale about himself with a

flourish, his voice rising in a dramatic crescendo. His

timing was impeccable. No sooner had he finished than a

prison guard unlocked the cell door. "It's dawn," said the

Highlord's emissary. Spinner took a deep breath and rose to

his feet. "Sometimes," he said softly, "I half believe my

own stories. There was a part of me that really thought my

friends would come and save me. Do you think I'm foolish,

Davin?"

I couldn't answer. I was crying.

Spinner had not slept. He had sat up against a wall,

weaving his final story during the last hours of his life. And

I was his only audience.

They hanged Spinner Kenro at daybreak.

 

Spinner died a great many years ago, but his memory

lives on. For that night in the prison he opened the window

of my soul. And though his voice was stilled, his gift was

somehow passed to me. I've told many stories throughout

the years as I've traveled across Krynn. But I never fail to

tell this, the one, great, final story exactly as Spinner told it

to me that night in the prison.

Oh, I know what really happened. Quinby, Vigre, and

Barsh did try to save Spinner. But once they made their

plans, Quinby forgot all about them - he was true to his

kender soul; out of sight, out of mind. Vigre, ever

distrustful of humans, had second thoughts about the entire

enterprise. Meanwhile, Barsh and his gnomes did set about

creating a huge wall-scaling device. The problem was that

it was so big that they couldn't get it out of the building in

which they had constructed it. It's still there to this day.

Now, you might say that the truth doesn't make a good

tale. But that's not the point. There is a higher truth than the

facts. And that truth reveals itself every time I tell Spinner's

story. For as the years went by, the kender, dwarves, and

gnomes of Flotsam grew to BELIEVE that they had saved

Spinner. They have convinced themselves that on one cold,

windswept night they joined together to make history, to

reach greatness, to become heroes. And if they did it once,

might they not do it again?

 

A Shaggy Dog's Tail

 

by Danny Peary

poem by Suzanne Rafer

 

Word spread like wildfire that Tasslehoff Burrfoot was in

Spritzbriar. "I'm just passing through," he told the villagers

as they rushed home to lock up their valuables. "But if

anyone wants to hear some stories, I might just hang around

a bit." Of course, everyone knew that as long as anyone

would listen to the kender's improbable tales, he wasn't

going anywhere. That's what worried the men and women

of Spritzbriar. They knew that while they were

safeguarding those belongings they feared might wind up in

the kender's pouches, their children would slip out doors

and wriggle out windows in order to see the illustrious

visitor.

As the boys and girls raced across the grassy field toward

Prine Lake at the edge of the forest, they looked nervously

over their shoulders, hoping their absences wouldn't be

discovered until AFTER Tas had spun a few yams. Most

had promised their parents to never again listen to his

stories after even the bravest had had nightmares in the

wake of his last visit. But they'd grown tired of those cheery

tales told by their mothers and grandmothers. Because

kender weren't frightened of anything, Tas thought nothing

of telling the children about bloody battles in war-torn areas

of Krynn, vicious dragons, hobgoblins, or black-robed

magic-users. The children found such stories well worth

risking a night without supper.

The children who gathered at Prine Lake sat on the

ground and formed a tight circle around Tas, with the oldest

by his small, wriggling feet. Tas sat proudly under a

mammoth vallenwood, propped like a king on a wooden

stool so everyone could see him. He stroked his hoopak

staff and grinned broadly, delighted his audience was so

large. If only Flint could see him now.

While everyone waited impatiently, Tas took a

meticulously carved flute from an elegant, woven-rope,

yellow pouch that was strapped around his neck. As he

brought it toward his lips, a young boy named Jespato

intercepted his hand.

"My, that looks like my father's flute!" the boy

exclaimed without suspicion.

"Your father's flute?" asked Tas innocently.

"It's been missing since the last time you were in

Spritzbriar!"

The kender's childlike face flushed red. He examined

the instrument. "Great Uncle Trapspringer! It IS your

father's flute! Good eye, boy! Now I remember: I took it for

safekeeping. It was sticking out of his pouch, where any

thief might have snatched it."

"His pouch disappeared at the same time as the flute,"

said the boy. "It was YELLOW, just like the one you've got

around your neck!"

Tas grinned sheepishly. "Of course, THIS pouch is older

and more worn than the one your father carried," he said,

failing to remind Jespato that it had been some time since

he'd been to Spritzbriar. "But please give MY pouch to him

to replace his missing one." Tas pulled the strap over his

head and handed the pouch and the flute to the young boy.

He forced a big smile.

Jespato looked at Tas with great respect. "My father will

surely change his opinion of you when I give him your

present. Imagine: he said you're the type who'd snatch

candy-bubbles from children!"

The kender's face turned even redder. "I was just

borrowing them," he replied with deep embarrassment as he

reached into a red pouch and retrieved a dozen multi-

colored candy-bubbles. The children around him checked

their pockets and were startled to discover they were empty.

Tas sadly returned the tasty treats, saying weakly, "I didn't

want anyone to have his appetite spoiled."

Tas would have enjoyed playing that nifty flute, but he

was cheered by the children's willingness to share their

candy-bubbles with him and by the sight of eager faces

around him, anticipating his story.

"Are you going to tell another whopper?" asked a

young, curly-haired boy who sat to his left.

"I ... I never tell whoppers!" Tas insisted, a bit indignant.

Everyone groaned. They knew better.

A little freckle-faced girl stood up and asked politely,

"What will your first story be about, sir?"

There was a definite trace of mischievousness in the

kender's big brown eyes. "Revenge!" he barked with such

force that the startled little girl plopped over backward.

Everyone else slid forward.

 

*****

"Revenge! I want revenge!" Gorath's threatening words

resounded through the little shack, causing all the pots and

pans to rattle and the rickety furniture to creak. His angry,

blood-shot eyes doubled in size, and the veins on his temple

were ready to burst. "Revenge, I want . . ."

This time his words were stifled by a large wooden

spoon that was being forced into his gaping mouth. The

spoon carried an ugly mound of undercooked slug stew. A

stream of steaming, foul-smelling gravy dribbled down his

chin and drenched his long black beard. Gorath groaned.

"Oh, so sorry, darling," said Zorna. Using her long, bony

fingers, she managed to push most of the gravy back into

Gorath's mouth. The huge man nearly gagged. "There,

there," said the tiny old woman, her teeth clicking with

every word. "You don't want to lose a drop, do you,

darling?" Her shrill, scratchy voice was irritating, but there

was no mistaking it was full of love. She wiped her

shriveled hands on her shabby black robe. "After what

you've suffered, darling, a meal is just what you need."

"Stop calling me DARLING, you old hag!" growled

Gorath, spitting stew across the room. "You don't even

know me!"

"But I do love you!" Zorna protested softly, her feelings

hurt. "And I'll cook, and clean, and care for you for the rest

of your life." She brushed away a tear, wiped her dripping

nose, and smiled lovingly. "We'll have such a happy time

together."

This thought horrified Gorath. He tried to rise, but he

couldn't budge. All he could move was his head. That's why

he could offer no resistance when Zoma again stuffed slug

stew into his mouth.

Gorath couldn't believe his terrible luck. He had been the

most decorated and feared human officer in the

dragonarmy. In the war campaigns against the Que-shu, no

one had razed more villages, slaughtered more enemies, or

enslaved more women and children than the mighty

Gorath! For amusement, he had broken men's backs with

his bare hands and held beautiful women prisoner in his

tent, forcing them to do his bidding. But now he suddenly

found himself paralyzed from the neck down and the

prisoner of an old lady who kept him strapped to a chair in

her gloomy, windowless shack in the Forest of Wayreth.

What an indignity!

He thought back to when his bad fortune began.

 

Was it yesterday morning or early afternoon when he

awoke from a drunken stupor to find that Meadow had fled

his tent? He was so stunned by her brazen act that at first all

he could do was scream, "Revenge! I want revenge!"

No wonder her escape troubled him so much. With her

long, flowing black hair, alluring green eyes, slim figure,

and delicate features, Meadow was the loveliest female he

had ever abducted during a raid of the Que-shu tribe.

Moreover, she had already lived longer than any of the

previous women he'd captured, although he had worked her

endlessly and beat her mercilessly.

In Gorath's twisted mind, Meadow had actually

BETRAYED him by running away and deserved to be

punished severely. Gorath never forgave anyone for what

he believed was a wrong action against him. In the past, he

had sworn revenge on dragonarmy soldiers he suspected of

talking mutiny behind his back, friends he suspected of

trying to steal his women, and even his brothers, who he

suspected of plotting his death so that they could confiscate

his goods. Now all those men lay in their graves. At last,

Gorath's lone companion had been this woman he held

captive. How dare Meadow desert him and leave him

completely alone!

Pulling in his huge belly, his head pounding, Gorath

knelt to examine the heavy chain that had kept Meadow

attached to an iron post even when she slept. It had been

severed by a sharp weapon, probably a sword. Meadow had

an accomplice, another person who had betrayed him!

Gorath reasoned that the trespasser had been Starglow,

the tribesman for whom Meadow had pined during her

torturous term of captivity. The barbarian smiled slyly. It

would give him great pleasure to kill Starglow while

Meadow looked on. He sheathed his sword. "Revenge! I

want revenge!" he thundered as he stormed from the tent.

The lovers' trail led north toward Solace. It was easy to

follow because they were traveling on foot and were too

hurried to attempt deception. Without stopping to rest or

water his horse, Gorath rode at full gallop over rocky roads,

treacherous mountain paths, and overgrown trails where

sharp spines ripped into his steed's flesh. The poor beast

finally collapsed under Gorath's great weight, unable to

endure the punishing journey or its master's whip any

longer. Gorath cursed and reviled the animal, but rather

than putting it out of its misery, he left it to die in the

wilderness.

He proceeded on foot, feeling meaner with every step.

He thought how much he'd enjoy strangling Starglow with

his mighty hands or piercing his enemy's heart with his

sword while Meadow screamed helplessly. Maybe he

would stab her as well, or make her drop to her knees and

beg him to allow her to be his slave again. How he would

make her suffer! Gorath shouted: "Revenge! I want

revenge!"

As the sun sank low in the west, Gorath discovered that

Meadow and Starglow had veered east, thereby avoiding

Solace and well-traveled roads on their way back to their

own village. Gorath followed blindly although he had to

travel over unfamiliar terrain. He wasn't one to worry about

the possible consequences of acting so impulsively,

especially with thoughts of revenge dancing on his dizzy

brain.

Soon the mighty warrior stood facing the Forest of

Wayreth.

Gorath had heard eerie legends throughout Krynn about

Wayreth and how it often played tricks with the minds of

those who dared pass through. "They think I'll be too

frightened to follow," said Gorath, attempting to laugh.

"But Gorath is scared of nothing!" Nevertheless, before

taking another step, he peered through the trees on the

perimeter of the strange forest. He was relieved that it

seemed peaceful inside, even inviting.

Suddenly a dozen dark-colored birds floated down from

the nearest tree and circled above him. They taunted him in

song:

 

IS THIS THE MIGHTY GORATH, HOVERING LIKE

A CHILD AT WAYRETH'S EDGE, AFRAID TO

MOVE BELITTLED, BEWITCHED, BEGUILED?

 

YOU HAVE KILLED WITH BRUTISH STRENGTH

AND NARY

ONCE DID GRIEVE YET

YOUR MIND IS NOT SO

STRONG THUS EASY TO

DECEIVE.

 

SO, DARE YOU ENTER WAYRETH, KNOWING NOT

WHICH

PATHS TO TREAD

AND SEEK REVENGE YOU THINK IS

SWEET? . . . BETTER TURN AROUND

INSTEAD!

The warrior nervously yanked his sword from his scabbard

and thrust it wildly into the air. "Get away, you silly birds!"

he demanded, his voice shaky. "Don't you know that Gorath

is scared of nothing?"

Gorath thought it very strange that the birds seemed to

disappear into thin air. He was tempted to turn around and

try to find his way home, but he reminded himself why he

had come this far: "Revenge! I want revenge!" Forgetting

about the birds, he stomped into the forest, angrily using his

sword to hack off branches that blocked his path. He turned

and looked behind him. He noticed that while it was bright

inside the forest, night had fallen outside. None the wiser,

he shrugged and marched forward, content that he could

clearly see the trail of Meadow and Starglow.

Deeper in the forest, the trail divided in two. Gorath

stopped and studied both paths. When he saw fresh tracks

on the one that angled to the left, he rubbed his sweaty

palms together and licked his lips. "It won't be long now,"

he said. He started to follow the path to the left. But

suddenly a strong gust of wind knocked him off balance

and pushed him toward the other path.

He tightened his fingers around his sword and looked

about suspiciously. All seemed calm. Was the forest

playing tricks with him?

Looking in all directions, Gorath stealthily moved

toward the path to the left. But he never made it. A second,

much stronger gust of wind came howling and twisting

toward him. It nearly lifted the big man off the ground.

Before Gorath knew what hit him, he was being blown at

great speed down the path to the right. Because his legs

were thick as tree trunks and rubbed together whenever he

moved, it was difficult for him to stay on his feet. But each

time he fell, the wind swept him up and forced him to

continue.

The wind ceased as quickly as it had begun, leaving

Gorath sprawled on the ground with his boots twisted

together. The dazed warrior spat dust and struggled to

catch his breath. Then he slowly rose and, still quite bleary-

eyed, looked around.

He was facing a small, crumbling black shack. It had no

windows, just a crooked black door. A walkway of broken

stones led from the path to the door. Tall weeds filled a

garden to the left, and strange, twisted vegetables grew on

the other side. Gorath thought the shack deserted until he

noticed that thick black smoke curled upward from a

crooked chimney on the dilapidated roof. Suddenly it blew

in Gorath's direction, carrying with it a ghastly aroma.

Gorath's stomach became queasy. He could have sworn

someone was cooking a stew consisting of spoiled meat

and rotten vegetables.

Gorath prided himself on his bravery, but his instincts

urged him to get away at once. Without understanding

why, Gorath walked briskly past the house and farther

down the path. But he didn't get very far. An angry gust of

wind grabbed him, spun him around, and hurled him

through the air toward the house, causing him to crash into

the door and bounce off with a loud thud.

Again, the wind quickly subsided. The large man

staggered to his feet, rubbing his bull neck and bruised left

arm. He was only a few feet from the door. He started to

back away, but it was too late. The door creaked open.

An old woman peeked out. Gorath had never seen anyone

uglier. She had a hatchet-face, with sharp bones pushing

through the skin, a needle-shaped nose, and tiny, pointed

ears. Her hair was white and wild, yet her thick eyebrows

were black. Her eyes were pale yellow, her thin lips were

colorless, and her complexion was as pale as a fish's belly.

It would have taken Gorath a lifetime to have counted the

deep wrinkles that lined her face.

The tiny woman looked the big man up and down. She

wiggled her nose as if she were smelling him. Her scowl

gave way to a smile. Her heart, which had so long ago

resigned itself to eternal loneliness, began to pound. Her

chest began to rise and fall. Her eyes looked at the stranger

hungrily. Women had always been repulsed by Gorath's

appearance, but he left this one breathless. At last she

spoke.

"You're so handsome, I must hold you," she said

brazenly. As the stunned Gorath backed up, she moved

toward him out of the shadows. That's when Gorath saw

how she was garbed.

"Ah, I ... I see you are a black-robed magic-user," he

said, somewhat relieved. "Then we are both servants of the

Queen of Darkness."

The old woman stopped in her tracks upon hearing

Gorath's remarks. "You are mistaken, my darling," she

replied humbly, her teeth chattering annoyingly. "I am just

Zorna, a poor and forgotten old woman. This robe was

discarded in the forest by a sorceress who was passing

through. I took it because I had nothing to wear."

"You don't know how to perform magic?" asked Gorath

skeptically.

"I swear I am no sorceress. But I have other talents,

darling. I can cook the finest slug stew you've tasted in your

life. Won't you be my guest?"

Gorath didn't know what to make of this weird woman. He

wanted to laugh at her invitation, run her through with his

sword, and ransack her shack for anything of value. But he

kept his distance, not fully convinced she wasn't a black-

robed magic-user. "I have no time to waste with you," he

told her coldly. "Now I must find the woman who betrayed

me and slay the scoundrel who stole her from me."

"Forget your woman!" Zorna shrieked. "She doesn't

love you. I love you. And I'll cook, and clean, and care for

you for the rest of your life . . . IF you will let me ...

darling."

"Enough, you batty crone," snapped Gorath,

remembering how he had tried without success to force

Meadow to say such words to him. "Only one thing

matters: Revenge! I want revenge!"

Before Zorna could protest, Gorath wheeled around and

walked down the path that brought him into her lonely life.

He felt her sad eyes upon him and heard her pitiful, blood-

curdling wail of anguish. He laughed.

Gorath returned to where the trail into the forest divided.

This time there were no mysterious gusts of wind to prevent

him from going in the direction he intended. So he followed

the left path, the one Meadow and Starglow had taken.

He walked quickly, anticipating the kill. Soon he came

to a large clearing. There he spotted Meadow and Starglow

standing by a fallen vallenwood, about twenty feet from a

deep ravine. The lovely young woman and handsome

tribesman were locked in an embrace.

Drawing his sword, Gorath charged from the bushes

toward the lovers. "Gorath!" Meadow screamed in terror.

"He's found us!"

Starglow eyed his sword, which was resting on the ground

near the far end of the fallen tree. He made a dash for it, but

wasn't quick enough. As the fingers of his right hand

touched the handle, Gorath's sword slashed his wrist,

causing blood to spurt and the young warrior to grimace in

pain. Meadow screamed and ran toward her stricken lover.

"Meadow!" Starglow shouted. "Stay back!"

Starglow's agony was great, but his desire to protect

Meadow was much greater. So he again reached for the

sword. Just as he lifted it, Gorath's heavy boot smashed into

his hand. The sword flew out of Starglow's weak grip and

landed by Meadow's feet. Without hesitating, she picked up

the weapon and ran to Starglow's side. Surprised, Gorath

backed up a few feet to contemplate the situation. He

certainly hadn't expected Meadow to put up any physical

resistance.

Starglow reached for the sword Meadow held. "No!" she

said firmly. "You're hurt." When he started to protest, she

calmly said: "I am a woman and your lover, Starglow. But

don't forget that I am also a warrior like you."

Starglow nodded and smiled slightly. He kissed her

trembling lips and placed a gentle hand on her shoulder.

Together they bravely waited for Gorath to approach them.

They were going to resist to the death even though they had

little chance to defeat the mighty Gorath.

"We're ready," said Meadow boldly. As she looked at

Gorath, revulsion showed clearly in her beautiful green

eyes. She had withstood his drunkenness and savage nature

long enough. She preferred to die here with her beloved

Starglow by her side rather than return to Gorath's cabin.

Never again would she be a slave to him, endure his

beatings, or have him clutch her in his filthy arms.

Gorath's eyes were sour and mean. He laughed cruelly.

"So you want to die together. How touching! I'll grant your

wish as long as you die first, Starglow, so Meadow can

watch the blood pour from your body. Revenge! I want

revenge!"

Gorath began to drool as he walked toward the lovers, who

pulled closer together. He lifted his sword higher and

higher. Meadow dug her feet into the soil and held the

sword in front of her, gripping it with both hands.

All at once Gorath noticed that an intruder sat between

him and his intended victims.

He stopped and tried to figure out where this large,

mangy dog had come from. There had been no dog in this

clearing just a moment before. And what a strange dog it

was. Gorath suspected it was a red-rover, but it was the

only red-rover he'd ever seen sporting a shaggy tail with a

snow-white tip.

The dog sat perfectly still, its tongue hanging out the

right side of its mouth.

"Call off your dog, Starglow," Gorath threatened, "or

I'll chop it into a million pieces!"

"But I have no dog," replied Starglow, puzzled.

"Wh . . . what dog?" asked Meadow, also bewildered.

"Very well, you had your chance!" Gorath shouted as

he attacked the animal. He swung his sword with all his

might at the dog's head, expecting to see it rolling in the

sand. But the dog easily dodged the blow. Now Gorath

aimed for the shaggy tail with the snow-white tip. Gorath's

sword whistled through the air repeatedly. The dog moved

from side to side, causing the brute to miss by a hair, a

shaggy hair, each time.

Gorath's frustration increased because he could sense

that the dog was actually enjoying itself, as if it were

unaware its life was in danger. It barked happily and

playfully nipped at Gorath's feet. When Gorath raised his

sword above his head, the dog jumped up, put its front

paws on his chest, and licked his face several times.

Gorath lost all patience. He shoved the dog away and

simultaneously swung the sword with all his might. He

missed badly. He also lost his balance. So when the big dog

jumped back up on his chest to continue their game, it

knocked Gorath back a few steps toward the ravine. Again

the dog jumped up. Again Gorath was knocked backward,

his curses shattering the quiet of the forest. This happened

several more times. Each time, the force of the dog's paws

increased, and Gorath was knocked farther back. Then

came the mightiest blow of all.

Suddenly, Gorath found himself somersaulting

backward through the air, falling helplessly into the deep,

deep ravine. Gorath expected to see his life flash before his

eyes, but for some reason he had a vision of Zoma's old,

ugly face instead. He screamed. Then everything went

black.

 

When Gorath opened his eyes, he was looking directly

into Zoma's face. Only this time it was no vision. It really

was Zorna. He screamed again.

She attempted to comfort him, wiping the sweat off his

feverish brow with her icy hand. "There, there, darling,"

she whispered into his ear. "I'll make you feel better."

Gorath realized he was strapped to a chair. But where

was he? He looked around. He was in Zoma's cold, musty

house. It was as inviting as a tomb. It was too dark to see

clearly, but he could make out some crooked furniture in

the shadows, some heavy pots hanging from cobweb-

infested walls, and a large bubbling kettle by the fireplace.

There was a horrible stench in the air, and Gorath

suspected Zorna was still preparing slug stew. "How did I

get here, old woman?" he snapped.

"I brought you from the ravine."

Gorath looked at the frail woman. "How could YOU

carry me all the way from the ravine?"

"I love you," she said simply.

"Then untie this strap before I lose my temper!"

"I've strapped you to the chair so you won't fall," she

said tenderly. "I'm sorry, my poor darling, but when you

landed in the ravine, you struck a boulder and snapped

your spine. You're paralyzed from the neck down." A look

of shock and anguish came over Gorath, terribly saddening

Zoma. "But please don't worry, darling. I'll cook, and

clean, and care for you for the rest of your life."

Upon hearing those words, Gorath could think of only

one thing: "Revenge! I want revenge!"

That's when Zorna began to feed Gorath slug stew.

By the time Zoma shoved the final spoonful into

Gorath's miserable mouth, he had figured out his only

chance for exacting the revenge he desperately desired.

He batted his eyes at Zorna and sighed happily. "That

was delicious!" he said.

Zorna nearly blushed. "I'm so happy you liked it,

darling."

"Could you make it for me again some time, dear?" he

asked hopefully.

Zorna nearly cried from happiness. "I make it EVERY

day, darling."

Gorath looked around the shack. "You know, dear, you

have a lovely home. I think I'll enjoy spending the rest of

my life here with you."

Zorna gushed. "We'll be so happy together!"

Gorath frowned. "But you wouldn't want to take care of

ME."

"Oh, darling, it would give me such pleasure!" Zorna

objected.

Gorath shook his head. "That's so sweet, dear. But I could

never be happy unless I could hold you in my arms . . . and

I can't do that because I'm paralyzed." He closed his eyes as

if he were trying to hold back a flood of tears.

Zorna was overwhelmed with pity. She kissed Gorath

on his fleshy cheek. She felt him tremble. "My darling,"

she said softly, her voice quivering. "I understand your

misery. I have lived alone, always. Eternity passed, and I

almost gave up hope of finding a man I could open my

heart to. Now that I have found you, it would be torture not

to be able to express my love."

Gorath opened one eye. "If only you could help me. . .

."

"Darling, maybe I can."

Gorath opened his other eye, his hopes rising. "Only

someone with magic powers could mend my severed spine.

But you have said you are not a black-robed sorceress."

"This is true, but many years ago a black-robed

sorceress traveled through the Forest of Wayreth and

rewarded my hospitality by granting me the power to

perform ONE feat of magic, only once."

Gorath immediately became worried. "Just ONE feat?

Only ONCE?" he asked nervously. "Have ... have you

performed it . . . y . . .yet?"

"I am a simple woman. I never had reason before."

Relieved, Gorath batted his eyes again. "Will you

perform it now . . . dear?" he asked, trying not to sound too

anxious.

"First you must promise me something."

"Anything, dear, I promise."

"If I heal you, I want you to promise that you will stay

with me forever and that you will forget that other woman

and your quest for revenge."

"Of course, dear," Gorath said sincerely. "I long only to

hold you in my strong arms."

Zorna nearly swooned. She was so happy. "Very well,

darling. I'll do as you ask."

The old woman stood in front of Gorath. He expected her

to call on the Queen of Darkness, recite a lengthy chant,

and go into contortions. But she merely pointed a lone

finger at him and wiggled her sharp nose a couple of times.

Gorath immediately felt a wave of heat deep in his back.

He felt bones shift and fuse together. Then his chair started

spinning, faster and faster. The strap broke, and Gorath was

propelled to his feet. He stretched his arms and legs. He

smiled broadly. He was no longer paralyzed.

Zorna moved toward him with arms spread, expecting

Gorath to draw her to his powerful chest. Instead Gorath

shoved her aside, knocking the feeble woman to the ground.

"Out of my way, foolish woman," he said, taking broad

steps toward the door. "Too bad you wasted your only feat

of magic on ME," he said mockingly.

"So you lied to me," said Zoma, showing no emotion.

"You BETRAYED me."

Gorath laughed. "Be thankful that I don't throw you in

the kettle with your wretched stew. But I have no time."

"Your sword is next to the door," said Zoma quietly, her

eyes closed.

Gorath retrieved his weapon and needlessly kicked open

the door on his way out. As he raced into the forest, he

shouted: "Revenge! I want revenge!"

It didn't take long for Gorath to find his way back to the

large clearing. Once again, he found Meadow and Starglow

by the fallen vallenwood, about twenty feet from the deep

ravine. Again they were locked in an embrace.

He was surprised that they hadn't traveled further. But

then he figured they thought they were out of danger after

he'd fallen into the ravine and become paralyzed.

However, he couldn't figure out why Starglow showed

no sign of injury. He remembered distinctly striking

Starglow's wrist with his sword and seeing blood spurt.

What was going on?

Drawing his sword, Gorath charged from the bushes

toward the lovers. "Gorath!" Meadow screamed in terror.

"He's found us!"

Starglow eyed his sword, which was resting on the

ground near the far end of the fallen tree. He made a dash

for it but wasn't quick enough. As the fingers of his right

hand touched the handle, Gorath's sword slashed his wrist,

causing blood to spurt and the young warrior to grimace in

pain. Meadow screamed and ran toward her stricken lover.

"Meadow!" Starglow shouted. "Stay back!"

Although in obvious agony, Starglow again reached for

the sword. Just as he lifted it, Gorath's heavy boot smashed

into his hand. The sword flew out of Starglow's weak grip

and landed by Meadow's feet. Without hesitating, she

picked up the weapon and ran to Starglow's side. Surprised,

Gorath backed up a few feet to contemplate the situation.

He was bewildered. Why was this experience so similar

to the earlier one, when he first found Meadow and

Starglow at this clearing?

Starglow reached for the sword Meadow held, just like

before. "No!" she said firmly. "You're hurt." When he

started to protest, she calmly said: "I am a woman and your

lover. But don't forget that I am also a warrior like you."

Just like before.

As before, Starglow nodded and smiled slightly. And

again, he kissed her trembling lips and placed a gentle hand

on her shoulder. Together they bravely waited for Gorath to

approach them. Just like before.

"We're ready," said Meadow boldly. As she looked at

Gorath, revulsion showed clearly in her beautiful green

eyes.

Just like before.

"Revenge! I want revenge!" Gorath demanded, but he

seemed only mildly interested in either Starglow or

Meadow. He didn't approach them but instead looked

around the clearing. "I'll deal with you two later," he said

at last, searching for the one creature he hated more than

Starglow and Meadow, the creature that had been the last

to hurt him and had hurt him worst of all. "FIRST,

Starglow," he announced, "I must kill your DOG!

Revenge! I want revenge!"

"But I have no dog," said Starglow, puzzled.

"Wh . . . what dog?" asked Meadow, also bewildered.

"You know very well what dog!" Gorath bellowed. "The

dreadful beast that tried to kill me! The one that caused me

to be prisoner of an ugly crone and eat her awful slug stew.

The one that pushed me into that ravine. . . ."

Meadow and Starglow seemed to be completely baffled.

"When did you fall into that ravine?" asked Starglow

incredulously.

"You know very well it happened when I last confronted

you at this clearing."

Meadow and Starglow looked at each other as if they

were dealing with a madman.

"But, Gorath," said Meadow slowly, "this is the first

time we've seen you since we fled your tent . . . . The Forest

of Wayreth must be playing tricks with your mind."

Gorath snarled. He didn't know what to think. Was this

indeed the first and only time he'd found Meadow and

Starglow in this clearing? While standing here facing them,

had he blanked out and imagined that horrible red dog?

And falling into the deep, deep ravine? And being

paralyzed? And returning to Zoma's shack? Had the Forest

of Wayreth indeed played tricks with his mind?

Suddenly Gorath heard growling. He turned toward the

ravine. The red dog sat by the ledge, wagging its shaggy tail

and whipping the snow-white tip into the ground as if it

were issuing a challenge. "Ah, ha! There's the DOG!"

howled Gorath, thrilled to have proof that his story was

true.

Meadow and Starglow looked at each other, then at

Gorath. "What dog?" they both wondered aloud.

But Gorath wasn't listening. He was slowly stepping

toward the ravine, hoping to exact the most satisfying

revenge of his entire life. He did not even notice that

Meadow and Starglow had seized the opportunity to escape

in the opposite direction. They would not halt their anxious

flight until they were out of the Forest of Wayreth and

safely back in their Que-shu village.

Hiding his unsheathed sword behind him, Gorath

approached the shaggy dog. He attempted a friendly, toothy

grin. The shaggy dog responded by growling and baring its

teeth. This time it was not in a playful mood.

Gorath stopped smiling. He lifted his sword high in the

air. He charged and took a mighty swing at the dog.

Amazingly, the dog slipped out of the way. Gorath turned

around, the heels of his boots touching the edge of the cliff.

"Oh, no!" cried Gorath as the dog jumped at him, striking

him a mighty blow in the chest with its entire body.

Again Gorath found himself somersaulting backward

through the air and helplessly falling into the ravine. This

time it seemed even deeper.

When Gorath regained consciousness, he was not surprised

to find himself paralyzed from the neck down and strapped

to the chair in Zorna's shack. And there was Zorna, busily

preparing slug stew. He yelled: "Revenge! I want revenge!"

Zorna turned toward him, her eyes blazing with anger.

"I've heard enough about YOUR revenge! After you

deceived and deserted me, it's ME who wants revenge!"

Gorath's eyes showed fear. "But I ... I ... I love you,

dear," he stammered.

Zoma pointed a finger at Gorath and wiggled her nose.

Instantly, he lost his ability to talk. "That will teach you

never to betray a black-robed sorceress!" she sneered,

causing sweat to pour down Gorath's unhappy face. "I hope

a few years without speech will help you learn your lesson."

She pointed toward her terrified guest, and his chair slid

toward her. She waved her hand slightly, and the chair rose

into the air so their noses nearly touched. "I'll never forgive

you or let you forget your cruelty toward me!" she shouted.

Then, as she looked into his eyes, she calmed down and

even smiled slightly. "But I do love you, darling," she said

thoughtfully. "And I'll cook, and clean, and care for you for

the rest of your life. You'll see. We'll have such a happy

time together."

Leaving Gorath in midair, Zoma turned back to the

kettle. The black-robed magic-user caused the fire to rise

underneath just by raising her finger. She then leaned over

the kettle to stir the stew, putting her hand directly into the

boiling water without feeling any discomfort. The folds at

the back of her black robe separated slightly.

Gorath's frightened eyes bulged from their sockets. Even

if he still had the ability to talk, he couldn't have uttered a

sound. He stared in disbelief at what was sticking out from

Zoma's black robe.

It was a shaggy red tail with a snow-white tip.

 

Lord Toede's Disastrous Hunt

by Harold Bakst

 

The Pilgrim's Rest was a pretty old tavern, having been

started by the great grandfather of its owner, a gnarly old

dwarf by the name of Pug. But the place looked even older

than it was because it was built into the hollow of a huge

and truly ancient oak tree near the Darken Wood.

Following the shape of the trunk, the room was basically

round and soared up into the dark heights of the tree's

interior. Up there, unseen, were woodpeckers, bats, a few

squirrels, and various other critters. Occasionally one of

them would fly or creep down along the wall to steal food

from the round, rough-hewn tables, and old Pug was

constantly chasing them back up again with a broom.

"Don't feed the animals!" he kept telling his patrons. "It

only encourages them!"

Business at the Pilgrim's Rest was usually good, thanks

to the forest paths that crisscrossed all around it. On any

given day, there was likely to be an assortment of many

peoples - elves, dwarves, humans, and such - all traveling to

and from the four comers of Krynn.

On one particular evening, this crowd was joined by a

kender. Old Pug kept an eye on the little, slight-boned

fellow, for he knew a kender was likely to slip away

without paying his tab. True to form, the kender, dressed in

red leggings and tunic, sat at a table near the door.

But this kender, apparently a bit inebriated, was talking

loudly, and this reassured Pug, who could at least turn his

back and hear him.

"... I tell you," the kender was saying, "Kronin and I

DID kill him!"

"You expect us to believe," said a squat, black-bearded

dwarf sitting at the kender's table, "that two puny kender

killed Toede, a Dragon Highlord?"

"Why, Kronin isn't just ANY kender! He's our leader!"

"Even so," said another patron, a lanky human who was

walking over with his beer stein, "kender are no match for a

hobgoblin lord."

The kender's pointy ears turned red. "Do you think I'm

lying?" he shouted.

"Yes!" came back all the patrons as they gathered

around the boaster's table.

"And how did you two kill Toede?" asked a tall,

willowy elf, a fair eyebrow arched incredulously. "With

that silly what-do-you-call-it you kender carry?"

"The hoopak," said the dwarf, picking up the pronged

stick from under the table for everyone to see.

"Leave that alone!" shouted the kender, snatching the

weapon back.

"What's this?" said the human. "A kender getting angry?

Where's your usual sense of humor?"

"He's had too much ale," suggested the dwarf with a

smirk.

"Yes, that explains his ridiculous claims," agreed the elf,

waving the story away with his long, slender hand.

"Phooey on you all!" shouted the kender. "Kronin and

I are heroes whether you believe it or not!"

"Tell me," called old Pug from behind the counter,

"did anyone actually see you do this deed?"

There was a brief silence.

"That's right," said the lanky human, resting his stein

on the table. "Can anyone back you on this?"

The kender started to sputter in frustration, when, from

across the room, someone shouted:

"I can!"

Everyone turned in surprise to see who had spoken.

Sitting at a table near the wooden wall was a hooded

figure slouched over a stein. It was unclear what sort of

being he was, but his robes were all in tatters. "And who,

pray tell, are you that you should know?" asked Pug, his

thick eyebrows rising inquisitively.

"I was there," said the hooded stranger. "I saw it all.

This kender's name must be Talorin."

The kender beamed, proud that news of his deed had

reached another's ears and that this stranger actually knew

his name. He crossed his slender arms. "Thank you, sir," he

called to the stranger. "Perhaps

you can tell these Doubting Trapspringers what you saw."

Everyone, still gathered around the kender's table,

waited for the stranger to speak. But he didn't seem to

care to continue, and he sipped from his brew

mysteriously.

"Yes, why don't you tell us?" asked the dwarf, taking his

stein and waddling over to the stranger's table.

"What difference does it make?" growled the stranger

from beneath his cowl. "Toede was a sniveling, cowardly

idiot. He had no business being a Dragon Highlord."

At this, Talorin's pointy ears grew red again.

"Maybe so," said the elf, also walking over. "But he

caused much harm. If he's dead, then I for one would like

to know how it came about."

From deep within his hood, the stranger seemed to be

staring at the nearly empty stein sitting before him.

"Perhaps if someone were to buy me another ale - "

"Pug! Bring the gentleman another brew!" called the

dwarf, settling himself on a chair at the stranger's table, his

broad, leather-clad feet dangling. Soon everyone who had

been around Talorin drew closer to the stranger. But the

kender, not to be left out, squeezed himself back into their

midst. Pug brought the stranger another stein of ale and

clunked it before him, the foamy head spilling over and

onto the table.

The stranger took a sip and cleared his throat. "I once

served that wretch-of-a-hobgoblin," he said. "And, yes, I

was there that day. . . ."

And so the stranger told a tale that, since then, has been

retold many times throughout Krynn.

 

*****

 

For many weeks Toede had been stewing in his somber

manor in the decrepit port city of Flotsam, grumbling about

how his subjects were not paying him the respect due to a

Dragon Highlord. "They don't pay their taxes, they desert

my army, they laugh behind my back!" he growled. Then

he would just sit slumped on his throne, his two pink eyes

squinting out of his flat, fleshy face as if he were hatching

some plot that would make everyone realize he was not to

be taken so lightly.

But all he did was put himself in a worse and worse mood.

If anyone crossed him during those weeks - if an attendant

so much as spilled something at the table - Toede fell into a

rage. More than one such fellow was tossed off the docks to

be eaten by sharks.

Naturally, his attendants were getting increasingly

nervous. Finally one of them, Groag - a fat hobgoblin like

Toede but who liked to dress in elegant, stylish robes and

wear large, bejeweled rings - tried to divert his master from

his self-pity. "Perhaps Lord Toede would like to disport

himself," he said, standing by the squat, round-backed

throne.

Toede glanced up and sideways at the dandified

attendant. "Do you have anything in particular in mind?" he

snarled. He always felt that Groag, like everyone else,

showed him little genuine respect and always sounded

snooty.

"There are many things," said Groag. He counted them

off on each bejeweled finger. "You could take your ship out

and harpoon dolphins, you could attend a dogfight, you

could go hunting - "

"Hunting," snarled Toede, slumping even deeper into his

throne. "How can I be expected to catch anything when my

forest is full of poachers?" He began to stew again.

"Well," Groag shrugged, "perhaps you can catch a

poacher."

At this, Toede's beady eyes lit up, and his broad fleshy

mouth actually spread into a twisted smile. "Hmm," he

began, drumming his stubby fingers on the throne's broad

armrest. "Wouldn't that be fun . . ."

Now, Groag hadn't really been serious about catching a

poacher, but the idea did seem to catch his master's

imagination. So he said, "Say no more, my lord."

Whereupon he hastily arranged a hunting party.

For the hunt, Toede left behind his faithful amphi dragon,

Hopsloth, who was much too clumsy on land (pity the

terrorized servants who had to comfort the disappointed

beast!) and, instead, he rode his fastest, furry-legged pony,

Galiot. He also took a large pack of black hunting hounds,

each of which was held on a leash by an iron-collared slave

who ran along on foot. The hounds were vicious, long-

fanged beasts, and sometimes, out of impatience to be let

loose, they nipped at the slaves holding them. All the

hapless slaves could do to defend themselves was keep the

mongrels at bay with sticks found along the way.

Also for the hunt, Toede surrounded himself with half a

dozen pony-backed, spear-carrying bodyguards -

hobgoblins all - just in case he came upon a particularly

nasty poacher. Toede himself wore his armor, which, of

late, had become an especially tight fit, causing his flab to

squeeze out of the chinks. Only Groag, preferring to remain

in his fancy, flowing robes and rings, went unarmored. As

he rode beside Toede, however, he did carry his master's

bow and arrows.

It was late morning when the hunting party paraded

through the crooked, filthy streets of Flotsam. Soon they

entered a large, grassy field, at the far end of which was a

somber fringe of dark pine forest. Not surprisingly, no

poachers were quick to reveal themselves, but Toede did

spot a great big stag at the perimeter of the woods. As the

party approached, the animal raised its magnificently

antlered head and sniffed the air suspiciously.

"Shh," hissed Toede as Groag handed him his bow and

an arrow. "No one make a sound."

From atop Galiot, Toede nocked the arrow and pulled

back on the bowstring, his red tongue poking out the comer

of his mouth as he concentrated on his aim.

But before he could release the arrow, a sudden screaming

whine pierced the air, startling the stag. The creature spun

around, crashed into the outlying underbrush of the woods,

and disappeared. Then ensued a series of muffled, skittering

noises that receded into the distance.

"Damn it!" shouted Toede, his pink eyes reddening. He

spun in his saddle toward his bodyguards. "Who did that?

Come on! Speak up!"

The hobgoblin guards shrugged and looked at each other

stupidly.

"The noise did not come from our party," said Groag,

sounding typically haughty.

"Oh? Then who from?" asked Toede.

"A kender," said Groag. "Perhaps more than one. The

sound was made by a hoopak, of course."

"Kender!" snapped Toede, his eyes darting about the

field and woods. "I should have known! I bet they're the

ones who've been poaching in my forest!"

"I wouldn't be surprised," said Groag, though in fact he

was indeed surprised to learn that their quest for poachers

might have real results.

"All right, then," said Toede, handing the bow and

arrow back to the know-it-all attendant, "let's keep our eyes

open for damned kender!"

With that, Toede and his hunting party continued on,

searching for kender. They saw none. Soon they were

skirting the edge of the dark pine forest, whose lower,

horizontal branches were dead, gray, and bare.

Of course no kender showed, but Toede did spot a

second stag just within the gloomy woods, drinking at the

near bank of a purling brook. "Shh," whispered Toede,

sticking out his hand for his bow and arrow;

Groag handed them over. Toede acted faster this time,

quickly nocking the arrow and pulling back on the

bowstring.

But, once again, before he could even take proper aim,

another whining scream pierced the air.

"Damn it!" roared Toede as the stag darted off,

splashing to the other side of the brook and disappearing

deeper into the woods. Toede stood straight up in his saddle

and scanned all around him. "Where are they? Where are

these blasted kender?"

"They are quite good at hiding," said Groag as if it were

too obvious to even mention. "You won't spot them so

easily."

"I won't, won't I?" said Toede, straining his eyes even

harder. "We'll see about that!" He turned to his bodyguards.

"You there," he hissed at one of them, "circle around with

some slaves! We'll use them as beaters!"

"Yes, sire!" snapped back the hobgoblin, excited at the

idea. He took several slaves and dogs, and off he went,

spurring his pony and hoping to encircle the kender,

wherever they were.

Toede glared at Groag, who averted his eyes. The rotund

Highlord led the hunting party back into the center of the

field so that he'd have a wide view of the forest perimeter.

Grumbling to himself, he waited atop the impatient Galiot,

who kept snorting and pawing at the ground with his small,

front hooves.

When at last Toede heard the yelling of the distant

beaters deep in the forest, he muttered, "Now, my little

kender, the tables are about to be turned. . . ."

The shouts of the beaters and the dogs barking got

louder. In trying to flee these beaters, plenty of other game

now burst forth from the forest: rabbit, fox, grouse, even

another stag, all hurried past Toede and his hunting party.

Toede ignored them all, intent and filled with malicious

glee. But two of his hobgoblin bodyguards couldn't resist.

They chased and felled the dashing stag with thrusts of their

spears.

"Stop that!" shouted Toede, waving them back. "Prepare

yourselves for the kender!"

The two hobgoblins looked at each other, then, if a little

reluctantly, let the dead deer lay where it fell. They rode

obediently back to Toede's side.

Suddenly the dark hounds around Toede began barking

furiously and straining at their leashes, testing the strength

of the scrawny slaves holding them. Straight ahead,

breaking from the forest with the other game, were two

small beings running from the beaters and chattering to

each other and not at all looking where they were going.

"What have we here?" Toede chuckled smugly, sticking

his hand out for his bow and arrow; Groag handed them

over. "The dogs shall have some kender meat tonight!"

Toede nocked the arrow and drew back the bowstring. He

squinted and aimed, sticking his red tongue out the corner

of his mouth.

But just when the two kender were within range, Toede

relaxed the bow. "No," he said as a contorted smile spread

across his face. "No, I have a better idea - a much better

idea . . ." He savored the thought a moment and nodded

approvingly. He turned to his bodyguards. "Catch them!"

The bodyguards spurred their ponies and galloped off.

They were almost on top of the kender before the little

people knew what was happening. One of them had stopped

to replace a button on his raiment, and the other was

offering him a variety of choices from his pouches, so they

were surprised by the onslaught.

But it wasn't so easy catching those kender. They were

very spry, and one of them kept swinging his hoopak,

eliciting that whining scream. This scared the ponies,

which, in turn, nearly trampled over the beaters as they

themselves came forth from the woods. In the confusion,

the kender nearly escaped as they bolted across the field.

But they were chased down by two hobgoblins who held an

outspread net between their ponies. The two kender were

swooped up, the hoopak flying - with a final whine - from

the hand of the kender who had held it.

Toede, watching this from a distance, nearly fell out of

his saddle from excitement. "Bring them here! Bring them

here!" he shouted hoarsely. He settled back on his saddle

and began rubbing his pudgy hands expectantly. He leered

at Groag, who nodded, if begrudgingly, to acknowledge his

master's accomplishment.

The two hobgoblins rode up to Toede, the snared kender

dangling between their mounts. The dogs continued

barking, straining at their leashes and snapping their jaws

only a hand's length from the net.

"Now what have we here?" said Toede, leaning down.

Suddenly his beady eyes widened. "What's this? Groag!

Look who we've bagged!"

Groag leaned forward, and even he seemed impressed.

"I do believe - goodness, could it be?"

"It could!" said Toede with great satisfaction. "The

kender leader! Oh, won't this impress the other Highlords!"

It was, indeed, Kronin Thistleknot. Except for a certain

regal bearing and minnow-silver hair, he looked like an

ordinary kender, although slightly taller and sturdier. Also,

he had twice as many pouches and ornaments slung around

his slender waist. In his company was a more youthful

kender with a gap-toothed smile, as thrilled as could be to

find himself in the middle of such an unusual experience as

being captured by the great Toede.

"Good afternoon," said Kronin casually, swinging in his

net-hammock. "Fine day for hunting."

"Fine day, indeed," responded Toede with a sneer.

"Mind you, my dear Kronin, the real hunting hasn't even

begun!"

Toede quickly looked about until he spotted the slain stag

crumpled on the ground some dozen paces away. His eyes

glinted with a notion. "Bring that here!" he ordered.

The two hobgoblins who had killed the animal hurried

over to it on their ponies, chasing away some complaining

jackals and buzzards that had already gathered there. They

grabbed the buck by its antlers and dragged it back before

Toede.

"Now," said Toede, gesturing impatiently in the

direction of his highly prized prisoners, "release them."

The hobgoblins holding the net tilted it, and out plopped

the two small beings. They dusted their similar red leggings

and white tunics, and Kronin adjusted his furry vest.

"Now," continued Toede, slowly unfolding his plan,

"chain them to the carcass!"

The kender looked at each other in some confusion as

two hobgoblins quickly obeyed, chaining a slender wrist

from each kender to a separate broad antler. The kender

raised their arms questioningly, hefting the head of the dead

animal.

Toede slapped his hands together. "Now, then, my

pointy eared pests, I will give you a head start."

"A head start?" repeated Kronin.

"That's right," said Toede. "And when I feel you've gone

a fair distance, I will release these hounds and hunt you

down and kill you. What have you got to say to that?"

Kronin smiled broadly with realization. "Oh, I do love a

good game," he said, looking up at the fat hobgoblin who

regarded him with such contempt.

"Then you're in luck!" came back Toede, trying to sound

as glib as the kender leader. "Now, you'd best be off, my

friends. I won't wait TOO long."

"Oh, I'm sure of that," said Kronin. "Until we meet . . ." He

bowed deeply. The other kender, who was a bit smaller

than Kronin, did likewise. It seemed the polite thing to do.

"Bah!" snapped Toede. "You won't be so smart-alecky

when I get through with you!"

But Kronin ignored the Dragon Highlord and turned to

his small friend. "Come, Talorin," he said. "We must be

off."

The other kender grinned and jumped up and down in

anticipation of the sport to begin. "Yes, sir, my liege!" he

said. "Oh, I do love a good game, too!"

The two kender began to shuffle away, dragging the

bloody stag carcass - which was bigger than both of them

combined - across the field. At the edge of the forest they

turned around, waved farewell to Toede, then disappeared

through the underbrush, heroically tugging the deer carcass.

Toede drummed his fingers impatiently on his saddle

pommel. Galiot snorted and pawed the ground nervously.

The dogs yanked at their leashes. The slaves looked

imploringly up at Toede, waiting for the command to

release the beasts.

"Um, we shouldn't wait too much longer," said Groag,

looking a bit concerned. "Kender are awfully tricky - "

"I know how long to wait!" snapped back Toede. And

he waited still longer to prove it.

But finally he, too, got nervous, and so he shouted:

"Release the hounds!"

The hounds bolted ahead, and the hobgoblins galloped

behind them while the panting slaves, watched over by two

rearguards, were forced to try to keep up on foot.

At the edge of the forest, the hounds slowed and began

sniffing for the scent of the deer carcass, their dark muzzles

sweeping feverishly across the ground, snorting now and

then to clear dirt from their wet nostrils. After a few

moments of this, one of them suddenly plunged into the

woods, pulling the others after it, all of them yapping away.

The hunting party followed, the riders forced to duck

beneath the low, dead limbs of the pine tree.

 

"Whew!" said Talorin, pulling his chain with both hands,

barely keeping up his share of the burden. "I think I'm

actually beginning to sweat!"

The two kender were slowly making their way among

the towering trees of the gloomy and silent inner forest

where only flecks of sunlight broke through the branches

above, dappling the forest floor.

"Good for you!" said Kronin as he also tugged away,

taking care to show less strain, because, after all, he was the

leader. "You don't get enough exercise."

"Oops!" said Talorin, turning his head. "I think I hear the

dogs!" He paused to listen. "Yes, yes, that's them all right.

You know, my liege, I think we ought to be making better

time."

Kronin also stopped, and as he did the deer's head

slumped to the soft bed of brown pine needles. "Well," he

said, trying to catch his own breath, "these low branches

should slow the riders down a bit." He pointed to the

crisscrossing limbs, most of which were over the heads of

the two kender. "But you're right, my friend - " he casually

rested an elbow on one of the dead animal's upright antlers

" - although I feel certain if we had enough time, we could

pick these two locks." He looked thoughtful.

"Doubtless!" said Talorin, rattling his chain. "Only . . ."

He hesitated to break into Kronin's meditation. "Only, the

dogs are coming closer as we speak. . . ."

"No kender should be hobbled this way," continued Kronin

philosophically, shaking his head. "It's so embarrassing.

And then, of course, as far as the game goes, it doesn't seem

altogether fair."

"True enough. Those dogs are getting rather loud, aren't

they?"

"Perhaps," Kronin mused, "we ought to do something

about those dogs. ..."

"Yes, yes! Capital idea!" Talorin brightened. "And I

even have an idea how to do it! We need only - oh. Dam.

We'd need the hoopak for that." He furrowed his brow to

think. "Of course!" said Talorin again, snapping his fingers.

"We could take - ahhh - no, that wouldn't work, either.

We'd need four more kender. . . ."

Kronin rolled his eyes upward.

"Hey! We could try to - darn it! That's no good! There

are too many trees in here! Well, I suppose we could

always - drat! I doubt even hobgoblins are that stupid."

Talorin rubbed his slender face. "Say, how about - ?"

"Um, don't trouble yourself, my friend," interrupted

Kronin finally. He spat into his hands, rubbed them, and

took up the chain again. "I do believe I already have an

idea. . . ."

 

Toede and his hunting party had now been riding

through those gloomy woods a long while - so long, in fact,

that they eventually came to a groaning halt. The slaves

collapsed to catch their breath. Toede scratched his broad,

squat face. "It seems," he said, only slowly perceiving the

truth, "that we've been returning to the same spot over and

over."

"Yes, it does seem that way," said Groag, somewhat

fatigued by the long search. "The kender apparently

dragged the carcass in a circle."

Toede's pink eyes reddened. "So! Kronin thinks he's put

one over on me, does he? We'll see about that! Leash the

dogs!"

The slaves, who had only just gotten comfortable lying

on the bed of pine needles, forced themselves to their feet

with a moan. When the dogs were leashed, the hunting

party, at Toede's orders, proceeded more slowly and

methodically along the scent trail. Toede kept some dogs on

the outside of the circle the kender had made, hoping to

catch the spot where Kronin and Talorin had veered off.

Sure enough, the dogs ranging the perimeter soon grew

wild and loud, snorting at the ground and tugging on their

leashes.

"Do you see?" shouted Toede gloatingly. "They've only

managed to postpone their end - and, may I add, not for

very long!" He turned to the slaves. "Release them!"

The slaves were only too happy to obey. The dogs, once

free, bolted deeper into the forest in the direction of the

fresh scent, scaring up several grouse and other birds along

the way.

"Oh, I've never felt such a thrill!" declared Toede

gleefully as he galloped after his dogs, the needles on the

ground kicking up under the hooves of Galiot. "We ought to

hunt kender more often!"

"Yes, sire," responded Groag without much conviction,

his robes fluttering. He was more concerned with trying to

stay in the saddle.

 

"Oops! I hear them again!" said Talorin as he and Kronin

sat on rocks by the purling stream that meandered among

the trees.

Kronin was fumbling with a pin at the lock around his

skinny wrist. His pointy ears perked. "You're right," he

said, distracted. "I think they've caught on to our ruse."

Talorin rested his slender face in an open hand and

sighed. "Boy, I really do hate being chained. I really do."

"It's no picnic for me, either," said Kronin, now

standing, his attention focused on the barking. "My, they

do make a racket, don't they? I'm glad we don't do this

every day."

"They seem a little too . . . how would you put it?"

"Enthusiastic?"

"Yes, that's it: enthusiastic! Bad for us, huh?"

"Could be. Perhaps we ought to run in circles again."

"Frankly, I'm a bit bored with that."

"Well! Aren't we being finicky!" said Kronin. "Very

well, I'll just have to think of another idea." So, with the

distant barking getting ever louder, Kronin took a moment

to reflect. He furrowed his brow and scratched his chin. He

looked around. He thought harder.

"Um, my liege, could you think a bit faster?"

"Got it!" blurted Kronin, his eyes lighting. He sat down

and began to untie the leather thongs of his shoes. "Come

on," he pressed.

Talorin looked at him in confusion. "What on Krynn -

?"

"And you'll want to roll up your leggings, too," said

Kronin, rolling up his own.

Talorin, with a heavy sigh and clank of his chain,

slowly pulled one foot onto his bony knee and began

removing a shoe. "Well," he said wistfully, "at least the

hounds seem to be having a good time. . . ."

 

The hounds snorted excitedly at the spot where the two

kender had been sitting, but they grew frustrated because,

once more, they had lost the scent of the kender. They

searched frantically around the fern-covered bank, scaring

the daylights out of a small green frog who jumped into the

water.

"Apparently, my lord, the kender waded into the stream,"

said Groag, squirming uncomfortably in his saddle and

wishing desperately to return to the manor. "There's no

telling which way they went."

"No telling?" came back Toede. "You think Kronin has

won this little sport?"

"I'm only being practical," said Groag, massaging his

rear. "You should have killed them when you had them in

hand."

"Bah!" came back Toede. "You give up too easily!" He

turned to the rest of his hunting party. "All right, comb the

banks!"

The hunting party split up and covered both sides of the

stream in each direction. Toede, more impatient than ever

now, waited with Groag and drummed his fingers on his

saddle pommel while Galiot took the opportunity to drink

some of the cool, crystalline water. "We'll see," muttered

Toede. "We'll just see . . ."

Before too long, the dogs upstream on the opposite side

began barking furiously. A hobgoblin there blew his horn.

"Ha! Now what do you say, Groag?" called Toede as he

splashed across the stream on Galiot. He hunched over to

avoid some low branches. "Kronin is not as clever as he -

or you - believes!"

An exhausted Groag, falling to the rear of the pursuing

hobgoblins, didn't answer. A dead branch had torn the

sleeve of his fancy robe.

 

"Uh oh, do you hear what I hear?" asked Talorin as he

and Kronin dragged the dripping wet, impossibly

cumbersome deer carcass through the woods. They stopped

to listen. Talorin leaned against a large, rough-barked tree

and slid to the ground to rest. "Goodness, they are

persistent," remarked Kronin. "My poor wrist is starting to

chafe," complained Talorin, "and I'm tired and hungry - "

"My, my, such a grumpy boy," said Kronin. "How do

you think I feel? Is there a worse curse than for two kender

to be chained together?"

But then Talorin, only half listening to the older kender,

snapped his fingers. "Say, I have an idea!"

Kronin looked at him skeptically.

"No, really, I do! It's a good one!"

"Are we going to need anything special for this one?"

"No, no, just some muscle grease!" Talorin jumped to

his feet. His face shone with eagerness.

"Well, that's too much. Mine requires only - ahh.

Hmmm. No. We'd need lard for that - "

"You see? Our situation is dire. Please let me tell you

my idea! Please, please, please - "

"All right, all right!" said Kronin, half covering his

pointy ears. "Just keep your voice down. They're getting

close."

Talorin beamed and rubbed his hands. He leaned toward

Kronin and whispered, "That hobgoblin dunderhead will

never figure this one out!"

 

"At last!" said Groag, wiping his forehead with a silk

handkerchief and looking up into the high branches of an

especially large pine. "We've treed them!"

"It would seem so," said Toede, peering up and rubbing

his weak chin. He frowned grotesquely. "Although for the

life of me, I don't see anyone up there."

All the guards looked up stupidly and scratched their

heads. The dogs, which had led the party to the tree,

continued jumping up onto its trunk and sliding back down

again - though one of them had actually managed to jump

onto a particularly low limb and now stood upon it on

jittery hind legs, barking furiously.

"You're right," said Groag over the din. "I don't see them

either. Can kender fly?"

But even as Groag suggested this, a smile spread slowly

across his master's face. "Sire?" Groag prodded dimly.

"Fly, Groag?" blurted Toede. "Ha! Fly, you say? Is that

your theory?"

"Well, no. I was only wondering - "

"Don't you see what they did?"

"Um, let me see - "

"And you think you're so smart!" Toede pointed with a

stubby finger at the various heavy limbs jutting from the

tree. "It's obvious! They climbed along one of those upper

branches, crossed to another tree, down they came, and - "

Toede turned to the rest of his party. "Everyone! Spread

out!"

The hunting party radiated from the tree. Toede, more

confident than ever, waited with Groag. Every so often he

smirked at his uppity attendant. Sure enough, one of the

dogs started yapping at the base of a neighboring pine.

"Oh, I do love it!" shouted Toede as he galloped off

behind his noisy black dogs. "We'll show Kronin yet!"

"I'm sure we will, my lord," sighed Groag, mostly to

himself as another limb tore at his robe.

 

"Darn! I almost had it!" said Kronin, hunkered down

before a large cave at the base of a rocky hillside. His own

reddened wrist was at last free of the chain, and he was now

working on Talorin's. From the rim of the cave, the two

kender had a good view across a clearing of the

surrounding forest.

"Will you please hurry, sir?" asked Talorin, sitting on the

glassy eyed deer carcass. "Those dogs are getting awfully

close."

Kronin rose to his feet. "You're right." He looked pensive

for a moment. "Say! Why don't we split up? That would

confuse them!"

"What? Me lug this deer all alone?"

Kronin's face showed that he did not think it was such a

terrible idea. "You could always hide in this cave - "

"Sire!"

"Hmm. I suppose not." But he looked unconvinced.

"Sir, perhaps it would help you to think if you pretended

you were still chained."

"You may be right," said Kronin. "Let. me pretend I'm

still chained. Hmmmm . . ." And while Kronin pondered,

the dogs' barking got steadily louder.

Talorin cleared his throat and held out his wrist, rattling

his chain. "Um, in all due respect, sir, maybe you should

continue picking the lock." Of course, Talorin could pick

the occasional lock, but Kronin was better at it, and besides,

he was the leader.

"Maybe," said Kronin vaguely, taking Talorin's shackled

wrist. "But I can't pick locks and think at the same time."

"That's all right, my liege. I'll think for us. In fact, I've

already got an idea. Why don't we - rats! We already tried

that. Or, maybe . . ."

The barking got louder; in addition, the pounding of the

ponies' hooves could be heard along with Toede's own

hoarse shouting as he frantically barked orders at his

hunting party.

"This is going to be just a bit too close for comfort," said

Kronin, fumbling at the lock.

Talorin, still sitting on the carcass, squinted in deep

thought. Every so often he brightened, but then quickly

shook his head and fell back to his cogitating. "Well, that

does it!" he finally announced, slapping his thigh with his

free hand. "I'm fresh out of ideas!"

Suddenly Kronin stopped picking the lock. His ears

twitched. "Say, did you hear something?"

"Hear something?" repeated Talorin, who was busy

scooping up pebbles and inspecting them to see if any

might, accidentally, be jewels. "Yes, but I thought it was

you tugging at the lock - "

"No, no - " said Kronin. His ears twitched again. He

turned to face the cave behind them. "I think it came from

in there."

Talorin directed his attention to the cave as well. He

leaned toward it to listen better, dropping his pebbles.

"You're right! Hmm! Someone's an awfully loud snorer!"

The two kender stared at each other a moment. Their

eyes lit up with recognition. Kronin resumed picking the

lock more feverishly than ever. Talorin was almost giddy

with excitement. "Hold still, will you!" said Kronin.

"Oh, this will be a good one!"

 

The dogs soon came to the cave and barked furiously at

its dark entrance, refusing, however, to go in.

"At last!" shouted Toede, pulling up on the reins of

Galiot and stopping behind his dogs. He slid off. "They're

trapped!"

"I hope so, sire - " groaned Groag.

"Oh, they're in there, all right," said Toede. He stuck out

his hand for his bow and arrow.

"Yes, but every time - "

"Come, come! Be quick about it!" shouted Toede,

snapping his fingers impatiently.

Groag handed the weapons over. "They've been very

sneaky so far - "

"That's right! Very sneaky, indeed!" said Toede,

nocking his arrow. "And look where it's gotten them!

They're doomed!"

"All the same, my lord, I would proceed carefully - "

"Bah! You just don't like seeing me outwit a kender,"

came back Toede, turning his back on Groag and peering

eagerly into the darkness of the cave.

"You're wrong, my lord," said Groag, sliding his bulk

clumsily off his pony. "Nothing would please me more.

But - "

"Never mind 'but', " said Toede, turning back. "Just

follow your orders. Stay by the trees and watch the mounts

and dogs. I'll leave you the slaves and the two rearguards.

If Kronin and that other pointy eared pipsqueak should

sneak by us, kill them at once! Understand?"

"Yes, sire," said Groag, grateful at least for the respite.

"The rest of you follow me!"

While four of the hobgoblins eagerly dismounted, Groag

retreated back across the clearing to the trees with the

slaves, dogs, ponies, and the two rearguards. Toede peered

once more into the cave, but this time more tentatively. His

faithful attendant had given him second thoughts. "Damn

that Groag," he muttered. "Always ruining my fun! Well,

not this time!" Bow and arrow nocked at the ready, Toede

padded stealthily into the cave, followed closely by his

guards. Soon they disappeared in the blackness.

There was a moment or so when nothing much

happened, except that the dogs kept barking and yanking at

their leashes, pulling some of the exhausted slaves from the

trees into the clearing. Groag himself settled against a tree

and sat down on a bed of pine needles. He gently fingered

the tatters of his robe and sighed.

Suddenly, several prolonged hobgoblin screeches echoed

from the cave. They were followed almost immediately by

none other than Toede himself and his four guards, all

squealing like pigs at the top of their lungs and bolting out

of the cave as fast as their fat, armor-clad bodies would

carry them.

"My lord, what happened?" called Groag, jumping to his

feet.

The answer came quickly enough. Out of the cave

emerged a huge, very angry, reptilian head. Right between

its flaring nostrils was stuck Toede's puny arrow. The

emerging head was quickly shown to be attached to a long,

thick serpentine neck that slid out and out until the entirety

of an enormous green dragon stood before the cave.

"Attack! Attaaaack!" screamed Toede, his hands flailing

the air as he retreated across the open ground, his

bodyguards clanking after him. Meanwhile, the dogs had

reversed themselves and were now lunging in the opposite

direction, yelping and dragging some of the slaves with

them back into the forest.

The dragon sat back on its haunches before its cave, its

head soaring above the surrounding pine trees, its leathern

wings opening like two green sails of a great ship. Around

the dragon's thick rear ankle, looking like nothing more

than a bracelet and charm, were attached the chain and deer

carcass.

"Attaaaack!" screamed Toede, continuing his dash

toward the forest.

The two hobgoblins who had remained with Groag

stepped forward uneasily, their little pig eyes widening,

their spears trembling. "Kill it! Kill it!" Groag squealed.

"Protect your master!"

The two seemed inclined to head for the rear, but they

were pressed forward by Toede. Planted behind them, he

was grabbing at the arms of the other fleeing hobgoblin

guards, trying to spin them around. "Where are you going,

you cowards? Stop! Stop!"

By now most of the guards, dogs, and slaves - with Galiot

leading the way - had scattered into the woods.

The dragon kept its glare fixed on the fat hobgoblin

Highlord who stood at the edge of the forest, jumping up

and down, waving his fists, and barking orders at the two

quivering guards he had pushed into the clearing. Groag

was frozen to his spot.

"Get him! You idiots! What are you waiting for?" Toede

shrieked.

At last the angry dragon, tired of the squealing, opened

its great maw, rolled its pink tongue out of the way, and

released a great, thunderous discharge of flame that caught

Toede right in the middle of one of his jumps. The flames

passed right over the heads of the two hobgoblins edging

their way backward. Tossing their spears in the air, they

fled in opposite directions.

The dragon's flames were so loud that they drowned out

Toede's squeals.

Groag, standing several paces away from Toede, could

only watch in horror, his torn robes slowly being singed.

And when at long last the flames stopped, all he could see

remaining of his master was his red-hot, glowing armor,

partly melted, lying on the ground.

The dragon roared victoriously, causing pine needles to

rain from the trees. Then, using a front claw, the dragon

swatted the irritating arrow from between its nostrils and

slowly crawled back into its cave, the deer-carcass bracelet

disappearing with it, followed by the dragon's own tapering,

spiked tail.

In the ensuing silence, Groag, pine needles covering his

head and shoulders, stood alone, gawking at where Toede

had been ranting only moments before. After a moment

more, he was finally able to move his legs a bit. About to

slink back into the forest, he heard an odd sound - a sort of

high-pitched, squeaky laugh ter. He stopped and looked to

see where it was coming from.

His eyes fell upon two small beings perched on the

rocky hill, just over the entrance to the cave. So hard were

they laughing that they had fallen right over onto their

backs and were holding their aching stomachs. . . .

 

*****

 

And that, more or less, was the tale that was told in the

tavern and came to be retold over and over throughout

Krynn.

When the hooded stranger had finished speaking, the

other patrons looked first at him, then at Talorin, who was

smiling proudly from pointy ear to pointy ear. "Kender can

sneak up on any sleeping dragon," he added unnecessarily.

Old Pug scratched his curly hair. "Well, I'll be," he said.

"So it's true about Kronin."

Another patron, the lanky human, patted the proud

kender on the back.

"And now, kind stranger," continued Talorin

expansively, "perhaps you would like to offer thanks for

your liberation. I would be most happy to relay your

gratitude to the great Kronin himself."

"Gratitude?" grumbled the hooded stranger. "Gratitude?

For my LIBERATION?"

"Why, of course. Everyone knows Toede was a horrible

tyrant, and ever since that day - "

"Ever since that day," broke in the stranger, "I have sure

enough been free - but free to what? To wander aimlessly?

To go hungry? To find no shelter? Gratitude, you say?

Look! Look upon my gratitude!" And, with that, the

stranger tossed back his hood. The once elegant and

haughty, once well-fed minion of the Highlord was now

gaunt-faced and clothed in rags.

"Groag!" yelped the kender, sitting up straight.

And before anyone knew it, the crazed hobgoblin

brought forth from under the table a rusty double-edged

battle-ax, which he immediately swung overhead. Down he

came with it, just as the inebriated kender jumped away, his

abandoned chair cracking in two. Everyone else around the

table jumped back, knocking over their chairs.

"Stand still!" cried the enraged hobgoblin, jumping to

his feet and hefting the heavy axe once more. "I want to

show you how damned grateful I am!"

"Some other time, perhaps!" called back Talorin,

springing lightly back toward the door.

Groag rushed him and swung the axe, smashing a row of

clay steins on the counter.

"Oops!" cried Talorin. "I think maybe it's time I take my

leave!" And, with that, he hopped out a round window.

"Farewell!" he called, his voice already distant in the

woods. "I'll give Kronin your best!"

"Come back!" raged Groag, holding the axe aloft and

dashing out the tavern door. "Come back and let me thank

you and all your meddling race!"

The remaining patrons pressed back to the circular tree-

trunk wall for safety and looked at each other in disbelief.

Then the elf, a twinkle coming to his eye, began to chuckle.

His cheeks reddened merrily. The others slowly joined him,

and soon everyone was laughing.

"Well, how do you like that?" said the elf, wiping a

cheerful tear from a pale blue eye as he returned to pick up

his chair. "Some people just don't know how to say thank

you."

Everyone was now roaring heartily and shaking their

heads in amusement as they resettled themselves into their

chairs to resume their drinking.

All, that is, except old Pug. He only sighed deeply as he

returned to his counter to sweep away the shards of his

broken clay steins. Once again, as he knew would happen, a

kender had left without paying his tab.

 

Definitions of Honor

Richard A. Knaak

 

They called the village Dragon's Point. It was a grand

name for a tiny human settlement located at the tip of a

peninsula northeast of Kornen. Fishtown might have been

more appropriate. All who lived in Dragon's Point played

some part in the fishing trade. Young and old, men and

women.

Visitors were rare in this part of the world: a few traders,

a wandering soul, even a minor cleric now and then. A

Knight of Solamnia, then, should have been a sight rare

enough to make every villager cease his work and stare in

astonishment. At least that was what Torbin had believed.

Yet, they did little more than eye him suspiciously and then

disappear into their respective homes. They seemed more

frightened than surprised.

Those standing nearest to him - those that did not run or

sneak away - watched him with narrowed, covetous eyes.

His personal wealth amounted to little, but it must have

seemed a king's treasure to these folk. His hand strayed to

his sword just long enough to warn potential bravados. The

message shot home with the swiftness of an arrow. Torbin

soon found himself alone in the midst of the very village he

had come to protect.

A young knight, he had a tremendous desire to prove

himself to the world. He wanted to make a name for

himself, something that would gain him the respect of the

elders of his order, something that would make the common

folk gaze at him in wide-eyed admiration. In short - though

he would not have admitted it to himself, much less to

anyone else - Torbin wanted to be a hero.

Most of his fellows had chosen to go south toward the

more populous regions. They would fight a few bandits,

stare down a few peasants, and come back boasting of their

great struggles. Torbin wanted much more than that. He

wanted a real struggle, a worthy adversary. That was why

he had chosen to head toward Kornen and then up the

peninsula. The minotaurs lived near here. Savage man-

beasts with their own code of honor.

A commoner, making his ways to the more hospitable

lands to the southwest, had spoken of the village held in a

grip of terror by a great band of minotaurs. The man-beasts

prowled the woods and marched along the shore. Any day

now they would surely overrun the helpless settlement.

Torbin suspected the commoner of being a great

embellisher, and further questioning proved him correct in

that assumption. The great band was reduced to one lone

minotaur and a few whispered but unaccountable incidents.

The situation seemed ideal.

Two weeks later, Dragon's Point's new savior had

reached his destination.

It stank heavily of fish.

Three slightly better-dressed men met him at the village

center. By their continual bickering over which of them was

to speak - none of the three seemed to want the actual honor

- he assumed them to be members of the local governing

power. As a matter of fact, they turned out to be the mayor,

the chief fisherman, and the tax collector. Torbin took the

choice out of their hands by steering his horse toward the

mayor. The man looked ready to faint, but managed to

sputter out a greeting. The knight removed his helmet and

returned the greeting.

The three elders seemed a bit disappointed in his

youthful appearance. Torbin was clean-shaven and rather

handsome, though his nose hooked slightly. His eyes were a

bright blue, which seemed to accentuate his lack of

experience. His brown hair contrasted greatly with the

blond locks that dominated in this village. The tax collector,

a weed of a man who stared down his prominent nose at

everyone, sniffed at the newcomer with open disdain. The

others shushed him.

"My name is Torbin. I am merely seeking a place to stay

for a night before I continue my journey." He had decided

to play it dumb for the time being, the better to check the

accuracy of his own information.

The mayor, a plump, bald man with the unlikely name of

Hallard Boarbreaker, looked even more distressed. "Then

you have not come to save us from the minotaurs?"

The knight stiffened. "Minotaurs? I vaguely remember

hearing that the islands of the great man-beasts were said to

be somewhere near here, out beyond the Blood Sea of Istar,

correct?" He waited for them to nod. "I know nothing about

your plight. How many? How near?"

Between the three of them, he eventually discovered that

there was indeed only one such creature, though it had

originally arrived in a boat with others. The rest had

immediately turned around and headed for home, to plan

more war strategy, no doubt. The remaining minotaur had

situated itself somewhere on the shore, though from their

inconsistent accounts, the exact location could be anywhere

within an hour's to a day's ride. The one thing all three

agreed on was that this minotaur must be an advance scout

for an invading army. Those brave enough to spy on the

creature had reported that it sat in the same spot every day,

cutting sharp sticks from wood it gathered and staring out at

the sea in expectation.

A grand image was swiftly forming in the young knight's

mind. He pictured himself standing over the gutted body of

the horrific minotaur, his sword bearing the severed head of

the beast on its point. A better trophy he could not have

asked for. It did not occur to him that such a scene could

easily be reversed. He was, after all, a Knight of Solamnia.

Looking as stern as possible, he nodded. "Very well.

Come the dawn, I will ride out to deal with the minotaur.

Before the sun sets, I will be back with its head. You have

my word on it."

They looked rather dubious at this last statement, but

thanked him nonetheless. If he succeeded, they would be all

too happy to honor him with a feast. If he failed, they

would be no worse off than if he had never come.

At Torbin's request, they found him a place to stay for

the night. He was also served one of the finest meals the

inn's cook had ever made, though the knight himself had

never really been that fond of fish and thus did not realize

the trouble the woman had gone through. As it was, he was

barely able to down the foul dish. Torbin was also ignorant

of the fact that she had outdone herself for the sole reason

that she believed this young man was going out to die and

deserved one last fine meal.

Torbin made no attempt to converse with those who

drifted in and out of this poor attempt at a public inn. The

few who stayed for very long only glanced his direction,

that same hungry look in their eyes. The knight found

himself anxiously awaiting the morrow.

He bedded down for the night - it could only loosely be

called a bed, being more of a bug-ridden mattress on a

piece of wood - and eventually drifted off into sleep despite

his numerous tiny companions. In his dreams he finally

found pleasure, skewering his hapless foe a thousand

different ways, each one more daring and skillful than the

one preceding it.

 

He rode quietly, hoping not to alert the minotaur. The

tracks he had come across were fresh and spoke of a large

beast. Torbin's pulse quickened. Legends said the minotaurs

were crafty fighters, as skilled in their own way as the

Knights of Solamnia. They also had their own code of

honor of which some of the older knights had spoken with

great respect.

For a short time, he was forced to ride around trees on a

path that could be described as maddening at best. It twisted

this way and that, and the knight even found himself

momentarily facing the direction he had just come from.

Abruptly, it turned toward the coastline and led him to a

gritty, open area.

Off to the north, his left, he saw the lean-to; nearby sat

the feared minotaur, his great horned head bent over some

unknown task.

Using the natural curve of the land to hide him, Tor-bin

readied his sword and shield and backed the horse up in

order to give it more time to build up speed before he

clashed with the minotaur. A smile flickered on his face. He

took a deep breath, quickly searched his mind for any

options he might have missed, and then spurred the horse

on.

The warhorse's great speed quickly ate away at the

distance between Torbin and the minotaur. The knight saw

his adversary stand at first notice of the noise and turn

quickly toward him. The minotaur was unarmed, but there

were a large number of long wooden shafts beside it. The

man-beast could easily reach one of them long before

Torbin came close enough to strike.

Nevertheless, the minotaur made no move toward its

weapons. Torbin's grim determination gave way to puzzled

indignation. He had never struck down an unarmed foe. It

went against everything he considered honorable, even

when fighting a creature such as the minotaur.

They would close soon. The minotaur had still not

reached for a weapon and, in fact, looked ready to die. With

a sudden curse, the young knight pulled sharply on the reins

of his horse, trying desperately to go around the creature

rather than run into it. He did not think even a minotaur

could survive the blows of a trained warhorse if the victim

had no intention of defending itself.

The horse finally allowed itself to be turned. For several

seconds, man and steed whirled wildly around as the horse

fought to rebalance itself. Torbin lost his sword in an

attempt to keep the reins from slipping from his hands. The

horse snorted loudly and then slowed. The knight was able

to regain his own balance and pull the horse to a halt. It was

then that he first noticed the loss of his weapon.

He twisted around and locked gazes with the minotaur. The

massive creature calmly walked over to the sword and

picked it up. Turning it so that the hilt pointed toward

Torbin, the minotaur returned it to him. The knight blinked,

then accepted the blade. The minotaur returned to its

carving, staring once more out at the Blood Sea while it

worked.

Torbin led his horse so that the minotaur's view would

be blocked. The creature looked up at him. Torbin pointed

the sword at the minotaur.

"Will you stand and fight? I've always been told that

minotaurs were courageous, fierce warriors, not cowards!"

The man-beast's nostrils flared, but it made no attempt

to attack. Instead, it put down one stick and began work on

another. Torbin grew angrier. How was he to prove himself

if his adversary refused to fight? His sense of honor

prevented him from striking an opponent who refused

battle.

The minotaur chose that moment to talk. Its voice was

deep and tended to rumble like thunder. "I would rather talk

than fight, Knight of Solamnia, who is too far from home.

Please, join me."

It took several seconds for the words to sink in. Tor-bin

stared at the minotaur. With those first words the minotaur

became a person, not an "it" like so many people, including

Torbin, considered the individual members of the minotaur

race to be. Torbin accepted the invitation without thinking.

It did not occur to him until he had dismounted and

sheathed his blade that the minotaur could have easily

skewered him several times.

"Sit here." His unusual host indicated a spot next to his

own. Torbin followed his lead.

"Who are you? Why do you disturb me? I have done

nothing save sharpen a few sticks." The minotaur was

genuinely annoyed, as if this were his personal beach and

no one else's. He paused in his labors to inspect the latest

stick. Grunting, he threw it away.

Torbin, who had not expected to play question games with

a full-grown minotaur, took some time in answering. He

was still not sure that he was not sitting in some sort of

elaborate trap. Minotaurs were highly intelligent creatures

who enjoyed proving their superiority over other races.

The minotaur repeated his questions. Torbin saw no

reason not to relate the truth. The creature nodded as he

listened to him go over the story of his arrival in Dragon's

Point, the fears of the people there, and what the town

elders had asked of him.

The creature shook his head. "Humans! So ready to fall

prey to the shadows of fear. Your race has a mind;

it should learn to use it."

Torbin did not disagree, but felt the case was rather

overstated. Men, he told the minotaur, were not all the

same. Some were brave, some were fools, some had honor,

some were thieves.

"Let us talk of honor." The minotaur's gaze was oddly

intent. He had completely abandoned his woodwork.

Having never studied the minotaurs or their way of life,

Torbin allowed the man-beast to go first. The creature

turned his eyes once more to the sea. Torbin looked, but

could see nothing but the eternal motion of waves rolling

toward the shore.

"Minotaurs, like some men, believe that honor is first

and foremost."

The knight nodded. "Without honor, a man's life is

worthless. He is damned. The tale of Lord Soth is legend

among the Knights of Solamnia."

"I have heard the tale. The knight who abandoned his

mate for an elf woman, condemned now to haunt the halls

of his castle, reliving his crimes to his family and friends."

"That is essentially correct."

The man-beast seemed to consider something. "Was he

an honorable man before this great transgression?"

"To my knowledge. As I understand it, he was high ly

thought of by all among the orders. That is what makes his

crime that much more terrible. To abandon honor so

abruptly. It is unthinkable."

"Apparently not. Soth did so. I wonder what he felt?"

Torbin shrugged. Only Soth knew, and no one was going

to take the risk to ask him.

The minotaur blinked. "On the islands, honor is

everything. It sets us above the lesser races. The elves claim

they are honorable, but they are perhaps the greatest

tricksters other than kender. Worse yet, they will not fight.

They run and hide, shouting all the while that it's none of

their concern, they had nothing to do with it, it wasn't their

fault. In the end, they are an old, cowardly people."

Torbin, who had never met an elf face-to-face and had

heard a number of stories concerning them, could not judge

how much truth the minotaur's statements contained. He did

know, however, of the rather egotistical attitude of the

minotaurs in general.

"One day, the minotaurs will swarm from the islands and

conquer all of Krynn. Our leader claims that. His

predecessor claimed that we are the supreme race."

Fearing the conversation was steering toward the blind

rhetoric of superiority the minotaurs were famous for,

Torbin dared to interrupt. "You were speaking of honor?"

The minotaur nodded. "On Mithas and Kothas, we fight

for our place in society. In the name of honor, we slay one

another. A minotaur who does not fight has no honor. He is

a coward, a non-being."

"A cruel society. The Knights of Solamnia would never

permit such useless bloodshed."

The minotaur gave a fierce snort. Torbin froze, sure that

the man-beast was preparing to jump him. As the snorting

continued, the young knight realized the minotaur was

laughing. There was no humor in his laughter, though.

"I have heard many tales of the Knights of Solamnia.

You are well respected by my people. There are stories of

bands of knights who have fought on, refusing to yield their

position, until all are dead. Forget that in many

circumstances they could have retreated to better ground, to

fight another day. I have heard of knights who have taken

their own lives because they have shamed themselves

before their fellows."

Torbin's hand went to the hilt of his sword. "What you

say is true; there are such tales. Yet, you twist them so that

they sound like acts of - "

"Blind pride and stupidity. Are honor and pride really so

important to you, young knight? If a friend died because

you were lax, would you leave the Knighthood?"

"A knight who fails in his duty is not worthy of his

title." The quote by one of his instructors came to Tor-bin

with little difficulty.

"Could you not make up for your mistake?"

"The friend would still be dead. It would still be my

responsibility."

The minotaur sighed, a sound much like a roaring wind.

"How long would you go on paying for that mistake? Ten

years? Twenty? If you should save a dozen lives, would

you still punish yourself for that one?"

"Your question is beyond the point of ridiculousness."

"Is it?" The man-beast studied his own hands. "Would

you run a man through from the back? A man who did not

even know there was a hint of danger?"

Torbin gasped. "A minotaur might slay a man in such a

way, but a Knight of Solamnia would never do such a foul

deed! I would challenge him!"

"Indeed? What if you knew this man could easily

outfight you? What if you knew that, if he survived, he

would cause the deaths of many?" The minotaur's eyes now

bore deep into the young knight's. "I ask again, are honor

and pride such good things? Must we always do 'the right

thing'? "

Torbin did not answer. He was confused. The minotaur's

words made some sense, yet, they could not.

The man-beast turned away from him, an almost sad

look in his eyes. Torbin waited, but the minotaur would not

speak. Instead, he commenced once more with his carving.

The knight sat and watched him for a few minutes more,

and then he stood up. The minotaur paid him no mind and

went on carving another shaft. Torbin returned to his horse

and mounted up.

He rode away without looking or speaking to the

minotaur again.

 

The mayor, the chief fisherman, and the tax collector

were all waiting for him. As he rode up to them, he noticed

how their eyes kept returning to the sword in his sheath. He

remembered his earlier promise and gritted his teeth. The

mayor stepped forward.

"Is the beast dead, then? Would that I had been there!

We feared for you - such a silly thing! Did you severe his

head from his body? Campos!" The chief fisherman

trundled forward, picking his yellowed teeth as he walked.

"Have some of your boys drag the carcass back here! We'll

put it where all can see it!"

"The minotaur is not dead."

Torbin might well have demanded the mayor's firstborn

child by the look on the man's pudgy face. The chief

fisherman looked grim and spat. The tax collector smiled

knowingly.

"Not dead?! Wounded? Run off, has he?"

This part was even more difficult for Torbin to get out.

"I did not fight him. We talked."

"TALKED?!?" all three shouted in one voice. A number

of villagers popped their heads out of windows and

doorways to see what the noise was all about. A few began

muttering and pointing in Torbin's direction. Someone

laughed harshly.

"I do not think he will harm you."

"Coward!" The mayor raised his fist, though his distance

to the knight did not shrink by even the minutest amount.

"I should have you run out of Dragon's Point!"

Torbin was turning red with anger. On top of everything

else, he did not need idiotic backwoods fishermen calling

him a coward for no reason at all. He pulled out his sword

with one swift motion and tucked the point neatly under the

plump man's chin. The mayor let out a gurgle and froze.

Villagers began pouring out of their homes, though none

moved close enough to lend the stout, blustery man a hand.

"I did not come here to be insulted. You know very little

about the situation as it really is. If it will satisfy you, I'll

keep an eye on the minotaur. Should he attempt to cause

any harm, I'll deal with him. Will that suit you?" In truth,

he could not have cared less if it did or did not. This

village, this whole region could be damned for all he cared.

It stank. The people stank even more.

The chief fisherman whispered something into the

mayor's ear. The mayor nodded as best he could,

considering the circumstances. The tax collector joined in.

Breathing a little slower now, Torbin removed the point

from the mayor's throat. After several seconds of

swallowing, the man was able to speak.

"It - it has b-been decided that your suggestion is quite

reasonable - " He paused as Torbin's grip grew tight around

the hilt of the sword. " - I mean REALLY reasonable.

Therefore, we will let you deal with the situation as it

stands. Provided - " The mayor hesitated again until he felt

it safe " - provided that you give us your oath that you will

kill the creature at the first sign of hos-hostility."

Torbin sheathed his sword and eyed the three in disgust.

"Agreed."

The meal he received that evening was far inferior to

the one the night before, though Torbin was unaware of it.

He had a great desire to leave this village. He was sick of

fish already and sick of these people. The minotaur was

better company than these thieving worm-diggers, despite

his maddening questions. Were it not for his pride, the

young knight might have ridden out of the village there and

then. As it was, he merely retired early, relieved to be away

from the inhabitants of this godforsaken village and

anxious to see what the next day would bring.

 

Sunrise saw him far from the village, nearing the shore

where the minotaur made his home. The man-beast was

there; in fact, he looked as if he had not budged from the

spot since yesterday. As usual, he was carving. Torbin

wondered why the ground was not littered with short spears

from his previous efforts. Perhaps the minotaur used them

for hunting at night, the knight reasoned.

He steered the horse toward the minotaur. The animal

snorted its displeasure at being forced to go peaceably

toward what it considered a major threat. Training won out,

though. Torbin was master and must be obeyed. The

minotaur continued to gaze out at the sea so intently that the

young knight was unsure whether the creature knew of his

presence.

As if on cue, the minotaur spoke. His gaze remained fixed

on the Blood Sea. "Welcome back, Knight of Solamnia.

You're early."

Torbin had not been aware that he had had an

appointment, but he chose to say nothing. Today, he wanted

to talk to the minotaur, find out more about the man-beast's

homeland. By his manner, the minotaur was unlike many of

his race. The tales of bloodthirsty, arrogant monsters was

too consistent to be entirely false.

Buried in his subconscious, hidden by a number of

excuses, lay the true reason for his visit; Torbin's mind was

now riddled with doubts about himself and that which he

had believed in until now.

" I have come to a decision today."

The knight blinked. "A decision?"

The minotaur spoke as if Torbin's words had gone

unheard. "I have come to a decision today. Honor and pride

are nothing without reason. It is not an abrupt decision; in

fact, it is the same decision I made long ago. There is a time

to fight, a time to give up one's life for another, and a time

to run. Tomorrow, the run will be over."

"Run?" Torbin climbed off his horse very quietly lest he

destroy the minotaur's chain of thought. The man-beast

ignored him. He seemed to be watching every wave,

marking every turn of the breeze.

"Minotaurs must fight for their place in society. A

minotaur who does not fight does not exist. He shames his

family. They call him 'kenderwhelp' or 'elf-bastard.' Even

'manling.' He is shunned by those who know him and

cursed by those who do not. Might makes right; honor is

all."

The minotaur abruptly turned to Torbin, who had forgotten

to sit, so intent was he on following the other's words.

"Tomorrow, honor will be returned. No longer will they

hold their heads in shame." The final word sounded almost

like a curse. The minotaur threw his latest effort far into the

sea. He watched it hit with an unruly splash and then vanish

from sight.

Torbin found himself oddly concerned. "What happens

tomorrow?"

"Is it pride or love? Is it honor or fear?" The man-beast

stood. For the first time, Torbin noticed the small, neat

stack of short spears. Each point had been finely honed.

The best of the minotaur's work. "Forgive me if I leave you

so soon. I have preparations to make which must be made

in private. I ask you not to follow me. I will harm no one."

Torbin protested, but the minotaur held up one massive,

clawed paw. "I know what the village thinks. They are

humans, after all, with human idiocies. Let them believe

what they wish to believe. Come the morrow, they will

know the truth of things."

The minotaur chose two of the sharpened sticks and

hefted them, his skill and knowledge evident as he dropped

one in favor of another. Eventually satisfied with two, he

trudged off toward the woods, his huge feet leaving deep

holes in the soft ground. Torbin estimated him to be well

over seven feet when standing upright, seven feet of

fighting minotaur, undoubtedly a champion among his race

if he so chose.

Yet, he had not. Torbin could only guess at the twisted

turn the other's life must have taken.

He returned to the village shortly thereafter, refusing to

acknowledge the mocking stares of the inhabitants. Most of

the day was spent checking and rechecking his equipment,

running through his exercises, caring for his horses. It was

all done halfheartedly, like some sort of stalling maneuver.

Torbin could not find it in himself to push on, but at the

same time could not stand the thought of staying any

longer. He could feel the eyes at his back, hear the whispers

and curses.

He stayed the night at the inn again, this time completely

avoiding any meal even remotely smelling of fish. He had

long ago learned to live off the land. He did not even

consider eating something else; food prepared in the village

left a bitter taste in his mouth.

 

He woke at first light, the decision to leave this place

firmly planted in his mind. Despite such grand

determination, however, he still found himself packing as

the sun neared midday. That was when the decision was

taken away from him. 'The minotaur had entered the

village.

The people were in a panic. Women were pulling

children off the streets. Men rushed to the town elders,

demanding that something be done. The town elders, once

again led by the less-than-eager mayor, in turn rushed to

Torbin, demanding that he do as he promised or suffer the

consequences. Torbin idly wondered what sort of

consequences the mayor could have in mind if he really

thought the minotaur was there to destroy the village. Did

he expect the minotaur to wait his turn?

The man-beast did not slink into the village. Despite

being realistically outnumbered should the villagers

discover their backbones, he walked straight and tall. Even

the tallest man in the village came no higher than his

shoulder. There was disdain in the minotaur's eyes;

Dragon's Point was no argument for the strengths of man. It

smelled. The people were dirty, cowardly. Among all of

them, only the Knight of Solamnia, an outsider, deserved

respect. The others deserved nothing - not even notice.

Minotaur and knight met just before the center of the

village. Torbin forewent meeting the other on horseback,

which would have given the knight a psy chological edge.

The minotaur had given no indication that he had come to

fight. Torbin could do no less.

Revealing empty hands, the man-beast acknowledged

the knight. Torbin returned the greeting. The villagers had

mostly vanished by this time; a few hardy souls dared to

stand in the shadows and watch. The mayor and his allies,

more out of fear for their positions than their lives, actually

remained out in the street, only a few yards from the

encounter itself. The minotaur did not even glance in their

direction.

"I have come to you because you are the only one

worthy of notice amongst this rabble." The minotaur's

breathing was ragged, as if the man-beast had been running

or was anxious about something. Torbin studied the other's

form. With the exception of a loincloth, the minotaur was

bare of any sort of clothing. Though the fur-covered skin

glistened slightly, it was not the sweat of heavy movement.

The knight's curiosity deepened.

"What is it you wish of me?" Torbin did not bother to

whisper. No one was close enough to hear him.

The words were difficult for the man-beast to get out. "I

ask that you follow me back to the shore. Today things will

come to a proper conclusion. The village will have no need

to fear me anymore."

The knight wanted to know more, but his trained eye

could see that the minotaur was under heavy strain and

wanted to be away from those he still considered his

lessers, despite his rather peaceful ways. "I'll need to get my

horse."

"One hour. No later." As an afterthought - "Please hurry.

Time is short."

The minotaur turned to leave and again noticed how the

villagers scurried out of sight whenever he turned toward

them. He turned back to Torbin and glared, not at him, but

at the village and what it represented. "They live in constant

fear here, yet they will not leave. A stupid lot. One more

thing you can tell them: should they even come near the

shore this day, they will bring the wrath of the supreme race

down upon them. There will be nothing but ashes to mark

where this village once stood. Understand that I do not

threaten; what I say is merely fact."

Torbin stood there and absorbed the full impact of the

minotaur's words as he watched him stalk off, purposefully

noticing every human on his way out. The knight doubted

any warning was necessary. It was more stubbornness than

bravado that kept the villagers at the tip of the peninsula.

What their ancestors had been like Torbin could only guess.

The present inhabitants of Dragon's Point, however, were

not the adventurous type.

He relayed the minotaur's message to the mayor and

those villagers who had already dared to step foot out of

their homes and was more than pleased by their reactions.

Torbin had almost as little love for these people as the

minotaur had; it was his duty, though, to protect them in

spite of themselves. For that reason alone - not his chief

reason, assuredly - he would be at the minotaur's dwelling

by the time of the deadline.

Returning to his restless steed, he mounted up. Though

it would have been to his preference if the horse had

charged, he forced himself to keep the animal under control

and make it trot slowly through the village street. The

mayor, who seemed to have nothing better to do than to

stand in the streets, wished him the best of luck in what the

people of Dragon's Point had now assumed was at long last

the great battle. Torbin focused his eyes straight ahead and

remained silent. He would explain the truth when it was all

over.

The minotaur was at the shore when Torbin arrived. The

huge man-beast was startingly swift. He was sweating and

breathing heavily, but he was far from exhausted. He

greeted the knight with a slight nod of his massive, horned

head. Torbin dismounted and sat down beside him. The

minotaur waited until his breath returned to him before

speaking.

"The village is in no danger from my people. It probably

never will be. Dragon's Point is nothing - a foul-smelling

pool of your people's dregs. In fact, its presence may very

well be important to us. It lets us point at humans and say

'see them - see how weak and pathetic they are.' "

The dark brown eyes shifted to the familiar horizon.

Torbin automatically followed suit and thought he saw

something in the distance. A speck, little more.

Letting loose an animalistic snort, the minotaur said,

"My people. Despite their prowess, their disdain for the

'lesser' races, they are less than gully dwarves in some

ways."

The man-beast's words startled Torbin. From what he

understood of the race, such words were nearly treason. The

minotaur gave his equivalent of a smile, one filled with

more mockery than humor.

"We are blind to our faults. The lesser races have no

need to fear us. We will continue to kill and maim one

another in order to prove our individual superiority and gain

ourselves rank. We have done so for as long as memory has

existed and will do so until the Final Day. It is our way; it

has become . . . habit."

The minotaur's eyes never strayed from the Blood Sea.

Now, they widened ever so little. Torbin, trained to notice

such minor things, turned his attention back to the sea. The

speck was still there, but it was now just close enough to be

identified.

It was a boat.

He heard the minotaur groan softly and looked at him.

The massive creature stood up and stretched. His animallike

features contorted in an attempt to frown. "Thus it begins

again. For their sakes."

The words did not seem directed to Torbin. Rather, they

were unconscious thoughts accidentally spoken out loud.

The minotaur peered intently at the incoming craft, as if

assuring himself that it was really there. He then bent over

and began selecting the best of his woodwork.

Torbin reacted instantly. If the passengers on the boat

meant trouble, he was more than willing to lend his strength

to that of the minotaur, whom he had come to think of as a

kindred spirit. To his surprise, however, a hand prevented

him from drawing his blade. He turned to find himself

staring into the bottomless, dark eyes of the man-beast.

"The feeling is appreciated, human, but I cannot permit

you to risk yourself. This is my battle. I ask that you only

observe." The minotaur would not remove his hand until

the knight had sworn an oath.

With incredible speed, the boat made its way toward the

shore. Though he should have expected it, Torbin was still

taken aback by the crew's appearances. They were all

minotaurs, to his eyes varying only slightly in appearance;

they wore some armor and carried swords or tridents. He

noted that as a group they stared at the first minotaur

whenever ab?e.

As the boat ran aground, four of the creatures jumped out

and helped drag it farther to shore. Watching them work,

Torbin could not help being awed by the strength in their

arms and legs. He tried to imagine a large, coordinated

force of minotaurs and shuddered. Better that they should

continue to kill one another than turn on the world itself. If

not for their brutal ways amongst themselves, they would

have swarmed over the eastern part of the continent long

ago.

Torbin's friend muttered, "I tried to convince them of the

idiocy of fighting one another. Only later did I realize what

that would result in. Fortunately, they were too ashamed of

me to listen."

There were six all together. None seemed as tall as the

original minotaur. They saluted him solemnly. The

minotaur saluted them back. The leader of the new band

glanced at the knight.

Torbin's companion spoke. "A Knight of Solamnia, here

to observe. The rules permit - no, demand - such a witness."

The leader snorted. His voice was even deeper than the

first minotaur's. "We greet you, Knight of Solamnia. The

honor of your order precedes you." He paused, considering

the other minotaur's statement. "I also accept you as

witness, though I believe it may very well be the first time

that one other than our race has stood for a possible

condemned."

Torbin forced himself to utter an empty, formal greeting.

Like and unlike fish, it left a bad taste in his mouth.

The leader turned back to the original minotaur. "Have

you come to terms?"

"I still remain the same. My thoughts have not changed."

The newcomer seemed almost sad. He tightened his grip

on the sword he carried. "Then there is nothing more to

say."

"Nothing. We may begin whenever you wish."

Turning to his own companions, the leader said, "Form

the circle. Alternate order."

There were three minotaurs armed with tridents. An equal

number, including the leader, carried huge broadswords.

Each minotaur, barring Torbin's companion, wore a

breastplate and arm and ankle guards. The six formed a

circle and held their weapons before them in ceremonial

style.

The original minotaur, carrying two of his best hand-

crafted stakes, stepped into the middle. He saluted the

others. They returned the salute. The leader gave a shout in

some tongue Torbin could not understand. The six dropped

into fighting stances. The single figure in the center copied

their actions almost immediately.

A trident flashed toward the encircled minotaur.

Armed with only the two stakes, the entrapped minotaur

ducked below the jab and thrust. The attacker backed

away, but two others moved in. A great gash appeared in

the right arm of the condemned man-beast. He showed no

sign of pain and fended off both weapons.

The battle began in earnest.

As one, they moved in with swift thrusts, jabs, and

counterattacks. Blood flowed freely. At least one attacker

went down. A sword fell near the condemned. He made no

move toward it. A trident point caught him in the side of

the chest. He grunted and stumbled to one knee. The over-

eager executioner charged into the circle, expecting to

bring an end to the fight. He was greeted with a stake to his

throat, which the trapped minotaur threw with amazing

power.

The loss of that weapon, though, was the condemned

man-beast's undoing. He was not allowed time to reach any

of the weapons that had been dropped. Nor could he defend

himself completely with only the stake in his left hand. The

edge of a blade cut into his good arm. A trident sank deep

into his chest. The minotaur fell back, still clutching the

simple weapon in his hand.

Three of the other minotaurs backed away. A single

executioner, armed with a trident, stepped toward the

bleeding, slumping form. The minotaur on the ground

closed his eyes.

Torbin remembered shouting something at that point,

but the exact words would forever be lost. One of the

minotaurs turned toward him and made sure he did not

interfere. His emotions screamed for him to interfere - to

stop the final blow - but the Training and the Oath held him

back. The empty words made him pause that one initial

moment.

The trident came down with terrible speed.

It was over quickly. The outcome had never been in

doubt, though the possible damage was. Blades had thrust,

tridents had jabbed. All the while, two simple, sharpened

sticks had attempted to hold them off while also trying to

reach targets of their own.

The condemned lay crumpled in a large heap, the

broken points of a trident sticking out of the side of his

chest. The owner of the trident would not care about the

loss of his weapon; he lay sprawled no more than a foot

away, blood flowing from the opening which had once been

his neck. Slightly away from the two, a third limp form lay

spread across the ground, a gaping wound in the stomach

his undoing.

Of the remaining four minotaurs, not one had escaped

some sort of injury. The leader sported a jagged cut on his

right arm, made just before the final thrust of his own

weapon. Two of the others, covered with minor cuts, were

attempting to remove part of a wooden stake from the leg of

the third. Torbin's companion had more than accounted for

himself.

After assisting the minotaur with the leg wound aboard the

boat, the other three quietly turned to the task of picking up

the dead. They carried both of their fallen comrades to the

vessel, but completely ignored the remaining corpse.

Torbin could stand no more. He had sworn that he

would not interfere, and he had not. The pure callousness of

the man-beasts, however, had shaken him completely. He

pulled forth his sword and stepped forward, shouting such

violent curses at them that they could not possibly pretend

to not hear.

At first he thought they would all come charging at him.

The leader, though, raised his good arm and prevented any

movement by his warriors. Alone, he walked calmly over to

the knight.

"We have no quarrel with you, Knight of Solamnia. You

are here as witness, no more. Do not force disaster upon

yourself." The minotaur eyed Torbin's weapon as if it were

a child's toy. Compared to his own massive weapon, it

might have been.

"You can't leave him there! He fought against

impossible odds and fought admirably!"

The minotaur glanced coldly at the remaining body. "It

was to be expected of him ... to make up for his cowardice.

He brought shame upon his family, so great and strong . . .

until now." The cold stare fixed on Torbin. "You would not

understand. You are still only a human, even if one of the

Knights of Solamnia."

Torbin's grip tightened on his sword hilt. "Then explain

it to me. Please."

The man-beast sighed. "His family is great and powerful.

For ten generations, they have had a champion, a living

symbol of our superiority. He was to be the symbol of this

generation." The voice lowered. The coldness slipped away

without warning, revealing a figure silently fighting

anguish. "Some say he must have met a cleric on one of his

journeys to the continent. They are known to seek out our

kind, subvert them to the weak gods of the humans and the

other races. No one would have expected it of him. Not the

preaching of peace, of dwarves and kender being our equals

- ha! - or of us abandoning the games! How else can we

find our place in society? Who would we choose for our

leaders? An unblooded cow?"

The minotaur stiffened, his mask on once more. "Thus

he was given the choice. His family was disgraced. Combat

was their only hope. We would see if his cowardice was so

great that he would pull his family down with him, for they

would have suffered if he had refused combat. Such

weakness can only be inherited."

Torbin sheathed his weapon, but did not otherwise

move from his place. "This? This is combat?"

"He could have run. We gave him days to prepare or

flee. The choice was his."

"That is no choice."

The minotaur sighed once more. "As I said, you would

not understand our way of honor. It is not your fault.

Forget it and return to your kind. The scales have been

balanced; honor has been returned to his family."

"He deserves burial."

"His honor has been vindicated. His crimes can never

be. It is forbidden to bury criminals on home soil."

One of the other minotaurs came up behind the leader

and whispered something. The leader thought for a

moment and nodded. "This one would speak to you alone.

He is kin to the condemned."

The leader returned to the boat. The newcomer sniffed

in the direction of Torbin, apparently finding his odor

offensive. He pointed at the body. "I have been given

permission to make a request of you."

Puzzled, the knight allowed the minotaur to continue.

"Despite his weakness, I would have my kinsman buried

with some sort of ceremony. He was good before the

madness overtook him."

Torbin mentally questioned who was actually mad.

Aloud, he said, "What do you want of me?"

"You seem to be a fr - companion or acquaintance. I ask

if you will give him burial. I will compensate you for your

time. I know how much humans value m - "

The knight cut him off, shocked by the insinuation. "I

will bury him. I want no money."

The minotaur blinked in confusion, then nodded slowly.

"Thank you. I must return to the boat now."

Torbin watched while the creatures pushed the boat

back into the water. Only then did he realize that the

minotaur who had asked for the burial of his kin had also

been the final executioner. He wondered briefly if this were

another part of minotaur custom.

The leader glanced at him briefly, but made no attempt

to communicate. Torbin continued to watch the vessel as it

began its journey home. He did not turn away until it was

no more than a tiny speck on the horizon.

The knight chose a spot near the site of the lean-to yet

well hidden from the prying eyes of the locals. It was a

shallow grave; the ground was too loose on top and too

hard about four feet down. In addition, he was forced to use

make-shift tools left behind by his friend, the minotaur.

The prayers lasted until the sun set. Torbin, his body

stiff, rose and wandered over to the lean-to. He picked up

the small, crude blade with which the lone man-beast had

created his handiwork. After studying it, he put it into one

of his pouches.

His mount greeted him energetically, inaction and the

scents of the minotaurs having caused him no end of

frustration. Torbin soothed the animal and then slowly

climbed on. He did not look back. *****

His reappearance in the village caused a great

commotion, despite the lateness of the day. Villagers

pressed around him, asking if the beast was dead. The

mayor and his cronies located him some five minutes later

while he was packing the rest of his gear onto his horse.

"Is it true? Have you dispatched the beast?" The mayor's

breath smelled of fish and beer.

"The minotaur is dead." Torbin continued to concentrate

on packing his equipment.

The group let out a rousing cheer. The mayor declared

the next day a holiday. A feast would take place, each

villager bringing food or drink as a contribution. The

victorious Knight of Solamnia would be the guest of honor.

Various members of the town council began vying for spots

at the main table. Others formed committees and

subcommittees designed to coordinate the feast. A few

talked of bringing the body back to the village. Eventually,

most of the townspeople drifted off to plan the next day's

events.

His own preparations complete, Torbin steadied his

horse and then remounted and moved away at a trot.

Villagers smiled or bowed in his direction as he rode;

others looked at him with puzzlement. The knight kept his

eyes on the path before him.

At the edge of town, a breathless mayor caught up to

him. "Sir Knight! Where are you going? Will you not join

us at our feast tomorrow? We wish to do you honor."

Torbin pulled the reins tight, bringing the trained

warhorse to a dead stop. He turned the animal around and

matched gazes with the round man for a full half-mmute.

The mayor shifted like a small child under his stare.

Then, as abruptly as he had stopped, Torbin turned his

horse back around to the path and rode off at a trot.

He did not look back.

 

Hearth Cat and Winter Wren

by Nancy Varian Berberick

 

The golden tabby eyed the caged squirrel with sleepy

interest. The squirrel panted miserably, not certain which

was worse: the grim possibilities inherent in the cat's white

teeth or the aching reality of his own imprisonment. The

cage, he decided wretchedly.

The cage made his bones hurt and his heart race hard in

frightening fits and starts. But when he saw the fire

smouldering in the cat's almond-shaped, green eyes, the

squirrel thought that it might not be such a bad thing that

there were bars between them.

TELL ME, SQUIRREL, the cat murmured, WHEN

DO YOU THINK HE'LL FEED US AGAIN?

OH, SOON, SOON, I'M SURE! the squirrel chattered.

VERY SOON. BUT I CAN'T IMAGINE YOU'RE STILL

HUNGRY. YOU ATE TWO MICE ONLY A LITTLE WHILE

AGO. . . . The squirrel winced, then flicked his tail and

scrubbed at his whiskers with his small white paws. He

didn't like to think about the mice or their helpless

scurrying. And he especially did not like to think about the

cool and deadly look of the cat as he licked his lips with his

rough pink tongue, or the pitiful crunch of little mousy

bones.

And they had been small mice. The squirrel wondered

whether the cage would hold if the tabby decided to knock

it from the table.

CAT, he said, trying to be as friendly and amiable as he

could through his fear, I THINK THERE MIGHT BE

ANOTHER MOUSE AROUND HERE SOMEWHERE.

JUST IN CASE YOU'RE HUNGRY, THAT IS. In some

place far back in his mind, he felt a little ashamed that he

would so readily cast another luckless creature into the cat's

jaws to save his own gray hide. But he ignored that. He

was, after all, a squirrel. And what are mice to squirrels but

cat food?

The tabby purred gently, the softness of the sound belied

by the hard glitter of his eyes. He leaped gracefully to the

table. SQUIRREL, he sighed. To the squirrel it sounded as

though the cat might be remembering with fondness a meat

he hadn't tasted in some time.

OH, CAT, OH, CAT, WHY DON'T YOU NAP A WHILE

IN THE SUN? THERE'S A LOVELY BIT OF SUNSHINE

THERE ON THE HEARTH. THERE HAVEN'T BEEN TOO

MANY WARM DAYS LIKE THIS. I SHOULD THINK

YOU'D WANT TO TAKE ADVANTAGE OF IT. HE'LL BE

BACK TO FEED US BOTH SOON.

And, in truth, the squirrel was hungry. He could almost

taste the sweet, chewy meat of a chestnut. Oh, for a nice

pile of chestnuts now! Or even a few bitter acorns.

A soft paw tapped at the bars. Chattering and scolding,

the squirrel made himself as small as he could and ducked

into the farthest comer of his cage. He was caught between

an instinctive need to be free of the confining cage and the

understanding that only the bars kept the cat at bay.

Frustrated, the squirrel flashed his tail once more.

The cat only purred again, the sigh of one who had decided

it best to save a tasty snack for later. He dropped to the

floor and went to preen in the golden splash of late

afternoon sun. Now and then he looked up at the squirrel to

yawn and grin.

The grin was deadly and dark and very confident.

 

Though the day had been warm, almost springlike, the

weather, as it often did in late winter, had changed swiftly

sometime just before night. Rain poured now from a dirty

gray sky, pounded angrily against the snug roof and walls

of Flint's house. The smell of the vallenwood's wet bark

mingled comfortably with the scent of a cozy fire.

The old dwarf carved a last, feathering stroke on the

small object he'd been whittling all afternoon. Not since he

had started work had he looked at what it was he was

making. There were times, when he was thinking hard

about something, or when he was very peaceful, that he

could simply let his hands take over. The result of his work

then was not craft but art.

The talk that night was desultory and wandering,

aimless paths of conversation that made for no goal but,

more often than not, returned to Tasslehoff's sudden and

urgent departure three days before. Urgent to Tas, at least.

It had to do with a talking wren. Tas had been certain

that the bird had spoken, pleading for help. His long brown

eyes had been bright with that certainty. No one had been

able to convince him otherwise. So off he'd gone like some

small knight on a quest.

And, everyone agreed, it was best to give Solace a chance

to cool its collective temper and forget about Tas for a time.

A winter-bound kender in Solace could do about as much

damage as a skulk of foxes in a henhouse, or an invading

army. Few folk had the patience for Tas's long and tangled

explanations about how he had simply "borrowed" the

missing item, truly meant to return it, and just couldn't

understand how the pilfered goods ended up in HIS

pouches.

Across the room Caramon's deep, bright laughter

pounced and overrode the quiet voices of his friends.

"A talking wren!" He attempted to raise the pitch of his

voice in imitation of the kender's piping insistence that he

had, indeed, spoken with a wren. He failed utterly. "And

one who asks for help, at that. Then off he goes with hardly

a good-bye."

Raistlin murmured something, and Tanis smiled. Sturm

only shook his head and continued to polish the already

gleaming blade of his sword.

Flint closed his hands over the little carving, rubbing the

edges of it with his thumbs. His home, these days, seemed

always to be filled with these oddly assorted young

comrades.

Tanis, the quiet, seemingly young half-elf whose hazel

eyes were alight now with good humor, seemed always to

have been here, though the old dwarf could remember a

time when he wasn't.

Caramon, all six feet of him, had made it his life's duty

to keep Flint's larder as empty as possible. Raistlin, thin

and as cloaked in uneasy mystery as he was now cloaked

by the shadows of the comer he habitually inhabited near

the hearth, was often so silent that one almost forgot he

was there. Almost . . .

And then there was Sturm, taller though slimmer than

Raistlin's brawny twin. This one should have matched

Caramon's high spirits flash for shine. But he did not. Too

grim by half! Flint thought now, watching the young man

working intently over his sword. The weapon must be as

perfect as its master strove to be.

"Tas'll be back," Caramon said, yawning. "How far can

he follow a bird, anyway?"

Tanis, quiet through most of the conversation, got to his

feet and stretched. "Likely not far. It's what catches his eye

after he's lost the bird that will keep him away." He smiled

and shook his head. The kender's attention was like a

feather on the wind. "Still, I don't doubt you're right,

Caramon. This rain will be snow before morning. We're not

done with winter yet, and Tas likes a warm fire and a good

meal as well as anyone. I don't think Solace is going to have

a chance to miss him before he's back."

"Miss him?" Raistlin left his seat by the fire and gave his

brother a quick look and Tanis a dour smile. "He could be

gone for a year and go unmissed around here. The hour is

late. Are you coming, Caramon?"

Caramon nodded, bade his friends good night, and

followed his brother from the room. Sturm was up and gone

a moment later, and the house was silent but for the

drumming rain on the roof.

Tanis poked up the fire in the hearth and poured himself

a last cup of wine. He settled down on the floor next to

Flint's chair and watched the flames dance.

"Talking wrens," he said, after a time. "I think it was

more boredom and restlessness. I can understand that. It has

been a long winter."

Flint snorted. "Long winters are fine, peaceful things

when they're not plagued by kender."

"And old dwarves are solemn, grim creatures when

they've no kender to be plagued with. You've had little

enough to say tonight, Flint."

"I've been working, and listening to your chatter."

Tanis eyed the little carving still nestled in Flint's hands.

He reached for it, asking permission with a questioning

smile. Flint reluctantly gave it over.

Tanis always met Flint's work with his hands first.

"Know what it is with your hands," the old dwarf had

taught him, "before you see what it is with your eyes."

Now the half-elf traced the careful detail, the artful

evocation of wing and feather. "Nice. A wren, is it?"

With a scowl he hoped was forbidding, Flint snatched

the wooden bird away. "Don't you have a home to go to?

Off with you now, and let me get some sleep."

Tanis rose gracefully and dropped a hand to his old

friend's shoulder. "Well, get some then, and don't spend the

night worrying about Tas. He'll be fine."

"Worry? Not me! Not unless it's to worry about the

person who is luckless enough to encounter him on his bird

chase. Talking wrens, indeed. As likely as finding a kender

with a brain that works. Good night, Tanis."

Tanis grinned. "Good night, Flint."

 

The hard, hollow scent of the cat's hunger filled the

small cottage now. There was murder in the golden tabby's

eyes.

You CAN'T BE NEARLY AS HUNGRY AS I AM, CAT!

the squirrel thought resentfully. Or at least he hoped not.

The cat had killed a third time just as the setting sun's

orange light gilded the windowsill. It was full dark now,

and the squirrel was glad that clouds and rain hid the moons

tonight. Lunitari's light might remind him too much of

blood.

I'M SO HUNGRY! AND SO THIRSTY! IF THAT

CAT KNOCKS THE CAGE OFF THIS TABLE TO

GET AT ME, I DON'T KNOW IF I'LL HAVE THE

STRENGTH TO RUN. THEN I'D REALLY BE UP A

TREE. . . .

Almost the squirrel laughed. He wished he WERE up a

tree, curled all safe and warm, his nose tucked into his thick

gray tail. With a nice fire blazing in the hearth.

Hearth?

The squirrel shook himself and whipped his tail over his

head. Where had that strange thought come from? What he

really wanted was a nice leaf-lined nest, a hearty cache of

nuts to nibble on from time to time, a little water from the

puddles on the ground ... AND SOME EGGS AND

CHEESE, A LITTLE FRESH BREAD AND NEW HONEY

... He wondered if hunger was making him lose his wits. He

wondered, too, when the man would return to feed him and

the cat.

The cat leaped onto the table again, rubbing against the

bars and making an ominous rumbling sound in his throat.

The squirrel could smell dead mice on the tabby's breath.

CAT, he ventured, YOU LOOK LIKE YOU NEED A

NAP.

I'VE BEEN NAPPING ALL DAY, SQUIRREL.

YOU'VE BEEN EATING ALL DAY.

I WOULDN'T MIND EATING ALL NIGHT.

The squirrel sniffed then and bared his teeth. BE

FAIR, CAT! YOU'VE EATEN EVERY POOR LITTLE

MOUSE WHO WAS FOOLISH ENOUGH TO COME

INTO THIS COTTAGE. I HAVEN'T HAD A THING TO

EAT SINCE I GOT LOCKED UP IN THIS HORRIBLE

CAGE. AND I DON'T THINK YOU'D FIND ME VERY

PALATABLE - I'LL BE SKIN AND BONES BEFORE

MORNING.

BONES, ANYWAY, the cat purred, IF I HAVE MY

WAY.

HE'LL BE BACK SOON, HE WILL.

HE MIGHT BE. SOMETIMES HE STAYS AWAY

FOR DAYS AT A TIME.

The squirrel felt his belly rub up against his ribs. Days!

Days in this dreadful cage with no food, no water, and a

hungry cat! He had to get out!

He'd no sooner had the thought than the cat lifted his

head, ears cocked, and glided silently across the table and

to the floor. Man-scent filled the air; booted footsteps

sounded outside the door. Twitching and trembling, the

squirrel rose onto his hind legs. He smelled food!

The man had food, indeed, but he took his time about

passing it out. He kicked off his boots at the door, sloughed

cold rain from his black robes, and complained in his deep,

rumbling voice about how the rain would soon turn to

snow, and about some wren that couldn't be found.

Wren? The wren . . . The squirrel wanted to think about

the wren, he knew he SHOULD be thinking about the wren,

that the wren was somehow important to him. But all he

could manage to concentrate on was the man as he went

about poking up the fire in the cold hearth and dropping,

from time to time, terrified mice from some hidden pocket

in his robe.

To the man's great amusement, the cat promptly

dispatched the first mouse, took his time with the second,

and only knocked the third one witless.

SAVING IT FOR LATER NO DOUBT, the squirrel

thought sourly. He smelled acorns, bitter and likely woody

and thin. All his patience fell away. Chattering furiously,

berating the man for his cavalier attitude toward his

starving condition, he threw himself against the wooden

bars.

"Ah! Yes, yes, I was getting around to it, noisy one."

The man reached into a pocket and pulled out a handful of

winter-dull acoms. Dark eyes coldly alight in a craggy face,

he slid them, one by one, into the cage.

GETTING AROUND TO IT! GETTING AROUND - !

The squirrel dove for the acoms. He lashed his tail here and

there, stopped once or twice to glare up at the man, and

finally managed to get the nuts all into a pile.

"Hungry, eh!" the man said. There was a hard light in

his black eyes that made the squirrel even angrier.

HUNGRY? OH, YES, YOU HIND END OF A MULE!

I'M HUNGRY! I'M STARVING! AND I'VE HAD TO

SPEND ALL DAY TRAPPED IN HERE WITH THAT

MURDEROUS VILLAIN OF A CAT!

The cat snarled and twitched the tip of his tail. Enjoying

both the tabby's reaction and the squirrel's anger, the man

laughed and stuck his finger between the bars of the cage to

taunt the squirrel some more.

Gleefully, the squirrel sunk his sharp little teeth into the

soft flesh of the finger. He almost didn't care that his brains

were nearly rattled out of his head when the man's fist

knocked the cage into the wall.

 

Caramon was certain that if it had been Tanis who'd

heard the wren's cry for help, or Raistlin, or Sturm, packs

would have been out, provisions gathered, and swords and

bows checked for readiness. As it was, he was the one the

wren had chosen to cry to this time, and Flint was not

having any of his story.

"But, I tell you," Caramon insisted, "I HEARD it!"

Flint sighed. He had been listening to this tale all

morning, and he was growing more than a little tired of it.

"Have done, now, won't you? It was barely a decent joke

when Tas tried it."

The brawny youth was not noted for his patience or for

any great skill at cunning or strategy in matters other than

martial. But his instincts were often good, and they served

him well now. He took a long breath, clamped his teeth

down on the loud protest he'd meant to make, and poured

another cup of ale. He looked around the deserted inn,

heard only Otik in the kitchen, and sighed heavily.

"Flint, listen," he said in what he hoped was a calm and

reasoning manner. "I was the first to laugh at Tas. I was still

laughing at him last night. I'm not laughing this morning,

because I heard the wren."

"The gods know," Flint muttered, "I will be more than

glad when winter is over. You youngsters are like colts

chasing the wind these days; you hear the call to run in

every stray breeze."

"Flint, the bird was asking for help. That's what Tas said,

and off he went. He's been gone for three days. And now

the bird is back."

"And you can tell one wren from another, can you?"

Caramon could not keep the mischief from his grin. "When

they speak, I can."

"Hah! You're starting to sound like your brother now."

That stopped the young man short, left him wondering to

what he must reply now: Flint's implied insult (though he

wasn't quite certain that he HAD been insulted), or the

dwarf's still patent disbelief. He was spared the need for any

retort when the door to the inn swung slowly open.

"Caramon, I think you'd better find your brother."

Sturm's was not the voice to which Caramon responded.

He heard, and from the comer of his eye he could see that

Flint had, too, the small piping of the wren. She rode

Sturm's wrist with serene confidence. The late morning

light glinted along a chain of tiny gold links around her

neck.

HELP! OH! HELP!

All the morning's trial of disbelief was worth that one

moment, Caramon thought as he bolted for the door, worth

that one, stunned look on the old dwarf's face. Laughing, he

clattered down the wooden steps from the inn built high in

the mighty vallenwood to the bridgewalks.

Around the town women looked up from their washing

and baking, merchants abandoned their customers to run to

windows, and children came flying from their games, all

wondering what it was that caused the big youth's

bellowing summons of his brother and his friend Tanis

Half-Elven.

When the squirrel awoke he was confused. He slept a lot, it

being still winter and he having some deeply rooted NEED

to sleep. But when he slept he dreamed. And there was the

source of his confusion: no squirrel ever dreamed during

long winter sleeps. And, as though the fact of the dreaming

wasn't enough, the dreams themselves were decidedly odd.

He dreamed about people. Not the gray-furred, broad-

tailed squirrel people. Humans walked in his dreams, and a

dwarf, and a long-eyed half-elf with hair the color of a fox's

pelt. In his dreams he knew who they were; sometimes he

spoke with them and they with him. And when they spoke

with him he knew - though he didn't quite understand how

he knew - that they were not speaking to a squirrel.

It was almost as though he were having someone else's

dreams.

Yawning now, stretching first his hind legs and then his

front, he poked among the neatly piled acorn shells for

some left-over tidbit. There was none.

He looked around the cottage, noted that the man was

gone again, though his scent still clung to everything in the

place, and then felt a sudden tightening of alarm: the cat

prowled restlessly from window to door to window.

NOT HUNGRY AGAIN, ARE YOU?

ALWAYS, the cat murmured without looking around.

YOU SLEEP A LOT, SQUIRREL. HE'S OFF AGAIN,

LOOKING FOR THE WREN.

The wren . . . Yes, WELL, I'D LIKE TO FIND HER

MYSELF. I THINK I MIGHT HAVE SOME UNFINISHED

BUSINESS WITH HER.

The tabby did look around then, his green eyes alight

with a certain careful curiosity. WITH THE WREN? AND

WHAT BUSINESS MIGHT THAT BE?

The squirrel wasn't sure, and said so. Again he felt

confused and uncomfortable. He remembered thinking the

night before that the wren meant something to him. Now,

though, when he tried to recall what it might be, he could

not. His attempts to remember were as distressing as his

dreams had been.

The cat padded silently across the room and leaped easily

onto the table. When the squirrel scolded and skittered to

the back of his cage, the tabby only yawned and smiled.

EASY, SQUIRREL, EASY. He eyed the squirrel closely,

and this time the squirrel had the impression that he was

not being considered as dinner. After a moment the tabby

twitched his tail and murmured, I THOUGHT - MAYBE -

BUT I SUPPOSE NOT. YOU'RE JUST A SQUIRREL,

AREN'T YOU?

I - I GUESS SO, responded the squirrel, THOUGH

SOMETIMES I DON'T QUITE FEEL LIKE ONE. MAYBE

IT'S JUST THAT I'M TRAPPED IN HERE, AND I HATE

IT. I SHOULD BE GRATEFUL, I SUPPOSE, THAT

THERE ARE BARS BETWEEN YOU AND ME, YOU

BEING AS HUNGRY AS YOU ARE ALL THE TIME - OH!

WELL, I DIDN'T MEAN ANY OFFENSE, OF COURSE -

OF COURSE, the cat murmured.

I DIDN'T REALLY, BUT YOU ARE A CAT AND LAMA

SQUIRREL, AND YOU CATS DO HAVE A TASTE FOR

SQUIRRELS FROM TIME TO TIME AND -

I AM NOT A CAT.

WHAT? WELL, OF COURSE YOU ARE. YOU'RE A

CAT, I CAN ASSURE YOU. AND YOU'D HAVE A HARD

TIME CONVINCING THE MICE YOU TERRORIZE

AROUND HERE THAT YOU AREN'T.

I AM NOT A CAT. The tabby raised his head, and for

the first time the squirrel noticed a small collar of braided

leather clasped loosely around his neck. Do YOU SEE

THAT?

THE COLLAR? VERY NICE.

AYE, the cat sighed, IT IS, AND SO I THOUGHT

WHEN SHE GAVE IT TO ME.

SHE? WHO?

THE WREN.

The wren. The squirrel was beginning to have a

headache. He closed his eyes and burrowed his nose into

his front paws. CAT, I DON'T KNOW WHAT YOU'RE

TALKING ABOUT.

NO, LIKE AS NOT YOU DON'T, BEING A SQUIRREL.

AND ONE WHO IS TOO CONFUSED TO WORRY

ABOUT WRENS AND COLLARS.

The tabby purred softly. WHAT CONFUSES YOU,

LITTLE ONE?

DREAMS, the squirrel sighed.

DREAMS . . . The cat cocked his head. DREAMS?

YES, DREAMS. AND SQUIRRELS AREN'T SUPPOSED

TO DREAM. I KNOW THAT. I KNOW THAT BECAUSE

I'M A SQUIRREL. BUT I STILL DREAM.

AND YET, the cat said, YOU WEAR NOTHING.

The squirrel blew his cheeks out indignantly. OF

COURSE NOT, OR NOTHING BUT MY SKIN. AND THAT

ONLY BECAUSE THERE'S A CAGE BETWEEN YOU

AND ME. WHAT ELSE AM I SUPPOSED TO WEAR?

YOU'D BE WEARING SOMETHING IF YOU WERE

MORE THAN A SQUIRREL. THE WREN WEARS A

GOLDEN CHAIN. I WEAR A COLLAR. IT KEEPS US,

DESPITE YOUR FORM, WHAT WE ARE.

The squirrel's headache was getting worse. I DON'T

UNDERSTAND.

I AM A MAN. MY NAME IS PYTR. THE WREN IS A

WOMAN WHOSE NAME IS, WELL, WREN. Pytr stretched

lazily, then curled up on the table next to the cage. It was a

long tale he had to tell, and he thought he might as well be

comfortable. It had begun to snow again, and the day was

waning. He was hungry and restless and worried. It helped

a little to have someone to tell his story to, even if it was

only a squirrel with a headache.

. . . AND SO, the wren sighed, WHEN I WOULDN'T

AGREE, WHEN I REFUSED TO FORSAKE PYTR FOR

HIM, THE MAGE LAID AN ENCHANTMENT UPON US

BOTH. "WREN," HE SAID, and she fluttered her wings a

little, a small shudder, "WREN YOU ARE CALLED AND

WREN YOU SHALL BE." AND - AND PYTR HE MADE

INTO A CAT. THEN I ESCAPED. I FLEW FAR AND

CAME TO SOLACE WHERE I FOUND THE LITTLE

KENDER WHO HEARD ME AND CAME TO HELP. AND

NOW THE MAGE HAS HIM, TOO.

OH, IS THERE NO WAY YOU CAN HELP US?

On the strength of that tale, Wren had led them far and

long, flying ahead and darting back, making sure the five

did not deviate from the way. All of her small strength was

for leading, for bringing help. She had none to talk and so,

though Caramon wondered and Sturm speculated, Tanis

and Raistlin agreed that greater detail must be garnered

later when Wren had recouped her strength. Flint neither

speculated nor wondered. He feared. And, since he did not

like to show it, he hid his fear behind a spate of grumbling

in which stone-headed kender played a large part. He

fooled no one.

They followed her through all of the snowy day and as

much of the night as they could. When camp was made,

Wren dropped again to her perch on Sturm's wrist. She was

comfortable there, sensing a steadiness and kindness in the

young man that gave her confidence. She only gripped him

lightly and tucked her head beneath her stippled wing as

though to rest.

"Wren," Sturm said gently. "Wren?"

She looked up, weary with flying and fear, and cocked

her head.

"What happened to the kender. Wren?"

THE SQUIRREL WAS UNHARMED WHEN I SAW HIM

LAST.

Sturm frowned, puzzled. They heard Wren's voice as a

bird's song with their ears, but in their minds they heard the

soft, gentle voice of a woman. This, at times, could be

confusing. But Sturm suddenly understood Wren's reply

when he heard Raistlin's dry, whispered laugh.

"What else?" the young mage asked. "What else would

you make a kender? This mage, whoever he may be,

understands kender as well as any it seems."

HE'S CAGED THE SQUIRREL. IT AMUSES HIM, I

THINK, AS IT AMUSED HIM TO MAKE A CAT OF PYTR

AND A BIRD OF ME.

Tanis winced at that. Flint growled low in protest. The

soul of a kender caged or bound would wear the bruised

colors of misery. "Who is this mage, Wren?"

RIEVE IS HIS NAME.

Raistlin lifted his head then, the way a man who scents

smoke on the wind does. Tanis glanced at him. Caramon,

silent till then, sat forward.

"Raist?" Caramon said, his hand moving reflexively to

the hilt of his sword lying scabbarded at his feet. "You've

heard of this mage?"

"He has an evil reputation, this Rieve. I've heard of

him." Raistlin smiled slowly then, humorlessly, as though

he understood the question his twin hesitated to ask. "But

you need have no fear, brother mine. Though I would be

foolish indeed if I did not acknowledge that Rieve's skills

are greater than mine might be now, I think he has gone so

far in his cruelty that he has given me a weapon against

him."

"A weapon?" Tanis asked.

Raistlin's pale blue eyes glittered. Had there been light

from the moons that night, its wash across the new snow

would have been as cold. "A weapon. Or perhaps four."

But though they pressed him, the young mage only

settled back into the warmth of his cloak and did not answer

further. He stared into the fire.

As Tanis set the night watches he wondered what

weapons Raistlin might be forging out of the silence and

the flame.

Pytr knew that the squirrel was in trouble. This was not, he

realized, a squirrel after all. The dreams said that. But what

he might be, Pytr did not know. He did know, however, that

whatever the squirrel might have been before now would

fade and vanish one day. With no piece of his real self to

cling to, whoever he might have been, he would wake,

dreamless, to find that he was indeed a squirrel. And likely,

Pytr thought with a cold shudder, he would never know that

there had been a time when he wasn't.

COME, SQUIRREL, TELL ME YOUR NAME.

MY NAME? SQUIRREL, I GUESS.

NO, TELL ME YOUR REAL NAME. I DON'T THINK

YOU ARE TRULY A SQUIRREL. WHAT IS YOUR REAL

NAME?

I DON'T KNOW.

THINK, WON'T YOU?

The squirrel tried, but thinking only made his head throb

worse. LET IT GO, CAT - PYTR. I THINK I'LL NAP.

I DON'T THINK YOU SHOULD.

WHY? MAYBE I'LL DREAM AGAIN, MAYBE . . .

Ah! The dreams. Pytr purred softly, nudged the squirrel

through the bars, and managed to ignore the cat-hunger that

reminded him just how tasty a squirrel could be. DON'T

SLEEP, SQUIRREL. TALK TO ME, EH? TELL ME, HOW

DID HE CATCH YOU?

RIGHT OUTSIDE THE DOOR. The squirrel sighed.

RIGHT OUTSIDE THE DOOR.

THAT'S WHY I THOUGHT YOU WERE REALLY A

SQUIRREL. I DIDN'T SEE HIM CHANGE YOU. I

THOUGHT - WELL, I'M SORRY, BUT I THOUGHT YOU

WERE DINNER.

I CAN UNDERSTAND HOW YOU WOULD. BUT I

STILL THINK I AM.

DINNER?

NO. A SQUIRREL. I DON'T REMEMBER BEING

"CHANGED." I THINK I'VE ALWAYS BEEN A

SQUIRREL.

SQUIRRELS DON'T DREAM, REMEMBER?

MAYBE CRAZY SQUIRRELS DO.

NO, NO, YOU'RE NOT CRAZY, SQUIRREL. Pytr made

a sound low in his throat that might have been a chuckle.

YOU'RE NOT CRAZY.

The squirrel looked up then, and Pytr thought he saw the

light of some memory shine in his black eyes.

NOT CRAZY - STONE-HEADED.

WHAT?

A STONE-HEADED . . . SOMETHING. THAT'S WHAT

HE ALWAYS CALLS ME. I DON'T THINK HE REALLY

MEANS IT, BUT THAT'S WHAT HE ALWAYS CALLS ME.

Pytr purred his satisfaction. WHO? WHO CALLS YOU

THAT?

But the light and the memory were gone. The squirrel

curled up again, nose to tail, and sighed heavily. I DON'T

KNOW. I CAN'T REMEMBER. WON'T YOU LET ME

SLEEP NOW, PYTR? I NEED TO SLEEP. IT'S WINTER. I

NEED TO SLEEP.

POOR SQUIRREL, Pytr thought. He slipped from the

table and crossed the room to the hearth. He didn't see any

way he could help, though he badly wanted to.

RIEVE, he thought, growling at the moonless night and

wondering if there were any mice to be had, YOU ARE

GOING TO HAVE SO MUCH TO PAY FOR.

 

There was a certain elegance about Raistlin's plan. Tanis

acknowledged it with a grin.

"What do you want us to do, Raistlin?"

"Eat."

Tanis frowned. "What?"

"Eat. Eat everything you can, all the provisions we

brought along." The young mage's lips twisted in a wry

smile. "That should be no trial for my brother, but everyone

should eat until he is full."

"But - "

"Don't debate with me, Tanis. I know what I'm doing. But,

I will tell you why. These are not the shapes of animals that

you will be taking on. You will BE these creatures. And the

primary need of an animal in winter is to be sure that his

belly is full. If that need is not satisfied, all of your other

purposes will fall aside. You will have, to a degree, your

own minds, but not your own bodies, nor your own

instincts. And instinct to an animal is what your mind is to

you. Do you understand?"

Tanis did, and he was not certain now that the plan was

quite so elegant. "Raistlin, I - "

The young mage raised an eyebrow, offered a mild

challenge. "Afraid, Tanis?"

"I'd be a fool if I wasn't."

"Yes, you would be. What does it come down to, then?

Can you trust me? You'll have to answer that. For yourself

and for the others. They will do what you ask of them."

Tanis knew that this was true. It had been proved many

times before now. He looked away from the young mage to

where his friends sat near the mom-ing's dying fire.

Caramon, he thought, would not require convincing. He

trusted his twin completely. Sturm, speaking quietly with

Wren who yet rode his wrist, could be made to understand.

But Flint? There would be a problem. The old dwarf

disliked and mistrusted anything that had to do with magic.

As though he heard the half-elf's thought, Raistlin leaned

forward and spoke quietly. "Let Flint be the first. I'll do it

quickly, before he knows."

"Why?"

"If you give him a chance to argue, we could be here

until the day after tomorrow."

Tanis smiled without humor. It was true. "He'll be all

right?"

"He'll be fine. You all will be. They trust you, Tanis. Do

you trust me?"

Trust was a habit, gained slowly and lost quickly. The

habit of trusting Raistlin was still on him, despite the

unease Tanis felt now. "I trust you."

"Good. Then go tell them to eat. The last thing we need is

one of us turning on another out of hunger. Most

particularly," he said, smiling as though over some private

jest, "my brother."

I trust you, Tanis thought as he rose to leave, but you do

make it hard sometimes.

Raistlin was kind with his choices. And kind in other

matters. Tanis knew that when he saw the young mage step

silently behind Flint as though the old dwarf was the last

thing on his mind. The air around the two shivered, sighed

softly, and before Tanis could draw a breath, Flint was

gone.

In his place stood a dog who shook himself as though

shaking off rain. Tanis grinned. This was no lean-shanked

mongrel, but a broad-chested, thick-furred shepherd's dog.

Though the dog's muzzle was white with invading age, his

long, tapered jaws were still powerful. Those jaws, Tanis

knew, could tear the throat out of a marauding wolf. Or,

under noble restraint, could lift a kitten carefully by the

scruff of its neck to carry it out of harm's way. It was to

this breed that shepherds had trusted their flocks and their

families for generations.

Right now, though, Flint the dog looked dangerous. Ears

back, he snarled and bared long teeth made for slashing.

Wren left Sturm's wrist and dropped to the ground

before the dog. She whispered something that sounded like

encouragement and the snarling faded to a familiar low

grumbling. As he'd planned with Raistlin, Tanis dropped to

his knee beside the dog - FLINT! he reminded himself - and

tied around his neck a bright blue square of cloth torn from

the spare shirt in the dwarf's pack. There was a look in the

shepherd dog's eyes that made Tanis glad he resisted the

urge to ruffle the silky ears.

Caramon drew a breath to speak - to laugh or question,

Tanis didn't know - and suddenly a tawny panther, muscles

rippling, tail switching restlessly, stood where once

Raistlin's twin had sat.

Well done! Tanis thought. Across the panther's thick

chest and shoulders he strapped Caramon's belt in the form

of a harness. He looked around for Sturm but saw neither

the young man nor a beast to which he might have been

changed.

"Raistlin?"

The mage pointed upward to the trees. A black-headed,

gray-bodied peregrine falcon sounded a long, high wail and

spread its wings with unconscious grace.

He knows them, Tanis thought, he knows them well to

choose so fittingly. He offered his wrist, and the falcon

glided down, gripping with sharp talons.

"Easy, Sturm, easy!"

The grip relaxed a little; when the falcon lowered his

head Tanis slipped a tightly knotted thong and the signet

ring from which Sturm was never parted over the

peregrine's head.

"Only one left, Tanis," Raistlin said softly.

"I'm ready."

Raistlin met the half-elf's eyes and held them. "I'll be

with you," he assured. "I'll be right with you to bring you

back."

"I know."

Once more the air shivered, then sighed. Raistlin was

alone in the clearing with Wren, the shepherd dog, the

panther, the bright-eyed falcon, and a quick, red-pelted fox.

"What else?" Raistlin said to Wren when she cocked her

head as though to question his choice. "A fast and far

hunter." He collared the fox with another square of cloth,

this garnered from Tanis's pack, and sat back on his heels.

"Follow the wren and the hunt well, fox. Use all your

cunning. And remember, do not harm the mage, for I can

only undo those spells of my own working."

 

Pytr smelled danger in the wind. Rieve, back since the

afternoon from another fruitless search for Wren, brooded

darkly before the fire. The danger smell did not come from

him. In him Pytr noted only the hard, bitter scent of anger.

This smell was different. It was a combination of odors,

woven together to send a fearful message of disparate

creatures banded for some common purpose. Dog, he

smelled - and fox. Pytr lifted his head and caught the scent

of a bird, large and bold and bright: a deadly raptor. Over

them all rode the thick, musky scent of a far-removed

cousin; a mountain panther prowled near. They hunted,

their scents told him, but they were not hungry.

In the cage on the table the squirrel roused and sniffed

the air.

CAT! PYTR! DO YOU SMELL IT?

I DO. THE SCENT OF ENEMIES.

Enemies? The squirrel's tail danced. Yes, these were the

scents of enemies. And yet the dream from which he'd just

woken was not one of enemies.

CAT - PYTR, I THOUGHT WHEN I WAS DREAMING

THAT I SCENTED FRIENDS.

Pytr's tail switched impatiently, then slowed to a

considering wave. FRIENDS?

WELL, IT'S HARD TO EXPLAIN. IT'S . . . I SMELL

THE DOG AND THE FOX, THE FALCON AND THE

PANTHER. AND MY NOSE TELLS ME TO BE AFRAID.

BUT . . . IN MY MIND I DON'T SEE THE BEASTS THE

SMELLS ARE SUPPOSED TO SHOW ME. I ... I DON'T

KNOW HOW ELSE TO EXPLAIN IT.

Pytr wondered then if maybe the squirrel WAS CRAZY.

He sighed and left his place by the window. He gave Rieve

wide berth and leaped to the table. WHAT DO YOU SEE IN

YOUR DREAMS, THEN, SQUIRREL?

I DON'T KNOW. I DON'T SEE ANYTHING THAT I

CAN TELL YOU ABOUT FOR SURE. I JUST DON'T SEE

A DOG. OR A FOX, OR THE REST OF THEM. WHAT

ABOUT THE MAN?

RIEVE? HE'S NOSE-BLIND, LIKE ALL HIS KIND.

The squirrel sighed. I DON'T KNOW HOW I KNOW

THIS, PYTR, BEING A SQUIRREL AS I AM, BUT I HAVE

A FEELING THAT FRIENDS ARE COMING.

The long, eerie howl of a dog cascaded through the

night. The hackles rose on the back of Pytr's neck. A fox's

sharp yipping followed, and a falcon wailed high, then low.

The panther was silent, but Pytr knew he was near.

Pytr rose, back arched, tail swollen to nearly the width

of the squirrel's. Rieve was on his feet, his back to the fire.

His fear scent, sour and urgent, filled the room.

LET US HOPE, SQUIRREL, THAT THESE ARE

FRIENDS, INDEED. THOUGH IF THEY ARE, I WILL

TELL YOU NOW THAT YOU HAVE SOME VERY

STRANGE FRIENDS FOR A SQUIRREL.

Part of the squirrel agreed completely. Another part,

however, the part that dreamed memories he knew he

shouldn't have, laughed happily.

 

The falcon descended on a dropping air current and

caught the tree's bare branch neatly to perch. He spread his

wings, his dark eyes flashing, and screamed an imperious

challenge.

STURM! the fox thought, stretching his sharp-toothed jaws

in a grin of acknowledgement. Behind him he heard the

shepherd dog, Flint, just drifting down the hill. That path

would take him right into the cottage's dooryard, shadowed

now by night and trees. To his left and ahead, around the

far side of the cottage, rumbled the low growl of the

panther. Caramon was in place. It occurred to the fox -

Tanis - that it was a very good thing that Caramon had

eaten well before the change.

The fox tested the air carefully, identified the scents of

his companions and of those within the cottage. Man-scent

was strong, and so was the smell of cat and squirrel.

Squirrel. His mouth began to water in spite of himself.

Squirrels, he knew from some heretofore untapped well of

information, tasted nearly as good as rabbits. Tanis

shuddered and shook himself.

He caught man-scent again, this time from a hill behind

him. That scent he knew well, though he had only recently

come to recognize it: Raistlin. Light and sweet, the small

scent of a wren hovered near. All were in position.

WREN, he whispered, though to any who heard it might

only have been the soft pant of a fox pausing to rest in his

night hunting.

HERE, HERE.

YOU KNOW WHAT TO DO?

YES. I'M READY.

GO, THEN!

She stitched the night air gracefully, darting from the

bushes where Raistlin was concealed, down through the

shadows pooled beneath the trees near the cottage door

where Flint crouched ready.

The panther, Caramon, had silenced his ominous

rumbling, but Tanis scented him closer now and knew he

was prowling, ghost-silent, along the side of the house.

Above him the falcon took wing and landed on the roof

above the door. Tanis caught his breath; had he seen the

falcon anywhere he would have known him for Sturm by

the proud lift of his head.

Wren alighted on the windowsill and fluttered her wings

against the glass. In the voice of the bird she piped and

lamented. She might only have been some night-caught

creature seeking shelter.

A shadow crossed the glass. Tanis heard an indrawn

breath. Man-scent rose on the air, stronger now. The

panther's green eyes glittered dangerously in the light

spilling from the window. It seemed to Tanis, with his

heightened sense of smell, that Rieve must know what

waited outside his door.

Wren left the sill, flew to the door, and came near to

hitting Flint where he waited in the shadows.

Rieve's shadow left the window, vanished, then fell to

block the line of light leaking from beneath the door. A red

ghost in the night, Tanis glided down the hill, keeping to

the shadows until he was aligned with Flint at the opposite

side of the door. He heard the sound of the latch being

lifted.

"Wren," a cold voice said from within. "So, you've

returned?"

YES! she piped. OH, PLEASE LET ME IN!

"Of course, little one, of course." There was silky threat

in the mage's voice. "You've reconsidered?"

YES! ONLY LET ME IN! PLEASE!

The door opened quickly, orange light spilled out into

the night, and Wren shot past the mage like a small brown

comet. He turned, then fell, breathless beneath the weight

of a large black shepherd dog and a slim red fox.

The mage kicked hard at the fox and sent it tumbling

across the floor. Before he could move to rise, however, the

dog's teeth clamped onto his shoulder. Behind him the cat

hissed and the caged squirrel scolded and chattered. He

brought up his knee and drove it into the dog's stomach.

Snarling, the beast fell away.

Rieve scrambled to his feet, kicked again at the dog, and

missed. He spun toward the door and came eye to razor-

sharp beak with a dark-eyed falcon.

"No!" he shouted, flinging up an arm to protect his eyes.

The falcon's talons raked along the back of his hand. "No!"

As though in response to his protest, the falcon darted

away, lifting high to take perch on the mantel. Rieve drew

a shuddering breath and stumbled again to the door. A

heavy, tawny paw hit him hard in the chest and dropped

him where he stood. The panther's fangs shone like daggers

in the fire's glow.

Standing at the panther's shoulder, one hand on the

mountain cat's broad golden head, another extended in a

parody of greeting, stood a light-eyed, pale young mage.

His cold smile awoke a fear in Rieve that even the

panther's gleaming fangs had not.

Rieve moaned. He wondered if he would have time to

prepare for death.

 

Animals were turning into people all around him, and the

squirrel didn't know where to look first. The falcon, that

beautiful bird, became a tall, dark-haired young man. There

was still something of the falcon's brooding about him. The

squirrel thought that it must always have been this way. The

fox, limping from having been kicked half-way across the

cottage, was no fox at all but a red-haired half-elf who

leaned against the wall, holding ribs that must truly hurt

from the look in his long eyes.

The dog . . . ah, the dog! The squirrel almost knew that

he would be a dwarf, brown-bearded and grumbling about a

sore stomach even before he was changed.

There remained only the panther, crouched over Rieve,

his heavy paw still planted firmly in the middle of the

mage's chest. The slight young man scratched the big cat's

ears idly, smiling as though he had only dropped in for a

cup of something warm to take the chill out of the night.

"Four more changes we need, friend Rieve," the young

man murmured. "I will effect one after you effect three."

Rieve panted something, and the squirrel thought it must

be hard getting enough air to speak with the panther leaning

so heavily on him.

"Do I take that for agreement?"

"Do I - do I have a choice?" Rieve asked sourly.

"Well, yes. We always have choices. Yours, however,

are limited."

Rieve swallowed hard, recognized the limits, and

nodded. The squirrel flashed his tail and scurried around in

his cage.

CAT! PYTR! WATCH! WATCH! THEY'RE GOING

TO DO MORE CHANGES! PYTR? PYTR, WHERE

ARE YOU?

Pytr was gone. Or the cat was gone, anyway, replaced by

a stocky, golden-haired man who wore around one wrist a

slim bracelet of braided leather.

And the wren, who had clung so fearfully to the edge of

the table near the squirrel's cage during the whole splendid

attack only moments ago, was gone as well. Instead, a

small, pretty girl, her hair the color of the wren's brown

feathers, rested her hand on the cage.

"One more," she said, "And this, perhaps, the most

important."

THE PANTHER, OF COURSE, the squirrel thought. HE

LOOKS FIERCE ENOUGH TO EAT THE MAGE FOR

DINNER AND STILL COME AWAY HUNGRY. THEY'LL

CHANGE THE PANTHER NEXT.

But to the squirrel's surprise, the panther remained a

panther, rumbling and growling deep inside his broad chest.

The girl leaned over his own cage and undid the latch. She

gathered him carefully into her hands and lifted him out.

No more cage I As though he hadn't breathed in days, the

squirrel drew in a lungful of air and leaped from the girl's

hands. He could smell the sweet night air. He could taste it,

and it tasted like freedom.

The girl cried out, the dark-haired young man shouted

something, and the half-elf leaped to kick the door shut.

But squirrels can make themselves very small. Sucking in

all the air that he could, the squirrel dashed between the

closing door and the jamb and plunged into the night. He'd

had enough of men and beasts and cages. He wanted trees,

cozy nests, and sweet caches of chestnuts. And he was

going to have those now, no matter what they shouted

inside. . . .

"Come BACK here, you stone-headed kender!"

Halfway up the closest tree the squirrel stopped, frozen

by the dwarf's cry. Not crazy, he'd told Pytr, but stone-

headed. Stone-headed . . . something. Stone-headed

kender! Kender?

Something strange happened to the cold night air. It

shivered, the way it does under summer's heat, and then it

sighed, the sound of a small drifting breeze. The squirrel

tried to breathe but found that he couldn't quite draw in the

air he needed. Suddenly he lost his grip and tumbled to the

ground.

Kender!

"And where, in the names of all the gods, did you think

you were going?"

"I - " Tas got his legs under him and climbed to his feet.

Some of the squirrel feeling was in him yet. He had to

swallow hard to ignore the imperative to run from the

dwarf. "I - don't know. I don't even really know how I got

here, wherever here is. I was following the wren, I think,

and . . . well, then I was here, falling out of this tree. But I

think I remember some dreams . . . strange ones, about

squirrels and cats and - "

Flint snorted and pulled the kender to his feet. For all his

scowling, though, his hands were gentle. "Come on, now,

back inside. You can be sure Caramon is getting hungry by

now. And Raistlin has some work to do yet."

"But Caramon is always hungry," Tas said, dusting

himself off. "What's so important about that - oh, the

panther?"

Flint nodded. Tas, remembering Pytr's intense and

always sharp cat-hunger, grinned slyly. He was not

unhappy that Rieve must be learning even now what it

meant to be the object of that hunger. "It's just a thought,

Flint, but perhaps they could just feed Caramon whatever's

lying around the cottage?"

 

In the end, though Tas had not been alone in his wistful

wish, they did not feed Rieve to the panther. Some oath or

promise was extracted from him, though what passed

between him and Raistlin none ever learned, for Raistlin

banished all but the big panther from the cottage. If

Caramon heard or understood, he was uncharacteristically

silent about it. And a week later, when those who had been

cat and squirrel, wren and falcon, fox, dog, and panther

were gathered in Solace, it was yet a matter for speculation.

Wren watched Raistlin, who sat in the shadows of Flint's

hearth. "Were truth told, I'm not sure that I want to know."

"I wouldn't mind knowing," Pytr muttered. He stroked

her hair and sighed. "I'd like to know with what coin

Rieve's debt has been paid."

The young woman shook her head and smiled. Small

and cheerful, her brown eyes bright now when she looked

at Pytr, she was, Flint thought then, very like the wren for

which she'd been named and which she had, for a time,

been.

Tanis, who at that moment had the same thought, glanced

once at the dwarf and, when he received a slight nod,

crossed to the hearth and took up one of Flint's small

carvings.

"For you," he said, taking a seat next to Wren.

"But - what is it? Surely you've given us enough?"

"One more thing, but you must close your eyes now."

Curious, Sturm and Caramon leaned closer and Tas

ducked under Pytr's arm to get a closer look. They saw

nothing, however, for Tanis had the object hidden in closed

hands. In the hearth's shadow, Raistlin stirred but did not

rise to join his companions.

Wren closed her eyes, and Tanis placed the small object

in her hands. "Now, this is something Flint has taught me:

let your hands know what it is you hold before your eyes

tell you. Our eyes, as we have lately learned, can too easily

deceive us."

Wren let her fingers discover the wings first, then the

carefully rounded back, the beak, and finally the deftly

carved tail feathers. "A bird!" she cried. "A wren?"

A little breeze sighed, then wandered away.

Yet when she opened her eyes and saw the small

carving, Wren wore a small, puzzled frown. "But. . . it

FELT like a wren. I don't understand."

Neither did Tanis. Nor did Flint. It was Tas, finally, who

spoke.

"Flint! That's wonderful! That's the nicest miniature I've

ever seen! When did you carve it?"

"I didn't," Flint said shortly. "I had nothing to do with

this piece." He peered hard at the little carving and shook

his head. It was Wren in every perfect detail, her soft hair

pulled back low on her neck as it was now, her serene smile

shown in lips and eyes, her hands quietly folded at her

waist.

Flint shivered and looked across the room. Though he

could not be sure, he thought he saw Raistlin smile from the

hearth's shadow.

 

"Wanna Bet?"

Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman

 

Foreword

(or Afterword, as the case may be)

 

"A fine mage you are little brother," muttered Tanin,

standing on the dock, watching the ship sail away. "You

should have known all along there was something strange

about that dwarf!"

"Me?" Palin retorted. "YOU were the one that got us

mixed up in the whole thing to begin with! 'Adventures

always start in such places as this', " the young magic-user

said, mimicking his older brother's voice.

"Hey, guys," began Sturm in mollifying tones.

"Oh, shut up!" Both brothers turned to face him. "It was

YOU who took that stupid bet!"

The three brothers stood glaring at each other; the salt

breeze blowing the red curling hair of the two elder into

their eyes and whipping the white robes of the younger

about his thin legs.

A ringing shout, sounding over the dancing waters,

interrupted them.

"Farewell, lads! Farewell! It was a nice try. Perhaps we'll

do it again some day!"

"Over my dead body!" all three brothers muttered

fervently, raising their hands and waving halfheartedly,

sickly grins on their faces.

"That's ONE thing we can all agree on," said Sturm,

beginning to chuckle. "And I know another." The brothers

turned thankfully away from the sight of the sailing vessel

lumbering through the waters.

"And that is ... ?"

"That we never tell another living soul about this, as long

as we live!" Sturm's voice was low. The other two brothers

glanced about at the spectators standing on the docks. They

were looking at the ship, laughing. Several, glancing at the

brothers, pointed at them with stifled giggles.

Grinning ruefully, Tanin held his right hand out in front

of him. Sturm placed his right hand on his brother's, and

Palin put his right hand over the other two.

"Agreed," each said solemnly.

 

CHAPTER ONE

Dougan Redhammer

 

"Adventures always start in such places as this," said

Tanin, regarding the inn with a satisfied air.

"You can't be serious!" Palin said, horrified. "I wouldn't

stable my horse in this filthy place, let alone stay here

myself!"

"Actually," reported Sturm, rounding the corner of the

building after an inspection tour, "the stables are clean

compared to the inn, and they smell a damn sight better. I

say we sleep there and send the horses inside."

The inn, located on the docks of the seaside town of

Sancrist, was every bit as mean and ill-favored in

appearance as those few patrons the young men saw

slouching into it. The windows facing the docks were small

as though staring out to sea too long had given them a

perpetual squint. Light from inside could barely filter

through the dirt. The building itself was weather- and sand-

blasted and crouched in the shadows at the end of the alley

like a cutpurse waiting for his next victim. Even the name,

The Spliced Jib, had an ominous sound.

"I expected Little Brother to complain," Tanin remarked

sourly, dismounting and glaring at Sturm over the pommel

of his saddle. "He misses his white linen sheets and mama

tucking him in at night. But I expected better of you, Sturm

Majere."

"Oh, I've no objection," Sturm said easily, sliding off his

horse and beginning to untie his pack. "I was just making

an observation. We don't have much choice anyway," he

added, withdrawing a small leather pouch and shaking it.

Where there should have been the ring of steel coins, there

was only a dismal clunk. "No linen sheets tonight, Palin,"

he said, grinning at his younger brother, who remained

seated disconsolately upon his horse. "Think of tomorrow

night, though - staying at Castle Uth Wistan, the guests of

Lord Gunthar. Not only white linen but probably rose petals

strewn about the bed as well."

"I don't expect white linen," Palin returned, nettled. "In

fact, bed sheets at all would be a pleasant change! And I'd

prefer sleeping in a bed where the mattress wasn't alive!"

Irritably, he scratched himself under the white robes.

"A warrior must get used to such things," Tanin said in

his worldly wise Elder Brother voice that made Palin long

to toss him in the horse trough. "If you are attacked by

nothing worse than bedbugs on your first quest, you may

count yourself lucky."

"Quest?" Palin muttered bitterly, sliding down off his

horse. "Accompanying you and Sturm to Castle Uth Wistan

so that you can join the knighthood. This isn't a quest! It's

been like a kender outing, and both you and Father knew it

would be when you decided I could go! Why, the most

danger we've been in since we left home was from that

serving wench who tried to cut off Sturm's ears with a

butcher knife!"

"It was a mistake anyone could make," Sturm muttered,

flushing. "I keep telling you! - I intended to grab her mugs.

She was what you might call a buxom girl and, when she

leaned over me, holding the tray, I wasn't exactly paying

attention to what I was doing - "

"Oh, you were paying attention, all right!" Palin said

grimly. "Even when she came at you with a knife, we had

to drag you out of there! And your eyes were the size of

your shield."

"Well, at least I'm interested in such things," Sturm said

irritably. "Not like some people I could mention, who seem

to think themselves too good - "

"I have high standards!" retorted Palin. "I don't tumble

for every 'buxom' blonde who jiggles in my direction - "

"Stop it, both of you!" Tanin ordered tiredly. "Sturm,

take the horses around and see that they're brushed down

and fed. Palin, come with me."

Palin and Sturm both looked rebellious, and Tanin's tone

grew stern. "Remember what Father said."

The brothers remembered. Sturm, still grumbling,

grabbed the horses' reins in his hand and led them to the

stables. Palin swallowed a barbed comment and followed

his brother.

Although quick-tempered like his mother, Tanin

appeared to have inherited few other qualities from his

parents. Instead, he was in temperament more like the man

in whose honor he had been named - his parent's dearest

friend, Tanis Half-Elven. Tanin idolized his name-father

and did his best to emulate his hero. Consequently, the

twenty-four-year-old young man took his role as leader and

elder brother quite seriously. This was fine with one

younger brother. The fun-loving Sturm was almost the

epitome of his father, having inherited Caramon's jovial,

easy-going nature. Disliking to take responsibility himself,

Sturm generally obeyed Tanin without question. But Palin,

just twenty-one, possessed the keen mind and intellect of

his uncle, the powerful, tragic archmage Raistlin. Palin

loved his brothers, but he chafed under what he considered

Tanin's overbearing leadership and was irritated beyond

measure by Sturm's less than serious outlook on life.

This was, however, Palin's "first quest" - as Tanin never

failed to remind him at least once an hour. A month had

gone by since the young mage took the grueling Test in the

Tower of High Sorcery in Palanthas. He was now an

accepted member of the Order of Wizards on Krynn. But

somehow that didn't satisfy him. He felt let down and

depressed. For years, his greatest goal had been passing the

Test, a goal that, once attained, would open countless doors.

It hadn't opened one. Oh, admittedly Palin was a young

mage. He had little power yet, being able to cast only minor

spells. Ideally, he would apprentice himself to some skilled

archmage, who would take over his tutelage. But no

archmage had requested his services, and Palin was shrewd

enough to know why.

His uncle, Raistlin, had been the greatest wizard ever to

have lived. He had taken the Black Robes of Evil and

challenged the Queen of Darkness herself, intending to rule

the world. An attempt that ended in his death. Though Palin

wore the White Robes of Good, he knew that there were

those in the Order who did not trust him and who, perhaps,

never would. He carried his uncle's staff - the powerful

Staff of Magius, given to him under mysterious

circumstances in the Tower of High Sorcery at Palanthas.

Rumors were already buzzing among the Conclave as to

how Palin could have acquired the Staff. It had, after all,

been locked in a room sealed with a powerful curse. No,

whatever he accomplished, Palin knew deep within himself,

he would accomplish as his uncle had - studying, working,

and fighting alone.

But that was in the future. For the time being, he supposed,

he must be content to travel with his brothers. His father,

Caramon, who, with his own twin brother, Raistlin, had

been a hero in the War of the Lance, was adamant on that

point. Palin had never been out in the world. He'd been

sheltered by his books, immersed in his studies. If he went

on this journey to Sancrist, he was to submit to Tanin's

authority, placing himself under his brothers' guidance and

pro tection.

Palin swore a sacred oath to his father to obey his

brothers, just as Tanin and Sturm swore to protect him. In

point of fact, their deep love and affection for each other

made the oath superfluous - as Caramon knew. But the big

man was also wise enough to know that this first outing

together would put a strain on brotherly love. Palin, the

more intelligent of the brothers, was eager to prove himself

- eager to the point of foolhardiness.

"Palin has to learn the worth of other people, to respect

them for what they know, even if they're not as quick-

thinking as he is," Caramon said to himself, remembering

with regret the twin who had never learned that lesson.

"And Sturm and Tanin have to learn to respect him, to

realize that they can't solve every problem with a whack of

their swords. Above all, they've got to leam to depend on

each other!" The big man shook his head. "May the gods go

with them," he muttered.

He was never to know the irony of that prayer.

It appeared, at the beginning of the journey, that none of

these lessons was going to be learned easily. The two older

boys had decided privately (certainly not mentioning this to

their father) that this trip was going to "make a man" of

their scholarly sibling.

But their views as to what constituted "manhood" didn't

accord with Palin's. In fact, as far as he could see, "being a

man" meant living with fleas, bad food, worse ale, and

women of dubious character. Something Palin considered

pointing out when Tanin muttered, "Act like a man!" out of

the corner of his mouth as he and Palin entered the inn.

But Palin kept his mouth shut. He and his brothers were

entering a strange inn, located in what was reputedly a

rough part of Sancrist. The young mage had learned enough

to know that their very lives might depend on presenting a

unified front to the world.

This the brothers, despite their differences, managed

quite successfully. So successfully, in fact, that they had

met with no trouble whatsoever on the long trip northward

from Solace. The two older brothers were big and brawny,

having inherited Caramon's girth and strength. Experienced

campaigners, they bore their battle scars proudly and wore

their swords with practiced ease. The youngest, Palin, was

tall and well-built, but it was the slender body of one

accustomed to study rather than to wielding weapons. Any

who might consider him an easy mark, however, could look

into the young man's handsome, serious face, note the

intense, penetrating gaze of the clear eyes, and think twice

about interfering with him.

The Staff of Magius that Palin carried might have had

something to do with this as well. Made of plain wood,

adorned with a faceted crystal held fast in a dragon's claw

made of gold, the staff gave no outward, visible sign of

being magical. But there was a kind of dark, unseen aura

around it, perhaps associated with its late master, that

viewers invariably perceived with a sense of uneasiness.

Palin kept the staff near him, always. If he wasn't holding it,

the staff rested near him, and he often reached out to touch

it reassuringly.

This night as on other nights, the sight of Tanin and Palin

entering the inn did not particularly impress those within,

except for one party. Seated at a grubby booth in a comer,

this group immediately began to jabber among themselves,

whispering and pointing. The whispering increased,

growing even more excited, when Sturm came in and

joined his brothers. Several members of the group nudged a

figure who was sitting nearest the wall, his face hidden in

deep shadows.

"Aye, I see, I see!" grumbled the figure. "You think

they'll do, do you?"

The others at the table nodded and chattered among

themselves enthusiastically. Smaller than the figure in the

shadows, they were just as hidden. Muffled to the eyebrows

in brown robes, their features and even their hands and feet

were indistinguishable.

The figure in the corner gave the young men a shrewd,

appraising scrutiny. The brown-robed creatures continued

to jabber. "Shut up, you buggers," the figure growled

irritably. "You'll attract their notice."

Those in the brown robes immediately hushed, falling

into a silence so deep they might have all tumbled into a

well. Naturally, this startling silence caused everyone in the

common room of the inn to turn and stare at them,

including the three young men.

"Now you've done it!" snarled the figure from the

shadows. Two of the brown-robed creatures hung their

heads, though a third seemed inclined to argue. "Be quiet!

I'll handle this!" said the figure, getting to his feet.

Leaning forward into the light, he gave the three young

men an amiable smile from the depths of a full, glossy

black beard and, raising his mug, said cheerfully, "Dougan

Redhammer, at your service, young gents. Will you take a

drink with an old dwarf?"

"That we will, and with pleasure," Tanin said politely.

"Let me out," grunted the dwarf to the brown-robed

creatures, who were so packed into the booth it was

impossible to tell how many of them there might have been.

With much groaning and swearing and "ouch, that's my

foot, you widget-brain" and "mind my beard, gear-head,"

the dwarf emerged - somewhat flushed and panting - from

the back of the booth. Carrying his mug and calling for the

innkeep to bring "my private stock," Dougan approached

the table where the young men were seated.

The others in the inn, sailors and local residents for the

most part, returned to their own conversations - the

subjects of which appeared to Palin to be of a sinister

nature, judging from the grim and ill-favored expressions

on their faces. They had not welcomed the brothers, nor did

they seem interested in either the dwarf or his companions.

Several cast scowling glances at Dougan Redhammer. This

didn't disconcert the dwarf in the least. Pulling up a high

stool that compensated for his short stature, the stout and

flashily dressed (at least for a dwarf) Dougan plopped

himself down at the brothers' table.

"What'll you have, gentlemen?" asked the dwarf. "The

spirits of my people? Ah, you're men of taste! There's

nothing better than the fermented mushroom brew of

Thorbardin."

Dougan grinned at the brothers expansively as the

innkeeper shuffled to the table, carrying three mugs in his

hand. Putting these down, he thumped a large clay bottle

stoppered with a cork down in front of the dwarf. Dougan

pulled the cork, inhaling the fumes with a gusty sigh of

contentment that caused Sturm's mouth to water in

anticipation.

"Aye, that's prime," said the dwarf in satisfaction. "Hand

your mugs round, gents. Don't be shy. There's plenty for all

and more where this came from. I don't drink with

strangers, though, so tell me your names."

"Tanin Majere, and these are my brothers, Sturm and

Palin," said Tanin, sliding his mug over willingly. Sturm's

was already in the dwarf's hand.

"I'll have wine, thank you," Palin said stiffly. Then he

added in an undertone, "You know how Father feels about

that stuff."

Tanin responded with an icy glare and Sturm laughed.

"Aw, loosen up, Palin!" Sturm said. "A mug or two of

dwarf spirits never hurt anyone."

"Right you are there, lad!" said Dougan roundly. " Tis

good for what ails you, my father was wont to say. This

marvelous elixir'll mend broken head or broken heart. Try

it, young wizard. If your father be the Hero of the Lance,

Caramon Majere, then he lifted a glass or two in his day, if

all the tales I've heard about him be true!"

"I'll have wine," Palin repeated, coldly ignoring his

brothers' elbow-nudging and foot-kicking.

"Probably best for the young lad," said Dougan with a

wink at Tanin. "Innkeep, wine for the youngster here!"

Palin flushed in shame, but there was little he could say,

realizing he'd said more than enough already. Embarrassed,

he took his glass and hunched down in his white robes,

unable to look around. He had the feeling that everyone in

the inn was laughing at him.

"So, you've heard of our father?" Tanin asked abruptly,

changing the subject.

"Who hasn't heard of Caramon Majere, Hero of the

Lance," said Dougan. "Here's to his health!" Lifting his

mug, the dwarf took a long pull of the spirits, as did both

Tanin and Sturm. When the three set the mugs down, there

was no sound for the moment except slight gaspings for air.

This was followed by three, satisfied belches.

"Damn good!" said Sturm huskily, wiping his streaming

eyes.

"I've never had better!" Tanin swore, drawing a deep

breath.

"Drink up, lad!" said the dwarf to Palin. "You'll surely

drink a toast to your own father, won't you?"

"Of course he will, won't you, Palin?" said Tanin, his

voice dangerously pleasant.

Palin obediently took a sip of his wine, drinking to his

father's health. After that, the others quickly ignored him,

becoming absorbed in conversation about the parts of the

world each had traveled recently and what was transpiring

where. Palin, unable to take part in the conversation, fell to

studying the dwarf. Dougan was taller than most dwarves

the young man had known and, although he called himself

"old," he couldn't have been much over one hundred years,

an age considered to be just suitably mature for a dwarf.

His beard was obviously his pride and joy; he stroked it

often, never failing to draw attention to it when possible.

Shining black, it grew thick and luxuriant, tumbling over

his chest and down past his belt. His hair, too, was as black

and curly as his beard, and he wore it almost as long. Like

most dwarves, he was rotund and probably hadn't seen his

feet below his round belly in years. Unlike most dwarves,

however, Dougan was dressed in a flamboyant style that

would have well become the Lord of Palanthas.

Outfitted in a red velvet jacket, red velvet breeches,

black stockings, black shoes with red heels, and a silk shirt

with puffy sleeves - a shirt that might once have been white

but was now stained with dirt, spirits, and what may have

been lunch - Dougan was an astonishing sight. He was

remarkable, too, in other ways. Most dwarves are somewhat

surly and withdrawn around members of other races, but

Dougan was jovial and talkative and altogether the most

engaging stranger the brothers had come across on their

travels. He, in his turn, appeared to enjoy their company.

"By Reorx," said the dwarf admiringly, watching Tanin

and Sturm drain their mugs, "but you are lads after my own

heart. Its a pleasure to drink with real men."

Sturm grinned. "There are not many who can keep up

with us," he boasted, motioning the dwarf to pour the

spirits. "So you better have a care, Dougan, and slow

down."

"Slow down! Look who's talking!" The dwarf roared so

loudly that all eyes in the common room turned on them,

including the eyes of the small creatures in the brown

robes. "Why, there isn't a human alive who can outdrink a

dwarf with his own brew!"

Glancing at Sturm, Tanin winked, though he kept his

face solemn. "You've just met two of them, Dougan

Redhammer," he said, leaning back in his chair until it

creaked beneath his weight. "We've drunk many a stout

dwarf under the table and were still sober enough, Sturm

and I, to guide him to his bed."

"And I," returned Dougan, clenching his fist, his face

turning a fiery red beneath the black beard, "have drunk ten

stout humans underneath the table and not only did I lead

them to their beds but I put their night-clothes on them and

tidied up their rooms to boot!"

"You won't do that to us!" vowed Tanin.

"Wanna bet?" roared the dwarf with a slight slur.

"A wager, then?" cried Sturm.

"A wager!" shouted Dougan.

"Name the rules and the stakes!" Tanin said, sitting

forward.

Dougan stroked his beard thoughtfully. "I'll match you

lads one on one, drink for drink - "

"Ha!" Sturm burst out laughing.

" - drink for drink," continued the dwarf imperturbably,

"until your beardless chins hit the floor."

"It'll be your beard and not our chins that hits the floor,

dwarf," Sturm said. "What stakes?"

Dougan Redhammer pondered. "The winner has the very

great satisfaction of assisting the losers to their beds," he

said, after a pause, twirling a long moustache around his

finger.

"And loser pays the tabs for all," added Tanin.

"Done," said the dwarf, with a grin, holding out his hand.

"Done," said Tanin and Sturm together. Each shook

Dougan's hand, then the dwarf turned to Palin, his hand

outstretched.

"I want no part of this!" Palin said emphatically, glaring

at his brothers. "Tanin," he said in a low voice, "think of

our funds. If you lose, we - "

"Little Brother," Tanin interrupted, flushing in anger,

"next journey, remind me to leave you home and bring

along a cleric of Paladine! We'd get preached at less and

probably have more fun."

"You have no right to talk to me that way - " Palin

retorted.

"Ah, it must be all three of you," Dougan interrupted,

shaking his head, "or the bet's off. There's no challenge in a

dwarf outdrinking two humans. And it must be dwarf

spirits. Why, the lad might as well be drinking his mother's

milk as that elf water!" (ELF WATER - a name dwarves use

for wine, which they can't abide.)

"I won't drink that - " Palin began.

"Palin" - Tanin's voice was stern and cold - "you are

shaming us! If you can't have some fun, go to your room!"

Angrily, Palin started to rise, but Sturm caught hold of

the sleeve of his robes.

"Aw, come on, Palin," his brother said cheerfully, "relax!

Reorx's beard! Father's not going to walk through that

door!" He tugged at Palin's sleeve until his brother slowly

resumed his seat. "You've been studying too hard. Your

brain's gone all cobwebby. Here, try some. That's all we

ask. If you don't like it, then we won't say any more about

it."

Shoving a full mug over to his brother, Sturm leaned

close and whispered in Palin's ear, "Don't make Tanin mad,

all right? You know how he sulks, and we'll have to put up

with him from here to Lord Gunthar's. Big Brother's got

your own best interests at heart. We both do. We just want

to see you have a little fun, that's all. Give it a try, huh?"

Glancing at Tanin, Palin saw that his brother's face was

grim and unhappy. Maybe Sturm's right, Palin thought.

Maybe I should relax and have some fun. Tanin was more

than half serious when he said that about leaving me home.

He's never talked that way before. It's just that I've been

wanting them to take me seriously, to quit treating me like

a kid. Maybe I HAVE gone too far. . . .

Forcing a laugh, Palin lifted the mug. "To my

brothers?" he said huskily, and was pleased to see Tanin's

green eyes brighten and Sturm's face break into a broad

grin. Putting the mug to his lips, Palin took a drink of the

infamous brew known as dwarf spirits.

The taste wasn't bad. It was pleasant, in fact, a kind of

dark and earthy flavor that brought visions of the dwarves'

underground home of Thorbardin to his eyes. Rolling it on

his tongue, Palin nodded in pleased surprise and

swallowed. . . .

The young mage wondered suddenly if a fireball had

exploded in his head. Flames shot through his mouth. Fire

burst out his ears and nose, roared down his throat, and

seared his stomach. He couldn't breathe, he couldn't see.

He was going to die, he knew it ... any moment . . . here, in

this filthy, godforsaken tavern. .. .

Someone - Palin had the vague impression it was Sturm -

was pounding him on the back and, at last, he was able to

gasp for air.

"I do enjoy seeing a man enjoy his liquor," said Dougan

seriously. "My turn now. A drink to the young mage!"

Putting his mug to his lips, the dwarf tilted his head back

and drained it in one long swallow. When he reappeared,

his eyes were watery and his large, bulbous nose bright red.

"Ahhh!" he breathed, blinking back his tears and wiping his

mouth with the end of his beard.

"Hear, hear," cried both Sturm and Tanin, raising their

mugs. "A drink to our brother, the mage!" They, too,

drained their mugs, not quite as fast as the dwarf, but

without stopping for breath.

"Thank you," said Palin, deeply moved. Cautiously, he

took another gulp. The effect wasn't so awful the second

time. In fact, it was pleasurable. Palin took another drink,

then another, and finally drained the mug. Setting it down

on the table amid cheers from his brothers and Dougan, the

young man felt warm and good all over. His blood tingled

in his veins. Tanin was looking at him with approval and

pride, Sturm was filling his mug again. Dougan downed

two more mugs in a row, Sturm and Tanin drank theirs, and

then it was Palin's turn. He lifted the mug to his lips. . . .

Palin was smiling and he couldn't quit smiling. He loved

Tanin and Sturm better than anyone else in the world, and

he told them so, until he broke down and cried on Sturm's

broad shoulder. But no! There was someone else he loved -

that was the dwarf. He staggered to his feet and went round

the table to shake the dwarfs hand. He even made a speech.

Fast friends . . . firm friends, like his father and his father's

friend ... old Flint, the dwarf ... He went back to his chair,

only there seemed to be four chairs now, instead of just one.

Picking one, Palin sat down, missed and would have ended

up on the floor if Tanin hadn't caught him. He drank

another mug, watching his brothers and his new friend with

tears of affection streaming down his face.

"I tell you, lads" - Dougan's voice seemed to Palin to

come from a long distance away - "I love you like my own

sons. And I must say I think you've had a wee bit more to

drink than you can handle."

"Naw!" Sturm cried indignantly, pounding his hand on

the table.

"We can keep up with you," Tanin muttered, breathing

heavily, his face beefy red.

"Damnrigh'," said Palin, striking the table - or he would

have if the table hadn't suddenly and unaccountably leaped

out of the way.

And then Palin was lying on the floor, thinking this was

an interesting place to be, much safer than up there in four

chairs, with tables jumping. . . . Glancing around blearily,

he saw his staff on the floor beside him. Reaching out, he

caressed it lovingly.

"SHIRAK!" he slurred, and the crystal atop the staff burst

into light. He heard some commotion at this;

high, shrill voices jabbering and chattering somewhere in

the background. Palin giggled and couldn't quit giggling.

From somewhere up above, he heard Dougan's voice

come floating down to him. "Here's to our beds," said the

dwarf, "and a sound night's sleep!" And if there was a

sinister note in the gruff voice or more than a trace of

triumphant laughter, Palin discounted it. The dwarf was his

friend, a brother to him. He loved him like a brother, his

dear brothers . . .

Palin laid his head on the floor, resting his cheek on the

staff's cool wood. Shutting his eyes, he slipped away into

another world - a world of small creatures in brown robes,

who lifted him up and ran away with him. . . .

 

CHAPTER TWO

A Really Bad Hangover

 

The world heaved and shivered, and Palin's stomach

heaved and his skin shivered in agreement, misery loving

company. Rolling over on his side, he was violently sick,

and he wondered as he lay on whatever it was he was lying

on - he couldn't open his eyes to see, they felt all gummed

together - how long it would take him to die and end this

suffering.

When he could be sick no more and when it seemed that

his insides might actually stay inside, Palin lay back with a

groan. His head was beginning to clear a little, and he

realized suddenly, when he tried to move, that his hands

were tied behind his back. Fear shot through his muzzy

brain, its cold surge blowing away the mists of the dwarf

spirits. He couldn't feel his feet, and he dimly knew that

cords tied around his ankles had cut off his circulation.

Gritting his teeth, he shifted his position slightly and

wiggled his toes inside his soft leather boots, wincing as he

felt the tingling of returning blood.

He was lying on a wooden plank, he noticed, feeling it

beneath him with his hands. And there was a peculiar

motion to the plank, it was rocking back and forth in a

manner most unsettling to Palin's aching head and churning

stomach. There were strange noises and smells, too - wood

creaking, an odd whooshing and gurgling, and, every so

often, a tremendous roaring and thudding and flapping

above his head that sounded like a stampede of horses or,

Palin thought with a catch in his throat, his father's

description of attacking dragons. Cautiously, the young

mage opened his eyes. Almost instantly, he shut them

again. Sunlight streaming through a small, round window

pierced his brain like an arrow, sending white-hot pain

bouncing around the backs of his eyeballs. The plank

rocked him this way and that, and Palin was sick again.

When he recovered sufficiently to think he might not die

in the next ten seconds - a matter of extreme regret - Palin

braced himself to open his eyes and keep them open.

He managed, but at the cost of being sick again.

Fortunately or unfortunately, there was nothing left inside

him to lose, and it wasn't long before he was able to look

around. He was lying on a wooden plank, as he had

surmised. The plank had been built into a curved wooden

wall of a small room and was obviously intended as a crude

bed. Several other planks lined the walls of the oddly

shaped room and Palin saw his two brothers lying

unconscious on these, bound hand and foot as he was.

There was no other furniture in the room, nothing but a few

wooden chests, which were sliding along the wooden floor.

Palin had only to look out the small, round window on

the wall across from him to confirm his worst fears. At first,

he saw nothing but blue sky and white clouds and bright

sunlight. Then the plank on which he was lying dropped - it

seemed - into a chasm. The wooden chests scraped across

the floor, running away past him. Blue sky and clouds

vanished, to be replaced by green water.

Shutting his eyes once more, Palin rolled over to ease

his cramped muscles, pressing his aching head against the

cool, damp wood of the crude bed.

Or perhaps he should say "berth." That's the nautical

term, isn't it? he said to himself bitterly. That's what you

call a bed on a ship. And what will they call US on the

ship? Palin asked himself in despair. Galley slaves?

Chained to the oars, subject to the overmaster

with his whip, flaying the flesh from their backs. . . .

The motion of the ship changed, the sea chests skittered

along the floor in the opposite direction, sky and clouds

leaped back into the window, and Palin knew he was going

to be sick again.

 

"Palin . . . Palin, are you all right?"

There was an anguished tone in the voice that brought

Palin to consciousness. Painfully, he once again opened his

eyes. He must have slept, he realized, though how he could

have done so with this throbbing in his head and the queasy

state of his stomach he had no idea.

"Palin!" The voice was urgent.

"Yes," said Palin thickly. It took an effort to talk, his

tongue felt and tasted as though gully dwarves had taken up

residence in his mouth. The thought made his stomach

lurch, and he abandoned it hurriedly. "Yes," he said again,

"I'm ... all right. . . ."

"Thank Paladine!" groaned the voice, which Palin

recognized now as Tanin's. "By the gods, you looked so

pale, lying there, I thought you were dead!"

"I wish I was," Palin said feelingly.

"We know what you mean," said Sturm, a very subdued

and miserable Sturm, to judge by the sound.

Twisting around, Palin was able to see his brothers. If I

look as bad as they do, he thought, no wonder Tanin

believed I was dead. Both young men were pale beneath

their tan skin, their pallor had a faint greenish tinge, and

there was ample evidence on the deck below that both had

been extremely sick. Their red curls were tangled and wet

and matted, their clothes soaked. Both lay on their backs,

their hands and feet tied with rough leather thongs. Tanin

had a large bruise on his forehead and, in addition, his

wrists were cut and bleeding. He had obviously been trying

to free himself and failed.

"This is all my fault," said Tanin glumly, with another

groan as nausea welled up inside of him. "What a fool I

was, not to see this coming!"

"Don't give yourself all the credit, Big Brother," said

Sturm. "I went right along with you. We should have

listened to Palin - "

"No, you shouldn't have," Palin mumbled, closing his

eyes against the sight of the sea and sky constantly shifting

places in the porthole. "I was being a superior, self-

righteous twit, as both of you tried to point out." He was

silent a moment, trying to decide if he was going to be sick

or not. Finally, he thought he wasn't and added, "We're in

this together now, anyway. Either of you know where we

are and what's going on?"

"We're in the hold of a ship," Tanin said. "And, from the

sounds of it, they've got some great beast chained up there."

"A dragon?" Palin asked quietly.

"Could be." Tanin answered. "I remember Tanis

describing the black dragon that attacked them in Xak

Tsaroth. He heard a gurgling noise and a hissing, like water

boiling in a kettle. . . ."

"But why would anyone chain a dragon up on a ship?"

argued Sturm weakly.

"All kinds of reasons," Palin muttered. "Most of them

nasty."

"Probably keeps slaves like us in line. Palin," called

Tanin in a low voice, "can you do anything? To free us, I

mean? You know, your magic?"

"No," said Palin bitterly. "My spell components are gone -

Not that I could get to them if I had them, since my hands

are tied. My staff - MY STAFF!" He recalled with a pang.

Fearfully he struggled to sit up, glanced around, then

breathed a sigh of relief. The Staff of Magius stood in a

corner, leaning up against the hull of the ship. For some

reason, it did not move when the ship listed, but remained

standing perfectly still, seemingly unaffected by the laws of

nature. "My staff might help, but the only thing I know how

to make it do is give light," he admitted shamefacedly.

"Besides," he added, lying wearily back down, "my head

aches so I can barely remember my name, much less a

magic spell."

The young men were silent, each thinking. Tanin

struggled against his bonds once more, then gave it up. The

leather had been soaked with water and had tightened when

it dried so that it was impossible for the big man to escape.

Then Sturm gave a low whistle and twisted his body to face

his younger brother.

"Palin," he said softly, "I remember a story about Uncle

Raistlin, how he and Father were captured by bandits and

he freed himself using a knife he had hidden on his wrist.

Do you - "

"Yes," said Palin. "I've got a knife like his. Justarius sent

it to me when I passed the Test. It's attached to my wrist

with a thong." He paused, then said reluctantly, "And I have

yet to figure out how the damn thing works."

Sturm and Tanin, sitting up hopefully at the beginning

of this conversation, lay back down with groans at its

conclusion.

"So, it looks like we're prisoners in this wretched hole -

"

"Prisoners?" called a booming voice. "Losers, maybe.

But prisoners, never!"

A trapdoor in the ceiling opened, and a short, stocky figure

in bright red velvet with black curling hair and beard poked

his head through. "My guests you are!" cried Dougan

Redhammer lustily, peering at them through the hatch.

"And fortunate beyond all humans, because I have chosen

you to accompany me on my grand quest! A quest that will

make you famous throughout the world! A quest that will

make that minor adventure your parents were involved in

seem like a kender scavenger hunt!" Dougan leaned down

so far through the hatch that his face became quite red with

the exertion and he almost tumbled through upside down.

"We're not going on any quest of yours, dwarf!" Tanin

said with an oath. And, for once, both Palin and Sturm were

in full agreement.

Leering down at them through the hatch, Dougan

grinned. "Wanna bet?

 

"You see, lads, it's a matter of honor," said the dwarf,

eyeing them complacently. Throwing down a rope ladder,

Dougan - somewhat perilously - climbed down into the

hold of the ship, his journey being hampered by the fact

that he couldn't see his feet for his great belly. Finally, after

several slips, he made it. Reaching the deck, he rested a

moment from his labors, removing a lace-covered

handkerchief from the sleeve of his coat and using it to mop

his perspiring face.

"I tell you, lads," he said solemnly, "I'm feeling a bit

under myself. By Reorx, but you can drink! Just like you

said." Stumbling slightly as the deck listed beneath him, the

dwarf pointed at Sturm. "You, especially! I swear by my

beard" - he stroked it - "that I saw two of yourself, lad, and

I was workin' on four before your eyes rolled back in your

head and you crashed to the floor. Shook the foundations of

the inn, you did. I had to pay damages."

"You said you were going to cut us loose," Tanin

snarled.

"That I did," Dougan muttered, drawing a sharp knife from

his belt. Making his way around the sea chests, the dwarf

began to saw away industriously at the leather thongs that

bound Tanin's wrists.

"If we aren't prisoners," Palin asked, "then why are we

bound hand and foot?"

"Why, laddie," said the dwarf, looking around at Palin

with an injured air, "it was for your own safety! I had only

your welfare at heart! You were so enthusiastic when you

saw we were carrying you aboard this fine vessel, that we

had to restrain your enthusiasm - "

"Enthusiasm!" Tanin muttered. "We were out cold!"

"Well, no, actually, you weren't," Dougan admitted. "Oh, he

was." The dwarf jerked his head back at Palin. "Sleeping

like he was in his mother's arms. But you two, as I saw the

moment I clapped eyes on you, lads, are grand fighters.

Perhaps you were wondering how you got that bit of a clout

on your head - "

Tanin said nothing, simply glared at the dwarf. Sitting

up, the young man gingerly put his hand to his forehead

where there was a lump the size of an egg.

"Enthusiasm," said the dwarf solemnly, going over to

cut Sturm loose. "That's one reason I chose you for my

quest."

"The only quest I'd consider going on with you is to see

you in the Abyss!" Tanin retorted stubbornly.

Lying back, Palin sighed. "My dear brother," he said

wearily, "has it occurred to you that we have little choice in

the matter? We're on a ship, miles away from land" - he

glanced at Dougan, who nodded assent - "and completely

at the mercy of this dwarf and his crew of cutthroats. Do

you think he would release us from our bonds if we had the

slightest chance of escaping?"

"Intelligent lad," said the dwarf approvingly, cutting Palin's

ropes as Sturm sat up stiffly, rubbing his wrists. "But then,

he's a mage. And they're all intelligent, at least so's I've

heard. So intelligent," continued Dougan cunningly, "that

I'm certain he'll think twice about casting any spells that

might come to mind. A sleep spell, for example, might be

very effective and give my CUTTHROAT crew a rest, but

can you three sail the ship? Besides," he continued, seeing

Palin's grim expression, "as I said before - it's a matter of

honor. You lost the bet, fair and square. I kept my part, I

put you to bed. Now you must keep yours." Dougan's grin

made the ends of his moustaches curl upwards. He stroked

his beard in satisfaction. "You must pay the tab."

"I'll be damned if I'm going to pay," snarled Tanin. "I'll

yank your black beard out by its roots!"

Tanin's voice literally shook with anger, and Palin

cringed, watching helplessly as his hot-tempered brother

made a lunge for the grinning dwarf - and fell flat on his

face in the muck and filth.

"There, there, lad," said Dougan, helping Tanin stagger

to his feet. "Get your sea legs first, then you can yank out

my beard - if you refuse to honor your bet. But from what

I've heard of Caramon Majere, I'd be disappointed indeed to

see his sons turn out to be welchers."

"We're no welchers!" said Tanin sulkily, leaning weakly

against the berth and clinging to it with both hands as the

ship rocked out from underneath him. "Though some might

say the bet was rigged, we'll pay it just the same! What do

you want of us?"

"To accompany me on my quest," said the dwarf.

"Where we're bound is perilous in the extreme! I need two

strong, skilled fighters, and a wizard always comes in

handy."

"What about your crew?" Sturm asked. Carefully, he edged

himself off his berth and dropped to the deck just as the

ship listed, sending him crashing backward into the hull.

Dougan's grinning face went abruptly sober. He glanced

up above, where the strange roaring sound could be heard

again, mingled this time, Palin noted, with shrieks and

cries. "Ah, my . . . um . . . crew," said the dwarf, shaking

his head sadly. "They're . . . well, best you come see for

yourselves, lads."

Turning on the heel of his fancy shoes, Dougan made

for the rope ladder, stumbling awkwardly as the ship canted

off in the other direction. "Ouch! That reminds me," he

said, cursing and rubbing his leg where he had come up

against one of the roving sea chests. "We stowed your

equipment in here." He thumped on the lid. "Swords,

shield, armor, and such like. You'll be needing them, where

we're headed!" he added cheerfully.

Catching hold of the swinging rope ladder, the dwarf

scrambled up it and pulled himself through the hatch.

"Don't be long!" they heard him shout.

"Well, what do we do now?" Sturm asked, standing up

cautiously, only to fall forward with the motion of the ship.

The young man's face was decidedly green, beads of sweat

stood on his forehead.

"We get our swords," Tanin said grimly, stumbling

toward the sea chests.

"And we get out of this foul place," said Palin. He

covered his nose and mouth with the hem of his sleeve.

"We need fresh air, and I for one want to see what's going

on up there."

"Wanna bet?" Tanin mocked.

Smiling ruefully, Palin managed to make his way to the

Staff of Magius, which was still standing up against the

hull. Whether it was any magical property of the staff, or

whether just holding it gave him confidence, the young

mage felt better the moment his hand wrapped around the

smooth wood.

"Think of the danger this staff has seen and led its

masters through safely," Palin whispered to himself.

"Magius held it as he fought at Huma's side. My uncle held

it as he entered the Abyss to face the Dark Queen. This

situation probably doesn't bother it at all."

Gripping the staff in his hand, Palin started up the rope

ladder.

"Hold on there, Little Brother," Tanin said, catching

Palin's sleeve. "You don't know what's up there. You

admitted yourself you weren't feeling up to spellcasting.

Why don't you let Sturm and me go ahead?"

Palin stopped, looking at Tanin in pleased astonishment.

His older brother had not ordered him, as he would have

done earlier. He could almost hear him, "Palin, you fool!

You wait below. Sturm and I will go first." Tanin had

spoken to him respectfully, presented his argument

logically, and then left it up to Palin to decide.

"You're right, Tanin," Palin said, stepping back away

from the ladder - only it was back a little farther than he had

intended as the swaying ship threw him off balance once

again. Sturm caught hold of him and the three stood,

waiting for the ship to right itself. Then, one by one, they

climbed up the rope ladder.

Sturm's strong hand hauled Palin up on deck.

Thankfully, the young mage breathed the fresh air, blinking

in the bright sunlight and doing his best to ignore the

throbbing in his head. His eyes were just adjusting to the

glare when he heard the roaring behind him - a frightful

sound, a combination of howling, shrieking, creaking, and

hissing. The deck below his feet thrummed and shivered.

Alarmed, he started to turn and face whatever horrible beast

was attacking when he heard Tanin cry, "Palin, look out!"

His brother's weight struck Palin, knocking him off his feet

and onto the deck just as Something dark and awful

thundered overhead with a wild flapping noise.

"You all right?" Tanin asked anxiously. Standing up, he

offered Palin his hand. "I didn't mean to hit you quite so

hard."

"I think you broke every bone in my body!" Palin

wheezed, trying to catch his breath. He stared at the prow of

the ship, where the Thing was disappearing over the edge.

"What in the name of the Abyss was that?" He looked at

Dougan. The dwarf was also, somewhat shamefacedly,

picking himself up off the deck.

His face as red as his velvet breeches, Dougan was

brushing off bits of wood, strands of rope, and sea foam

when he was suddenly surrounded by a horde of jabbering,

small creatures, endeavoring to help him.

"Ahoy there!" Dougan roared irritably, flapping his

hands at the creatures. "Stand off! Stand off, I say! Get back

to your tasks!"

Obediently, the creatures ran away, though more than a

few took a second or two to eye the three brothers. One

even approached Palin, an eager hand stretched out to touch

the Staff of Magius.

"Get back!" Palin cried, clutching the staff to him.

Sniffing, the creature retreated, but its bright eyes

lingered hungrily on the staff as it returned to whatever it

was doing.

"Gnomes!" said Sturm in awe, lowering his sword.

"Uh, yes," muttered Dougan, embarrassed. "My . . . um .

. . crew of cutthroats."

"The gods help us!'" Tanin prayed fervently. "We're on a

gnome ship."

"And that Thing?" Palin's voice failed, he couldn't ask.

"That's the ... uh ... sail," Dougan mumbled, wringing

water out of his beard. He made a vague gesture with his

hand. "It'll be back again in about ten minutes, so ... um ...

be prepared."

"What in the Abyss is a dwarf doing on a gnome ship?"

Tanin demanded.

Dougan's embarrassment increased. "Ah, well, now," he

muttered, twirling his long moustache around his index

finger. "That's a bit of a long story. Perhaps I'll have time to

tell you - "

Balancing himself on the heaving deck with the aid of

the staff, Palin looked out to sea. An idea had occurred to

him, and his heart was beginning to sink at about the same

rate it appeared this vessel was sinking. The sun was behind

them, they were heading west, riding on a gnome ship with

a dwarf captain. . . .

"The Graygem!" Palin murmured.

"Aye, laddie!" Dougan cried, clapping the young mage

on the back. "You've womped the lizard in the gullet, as the

gully dwarves say. THAT is the reason I'm on this . . . um . .

. somewhat unique vessel and THAT," continued Dougan,

rocking back on his feet, his belly thrust out in front of him,

"is my quest!"

"What?" asked Tanin suspiciously.

"My brothers," said Palin, "it appears we are bound on a

voyage in search of the legendary lost Graygem of

Gargath."

"Not 'in search of'," Dougan corrected. "I have found it!

We are on a quest to end all quests! We're going to

RECOVER the Graygem and - Ahoy, lads, look out."

Casting an uneasy glance behind him, Dougan threw

himself down on the deck.

"Here comes the sail," he grunted.

 

CHAPTER THREE

The Miracle

 

The gnomish sailing vessel was a true technological

wonder. (The wonder being, as Sturm said, that it managed

to stay afloat, much less actually sail!) Years in design

(longer years in committee), and centuries of craftsmanship

later, the gnome ship was the terror of the high seas. (This

was quite true. Most ships fled in terror at the sight of the

gnome flag - a golden screw on a field of puce - but this

was because the steam-generating boilers had an

unfortunate habit of exploding. The gnomes claimed to

have once attacked and sunk a minotaur pirate ship. The

truth of the matter was that the minotaurs, rendered helpless

by laughter, negligently allowed their ship to drift too close

to the gnomes who, in panic, released the pressurized air

stored in casks used to steer the vessel. The resulting blast

blew the minotaurs out of the water and the gnomes off

course by about twenty miles.)

Let other races mock them, the gnomes knew that their

ship was years ahead of its time in practicality, economy,

and design. The fact that it was slower than anything on the

water - averaging about half-a-knot on a good day with a

strong wind - didn't bother the gnomes. They know that

nothing is perfect. (A committee is currently working on

this problem and is confidently expected to come up with a

solution sometime in the next millennium.)

The gnomes knew that all ships had sails. This was

requisite, in their opinion, of a ship being a ship. The

gnome's ship had a sail, therefore. But the gnomes, upon

studying vessels built by other, less intelligent races,

considered it a waste of space to clutter the deck with masts

and ropes and canvas and an additional waste of energy

hoisting sails up and down in an effort to catch the wind.

The gnome ship, therefore, used one gigantic sail that not

only caught the wind but, in essence, dragged it along with

it.

It was this sail that gave the ship its revolutionary

design. An enormous affair of billowing canvas with a

beam the size of ten stout oaks, the sail rested upon three

greased wooden rails, one on either side of the ship and one

down the middle. Huge cables, running the length of the

ship and driven by steam generated in a giant boiler down

below operated this miracle of modem naval technology,

pulling the sail along the greased wooden rail at a high rate

of speed. The sail, moving from front to back,

manufactured its own wind as it roared along and thus

propelled the ship on its course.

When the sail had completed its impressive sweep across

the deck and reached the ship's prow at the rear. . . . (There

WAS one tiny problem. It was impossible to turn the ship

around. Therefore the stem looked just like the prow. The

gnomes had solved this slight hitch in design by fixing the

sail so that it could go either forward or backward, as

needed, and had given the ship two figureheads - buxom

gnome maidens, one on either end, each holding screws in

their hands and staring out to sea with resolute intensity.) . .

. Where were we? Ah yes. When the sail reached the prow

at the rear, it rolled itself up neatly and traveled under the

ship through the water until it reached the prow at the front.

Here it leaped out of the water, unfurled itself, and

thundered along the deck once more.

At least, that is what the sail did on the drawing board and

in numerous gnomish bathtubs. In actuality, the gears that

controlled the winding-up mechanism rusted almost

immediately in the salt water, and the sail often hit the

water either completely or partially open. In this manner it

swept under the ship, creating a tremendous drag that

occasionally pulled the vessel back farther than it had gone

forward. This small inconvenience was considered to be

fully outweighed, however, by an unlooked-for bonus.

When the open sail came up from the sea, it acted as a net,

hauling in schools of fish. As the sail lifted up over the

prow, fish rained down upon the deck, providing lunch,

dinner, and the occasional concussion if one had the

misfortune to be struck by a falling tuna.

The ship had no tiller, there being nowhere for a tiller to

go, since the boat had, in essence, two prows and no stern.

Nothing daunted, the gnomes designed their vessel to be

steered by the use of the aforementioned pressurized air

casks. Located at either side of the hull, these were kept

filled with air by giant, steam-driven bellows. Letting the

air out of one or the other allowed the ship to be whooshed

along on a different tack. (We have said earlier that it was

impossible to turn the ship around. We were in error. The

gnomes had discovered that the ship COULD be turned by

means of releasing the air in both casks simultaneously.

This caused the ship to revolve, but at such an alarming rate

that most of the crew was flung overboard and those that

remained could never afterward walk a straight line. These

unfortunates were promptly hired by the gnome Street

Designers Guild.)

The name of this remarkable vessel was THE GREAT

GNOME SHIP OF EXPLORATION AND QUESTING

MADE OF WOODEN PLANKS HELD TOGETHER BY

THE MIRACLE OF GNOME GLUE (OF WHICH THE

LESS SAID THE BETTER) INSTEAD OF THAT PALTRY

HUMAN INVENTION THE NAIL WHICH WE HAVE

DESIGNED MORE EFFICIENTLY ANYWAY AND

DRIVEN BY STEAM CREATED BY BRINGING WATER

TO A RAPID BOIL and so forth and so on, the full name

taking up several volumes of text in the gnomes' library.

This name, or rather a shortened version, was carved upon

the hull and, when the gnomes ran out of room, the deck as

well.

Needless to say, traveling upon the MIRACLE (the

shorter human version of the name) was not conducive to

either peace of mind or keeping one's dinner down. The

ship wallowed in the water like a drunken sea elf when the

sail was underneath it, surged forward with a stomach

wrenching jolt when the sail was sweeping along the deck,

and rocked sickeningly when the sail hit the water behind.

The bilge pumps were at work constantly (due to the

wonders of gnome glue). Fortunately, the gnomes were

heading in a straight direction - due west - so that it was not

necessary to turn the ship, thus avoiding the need to open

the air casks (a thrill akin to being caught in a cyclone) - a

blessing rather lost upon Tanin, Sturm, and Palin during the

mercifully short voyage. This, then, was the MIRACLE with

a crew of gnomes, a dwarf for its captain, and three sea-

sick, hung-over adventurers (though Dougan assured them

solemnly that they should thank their respective gods for

it!).

 

Night was falling. The sun sank down into the sea in a

blaze of red, as though trying to outshine the gaudily

dressed dwarf. Crouching miserably on the foredeck, the

brothers were glad to see night come. They had spent a

wretched day, forced to duck every time the sail raced

overhead. In addition, they were pelted by fish and

drenched with water streaming down from the sail. There

was little for them to eat except fish (plenty of that) and

some sort of gnome biscuit that looked suspiciously like the

miracle glue. To take their minds off their troubles and

prepare them for the quest ahead, Dougan proposed to tell

them the story of the Graygem of Gargath.

"I know that story," Tanin said sullenly. "Everyone on

Krynn knows that story 1 I've heard it since I was a child"

"Ah, but do you know the TRUE story?" Dougan asked,

gazing at them intently with his bright dark eyes.

No one replied, being unable to hear themselves think as

the sail - with much flapping of canvas and creaking of

winches - leaped out of the water and hurtled along the

deck. Fish flopped about their feet, the gnomes hopping

here and there after them. The sail's traversal along the deck

was punctuated by shrieks and screams as certain unlucky

gnomes forgot to duck and were swept overboard by the

beam. Since this happened almost every time the sail made

a pass, several gnomes were stationed permanently along

the sides of the ship to yell "Gnome overboard!" (which

they did with great gusto) and heave their floundering

fellows life-saving devices (which also doubled as anchors

when in port).

"How should we know whether or not it's the true

story?" Tanin said grumpily when he could be heard again.

"I know that there are differing accounts depending on

whether one hears the tale from a dwarf or any other race,"

Palin added.

Dougan appeared extremely uncomfortable. "Aye, lad,"

he said, "and there you've touched on a sore point. But, for

now, you go ahead and tell it, young mage. Tell it as you

heard it. I assume you've studied it, since it involves the

bringing of magic into the world."

"Very well," said Palin, rather pleased and flattered at

being the center of attention. Hearing that the human was

going to tell their favorite story, many gnomes left their

duties (and fish chasing) to settle down around Palin,

regarding the mage with varying expressions ranging from

eager assurance that he was going to get it wrong to

downright suspicion that he might accidentally get it right.

"When the gods awakened from Chaos and took parts of

it to rule, the Balance of the Universe was established and

Chaos subdued. The pendulum of Time swung between

Good and Evil, with Neutrality watching to see that neither

grew stronger. It was at this time that the spirits of the races

first began to dance among the stars, and the gods decided

to create a world for these races to inhabit.

"The world was forged, but now the gods fought over

the spirits of the races. The Gods of Good wanted to give

the races power over the physical world, nurturing them

toward Good. The Gods of Evil wanted to enslave the

races, forcing them to do their evil bidding. The Gods of

Neutrality wanted to give the races physical power over the

world, but with the freedom to choose between Evil and

Good. Eventually, the later course was decided upon, the

Gods of Evil believing that they would have little trouble

gaining the upper hand.

"Three races were born, then - the elves, beloved of the

Gods of Good; the ogres, willing slaves of the Gods of Evil;

and the humans, the neutrals, who - of all the races - had the

shortest life span and therefore were easily drawn to one

side or the other. When these races were created, the god

Reorx was given the task of forging the world. He chose

some humans to help him in this task, since they were the

most willing workers. But Reorx soon grew angry at the

humans. Many were greedy and worked only to gain

wealth, taking little pride in what they created. Some sought

to cheat, others stole. Furious, Reorx cursed his followers,

turning them into gnomes - small creatures doomed - I don't

really mean DOOMED," Palin interrupted himself hastily,

seeing the gnomes begin to frown - "I mean ... uh ...

BLESSED to be tinkers" - the gnomes smiled - "and to

spend their entire lives tinkering with mechanical devices

that would never, er, I mean, rarely work. . . ."

The sail rumbled overhead, and Palin paused thankfully.

"Getonwiththegoodpart!" shouted the gnomes, who

always speak extremely fast and jamtheirwordstogether.

Deciding that this was good advice (once he understood it),

Palin continued.

"Soon after this, Reorx was tricked by one of the evil

gods into taking the vast power of Chaos and forging it into

a gem. It is generally believed that the god behind this was

Hiddukel, god of corrupt wealth - "

"No, lad." Dougan sighed. "It was Morgion."

"Morgion?" repeated Palin in astonishment.

"Aye, the God of Decay. But I'll go into that later." The

dwarf waved his hand. "Carry on."

"At any rate," continued Palin, somewhat confused,

"Reorx made the Graygem and set it into the moon, Lunitari

the Red, the moon sacred to the Gods of Neutrality."

The gnomes were all grinning, their favorite part was

coming up.

"During this time, the gnomes had built a Great

Invention, designed to take them off the world and out into

the stars. This Invention lacked only one thing to make it

operational, and that was a force to propel it. Looking into

the sky at night, they saw the Graygem shining from the

heart of Lunitari and knew, instantly, that if they could

capture the power of Chaos that resided in the Graygem,

this would drive their Invention."

Much nodding of heads and wise looks among the

gnomes. Sturm yawned. Tanin stood up and leaned over the

railing, where he was quietly sick.

"One extremely gifted gnome built an extension ladder

that actually worked. It carried him up to the moon and

there, with a net he had brought along for the purpose, he

captured the Graygem before the gods were aware of him.

He brought the gem down to the world below, but there it

escaped him and sailed off to the west, passing over the

lands and trailing chaos behind. Chaos entered the world in

the form of magic. Beasts and creatures were transformed

by the gem in its passing, becoming wondrous or hideous as

the gem chose.

"A band of gnomes followed the Graygem across the

sea, hoping still to catch it and claim it for their own. But it

was a human, a man named Gargath, who trapped the stone

and held it in his castle by certain magical means. Reaching

the castle, the gnomes could see the light of the Graygem

illuminating the countryside. They demanded that Gargath

give the stone up. He refused. The gnomes threatened war -

" shouts and cheers among the gnomes here - "Gargath

welcomed the battle. He built a high wall all around the

castle to protect it and the gem. There was no way the

gnomes could get over the wall, so they left, vowing,

however, to return."

"Hear! Hear!" cried the gnomes.

"A month later, a gnome army arrived at Castle Gargath

with a huge, steam-powered siege engine. It reached the

wall of the castle, but broke down just short of its goal. The

gnomes retreated with heavy losses. Two months later, the

gnomes returned with an even larger steam-powered siege

engine. This engine plowed into the first, caught fire, and

burned. The gnomes retreated with even heavier losses.

Three months later, the gnomes were back with a colossal,

steam-powered siege engine. It lumbered over the ashes of

the first two siege engines and was thundering toward the

wall when the drive mechanism broke down. The engine,

with a mighty groan, toppled over on its side, smashing

down the wall. Although not quite what they'd had in mind,

the gnomes were delighted."

More cheering.

"But, as they rushed through the breech in the wall, a

steel gray light beamed forth from the stone, blinding

everyone. When Lord Gargath could see again, he saw - to

his astonishment - that the gnomes were fighting among

themselves!"

Frowns here and cries of "Liar! We were misquoted!"

"One faction of gnomes was demanding that they be

given the Graygem to carve up and turn into wealth. The

other faction demanded that they be given the Graygem to

take apart and see how it worked.

"As the two sides fought, their aspect changed. . . . Thus

were born the races of the dwarves, who carve rock and

think constantly of wealth; and kender, driven by their

insatiable curiosity to roam the world. The Graygem

escaped during the confusion and was last seen heading

westward, a party of gnomes and Lord Gargath in pursuit.

And that," finished Palin, somewhat out of breath, "is the

story of the Graygem - unless you ask a dwarf, that is."

"Why? What do the dwarves say?" demanded Tanin,

looking at Dougan with a somewhat sickly grin.

Dougan fetched up a sigh that might have come from the

tips of his black shoes. "The dwarves have always

maintained that THEY are the chosen of Reorx, that he

forged their race out of love, and that gnomes and kender

came about from trial and error until he got it right."

Boos. The gnomes appeared highly indignant, but were

instantly subdued by Dougan whirling around and fixing

them with a piercing stare. "According to the dwarves,

Reorx created the Graygem to give them as a gift and it was

stolen by the gnomes." More boos, but these hushed

immediately at a glower from Dougan.

"Well, it seems to me," said Sturm, with another yawn,

"that the only one who knows the true story is Reorx."

"Not quite, lad," said Dougan, looking uncomfortable.

"For, you see, I know the true story. And that is why I'm on

this quest."

"Which is right, then?" asked Tanin, with a wink at

Palin.

"Neither," said Dougan, appearing even more

uncomfortable. His head drooped down, his chin buried

itself in his beard, while his hands fumbled at the golden

buttons on his sopping-wet velvet coat. "You ... uh ... you

see," he mumbled, making it extremely difficult for anyone

to hear him over the splashing of the sea and the flapping of

fish on the deck, "Reorx . . . uh . . .

losttheGraygeminagameofbones."

"What?" asked Palin, leaning forward.

"Helostit," muttered the dwarf.

"I still didn't hear - "

"HE LOST THE DAMN GEM IN A GAME OF BONES!"

Dougan roared angrily, lifting his face and glaring around

him. Terrified, the gnomes immediately scattered in all

directions, more than a few getting clonked on the head by

the sail as it whizzed past. "Morgion, God of decay and

disease, tricked Reorx into making the gem. Morgion knew

that if Chaos were loosed in the world, his evil power

would grow. He challenged Reorx to a game, with the

Graygem as the stakes and . . ." The dwarf fell silent,

scowling down at his shoes.

"He gambled it in away in a BONE GAME?" Sturm

finished in amazement.

"Aye, lad," said Dougan, sighing heavily. "You see,

Reorx has one little flaw. Just a tiny flaw, mind you,

otherwise he is as fine and honorable a gentleman as one

could hope to meet. But" - the dwarf heaved another sigh -

"he does love his bottle, and he does love a good wager."

"Oh, so you know Reorx, do you?" Sturm said with a

yawn that cracked his jaws.

"I'm proud to say so," said Dougan seriously, stroking

his beard and curling his moustaches. "And, with his help,

I've managed after all these years to locate the Graygem.

With the assistance of these lads here" - he smote a

passing gnome on the shoulder, completely bowling the

little fellow over - "and with the help of you three fine

young men, we'll recover it and . . . and . . ." Dougan

stopped, seeming confused.

"And?"

"And return it to Reorx, naturally," the dwarf said,

shrugging.

"Naturally," Tanin responded. Glancing over at Sturm,

who had fallen asleep on the deck, the big man caught a

gnome in the act of making off with his brother's helm.

"Hey!" cried Tanin angrily, collaring the thief.

"Ijustwantedtolookatit!" whined the gnome, cringing.

"Iwasgoingtogiveitbackhonest. You see," he said, talking

more slowly as Tanin released his grip, "we have

developed a revolutionary new design in helms. There's

just a few problems with it, such as getting it off one's

head, and I - "

"Thank you, we're not interested," Tanin growled,

yanking the helm away from the gnome, who was admiring

it lovingly. "C'mon, Little Brother," he said, turning to

Palin. "Help me get Sturm to bed."

"Where is bed?" Palin asked tiredly. "And, no, I'm not

going back into that foul-smelling hold again."

"Me either," Tanin said. He looked around the deck and

pointed. "That lean-to-looking thing over there seems to be

about the best place. At least it'll be dry."

He indicated several wooden planks that had been

skillfully and ingeniously fit together to form a small

shelter. Leaning against the hull, the planks were beneath

the sail as it rumbled past, and protected those lying within

from water and falling fish.

"It is dry," said Dougan smugly. "That's my bed."

"It WAS your bed," returned Tanin. Leaning down, he

shook Sturm. "Wake up! We're not going to carry you! And

hurry up, before that god-cursed sail decapitates us."

"What?" Sturm sat up, blinking drowsily.

"You can't do this!" roared the dwarf.

"Look, Dougan Redhammer!" Tanin said, bending down

and staring the dwarf grimly in the eye. "I'm hung over,

seasick, and I haven't had anything to eat all day. I've been

doused with water, hit by fish, run over by a sail, and bored

to death by kids' bedtime stories! I don't believe you, I don't

believe your stupid quest." Tanin paused, seething, and

raised a finger, shaking it at the dwarf's nose. "I'm going to

sleep where I want to sleep and tomorrow, when I'm feeling

better, I swear by the gods I'm going to make these little

bastards turn this ship around and take us back home!"

"And if I stop you?" Dougan threatened with a leer, not

at all disconcerted by Tanin's rage.

"Then there'll be a new figurehead on which ever end of

this stupid boat is the front!" Tanin hissed through clenched

teeth. "And it'll have a long, black beard!" Angrily, the big

man stalked over to the lean-to and ducked inside. Sleepily,

Sturm followed.

"If I were you, Dougan," Palin muttered, hurrying after

them, "I'd keep out of his way! He's quite capable of doing

what he says."

"Is he, lad? I'll keep that in mind," the dwarf replied,

tugging thoughtfully at his beard.

The shelter was crammed with the dwarf's possessions -

most of which appeared to be gaudy clothes. These Palin

shoved unceremoniously out onto the deck with his foot.

Tanin stretched out on the floor, Sturm collapsed next to

him, and both were asleep almost as quickly as if their

younger brother had cast a spell over them. Palin lay down

in the small remaining space, hoping sleep would come to

him as swiftly.

But he was not the campaigner his brothers were, he

realized bitterly. Sturm could sleep in full armor on the

sands of a desert while Tanin had been known to snore

blissfully as lightning cut down a tree standing next to him.

Soaked to the skin, shivering with cold, Palin lay on the

deck and gave himself up to misery. He was hungry, but

every time he thought of food, his stomach lurched. His

muscles ached from the sickness, the bitter taste of salt

water filled his mouth. He thought with longing of his bed

at home; of clean, sweet-smelling sheets; of hours of

peaceful study, sitting beneath the sheltering limbs of the

vallenwood, his spellbook in his lap.

Closing his eyes, Palin tried to keep back the tears of

homesickness, but it engulfed him like a wave. Reaching

out his hand, he touched the Staff of Magius. And suddenly

the memory of his uncle came to him. From where? Palin

had no idea, Raistlin had died long before Palin was born.

Perhaps it was from the staff ... or maybe he was recalling

some tale of his father's and it had become real to him now

in his weakened state. Whatever the reason, Palin saw

Raistlin clearly, lying on the ground in a dismal, rainswept

forest. Huddled in his red robes, the mage was coughing,

coughing until it seemed he could never draw breath again.

Palin saw blood upon the ashen lips, he saw the frail body

wracked by pain. But he heard him speak no word of

complaint. Softly, Palin approached his uncle. The

coughing ceased, the spasm eased. Lifting his head, Raistlin

looked directly into Palin's eyes. . . .

Bowing his head in shame, Palin drew the staff nearer to

him, resting his cheek upon its cool, smooth wood and,

relaxing, fell into sleep. But he thought he heard, in the

final moment before he slipped over the edge of

unconsciousness, the voice of the dwarf, and he thought he

saw a head peering into the lean-to.

"I've a deck of cards here, lads. . . . What do you say?

High card sleeps here tonight? . . ."

 

CHAPTER FOUR

The Isle of Gargath

 

Both brothers knew that Tanin was quite capable of

carrying out his threat to take over the ship, though just

how he was going to force the gnomes to sail it was another

matter entirely. During the night, the gnomes, just as firmly

determined to continue the voyage, began to organize a

supply of weapons. Since most of these weapons were of

gnomish design, there was every possibility that they would

do as much or more damage to the wielder as to the

intended victim, and thus the outcome of the battle - two

warriors and a mage against numerous gnomes and a dwarf

- was open to question.

The question was, fortunately, never answered. The

next morning the brothers were awakened by a tremendous

crash, the heart-stopping sound of splintering wood, and

the somewhat belated cry of "Land Ho!"

Staggering to their feet, they made their way out of the

lean-to and across the deck, not an easy task since it was

listing steeply to port.

"What is it? What's happened? Where are we?"

demanded Tanin, rubbing his eyes.

"We've arrived!" announced Dougan, smoothing his

beard in satisfaction. "Look!" He made a grand, sweeping

gesture toward what was - at this time - the prow. "The Isle

of Gargath."

The brothers looked. At first all they could see was a

confused mass of split sail, dangling ropes, broken beams,

and gnomes waving their hands, arguing furiously, and

shoving each other about. The motion of the ship through

the water had ceased, due, no doubt, to the presence of a

cliff, which had bashed in the fig urehead, part of the hull,

and snapped the mast of the sail in two.

His face grim, Tanin made his way through the

wreckage, followed by Sturm and Palin, several bickering

gnomes, and the dwarf. Reaching the prow, he clung to the

side and stared out past the cliff toward the island. The sun

was rising behind them, shedding its bright light upon a

stretch of sandy beach that curved out of sight to the north,

vanishing in a patch of gray fog. Strange-looking trees with

thin, smooth trunks that erupted in a flourish of frondlike

leaves at the top surrounded the beach. Beyond the wide

sandy strip, towering above the trees and the cliff face upon

which the boat now rested, was a gigantic mountain. A

cloud of gray smoke hung over it, casting a pall upon the

beach, the water, and the ship.

"The Isle of Gargath," Dougan repeated triumphantly.

"Gargath?" Palin gaped. "You mean - "

"Aye, laddie. The Lord himself followed the Gray-gem,

if you remember, when it escaped. He built a ship and

sailed after it as it vanished over the western horizon, and

that was the last anyone on Ansalon ever heard of him. His

family figured he had dropped off the edge of the world.

But, a few years back, I happened to be drinking with a

group of minotaurs. One thing led to another, there was a

game, as I recall, and I won this map off of them."

Reaching into the pocket of his red velvet coat (now much

the worse for wear and salt water), Dougan pulled out a

piece of parchment and handed it to Tanin.

"It's a minotaur map, all right," Tanin said, setting it down

on the listing rail and smoothing it out, trying to keep his

balance at the same time. Sturm lurched over to see, and

Palin crowded next to him, bracing himself on the Staff of

Magius. Though it was written in the uncouth language of

the man-beasts, the map was drawn with the precision and

skill for which minotaurs are grudgingly renowned by the

civilized races of Krynn. There was no mistaking the

continent of Ansalon or, much farther to the west, a tiny

island with the word "Gargath" written out to the side.

"What does that mean?" Sturm asked, pointing to an

ominous-looking symbol next to the island. "That thing that

looks like a bull's head with a sword stuck through it."

"That?" repeated Dougan, shrugging nonchalantly.

Snatching the map from Tanin, he rolled it up hastily.

"Some minotaur doodle, no doubt - "

"The minotaur 'doodle' for danger," Palin said grimly.

"Isn't that right?"

Dougan flushed, thrusting the map back into his pocket.

"Well, now, laddie, I believe you may be onto something

there, although I personally don't put much stock in what

those savage creatures might take it into their heads to draw

- "

"Those 'savage creatures' have marked this island with

their strongest warning!" Palin interrupted. "No minotaur

ship will land anywhere bearing that mark," he added,

turning to his brothers.

"And there are few things in this world or the next that

minotaur fear," Tanin said, staring at the island, his face

dark.

"What more proof do you need?" asked Dougan in a soft

voice, following Tanin's gaze; the dwarf's dark, bright eyes

were filled with hunger. "The Graygem is here! It is its

power the minotaurs feel and fear!"

"What do you think, Palin?" Tanin turned to his

youngest brother. "You're the magic-user. Surely you can

sense it."

Once again, Palin felt the thrill of pleasure, seeing his older

brothers, the two people he looked up to in this world most

with the exception of his father - or maybe even more than

his father - looking at him respectfully, waiting his

judgment. Gripping the Staff of Magius, Palin closed his

eyes and tried to concentrate and, as he did so, a chill

feeling clutched his heart with fingers of ice, spreading its

cold fear through his body. He shuddered, and opened his

eyes to find Tanin and Sturm regarding him anxiously.

"Palin - your face! You're as pale as death. What is it?"

"I don't know. . . ." Palin faltered, his mouth dry. "I felt

something, but what I'm not sure. It wasn't danger so much

as a lost and empty feeling, a feeling of helplessness.

Everything around me was spinning out of control. There

was nothing I could do to stop it - "

"The power of the gem," Dougan said. "You felt it,

young mage! And now you know why it must be captured

and returned to the gods for safekeeping. It escaped man's

care before, it will escape again. The gods only know," the

dwarf added sorrowfully, "what mischief it has wrecked

upon this wretched island."

Wagging his black beard, Dougan held out a trembling

hand to Tanin. "You'll help me, lads, won't you?" he asked

in heartfelt, pleading tones, so different from his usual

braggadocio that Tanin was caught off guard, his anger

punctured. "If you say no," continued Dougan, hanging his

head, "I'll understand. Though I DID win the wager, I guess

it was wrong of me to get you drunk and take you prisoner

when you were weak and helpless."

Tanin chewed his lip, obviously not welcoming this

reminder.

"And I swear by my beard," said the dwarf solemnly,

stroking it, "that if you say the word, I'll have the gnomes

take you back to Ansalon. As soon as they get the ship

repaired, that is."

"IF they get the ship repaired!" Tanin growled at last.

(This appeared unlikely. The gnomes were paying no

attention whatsoever to the ship, but were arguing among

themselves about who was supposed to have been on

watch, who was supposed to be reading the gnomes' own

map, and the committee that had drawn up the map in the

first place. It was later decided that, since the cliff hadn't

been marked on the map, it wasn't there and they hadn't

bashed into it. Having reached this conclusion, the gnomes

were able to get to work.)

"Well, what do you two say?" Tanin turned to his

brothers.

"I say that since we're here, we ought to at least take a

look around," Sturm said in low tones. "If the dwarf is right

and we could retrieve the Graygem, our admittance into the

Knighthood would be assured! As he said, we'd be heroes!"

"To say nothing of the wealth we might obtain," Tanin

muttered. "Palin?"

The young mage's heart beat fast. Who knows what

magical powers the Graygem possesses? he thought

suddenly. It could enhance my power, and I wouldn't need

any great archmage to teach me! I might become a great

archmage myself, just by touching it or ... Palin shook his

head. Raising his eyes, he saw his brothers' faces. Tanin's

was ugly with greed, Sturm's twisted with ambition. My

own face - Palin put his hand on it - what must it look like

to them? He glanced down at his robes and saw their white

color faded to dirty gray. It might just be from the salt

water, but it might be from something else. . . .

"My brothers," he said urgently, "listen to us! Think

what you just said! Tanin, since when did you ever go in

search of wealth and not adventure!"

Tanin blinked, as if waking from a dream. "You're right!

Wealth! What am I talking about? I never cared that much

for money - "

"The power of the Graygem is speaking," Dougan cried.

"It's beginning to corrupt you, as it corrupted others." His

gaze went to the gnomes. The shoving and pushing had

escalated into punching and tossing one another overboard.

"I say we should at least investigate this island," Palin

said in a low voice so that the dwarf would not overhear.

He drew his brothers closer. "If for no other reason than to

find out if Dougan's telling the truth. If he is and if the

Graygem IS here and if we could be the ones to bring it

back . . ."

"Oh, it's here!" Dougan said, eagerly poking his black-

bearded face into their midst. "And when you bring it back,

lads, why the stories they tell of your famous father will be

kender lies compared to the legends they'll sing of you! To

say nothing of the fact that you'll be rescuing the poor

people of this island from their sad fate," continued the

dwarf in solemn tones.

"People?" Tanin said, startled. "You mean this place is

inhabited?"

"Aye, there are people here," the dwarf said with a

gusty sigh, though he was eyeing the brothers shrewdly.

"Yes," said Sturm, staring intently at the beach. "There

are people, all right. And it doesn't look to me, Dougan

Redhammer, like they want to be rescued!"

Tanin, Palin, Sturm, and the dwarf were ferried across the

water from the MIRACLE by a party of gnomes in a dinghy.

Bringing along the dinghy had been the dwarf's idea, and

the gnomes were enchanted with something so practical and

simple. The gnomes had themselves designed a lifeboat to

be attached to MIRACLE. Roughly the same weight and

dimensions as the ship, the lifeboat had been left behind, to

be studied by a committee.

As the boat drew nearer shore, surging forward with the

waves and the incoming tide, the brothers could see the

welcoming party. The rising sun glinted off spears and

shields carried by a crowd of men who were awaiting their

arrival on the beach. Tall and muscular, the men wore little

clothing in the balmy clime of the island. Their skin was a

rich, glistening brown, their bodies adorned with bright

beads and feathers, their faces were stem and resolute. The

shields they carried were made of wood and painted with

garish designs, the spears were handmade as well - wooden

with stone tips.

"Honed nice and sharp, you can believe me," said Sturm

gloomily. "They'll go through flesh like a knife through

butter."

"We're outnumbered at least twenty to one," Tanin

pointed out to Dougan, who was sitting in the prow of the

boat, fingering a battle-ax that was nearly the size of the

dwarf.

"Bah! Primitives!" said Dougan contemptuously, though

Palin noted the dwarf's face was a bit pale. "First sight of

steel, they'll bow down and worship us as gods."

The "gods' " arrival on the beach was something less

than majestic. Tanin and Sturm did look quite magnificent

in their bright steel armor of elven make and design - a gift

from Porthios and Alhana of the United Elven Kingdoms.

Their breastplates glittered in the morning sun, their helms

gleamed brightly. Climbing out of the boat, they sank to

their shins in the sand and, within minutes, were both

firmly mired.

Dougan, dressed in his suit of red velvet, demanded that

the gnomes take him clear into shore so he would not ruin

his clothes. The dwarf had added to his costume a wide-

brimmed hat decorated with a white plume that fluttered in

the ocean breeze, and he was truly a wonderful sight,

standing proudly in the prow of the boat with his axe at his

side, glaring sternly at the warriors drawn up in battle

formation on the beach. The gnomes obeyed his injunction

to the letter, running the boat aground on the beach with

such force that Dougan tumbled out head first, narrowly

missing slicing himself in two with his great battle-ax.

Palin had often imagined his first battle - fighting at the

side of his brothers, combining steel and magic. He had

spent the journey into shore committing the few spells he

knew to memory. As he drew toward shore, his pulse raced

with what he told himself was excitement, not fear. He was

prepared for almost any eventuality . . . with the exception

of helping a cursing, sputtering, irate dwarf to his feet;

trying to dislodge his brothers from the sand; and facing an

army of silent, grim, half-naked men.

"Why don't they attack us?" Sturm muttered,

floundering about in the water, trying to keep his balance.

"They could cut us to ribbons!"

"Maybe they have a law prohibiting them from harming

idiots!" snapped Tanin irritably.

Dougan had managed, with Palin's help, to stagger to his

feet. Shaking his fist, he sent the gnomes on their way back

to the ship with a parting curse, then turned and, with as

much dignity as he could bluster, stomped across the beach

toward the warriors. Tanin and Sturm followed more

slowly, hands on the hilts of their swords. Palin came after

his brothers more slowly still, his white robes wet and

bedraggled, the hem caked with sand.

The warriors waited for them in silence, unmoving, their

faces expressionless as they watched the strangers

approach. But Palin noticed, as he drew near, that

occasionally one of the men would glance uneasily back

into the nearby jungle. Observing this happening more than

once, Palin turned his attention to the trees. After watching

and listening intently for a moment, he drew nearer Tanin.

"There's something in the jungle," he said in an

undertone.

"I wouldn't doubt it," Tanin growled. "Probably another

fifty or so warriors."

"I don't know," Palin said thoughtfully, shaking his

head. "The warriors appear to be nervous about it, maybe

even - "

"Shush!" Tanin ordered sharply. "This is no time to talk,

Palin! Now keep behind Sturm and me, like you're

supposed to!"

"But - " Palin began.

Tanin flashed him a look of anger, meant to remind the

young man who was in charge. With a sigh, Palin took up

his position behind his brothers. But his eyes went to the

jungle, and he again noticed that more than one of the

warriors allowed his gaze as well to stray in that direction.

"Hail!" cried Dougan, stumping through the sand to

stand in front of a warrior who, by standing out slightly in

front of his fellows, appeared to be the chief. "Us gods!"

proclaimed the dwarf, thumping himself on the chest.

"Come from Land of Rising Sun to Give Greeting to our

Subjects on Isle of Gargath."

"You're a dwarf," said the warrior glumly, speaking

excellent Common. "You've come from Ansalon and

you're probably after the Graygem."

"Well ... uh ... now . . ." Dougan appeared flustered.

"That's ... uh ... a good guess, lad. We are, as it happens,

mildly interested in ... uh ... the Gray-gem. If you'd be so

good as to tell us where we might find it - "

"You can't have it," said the warrior, his voice still

depressed sounding. He raised his spear. "We're here to

stop you."

The warriors behind him nodded unenthusiastically,

fumbling with their spears and clumsily falling into some

sort of ragged battle formation. Again, Palin noticed many

of them looking into the jungle with that same nervous,

preoccupied expression.

"Well, we're going to take it!" Tanin shouted fiercely,

apparently trying to drum up some enthusiasm for the

battle. "You'll have to fight us to stop us."

"I guess we will," mumbled the chief, hefting his spear

in half-hearted fashion.

Somewhat confused, Tanin and Sturm nevertheless drew

their swords, as Dougan, his face grim, lifted his axe. The

words to a spell chant were on Palin's lips, the Staff of

Magius seemed to tremble with eagerness in his hand. But

Palin hesitated. From all he'd heard, battles weren't

supposed to be like this! Where was the hot blood? the

ferocious hatred? the bitter determination to die where one

stood rather than give an inch of ground?

The warriors shuffled forward, prodding each other

along. Tanin closed on them, his sword flashing in the sun,

Sturm at his back. Suddenly, a cry came from the jungle.

There was movement and a rustling sound, more cries, and

then a yelp of pain. A small figure dashed out of the trees,

running headlong across the sand.

"Wait!" Palin yelled, running forward to stop his

brothers. "It's a child!"

The warriors turned at the sound. "Damn!" muttered the

chief, tossing his shield and spear into the sand in disgust.

The child - a little girl of about five - ran to the warrior and

threw her arms around his legs. At that moment, another

child, older than the first, came running out of the woods in

pursuit.

"I thought I told you to keep her with you!" the chief

said to older child, a boy, who came dashing up.

"She bit me!" said the boy accusingly, exhibiting bloody

marks on his arm.

"You're not going to hurt my daddy, are you?" the little

girl asked Tanin, glaring at him with dark eyes.

"N-no," stuttered Tanin, taken aback. He lowered his

sword. "We're just" - he shrugged, flushing scarlet -

"talking. You know, man-talk."

"Bless my beard!" exclaimed the dwarf in awe. More

children were running from the jungle - children of all ages

from toddlers who could barely make their way across the

sand to older boys and girls of about ten or eleven. The air

was filled with their shrill voices.

"I'm bored. Can we go home?"

"Lemme hold the spear!"

"No, it's my turn! Dad told me - "

"Apu said a bad word!"

"Did not!"

"Did so!"

"Look, Daddy! That short, fat man with the hair on his

face! Isn't he ugly?"

Glancing at the strangers in deep embarrassment, the

warriors turned from their battle formation to argue with

their children.

"Listen, Blossom, Daddy's just going to be a little

longer. You go back and play - "

"Apu, take your brothers back with you and DON'T let

me hear you using language like that or I'll - "

"No, dear, Daddy needs the spear right now. You can

carry it on the way home - "

"Halt!" roared the dwarf. Dougan's thunderous shout cut

through the confusion, silencing warrior and child alike.

"Look," said Tanin, sheathing his sword, his own face

flushed with embarrassment, "we don't want to fight you,

especially in front of your kids. . . ."

"I know," the chief said, chagrined. "It's always like

that. We haven't had a good battle in two years! Have you

ever" - he gave Tanin a pained look - "tried to fight with a

toddler underfoot?"

Profoundly perplexed, Tanin shook his head.

"Takes all the fun out of it," added another warrior as

one child swarmed up his back and another bashed him in

the shins with his shield.

"Leave them at home with their mothers, then, where

they belong," said Dougan gruffly.

The warriors' expression grew grimmer still. At the

mention of their mothers, several of the children began to

cry. The whole group began to turn away from the beach.

"We can't," muttered a warrior.

"Why not?" demanded Dougan.

"Because their mothers are gone!"

"It all started two years ago," said the chief, walking with

Dougan and the brothers back to the village. "Lord Gargath

sent a messenger to our village, demanding ten maidens be

paid him in tribute or he'd unleash the power of the

Graygem." The warrior's eyes went to the volcano in the

distance, its jagged top barely visible amid the shifting gray

clouds that surrounded it. Forked lightning streaked from

the cloud, thunder rumbled. The chief shivered and shook

his head. "What could we do? We paid him his tribute. But

it didn't stop there. The next month, here came the

messenger again. Ten more maidens, and more the month

following. Soon, we ran out of maidens, and then the Lord

demanded our wives. Then he sent for our mothers! Now" -

the chief sighed - "there isn't a woman left in the village!"

"All of them!" Sturm gaped. "He's taken ALL of them!"

The chief nodded in despair, the child in his arms wailed

in grief. "And not only us. It happened to every tribe on the

island. We used to be a fierce, proud people," the chief

added, his dark eyes flashing. "Our tribes were constantly at

war. To win honor and glory in battle was what we lived

for, to die fighting was the noblest death a man could find!

Now, we lead lives of drudgery - "

"Our hands in dishwater instead of blood," said another.

"Mending clothes instead of cracking skulls."

"To say nothing of what ELSE we're missing, without

the women," added a third with a meaningful look.

"Well, why don't you go get them back!" Tanin

demanded.

The warriors, to a man, looked at him with undisguised

horror, many glancing over their shoulders at the smoking

volcano, expressions of terror on their faces, as if fearing

they might be overheard.

"Attack the powerful Lord Gargath?" asked the chief in

what was practically a whisper. "Face the wrath of the

Graygem's master? No!" He shuddered, holding his child

close. "At least now our children have one parent."

"But if all the tribes fought together," Sturm argued,

"that would be, how many men? Hundreds? Thousands?"

"If there were millions, we would not go up against the

Master of the Graygem," said the chief.

"Well, then," said Dougan sharply, "why did you try to

stop us back there on the beach? Seems to me you would be

only too glad to rid yourselves of the thing!"

"Lord Gargath ordered us to fight any who tried to take

it," said the chief simply.

Reaching their village - a scattering of thatched huts

that had seen better days - the warriors dispersed, some

taking children to bed, others hurrying to look into

steaming pots, still others heading for a stream with

baskets loaded with clothes.

"Dougan," said Tanin, watching all this in astonishment

almost too great for words, "this doesn't make any sense!

What's going on?"

"The power of the Graygem, lad," said the dwarf

solemnly. "They're deep under its spell and can no longer

see anything rationally. I'll lay ten to one that it's the

Graygem keeping them from attacking Lord Gargath. But

us, now" - the dwarf looked at the brothers cunningly -

"we're not under its spell - "

"Not yet," mentioned Palin.

" - and therefore we stand a chance of defeating him!

After all, how powerful can he be?"

"Oh, he could have an army of a couple thousand men

or so," said Sturm.

"No, no," said Dougan hastily. "If he did, he would have

just sent the army to attack the villages, kill the men, and

carry off the women. Lord Gargath is using the power of

the Graygem because that's all he's got! We must act

quickly, though, lads, because its power will grow on us

the longer we stay near its influence."

Tanin frowned, considering. "How do we get the

Graygem, then?" he asked abruptly. "And what do we do

with it after we've got it? It seems to me, we'll be in worse

danger than ever!"

"Ah, leave that to me!" said Dougan, rubbing his hands.

"Just help me to get it, lads."

Tanin kept on frowning.

"And think of the women - poor things," the dwarf

continued sadly, "held in thrall by this wicked lord, forced

to submit to his evil will. They'll undoubtedly be grateful to

the brave men who rescue them. . . ."

"He's right," said Sturm in sudden resolve. "It is our

duty, Tanin, as future Knights of Solamnia, to rescue the

women."

"What do you say, Little Brother?" asked Tanin.

"It is my duty as a mage of the White Robes to help

these people," Palin said, feeling extremely self-righteous.

"ALL these people," he added.

"Plus it's a matter of honor, lad," Dougan said solemnly.

"You DID lose the bet. And it will be a few days before the

gnomes have the ship repaired. . . ."

"And the women will probably be VERY grateful!"

struck in Sturm.

"All right, we'll go!" said Tanin. "Though I'd rather face

a dragon than fight the power of some sort of weird rock - "

"Ha, ha, dragon!" repeated the dwarf, with a sickly grin

that Tanin was too preoccupied to notice.

The brothers and the dwarf walked up to the chief, who

was hanging laundry out to dry and keeping an anxious eye

on the stew pot to see that it didn't boil over.

"Listen to me, men!" Tanin called loudly, motioning the

warriors of the village to gather around him. "My brothers

and the dwarf and I are going to go to the castle of this Lord

Gargath to take the Graygem. Would any of you like to

come along?"

Glancing at each other, the warriors shook their heads.

"Well, then," Tanin continued in exasperation, "will any

of you go with us as our guide? You can come back when

we reach the castle."

Again, the warriors shook their heads.

"Then we'll go alone!" Tanin said fiercely. "And we will

return with the Graygem or leave our lives in that castle!"

Spinning on his heel, the big man stalked out of the camp,

his brothers and the dwarf marching behind. As they left,

however, they encountered dark looks from the warriors

and heard muttered comments. More than a few shook their

fists at them.

"They certainly don't look pleased," Tanin muttered.

"Especially since we're the ones facing all the danger. What

is it they're saying?"

"I think it's just occurred to them that the women will

probably be VERY grateful," Dougan answered in a low

voice.

 

CHAPTER FIVE

A Matter of Honor

 

Sturm later maintained that Tanin should have realized

what was going on and kept the dwarf out of the game that

night. Tanin retorted that Sturm should stay out of it since

he slept through the whole thing. But Palin reminded them

both that they were all under the influence of the Graygem

at the time, so it probably wouldn't have made any

difference anyway.

They had walked all day, moving easily through the thick

jungle, following a trail that had obviously been there for

years. The major problem was the heat, which was intense.

Sturm and Tanin soon took off their armor and packed it

away and finally convinced Palin to strip off his white

robes, though he protested long against wandering the

wilderness clad only in his undergarments.

"Look," said Tanin, finally, after Palin was on the verge

of collapse, his robes dripping with sweat, "there aren't any

women around, that much we know. Hang your spell bags

around your waist. We can always get dressed again before

we reach the next village." Palin reluctantly agreed and,

other than taking some ribbing from Sturm about his skinny

legs, was thankful he did so. The jungle grew steamier as

the sun rose higher. Intermittent rain showers cooled the

brothers and the dwarf occasionally, but in the end served

only to increase the humidity.

Dougan, however, steadfastly refused to shed so much as

his broad-brimmed hat, maintaining that the heat was

nothing to a dwarf and ridiculing the humans for their

weakness. This he did with perspiration streaming down his

face until it dripped off the ends of his moustaches. He

marched along with a defiant air, as if daring one of them to

say something, and often grumbled that they were slowing

him down. Yet Palin saw Dougan more than once, when he

thought no one was looking, slump down on a rock, fan

himself with his hat, and mop his face with his beard.

By the time they arrived at the next village, which was

about a day's walk through the jungle, all of them - even the

dwarf - were so limp and tired that they barely had the

strength to put their clothes and their armor back on in

order to make an impressive show. Word of their coming

must have traveled in some mysterious way (Palin thought

he knew, then, the reason for the strange drum beats they'd

been hearing), for they were met by the men of the village

and the children. The men regarded them coldly (though

more than a few eyes flashed at the sight of the elven

armor), gave them food and drink, and indicated a hut

where they could spend the night. Tanin made a stirring

speech about storming Gargath Castle and asked for

volunteers.

The only response was dark looks, shuffling feet, and a

muttered comment, "I can't, I got a chicken stewing. . . ."

This being no more than they had expected, the brothers

stripped off their armor and their clothes and went to bed.

Their night's rest was unbroken, save for slapping at some

sort of winged, carnivorous insect that apparently had a

craving for human flesh, and one other incident.

Around midnight, Tanin was wakened by the dwarf,

shaking his shoulder and loudly calling his name.

"Whasit?" mumbled Tanin sleepily, fumbling for his

sword.

"Nay, lad, put your weapon away," said Dougan, hurriedly.

"I just need to know something, lad. You and me and your

brothers, we're comrades, aren't we?"

Tanin recalled, as well as he could recall anything, that

the dwarf had seemed particularly anxious about this and

had repeated the question several times.

"Yeah, comrades," Tanin muttered, rolling over.

"What's mine is yours, yours is mine?" persisted the

dwarf, leaning over to look the young man in the face.

"Yeah, yeah." Tanin waved a hand, brushing away a

feeding insect and the dwarf's beard at the same time.

"Thank you, lad! Thank you," said Dougan gratefully.

"You won't regret it."

Tanin said later that the dwarf's last words, "You won't

regret it," lingered ominously in his dreams, but he was too

tired to wake up and ponder the situation.

As it was, he had plenty of time for pondering the next

morning when he woke to find a spear point at his throat

and several tall warriors standing over him. A quick glance

showed him his brothers in similar circumstances.

"Sturm!" Tanin called, not daring to move and keeping

his hands in plain sight. "Palin, wake up!"

His brothers woke quickly at the sound of alarm in his

voice, and stared at their captors in sleepy surprise.

"Tanin," said Palin, keeping his voice even, "what's

going on?"

"I don't know, but I'm going to find out!" Tanin angrily

thrust the spear point aside. "What is this nonsense?" he

asked, starting to stand up. The spear point was at his throat

again, joined, this time, by two more - one at his chest, the

other jabbing him in the back.

"Tell them that no matter how grateful the women are, it

won't matter to us!" said Sturm, swallowing and trying in

vain to inch backward. The spear fol lowed him. "We're

going to be knights! We've taken vows of celibacy. . . ."

"It's ... uh ... not the women, lad," muttered a shamefaced

Dougan, entering the hut and thrusting his head in between

the warriors. "It's ... uh ... a matter of honor ... so to speak.

The truth of it is, lads," the dwarf continued with a heart-

rending sigh, "I got into a wee bit of a game last night."

"So?" grunted Tanin. "What has that got to do with us?"

"I'll explain," Dougan began, licking his lips, his eyes

darting from one to the other of the brothers. "I threw the

bones well the first hour or two. Won the chief's feather

head-dress AND two cows. I was going to quit then, I swear

it, but the old boy was upset, and so what could I do but let

him try to win them back? My luck was going that good, I

bet it all on one toss, plus threw in my axe and my own hat

as well."

Tanin looked at the dwarf's bare head. "You lost."

Dougan's shoulders slumped. "I didn't miss the other so

much, but I couldn't do without my hat, now could I? So I

bet all my money against the hat and - " He looked at Tanin

wistfully.

"You lost that, too," Tanin muttered.

"Snake eyes," said the dwarf sadly.

"So now you've lost your money and your hat - "

"Not quite," Dougan hedged. "You see, I just couldn't do

without my hat. . . . And I didn't have anything left that the

old boy wanted, my jacket not fitting him. And you DID

say we were comrades, share and share alike - "

"When did you say that?" Sturm demanded, glaring at

Tanin.

"I don't remember!" Tanin growled.

"So, I bet your armor," said the dwarf.

"You what?" Tanin roared in fury.

"The chief had taken a liking to it when he saw it on you

last evening," continued Dougan rapidly. Even with five

spears pointed directly at him, Tanin looked extremely

formidable and extremely angry. "I bet your armor against

my hat, and I won." The dwarf was smug.

"Thank Paladine!" breathed Tanin, relaxing.

"Then - " said Dougan, looking uncomfortable, "since

my luck was obviously turning, I decided to try for my

money back. I bet the armor, my hat, and" - he pointed -

"the magic staff against my money, the cows, and a goat."

This time it was Palin who sat forward (oblivious of the

spears), his face deathly pale, his lips ashen. "You bet . . .

my staff!" He could scarcely speak. Reaching out a

trembling hand, he grasped hold of the staff which lay at his

side even while he slept.

"Aye, lad," said Dougan, regarding him with wide-eyed

innocence. "We're comrades. Share and share - "

"This staff," said Palin in a low, shaking voice,

"belonged to my uncle, Raistlin Majere! It was a gift from

him - "

"Indeed?" Dougan appeared impressed. "I wish I had

known that, lad," he said wistfully, "I would have wagered

more - "

"What happened?" Palin demanded feverishly.

"I lost." Dougan heaved a sigh. "I've seen a man roll

snake eyes twice in a game only once before and that was

when I - Well, never mind."

"You lost my staff!" Palin seemed near fainting.

"And our armor?" Sturm shouted, veins swelling in his

neck.

"Wait!" Dougan held up his hand hastily. The warriors

with the spears, despite their weapons and their obvious

advantage, were beginning to look a little nervous. "I knew

how upset you lads would be, losing all your possessions

like this, so I did the only thing I could. I wagered your

swords."

This time the shock was so great that neither Tanin nor

Sturm could speak, they simply stared at Dougan in stunned

silence.

"I put up the swords and my battle-ax against the magic

staff and my hat - I truly wish" - Dougan glanced at the

shaken Palin - "that I'd known the staff belonged to Raistlin

of the Black Robes. Even here, they've heard of him, and I

likely could have gotten the chief to throw in the armor. As

it was, he wasn't all that impressed with what he'd seen of

the staff - "

"Get on with it!" Palin cried in a choked voice, clutching

the staff close.

"I won!" Dougan spread his hands, then sighed again,

only this was a sigh of ecstasy. "Ah, what a throw that was.

. . ."

"So ... I have my staff?" Palin asked timidly,

brightening.

"We have our swords?" Tanin and Sturm began to

breathe.

"Finding that my luck had shifted," the dwarf said,

plunging the brothers into gloom once more, "I decided to

try for the armor again. Figuring what good were swords

without armor, I bet the weapons and - " He gestured

bleakly toward the warriors with the spears.

"You lost," Tanin said glumly.

"But I still have my staff?" Palin asked nervously.

"Aye, lad. I tried to use it to win back the swords, my

axe, and the armor, but the chief didn't want it." Dougan

shook his head, then gazed at Palin intently, a sudden,

cunning expression twisting his face. "But if you were to

tell him it belonged to the great Raistlin Majere, perhaps I

could - "

"No!" snarled Palin, holding the staff close.

"But, lad," pleaded the dwarf, "my luck's bound to change.

And we're comrades, after all. Share and share alike ..."

 

"This is great!" said Sturm gloomily, watching the last

of his armor being carried out of the hut. "Well, I guess

there's nothing left to do now but go back to the ship - "

"The ship?" Dougan appeared astonished. "When we're

so close! Why, Lord Gargath's castle's only a day's march

from here!"

"And what are we going to do when we get there?"

Tanin demanded furiously. "Knock on the door in our

underwear and ask him to lend us weapons so that we can

fight him?"

"Look at it this way, Big Brother," Sturm muttered, "he

might drop over dead from laughter."

"How can you joke at a time like this?" Tanin raged.

"And I'm not certain I'm ready to leave yet."

"Easy, my brothers," Palin said softly. "If all we've lost

from this fool quest is some weapons and armor, I'm

beginning to think we can count ourselves lucky. I agree

with Sturm, Tanin. We better head back for the ship before

the day gets much hotter."

"That's easy for you to say!" Tanin retorted bitterly.

"You've still got your precious staff!" He looked over to the

chief's hut, where the old man was happily decking himself

out in the bright armor, putting most of it on upside down.

Then he cast a dark glance at the contrite Dougan. "I

suppose Palin's right," Tanin said grudgingly, glaring at the

dwarf. "We should count ourselves lucky. We've had

enough of this fool quest, dwarf. We're getting out of here

before we lose anything else - like our lives!"

Turning, Tanin found himself, once again, facing a ring

of spears and this time his own sword, held by a grinning

warrior.

"Wanna bet, lad?" Dougan said cheerfully, twirling his

moustaches.

 

"I thought as much," Palin remarked.

"You're always thinking 'as much' when it's too late to

do anything about it!" Tanin snapped.

"It was too late when we first set eyes on the dwarf,"

Palin said in low tones.

The three, plus Dougan, were being escorted down the

jungle trail, spears at their backs, the castle of Lord

Gargath looming ahead of them. They could see it quite

clearly now - a huge, misshapen building made entirely of

shining gray marble. All three brothers had visited the

Tower of High Sorcery in Wayreth Forest, and they had

been impressed and overawed by the magical aura that

surrounded it. They felt a similar awe approaching this

strange castle, only it was an awe mingled with the wild

desire to laugh hysterically.

None of them could tell afterward what Castle Gargath

looked like, since the appearance of the castle shifted

constantly. First it was a massive fortress with four tall,

stalwart towers topped by battlements. As they watched in

amazement, the towers swelled out and spiraled upward

into graceful minarets. Then the towers melted together,

forming one gigantic dome that separated into four square

towers once more. While all this was going on, turrets

sprouted from the walls like fungi, windows blinked open

and shut, a drawbridge over a moat became a bower of

gray roses over a still, gray pond.

"The power of the Graygem," Dougan remarked. "'The

power of the Graygem,'" Tanin mimicked sarcastically. He

shook his fist at the dwarf. "I'm getting so sick of hearing

about that blasted rock that I - "

"I meant that I've figured out what's going on!" Palin

interrupted.

"Well, what?" Sturm asked miserably. "They don't want

us to go, apparently. Yet they threaten to kill us if we try to

turn back! They take our clothes . . ."

In addition to losing their armor and their weapons, he

and Tanin had been stripped of their clothes; the chief

having discovered that the armor chafed without anything

underneath it. Sturm and Tanin, therefore, were now

approaching Gargath Castle clad only in loin cloths (having

coldly refused the offer of breastplates made of bone).

Palin and Dougan had been more fortunate, the mage

having kept his robes and the dwarf his red velvet jacket

and breeches (minus the hat). The reason for this leniency

on the chief's part was, Palin suspected, Dougan's

whispered remarks to the chief concerning the staff.

Contrary to what the dwarf had anticipated, the fact that the

staff belonged to Raistlin Majere caused the chief to open

his eyes wide in terror. Palin also suspected Dougan of

continuing to try to drum up a game (the dwarf wanted his

hat back badly), but the chief obviously wanted no part of

an object of such evil. The members of the tribe kept a

respectful distance from Palin after that, some waving

chickens' feet in his direction when they thought he wasn't

watching.

It didn't stop the warriors from marching him off down

the trail at spear point toward the castle with his brothers

and the chagrined Dougan, however.

"Put yourself in the place of one of these warriors," said

Palin, sweating in his hot robes but not daring to take them

off for fear the warriors would grab them. "You are under

the influence of the Graygem, which is literally Chaos

personified. You hate the Graygem more than anything, yet

you are ordered to guard it with your life. Because of the

Graygem, you've lost your women. Strangers come to take

the Graygem and rescue your women, who will

undoubtedly be grateful to their saviors. You don't want

strangers saving your womenfolk, but you'd give anything

to have your women back. You must guard the Graygem,

but you'd do anything to get rid of it. Are you following

me?"

"Sort of," Tanin said cautiously. "Go on."

"So you take the strangers," Palin finished, "and send

them to the castle naked and weaponless, knowing they're

bound to lose, yet hoping in your heart they'll win."

"That makes sense, in a weird sort of way," Sturm

admitted, looking at Palin with undisguised admiration.

"So, what do we do now?"

"Yes, Palin," Tanin said gravely. "I can fight minotaur

and draconians ... I'd RATHER be fighting minotaur and

draconians," he added, breathing heavily, the heat and

humidity taking its toll on the big man, "but I'm lost here. I

can't fight chaos. I don't understand what's going on. If

we're going to get out of this, it's up to you and your magic,

Little Brother."

Palin's eyes stung with sudden tears. It had been worth

it, he thought. It had been worth this whole insane

adventure to know that he had finally won his brothers'

respect and admiration and trust. It was something a man

might willingly die to achieve. . . . For a moment, he did

not trust himself to speak, but walked on in silence, leaning

on the Staff of Magius, which felt oddly cool and dry in the

hot, humid jungle.

Glancing over at the dwarf, Palin was disconcerted to

find Dougan regarding him with a wolfish leer on the

black-bearded face. The dwarf didn't say anything aloud

but, giving Palin a wink, he formed words with his lips.

"Wanna bet?"

 

CHAPTER SIX

Castle Gargath

 

It was nearing sundown when they reached the outer

walls of Castle Gargath. The walls shifted aspect just like

the castle. Sometimes they appeared to be built of bricks.

When the brothers looked again, however, the walls were

hedges, then iron bars.

On reaching the base of the shifting walls, the warriors

left them, returning to their villages despite another

recruiting speech from Tanin. The speech was a half-

hearted attempt at best. The fact that he was giving it

practically naked lessened his enthusiasm, plus he was

fairly certain it was bound to fail.

"Come with us! Show this evil lord that you are men!

That you intend to stand up to him and fight! Show him you

are willing to risk your lives in defense of your homes!"

He was right. The speech had not worked. The moment

the shadow of the shifting castle walls fell over them, the

warriors backed away, looking up at it in terror. Shaking

their heads and muttering, they fled back into the jungle.

"At least leave us your spears?" Sturm pleaded.

That didn't work either.

"They need their spears," Tanin said, "to make certain

we don't hightail it back to the ship."

"Aye, you're right, lad," said Dougan, peering into the

trees. "They're out there, watching us. And there they'll stay

until - " He stopped.

"Until what?" Palin demanded coldly. He could still see

the dwarf's leer and hear the unspoken words, and he

shivered in the jungle heat.

"Until they're certain we're not coming back. Right?"

Sturm said.

"Now, laddie, we'll be coming back," Dougan said

soothingly, stroking his beard. "After all, you have me with

you. And we're comrades - "

"Share and share alike," Tanin and Sturm both said

grumpily.

"The first thing we have to do is make some weapons,"

Tanin continued. He looked around. Thick jungle

vegetation grew all around them. Strange-looking trees of

various types and kinds festooned with hanging vines and

brightly colored flowers grew right up to within a foot of

the wall that was now made of thorny rose-bushes. And

there it stopped. "Not even the jungle comes near this

place," he muttered. There were no animal noises either, he

noticed. "Palin, give me your knife."

"Good idea," said the young mage. "I'd forgotten about

it." Rolling up his white sleeve, Palin fumbled at the dagger

in its cunning leather thong that held it to his forearm and

was supposed to - at a flick of its owner's wrist - release the

dagger and allow it to drop down into Palin's hand. But the

cunning thong was apparently more cunning that its master,

for Palin couldn't get the dagger loose.

"Here," he said, flushing in embarrassment and holding

out his arm to Tanin, "you get it."

Keeping his smile carefully concealed, Tanin managed

to free the dagger, which he and Sturm used to cut off tree

branches. These they honed into crude spears, working

rapidly. Day was dying a lingering death, the light fading

from the sky, leaving it a sickly gray color.

"Do you know anything of this Lord Gargath?" Tanin

asked Dougan as he worked, whittling the point of the

green stick sharp.

"No," said the dwarf, watching in disapproval. He had

refused to either make or carry a wooden spear. "A fine

sight I'd look if I'm killed, standing before Reorx with a

stick in my hand! Naw, I need no weapon but my bare

hands!" the dwarf had snarled. Now he was rubbing his

chin, pacing back and forth beneath the strange walls that

were now made of shining black marble. "I know nothing

of this present Lord Gargath, save what I could find out

from those cowards." Dougan waved his hand

contemptuously at the long-gone warriors.

"What do they say?"

"That he is what you might expect of someone who has

been under the influence of the Graygem for years!"

Dougan said, eyeing Tanin irritably. "He is a wild man!

Capable of great good or great evil, as the mood - or the

gem - sways him. Some say," the dwarf added in low tones,

switching his gaze to Palin, "that he is a wizard. A

renegade, granting his allegiance to neither White, nor

Black, nor Red. He lives only for himself - and the gem."

Shivering, Palin gripped his staff more tightly.

Renegade mages refused to follow the laws and judgments

of the Conclave of Wizards, laws that had been handed

down through the centuries in order to keep magic alive in a

world where it was despised and distrusted. All wizards,

those who followed both the paths of Good and of Evil,

subscribed to these laws. Renegades were a threat to

everyone and, as such, their lives were forfeit.

IT WOULD BE PALIN'S DUTY, AS A MAGE OF THE

WHITE ROBES, TO TRY TO RECLAIM THE RENEGADE

OR, IF THAT FAILED, TO TRAP HIM AND BRING HIM TO

THE CONCLAVE FOR JUSTICE. IT WOULD BE A

DIFFICULT TASK FOR A POWERFUL WIZARD OF THE

WHITE ROBES, MUCH LESS AN APPRENTICE MAGE.

THOSE OF THE BLACK ROBES HAD IT EASIER. "YOU,

MY UNCLE, WOULD HAVE SIMPLY KILLED HIM," PALIN

MURMURED IN A LOW VOICE, LEANING HIS CHEEK

AGAINST HIS staff.

"What do you think he's done with the women?" Sturm

asked anxiously.

The dwarf shrugged. "Used them for his pleasure, tossed

them into the volcano, sacrificed them in some unholy

magic rite. How should I know?"

Sturm looked grave; Tanin scowled; and Palin, truth be

told, looked frightened.

"Well, we're about as ready as we'll ever be, I guess,"

Tanin said heavily, gathering up a handful of spears. "These

look stupid," he muttered. "Maybe the dwarf's right. If

we're facing an evil wizard gone berserk, we might as well

die fighting with dignity instead of like kids playing at

knights and goblins."

"A weapon's a weapon, Tanin," Sturm said matter-of-

factly, taking a spear in his hand. "At least it gives us some

advantage. . . ."

The three brothers and the dwarf approached the wall

that was still changing its aspect so often it made them

dizzy to watch it.

"I don't suppose there's any point trying to find a secret

way in," Tanin said.

"By the time we found it, it'd likely be turning into the

front door," Dougan agreed. "If we wait here long enough,

there's bound to be an opening."

Sure enough, but not exactly the opening any of them

anticipated.

One moment they were looking at a wall of solid stone

("Dwarvish make," remarked Dougan, admiringly) when it

changed to a wall of water, thundering down around them

out of nowhere, soaking them with its spray.

"We can get through this, I think!" Sturm cried above

the noise of the waterfall. "I can see through it! The castle's

on the other side!"

"Yes, and there's likely to be a chasm on the other side as

well!" Tanin returned.

"Wait," said Palin. "SHIRAK!" He spoke the magic

word to the staff and, instantly the faceted crystal globe on

top burst into light.

"Ah, I wish the chief had seen THAT!" said the dwarf

wistfully.

Palin thrust the staff into the water, simply with the idea

of being able to see something beyond it. To his

amazement, however, the water parted the instant the staff

touched it. Flowing down around the staff, it formed an

archway that it seemed they could walk through, safe and

dry.

"I'll be damned!" Tanin said in awe. "Did you know it

would do that, Little Brother?"

"No," Palin admitted shakily, wondering what other

powers Raistlin had invested into the staff.

"Well, thank Paladine it did," Sturm said, peering

through the hole in the water. "All safe over here," he

reported, stepping through. "In fact," he added as Palin and

Tanin and Dougan - with a wide-eyed gaze of longing at the

staff - followed. "It's a grass lawn!" Sturm said in wonder,

looking around in the gray gloom by the light of the staff.

Behind them, the water changed again, this time to a wall of

bamboo. Ahead of them stretched a long, smooth sward that

rose up a gentle slope, leading to the castle itself.

"Now it's grass, but its liable to change into a lava pit

any moment," Palin pointed out.

"You're right, Little Brother," Tanin grunted. "We better

run for it."

Run they did; Palin hiking up his white robes, the stout

dwarf huffing and puffing along about three steps behind.

Whether they truly made their destination before the sward

had time to change into something more sinister or whether

the sward was always a sward, they never knew. At any

rate, they reached the castle wall just as night's black

shadows closed in on them, and they were still standing on

smooth, soft grass.

"Now all we need," said Sturm, "is a way inside - " The

blank wall of gray marble that they had been facing

shimmered in the staffs light, and a small wooden door

appeared, complete with iron hinges and an iron lock.

Hurrying forward, Tanin tugged at the lock. "Bolted

fast," he reported.

"Just when a kender would come in handy," Sturm said

with a sigh.

"Kender! Bite your tongue!" Dougan muttered in

disgust.

"Palin, try the staff," Tanin ordered, standing aside.

Hesitantly, Palin touched the brilliantly glowing crystal

of the staff to the lock. The lock not only gave way, but it

actually melted, forming a puddle of lead at Palin's feet.

"Lad," said the dwarf, swallowing, "your uncle must

have been a remarkable man. That's all I can SAY."

"I wonder what else it can do?" Palin muttered, staring at

the staff with a mixture of awe, pride, and frustration.

"We'll have to worry about that later! Inside," said

Tanin, yanking open the door. "Sturm, you go first. Palin

follow him. We'll use your staff for light. The dwarf and I'll

be right behind you."

They found themselves crowded together on a flight of

narrow, winding stairs that spiraled upward. Walls

surrounded them on all sides; they could see nothing save

the stairs vanishing into darkness.

"You realize," said Palin suddenly, "that the door will - "

Whirling around, he shone the light of the staff on a blank

wall.

"Disappear," finished Tanin grimly.

"There goes our way out!" Shuddering, Sturm looked

around. "These stairs could change! Any moment, we could

be encased in solid rock!"

"Keep moving!" ordered Tanin urgently.

Running up the steep stairs as fast as they could,

expecting to find themselves walking on anything from hot

coals to a swinging bridge, they climbed up and up until, at

last, the stout dwarf could go no farther.

"I've got to rest, lads," Dougan said, panting, leaning

against a stone wall that was, unaccountably, remaining a

stone wall.

"Nothing inside seems to be changing," Palin gasped,

weary himself from the unaccustomed exercise. He looked

with envy at his brothers. Their bronze-skinned, muscular

bodies gleamed in the staff's light. Neither was even

breathing hard.

"Palin, shine the light up here!" Sturm ordered, peering

ahead.

His legs aching so that he thought he could never move

them again, Palin forced himself to take another step,

shining the staff's light around a comer of the stairwell.

"There's a door!" Sturm said, in triumph. "We've reached

the top!"

"I wonder what's beyond it," Tanin said darkly.

He was interrupted by, of all things, a giggle. "Why don't

you open it and find out?" called a laughing voice from the

other side of the door. "It's not locked."

The brothers looked at each other. Dougan frowned.

Palin forgot his aching body, forcing himself to concentrate

on his spell casting. Tanin's face tightened, his jaw muscles

clenched. Gripping his spear, he thrust his way past Dougan

and Palin to come stand beside Sturm.

Cautiously, both warriors put their hands on the door.

"One, two, three," Sturm counted in a whisper. On the

count of three, he and Tanin threw their combined weight

against the door, knocking it open and leaping through,

spears at the ready. Palin ran after them, his hands

extended, a spell of fire on his lips. Behind him, he could

hear the dwarf roaring in fury.

They were greeted with peals of merry laughter.

"Did you ever see," came the giggling voice, "such cute

legs?"

 

The mist of battle rage clearing from his eyes, Palin

stared around blankly. He was surrounded, literally, by

what must have been hundreds of women. Beside him, he

heard Sturm's sharp intake of breath and he saw, dimly,

Tanin lower his spear in confusion. From somewhere on the

floor at his feet, he heard Dougan swearing, the dwarf

having tripped over the door-stoop in his charge and fallen

flat on his face. But Palin was too stunned, staring at his

captors, to pay any attention to him.

An incredibly gorgeous, dark-haired and dark-eyed

beauty approached Tanin. Putting her hand on his spear, she

gently pushed it to one side. Her eyes lingered

appreciatively on the young man's strong body, most of

which - due to the loincloth - was on exhibit.

"My, my," said the young woman in a sultry voice, "did

you know it was my birthday?"

More laughter sounded through the vast stone hall like

the chiming of many bells.

"Just - just stay back," Tanin ordered gruffly, raising his

spear and keeping the woman at bay.

"Well, of course," she said, raising her hands in mock

terror. "If that's what you REALLY want."

Tanin, his eyes on the dark-haired beauty, fell back a pace

to stand beside Palm. "Little Brother," he whispered, beads

of sweat on his upper lip and trickling down his forehead,

"are these women enchanted? Under some sort of spell?"

"N-no," stammered Palin, staring around him. "They . . .

they don't appear to be. I don't sense any kind of magic,

other than the force of the Graygem. It's much stronger

here, but that's because we're closer to it."

"Lads," said the dwarf urgently, scrambling to his feet

and thrusting himself between them, "we're in big trouble."

"We are?" Tanin asked dubiously, still holding the spear

in front of him and noticing that Sturm was doing likewise.

"Explain yourself, dwarf!" he growled. "What do you know

about these women? They certainly don't appear to be

prisoners! Are they banshees, vampires? What?"

"Worse," gasped the dwarf, mopping his face with his

beard, his eyes staring wildly at the laughing, pointing

females. "Lads, think! We're the first to enter this castle!

These women probably haven't seen a man in two years!"

 

CHAPTER SEVEN

Our Heroes

 

Surrounded by hundreds of admiring women reaching

out to touch them and fondle them, the confused and

embarrassed "rescuers" were captured by kindness.

Laughing and teasing them, the women led the brothers

and the dwarf from the vast entry hall to a smaller room in

the castle, a room filled with silken wall hangings and

large, comfortable silk-covered couches. Before they knew

quite what was happening, the men were being shoved

down among the cushions by soft hands, the women

offering them wine, sumptuous food, and delicacies of all

sorts . . . ALL sorts.

"I think it's sweet, you coming all this way to rescue

us," purred one of the women, leaning against Sturm and

running her hand over his shoulder. Long blonde hair fell

down her bare arm. She wore it tucked behind one ear, held

back by a flower. Her gown, made of something gray and

filmy, left very little to the imagination.

"All in a day's work," said Sturm, smiling. "We're going

to be made Knights of Solamnia, you know," he added

conversationally. "Probably for doing this very deed."

"Really? Tell me more."

But the blonde wasn't the least bit interested in the

Knights. She wasn't even listening to Sturm, Palin realized,

watching his brother with growing irritation. The big

warrior was rambling on somewhat incoherently about the

Oath and the Measure, all the while fondling the silky

blonde hair and gazing into blue eyes.

Palin was ill-at-ease. The young mage felt a burning in his

blood, his head buzzed - not an unusual sensation around

such lovely, seductive females. He felt no desire for these

women, however. They were strangely repulsive to him. It

was the magic he sensed, bum-ing within him. He wanted

to concentrate on it, on his feeling of growing power.

Thrusting aside a doe-eyed beauty who was trying to feed

him grapes, Palin inched his way among the cushions to get

nearer Sturm. The big man was enjoying the attentions of

the attractive blonde to the fullest.

"Sturm, what are you doing? This could be a trap, an

ambush!" Palin said in an undertone.

"Lighten up for once, Little Brother," Sturm said mildly,

putting his arm around the blonde and drawing her close.

"Here, I'll put your mind at ease. Tell me," he said, kissing

the blonde's rosy lips, "is this an ambush?"

"Yes!" She giggled, wriggling closer. "You're under

attack, right now"

"There you are, Palin. No help for it. We're surrounded."

Sturm kissed the girl's neck. "I surrender," he said softly,

"unconditionally."

"Tanin?" Alarmed, Palin looked to his oldest brother for

help, and was relieved to see the serious young man getting

to his feet, despite all efforts of the dark-haired beauty to

drag him back down beside her. The dwarf, too, was doing

his best to escape.

"Get away! Leave me be, woman!" Dougan roared,

slapping at the hands of a lithesome girl. Struggling up

from among the cushions, the red-faced dwarf turned to

face the women.

"What about Lord Gargath? Where is he?" the dwarf

demanded. "Using you women to seduce us, then capture

us, no doubt?"

"Lord Gargath? Hardly!" The dark-haired beauty who had

been making much of Tanin laughed, as did the other

women in the room. Shrugging her lovely shoulders, she

glanced at the ceiling. "He's up there ... somewhere," she

said without interest, caressing Tanin's bare chest. The big

man shoved her away, glancing nervously about the room.

"For once you've made sense, dwarf. We better find this

Gargath before he finds us. Come on." Tanin took a step

toward a door at the end of the perfumed, candle-lit

chamber, but the dark-haired beauty caught hold of his

arm.

"Relax, warrior," she whispered. "You don't need to

worry about Lord Gargath. He won't bother you or

anybody." She ran her fingers admiringly through Tanin's

thick, red curls.

"I'll see for myself," Tanin returned, but he sounded less

enthusiastic.

"Very well, if you must." The woman sighed

languorously, nestling her body against Tanin's. "But it's a

waste of time - time that could be spent in much more

pleasant pursuits. The dried-up old wizards been our

prisoner now for two years."

"He's YOUR prisoner?" Tanin gaped.

"Well, yes," said in the blonde, looking up from

nibbling at Sturm's ear. "He was such a boring old thing.

Talking about pentagrams and wanting to know which of

us were virgins and asking a lot of other personal

questions. So we locked him in his old tower with his

stupid rock." She kissed Sturm's muscular shoulder.

"Then who's been taking the women hostage all these

months?" Palin demanded.

"Well, we did, of course," said the dark-haired beauty.

"You?" Palin said, stunned. He put his hand to his

forehead and noticed his skin felt abnormally hot. He was

dizzy, and his head ached. The room and everything in it

seemed to be just slightly out of focus.

"This is a wonderful life! " said the blonde, sitting back,

and teasingly rebuffing Sturm's attempts to pull her down.

"The Graygem provides all we need. We live in luxury.

There is no work, no cooking and mending - "

"No children screaming - "

"No husbands coming back from battle, bleeding and

dirty - "

"No washing clothes in the stream day after day - "

"No endless talks of war and bragging about great deeds

- "

"We read books," said the dark-haired beauty. "The

wizard has many in his library. We became educated, and

we found out we didn't have to live that kind of life

anymore. We wanted our sisters and our mothers to share

our comfortable surroundings with us, so WE kept up the

ruse, demanding that hostages be brought to the castle until

all of us were here."

"Bless my beard!" exclaimed the dwarf in awe.

"All we lack are some nice men, to keep us from being

lonely at night," said the blonde, smiling at Sturm. "And

now that's been taken care of, thanks to the Graygem. . . ."

"I'm going to go find Lord Gargath," said Palin,

standing up abruptly. But he was so dizzy that he

staggered, scattering cushions over the floor. "Are the rest

of you coming?" he asked, fighting this strange weakness

and wondering why his brothers didn't seem afflicted.

"Yes," said Tanin, extricating himself with difficulty

from the dark-haired beauty's embrace.

"Count on me, lad," said Dougan grimly.

"Sturm?" said Palin.

"Just leave me here," said Sturm. "I'll act as ... rear

guard. ..."

The women broke into merry laughter.

"Sturm!" Tanin repeated angrily.

Sturm waved his hand. "Go ahead, if you're so keen on

talking to some moldy old wizard, when you could be here,

enjoying ..."

Tanin opened his mouth again, his brows coming

together in anger. But Palin stopped him. "Leave this to

me," the young mage said with a twisted smile. Setting the

staff down carefully among the cushions, Palin lifted both

hands and held them out, pointing at Sturm. Then he began

to chant.

"Hey! What are you doing? Stop!" Sturm gasped.

But Palin continued chanting and began raising his

hands. As he did so, Sturm's prone body rose into the air,

too, until soon the young man was floating a good six feet

off the floor.

"Wonderful trick! Show us some more!" called out the

women, applauding.

Palin spoke again, snapped his fingers, and ropes

appeared out of nowhere, snaking up from the floor to

wrap themselves around Sturm's arms and legs. The

women squealed in glee, many of them transferring their

admiring gazes from the muscular Sturm - now bound hand

and foot - to the mage who could perform such feats.

"G-good trick, Palin. Now put me down!" Sturm said,

licking his lips and glancing beneath him nervously. There

was nothing between him and the floor but air.

Pleased with himself, Palin left Sturm in the air and

turned to Tanin. "Shall I bring him along?" he asked

casually, expecting to see Tanin regarding him with awe as

well.

Instead, Palin found his older brother's brows furrowed

in concern. "Palin," said Tanin in a low voice, "how did you

do that?"

"Magic, my dear brother," Palin said, thinking suddenly

how unaccountably stupid Tanin was.

"I know it was magic," Tanin said sharply. "And I admit

I don't know much about magic. But I do know that only a

powerful wizard could perform such a feat as that. NOT one

who just recently passed his Test!"

Looking back at the levitated Sturm hovering helplessly

in the air, Palin nodded. "You're right," he said proudly. "I

performed a high-level spell, without any assistance or aid!

Not even the Staff of Magius helped me!" Reaching out, he

took hold of the staff. The wood was cold to the touch, icy

cold, almost painful. Palin gasped, almost dropping it. But

then he noticed that the dizziness was easing. He felt his

skin grow cool, the buzzing in his head diminished. "My

magic!" he murmured. "The Graygem must be enhancing

it! I've only been here a short while, and look what I can

do! I have the power of an archmage. If I had the gem, I'd

be as strong as my uncle!" Palin whispered to himself.

"Maybe stronger!" His eyes glistened, his body began to

tremble. "I'd use my power for Good, of course. I would

seize the Tower at Palanthas from Dalamar and cleanse it of

its evil. I would lift the curse from the Shoikan Grove, enter

my uncle's laboratory." Thoughts and visions of the future

came to him in a swirl of wild colors, so real and vivid he

literally reeled at the sight.

Strong hands held him. Blinking, clearing the mist from

his eyes, Palin looked down to see himself reflected in the

bright, dark, cunning eyes of the dwarf. "Steady, laddie,"

said Dougan, "you're flying high, too high for one whose

wings have just sprouted."

"Leave me alone!" Palin cried, pulling away from the

dwarf's grip. "You want the gem yourself!"

"Aye, laddie," said Dougan softly, stroking his black beard.

"And I have a right to it. I'm the ONLY one who has a right

to it, in fact!"

"Might makes right, dwarf," Palin said with a sneer.

Picking up his staff, he started to walk toward the door.

"Coming?" he asked Tanin coldly, "or must I bring you

along as I'm carrying that great oaf!" Gesturing toward

Sturm, he drew the young man toward him with a motion

of his hand. Twisting his head, Sturm gazed back at Tanin

in fear and alarm as he drifted through the air.

"Oh, no! Don't leave! Do some more tricks!" cried the

women in dismay.

"Stop, young mage!" Dougan cried. "You're falling

under the spell!"

"Palin!" Tanin's quiet voice cut through the buzzing in

his brother's head and the laughter of the women and the

shouts of the dwarf. "Don't listen to Dougan or me or

anyone for a moment. Just listen to yourself."

"And what's THAT supposed to mean, my brother?"

Palin scoffed. "Something wise that suddenly struck you?

Did a brain finally make an appearance through all that

muscle?"

He leered mockingly at Tanin, expecting - no, HOPING

that his brother would become angry and try to stop him.

Then I'll REALLY show him a trick or two! Palin thought.

Just like my uncle showed my father . . .

But Tanin just stood there, regarding him gravely. "I - I

- Name of the gods!" Palin faltered, putting his hand to his

head. His cruel words came back to him. "Tanin, I'm sorry!

I don't know what's come over me." Turning, he saw

Sturm, hanging helplessly in the air. "Sturm!" Palin

snapped his fingers. "I'm sorry! I'll let you go - "

"Palin, don't - !" Sturm began wildly, but it was too late.

The spell broken, the young man fell to the floor with a

yell and a crash, to be instantly surrounded by cooing and

clucking women. It was a few moments before Sturm made

his appearance again, his red hair tousled, his face flushed.

Getting to his feet, he pushed the women aside and limped

toward his brothers.

"I was wrong," Palin said, shivering. "I understand now.

These women ARE being held in thrall. ..."

"Aye, lad," said Dougan. "Just as you were yourself. It's

the power of the Graygem, trying to take hold of you,

exploiting your weaknesses as it did theirs - "

" - by giving us what we want," Palin finished

thoughtfully.

"That's what we'll turn into, the longer we stay here,"

Tanin added. "Slaves of the Graygem. Don't you see, these

women are guarding it just as effectively INSIDE this castle

as their men are OUTSIDE. That's why nothing changes in

here. The Graygem's keeping it stable for them!"

The women began sidling nearer, reaching out their

hands once more. "How boring . . . Don't go .. . Don't leave

us ... Stupid rock . . ."

"Well, let's go find this Lord Gargath then," Sturm

muttered, shamefaced. Try as he might, his gaze still

strayed toward the blonde, who was blowing kisses at him.

"Take your spears," said Tanin, shoving aside the soft

hands that were clinging to him. "These women might or

might not be telling us the truth. That old wizard could be

laughing at us right now."

"They said he was 'up there.' " Palin gazed at the ceiling.

"But where? How do we get there?"

"Uh, I believe I know the way, laddie," Dougan said.

"Just a hunch, mind you," he added hastily, seeing Tanin's

dark look. "That door, there, leads upstairs . . . I think. . . ."

"Humpf," Tanin growled, but went to investigate the

door, his brothers and the dwarf following behind.

"What did you mean, YOU'RE the only one who has a

right to the Graygem?" Palin asked Dougan in an

undertone.

"Did I say that?" The dwarf looked at him shrewdly.

"Must have been the gem talking. . . ." "Oh, please don't

go!" cried the women. "Never mind. They'll be coming

back soon," predicted the dark-haired beauty.

"And when you do come back, maybe you can show us

some more of those cute magic tricks," called the blonde to

Palin politely.

 

CHAPTER EIGHT

Lord Gargath

 

Dougan was right. The door led to another flight of

narrow stairs carved out of the stone walls of the castle. It

was pitch dark; their only light was the burning crystal atop

the Staff of Magius. After another leg-aching climb, they

came to a large wooden door.

"Would you look at that!" Sturm said, stunned.

"What in the name of the Abyss is it?" Tanin muttered.

IT was a fantastic mechanism, sitting on the door-stoop

in front of the door. Barely visible in the shadows, it was

made of iron and had all sorts of iron arms and gears and

rope pulleys and winches extending from the stone floor up

to the ceiling.

"Hold the light closer, Palin," Tanin said, stooping

down beside it. "There's something in the center,

surrounded by a bunch of ... mirrors."

Cautiously, Palin held the light down near the device

and the room was suddenly illuminated as if by a hundred

suns. Tanin shrieked and covered his eyes with his hands.

"I can't see a thing!" he cried, staggering back against the

wall. "Move the staff! Move the staff!"

"It's a sundial!" Palin reported, holding the staff back

and staring at the device in astonishment. "Surrounded by

mirrors . . ."

"Ah," said Dougan triumphantly, "a gnome time-lock."

"A timelock?"

"Aye, lad. You wait until the dial casts the shadow of

the sun on the correct time, and the lock will open."

"But," pointed out Palin in confusion, "the way the mirrors

are fixed, there could never be a shadow! It's always noon."

"Not to mention," added Tanin bitterly, rubbing his

eyes, "that this place is pitch dark. There're no windows!

How's the sun supposed to hit it?"

"Small design flaws," said Sturm sarcastically. "I'm sure

it's in committee - "

"Meanwhile, how do we open the door?" Tanin asked,

slumping back wearily against the wall.

"Too bad Tas isn't here," said Palin, with a smile.

"Tas?" Dougan scowled, whirling around. "You don't

mean Tasslehoff Burrfoot? The kender?"

"Yes, do you know him?"

"No," the dwarf growled, "but a friend of mine does.

This crazy dwarf under a tree near my for - near where I

work, day in, day out, whittling his endless wood and

muttering 'doorknob of a kender this' and 'doorknob of a

kender that.' "

"A friend?" Palin said, mystified. "Why that sounds like

a story our father told about Flint - "

"Never you mind!" Dougan snapped irritably. "And quit

talking about kender! We're in enough trouble as it is.

Brrrrr." He shivered. "Makes my skin crawl . . ."

The faintest glimmering of understanding lit the

confused darkness of Palin's mind. Dimly he began to see

the truth. But though the light shone on his thoughts, they

were such a confused jumble that he couldn't sort them put

or even decide whether he should feel relieved or more

terrified.

"Maybe we could break the mirrors," Tanin suggested,

blinking in the darkness, trying to see beyond the sea of

bright blue spots that filled his vision.

"I wouldn't," Dougan warned. "The thing's likely to

blow up."

"You mean it's trapped?" Sturm asked nervously,

backing away.

"No!" Dougan snapped irritably. "I mean it's made by

gnomes. It's likely to blow up."

"If it did" - Tanin scratched his chin thoughtfully - "it

would probably blow a hole in the door."

"And us with it," Palin pointed out.

"Just you, Little Brother," Sturm said helpfully. "We'll

be down at the bottom of the stairs."

"We have to try, Palin," Tanin decided. "We have no

idea how long before the power of the Graygem takes hold

of us again. It probably won't be a big explosion," he added

soothingly. "It isn't a very big device, after all."

"No, it just takes up the whole door. Oh, very well,"

Palin grumbled. "Stand back."

The warning was unnecessary. Dougan was already

clambering down the stairs, Sturm behind him. Tanin

rounded the comer of the wall, but stopped where he could

see Palin.

Edging up cautiously on the device, Palin raised the end

of the staff over the first mirror, averting his face and

shutting his eyes as he did so. At that moment, however, a

voice came from the other side of the door.

"I believe all you have to do is turn the handle."

Palin arrested his downward jab. "Who said that?" he

shouted, backing up.

"Me," called the voice again in meek tones. "Just turn

the handle."

"You mean, the door's not locked?" Palin asked in

amazement.

"Nobody's perfect," said the voice defensively.

Gingerly, Palin reached out his hand and, after removing

several connecting arms and undoing a rope or two of the

gnome timelock that was not locked, he turned the door

handle. There was a click, and the door swung open on

creaking hinges.

Entering the chamber with some difficulty, his robes

having caught on a gear, Palin looked around in awe.

He was in a room shaped like a cone - round at the

bottom, it came to a point at the ceiling. The chamber was

lit by oil lamps, placed at intervals around the circular floor,

their flickering flames illuminating the room brightly as

day. Tanin was about to step through the door past Palin,

when his brother stopped him.

"Wait!" Palin cautioned, catching hold of Tanin's arm.

"Look! On the floor!"

"Well, what is it?" Tanin asked. "Some sort of design - "

"It's a pentagram, a magic symbol," Palin said softly.

"Don't step within the circle of the lamps!"

"What's it there for?" Sturm peered over Tanin's broad

shoulders, while Dougan jumped up and down in back,

trying to see.

"I think ... Yes!" Palin stared up into the very top of the

ceiling. "It's holding the Graygem! Look!" He pointed.

Everyone tilted back their heads, staring upward, except

the dwarf, who was cursing loudly about not being able to

see. Dropping down to his hands and knees, Dougan finally

managed to thrust his head in between Tanin's and Sturm's

legs and peered up, his beard trailing on the polished stone

floor.

"Aye, laddie," he said with a longing sigh. "That's it!

The Graygem of Gargath!"

Hovering in the air, below the very point of the cone,

was a gray-colored jewel. Its shape was impossible to

distinguish, as was it size, for it changed as they stared at it

- first it was round and as big as a man's fist; then it was a

prism as large as a man himself; then it was a cube, no

bigger than a lady's bauble;

then round again. . . . The jewel had been dark when they

entered the room, not even reflecting the light from the

lamps below. But now a soft gray light of its own began to

beam from it.

Palm felt the magic tingle through him. Words to spells

of unbelievable power flooded his mind. His uncle had

been a weakling compared to him! He would rule the

world, the heavens, the Abyss -

"Steady, Little Brother," came a distant voice.

"Hold onto me, Tanin!" Palin gasped, reaching out his

hand to his brother. "Help me fight it!"

"It's no use," came the voice they had heard through the

door, this time sounding sad and resigned. "You can't fight

it. It will consume you in the end, as it did me."

Wrenching his gaze from the gray light that was fast

dazzling him with its brilliance, Palin stared around the

conical room. Across from where he stood was a tall, high-

backed chair placed against a tapestry-adorned wall. The

chair's back was carved with various runes and magical

inscriptions, designed - apparently - to protect the mage

who sat there from whatever beings he summoned forth to

do his bidding. The voice seemed to be coming from the

direction of the chair, but Palin could not see anyone sitting

there.

Then, "Paladine have mercy!" the young man cried in

horror.

"Too late, too late," squeaked the voice. "Yes, I am Lord

Gargath. The wretched Lord Gargath! Welcome to my

home."

Seated upon the chair's soft cushion, making a graceful -

if despairing - gesture with its paw, was a hedgehog.

"You may come closer," said Lord Gargath, smoothing

his whiskers with a trembling paw. "Just don't step in the

circle, as you said, young mage."

Keeping carefully outside the boundaries of the flickering

oil lamps, the brothers and Dougan edged their way along

the wall. Above them, the Graygem gleamed softly, its light

growing ever brighter.

"Lord Gargath," Palin began hesitantly, approaching the

hedgehog's chair. Suddenly, he cried out in alarm and

stumbled backward, bumping into Tanin.

"Sturm, to my side!" Tanin shouted, pushing Palin

behind him and raising the spear.

The chair had vanished completely beneath the bulk of

a gigantic black dragon! The creature stared at them with

red, fiery eyes, its great wings spanning the length of the

wall, its tail lashing the floor with a tremendous thud.

When the dragon spoke, though, its voice held the same

sorrow as had the hedgehog's.

"You're frightened," said the dragon sadly. "Thank you

for the compliment, but you needn't be. By the time I could

attack you, I'd probably be a mouse or a cockroach."

"Ah, there! You see how it is," continued Lord Gargath

in the form of a lovely young maiden, who put her head in

her hands and wept dismally. "I'm constantly changing,

constantly shifting. I never know from one moment to the

next," snarled a ferocious minotaur, snorting in anger,

"what I'm going to be."

"The Graygem has done this to you?"

"Yessssss," hissed a snake, coiling around upon itself on

the cushion in agony. "Once I wasssss a wizzzzard like you,

young one. Once I wassss . . . powerful and wealthy. This

island and its people were mine," continued a dapper young

man, setting in the chair, a cold drink in his hand. "Care for

some? Tropical fruit punch. Not bad, I assure you. Where

was I?"

"The Graygem," Palin ventured. His brothers could only

stare in silence.

"Ah, yes," burbled a toad unhappily. "My great-great-great

- well, you get the picture - grandfather followed the damn

thing, centuries ago, in hopes of retrieving it. He did, for a

time. But his power failed as he grew old, and the Graygem

escaped. I don't know where it went, spreading chaos

throughout the world. But I always knew that . . . someday

... it would come within my grasp. And I'd be ready for it!"

A rabbit, sitting up on its hind feet, clenched its paw with a

stem look of resolve.

"Long years I study," said a gully dwarf, holding up a

grubby hand. "Two years. I think two years." The gully

dwarf frowned. "I make pretty design on floor. I wait. Two

years. Not more than two. Big rock come! I catch . . .

"And I'd trapped the Graygem!" shrieked an old,

wizened man with a wild cackle. "It couldn't escape me! At

last, all the magic in the world would be mine, at my

fingertips! And so it was, so it was," squeaked a red-eyed

rat, chewing nervously on its tail. "I could have anything I

wanted. I demanded ten maidens - Well, I was lonely,"

said a spider, curling its legs defensively. "You don't get a

chance to meet nice girls when you're an evil mage, you

know."

"And the Graygem took control of the women!" said

Palin, growing dizzy again, watching the transformations

of the wizard. "And used them against you."

"Yes," whinnied a horse, pacing back and forth

restlessly in front of the chair. "It educated them and gave

them this palace. My palace! It gives them everything!

They never have to work. Food appears when they're

hungry. Wine, whatever they want ... All they do is lounge

around all day, reading elven poetry and arguing

philosophy. God, I HATE elven poetry!" groaned a middle-

aged bald man. "I tried to talk to them, told them to make

something of their lives! And what did they do? They shut

me in here, with that!" He gestured helplessly at the stone.

"But the women are getting restless," Palin said, his

thoughts suddenly falling into order.

"One can only take so much elven poetry," remarked a

walrus, gloomily waving its flippers. "They want diversion

- "

"Men . . . and NOT their husbands. No, that wouldn't

suit the Graygem at all. It needs the warriors to guard the

gem from the outside while the women guard it from inside.

So, to keep the women happy, it brought - "

"Us!" said Tanin, rounding upon the dwarf in fury.

"Now, don't be hasty," Dougan said with a cunning grin.

He glanced at Palin out of the corner of his eye. "You're

very clever, laddie. You take after your uncle, yes, you do.

Who was the gem guarding itself from, if you're so smart?

What would it have to fear?"

"The one person who'd been searching for it for

thousands and thousands of years," said Palin softly.

Everything was suddenly very, very clear. "The one who

made it and gambled it away. It has hidden from you, all

these centuries, staying in one place until you got too close,

then disappearing again. But now it is trapped by the

wizard. No matter what it does, it can't escape. So it set

these guards around itself. But you knew the women were

unhappy. You knew the Graygem HAD to allow them to

have what they wanted - "

"Good-looking men. They'd let no one else in the

castle," said Dougan, twirling his moustache. "And, if I do

say so myself, we fill the bill," he added proudly.

"But who is he?" said Sturm, staring from Palin to the

dwarf in confusion. "NOT Dougan Redhammer, I gather - "

"I know! I know!" shouted Lord Gargath, now a kender,

who was jumping on the cushion of the chair. "Let me tell!

Let me tell!" Leaping down, the kender ran over to embrace

the dwarf.

"Great Reorx!" roared Dougan, clutching his empty money

pouch.

"You told!" The kender pouted.

"My god!" whispered Tanin.

"That about sums it up," Palin remarked.

 

CHAPTER NINE

Wanna Bet?

 

"Yes!" roared Dougan Redhammer in a thunderous

voice. "I am Reorx, the Forger of the World, and I have

come back to claim what is mine!"

Suddenly aware of the presence of the god, aware, now,

of the danger it was in, the Graygem flared with brilliant

gray light. Trapped by the magic of the wizard's symbol on

the floor, it could not move, but it began to spin frantically,

changing shape so fast that it was nothing more than a blur

of motion to the eye.

The aspect of the wizard changed too. Once again, the

black dragon burst into being, its great body obliterating the

chair, its vast wingspan filling the cone-shaped room.

Palin glanced at it without interest, being much more

absorbed in his own internal struggles. The Graygem was

exerting all its energy, trying to protect itself. It was

offering Palin anything, everything he wanted. Images

flashed into his head. He saw himself as Head of the Order

of White Robes, he saw himself ruling the Conclave of

Wizards. HE was driving the evil dragons back into the

Abyss! HE was doing battle with the Dark Queen. All he

had to do was kill the dwarf. . . .

Kill a god? he asked in disbelief.

I will grant you the power! the Graygem answered.

Looking around, Palin saw Sturm's body bathed in

sweat, his eyes wild, his fists clenched. Even Tanin, so

strong and unbending, was staring straight ahead, his skin

pale, his lips tight, seeing some vision of glory visible only

to himself.

Dougan stood in the center of the pentagram, watching

them, not saying a word.

Palin held fast to the staff, nearly sobbing in his

torment. Pressing his cheek against the cool wood, he heard

words forming in his mind. ALL MY LIFE, I WAS MY OWN

PERSON. THE CHOICES I MADE, I MADE OF MY OWN

FREE WILL. I WAS NEVER HELD IN THRALL BY

ANYONE OR ANYTHING; NOT EVEN THE QUEEN OF

DARKNESS HERSELF! BOW TO OTHERS IN

REVERENCE AND RESPECT, BUT NEVER IN SLAVERY,

NEPHEW!

Palin blinked, looking around as though awaking from a

daze. He wasn't conscious of having heard the words, but

they were in his heart, and he had the strength now to know

their worth. NO! he was able to tell the Graygem firmly,

and it was then that he realized the black dragon behind him

was undergoing similar torture.

"But I don't WANT to flay the skin from their bones!"

the dragon whimpered. "Well, yes, I wouldn't mind having

my island back the way it was. And ten maidens who would

act like maidens and not turn into poets."

Looking at the dragon in alarm, Palin saw its red eyes

gleaming feverishly. Acid dripped from its forked tongue,

burning holes in the polished floor; its claws glistened.

Spreading its wings, the dragon lifted itself into the air.

"Tanin! Sturm!" Palin cried, grasping hold of the

nearest brother and shaking him. It was Tanin. Slowly the

big man turned his eyes to his little brother, but there was

no recognition in them.

"Help me, wizard!" Tanin hissed at him. "Help me slay

the dwarf! I'll be the leader of armies. . . ."

"Dougan!" Palin ran to the dwarf. "Do something!" the

young mage shouted wildly, waving his arms at the dragon.

"I am, laddie, I am," said Dougan calmly, his eyes on

the Graygem.

Palin could see the black dragon's eyes watching him

hungrily. The black wings twitched.

I'll cast a sleep spell, Palin decided in desperation,

reaching into his pouches for sand. But as he drew it forth a

horrible realization came to him. His fingers went limp, the

sand trickled from them, spilling down upon the floor.

His magic was gone!

"No, please, no!" Palin moaned, looking up at the

Graygem, which appeared to sparkle with a chaotic

malevolence.

The wooden door to the room burst open, banging

against the wall.

"We have come as you commanded us, Graygem!"

cried a voice.

It was the voice of the dark-haired beauty. Behind her

was the blonde, and behind them all the rest of the women,

young and old alike. But gone were the diaphanous gowns

and seductive smiles. The women were dressed in tiger

skins. Feathers were tied in their hair, and they carried

stone-tipped spears in their hands.

And now Tanin's voice rang out loudly as a trumpet call,

"My troops! To my side! Rally round!" Raising his arm, he

gave a battle cry and the women answered with a wild

shout.

"Bring me wine!" cried Sturm, executing an impromptu

dance. "Let the revelries begin!"

The blonde's eyes were on him and they burned with

lust. Unfortunately, it was lust of the wrong kind. She

raised her spear, her eyes looking to her leader - Tanin - for

the order to attack.

"You promise me?" said the black dragon eagerly, its

forked tongue flicking in and out of its dripping mouth. "No

more gully dwarves? I didn't mind the rest so much, but I

WON'T be changed into a gully dwarf again!"

"The world's gone mad!" Palin slumped back against the

wall. He felt his strength and his sanity draining from him

as the sand fell from his nerveless fingers. The chaos

around him and the loss of his magic had overthrown his

mind. He stared at the Staff of Magius and saw nothing

more than a stick of wood, topped by a glistening bauble.

He heard his brothers - one dispersing his troops for battle,

the other calling for the pipers to strike up another tune. He

heard the dragon's great wings creak and the intake of

breath that would be released in a stream of acid. Shutting

his eyes, Palin cast the useless staff away from him and

turned his face to the wall.

"Halt!" thundered a voice. "Halt, I command you!"

Chaos whirled wildly an instant longer, then it slowed

and finally wound down until all was silence and stillness

in the room where before had been a blur of noise and

motion. Raising his head, Palin looked fearfully around.

Dougan stood on the pentagram in the center of the room,

his black beard bristling in anger. Raising his arm, he cried

out, "REORX DRACH KALAHZAR!" and a gigantic

warhammer materialized in the dwarf's hand. The huge

hammer glowed with a fierce red light that was reflected in

Dougan's dark, bright eyes.

"Yes!" shouted the dwarf, staring up at the flaring

Graygem. "I know your power! None better! After all, you

are my creation! You can keep this chaos going eternally,

and you know that I cannot stop you. But you are trapped

eternally yourself! You will never be free!"

The Graygem's light flickered at instant, as though

considering Dougan's words. Then it began to pulse,

brighter than before, and Palin's heart sank in despair.

"Wait!" Dougan cried, raising one hand, the other

grasping the handle of the burning red warhammer. "I

say we leave everything up to chance. I offer you ... a

wager!"

The Graygem appeared to consider, its light pulsed

more slowly, thoughtfully.

"A wager?" the women murmured, lowering their

spears.

"A wager," said the dragon in pleased tones, settling

back down to the floor once more.

"A wager!" Palin muttered, wiping his sleeve across his

sweating brow. "My god, that's what started all this!"

"We agree to it, " said the dark-haired beauty, striding

forward, the shaft of her spear thumping against the floor

as she walked. "What will be the stakes?"

Dougan stroked his beard. "These young men," he said

finally, pointing at Tanin, Sturm, and Palin, "for

yourselves. Freedom for the Graygem."

"What?" Both Tanin and Sturm came back to reality,

staring around the room as though seeing it for the first

time.

"You can't do this to us, dwarf!" Tanin shouted, lunging

forward, but two of the larger and stronger women caught

him and, with strength given them by the brightly burning

Graygem, bound the struggling man's arms behind him.

Two more took care of Sturm. No one bothered with Palin.

"If I lose the wager," Dougan continued imperturbably,

"these young men will stay with you as your slaves. I'll

break the magic spell that holds the gem trapped here, and

it will be free once more to roam the world. If I win, the

Graygem is mine and these men will be released."

"We agree to the stakes," said the dark-haired beauty,

after a glance at the Graygem. "And now what is the

wager?"

Dougan appeared to consider, twirling his moustaches

round and round his finger. His gaze happened to rest on

Palin, and he grinned. "That this young man" - he pointed at

the mage - "will throw my hammer in the air and it will

hang suspended, never falling

to the floor."

Everyone stared at the dwarf in silence, considering.

What was the angle?

Then, "No! Dougan!" Palin cried frantically, pushing

himself away from the wall. One of the women shoved him

back.

"This young man?" The dark-haired beauty suddenly

caught on. "But he is a magic-user - "

"Only a very young one," Dougan said hastily. "And he

won't use his magic, will you, Palin?" the dwarf asked,

winking at the young mage when the women weren't

looking.

"Dougan!" Palin wrenched himself free from the

woman's grasp and lurched across the floor, his knees so

weak he could barely walk. "I can't! My magic - "

"Never say 'can't,' laddie," Dougan said severely. "Didn't

your uncle teach you anything?" Once again, he winked at

Palin.

It seemed the dark-haired beauty suddenly realized

Palin's weakness, for she glanced about at her fellows and

smiled in pleased fashion. "We accept your wager," she

said.

"Dougan!" Palin said desperately, grabbing hold of the

dwarf, who was looking up at him with a sly grin.

"Dougan! I CAN'T use my magic! I don't have any! The

Graygem drained it!" he whispered urgently in the dwarf's

ear.

Dougan's face crumpled. "You don't say now, laddie,"

he muttered, glancing at the women and rubbing his

bearded chin. "That's a shame," he said sadly, shaking his

head. "A real shame. Are you sure?"

"Of course, I'm sure!" Palin snapped.

"Well, give it your best shot, lad!" the dwarf said,

clapping Palin on the arm with his hand. "Here you go!"

He thrust the handle of the warhammer into Palin's hands.

Feeling the unfamiliar touch, the hammer's red glow faded,

turning an ugly, lead gray.

Palin looked around helplessly at his brothers. Tanin

regarded him gravely, his expression grim. Sturm averted

his head, his big shoulders heaving in a sigh.

Swallowing, licking his dry lips, Palin wrapped his

hands around the handle of the hammer, uncertain, even,

how to hold the weapon. He tried to lift it. A groan escaped

his lips - a groan echoed by his brothers.

"By Paladine!" Palin gasped. "I can barely move this

thing, Dougan! How can I throw it?" Leaning closer,

staring into the dwarf's eyes, the young man murmured,

"You're a god ... I don't suppose . . ."

"Of course not, laddie!" The dwarf looked shocked. "It's

a matter of honor! You understand . . ."

"Sure," Palin grunted bitterly.

"Look, lad," Dougan said, positioning Palin's hands.

"It's not that difficult. You just hold the hammer like this . .

. there . . . Now, you pick it up and began spinning round

and round in a circle. Your momentum will help you lift

the hammer and, when you're going good, just give it a

heave, like so. Nature will do the rest."

"Nature?" Palin appeared dubious.

"Yes" answered the dwarf gravely, smoothing his

beard. "It's called Centrifug's Force or some such thing.

The gnomes explained it to me."

"Great!" Palin muttered. "Gnomes!"

Drawing a deep breath, the young man lifted the hammer.

A groan of pain escaped his lips, sweat stood out on his

forehead from the strain, and he heard several of the women

giggle. Gritting his teeth, certain that he had ruptured

something inside him, Palin began to turn in a circle, the

hammer in his hands. He was startled to notice that Dougan

was right. The momentum of his motion made the hammer

seem lighter. He was able to lift it higher and higher. But

the handle began to slip in his sweaty palms. . . .

"He's losing it! Get down! Everyone!" Tanin called out,

falling flat on his face. There was a clattering of spears as

the women followed suit. Even the black dragon - seeing

Palin spinning about in the center of the room, out of

control, the hammer starting to glow a fiery red - crouched

on the floor with a whimper, attempting to fold its wings

over its head. Only the dwarf remained standing, his face

split in a broad grin.

"I... can't . . . hold . . . it!" Palin cried and, with a gasp,

he let the hammer fly.

The young mage fell to his knees, in too much pain and

exhaustion to even bother looking to see what happened.

But everyone else in the room, lying flat on the floor, raised

their heads to watch the hammer. Round and round it

whizzed, flying over the heads of the women, buzzing over

Tanin and Sturm, whisking past the cowering dragon.

Round and round it flew and, as it flew, it began to rise into

the air. Dougan watched it placidly, his hands laced across

his great belly.

Glowing now a fiery red, the hammer circled higher and

higher and, as it rose, the Graygem's light began to waver in

sudden fear. The hammer was aiming straight for it!

"Yes, my beauty," murmured Dougan, watching the

hammer in satisfaction. "You forged it. Now, bring it

home."

Desperately the Graygem sought to dim its light,

realizing, perhaps, that it was its own power that was

drawing the hammer to it. But it was too late. The hammer

flew to the Graygem it had helped create as a lass flies to

her lover's arms. There was a shattering sound and a

blinding flare of red and gray light, so brilliant that even

Dougan was forced to shade his eyes, and no one else could

see anything for the dazzling radiance.

The two energies seemed to strive together, the red light

and the gray, and then the gray began to dim. Peering

upward, tears streaming from his eyes in the bright light,

Palin thought he caught a glimpse of a gray, sparkling

jewel tumbling from the air to land in Dougan's hand. But

he couldn't be certain because, at that moment, the red

glowing hammer fell from the air as well, plummeting

straight down on top of them!

Clasping his aching arms over his head, Palin hugged

the floor, visions of his head being split open and his brains

splattering everywhere coming to him with vivid clarity.

He heard a resounding clang.

Timidly raising his head, he saw the hammer, glowing

red in triumph, lying on the floor at Dougan's feet.

Slowly, trembling, Palin stood up, as did everyone else

in the room. He was hurting and exhausted; Tanin had to

come help him or he would have collapsed. But Palin

smiled up at him as his big brother clasped him in his arms.

"My magic's returned!" he whispered. "It's back!"

"I'm back, too," said a voice. Glancing around, Palin saw

the dragon was gone. In its place, crouched on the floor, his

hands over his head, was a thin, middle-aged wizard

dressed in black robes. The wizard sat up, staring around

him as if he couldn't believe it. "I'm back!" he cried out

joyfully, patting his head and his neck and his shoulders

with his hands. "No rabbit ears! No dragon's breath! No

minotaur muscles! I'm me again!" He burst into tears.

"And you lost the bet, dwarf!" the dark-haired beauty

cried out suddenly, getting to her feet. "The hammer fell!"

"Yes!" shouted the women. "You lost the bet! The men

are ours!"

"Dougan . . ." growled Tanin ominously.

The women were closing in on them, eyes burning with

the fire of love instead of the fire of battle.

Dougan raised the hammer above his head. His face was

stem, his black eyes flashed as red as the glowing hammer.

The voice that spoke was no longer the voice of the dwarf

with the flashy clothes, but a voice as ancient as the

mountains it had carved, as deep as the oceans it had

poured.

"Women!" the god called out in stem tones. "Listen to

me! The power of the Graygem over you is broken.

Remember now your children and your husbands.