Tales I

Volume 3

 

LOVE and WAR

 

Edited by MARGARET WEIS AND TRACY HICKMAN

 

featuring "Raistlin's Daughter" by Margaret

Weis and Dezra Despain

 

PENGUIN BOOKS

in association with TSR, Inc.

 

FOREWORD

 

 

Fitting it is that the many years of creative work on

the DRAGONLANCER saga should come to a provisory

culmination with this collection of short stories, the most

pleasing and powerful yet. Some of the writers represented

in this volume are veterans of TALES 1 and 2, and certain of

them will continue to write about the world of Krynn in an

exciting series of DRAGONLANCE novels in the

immediate future.

"A Good Knights Tale" by Harold Bakst suitably begins

this volume that has love and war as its theme. Told by a

Knight of Solamnia, it is a tale that involves both love and

war - the warring of passions of a selfish father's heart.

Love is painted in a more tender aspect in "A Painter's

Vision," by Barbara Siegel and Scott Siegel, but then what

can you expect when a dragon gets himself involved?

The story of love as sacrifice is recounted, along with

the tale of the undead who haunt Darken Wood, in another

of Nick O'Donohoe's revisionist interpretations of a portion

of DRAGONS OF AUTUMN TWILIGHT.

"Hide and Go Seek" by Nancy Berberick is the story of

the love friends bear each other as Tasslehoff risks his life

to save that of a kidnapped child.

"By the Measure" recounts the courage of a Knight of

Solamnia fighting impossible odds. Written by Richard A.

Knaak, this is the haunting story of a young knight's

courage and devotion to his Order.

The adventures of a very young Sturm are recorded in

"The Exiles" by Paul Thompson and Tonya Carter. The boy

learns his first lessons in courage, facing an evil cleric of

the Dark Queen.

A lighter moment is presented in "Heart of Goldmoon" by

Laura Hickman and Kate Novak. A tale of romance and

adventure, it tells of the first meeting of Riverwind and

Goldmoon and how the Que-shu princess came to learn of

the existence of the true gods.

Continuing in the romantic vein, "Raistlin's Daughter"

written by myself and Dezra Despain, relays a strange

legend currently circulating in Krynn. It will end, for the

time being, the DRAGONLANCER saga with - what else -

a question mark.

"Silver and Steel" is the legend of Huma's final battle

with the Dark Queen. There are many such legends about

the valor of Huma, but this one, written by Kevin Randle, is

a gritty, moving account of war that will not soon be

forgotten.

It is fitting that the book end with "From the Yearning

for War and War's End," Michael Williams's poignant

reminder for us all that war - though sometimes sadly

necessary - is a destroyer of both love and of life.

 

Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman

 

A Good Knight's Tale

 

Harold Bakst

 

In those chaotic years just after the Cataclysm, when

the frightened citizens of Xak Tsaroth were fleeing their

beloved but decimated city, there was among them a certain

half-elf by the name of Aril Witherwind, who, while others

sought only refuge, took to roaming the countryside,

carrying upon his bent back a huge, black tome.

Even without his peculiar burden, which he held by a

leather strap thrown across one shoulder, Aril Witherwind

was, as far as half-elves went, a strange one. Though he was

properly tall and willowy, and he had the fair hair, pale

skin, and blue eyes typical of his kind, he seemed not at all

interested in his appearance and had, indeed, a slovenliness

about him: His shoes were often unbuckled, his shirt hung

out of his pants, and his hair was usually in a tangle. He

often went days without shaving so that fine, blond hairs

covered his jaw like down. In addition to everything else, he

wore thick, metal-rimmed eyeglasses.

All this, though, had a simple enough explanation:

Aril Witherwind was, by his own definition, an academic.

More particularly, he was one of the many itinerant

folklorists who appeared on Krynn just after the Cataclysm.

"The Cataclysm threatens to extinguish our rich past,"

he would explain in his gentle but enthusiastic voice to

whoever gave him a moment of time. "And if peace should

ever again come to Krynn, we will want to know something

of our traditions before everything was destroyed."

"But this is not the time to do it!" often came the curt

response from some fleeing traveler, sometimes with

everything he owned in a wagon or in a dogcart or even

upon his own back, his family often in tow.

"Ah, but this is exactly the time to do it," returned Aril

Witherwind automatically, "before too much is forgotten by

the current sweep of events."

"Well, good luck to you, then!" would as likely be the

answer as the party hurried off to some hopefully safer

comer of Krynn.

Undaunted, Aril Witherwind criss-crossed the

countryside, traversing shadowy valleys, sun-lit fields, and

sombre forests. He stopped at the occasional surviving inn,

passed through refugee encampments, and even marched

along with armies, all the time asking whomever he met if

he or she knew a story that he could put into his big black

book.

In time, it became clear to Aril that he usually had the

best luck with the older folks - indeed, the older the better.

These grayhairs were not only the most likely to remember

a story or two, but they were the ones most likely to be

interested in relating it. Perhaps it was because they

welcomed the opportunity to slow down and reminisce

awhile. Or perhaps it was because they had not much of a

future to give to Krynn, only their pasts.

In any case, Aril Witherwind soon learned to seek them

out almost exclusively, and his book slowly began to fill

with stories from before the Cataclysm, when Krynn had

been in what he considered its Golden Age.

He gave each story an appropriate title, and then he

gave due credit to the source by adding: ". . . as told by

Henrik Hellendale, a dwarven baker" or ". . . as told by

Verial Stargazer, an elven shepherd" or "... as told by Frick

Ashfell, a human woodchopper" and so forth.

People often asked Aril what his favorite story was,

but, with the professional objectivity proper to an academic,

he'd say only, "I like them all."

But, really, if you could read his mind, there was a

favorite, and that was one ". . . as told by Barryn Warrex, a

Solamnic Knight."

It had been on a particularly lovely spring day - a day,

indeed, when all of nature seemed happy and unconcerned

with the political upheaval miles away - when Aril, while

traversing the length of a grassy and flower-dotted valley,

espied a knight, kneeling at the base of the valley wall. The

knight, as luck would have it, was an old one.

"Perfect," murmured Aril to himself as he strode

toward the grand man, stopping several paces away.

At first, the old knight didn't seem to realize he had an

audience. He simply continued his kneeling, his head

bowed in either deep meditation or perhaps even in

respectful prayer to the recently deposed gods of Krynn.

Behind him was a low, rocky overhang, almost a cave

really, which was apparently serving as his humble, if

temporary, shelter - The Order of the Solamnic Knights,

you see, had been destroyed in the Cataclysm and fallen

into disrepute, its few remaining members scattered by the

four winds.

It seemed to Aril Witherwind that such events must have

taken a truly terrible toll on this fellow, maybe making him

look even older than he was, for he had a drawn, haggard

face; his hair, though thick, was totally white; and his

hands, clenched before him, were gnarly, almost arthritic.

Still, Aril could see much in the man that boasted of the

old grandeur of his order. He was dressed in his full plate

armor, a great sword hanging at his side, his visorless

helmet and shield resting nearby on a flat rock. And though

he was kneeling, he did seem to be quite tall - that is, long

of limb. But what impressed Aril Witherwind the most was

his truly copious moustache, a long white one that drooped

with a poignant flourish so that its tips nearly brushed the

ground as he knelt there.

A lot of pride must go into that moustache, mused Aril

as he waited patiently for the knight to finish whatever he

was doing.

Now, all that time, the itinerant folklorist thought he

was unobserved, so he was startled when the knight, not so

much as lifting his head or moving a muscle, spoke up in a

deep, though tired, voice:

"What do you want?"

"Oh! Pardon me," said Aril Witherwind, stepping

ahead, bent forward as if he were bowing, though, in fact,

he was merely carrying his heavy tome. "I didn't mean to

interrupt anything. Only, if you are done, I would like to

speak with you."

"I am in meditation."

"So you are. But perhaps you could return to it in a

moment," suggested Aril. "This will not take long."

The old knight sighed deeply. "Actually, you're not

interrupting much," he said, his body slumping from its

disciplined pose. "I no longer have the concentration I once

did."

"Then we can talk?"

The knight began to rise to his feet, though it clearly took

some effort. "Ach, it's getting so I can't distinguish between

the creaking in my armor and the creaking in my bones."

"I believe it was your armor that time," said Aril with a

smile.

At his full height, the knight indeed proved to be a very

tall man, as tall as Aril, who himself, when he did not carry

his book, was a gangly fellow. And when the knight faced

him fully, Aril got goosebumps because engraved upon the

knight's tarnished breastplate was a faint rose, the famous

symbol of his order.

"On the other hand, I do not feel much like talking,"

said the knight sullenly, walking right past the half-elf and

seating himself upon a large rock where he leaned back

against another and gazed languidly up at the blue sky and

white clouds bracketed by the opposing walls of the valley.

"I am a man of action only."

"I quite understand," said Aril, following. "But it does

seem to me you are at the moment - um - between actions.

The thing is, I am a folklorist - "

"Aril Witherwind."

"Yes, that's right. You've heard of me? I'm flattered."

The knight squinted at the gangly blond person with

the large book upon his back. "You are indeed a strange

one."

"It takes all kinds," said Aril Witherwind, again with a

smile. "In any case, you know why I'm here."

"I do not wish to talk."

"Oh, but you must make yourself. A knight such as you

surely has many wonderful tales of derring-do, bravery.

Why, this may be one of your few opportunities to set the

record straight about your order before the world forgets."

The knight appeared unmoved at first. But then, despite

himself, he tugged contemplatively at the tip of his long

moustache. "Perhaps," he said slowly, "if I do think about it

- "

"Yes, do think about it!" said Aril Witherwind as he

hurried to another, smaller rock, where he sat down, his

bony knees pulled up. He brought forth his book and

propped it open on his legs. He then took from his pouch a

quill and inkwell, placing the inkwell on the ground.

"You're a pushy one," said the knight, arching an

imperious eyebrow.

"These days, a folklorist must be," said Aril. "Now

then, first thing's first: What is your name?"

"Warrex," said the knight growing ever more

interested. He even sat up. "Barryn Warrex."

"Is Warrex spelled with one 'r' or two?"

"Two."

"Fine. Now what do you have for me? Some tale, I bet,

of epic battles and falling castles, of heroic missions - "

"No," said the knight thoughtfully, again pulling on his

moustache, "no, I don't think so."

"Oh? Then perhaps a tale of minotaur slaying or a duel

with some fierce ogre - "

"No, no, not those either, though I've done both."

"Then, by all means, you must tell of them! People one

day will want to read such knightly adventures - "

"Please!" snapped Barryn Warrex, his old milky eyes

flashing in anger. "I have no patience for this unless you

will listen to the story that I WANT to tell!"

"Of course, of course," said Aril, closing his eyes in

contrition. "Forgive me. That is, of course, just what I want

you to do."

"To a Solamnic Knight - at least to this old Solmanic

Knight - there is one thing as important - more important -

than even bravery, duty, and honor."

"More important? My, and what would that be?"

"Love."

"A tale of love? Well, that's good, too," said Aril

Witherwind, nodding his approval and dipping his quill into

the inkwell. "A knight's tale of chivalry - "

"I did not say 'chivalry', " snarled Barryn Warrex.

"Pardon me, I just assumed - "

"Stop assuming, will you? This is a tale told to me

when I was a mere child, long before I ever thought of

becoming a knight. And though much has happened to me

since, this tale has stayed with me all these years. Indeed,

these days, it aches my heart more than ever."

Aril was already scribbling in his book. "... more - than

- ever," he repeated as he wrote.

Barryn Warrex settled back once more, calming

himself. "It is about two entwined trees in the Forest of

Wayreth - "

"The Entwining Trees?" interrupted Aril, lifting his pert

nose from his book and pushing his slipping glasses back up

with a forefinger. "I've heard of them! You know their

story?"

"I do," returned Warrex, trying to stay calmer. "Indeed,

my garrulous friend, I intend to tell it you if you would but

be quiet long enough."

"Forgive me, forgive me, it's just that this is exactly the

sort of story I look for. The Entwining Trees, yes, do go

ahead, please. I won't say another word."

The knight looked at Aril Witherwind in disbelief. But,

sure enough, as he had promised, the bespectacled half-elf

said nothing further. He only hunched over his book, quill

at the ready.

Satisfied, Barryn Warrex rested his head back. Then an

odd change came over him: His eyes glassed over with a

distant look, as if they were seeing something many years

ago; his ears perked as if they were likewise hearing a voice

from that long ago; and when he spoke, it seemed to be in

the voice of someone else - so very long ago. . . .

 

Once, when the world was younger, there lived in a

small, thatched cottage on the outskirts of Gateway - where

cottages were a stone's throw from each other - a certain

widower by the name of Aron Dewweb, a weaver by trade,

and his young daughter, Petal, who was considered, if not

THE most beautiful, then certainly among the most

beautiful human girls for miles in any direction. Petal was

slender and delicate, with a long, elegant neck, large brown

eyes, and long fair hair that reached her narrow waist.

It came as no surprise, then, that when Petal reached

marriageable age, she found at her doorstep every young

bachelor who was looking for a wife. These fellows would

wander by the front fence, sometimes pretending to be

going on a stroll, when they'd "by chance" notice the young

girl gardening in her front yard, and they'd begin chatting

with her.

"Why, hello," they'd say, for instance, "what lovely

roses you have."

Naturally, Petal was very flattered to receive so much

attention, and she'd leave her gardening and go flirt with the

young men, which only encouraged them.

Now, Aron, though he had always been the kindest and

happiest of fathers when Petal was growing up, turned stem

and dark of expression. He stopped smiling. He grumbled a

lot. He became, in a word, jealous.

True, he tried, at first, to view the situation with

pleasure. After all, the attention she was receiving was that

due a young, beautiful, marriageable girl, and he tried to

pretend that he was prepared for it.

But he couldn't help himself. Whenever one of Petal's

would-be suitors came calling at the front fence, offering

Aron a wave and a "hello," Aron Dewweb could only grunt

back, or more likely, ignore the young man and stalk into

his cottage.

Several neighbors told him, "Look, Aron, you can't

keep nature from taking its course."

Aron listened politely, but that was because his

neighbors were also customers for his weaving. Really, he

didn't give a damn about nature or its course or their

opinions. He just couldn't bear the thought of some swain

taking away his only, precious daughter. As far as he was

concerned, no matter how old she got, Petal would always

be that little girl who laughed and squealed when he

bounced her lightly on his knee.

So he said, "Dash it all, I don't care what anyone thinks!

I don't like what's happening!" And he took to chasing off

the young men with a knobby walking stick he kept handy

near his loom. "Stay away!" he would cry as he came

running out of his cottage toward the fence. The young man

of the moment, startled by the attack, would leave Petal

standing by the gate and flee. "And tell your boorish friends

to stay clear, too!"

Petal was always very embarrassed by this display.

"Daddy, why can't they visit me?" she'd ask, near tears. "I'm

old enough!"

"Because!" answered Aron, his face red, his knuckles

white as he clenched his walking stick. "Just - just

because!" And then he'd storm back into the cottage.

Well, "because" wasn't good enough for Petal, and she

continued to encourage her suitors. A wink from her was

enough to draw them back like bees to a bright, fragrant

flower - though none of them dared actually enter the gate.

From his loom - which, incidentally, was a clever, if

noisy, contraption operated by various levers and pedals -

the stern weaver could look out his window and see the way

his daughter was behaving. And he saw the effect it had on

her callers, who were growing ever bolder, some even

venturing to open the gate. Apparently, waving a stick at

them was no longer enough to drive them away (which was

just as well since Aron was getting tired of running out

every other moment). So, finally, he decided there was only

one thing left to do: He would have to take Petal away from

Gateway.

This he did. He piled his loom and other possessions

high on a wagon, put Petal on the seat next to him, and off

they went, pulled by a tired, old ox, which he borrowed

from a neighbor. Petal sighed deeply as she waved farewell

to all her would-be lovers, who lined up along the road in

front of their own cottages to see her off. They waved back,

their hearts heavy.

Aron took Petal far away. The road became unpaved

and overgrown, and eventually it led to the Forest of

Wayreth. There, Aron had to leave behind most of his

possessions for the time being because there was no path

between the trees wide enough to allow the wagon to pass.

He would have to make several trips, but he loaded up his

goods on his back, took Petal by her slender hand, and off

they went through the sunless forest.

When he had gone far enough - that is to say, when he

became too exhausted to continue - Aron put down his load

and said, "Here! Here is where we shall live!" And right on

that bosky spot, he built a new cottage of sticks and thatch.

He included a small room for Petal, a larger one for himself,

and a still bigger one for the cooking hearth, table, chairs,

and, of course, his loom, which he had the ox drag through

the forest before he returned the beast to its owner.

Convinced at last that his daughter was now where no

young man would find her, or at least where she'd be too far

away to be worth the bother, Aron resumed his weaving.

Such a location among the reputedly magical woods was

inconvenient for him, for he had to make long trips to his

customers in Gateway, but it was worth the peace of mind

that came from knowing that his daughter was safe from

anyone who would dare try to take her from him.

As for Petal, she cried for days and days. She wanted to

go back to Gateway. She wanted to flirt with her suitors.

But Aron said, "You'll get used to it here. Soon, things

will be back the way they were before all this foolishness

started."

Petal did, in fact, stop crying, but things never quite

went back to the way they were. Petal was lonely, and she

never looked happy.

"What's the matter?" Aron finally snapped one day from

his loom while Petal, long-faced, was sprinkling fragrant

pine needles on the floor. "I was good enough company all

these years!"

"Oh, Father," said Petal, pausing in her work, her eyes

watering, "I still love you but as MY FATHER. Now it's

time I loved another, as my husband."

"Nonsense!" said Aron with a wave of his hand.

"There'll be plenty of time for that when I'm dead!"

"Don't talk that way!" said Petal, stepping toward her

father, dropping the rest of the pine needles.

"What way? One day I'll be gone, and then you'll be

able to entertain all the young men you want!" And, with

that, Aron turned his back on his daughter and continued his

weaving.

The arguments usually went that way, and they always

broke Petal's heart. Finally, she stopped bringing up the

subject, which was what Aron wanted, anyway.

The days settled into a routine. Aron worked

methodically and constantly at his loom, and Petal tended

the cottage and the garden. Neither said much to the other.

Petal continued to look sad, and Aron, even way out in the

forest, continued to feel uneasy:

What if one of those tom cats should sniff his way to the

cottage, after all? What if a whole gang of them should

arrive and start wailing at his door?

Or, worse yet: What if Petal sneaked away?

This last thought truly began to worry Aron. He kept a

constant eye on his daughter, which caused many uneven

threads in his weaving. He became so nervous that if Petal

were out of his sight for any length of time - and he did not

hear her, either - he'd jump up from his loom, knocking

over his chair, and cry out, "Petal! Come here!"

"What is it, Father?" she'd call, hurrying into the

cottage, with, say, a basket of mushrooms she had been

gathering.

Aron never answered. He was just glad to see his

daughter, and, relieved, he'd pick up his chair and resume

his weaving.

Nights, though, proved even worse for Aron than the

days. It was then he had to sleep, and so it was then he

could keep neither eye nor ear on his daughter. He kept

waking at the slightest sound, thinking Petal might be

sneaking away, and he kept checking up on her in her room.

She was always there, curled up beneath her blanket on a

mattress filled with her fragrant pine needles.

But then, on one warm summer night, shortly after

midnight, Aron peeked into her room and found her bed

empty.

"Petal!" he bellowed, stepping from her door back into

the large room. "Petal!"

She didn't answer.

Aron ran outside into the benighted woods, where only

sprinkles of silver moonlight fell through the canopy and

broke up the dark forest floor, the way Petal's pine needles

broke up the cottage floor.

"Petal! Petal!"

There was no answer except for the hoot of a lone,

unseen owl.

All the rest of that night, Aron scrambled about the dark

woods, calling his daughter's name and bruising himself as

he hit his head on low limbs and banged fully into unseen

tree trunks.

By the time the sun rose, sending its early morning rays

to light the misty air and awaken the birds, who promptly

began their warbling, Aron was ready to faint from

exhaustion. He had been searching and calling all night.

Defeated and heartbroken, but determined to march to

Gateway to fetch his daughter if need be, he trudged to his

cottage to get his stick.

Yet, when he got there, whom did he find, sleeping

curled up in her bed as innocently as a doe, but Petal.

Aron rubbed his swollen eyes. His heart soared with

joy. Was it possible, in his great concern, that he had missed

her sleeping there the night before? Everything was as it

was supposed to be - except, Aron noted, that there were

little puddles of water, footprints really, leading up to

Petal's bed. This was curious, but Aron didn't give it much

thought. He was happy to have his daughter back. He told

himself he would try to be nicer to her from then on, for the

last thing he wanted was to drive her away.

That morning, when his daughter awoke, Aron acted

more chipper at the breakfast table. Petal was surprised by

his new demeanor, but she welcomed it. She, too, was

happier.

"You see?" said Aron as he sipped his tea. "Do you see

how easy it is for us to be friends?"

"Yes, Father," said Petal as she nibbled at a muffin.

"Forgive me for my pouting."

"No, no, it is I who must ask for forgiveness. I've been

an ogre."

"Only because you love me. I know that, now."

Aron reached over and patted his daughter's soft, fair

hair, which felt, strangely, a little damp. Again, he gave this

little thought. For the rest of the day, he whistled at his

loom while Petal hummed in her front garden - which,

actually, wasn't growing as well in the constant shade of the

woods as it had in Gateway.

In any case, for all his outward pleasantness, Aron, that

very night, tossed and turned uncomfortably in his bed,

certain once more that his daughter had indeed disappeared

the previous night. And those puddles popped into his mind,

perplexing him.

It was no use. Aron jumped out of bed. He had to check

up on his daughter. But he didn't want her to know, for then

she'd be truly angry at him. So he tiptoed ever so quietly to

her room.

She was gone.

Aron grew frantic. He bolted out of the cottage. But

before he could call his daughter's name, he saw in the

moonlight that sprinkled through the tree cover Petal

herself, dressed in her flowing white gown, just

disappearing silently between two enormous tulip trees.

Again, Aron was about to call to her, but he stopped

himself. Was she meeting someone? He had to know. He

decided to follow and catch her in the act. He rushed back

into his cottage, grabbed his stick, and hurried out to catch

up to his daughter.

He passed between the two tulip trees and found himself

on a path, one that he had not even known existed. It was

narrow, virtually covered with fern fronds, but it was

illuminated clearly by the full moon, for there was a slit in

the tree canopy that followed the path exactly.

Aron failed to see his daughter, but he walked along the

bending path, confident it would take him to her. Using his

walking stick for its intended purpose, he proceeded as

quickly as he could without making too much noise. All

around him, just a step away to his right or left, was the

gloomy forest. Only those trees nearest the path were partly

lit, their dark and gray trunks marking his way. Behind

them, the trees were cast in shadow. And farther from the

path still, the trees were in total blackness.

The croaking of frogs grew louder, and soon he came to

a small glade, in the middle of which was a pond. Petal was

standing on its bank near an old beaver dam, her long white

gown bathed in the sky's ghostly light. For several moments

she did nothing but gaze at the black water, upon whose

surface floated many lily pads, their white blossoms open to

the moonshine.

Then she softly called, "My love, my love, take me to

your home."

At that, some of the lily pads were jostled from beneath.

Petal then slipped off her gown and stepped into the water.

She waded toward the center of the pond, pressing past

some lily pads. The water rose steadily up her slender legs,

reaching her narrow waist, and continued to rise as she went

forward.

Aron was confused as to what was happening. But

when he saw his daughter in the pond up to her delicate

neck, her fair hair floating behind her, he burst from his

hiding place.

It was too late. Petal's head dipped below the surface,

her hair floating momentarily, then it, too, vanished below.

"Petal! What are you doing?" cried Aron. "Petal!" He ran

back and forth along the shore as he squinted and tried to

peer into the inky water. But he saw only the round, white

moon above and his own dark silhouette gazing up at him.

Finally, he jumped in.

The water was cold and black, and he couldn't see a

thing. He came up for air, then dove even deeper, grabbing

blindly at the water, ripping at lily pad stems and smacking

a few startled fish. But after becoming so tired that he

nearly drowned, Aron finally pulled himself onto the bank

and collapsed. There he slept, his legs and arms twitching as

if he were still diving, until he was awakened by the

morning sun and the warbling of birds.

Convinced that his daughter had drowned, Aron mulled

over the idea of taking his own life as he returned to his

cottage. But, lo and behold, who did he find there, once

more curled up in her bed as if nothing had happened, but

Petal!

Aron shook his head. He was almost ready to believe

he had dreamed the whole adventure, except that, once

more, he saw puddles on the floor leading to his daughter's

bed.

Though he was overjoyed, Aron was also furious. He

was about to shake his daughter awake and demand an

explanation when he decided, No, let her confess to me on

her own. It would be better that way.

But confess what exactly? That she had gone for a

midnight swim? Surely that's all there was to it. Surely there

was nothing - no one - in the pond waiting for her.

Still, in the Forest of Wayreth, you never know.

So all that day, Aron waited for his daughter to tell him

what happened. From his loom he kept eyeing her, but all

she did was go happily about her duties.

Fine! thought Aron in frustration. Let her think she's

fooled the old man! I will just have to catch her in the act!

For the rest of the day, Aron played the innocent, too.

He smiled at his daughter, engaged her in polite

conversation during lunch and dinner, and generally acted

as if nothing were on his mind - except that, while at his

loom, he was busy weaving a plot.

Then, in the evening, earlier than usual, he said, "I'm

tired. I think I'll turn in."

Petal, darning in a rocking chair near the fire, said, "All

right, Father. I'll put out the fire."

Aron stretched a phony stretch and went to his room.

But he had never been more awake. He crouched by his

bedroom window and peered out into the night air, waiting

for his daughter to leave the cottage.

He waited so long, though, that he nodded off for a

moment. When he stirred himself, he hurried into Petal's

room and saw that she had left. Nearly panic-stricken that

he had lost an opportunity, Aron grabbed his stick, a

lantern, and a net, and he hurried outside and passed

between the two tulip trees.

By the time he reached the pond, Petal was already

standing on its banks and calling toward the abandoned

beaver dam, "My love, my love, take me to your home."

Then she slipped off her gown and stepped into the water.

Aron waited. He wanted to catch both Petal and

whoever came to her. When the water reached Petal's neck,

her long fair hair floating behind her, Aron sprang out and

tossed the net across the water. But Petal dropped below too

quickly, and Aron pulled in only a turtle and two frogs. He

quickly lit his lantern and held it over the water. What he

saw below horrified him.

Just beneath the surface, but sinking ever deeper, was the

pale form of Petal, hand-in-hand with another being, a

shadowy creature made indistinct by both night and water.

Aron pressed so close to the water to see that his nose and

lantern went under, the flame extinguishing with a hiss. The

two forms disappeared.

Aron pulled back and sat on the bank near his

daughter's gown, which he took in his hand. His heart was

pounding, but this time he would remain calm. He fully

expected Petal to return. And this time he would be waiting

for her.

Alas, lulled by the croaking of the frogs, he fell asleep.

In the morning when he awoke, the gown was gone

from his hands. He dashed straight back to his cottage

where he found, sure enough, Petal curled up in her bed, the

puddles of water on the floor.

"How innocently you sleep there," muttered Aron, his

eyes asquint, "just like the little girl I once knew, eh? But

look here, these puddles belie that innocence. Well, sleep

soundly, my daughter, for you will be deceitful no more."

Aron left the room, knowing what he had to do. For one

more day, he would play the innocent. For one more day, he

would pretend he had nothing burdensome on his mind. He

even whistled again at his loom, which had the intended

effect of reassuring Petal.

But as soon as night fell and Petal went to bed, Aron

dropped his pose. He quietly secured both her window

shutter and door with braces of wood. Taking up his lantern

and stick, he hurried to the pond.

When he got there, he placed himself near the old

beaver dam. There, in a high voice, he called out, "My love,

my love, take me to your home." Then, his lantern lit, he

crouched down and waited for the creature to rise to the

surface.

It didn't do so, either because it was fearful of the light, or

because it knew that it was not Petal who called.

No matter, thought Aron. He stood up. "You shall

reveal yourself whether you like it or not." And, with that,

he gripped his walking stick with two hands and started to

break apart the beaver dam.

He stabbed at the dam repeatedly, prying it, pulling out

the limbs, branches, and mud. The water rushed out of each

break, swelling the stream on the other side. The pond itself

slowly began to shrink, leaving behind a widening shore of

mud that was laced with stranded lily pads and their limp

stems. Several frogs left high and dry began burrowing by

backing into the mud, their bulbous eyes disappearing last

with a blink.

His heart pounding ever faster, Aron worked all the

harder. "Come, come!" he called out over the increasingly

loud rush of water. "Don't be shy! Let me see your fishy

face!" He put down his stick and eagerly held his lantern

over the surface.

He was rewarded for his efforts. He saw, swimming

among an ever thicker riot of fish, a large, human-shaped

something - no, two human-shaped some-things, both still

vague in the muddy, benighted water.

For a moment, one of them seemed to be the pale form

of Petal, and Aron had to remind himself that he had

secured her in her room. He was tempted to run back to the

cottage just to make sure, but the water was very low now,

and he would see everything soon enough.

Finally, though, as the water dropped to a depth of a

mere hand's span and the fish were bumping into each

other, many of them forced out and flopping about the

muddy shore, the two creatures began joining the frogs and

burrowing into the mud.

"No! Where are you going?" cried Aron, stepping

forward, his foot sinking in the mud with a slurp.

But the two forms burrowed deeper, even as the pond

became only a mud hole, leaving behind a mere trickle of a

stream that meandered among the stranded lily pads,

flopping fish, and stunned turtles, which just stood there

stupidly, not knowing which way to go. In the center of all

that was the writhing mud, as the two creatures dug down to

escape the lantern light, or the air, or Aron himself.

Eventually, the writhing slowed, the mounds flattened,

and the ground was still. All was quiet. Even the fish lay

exhausted, their gills opening and closing uselessly. Aron

felt cheated not to see the face of the creature whom Petal

had called "My love, my love," but he was satisfied that it

would be a problem no more.

But who was that second creature?

Aron returned quickly to his cottage and, first thing,

checked Petal's room. He saw, to his relief, that she was

indeed there, curled up in her bed. So he went to bed

himself and slept more peacefully than he had in a long

time.

The next morning he awoke and went directly to his

loom, waiting for Petal to rise and make him some

breakfast. But she slept late that morning. Finally, his

stomach rumbling, Aron called out, "Petal! Come on! Make

your old father some breakfast."

She didn't answer.

Perhaps she knows what I did and is being spiteful,

thought Aron. "Come on, girl! Up!"

She didn't answer.

Aron went to her room and found her still lying in her

bed, curled up. Naturally, there were no puddles this

morning, a fact that gave Aron much satisfaction.

"Up, my girl!" he called, walking over to her and

brashly pulling away the covers.

His eyes nearly popped out of his head. It was not Petal at

all but pillows set up to mimic her form.

Without a moment's hesitation, Aron dashed from the

room, grabbed one of Petal's large gardening shovels, and

ran to the dried pond.

When he got there, he saw what, in his eagerness, he

had missed the night before: his daughter's gown, lying

rumpled on the bank. He immediately stepped into the mud

to get to the center, but the farther he went, the deeper his

legs went into the mud. At one point the mud came nearly

up to his knees, and he could hardly walk. But he pressed

on, thinking only of his darling Petal lying buried in the

mud.

Then, as he neared the center of the pond, Aron noticed

something odd. There, right where he meant to dig, was a

tiny green plant shoot. Or rather two tiny green plant shoots.

They were entwined delicately about each other. And before

Aron could pull his right leg from the mud, those two green

shoots, right before his eyes, began to grow.

In a matter of moments, they transformed into long,

elegant tree saplings, both still entwined about each other.

But they didn't stop there.

They continued to grow toward the sun, their trunks

thickening as they grew. And as they did so, they encircled

each other. They put out ever more branches, tiny leaves,

and even some reddish fruit that hung in clusters.

Soon, what had been two delicate shoots only moments

before were now two sturdy trees in full-grown glory, their

thick, nearly merged trunks coiled around each other, their

roots bulging from the mud, their lofty crowns meshed and

arching over the entire width of what had been the pond.

Aron pulled himself out of the mud by one of the roots.

He gazed at the two entwining trunks and at the leaves

overhead, which now filtered out the sun. "Petal," he

whimpered, "forgive me. I believed my love was enough."

And there, in the shade of the two trees, Aron Dewweb

sat and wept. By the time the sun had set and the moon had

risen, sending its sprinkles of silver light through the two

trees' crowns, Aron died of a broken heart, and little green

leaves fell gently to cover him. . . .

 

So ended Barryn Warrex's tale.

When Aril Witherwind looked up from his book, he

detected in one of the old man's eyes a solitary tear. The

half-elf himself sighed from sadness and had to brush away

from his page a teardrop or two that threatened to make his

ink run. "Well, I must say, that is not a story I expected

from a knight," he said.

Barryn Warrex stirred, his eyes and ears once more

seeing and hearing what was before him. And when he

spoke, it was once more with his own deep but tired voice.

"I warned you," he said. "It is what has been in my heart."

With a creaking of his armor and bones, he slowly rose to

his feet.

"Well, now it's in my book, as well," said the half-elf,

blotting the page and shaking off his own sadness. "But as

to the title. How about, 'A Tale of Eternal Love'? - no, no,

too corny. How about, 'A Tale of Two Loves'? You see, it's

about two kinds of love, get it?"

Barryn Warrex, not much caring what title the folklorist

gave the story, trudged over to the flat rock where his

helmet and shield were lying.

"Well, I'll have to give that some thought," continued

Aril, tapping his quill feather against his downy chin. "By

the way, this is most important: Should I put this story

down as fact or as fable?"

The knight put on his visorless helmet, his grand white

moustaches flowing well out from it on both sides like two

elegant handles. "The story is true enough as far as I'm

concerned."

"Well, I don't know," said Aril, squinting at the page

through his spectacles. "It seems pretty incredible - even

for the Forest of Wayreth. Perhaps if you had seen those

Entwining Trees yourself, it would lend credibility - "

With some effort, Barryn Warrex stooped and lifted his

heavy, dull shield. "My friend, all I know is that I, too, once

had a beautiful daughter, and that one day, she, too, reached

marriageable age. I behaved no better than this Aron

Dewweb."

"Oh - I'm so sorry," said Aril Witherwind awkwardly,

not sure how to respond to such a confession. "Uh, I myself

have never had children - "

The old knight slung the shield across his back, and he

became as stooped under its weight as Aril was under his

tome. Even as he spoke, Barryn Warrex started off down

into the grassy, flower-dotted valley, where butterflies

flitted about him as if to cheer him up. "It is many years

since my own daughter ran away with her lover."

Aril remained perched on his rock, and, trying to hear

the retreating knight, he started a new page and began

scribbling once more in his book.

"Now this old knight has but one last mission in his

life," said Warrex, walking ever farther off, his voice

growing fainter, "and that is to find my daughter and this

husband of hers - "

" - and," murmured Aril, repeating the knight's words

exactly as he wrote them down, " - give - them - my -

blessing."

 

A Painter's Vision

 

Barbara Siegel and Scott Siegel

 

"It looks so real," said Curly Kyra with awe. She

brushed long ringlets of black hair away from her eyes and

stared at the painting, ignoring calls from down the bar for

another round of ale. "It's a beautiful boat." Softly, with

wonder in her voice, she added, "It seems as if it could

almost sail right off the canvas."

"Almost, but not quite," replied Sad-Eye Seron, the

painter. He was a skinny man with a gentle face. His

eyebrows drooped at the edges, giving him the perpetually

sad expression that had earned him his nickname. But he

smiled now, enjoying the effect his new painting was

having on the lovely, young barmaid he had courted all

summer long.

"Will it make a lot of money?" asked Kyra hopefully.

Seron's smile vanished. "I sometimes think that you're

the only one who likes my work. Everybody else in Flotsam

says, 'Why buy pictures of things that I can see whenever I

look out my window?' "

"Hey, Kyra," bellowed a patron with an empty mug.

"Am I going to get a refill, or should I just come back there

and pour my own?"

The tavern owner stuck his head out of the kitchen.

"Tend to business," he warned his barmaid.

"All right, I'm going," Kyra said. But she didn't move.

Instead, she shook her head at the magnificent sailing scene

and stood there in admiration of Seron's artistry.

If Seron was an underappreciated painter, the same

could not be said of the pretty picture known as Curly Kyra.

Every unmarried man - and plenty of the married ones - had

hopes of bedding her. She had alabaster skin, bright brown

eyes, and full lips that seemed created expressly for kissing.

Even more inviting than her lips, however, was the purely

feminine shape of her figure; since coming of age this

summer, she had to slap men's hands more often than she

had to slap at bugs.

It was different, though, with Seron. Oh, he wanted to

bed her and made no pretense about it, but he truly cared for

her and made that clear in a thousand different ways. He

helped patch the roof of her family's cottage without asking

for so much as a cup of water in return. He gave her

painting lessons, teaching her everything from mixing

colors to the techniques of his brushstroke. And when she

was terribly sick with an unknown disease - and looked like

a particularly ugly dwarf he had once painted - Seron risked

his own health to help care for her.

The two of them leaned over the bar near each other,

the sea-faring picture between them. "You're wasting your

time working in this tavern," Seron said earnestly. "I've said

it from the very beginning - you're smart, talented,

perceptive; you can do more with your life than just serve

ale."

"You're only saying I'm smart," teased Kyra, "because I

like your work."

He smiled, but shook his head. "I really mean it," he

insisted.

Involved in their intimate discussion, Kyra paid no

attention to the growing clamor of angry voices calling out

for service.

As for Seron, he hadn't yet tried to sell his latest

painting, but he saw that Kyra was so enamored of the

picture (and he was so enamored of her) that he suddenly

blurted, "I want you to have it. It's a gift."

Kyra was stunned by his offer. Her face turned red, and

it looked as if she couldn't breathe.

"Are you all right?" he asked worriedly.

She answered by throwing her arms around him and

kissing him on the lips.

That night Kyra lost her job but found a husband.

 

Her belief in Seron's talents was not misplaced;

soon after they were married, he finally began to sell

some of his paintings. He didn't receive much for them, but

at least it was a beginning. He supplemented their meager

income by painting family portraits for the local tradesmen.

Still, it wasn't enough.

"Why don't you give art lessons?" asked Kyra one late

afternoon as she took down the wash that had dried on the

line.

"What? And create my own competition?" he said,

laughing as he folded the clothes she handed him.

"You have a wonderful talent," she continued, ignoring

him. "You could give classes. I know the kender would love

it; they couldn't possibly pass up a chance to try their hand

at drawing."

"What makes you think I'd be any good as a teacher?"

he asked.

"Because you were so good at teaching me."

"I was good at teaching you," he said, "because you were

an excellent student. You could do anything you set your

mind to," he continued. "You settle for too little from

yourself. If only you - "

"Please! Not that speech again," she complained.

"But you could be so much more if only you tried," he

insisted, touching his fingers to the palm of her hand.

"Isn't that the same thing your brother always says to

YOU?" she countered. "Doesn't he always say that you're

wasting yourself on all these pictures?"

He scowled. "Don't change the subject. We're talking

about you - and you know I'm right. You're capable of

doing all sorts of things; you're too easily content."

"Content? Me?" she laughed seductively. "Never." And

with that, she dropped the sheet she had been holding and

began unbuttoning her blouse.

"No one stops an argument like you," he chuckled,

removing his own shirt.

Their bed was a sheet on the soft grass, their roof was

the afternoon sky, and their souls were one soul long after

their passion was spent.

As the afternoon light faded, Kyra felt a chill. She

snuggled up close to her husband, who tenderly embraced

her. She felt safe in his arms, protected. When he held her

like that, she knew both the strength and the tenderness of

his love. For her, there was nothing in all of Krynn to match

that feeling. Nothing.

 

Dutifully, Seron gave art lessons to the kender, and

anyone else who was willing to pay. Not that anything

valuable ever changed hands. Despite their enthusiasm, the

kender were inattentive students, and they generally walked

off with the paint, the brushes, and half of tomorrow's

lunch.

To better provide for his wife, Seron took a job during the

evenings as a cook at the Sea Master Inn. Kyra didn't want

him to take the time away from his art, but he couldn't bear

to see her go hungry. He promised her he would work at the

inn only until his paintings brought in more money.

He hoped that would happen soon, for he had chanced

upon an entirely new and exciting subject when he met his

very first dragon. . . .

 

"Do you have a red blanket?" asked the young male

brass dragon standing at the edge of a clearing in the forest.

Seron could hardly believe his eyes, let alone his ears;

the dragon was talking to him!

"Are . . . are you real?" stammered the painter.

"That doesn't seem like an appropriate answer to the

question, 'Do you have a red blanket?' Would you like to try

again?"

Seron's curiosity was greater than his fear. He stepped

closer and touched the dragon's wing. "You are real," he

mumbled, astonished. He quickly stepped back again.

"I seem to have this effect on everybody," the dragon

said, shaking his head sadly. "Have you never seen or heard

of my kind before?"

"Only - only in legends," replied Seron as he carefully

examined the tall, majestic dragon standing before him. He

didn't want to forget any detail for the picture that he knew

he must paint. Finally, he thought, I'll be able to succeed for

Kyra. This painting will be worth a fortune!

"It's terrible," complained the dragon. "Wherever I go,

people stop and gawk at me. And really," he continued, "I

don't understand it. It's not as if I'm wearing flashy colors.

Which, by the way, brings me back to the question of the

red blanket. Do you have one or not?"

Seron didn't want the dragon to leave. Not yet. He needed

more time to study this wonderful creature. "I'll get you a

red blanket," he promised. "Just wait right here."

The painter raced to the hut.

"Kyra, where are you?" he cried when he found their

home empty.

"I'm in the back ... in the vegetable garden."

Not wanting to waste any time, he quickly looked

through their trunk and closet. He was sure they had some

sort of red blanket - a strange request, come to think of it -

but he couldn't find it.

"Any luck?" called out the dragon, who was now

standing at the front door.

"You were supposed to stay where you were," said

Seron nervously, stepping out to meet the creature. He was

afraid the dragon might harm his wife.

"Is someone there?" Kyra called out gaily, walking

around the side of the hut. "I thought I heard another voice

and - "

She stopped in her tracks with a look of wonder on her

face.

"A red blanket!" cried the animal happily, gesturing

toward the red shawl Kyra wore around her shoulders.

Seron blinked. That's what he had been looking for.

Kyra smiled at the dragon. She had grown up on tales

of these magical beasts. To Seron's surprise, she wasn't

afraid of the creature. "Do you like this?" she asked,

sweeping the shawl off her shoulders and holding it before

her.

"Very much," replied the dragon.

"Then it's yours," she said. "I think you'll look

wonderful in it. Much better than I."

"Now, you're a human I could grow to like," the dragon

said. "What's your name?"

"Kyra," she replied with a warm smile. "What's yours?"

"Tosch. And may I say," said the dragon with a bow, "I

am very pleased to meet YOU. Him," he added, pointing at

Seron, "I must ponder."

"You must not offend me," Kyra reproached gently.

"Seron is my husband, and if you like me, you must also

like him."

The dragon made a frown. "Is this a rule of the

humans?"

"It's my rule," said Kyra.

The dragon nodded.

"Good. Now come, let me give you your new cape."

Tosch lowered his head, and Kyra tied the red cloth

around the dragon's neck. It was a pitifully small splash of

red against the creature's massive body, but Tosch didn't

seem to care. He was thrilled with his new appearance and

he revelled in it - posturing every which way and asking

how he looked in every pose.

To Seron, it was all rather silly, but Kyra took the

dragon seriously, giving him her best advice on how to wear

the cape to his best advantage.

Finally, Tosch stood still and turned to Seron. "Your

wife gave me a wonderful gift," stated the dragon. "What

are YOU going to give me?"

"I'm going to paint your picture," he calmly replied.

"Once humans have seen your portrait, they won't be so

surprised when they see you in the flesh. Isn't that what you

want?"

Tosch looked at Kyra. "Can he draw?" he asked.

 

"Raise your right wing just a little higher," said Seron,

as he painted Tosch's picture in the forest clearing where

they had first met. "Just a bit higher. Yes. Good. Don't

move."

"I think I look better with my wings lower and my head

higher," complained Tosch. "And I've got a great profile

from the left side. You said so, yourself."

"My purpose is to create a dramatic effect," the painter

reminded him, "not necessarily to make you look your

best."

"I don't understand the difference," sniffed the dragon.

"If I look good, the picture looks good, right?"

"It's the other way around, my friend," laughed Seron.

"If the picture looks good, you'll look good."

"Hmmph."

No one else was offering to paint pictures of Tosch, so

he remained a willing model despite differences with Seron.

The peacemaker was Kyra. She often joined them in the

forest clearing, stroking the dragon's head when her

husband released him from a long, torturous pose.

Tosch, however, was not the easiest model to paint. The

brass dragon would often arrive late for sittings;

sometimes he wouldn't come at all. Often, he would

quietly mutter a magical incantation, slap his tail against the

ground three times, and make Seron's brushes disappear.

The dragon seemed bent on driving the artist to distraction.

But Kyra always soothed Seron's anger by explaining

yet again that the dragon tales of her youth told of the

creatures' freewheeling nature. "A brass dragon," she said,

"comes and goes as he pleases and likes to play tricks. It's

his nature; don't blame him."

And so the painting continued. At least for a short

while . . .

 

Tosch might have stayed for years instead of a few

short months, but when the Highlord and her forces invaded

Flotsam, the young dragon fled to the mountains.

Seron and Kyra might have done the same, but Flot sam

was all they had ever known; they had both been born

there, and neither of them had ever been anywhere else.

The truth was they were afraid to leave. Times were hard

after the dragonarmy took over. But even so, Seron eked out

a living. He managed to sell his pictures of Tosch, despite

the fact that dragons were now far more commonplace. One

of Seron's portraits went to the owner of the inn where he

worked as a cook. He sold another to a fierce female ship

captain who said she would hang it in her cabin. Yet

another was bought by a traveling peddler. All of the buyers

admired how skillfully the artist had, at once, captured both

the youthful innocence and the natural arrogance of the

dragon.

With each sale, Kyra became ever more proud of her

husband. His reputation as a painter was growing, yet

nothing really changed. They still lived in the same small

hut, their clothes were still second-hand rags skillfully

repaired by Kyra, and Seron still had to work at the inn to

supplement their income.

 

"You won't believe it!" exclaimed Seron in a rush of

words as he burst into their one-room home. "I was up on

Cold Rock Point," he explained, "and I saw the Highlord

atop her blue dragon. She was leading a whole phalanx of

soldiers riding their own dragons. The entire sky was filled

with them. Everywhere you looked there were dragons!

Their wings were flapping with a power that nearly blew

me off the cliff, and their great mouths were screaming in

cries that nearly deafened me. But the sight of it, Kyra! I've

got to paint it!"

For days, then weeks, he worked on the image he had

seen. It consumed him. He had to finish it before he forgot

how it looked, how it felt, what it meant.

Kyra watched him work. At first she saw only dark

outlines, then the dragons appeared, one at a time. And each

of the dragons was more malevolent than the last. There

was danger in the picture. The Highlord and her

dragonarmy soldiers took shape with menacing faces, and

the sky was dark and forbidding. Kyra could feel the cold

wind from the wings of the huge beasts, sense the hot breath

from their snarling jaws, and she knew - all at once - that

the painting had captured the ineffable horror of their

conquerors.

Of course, they couldn't sell the painting. If the

Highlord or any of her soldiers ever saw it, they'd cut off

Seron's hands. Nonetheless, he wasn't sorry that he had

done it. And neither was Kyra. They both hoped that

eventually the dark days would pass, and his picture would

be a valued - and valuable - reminder of this evil time.

More than that, they both hoped it would forever establish

Seron as Krynn's pre-eminent artist.

They kept the bleak masterpiece hidden in a wooden

crate under their bed. However, it soon began to rankle

them both that Seron's greatest work had no audience. What

was the point of having painted the picture if no one ever

saw it?

It was then that they conceived their daring plan to

smuggle the painting to Palanthas where it might be

prominently displayed in a gallery. But they would need

help.

"Let's send word to Tosch," suggested Kyra. "He could

fly here one dark night and take the painting away with

him."

"Do you think Tosch would really do it; would he risk

his life for a painting?"

"We have nothing to lose by asking," she said.

Two days later, the peddler who had bought a Seron

painting of Tosch carried a coded note out of the city and

into the mountain warrens. The note asked their friend to

come to them after sunset during the night when the two

moons were at their smallest. It was a great favor, and they

didn't ask it lightly. And they said as much in the note. If

Tosch felt it was too dangerous, they said, he shouldn't

come; they would understand.

But still they hoped he would glide down to them out

of the dark sky.

The nights passed as slowly as a gnome builds a

machine. The days were even longer. Eventually, though,

the moons went through their glowing phases. It was

almost time.

 

As the sun descended, sending long shadows across a

sad, beleaguered city, Kyra and Seron grew anxious.

Tonight was the night.

"Do you think the note actually reached Tosch?"

wondered Kyra.

"I don't know."

"What if the peddler were intercepted? If the Highlord

deciphered our message - "

Suddenly a loud knock sounded at their door.

Instinctively, they both reached for each other. Neither of

them uttered a word. The worst, it seemed, had happened.

They had been found out.

The pounding on the door continued, matched only by

the pounding of their hearts. Seron took a deep breath and

kissed his wife lightly on the forehead. "Let's try to be

brave," he said in a voice that nonetheless betrayed his fear.

She nodded.

Seron got to his feet and opened the door.

"What did I do, roust you two out of bed?" roared Seron's

brother, Long-Chin Cheb. "What took you so long to open

up? It's not as if you had so far to go to reach the door," he

added, glancing disdainfully at the walls of the tiny hut.

"We . . . we didn't expect to see you," said Seron,

catching his breath. "This is quite a surprise. What brings

you to Flotsam? Is - is anything wrong?"

"Must something be wrong for me to visit my only

family?"

"Seron didn't mean that," piped up Kyra in her

husband's defense. "He's glad to see you, just as I am."

Cheb smiled at his sister-in-law. "That's nice of you to

say. And let me tell you, you're still a pleasure to look at,"

he added. "I've always said, my brother's done an awful lot

of foolish things in his life, but marrying you wasn't one of

them."

To accept the compliment was also to accept the slap at

her husband, and that Kyra would not do. She simply

nodded curtly and offered her brother-in-law a chair at the

table.

He was dressed like a prince, but his clothes looked

better than he did. His face was long and sallow, with deep-

set green eyes that gave him a cadaverous, if mesmerizing,

appearance.

As Cheb strutted through the doorway, Seron nervously

glanced out the window into the deepening twilight. Tosch

would not show himself if he saw a third person in the hut;

they had to get rid of Cheb. Assuming, that is, that Tosch

was actually coming.

"You'll be glad I made this surprise visit," Seron's

brother announced grandly, "when you hear what I have to

say. But first - " he dropped his satchel to the floor and

plopped down into the most comfortable chair in the house -

"pour me some ale, girl."

When she returned with a full mug, he winked and said,

"A barmaid never forgets her craft."

Kyra stepped across the room to stand with her hus band.

"You said you had news," she said coolly.

The older man downed the mug of ale in one long

draught. "Good for what ails you," he said. Then he

laughed. "Hey, I made a joke. 'Good for what ALE'S you.'

Get it?"

"The news?" asked Seron.

"Of course. You must be anxious to hear it. It's

obviously clear," he added gesturing at their home, "that

you're in need of glad tidings. Well," he continued, "one

day, lo and behold, I received a request for twenty paintings

from a wealthy man who wanted to decorate his new home

with an artistic touch. Naturally, he didn't want to pay very

much, but we managed to settle on a fair price. Of course, I

never told him that I had a brother who was a painter. Nor

did I tell him that this brother of mine had a hut overflowing

with his unsold works of art."

"At what price did you propose this sale of my

paintings?" asked Seron.

"Never mind the price," Cheb said with a wave of his

hand. "It isn't important. All you need to know is that I will

take twenty of your paintings - of my choosing - and give

you five percent of everything I make."

Seron physically flinched at his brother's words.

Though he could almost feel the knife wound of betrayal, he

fought his temper and quietly said, "Forgive me if I choose

to ignore this opportunity. I know how you made your

fortune - buying unsold goods at a fraction of their cost in

one city and then selling them at a generous markup

somewhere else. You're entitled to your profits, but five

percent of twenty paintings means I'm giving nineteen away

for free. No, thank you."

"Come now," said Cheb. "Don't be foolish. This is money

in your pocket. Why hesitate? You can't sell this stuff,

anyway. Might as well let me take it off your hands."

Seron was silent. He had turned away to look out the

window, then glanced back at Kyra. "What do you think?"

he asked.

"I say no," she said with firm resolution. "Someday

soon," she added pointedly, following his gaze into the dark

sky, "your paintings - all of them - will be worth a great

deal more."

"You have your answer," said Seron to his brother.

"This is ridiculous," insisted Cheb. "I found a willing

buyer and you turn me down. But I'll be magnanimous. I'll

raise the offer to a full ten percent. Now what do you say?"

"No," Seron answered emphatically. "You'd best be on

your way," he added, afraid that his rage was beginning to

break through his calm exterior.

The two brothers glared at each other. Cheb could not

understand such an empty-headed artist, while Seron knew,

from sad experience, that he could never explain himself to

such a money-hungry man.

"Here, take a candle," offered Kyra. "You can light

one of our torches outside and use it to find your way along

the path."

Seron led the grumbling Cheb to the door. "If you

hurry," he said, "you'll still find a bed at the Sea Master

Inn. Tell the owner that I sent you. He knows me."

Cheb was already out the door, lighting his torch,

when he realized he'd left his satchel in the hut. He rushed

back in with the torch aflame and reached for the bag on

the floor by the chair.

At the same time, Kyra said, "Here, let me help you."

They accidentally collided while both reached for the

satchel, and Cheb lost his balance. Falling over backward,

the torch went flying out of his grasp.

The burning torch landed in the comer of the hut,

right in the middle of Seron's paints. They exploded in a

ball of bright orange flame!

Cheb quickly scrambled to his feet. "Run for your

lives!" he cried. He snatched up his satchel and ran out

the door without ever looking back.

"Get out! Save yourself!" Seron shouted to his wife,

who was trying to drag the heavy wooden crate out from

beneath the bed.

"I'm not leaving without your painting," she cried. The

fire quickly spread far beyond the comer of the hut. Soon,

the bed and all the rest of their furniture were burning.

Two of the walls were aflame, as was part of the roof; a

heavy, deadly smoke filled their one-room home.

Seron grabbed his wife around the waist and hauled

her to her feet. Both of them were coughing, their eyes

were tearing, and their skin was beginning to blister. The

fire snapped at the edges of their clothing as he carried his

wife to the door of the hut and threw her onto the soft grass

outside the door.

But he didn't follow her out into the safety of the night.

Instead, he rushed back into the burning hut, diving to the

floor next to the bed. The wooden crate was beginning to

char, but he knew there was still time; the painting inside

had not yet been damaged. He hauled the crate out from

beneath the bed and lifted it. The door was just a few yards

away. . . .

 

Though the doorway was open, the smoke and flames

were too thick for Kyra to see inside the hut. "Forget the

painting!" she screamed. "Seron! Get out of there! Hurry!"

she begged.

The roof caved in. The hut collapsed. Seron was buried in

an avalanche of fire, and Kyra gave out an anguished cry of

pain that stretched on for minutes. When there was nothing

left inside her, she crumpled to the dew-wet grass.

Kyra didn't move. There was no reason. Much later, in

the darkest hour of the night, a voice whispered in her ear. .

. .

"Am I late?"

At first, Kyra was startled. She lifted her head and saw

Tosch. The familiar sight of the brass dragon set Kyra

crying all over again. He did his best to comfort her,

nestling her frail, shivering frame between his right wing

and his body. But he couldn't see what was so upsetting.

As best she could, she told Tosch what had happened.

Then she wept throughout the rest of the night. Finally, just

before dawn, Kyra fell into an exhausted sleep. The dragon

sighed. The sun would be coming up soon - and he

supposed he had better take her with him. There was

nothing for Kyra here. He lifted her onto his back and then

gently took wing.

 

Tosch watched a female brass dragon sailing in small,

lazy circles overhead. Without thinking, he turned his good

profile in her direction.

"I don't think I ever told you, but I do like Palanthas,"

Kyra announced from her seat on a nearby tree stump.

Tosch nodded absently, glancing down at the blue,

yellow, and orange clothes Kyra was sewing together for

him. "When will my new cape be finished?" he asked.

"I told you it would take six months," she said. "It's

only been four."

"You know only humans count time," he replied with a

shrug of his gigantic shoulders. "Has it really been four

months?"

"I can't quite believe it, either," she said in

an aching, hollow voice.

 

"Ah, you seem so ... lonely, Kyra. Perhaps you

should marry again."

"No!" she said emphatically. A moment later, a sad

smile washed over her face. "I know you mean well," she

said, "but I could never love another man after Seron. We

were best friends as well as lovers. We finished each

other's thoughts, laughed at each other's jokes." She closed

her eyes. "I can't sleep without him. I reach for him at

night," she softly admitted, and then rubbed her eyes open.

"I saw you preening for that female up there," she gestured

with a wan smile on her face, "and my first thought was

that I wanted to tell Seron that you hadn't changed a bit."

"Please don't point," he said, embarrassed. "She'll

know that we're talking about her."

Kyra lowered her hand. "Sorry," she said. "Apology

accepted," he said indulgently. She reached out and

stroked his head the way she used to back in the old days.

He smiled.

Kyra had spent all her waking hours - and many of her

sleeping hours, as well - reliving her life with Seron. Over

and over again, every conversation, every hug, every night

of passion played in her mind. She remembered he had

always wanted her to do something more with her life. He

had said she was capable of doing anything she set her mind

to. The only thing she had set her mind to, though, was

loving him. Shouldn't that have been enough?

He had tried so hard for her. He never brought home a

pocketful of money, but he always brought home kindness,

laughter, and a sweetness of spirit. If he had wanted her to

accomplish more with her life, why couldn't she try to do

that for him now?

She laughed at herself. He would have said, 'Don't do it

for ME, do it for YOU!"

Was it too late now to do it for either of them?

She glanced down at her hands. Tentatively, she

allowed herself to ask the question, If I can do anything I set

my mind to, what should I do?

Her mind was blank.

"So, what do you think of the way I'm wearing my

scales?" asked Tosch, interrupting her reverie.

"What?"

"My scales ... on my back," said the dragon, turning to

give her a better look. "I've forced the edges up just a bit.

Pretty stylish, huh?"

"It looks very modem. You might start a trend."

"You think so?"

"If anyone can," she laughed, "it's you."

"Well, the only way I can start a trend is if I am seen by

everyone," Tosch said thoughtfully. "So I guess I'd better be

on my way."

He flapped his wings and slowly rose off the ground.

"I'll be back soon to pick up my new cape. Bye, now."

She went back to the only trade she knew - serving ale.

She worked long hours at a new tavern where the owner

favored her and the customers appreciated her diligence.

But the years of hard work and scraping by had taken a toll

on her. Now, the younger barmaids had to fend off the

pinches and the propositions, and only the regulars took

notice of the pale, disheveled Kyra. She did not care - she

did not care about much.

 

Six years passed before Tosch returned. Kyra

understood that to a brass dragon, six years was hardly more

than a week; she wasn't angry with him. Besides, in her

great and enduring sadness, there was precious little

happiness. Seeing her old friend was a welcome relief from

her neverending sense of loss.

They sat on a sandy beach at the edge of the bay. She

glanced up and smiled, slightly averting her eyes. It was

self-preservation. Tosch was covered with every

imaginable color of cloth; it nearly blinded her whenever

she tried to gaze at him. He obviously was not interested

in the three-color cape that she had painstakingly made.

"Look," he said, insisting that she focus her eyes on

him, "I've had my teeth chiseled. What do you think?

Good and straight now, right?"

She shielded her eyes and glanced at his mouth.

"Every time I see you, you're different," she said. "I

can hardly remember what you looked like six years

ago."

 

A tear suddenly ran down her cheek. Her chin

trembled.

"Now what's wrong?" asked Tosch, perturbed. "I'm

sorry. It's just that I sometimes forget what Seron used to

look like, too."

The dragon lowered his plummaged head and sighed

with exasperation. "You still think of him?" "I never stop."

"Well, I still can't understand what you saw in him. I

grant you, he was a passable painter, but after all, he had a

wonderful subject. You know," Tosch added, "he was never

very nice to me."

"He liked you very much," Kyra said defiantly. "And I

don't want you to say another bad word about Seron. Not

ever."

"Sorry," apologized Tosch, shrinking just a bit under

her wrath. He thought it wise, just then, to say something

nice about her late husband. "It's too bad he never did a self-

portrait," offered the dragon. "He would

have done a fine job. And then you would have had a

picture of him always."

Kyra nodded sorrowfully. "Listen, let me take you for a

ride," suggested the dragon, trying to change the subject.

"It'll lift your spirits. Where would you like to go?"

"Home," she said sadly. "I'm not very good company

when I'm feeling like this."

 

She lay in bed for hours, unable to keep from crying.

It's been six years, she thought to herself. Why am I still

grieving? Why can't I stop?

The answer was as plain as the tears on her face:

Her love did not die in that fire. Yes, her memory was

fading, but her feelings were as strong as ever.

Finally, late that afternoon, she climbed wearily out of

bed and built a fire in order to make herself a light meal.

Later, after sitting down at her rickety wooden table to eat,

she noticed that her hands were smeared with charcoal.

Without thinking, she absently cleaned her fingers by

etching an image of her husband in charcoal on her faded

white tablecloth.

When she realized what she had done, she stopped and

stared at her work. The picture stared back at her. It wasn't a

very good likeness of Seron, but it was still undeniably him.

More than that, though, while she had been sketching, she

had sensed - for the first time in more than six years - the

peace and security she had felt in her husband's arms.

After all this time, Kyra finally knew what she could do

with her life besides serving ale. Still staring at the sketch,

she whispered, "I'm going to paint you, Seron. I may not be

the artist that you once were, but I'll do my best to be as

good as I can be. I won't settle for less; I can't settle for less,

because it's the only way I can have you close to me."

With paints, brushes, and a canvas bought out of her

meager savings, Kyra started the memory portrait of her

husband that very night. Painting by firelight, she worked

until dawn. Her body ached, her eyes were strained, and she

was thoroughly exhausted. And when the sun came up, she

was also thoroughly disgusted. She hurled the canvas to the

floor, where it landed face down. "Terrible," she muttered.

"He didn't look anything like that."

It was then that Tosch flew to her door, calling out,

"Come look at my new wings!"

Kyra stuck her head out the window and saw gold

sparkles on Tosch's wings, dancing in the dawn light.

"You've outdone yourself," she declared.

"And so have you," Tosch cried happily, seeing the

paint smears on her face. "Are you coloring your body now,

too?"

"No," she sighed wearily. "But I have decided to do

some painting."

"Ooh, let me see. I want to see." Tosch bubbled with

excitement.

"There's nothing for you to look at yet," she explained.

But she knew deep in her heart that even if there had been,

she would not have shown it to anyone, not even Tosch. Her

painting was too private, too personal. Later, when she

improved her craft, when she had captured Seron the way

she remembered him, only then would she let the world see

her work. Not before.

Tosch was disappointed that he couldn't see her

pictures, but the color on her face buoyed him up

nonetheless. "I'll fly you over to the tavern," he offered

cheerfully. "Lets go."

"Not today," she said. "I want to keep working."

Her old friend shrugged and said, "Okay. I'll see you

later."

Tosch did, indeed, see her later . . . fourteen years later.

By then, Kyra was an aging barmaid, working only to earn

enough money to keep her in paints, brushes, and canvas.

She had never stopped painting her beloved Seron.

"Notice anything different?" the dragon said easily, as if

he were just picking up yesterday's conversation.

Kyra was used to it, though, and happily beamed with

joy at his appearance in front of her crumbling shack. "It's

your nose," she said, after looking him over. "It's changed . .

. it's smaller!"

"That's right!" he exclaimed. "I knew you'd notice."

"But what happened to it? It looks, well, sort of pinched

and turned-up."

"Isn't it cute?"

"Well . . ."

"I asked a bunch of gnomes to do it for me. I just had to

have a smaller nose. I don't know exactly what they did.

They built a strange contraption, but I think it worked. Look

at me. Isn't it darling?"

"Can you breathe all right?"

"Not too bad. You do like it, don't you?" he asked,

suddenly concerned that he had made a mistake.

"I'll show you what I think of it," she said. "Lean down

close to me."

The great brass dragon lowered its head close to Kyra,

and she gave him a loving kiss on the nose. "You'll always

be the handsomest, cutest, most adorable dragon to me," she

said.

Tosch blushed, though it was hard to tell against the

multi-colored cape he wore. To hide his embarrassment, he

cleared his throat and asked, "How is your painting coming

along? Can I see your pictures now?"

"I'm sorry," she replied evasively. "They're really not

good enough yet. Someday," she promised.

"Soon?"

A smile creased her worn, but still lovely face. "By

your standards, yes. Soon."

 

* * * * *

 

Highlords came and went. Great cities rose and fell.

Wars were fought, lost, and won. But Tosch, in his

fashion, was ever constant. Throughout the years, he

visited his aging friend, coming to see her eleven years

later, then nine years, then finally twelve years after that.

But during none of those visits, did she ever show him her

paintings.

It was beginning to annoy him. While the dragon was

as young and vibrant as the day he had met Kyra and Seron,

she had reached an age where it seemed she was always

cranky. Especially on his latest visit. He had seen her earlier

in the day and found her to be strangely unimpressed with

his new purple hat. All she wanted to do was get back to her

painting. She said she was finally getting close to achieving

what she'd been after all these years. That was just fine with

him, but why couldn't she pay more attention to his hat?

After all, everyone else thought it was boldly original.

There was no doubt in his mind; he had to talk with her about her

moods. He resolved to go see her that very night.

 

Kyra always felt a sweet melancholy after Tosch's

visits ended; it was only then that she was truly aware of her

loneliness. This time it was no different, but after a hectic

evening of waiting tables she was anxious to pick up her

brushes and paint while she still had some strength.

She had no idea how many pictures she had painted of

Seron; she had long ago forgotten the count. In fact, she had

forgotten many things - but not the face of her husband.

Her husband's image, with all of its sweetness, hung

above her bed.

Seron's likeness, with all of its ambition and drive, hung

in the alcove that she called her studio.

Even where she cooked and ate, his face looked down

upon her with all of its childish charm and humor.

Everywhere there were pictures of Seron. They were

piled one upon another, and hung in every corner of her

shack. She was surrounded by his image. And yet she was

not finished with her work.

Frail and sickly, she had continued to paint. With

eyesight fading, her joints aching, her fingers shaking, she

kept on dabbing at the canvas with her brush, hoping to

finally capture the perfect image of the man she still loved.

On this late night, painting by the light of red coals in a

dying fire, Kyra's breath came in short gasps. She was tired.

But she didn't want to stop - not before she completed her

latest work.

In this picture of Seron, he was lying on a sheet that

was spread out on the grass behind their hut. A pile of

neatly folded laundry was off to the left. There was a look

of longing on his sad-eyed face. He was alone in the picture,

facing forward, with his arms outstretched, reaching.

Was that the way it really was? she wondered.

She gazed at the image of Seron. The sad eyes of her

husband stared back at her. Slowly, just as the red mist on

the Blood Sea would disappear when the sun reached its

zenith, so did the fog lift away from Kyra's memory.

That was exactly how it was. It was Seron in every

detail. His hands, with their long, shapely fingers, his

prominent cheekbones, his jutting chin, the shoulders she so

often lain her head upon - it was all just right.

Or was it?

Kyra's heart began to beat wildly in her chest. Was

there something wrong with the painting? Something

missing? The picture seemed to cry out to her for its final

perfection. But, somehow, she had left something vital

out, and she didn't know what it was.

In that moment, she felt so unworthy of her Seron

that she turned her back to the wet canvas. Except there

was no escaping her husband's sad eyes; he looked down

upon her from every wall.

She lifted her arms to him and wailed, "I wanted all

of Krynn to stand before you and look up lovingly, just

like I did. I wanted them to feel something of what I felt.

But look," she sobbed, her arms sweeping in a

wide arc, "I never captured your love in a single

painting. Not one!"

Kyra fell to her knees and wept with as much anguish

as the night the fire took her husband away from her.

Against a deep crushing pain in her chest, she cried out,

"Did I fail you all these years? Are you

ashamed of me? Oh, Seron, am I even half the woman

you hoped I would be?"

 

When Tosch arrived at Kyra's shack, he called out

to his old friend . . . but he heard no answer. Again he

sang her name out. And again there was silence.

Finally, in exasperation, he roared, "Kyra!" as loudly as

he could.

 

Half the inhabitants of Palanthas were stirred out

of their beds by the frightful sound.

But Kyra didn't answer him.

Tosch had no patience left. He slammed one of his

huge feet against the door and it flew wide open.

The brass dragon's anger instantly turned to pity

when he saw the crumpled form of Kyra lying on the

floor at the foot of a painting.

Tosch let out a deep, mournful sigh. As old

as Kyra was, he never really thought she

would act like just another human and die.

She was always there to tell him how he looked,

to tell him what he should wear - to be his friend. And now

she was gone.

She had died all alone in this old, dilapidated shack.

He peered inside and, for the first time, focused on the

picture that loomed over Kyra's body. Tosch's eyes opened

wide. It was Seron, just the way he used to be. It was a

magnificent likeness that caught every bit of character,

every nuance of emotion, in the long-dead painter's face.

The dragon stuck his head farther inside and saw scores

upon scores of Seron's image. Seron in every imaginable

pose and activity. But Tosch's gaze kept coming back to the

picture on the easel. The paint on that one was still wet. He

knew that this had been Kyra's last, impassioned work.

He had never known, never guessed, what she had been

painting all these years. Even now, staring at the evidence

of Kyra's lifelong devotion to Seron, Tosch could only

shake his head in wonder. He couldn't quite understand how

she could have loved Seron so much. But then again, maybe

he could. After all, didn't he love her in his own way, too?

He felt his wings quivering and he knew he was going

to do a rare thing - he was going to cry. Kyra had meant so

much to him, and he had done so little for her. He felt

suddenly ashamed, realizing that he had been selfish,

always taking. Why didn't he give her gold dust for her

clothes? Why didn't he chisel her teeth, too? He could have

done all sorts of things for her. But he hadn't. And what

could he give her now?

He stared at her limp, cold body and then lifted his gaze

to the painting of Seron. Then he looked a bit closer . . .

Something was missing. The picture didn't seem quite

right. He studied it for a long, quiet moment, trying to

discover what was overlooked.

Ah, I know what it is, Tosch said to himself. It's so

obvious! He spoke a magical incantation and then slapped

his tail against the ground three times.

Kyra was in the picture with Seron. Now it was right.

They were laughing and crying in each other's arms

alive in their art. Within the bounds of the canvas, Seron

and Kyra were living, breathing, loving souls.

Tosch flapped his wings with joy. He had made Kyra

happy. When he turned to fly away, he heard Seron say to

his beloved, "You are ALL the woman I had hoped you

would be."

"Now THAT'S a good painting," said the dragon as he

flew off into the night. "Then again," he mused as he

soared among the clouds, "a little more color wouldn't

have hurt"

 

Hunting Destiny

 

Nick O'Donohoe

 

By daylight, the stag, with an effort of will, appeared to

the knight. The knight's enthusiasm was gratifying, if

anything could please in Darken Wood. The knight even

mentioned Huma's having followed the stag. The stag

moved forward on Prayer's Eye Peak, knowing the knight

and his companions would follow. If it was his destiny to lead, it

was others' to follow him.

But they did not follow immediately. With

one ear he heard the company debating behind him. The half-elf said,

"Though I have not seen the white stag myself, I have been

with one who has and I have followed it, as in the story the

old man told at the Inn of the Last Home."

The stag, turning to look, saw the half-elf fingering a

ring of twisted ivy leaves, presumably because it reminded

him of his former companion who had seen the stag.

Neither half-elf nor ring brought any memory to the stag.

The mage among them, a robed figure with hourglass

eyes, spoke more of the story they had heard, apparently a

few nights ago, at an inn. An old man had told how Huma,

lost in a forest, prayed to Paladine. A white stag had

appeared and led him home. "That I remember," the stag

thought, "but I had thought no other living being did.

Whatever man they met was old indeed, though if he were

older, he would remember it as song, not story." A pang of

regret for simpler days and easier faith swept over the stag,

much as it sweeps over old men for times gone by. He

shook his rack of antlers fiercely and kept listening.

The dwarf with the company snorted, almost like an

animal himself. "You believe old stories? Here's another,

then: Once there was a stag who caused Shadow Wood to

turn to Darken Wood."

Another companion squatted on the trail, his ears

pricked forward. "Nothing like a good story. When was this,

Flint?"

The dwarf scowled at the other - a kender, the stag

remembered now. It had been long since he had seen one.

The dwarf went on, "Before the Cataclysm. And it's not a

good story, not any way at all. The stag chose to betray the

Forestmaster - the ruler of this wood, whoever that is. So he - "

"Why?" the kender interrupted. The stag put his ears

forward, straining to hear.

The dwarf admitted, "I don't know why." The stag

relaxed. "But he wanted to. So he - "

"It doesn't make sense if we don't know why." The

kender clearly enjoyed interrupting.

"Nothing makes sense to you; let me go on. The stag

went to the king who was pledged to guard the wood - "

"Guard it against what?"

The dwarf reached for the kender. "I'll tie back those

foolish ears and make you listen - "

The half-elf stepped between them. "Let him be, Flint.

Tas, let Flint tell his story."

"That's better." The dwarf took a deep breath, as

much to calm himself as to launch the tale. "Why this stag

wanted to betray the Forestmaster, whatever a

Forestmaster is, I don't know. It's an old story, and parts of

it are all muddled by now. The point is, he did betray the

Forestmaster, back in the days when Darken Wood was

only Shadow Wood."

"That's not the point at all," the stag murmured,

knowing he could not be heard. "I've always thought the

why of it more important than the sorrows that followed.

Still, I am glad that the why is forgotten."

The dwarf went on: "There was a human king in the

woods in those days, as well as living soldiers who

guarded the woods. They were pledged to hold the borders

against invaders, or robbers, but especially against the

Dark Army."

"Who?" That was all that the kender said. Flint

swallowed his annoyance. "The Dark Army. An army of

the dead raised by dark clerics. In exchange for the dead

helping the clerics take the wood from the Forestmaster and

make it a fit place for the Queen of Darkness."

All, including the stag, shivered.

"The clerics would cast a spell that made the forest a

place where the dead would live again. That's why the

Forestmaster set guards on the border, to keep the wood

free of evil - but mostly to ward off the Dark Army."

"But the guards failed," the half-elf said softly. Flint

snorted again. "Failed? Failed? They broke their vows. The

stag offered the king and his men a chance to hunt in the

woods - the story's messy there;

I can't tell whether they hunted the stag or something else

- and the king leaped at it. He was rebellious, or

untrustworthy, or wanted some time away from his job.

That's another missing detail. Anyway, the king and his

men left their posts at the edge of Shadow Wood, for only

one day."

"But that was time enough." The knight who had first

seen the stag sounded grim. Clearly, the stag thought, this

one took oaths seriously. The stag shifted from hoof to hoof

uncomfortably.

The dwarf went on, "Time enough and more. While

King Whoever and his oath-breaking guards hunted, the

clerics led the dead into Shadow Wood. Once inside, the

dead formed a circle, and inside it the dark clerics did

something, it has a name like the Song of Dead Land or the

Chant - "

The hooded mage in the company said abruptly, "The

Curse of Carrion Land. If it is spoken over a place, all

shadows deepen into darkness, and all the buried dead rise

again." He smiled at his own knowledge. "It's quite easy to

do, once you are inside the borders of a land."

After an uncomfortable silence, Flint said, "Right. And

then the dead hunted down the traitor king and his men as if

they were animals, and killed them and buried them.

"But the dark clerics had made a mistake. The Dark

Army hadn't been buried in Shadow Wood, which was now

Darken Wood, but the traitor king and his men had been. So

at sunset of the first day, the Dark Army died again, this

time for good. And that night the buried king and his men

rose again and chased the clerics out." Flint looked around

uneasily. "But the Curse of Carrion Land stayed. That's why

Darken Wood is evil. And every night, the traitor king and

his men go hunting, with no rest for them until they redeem

their pledge somehow."

The kender sighed loudly in the silence, making the

company jump. "But what about the stag? And doesn't the

story have an end?"

Forget the stag, the listening animal thought. And no:

there is no end. There will never be an end.

"The stag. Right." The dwarf thought a moment.

"There was something - "

The listening stag was relieved when the dwarf

admitted, "I don't know exactly what happened to the stag.

He died, too, and he had some kind of punishment for his

betrayal. He and the king are tied together, but the story is

all twisted up by now; in some versions the king and his

men hunt the stag, in some they hunt a unicorn, and in some

they hunt the Forest-master, whatever the Forestmaster is.

But I know that the stag is like the king; he's punished every

night for being a traitor. He has to repeat the betrayal over

and over, and he and the king can break out of it only if they

fulfill their vows of service and loyalty to the Forestmaster.

Only they can't. Somebody else is pledged to guard Darken

Wood now, and the story says that the stag is too proud or

angry or something to renew his vow of service. So there

isn't an end. Yet," he finished uncertainly.

"Not a good story," the kender said firmly. "I've heard

better."

"So have I," Flint said. "The point is, which kind of stag

are we following? The one Huma saw, or the traitor in

Darken Wood?"

The stag barely listened to the argument. "Perhaps," he

said to himself, "they are the same stag, servant and

betrayer. Have any of these fools considered that?" He was

relieved when the company, done debating his past and

intentions, chose to follow him. He led silently,

thoughtfully.

By night he watched the company discuss with the king

of the dead. "They are greatly afraid," the stag observed.

"That must please the very-late King Peris no end."

Later still, the stag watched them mount on centaurs,

who were the Forestmaster's pledged guards, and ride to the

Central Glade. Two centaurs remained behind, guarding the

way. The stag, freed of his duties as guide, was about to

follow the riding company when he heard one of the

sentries sing, in a rough and uncouth voice:

 

THERE WAS A PROUD AND NOBLE STAG,

IN SHADOW WOOD WAS BORN,

AND THERE HE GREW, AND THERE HE MET

AND LOVED A UNICORN.

 

The stag froze, listening.

"There now," the sentry said to his companion with

satisfaction, "years it's been since I've sung that, but I can

still put it to the tune."

The other centaur answered dubiously, "It rubs against

the tune, some places. Are the words right? I wouldn't

know, it being new to me."

"New?" the first one questioned. "New? Why, that's the

oldest song I know. It was old when our folk fled to the

wood, in the time - what's the name? When the seas shook

and rocks charged downhill like wild beasts - "

"Cataclysm," the other said.

"Cataclysm," the singer said carefully. "Right. And

that's when we were pledged to guard this place. The

Forestmaster, she had no living guard then, her own guards

being dead and a lot of traitors."

"Traitors? Why?" the other asked.

The stag held his breath, thinking quietly, "Let them

not remember. Let it be lost in time. If I know, and if she

knows - and if the king knows - that is more than enough."

The first centaur slapped his own bristly side.

"Why? The song tells why. Let me see if I can put

more

of it in mind. Somewhat about the stag serving the

unicorn - "

 

He sang more hesitantly:

 

HE SERVED HER LONG, HE SERVED HER WELL,

HE SERVED HER, WHOLE AND PART

UNTIL ONE NIGHT IN SHADOW GLADE

HE TOLD HER ALL HIS HEART.

 

The other said firmly, "If this song turns filthy, I'll

hear none of it."

"No, no. She turns him down. 'She did not laugh - ' No,

that's not it. 'She told him no' - I have the matter of it there,

but not the music."

The centaur guards moved off on their rounds. The

stag remained, then sang softly, to himself:

 

SHE DID NOT MOCK, SHE DID NOT LAUGH,

BUT SOFTLY TOLD HIM NAY;

HE DID NOT GRIEVE, BUT CHOSE TO LEAVE

AND PLOTTED TO BETRAY.

 

HE SOUGHT OUT THEN KING PERIS'S MEN;

HIS WORDS WERE COLD AND BLUNT,

"OH, SENTRY HOSTS, DESERT YOUR POSTS:

I OFFER YOU A HUNT."

 

The stag stopped and said bitterly, "Ill-rhymed, ill-

metered common trash. The song about my leading Huma is

doubtless long gone, but this wretched lyric - " His own ears

pricked up at the rancor in his voice, and he bounded after

the riding company.

He watched them look up at the rock and stare in awe at

the Forestmaster. The stag, remembering his own first

meeting with the Forestmaster, nursed his dark heart and

said nothing as the unicorn met the companions, fed them,

advised them.

Finally they were away, born aloft by pegasi. The stag

looked at the ridiculous bipeds, particularly the dwarf, and

felt contempt for the vileness of the winged horses'

servitude. (Cloven-hooved animals feel naturally superior to

those with unsplit hooves: the horses, the centaurs, even the

pegasi.) "How typical," the stag said to himself, "that they

would degrade themselves in that obedience, as close to the

stars as they are."

Even after a long and often painful history, the stag was

quite sensitive of his honor.

He entered the glade and called, as much command as

request: "Master."

"I am here." The unicorn had returned to the rock

above the glade.

Forestmaster and stag stood poised, as though pausing

before re-entering an old ritual. Each knew what the other

would say.

Still they looked, as though they could not help

themselves. The stag stood proud and erect, as though

posing for a statue. Every hard muscle and taut sinew, every

sharp line of limb and deadly point of antler, was etched in

shadows. As with all shadows in Darken Wood, they

seemed deep and full of death.

The Forestmaster herself seemed all light, as though

the curse that held the Wood could never touch her. Her

mane shone and half-floated, and the arch and curve of her

neck seemed to draw all the way down her flanks and stop

only at the ground. Only her eyes were dark, and those not

the tainted shadows of Darken Wood but the liquid

blackness of a wild thing's eyes, pure and powerful nature.

The stag spoke first. "I have served you this night."

"I know."

"Did I not serve you well?"

"You did."

"Have I not always served you well?"

"You have often served me well"

The stag seemed not to notice the distinction. "And I

have asked little in return."

"It was service freely given, gladly accepted." She

stared down at him, her horn pointing into the night. "You

have more to ask now."

"No. More to offer."

"It is the same thing."

That nearly silenced him. Finally, however, he went on:

"I offer my love. I give it freely, generously; since

there is none like me, a gift without parallel." "I know."

After a silence, the stag finished angrily, "Yet you

refuse."

"I must." The Forestmaster broke the feeling of ritual

by saying, "Humans say of my kind that only a virgin may

catch me."

"It is an old legend. That is not why you refuse me."

"It is old, and it is exactly why." She spoke less firmly,

more sadly. "And like most old legends, it is twisted and

half true. It is not the humans who must be chaste. To be

who I am, to serve whom I must - "

"Enough," the stag said harshly. "Noble vows aside,

you have refused my love."

The Forestmaster stared into his death-laden, proud

eyes and closed her own. "I have."

"Why?" The word came out hard and sharp, as fresh

and painful as it had been the first time it was spoken.

"Why, when I have told you my own weakness and

admitted that I love you?" For a moment the stag's proud

pose was gone, and he looked almost alive in his hurt and

desire.

The Forestmaster said quietly, "Because I must."

The stag had regained his poise. "Because you choose.

That choice is not without consequence."

"For you? For myself?"

"For both. How do you dare refuse me?" He tried to

sound dignified, arrogant. His voice barely shook.

"I have refused others."

"None like me. There are none like me."

"And that, you feel, obliges me to yield the needs of a

world to you. Go then." She added, "But know I never

wished you to."

He snorted, derisive even in a deer. "Naturally not.

Service without debt is more pleasant than solitude."

As the Forestmaster watched him stride off, she

murmured, "Anything is more pleasant than solitude." He

did not hear her.

"One thing more." He turned back to her, and she bent

her head to listen. "You said something about destiny to the

strangers."

She nodded, her mane rippling. "I said it to the warrior,

though I was thinking of the knight. 'We do not mourn the

loss of those who die fulfilling their destinies.' "

"Coldly put. Whom do you mourn? Those who die

unfulfilled? Those with no destinies at all?"

"All have destinies." She looked up at the sky. From

where he watched, her horn drew a line from him to the

north star. "As all have stars. As you have a star."

"What of those who refuse their own star and would

choose another?"

She held the point of her horn unwavering. "Stars last.

We do not. Refuse it as long as you must; it will still wait

for you."

"But I may refuse it as long as I wish."

When she did not respond, he said, "If I cannot shape

my own destiny, I still refuse the destiny shaped for me.

Farewell - again."

He barely heard her say, "I know - again." He

wondered if she were mourning.

Near dawn the stag came to a dark and cheerless spot.

When he arrived at the point near which the sedge was

withered from the lake and no birds sang, he gazed around.

Ahead of him a shadowy spirit in armor stood, waving

his sword restlessly among the weeds. He bent forward, his

lips moving in curses too old to mean much to any but the

stag.

The king jerked upright, startled, as the stag sang

loudly:

 

KING PERIS'S MEN WERE DUTY BOUND,

TO GUARD THE WOOD FROM FEAR.

THE KING, IN PRIDE, SET SWORD ASIDE,

TO BARGAIN WITH THE DEER.

 

King Peris responded, waving his sword in time to the

music:

 

"THERE IS NO HUNT FOR ME," SAID HE,

OF ANY CREATURE BORN,

UNLESS I COULD IN SHADOW WOOD

HUNT DOWN THE UNICORN."

 

After a moment's hesitation, the stag responded:

 

"NONE KNOWS SO WELL WHERE SHE MAY DWELL

AS I WHO DID HER WILL,

IF YOU WILL HEED, THEN I WILL LEAD,

AND YOU MAY HAVE YOUR KILL."

 

The king resumed his search in the weeds. "Imagine

hearing that old thing again, clumsy meter and all. What

made you think of it?"

The stag made no move to help the king. "I heard parts

of it being sung last night."

"Well, well. Folk art endures amazingly, wouldn't you

say? I wouldn't have thought anyone alive would remember

it." He looked sharply at the stag. "It was, I assume,

someone alive."

"It was. One of the centaurs - you remember them;

they replaced you as guardians? - still knows some of the

song. But you shouldn't be surprised; scandal always

outlives honor"

"True. For example, look at us - though we can hardly

be said to be outliving anything."

Presently the spirit grunted in satisfaction and raised a

timeworn crown on his sword-point. He put it on with a

bony hand, adjusting it carefully and standing straight. For

barely a moment he looked like some mockery of a real

monarch.

The stag said deliberately, "Long live the king."

"The king lived long enough." The dead king sat a

moment, looking much like a tired man, for the dead who

may not rest know more weariness than any of us. "Tell me,

did you see anyone this night?"

"You know I did. A knight, a mage, a half-elf, assorted

two-legged shortlings. They are important to you?"

"They are important, I think." The king said absently,

"You seem curious. I had thought you indifferent to

everything."

"To everything beneath me, which is much of the

world. And you, great and loyal Peris?"

"Much the same. Of course, more is beneath a dead

king"

The stag said drily, "Long though we have endured, our

standards are still better preserved than we are. May they

last forever. What is their importance?"

"The standards?"

"Their importance is self-evident, or it is none. I mean

the strangers; how are they important?" "To the future of

our wood and world."

"Ah. Politics." The stag nodded wisely. "I try to avoid

politics."

"I understand completely," the king said casually. "I

tried to avoid politics - once."

"A question of permission to enter, and of forced

entry, wasn't it?"

"It was." He added with uncustomary frankness, "A

question of entry by evil, and into these woods - which at

that time were not called Darken. Perhaps you remember

the stanzas - "

"I do." The stag sang, a little too eagerly for the king's

liking:

 

BUT ONE LONE GUARD FOREWARNED THE KING:

"THIS HUNT IS EVIL-STARRED;

FOR THOSE WITH ARMS AND POTENT CHARMS

AGAINST WHOM WE MUST GUARD

 

NO MORE WILL WAIT WITH EYES OF HATE

AND SOULS AND HEARTS OF GALL,

BUT PURGE THE WOOD OF LIGHT AND GOOD,

AND GODS FORGIVE US ALL."

 

He looked expectantly at King Peris, who sighed

hollowly and sang with as full a voice as a spirit could

muster:

 

STILL PERIS BOASTS, "STEP DOWN, MY HOSTS,

AND HEAR THE HUNTING-HORN,

LET MEN INVADE BOTH WOOD AND GLADE,

WE HUNT THE UNICORN."

 

He lowered his sword, which he had raised for emphasis.

"It wasn't that way at all, of course. And it wasn't rebellion,

or wilful treason, or any of those things. My men were

bored; I was bored. A hint or two from their commanding

officer - " he made a mock bow" - was all it took." He

looked around himself. "Imagine thinking anything in a

short life and a merry one could be boring. I threw away a

kingdom for a day's amusement and an afterlife of painful

tedium."

"I am surprised to hear you admit it."

"I am surprised also. Perhaps something is troubling

me. Let us change the subject."

"I shall. Did you speak to any of the strangers?" As the

king shook his head, the stag nodded, "For I thought I saw

one address you."

"Ah. That one was a mage. He spoke first." The king

looked as though he had never even tried to evade

answering.

"What did he say to you? I could not hear."

King Peris said with difficulty, "He knew that we were

the spirits of men who had failed a pledge, that we were

doomed to perform that same task endlessly until we

somehow earned final peace."

"Knowledgeable man."

"Mages often are. I think he meant to remind me that I

could earn final peace."

"And what did you say to him of your present state, 0

King? For if I may be truthful, you do not appear in full

majesty. Empty majesty is more like it."

"I told him that we were called to fulfill our oath, one

day."

"When you say we," the stag said carefully, "I assume

that you meant 'my men and I.' "

"I was not specific. I did not mention you by name, but

that does not mean he did not know you also were called to

fulfill your oath."

"Did you tell him," the stag inquired, "How long it

has been since we first heard that call?"

The king shifted, a move of discomfort in the living.

"Discussing these things is not easy. Have you no

understanding of how shameful it feels to rehearse a

long-broken pledge?"

"I have more feelings than I commonly show. Let us

change the subject."

"I shall. Something troubles you."

"Of course. I am in love." Even now the admission

came hard.

"That is always trouble. Unrequited, I assume."

"Strangely, yes. Can you imagine my love not being

returned?"

"By now, it is easier to imagine than it once was; habit

and repetition make all realities seem more real." Seeing

the stag tense, the king added hastily, "But because it was

true long ago, and for your feelings now, let us say it

seems unimaginable."

"It does." The stag tossed his head. "I will, of course,

want revenge for my hurt feelings."

"Feelings?" The king struck one shadowy arm with

another. The blow left no mark, and the king's expression

did not change. "You can still speak of feelings?"

"I can." The stag looked away. "I prefer to speak of

them, though I still have them."

"Time changes feelings. Time may change all things,

even us."

"Time has not changed what we do, nightly." The stag

turned his head, briefly, to look at the north star. "I do not

think it can change what I am, nor will it change what I do.

I choose, again, to betray the one whom I - the one whom I

should obey."

"Another might not so choose. Even you, after some

consideration, might not."

When the stag did not respond, the king continued, "Tell

me, though you have told me often before: is this a lover

one could betray to hunters?" "One could. Does that

surprise you?" "No more than it surprises me that you

would." Without warning the stag lashed out at a sapling

with one of his front hooves. The kick left a sharp imprint

in the wood. "How could she have refused me? How can

she refuse me?" He kicked again, splintering the small tree.

"How DARE she refuse me?"

He stood trembling with anger, then mastered himself.

"Excuse me," he said to the king. "I'm not myself today."

The king said heavily, "I rather fear that even after ages

of punishment, you are still yourself."

"Perhaps you are right. Still, I like to think I would not

burst out so, except that I had rather a long night last night."

Peris nodded. "Your feelings have always been hard to

contain; long ages of irony and veiled illusion cannot hide

them. As for your night, all of our nights are long." He

added more slowly, "I have news that may interest you. A

second band of strangers, seeking to kill the first, has

entered Darken Wood. They are on the same path as the

first were."

"And no sentries have stopped them? History repeats

itself."

"It does, as we do. I am inclined to make an end to

repetition."

The stag paid no attention to the king's last remark. "If

these strangers are not invaders, might they be hunters?" the

stag asked indifferently.

"Hunters of men and of other bipeds. They might be

lured to other hunts." He added, "And as for invading, this

band, too, is politically important, though they are - " he

hesitated.

"Yes?"

"Evil. One would not have thought more evil could

be done to Darken Wood, but apparently so."

"After what you have received at the hands of

Darken Wood, does that disturb you?"

"It should," Peris said with assumed indifference. He

gave up the pose. "It does. The peace of a world is more

important than my petty grievances."

The stag pointed out, "Once, long ago, the fate of a

wood wasn't."

"Now it is."

The stag was too stunned to respond. The king added,

"I am no longer the sworn guard of Darken Wood,

but I choose to return to my post. I will not hunt you this

night."

"You have hunted at my request - have hunted me, as

my punishment - every night for - " The stag

stopped. How, in this endless cycle, could he measure

time?

The king nodded. "Granted. But a king may change his

mind. Once you have seen these strangers, you will

understand."

"Will I? You seem sure of that; what are these

strangers like?"

The king hesitated. "Complete strangers, let us say."

He said nothing more. "Go see them. Perhaps they will

change their mind."

"Or perhaps they will hunt at my request." The king said

simply, with more emotion than he

had shown before, "Look on them for yourself, and

think what they mean. The hunt must end." "The hunt

will end when I choose it - which means

that the hunt will never end," the stag finished bitterly,

"oh, great and loyal king."

King Peris dropped his hands silently. "Then go and ask

them if they will hunt you. Let them slay you, let them

listen to the same bitter words, the same old pain, over and

over. I also can choose - and I choose never to hunt again. If

you have ever loved these woods, this world - if you have

ever loved at all - see what these strangers mean for our

world, and choose to break the cycle." He fell silent again.

The stag ruminated - as befits a thoughtful ruminant.

Finally he said, "Evidently, you have business with those

who enter Darken Wood. Might you be persuaded to leave

that business - "

" - for a later time? Yes. After all, as you point out, I

have left my post before; I could postpone returning to it for

a while. At my time of life - " he gave a grisly and

meaningless smile - "one day or night is as good as the

next."

"I gather you find it easy to postpone duty. A matter of

habit, perhaps?"

The king scratched his ghostly beard with a ghostly

finger. "Or else I am betraying my current habits. One is

inclined to hope that you, too, could betray your current

habits, as easily as you once, and ever thereafter, betrayed

the For - "

"Now who is tactless?"

"Granted. You will consider all that I said? You may

still choose - "

"I may. I will consider." The stag bounded off, knowing

he did not need to agree on a later meeting-place with the

dead king. Some meetings are all but foreordained.

 

Near the edge of the wood, the trail stopped abruptly,

leaving only brush and a dense wall of plants. On the

outside were false vallenwood, which looked like the great

trees but grew no taller than a dwarf, some berry bushes,

thorned and unthorned, and bright wildflowers.

On the inside were stands of twisted nightroot, the bane

of all animal life; guantvine, dense enough to bind the

unwary; and Paladine's Tears, the tiny blue flowers that

grew and wove into an upright mat between tree trunks.

Though the wall kept curious folk out, the stag knew how

many reckless souls it had kept in.

As he watched, the brush swayed and shivered under

the pressure of hands.

Hands - of a sort. The stag stared at the first clawed

fingers that emerged, waving in the air blindly to push

more branches aside, finding none. The scaled man-thing

that followed them out, blinking, into the sunlight stretched

batlike wings in the open space.

"Kin to dragons." There was no question in the stag's

mind, though the stag had never seen these creatures before.

He knew also how few would know that:

if the stag's appearance to Huma was barely legend now,

the dragons were less than that.

More armored figures followed the first. The stag

backed a few steps, more for his world than for himself.

There were only a few creatures, if ugly ones, but their

presence in this wood, in this world, meant unthinkable

things.

He shook himself and murmured aloud, "The Royal

Peris has a gift for understatement. 'Strangers' indeed." He

tensed his muscles for flight, but stepped forward. "I greet

you."

Nothing happened. The dragon-men stared in all

directions, unhearing and unseeing.

He concentrated and said more loudly, "I greet you."

The leader leapt into the air, his wings holding him aloft

a moment. Where the pegasi in flight looked graceful, this

thing looked foul as it sank back, half-rejected by ground

and air alike.

It watched the stag suspiciously. "Where did you come

from?"

The stag shuddered at the hollow, awkward voice that

sounded like a dried man, but he answered it bravely. "From

Darken Wood, where you are. Where have you come

from?"

The dragon-thing ignored the question. "Darken

Wood?" He held his sword at guard. "This is an evil place."

He lisped slightly.

The stag wondered, none too happily, if the thing's

tongue were forked.

"Evil only to those who bring evil with them." He

added to the ritual response, "Many have. They do not leave

again." He thought, briefly, of King Peris, of the

Forestmaster, and of betrayal. "But there is much to be

gained here, as well as risk."

"Name the gain." The dragon-man signaled behind

him. The arriving troops moved to the very edges of the

trail, not beyond, and formed twin lines, guarding each

others' backs without a word. They were well-trained for

war.

The stag considered what that meant, but went ahead.

"There is one who watches over this wood." He hesitated,

then amended, "Who rules this wood. All in it, living and . .

. human and animal, serve her." He took a deep breath and

finished, "To take this wood, it is only needed to slay her."

Treachery neither surprised nor impressed the dragon-

man. "And she is?"

"The Forestmaster. The ruler here. A white unicorn."

Several of the company hissed involuntarily. The

leader started. "A unicorn? You suggest a blood-force of

draconians could - "

"Hunt her and slay her, yes." The stag added drily, "It

appears the moral requirements for such a hunt were

exaggerated. That seems sensible, since there is no

morality to such a hunt." He added more plainly, "You

need not be virgins."

The dragon-man waved a claw. "We have no capacity

for desire." He made a face that could have been a smile.

"Or for love."

"You are happier than you know," the stag said,

mainly to himself. Aloud he repeated, "I have offered you

a unicorn hunt. Will you take my offer?"

The dragon-man considered. "How would we find

her?"

"You would not. I would, and you would follow. For

the rest - " The stag shrugged, his shoulders rippling the

motion up his well-muscled neck. "Surely you need not ask

me how to hunt and slay animals." An old ache reminded

him what this betrayal meant, to the lover as well as to the

loved. For one moment he had a vision of those teeth, those

claws, tearing at the shadowless white flesh of the

Forestmaster.

The dragon - draconian - had not moved for some time.

"We would do this for conquest, as well as for reasons we

will not share." He smiled, after his kind, with a great many

teeth. "Why would you do this?"

"For reasons I will not share." He finished more softly.

"For reasons which, apparently, would mean little to you."

More and more, the stag was wondering why scorned love

and thwarted desire meant much to himself. "I was not

aware that soldiers needed excuses, or perhaps you do not

feel up to your quarry."

The draconian answered without anger, "Look in

our faces. We could hunt any creature alive to its death."

"I see. And beyond?" the stag asked politely, but the

joke was lost on them. "Follow, then. Not too closely."

As he turned and bounded away, he heard a single

command, a word or a language he did not know. Once

again he was afraid - for his world, and not for himself.

"Perhaps I grow sentimental. Next I will write bad

songs and carry noisy bipeds on my back," he said aloud.

But the joke was flat, and he realized that sarcasm and self-

parody could no longer protect him from his own feelings.

Behind him he heard the rasp of strange and wicked claws,

tearing at the wood that was his whole world.

 

He was more than halfway to the clearing when bulky

shapes, half-hidden in leaves, blocked his way. He froze in

place, hoping the draconians behind him would do the

same.

A voice called, "Halt."

"Remarkably alert," the stag observed, "if unnecessary."

"Don't be giving rudeness to those who keep faith." The

deep voice, unbothered at the stag's sarcasm, went on,

"Where does tha go?"

"I have an errand." He spoke coldly, hoping the sentry

would take offense and turn away. "Is it habitual in this

wood to question duty?"

"Not my habit, nor that of my kind." The figure

emerged from the undergrowth. It was, as he had known

from the size and voice, a centaur.

Nonetheless, he peered at it curiously.

"Ah," he said as if in recognition. "A draft human. Tell

me, how is life in harness?"

The centaur regarded him, as always, with the easy

contempt that the hooved and human show the merely

human or the merely hooved.

"We are not in harness but in service - as others should

be," the centaur said heavily. He tossed his head restlessly.

"I have heard rumors and smelled scents this day, as well.

Are more strangers in Darken Wood?"

The stag would not look in the centaur's large, dark

eyes. "Perhaps you smell the strangers from last night. Is

there any reason that their smell would cling to you?"

"We bore them on our backs," he said with dignity.

"As all in this wood know. Are more strangers in Darken

Wood?" he repeated.

"Why ask me? Surely you think you know more than I;

your breed studies stars as well as any beast of burden

could."

"Mockery. It's all tha has." He snorted, horselike. "Try

to hide the truth from us both, if tha wishes. I study little,

but I know stars. These past nights they tell of battle, and of

life and death for a stag. It's a' there - for them as looks

close." He added, "Maybe tha has not seen these strangers -

but tha will." He turned to go.

The stag watched him. "I have a retort," he called,

"timed and well framed, laden with irony and literary

allusion - but I refuse to favor you with it. I have my

dignity."

The centaur said nothing, and in the stag's heart he

knew that was the best retort of all. The centaur waited a

moment longer, then went his way.

A moment later the lead draconian appeared, sword

ready, behind the stag. "He is gone?"

"He is." The stag was looking where the centaur had

been, thinking hard. He tried to imagine the centaurs dead

and defeated, bleeding as the wood fell again to strangers.

He could not imagine that any centaurs would run, or

would turn traitor, or would think at all of themselves.

"Then we remain undiscovered."

The stag thought over the centaur's words. "Let us say

you remain unseen. Remain so a while longer, by moving

behind me again."

The draconian looked at the stag without love and

withdrew. The stag moved slowly, thoughtfully, toward the

center of Darken Wood.

He caught himself humming. "It's that damned song,"

he muttered. "Crude and folkish, but the tune sticks in the

mind."

Actually, it was the words which stuck in his mind. He

found himself singing, half-unwillingly:

 

THE STAG LED ON FROM NIGHT TO DAWN,

FROM SUNRISE INTO MORN,

AND IN THE SHADE OF SHADOW GLADE

BETRAYED THE UNICORN.

 

SHE SPOKE TO HIM; HER VOICE WAS GRIM:

"WHAT HAVE YOU DONE FOR PRIDE?

YOU KNOW AND SEE YOUR DESTINY

AND YET YOU TURN ASIDE.

 

YOU WOULD BETRAY ME TO MY DEATH

AND QUITE FORSAKE YOUR VOW?

THEN SERVICE LENT WITHOUT CONSENT

IS ALL YOU DO ME NOW."

 

SHE TOUCHED HIM ONCE, SHE TOUCHED HIM TWICE,

AND THREE TIMES WITH HER HORN;

AND THERE HE FELL, AND WHERE HE FELL,

HE ROSE A UNICORN.

 

He heard reptilian muttering behind him and stopped

singing. If those behind him were truly to kill the

Forestmaster, all music here - perhaps, eventually, all the

music in the world - would cease, and all for the stag's petty

revenge.

A winged shadow drifted overhead. He ducked

automatically, but it was only one of the pegasi, cir cling

and diving above the wood.

The stag could picture something larger, something

with wings like the draconians', stooping onto the pegasi.

He could hear them shrieking, flapping frantically,

tumbling from the sky -

"Not them," he murmured. "Not by my doing, surely.

But what can I do against these invaders?"

And a moment later, he thought, startled, "And could

I give up my revenge, my vengeance for being scorned,

after treasuring it for so long? In this cycle of sorrow,

vengeance is all that sustains me."

It was something to consider on a long walk.

 

At mid-day the stag entered the Central Glade alone,

well ahead of the draconians. "Master!" The woods took

his cry in, draining it, not echoing.

"I am here," came the voice from the rock softly. "I

am always here." The woods echoed ALWAYS.

"I have a question."

"You have often had questions. You may ask."

"There are many and diverse beings who l-live - " he

stumbled over the word " - inhabit this wood. Some

hooved, some human, some both; some living, some dead,

some a mix of living and dead."

"That much is true." She waited.

"How do they think of me? Do they think of me as

one of them?" The loneliness in his own voice startled

him.

"You are regarded differently by different beings. Do

you wish to be thought one of them?"

The stag thought of those he knew and taunted, then

thought of the draconians. "I had not thought so. But

recently I discovered a threat which I do not want to harm

creatures here, as though they were mine and I cared for

them."

"Then by that care, they are yours and you theirs. Does

that please you?"

After a long silence, the stag said quietly, "I had not

thought it would."

"I am glad." The Forestmaster added, "But that is not

why you came, this night, as you have come all the others."

"True." The stag came forward to the rock. "I have

come to you a final time. Will you not have me?"

"In service, yes. In love, no." She leapt from the rocks,

landing in a cascade of light like stars, even by day. Like

the king, like the stag himself, she did not seem surprised by

events.

But she was astonished when the stag bent his forelegs

and knelt awkwardly in the dust before her. He swayed,

unaccustomed to kneeling. "Then I will serve you, a final

time. This last thing I do of my own choosing."

The unicorn stared at his lowered head. "May I ask

why?"

The stag answered, not moving. "Do not think me

inconstant."

"That is the last thing I would think you."

"Good. All that I felt, all that I wish for and desire - "

his voice wavered" - are unchanged. But in all the endless

times that I have left here, returned here, betrayed here, I

never saw the simplest reality of this place: That the wood

is larger than I am. It is larger than my need. In the end, it

will be larger, and last longer, than even my love could. I

offer that love, to it and you, freely and without asking in

return - since without asking, you and the wood itself and

all in it have always given what you could. I offer my

service, and," he finished humbly, "I hope it is well done

enough to be of use."

The unicorn looked at him for a long time, seeing every

detail of him, every hair and horn and eyelash. At last she

said gently, "Most well done, beloved. And remember that I

have only said that I COULD not love you - never that I

DID not. Go with the hunt."

She touched his forehead with her horn three times.

He fell sideways, legs jerking and twitching. Terrible

cries came from him, most loudly when the antlers broke

off. His coat grew paler with each moment, and where the

Forestmaster had touched him a single spiral horn emerged,

blood-tipped, pulling itself through his splintered forehead.

When the draconians emerged, they saw a rock peak

and only one unicorn, tottering unsteadily on its hooves.

With shouts of triumph they leaped into the air, gliding in

pursuit of the unicorn, with their swords swinging and their

fanged mouths wide.

The stag moved, stumblingly at first, into Darken

Wood. One by one the draconians alit and stalked him on

foot.

Through the long afternoon, the stag learned again the

old lesson: some hunters one may outrun, but not outlast.

Whenever he entered the slightest clearing, the draconians

covered more ground than he, gaining rest from the time

spent gliding. He wondered if they could fly at all, but soon

he was too tired to wonder. While he stayed in the densest

forest they could not fly, but he could not run easily, either.

Moreover, in the forest he had to break his own trail, but

they could follow in the way he left behind;

he was doing their trailbreaking as well as his own. If he

stopped to rest even a moment, he heard the snap of brush

and swish of branches closer behind him than they had been

when last he rested.

"I would not," he observed to himself as he raced after

one such pause, "have thought they could be so patient. It is

like being pursued by the dead, as I above all have cause to

know."

They had swords and daggers, and perhaps other

weapons as well, but the animal in the stag thought most of

those pointed teeth, the cold eyes, the hissing breath. He had

been pursued - how many times? - for sport, for the

challenge, even for his antlers or for a vow, but being

chased as meat -

His heart went sick within him and pounded every beat

as hard as his hooves pounded the rock-strewn ground.

Behind him came the cold cries of the hunting

draconians. To the rhythm of his own rock-chipped hooves,

he could not choose but hear the darkest verse of the song

touching on himself and on King Peris:

 

THE GUARDS HAVE FLED; THEIR TRUSTING LAND

ALL UNDEFENDED LIES;

AND THROUGH THE WOOD INVADERS RIDE

WITH DARKNESS IN THEIR EYES.

 

WITHOUT ALARMS THEY PRACTICE CHARMS

THAT DRIVE AWAY THAT LIGHT

AND SHADOW INTO DARKEN WOOD

IS MADE THAT EVIL NIGHT.

 

AND AFTERWARD, WITH SWORD AND SPEAR

AND HORSE AND HORN AND HOUND

THEY HUNTED DOWN KING PERIS'S MEN

AND RAN THEM ALL TO GROUND.

 

THE KING WAS SLAIN, HIS BODY LAIN

AMONG HIS DYING MEN,

BUT THEY WERE TOLD ERE THEY WERE COLD

TO RISE AND HUNT AGAIN.

 

He ran over the green and sunlit hill called Huma's

Breast, and found no peace there. Within sight of Prayer's

Eye Peak he raced along the river called Night, and took no

sleep by it.

He passed the Vale of Sorrow. He passed the Cliffs of

Anger. He passed the Slough of Betrayal. Always the

draconians grew closer.

"I had not thought Darken Wood so large," he thought

once. "Surely I should never have chided the king for a

single lapse in guarding so large a trust." He thought

briefly of all the scorn he had shown the king, and more

fleetingly of how he had originally tempted the king into

betraying his trust, but there was little time for apology.

Twice, in the late afternoon, they encircled him and

began closing. The first time, he leaped contemptuously

over a startled draconian, in full view of the company. The

soldier jerked his sword upright hastily, but barely managed

to leave a furrow along the stag's flank.

"A scratch, nothing more," he told himself as he limped

away. He considered tossing a stinging retort over his

shoulder, but thought better. "I would only be lowering

myself." And he might, he admitted silently, need the

breath.

The second time, panting and exhausted in the Glen of

Thorns, he had lain frozen under a branch of blooming

sorrow's end, waiting until the draconians had plodded past

him to slip quietly away, unmissed until a soldier looked

back and saw the white mane as the transformed stag

scuttled, head lowered, through the thorn bushes.

"A fawn's trick," he panted, ashamed. "I got away by

hiding like a fawn."

He stared at his own side, mottled with thorn scratches

and rock scrapes. "No wonder it worked. Still, perhaps these

creatures don't see well by day." But he looked at the sun,

already sunk below treetop level, and he knew that there

would be no third escape.

By dusk he was tottering, barely ahead of the

draconians, barely able to move his legs. His eyes showed

white all around the edges, and he smelled his own blood in

his nostrils. Each step brought a new ache, each breath

another side-stitch.

There was no question but that they would kill him. All

that mattered was when and where.

Once he nearly sank down on a patch of deathwort,

ready to let it end appropriately. If this were but one more

death in an endless series, what did it matter whether he

died well or badly?

But he heard them coming and struggled wearily to his

feet. "I have," he gasped, "an appointment. With a friend,

and with - others. I will fail no one this time."

The sun was no more than a blood-red sliver in the

brush when he lurched across the trail and into the small

glade. He looked around dazedly, though he knew the place

well. Even where there were no trees, there seemed to be

shadows, and the grass itself seemed tainted with death.

The stag nodded. "Here." His voice was rasping, half

choked.

As the draconians arrived in the clearing, he half-fell off

the trail and sank down on the grass a few lengths away.

A draconian saw him and called, "Captain."

The lead draconian shouted in triumph and leaped off

the trail. The others followed.

The draconian cried, "Pride of kill belongs to Captain

Zerkaz."

The stag reared up. "Pride, it seems, is universal,

Captain. So is kill."

He punched forward with a hoof. Zerkaz had time to

screech with pain before his heart ruptured and his body

turned to stone. It wavered once, but remained standing.

While the soldiers gaped, the stag charged another,

head lowered.

He had forgotten that he had but a single horn, not

antlers. As he pierced the draconian, the dying soldier

brought his sword down as hard as he could at close

quarters. The horn cracked all the way into the stag's skull.

He staggered back with closed eyes, barely noticing as

the second soldier turned to stone. A third, sword out, was

facing him, but the others had closed behind him and stood

almost touching each other, staring into the field. Their

blades wavered, almost trembled.

Around them, dead human warriors, Darken Wood's

best guard, were rising, at last ready to fulfill an old

promise. Beside them stood King Peris in full battle gear a

thousand years old.

The king's armor was white silver over steel, decorated

in rubies, for the blood of enemies, and emeralds and

sapphires, for an archer's clear eyes. It was, as the stag had

often noted, largely ornamental. Perhaps that was why the

king and his body of men had once failed to guard against a

real menace.

The soldiers of the dead king writhed up from the grass,

unbraiding from it as though their bodies were

recomposing. Swords in hand and no shields, they fell into

a battle line; their empty eyes showed no mercy, no hatred,

and no hope.

The stag cried in what voice it had, "Forward!" It

leaped awkwardly and took a sword full in the chest as it

punched a third draconian. As the sword withdrew, the stag

made no sound at all.

Peris the King leaped over the falling animal. "I, not you,

lead my men, beast. Forward!" The troops of the dead

advanced, and the draconian ranks, weakened already,

wavered.

The battle was like some deadly mime. The dead's

weapons made no noise - yet their attackers fell, bleeding

green liquid and turning stony in anguished poses. Blows

against the dead passed through - yet many dead spiraled

back into the carrion-tainted earth, and their lightless eyes

glowed with an odd relief as they sank.

Forces were in disorder, yet few commands were

needed; the dead fought as they had for so long, and the

draconians fought for their lives. Except for a few cries of

anger and pain from the draconians, the only other sound

was the slow fall of stone bodies as, one by one, the

draconians fell to earth clutching unseen wounds and half-

twisting scaley faces in agony. Starlight flickered off real

and ghostly weapons; bodies twisted or toppled into grassy

shadows and were bodies no longer.

To an onlooker it might have seemed some strange

dance without music. It was a war with little sound and no

corpses, a battle for nightmares.

Through it all walked the king, his sword flashing right

and left at arm's length. By himself, in the brief fight, he

accounted for three draconians, and his heart seemed to beat

again with his own pride as they dropped to the right and

left. His arms felt, not the endless weariness of the accursed

dead, but the growing soreness and strain of a living

warrior. His eyes flicked back and forth alertly, noting even

how a sweet night wind ruffled the grass into which allies

and enemies were falling.

Ahead of him a draconian crouched over the prone stag,

bringing a sword down with all the force he could above the

near-motionless neck. The stag had not even looked up, dust

and chaff barely moving in its nostrils.

The king dove forward, sword aimed at the draconian's

heart. He made no attempt to parry the descending sword as

it passed through his ornamental armor and into him.

His own blow took effect a moment later; the

draconian doubled over, gasping, and froze that way, a

corpse carved from a boulder. The king, carried by his own

momentum, rolled against the stone body and winced with

the pain. "I'll have a bruise tomorrow," he thought vaguely,

unsure after all these years what a bruise felt or looked like.

He lay still and listened, hearing nothing but the stag's

labored breathing. He struggled to his feet, barely able to

hold his sword but aware of triumph and of great pain.

The stag opened his eyes. "Peris. The draconians?"

"Dead." Never, in Darken Wood, had the word been said

with such satisfaction.

"An unusual way to end a hunt, with dead hunters." "You

have said so before." The king knelt, taking the stag's head

on his lap. The stag's chest wound, pulled free of the

ground, re-opened, but the king paid no attention. "You

have often said that at a hunt's end the hunter should be

alive, the quarry dead."

"I have often been insulting." His eyes blurred; with

great effort he shook his head and cleared them angrily.

"What will happen now?"

"If I know soldiers, the commanders who ordered the

search of Darken Wood will decide to delay another search

until they feel they can risk further loss. They will also hope

that their quarry, the questing party of the other night,

appears elsewhere, as someone else's responsibility." He

shuddered. "At any rate, we will have saved this part of the

world for a while - if, as they say, I know soldiers."

"You know soldiers well. You lead them still better."

"Thank you." The king sat down heavily by the

bleeding stag. "A satisfying night, but not an easy one. I

have been wounded."

"Recently?" The stag grunted as its forehead horn,

cracked by the sword-blow, split all the way to the skull.

"Tonight, in fact."

"At any other time, I enjoy a joke - "

"Seriously." Red leaked through the holes in the king's

armor, as though the rubies were melting. "I had forgotten

how painful this was."

"You could have asked me." The stag raised its pain-

wracked head. Now the split horn sagged apart, its cleft

gaping, and exposed bone at its root.

"I could have," the king agreed. "It seemed rude." He

spoke with difficulty. "It seems I have fulfilled a pledge and

will die in service."

The stag said, "I also." He added, "Could you help me

over to the last standing draconian? I would not mind dying

with such memorial."

The king, gasping, carried the shuddering body of the

stag to the foot of the standing draconian. "He has - " He

coughed.

"Can you speak no more clearly than that? I seem not

to hear well just now." The rumble of the moving horns

covered all sound.

The king braced himself and said distinctly, "This one

has a hoof-print on his chest. Yours?"

"I would nod, but I have a headache." Blood ran from

his split forehead. As though watered, the twin horn-shards

sprouted buds of antlers.

"Then he will wear my marks as well." Holding the

stag with one arm, the king removed his own crown and

placed it on the stone figure before sliding wetly down its

side to the grass.

The stag rasped, "Either I am overly sensitive by

nature, or this seems harder than usual." Blood was flowing

darkly around the dust in his chest wound. "Could you not

distract me?"

"I could try." The king tilted his head back in pain as he

inhaled, and sang in a quavering voice:

 

"FOR EVERY WRAITH WHO BREAKS HIS FAITH

MUST WANDER WITHOUT CEASE

AND, COLD, PERFORM WHAT HE DID, WARM,

AND NEVER REST IN PEACE.

 

He coughed, and a hairline of blood ran from the corner

of his mouth. The stag, looking up through filmy eyes, took

up the song for him:

 

SO, EVERY NIGHT THE STAG BETRAYS

THE LOVE HE COULD NOT KEEP

AND KING AND HOST DESERT THEIR POST

TO HUNT AND NEVER SLEEP.

 

They finished, singing together. It took them a long

time, since one or the other often stopped to gasp for air,

and it seemed important to them that they finish as one:

 

AND SO THEY SHALL BETRAY AND HUNT,

UNTIL THE DAY THEY SHOW

THAT THEY SOMEHOW FULFILL THE VOW

THEY BROKE SO LONG AGO."

 

Done, they collapsed against each other. "Not a bad

song, really," the king said. "Needs a little tightening here

and there, perhaps, fewer cousin-rhymes, but at least it's

something of us left behind."

"True. Many have died with less fame and with worse

poetry." The stag's antlers shuddered painfully back into

place. The stag, eyes upward, lay his head on the king's lap

and stared at the draconian. "Who would have thought that I

should be hunted by such as this? Or that you should hunt

them?"

The king's voice was low and halting. "True. They are

vile, and we were proud. But for once, we both have died

for something besides ourselves. And when you have been

dead as long as I - " he wavered, and said in a last breath -

"a little variety in one's chosen way of dying is not such a

bad thing."

And as the stag joined the king in final death, he

thought sleepily that after a thousand years of nightly

betrayal, transformation, pursuit by the dead, painful death

and more painful rebirth, almost any change was pleasant.

He cradled his head against King Peris's stomach, and the

two accepted death as, long ago, it had accepted them.

 

No one but Time removed the bodies; eventually they

disappeared. The stone draconians became overgrown and

powdered under the pressure of weather and vines; time's

best warriors. Only the one draconian, wearing an ancient

crown and scarred on its breast with a cloven hoof, remains.

For reasons no one living knows, it does not crumble. Go to

the wood, no longer called Darken, and you may see it yet.

Once, not long ago, the Forestmaster came into the glade

and stood before the single draconian. The crown was

tarnished, the sword rusted; only the hoof-print was still

sharp and clear. The Forestmaster stared at the print, then

looked thoughtfully around the glade. There was not so

much as a mound to show that anyone had died here, and

even the memory of the draconians was fading from those

who lived in Shadow Wood.

The unicorn tipped her head up and quietly sang two

stanzas she had heard recently, added onto a very old

ballad:

 

"THE SHADOWS IN THE WOODS ARE PLAIN

AND MINGLE NOW WITH LIGHT;

THEY FLOW AND PLAY WITH SUN BY DAY

AND DANCE WITH MOON BY NIGHT.

 

FROM DARKEN WOOD HAS SHADOW WOOD

BEEN GRANTED ITS RELEASE,

THOSE WHO WERE KILLED IN VOWS FULFILLED

HAVE THERE BEEN GRANTED PEACE."

 

She strode to the edge of the woods and thrust her horn

in among the vines, circling it quickly. Walking back to the

statue, she lifted her horn to the stone and slid a floral

wreath onto it. It slid down too far; she moved parallel to

the sword and adjusted it. For a moment, sword and horn

both pointed to the north star, faintly visible in the

darkening sky.

She stepped back. "Sleep well, beloved" She turned and

was gone.

The wreath of Paladine's Tears stayed fresh a long time.

 

Hide and Go Seek

 

Nancy Varian Berberick

 

For a long time Keli did not know where he was.

Sometimes he smelled the forest and the river, sometimes

only dirt and rocks. Once the boy thought he heard thunder

rumbling far, far away. Then, on the tenuous bridge

between darkness and consciousness, he knew with the

flashing certainty of lightning's strike that it was not thunder

he was hearing.

It was the voice of nightmare: the voice of a goblin.

"Tigo, let's dump the little rat in the river. We have

what we want."

Keli expected to feel the goblin's huge gray hands drag

him up and cast him into the river.

Far back in his mind he knew about the leather thongs

pinioning his arms, binding him at knee and ankle. Too, he

felt the hard earth, the fist-sized rock digging into his ribs.

Pain, however, was not as immediate as death-fear.

A second voice, sounding like the rattling of old bones,

growled, "Bring him over here, Staag; see what he's

carrying first."

Someone shouted, then yelped. Keli's eyes flew open, his

heart leaped hard against his ribs. He was not alone in his

captivity!

Bruised, pinioned, and bound as Keli was, his fellow

prisoner was in a worse plight, caught hard by the neck in

the goblin's iron-fingered grip. He was small, but no child;

the cant of his ears as well as his slim build and small

stature marked him as a kender. Several pouches of varying

sizes and materials bounced at the kender's belt each time

Staag shook him. And Staag, that slope-shouldered, gray-

skinned nightmare, shook him often and hard simply

because it amused him to do so.

The kender, a game little fellow, hitched up his knees

and drove them into the goblin's belly. Had a mouse

attacked a mountain the result would have been the same.

Laughing, Staag loosed his grip on the kender's neck and

dropped him.

The kender writhed against his bonds. "Swamp-

breathed, slime-brained bull," he croaked.

Keli's heart sank. So much for the kender, he thought.

Staag's going to kill him now!

But the goblin didn't. Tigo stopped him with a

command.

If Staag, his arms too long, his legs too short, his skin

the color of something a week dead, was the nightmare, his

human companion Tigo was reality gone twisted. Tall and

lean, bony-shouldered, with limbs that might have been

stolen from a scarecrow, Tigo bore a four-pronged grapnel

where his right hand should have been. His eyes, muddy

and brown, held little sanity in them.

"I said bring him over here, Staag." Tigo glanced at

Keli, who shivered despite the close heat of the summer

morning. "And the boy, too."

A bull, the kender had called the goblin, and bull-strong

he was. He tossed the kender over one shoulder, Keli over

the other and, with no thought, he dropped them next to

Tigo.

Breathless, Keli lay still where he fell. The kender, his

face in the dirt, snarled another insult.

"Let's just kill the kender and get it over with," Staag

grunted. "We should have slit his throat at the tavern and

got done with it."

"Aye," Tigo drawled. "And left him bleeding all over

the place for anyone to find. I don't think this one traveled

alone."

Staag snorted. "Since when do these little vermin travel

in company? Tigo, we waste time." He peered up through

the forest's brooding green canopy. "It's almost noon and

we're still too close to that village. Let's just kill him and the

boy and get OUT of here!"

Keli clamped his teeth down on a whimper and prayed

to every god his mother had told him was real.

"Be patient, you'll have your fun. But we're not going

to kill the boy yet." Tigo, his hands thief-light, slipped a

finely tooled leather map case from the kender's shoulder.

He laughed, a sound that reminded Keli of rusty hinges

creaking. "Nice collection of maps, kender."

The kender hitched himself onto his back, spat dirt, and

looked at Tigo with the expression of a guileless child.

"Used to clean middens for a living, did you? I can tell by

the smell."

Keli groaned again, hoping the kender's blood wouldn't

splatter all over him. Yet, though he paled, Tigo didn't

reply. Staag kicked the kender.

"Please, kender," Keli breathed. "Be quiet!"

Sometimes a bad dream, steeped in terror and warped

perspective, turns funny. Keli felt he was in one of those

odd turns now: the kender winked.

Before Keli could be certain he'd seen the wink, Tigo

cuffed the kender hard.

"These maps! How recent, how dependable?"

With a speed that left Keli confused, the kender became

the spirit of helpful affability. "Some are very old - I've

been collecting them for years, you know. It's kind of a

hobby of mine. I like the drawings, especially the things the

mappers sketch when they don't know who or what lives in

the land. And I like the little legends and poems in the

borders of the larger ones. That one, the one drawn on hide,

is my oldest and the one I think I like the best. I got it in

Schallsea; an old man gave it to me and he said - "

Tigo's hook-hand flashed silver in a shaft of sunlight,

dancing threateningly before the kender's eyes.

"Right. Some of them are old, some are new. I guess it

depends on where you want to go," the kender added

hastily.

"Away from here," Staag growled, "and fast."

The kender did not give the goblin a glance, but spoke

to Tigo. "Then you're really lucky you brought me along.

I've been all around these parts, many times, and I know

them nearly as well as I know the inside of my own eyelids.

That's why I don't have any maps of this area in the case.

Who needs one? Not me. Where do you want to go?"

Tigo hissed a snake's warning. "What makes you think

we need a guide?"

"You said so." The kender was all innocence now. Keli

marveled at his composure. "Not in so many words, of

course, but I can tell. Otherwise why would you be so

interested in my maps?"

"You make a large guess, kender."

Keli thought so, too, but held his breath now, waiting.

The kender shrugged as best he could. "Maybe I was

wrong. But if you DID need a guide - and I'm not saying

that you do - I'd be the one you'd need. As I said, I know - "

"Aye," Staag snarled, "all the lands about here."

"That's right, I do. What do you think? Do you need a

guide?" The kender lowered his voice in a confidential

manner. "If you want to kill someone, for example - "

Staag rumbled threateningly, loosed the dagger at his

belt.

"Whoa! Wait! I'm not saying you do. I'm not saying

you don't. But I can take you to a place I know where you

can do whatever you need to do and no one will be the

wiser."

"In exchange for what?" Tigo asked.

The kender snorted. "For my life!"

Keli's heart sank. Whatever that wink had been, it

certainly hadn't been an expression of solidarity.

Tigo shook his head, baring his teeth in a deadly smile.

"What's your bond, kender? What will keep you from

sneaking off in the middle of the night, leaving us with

daggers in our backs?"

Staag laughed then, thunder and nightmare. Keli's

stomach turned weakly. "The same thing that keeps him

here now, Tigo. Loose his feet so he can walk, but keep his

hands tied and him on a short rein."

Keli shifted away from the kender. This was no fellow

prisoner now, but one in league with these two who, for

some reason Keli could not figure out, wanted to kill him.

He squeezed his eyes shut against a cold wash of despair

and only partly heard the argument between Tigo and the

goblin about whether the kender's pouches should be rifled

now or later.

It hardly bore listening to anyway: Tigo argued that

there was no time, and clearly Tigo was someone whom

even the goblin feared. I'm not dead yet, the boy thought,

but it's only a matter of time and place now. And I don't

even know why!

 

*****

 

Tanis had suspected all winter that the real purpose for

Flint's journey this year was to attend Runne's wedding.

Flint mentioned the occasion only once, when he and Tanis

were mapping out the summer's trips, and then only told a

brief tale of how the girl was the grandchild of Galan, the

man who had been the old dwarf's first customer and who

many, many years ago had become a friend.

"Runne's father, Davron, was killed a few years ago in

a hunting accident. And Galan ... is gone now. Someone

must stand in her father's place at the ceremony and, while

there are uncles to spare, the little maid has remembered her

grandfather's old friend and asked me to fill that place. I

want to do that, Tanis."

Though it was high summer now, the dust of the only

street in Seven Wells dancing in the hot breeze like

phantoms around his knees, Tanis well remembered how

the winter firelight had looked like memories in Flint's eyes

when he told that lean little tale. Yet every event of the

summer seemed part of a conspiracy to keep Flint from

Long Ridge and the wedding.

Hot and too early the summer had come, drying the

stream beds and cutting hard into their travel time. Near

Gateway one of the few storms of the season sent lightning

lancing from the sky to ignite the tinder-dry forest. Two

weeks on the fire line there, digging trenches to help defend

the town from the burning rage of the forest fire, ate into

their travel schedule. A merchant late for their rendezvous

at Pine Glen, and another customer who never did meet

them at Fawn's Run, left them here in Seven Wells with a

two-day journey to Runne's home in Long Ridge which

must be reached in one.

Now Tas had vanished.

Caramon would have no part of a search around Seven

Wells for Tas. "Who knows where the little ban dit's got off

to now? I'M not spending the cool of the morning looking

for him. He knows where we're bound. Let him catch up."

Raistlin removed himself from the discussion

altogether. Sturm, who decided it might be profitable to

look while the others argued, returned after a time with the

news that Tas was not to be found.

"Right," Flint snapped. "Because he probably took off

in the middle of the night for who knows what foolish

reason." He lifted his pack with one easy swing and settled

it on his back. "I'm not waiting around for him to remember

where he's supposed to be. Caramon's right, he'll catch us

up on the road. And if he doesn't - then he doesn't."

No one was disposed to argue. The road before them

would be a long and hot one. Tas had too often romped

ahead, lagged behind, or struck out on some kender-quest of

his own for anyone to be concerned about him now.

Tanis hefted his own pack and fell in beside Flint. The

kender could be as troublesome as a heel-snapping pup, but

he was well able to take care of himself. This

disappearance, like so many others, would be explained

away with some fantastic tale of adventure or discovery.

Tas had been looking forward to the celebration at Long

Ridge. Likely he would join them there.

Tanis was not concerned.

 

Keli wasn't walking well. Tethered to Tigo, as the

kender was to Staag, he stumbled, fell, and this time did not

try to get up. He was too tired, too hot and frightened, and

too certain that wherever the kender was leading them

would be the place where Tigo would kill them both.

It was the kender, loping back from where he'd been

ranging for trail marks and paths, who helped him. Keli

pulled away from his hand and staggered to his feet. "Do

you really think they're not going to kill you,too?"

The kender only grinned and shook his head. "They

won't. And they won't kill you either."

Staag hauled hard on the kender's line. "Move away,

little vermin."

The kender went where he was pulled, but before he

resumed his scouting he looked once over his shoulder and

again winked. Trust me, the wink seemed to say.

Keli was in the way of trusting no one, and he certainly

wasn't going to trust a kender who would bargain with

killers. The boy hunched his shoulders against the heat and

his fear and trudged on. He ached for home, he who had

been so proud to leave it as his father's courier only a week

ago.

Ergon, his father, had been almost casual about

charging his son with the message to his old friend Carthas.

"Give him the scroll, son, but remember to give him

first my regards and personally tender my regrets that I will

not be able to accompany him this year on his horse-buying

expedition. I must honor my promise to your mother's

sister. Your uncle was a long time ill before he died.

Though he tended his business as best he could, your aunt

will need my help to untangle the mare's nest he left her.

"Tell all this to Carthas. He will understand."

Keli had accepted the charge as though entrusted with a

message to the High Clerist himself.

The tavern at Seven Wells had been Keli's third stopping

place. And, it now seemed, his last. He'd come in late,

stabled his horse, and snatched a quick meal. When he tried

for a room, he was able to get lodging only in the barn with

his horse. A party of horse traders filled the paddocks with

their stock and most of the tavern's rooms with themselves.

So tired had Keli been that the straw seemed a princely

bed. He'd fallen asleep easily to the stamp and chuff of

horses.

And wakened to the nightmare of the goblin and

moonlight streaming along Tigo's hook-hand. One of them

hit him hard. There had been nothing but pain and darkness,

and finally, the woods.

His horse they must have turned out among the stock in

the paddocks so that none would wonder in the morning

why the young courier had gone and left his mount behind.

And they'd snatched up the kender as well. Keli still

didn't understand why, couldn't fasten on a reason. Tigo

jerked on the tether again as though calling to heel a

wandering dog. Keli tried to pick up his pace.

He could either look at the ground or the kender

scouting ahead, and he chose the kender coursing the forest

as though leading them through streets of a town he knew

well. Bright blue leggings flashing in and out of the

underbrush, topknot bouncing, the kender reminded Keli of

a blue jay.

Chatters like one, too, Keli thought. The boy didn't

mind the kender's chatter very much. Running like the song

of the river they'd left behind, it took his mind off what

must await him at the journey's end.

That would be death. The kender talked long and often,

but he was not the only one who did. In fits and snatches

Keli had picked up bits of his captors' guarded conversation.

Staag was pressing for opening ransom negotiations.

Tigo had other plans.

"Aye," Tigo snarled once, "we'll send a ransom demand.

But it's not only ransom that one will be paying out for his

son. He owes me, Ergon does. He'll pay the coin, but all

he'll find is a body."

Sweat traced paths in the dust on Keli's face, ran

stinging into his eyes. After a moment the kender dropped

back, jostled him lightly, and stumbled to cover the move.

"Don't worry," he whispered. "This is just like a game

of Hide and Go Seek, only I'm sure my friends will find us.

Tanis is the best tracker there is. And Raistlin and Sturm

and Caramon learned from him. The place I'm going to take

us to is a place Flint showed me a couple of years ago. Once

they get on our trail, Flint will know right off where I'm

heading. Probably."

Hide and Go Seek? Keli turned away in disgust. "This

is not a game, kender. I told you, those two are going to kill

me."

As before, the kender grinned and shook his head.

"Those two? Flint alone could handle three or four of that

sort. Or five, or six, depending on the circumstances . . ."

Tigo booted the kender up ahead again, and Keli was

left with something to consider.

His friends, the kender had said. Keli squinted hard at

the kender's back. He DID look familiar. Had he been at the

tavern last night? Aye, and, despite what Staag had said

about kender not traveling in company, this one had been

with a red-haired hunter who had an elven look about him,

three young men, and a dwarf. He remembered them

because one of the young men, thin and pale-eyed, no

warrior like his two companions, had threatened to turn the

kender into a mouse and fill the tavern with cats if he so

much as looked at his pouches again. A mage, by the sound

of that threat. Keli had thought at the time that the others

probably traveled with the mage just to keep the kender in

line.

Could it be that these companions would be looking for

the kender? I'M MAKING SURE THAT MY FRIENDS

FIND ME. . . . How? Keli drew a breath, and hope with it.

But the hope was small and too slim to flare. Hide and

Go Seek, the boy thought, is played with friends in the

streets and alleyways of the town you live in. Not with

goblins and thieves in the forest.

 

The bride was a summer princess, her hair golden

wheat, her eyes blue-touched with dawn's mist. Roses

blossomed in her cheeks. Her laughter rose and dipped the

way a bird's song will.

So she seemed to Tanis. She must have seemed that

way to Flint, too, for he gifted Kavan, the miller's son, with

her hand as though presenting the boy with jewels. How

Karan felt was clear for all to see; all the jewels of Krynn

would be but poor stones and rubble when compared with

this girl.

"Lucky fellow, this Kavan," Caramon murmured when

the ceremony was ended.

Tanis gave him a sidelong look and a grin. "Caught, is

what he is, but the jailer is pretty enough, isn't she?"

"Aye, and it won't be bread and water for him. Though

it will be some time before he has any interest in kitchen

matters - " He did not finish the thought but jerked around

when a hard finger caught him between the ribs.

"Keep a civil tongue in your head, youngster," Flint

growled.

"I didn't mean - "

"I know what you meant. Now why don't you go off

and do what you do best: find yourself something to eat."

It was a suggestion Caramon never found amiss. When

he was gone, Tanis grinned again. "Runne is a beauty, isn't

she?"

"Aye, she's that. Her grandfather would have been

proud this day."

Memories darkened the old dwarf's eyes again, clouds

in a clear sky. As though to deny the sudden thread of

sadness running through his day, Flint looked around,

searched the crowd of family and friends now surging

around the new bride and her husband. "That addle-pated

kender never turned up."

"I haven't seen him, but Tas isn't one to miss a

celebration. He'll be here before long and likely you'll be

wishing he wasn't."

Yet through the long summer afternoon and into the hot

dark of night the guests at the wedding moved easily,

refilling wine goblets or ale pots and plates too soon

emptied of the good food. No one cried thief, no one

wondered where his purse had got to, no lady missed even

the smallest trinket or scarf.

There was no kender in attendance, and by the time red

Lunitari reached his zenith and white Solinari left the

horizon behind, Sturm came to Tanis wondering.

 

The forest had thinned near sunset, the oaks and pines

were spare now, replaced by stony ground and boulders.

Night's dark cloak brought no relief from the day's heat, and

Tigo was not bearing the simmering night well at all. His

eyes were black pits, his lean, hard jaw jerked from time to

time under a tic of which he seemed unaware. His fingered

hand stroked the grapnel's hook as though he'd decided to

do murder with it.

Beyond a gulp of water, Keli and Tas were granted

nothing. The rope tethers were gone, the knee and ankle

thongs were back. Above the whine and drone of gnats, the

bright song of crickets, Keli heard the kender's low cursing.

Twisting so that he faced the fellow, Keli grudgingly

whispered, "Are you all right?"

"It's not," the kender grumbled, "so much that I'm

nearly starved to death and those two have eaten everything

but the bones of that rabbit. It's these thongs. It's not easy to

breathe when your hands, your knees, AND your feet are

tied!"

The kender was more actively suffering now, so

completely bound, than he had been all day. His breathing

was the short, hard gasping Keli had seen once in a dog

whose collar was caught in a fence.

"Kender," he whispered, thinking to distract his

companion from his troubles, "I'm Keli. What's your

name?"

"Tasslehoff Burrfoot. Call me Tas, all my friends do."

"Tas, how did they get you? And why?"

"With a sack over the head, followed quickly, I can tell

you, by a big stick of wood. I was in the barn, at the tavern,

just looking. Someone had ridden in that night on a big red

horse, and Caramon said he'd never seen a bay with a mane

and tail that color before. They were all gold, you see, and I

just wanted a look. Nasty beast, too. Nearly took off all my

fingers when I went to touch his mane. It was like gold,

though, soft and yellow." Tas hitched himself up so that the

small of his back rested against a boulder. In restless

preoccupation, he worked his wrists against the binding

leather. "I walked in on them just as they were tying you

up."

From where he lay Keli saw a thin line of blood, black

in the darkness, trickling down Tas's wrists to his fingers.

"Stop - " he hissed, "you're bleeding!"

After a moment, Tas sat still. "Why did they take you?"

Keli shook his head. "I - I don't know."

Tigo's shadow, thin as a black knife, cut between them.

Keli fell silent, hoping the kender would do the same. For

once Tas did.

Tigo's eyes gleamed like dark, hateful stars. "Don't you

KNOW, boy?"

Keli chewed his lip and shook his head.

"You don't know the tale of the brave knight Ergon who

went boldly against a barely armed pickpocket with his

sword?"

Keli flared. "My father would NEVER fight an

opponent who was not equally matched!"

"Wouldn't he?" Slowly Tigo raised his hook-hand. For a

moment he seemed lost in the play of Lunitari's blood-red

light along the steel. His eyes dimmed as though all their

gleam had gone into the grapnel. When he spoke again, his

voice was flat. If dead men could speak, Keli thought, his

was the voice they would use.

"This hook is a thing I must thank the courageous

knight Ergon for. My hand he claimed in payment for an

old man's purse."

"You lie," Keli spat.

"Careful, boy. This hand is not flesh and it cuts deep."

"Aye, and you'll kill me anyway. You've said as much.

I'd sooner die for the truth than a lie."

Tigo's eyes burned, his jaw twitched. "It is no lie!"

The night's heat was cool when compared with Keli's

outrage. It was no easy thing to be a knight in these troubled

days. All his life Ergon had followed the rules of his order

humbly, honorably, as though they were a code he was born

to.

"I remember the tale well - I thought my father would

die of the wounds he got at your hands and those of your

accomplices. And the old man, he DID die, thief. He was no

match for four daggers. My father barely was. And it was

no sword my father used, but his own dagger."

Keli choked on his fury, would have said more, but Tas,

under pretense of shifting cramped muscles, fell hard

against him. Tigo reacted with a howl of outrage. "You'll

die for your twisted truth, boy, soon enough. But not yet.

For now," he said, eyeing Tas, "I've an interest in the

kender.

"What's in your pouches, little bandit?"

Tas shrugged and grinned. "Nothing."

"Nothing?" Like a hawk diving, Tigo's good hand came

down, caught the kender by the front of his shirt and lifted

him full off the ground, dangling him in front of Staag.

"Why don't I believe that?"

The buzzing of the gnats and the shrilling of the crickets

seemed louder to Keli. He hoped with all his heart that the

kender wasn't going to do something to get himself killed.

And from the look of things, he thought, hunching around

so that he could see, it wouldn't take much.

The thief's dark eyes were only narrow slits now. His

teeth, gleaming white in the light from the fire, were bared

in a snarl. He threw the kender down at the goblin's feet.

The snarl turned to a grin the moment Staag began to cut

the pouches from Tas's belt and the kender raised his

protests.

Keli didn't understand the kender. What seemed a

matter of soul-wrenching pain only a short time ago - his

bound wrists and knees and feet - was as nothing now

compared with the rifling of his pouches, the throwing away

of what he called his treasures.

"A line of wicking," Staag grumbled, "a gray feather,

two chipped arrowheads, a bundle of fletching - junk!

Nothing but junk!" He pawed through first one pouch, then

another. Tas's fury only amused him.

A gold earring he kept, stuffing it into his own belt pouch

along with a ring set with polished quartz and a small

enameled pin. The rest, an assortment of things that could

not have been of value to any but a kender, he kicked aside.

Tigo, like some thin, black vulture, leaned over Tas.

"Just where are you taking us, kender?" he demanded

suspiciously.

"I told you, to a place I know where you can do

whatever you have to do and no one will find you."

"Aye? Not on some roundabout trail that will lead us to

trouble?"

Keli felt Tigo's fury, banked but still hot, where he lay.

He prayed the kender would be careful now.

He wasn't. "Not trouble of my making."

Tigo kicked Tas hard, and the whoosh of air exploding

from the kender's lungs made Keli's stomach hurt. The

kender jack-knifed over, nearly wrapping himself around

the thief's ankle. He was furious, but not so furious that he

didn't take good aim when he bit. His teeth clamped on the

man's leg above his boot and it took Staag to pull him off.

Tigo roared. "Hold him while I rip the belly out of

him!"

Keli screamed protest, struggling against his bonds.

"Go on," Tas taunted. "Where will you be then, you

brain-sizzled, hook-handed ass? Stranded, that's where

you'll be! You haven't a drunk's idea where you are now!"

Tigo would happily have crimsoned the earth with the

kender's blood, but Staag had no appetite for killing their

guide. Moving faster than Keli thought any goblin could, he

whisked the kender away and threw him down next to Keli.

"Keep your mouth shut, kender," he hissed. "I won't be

able to keep him off you next time."

Tas choked, gasped for air, and coughed. Keli shrugged

himself closer to the kender and nudged him with his

shoulder.

"You all right?"

Tas muttered something into the dirt.

"What?"

"I want my dagger, my hoopak, a rock, anything!"

Keli braced his own shoulder against the kender's,

offering companionship, commiseration, comfort. "Maybe,"

he whispered, more for Tas's sake than because he believed,

"maybe your friends will find us soon."

 

Merciless summer sun glared from the hard blue sky,

baked the ground, radiated from the humped clusters of

rocks. Tanis wiped sweat from his eyes with the heel of his

hand and bent to retrieve the one thing Flint had missed: a

fog-colored wing feather from one of the gray swans of

Cristyne.

Because a cut through the forest from Long Ridge

would take a day off their journey to Karsa, the half-elf and

his friends had bidden the bride and her new husband

farewell the night before and struck south and east at first

light. Runne would have kept them longer, but Flint pleaded

business and promised her that he would see her again on

his way back north.

"I don't think," he told Tanis wryly, "that she's going to

miss me or anyone for a time."

Tanis, remembering the hard poke in the ribs Caramon

had earned for himself with a similar remark, had offered

only a noncommittal smile. It seemed that where Runne was

concerned some things could only be said avuncularly.

Now, the darkness bordering the edges of those

memories, the half-elf absently stroked the edge of the large

gray feather with his thumb. Tas had been here recently.

Or his pouches had. And those had been ruthlessly

emptied, their contents carelessly scattered. The hot breeze

carried Caramon's deep voice from up the trail and Sturm's

answer. Tanis knew by their tones that they had found no

sign of either struggle or a body. He left the underbrush and

joined Flint where he knelt in the path.

"One more thing, Flint."

The old dwarf took the feather without looking and

added it to the pile of oddly assorted objects to be stuffed

with hard, angry motions into Tas's pouches.

A blade-broken dagger, a blue earthenware ink pot, a

little carved tinderbox, a copper belt buckle that Caramon

had lost somehow and which Tas would swear he'd always

meant to return, a soft cloth the color of dawn's rose, a

bundle of the stiff green feathers Tanis liked best for

fletching his arrows ... all of these kender-treasures and

more had been discarded as so much junk.

Flint's anger might seem, from his tight-lipped

muttering, to be directed against a packrat of a kender.

Tanis knew the old dwarf better than that.

"We'll find him, Flint."

Flint still did not look up, but drew the thong tight on

the last of the kender's pouches. "Did you find his map

case?"

"No."

"Good. I wish whoever took it the joy of trying to find

his way with those maps! Hardly one of them is worth the

parchment it's penned on."

Tanis found a smile. Few of Tas's maps were any good

at all without his interpretation and translation. And those

were never the same twice.

"We'll not make Karsa any time soon now, Flint."

"AYE," Flint grumbled. "And you can be sure that I'll

take it out of that rascally kender's hide when we finally

catch up with him, too."

Tanis thought the threat lacked conviction.

Silent as a shadow moving in the breeze, Raistlin came

up beside them. "If someone took the map case, and there is

nothing to show that the kender was killed here, it would

not be amiss to consider that the case, Tas, and whoever

waylaid him are still together. The trail is rocky up ahead,

Tanis."

"Tracks?"

"None. But there is something else." Raistlin nodded

toward a small grouping of boulders. "Camp signs. Perhaps

you should see them."

Tanis moved as though to signal Flint to join them, but

the young mage shook his head. Fear, like a dark thread of

night, crawled through Tanis's belly.

The campfire had been small, ringed by rocks. Several

yards beyond them was a flat-sided boulder. On the near

side of the boulder, a handspan from the ground, was a

mark no larger than a kender's fist. Though it was rough-

sketched in blood, Tanis recognized the sign at once: a

stylized anvil bisected by a dwarven F rune. Flint's plate

mark.

"Tas?"

"Who else would leave that mark?" Raistlin touched the

rusty brown blood. "It was fresh not long ago."

Both turned at the sound of an approach. Flint stood at

Tanis's elbow.

"Wretched kender!" The old dwarf clenched his fist.

"Vanishing out from under our noses and getting himself

into Reorx only knows what kind of trouble!" He stared for

a long time at the device which had always marked his best

and most beautiful work, sketched now in dark blood on the

stone. It was as though he'd never seen the mark before and

sought now to memorize it.

Tanis said nothing, did not want to speculate at all now.

Raistlin it was who spoke, and when he moved his shadow

fell between Flint and the mark.

"The blood is fresh, Flint, not a day old. He's still

alive." The young mage looked from one of his friends to

the other. "And, by the look of this, hoping that we're on his

trail. We'd best waste no time in wondering now."

Tanis did wonder: He wondered if they were too late.

 

The sound of the waterfall might have been the angry

roar of some outraged god. Racing and tumbling, the river

threw itself from the cliff nearly two hundred feet above

and slid in foaming white sheets only to vanish a third of

the way down. Then, like some conjurer's trick, the falling

river reappeared from a spout after twenty-five feet of

sheer, burnished cliff face and finished its headlong dash

into the narrow lake.

The mist was as thick as rain on the shore and as

drenching. Though Keli and Tas were tied to the base of a

thin spire of rock, all the thirst and heat of the day seemed

to vanish beneath the soothing kiss of the vapor.

Keli sidled as close to Tas as he could. He sent a quick

glance over his shoulder, assured himself that Tigo and

Staag were well occupied refilling their water flasks, and let

a long, gusty breath speak of the almost solemn wonder that

filled him at the sight of this wild and glorious falls.

"You knew," he whispered, "you knew this was here."

"Oh, yes. I've been here before." Tas frowned a little,

then shrugged. "Although it's not exactly where it's

supposed to be."

"What?"

"Well - it isn't the place Flint knows. The trail looked like

the one to there. But I guess it wasn't. This must be" - he

squinted at the setting sun - "sort of east of it. Or north. Or -"

Keli's heart sank and with it any hope he might have

nourished for rescue. "They're not coming," he said bleakly.

"Oh, yes, they are. It - just might take them a little

longer to get here. But that's all right. Things will work out

if you stick with me." Tas winked, something Keli was

beginning to recognize as a sign that more trouble was on

the way. "All the way."

"All the way?"

"All the way to the top."

"The top of the FALLS?" Keli's mouth went suddenly

drier than it had been all day. "I don't - I'm not sure - "

"Don't worry!" Tas's eyes were bright with expectation.

"Really, Keli, you worry more than anyone I've ever met.

Except Flint. Now, there's a worrier. How old are you,

anyway?"

"Twelve."

"Twelve! Far too young to be worrying as much as you

do."

Keli closed his eyes against the sight of the roaring

falls. "Tas, I'm sorry you got caught by those two . . ."

"I got caught?!" Tas was indignant. "Why, it's more

like they got caught by me! After all, they didn't even know

where I was taking them! Ha! Of course, as it turns out, I

didn't know either, but that's a small point. By the way, can

you swim?"

"Yes," Keli said warily.

"Good! That's the last problem solved."

"The last? But - "

"What are they doing, can you see?"

Again Keli looked over his shoulder. "They're still at

the lake. I can see Tigo, but not Staag. I hear him, though."

"Good enough. Now, look."

Tas twisted a little so that his back was to Keli.

Clutched in the kender's bound hands was a small dagger.

"Tas! Where did you get that?"

Tas shrugged. "Oh, well, you know, sometimes people

are a bit careless about where they put things and I ... just . .

. find them. This," he said, grinning again, "I found in

Staag's belt this morning. He'll miss it sooner or later. But

by then I think we'll be too far away to give it back. Now,

turn around and stand very still. I don't want to nick you."

He cut Keli's thongs blind, his back to the boy. The

patience to unknot the most tangled puzzle and nimble, firm

hands were a kender's gifts. Keli was free before he could

worry that Tas would sever a wrist rather than a thong.

"There. Now do mine."

Keli worked carefully, his fingers still numb, his hands

aching with the sudden rush of blood in veins. Soon the

kender, too, was free.

"Now," Tas whispered, "follow me!"

With one glance backward, swift and silent as a hare on

the run, Keli followed the kender. They made distance,

angled sharply north and then abruptly west to the stony

shore of the lake. When Tas skidded to a halt on the rocks,

Keli nearly toppled into him.

"Tas! I don't think - " Keli swallowed his doubt. Tigo

had discovered his captives' escape and his cry echoed

along the shore. In an instant, the goblin and the thief were

in furious pursuit.

"Keli, make straight for the falls, then cut to the north

when you begin to feel the force of the cascade. Slip in

behind the wall of water. I'll be waiting for you."

Tas's dive was a whirl of arms and legs. He hit the water

hard and whipped his hair out of his eyes. "Come on!"

The inside of Keli's mouth was like sand. He shot a

terrified glance over his shoulder and another at the lake

and its thundering falls. He knew with certainty that if Tigo

caught him now he'd rip the heart out of him with that

grapnel hand. There would be no false ransom note to his

father, nothing but bloody revenge for a wrong never

committed.

There was no reasoning with insanity.

The drop to the lake from the rocky ledge was as deep

as a tall man's height. Keli drew in all the air he could and

dove, feet first, into water as cold as a newly melted glacier.

"Go!" Tas yelled to the boy. "Go!"

Keli struck out hard and fast, and Tas overtook him a

moment later, cutting the lake as smoothly as any sleek

otter.

They'd not covered even a quarter of the distance to the

falls when two splashes behind them told them they had not

lost their pursuers.

"Where are your friends?" Keli wailed.

"I don't know!" Tas shouted back. "They're usually

better trackers than this!"

 

The waning sun twined ribbons of golden fire through

the cascading water and ran along the sheer sides of the far

cliff face as though etching veins of gold and rubies. The

narrow part of the lake was at the western shore. On the

eastern side, the chum of the thundering falls turned the lake

white and deadly.

For a long moment, squinting through the light and the

mist, Tanis forgot to breathe. His breathing was not stilled

by the beauty of the place. That he hardly saw at all. It was

stilled by horror.

Far out across the lake, small as abandoned nestlings, two

swimmers surfaced at the roil's edge. There was something

about the dive and play of one to tell him right off that he

was Tas. The other, clutching at air and shimmer, looked

like a boy.

Behind the two, closing fast even as Tanis watched,

were two other swimmers. One, huge-armed and gray-

skinned, was clearly a goblin. The other, lean and one-

handed, coursed ahead, angling as though he meant to cut in

behind the boy.

Flint's groan could have risen straight from the depths

of Tanis's own fear. Moving quickly, the half-elf tossed

aside his bow and quiver and pulled off his boots. Raistlin's

light hand caught his wrist. * "Wait! Tanis, let my brother

go, and Sturm. You're the bowman and the longest-sighted

of us all. Defend them while they swim."

Though reluctantly, Tanis agreed.

They were fast, the two young men, out of most of

their clothes and into the water on smooth, long arcs almost

before Tanis could reclaim his bow and quiver. But there

was more than half the lake to cover and the goblin was

closing fast, his lean companion already cutting in behind

the boy.

"They'll never reach them in time," Flint whispered.

Tanis nocked an arrow to his bow's string, drew and

sighted. Released, the arrow cut through the sun-jeweled

mist and shied its mark, the goblin's neck, by the width of

its shaft. It was enough, however, to send the surprised

creature diving beneath the water for cover.

Tanis drew again, searched for a target, and found

none. The lake was suddenly empty of all but Caramon and

Sturm swimming strongly for the falls. Caramon faltered,

rose high, shaking his hair out of his eyes.

Both his quarry and their victims were gone.

 

*****

 

The water was liquid ice, his limbs as heavy as lead.

Keli twisted hard, kicked back once, and then again. He was

free of the pull of Tigo's hook-hand! Off to his right, blurred

figures wrestled: Staag and Tas. Ahead, close enough to

suck at his legs, to draw him farther down, was the roil of

the falls.

Thunder roared all around him. The black-watered lake

was white as diamonds here. Tigo surged forward and up,

wielded his hook and snagged it again on the back of the

boy's belt.

Keli rolled and jack-knifed, his lungs afire and

screaming for air. He reached down, grabbed Tigo's ears,

and pulled as though he would tear them from the man's

head. When Tigo opened his mouth to scream, he took in

what Keli thought must be a gallon of icy water.

Again the boy kicked, and once more he was free. He

surfaced, sucking air in huge, greedy gulps and saw Tas

break into the light at the same moment. Behind the kender,

rising like a sea drake from the water, Staag roared and then

flung himself aside and out of the path of a green-fletched

arrow.

"Tas!" Keli waved and pointed back toward shore.

"Down! Duck!"

Tas rose, whooping with glee. "It's all right! That's

Tanis! Our rescuers! Look!"

Two young men, one broad-chested and brawny, the

other slimmer and faster, cut through the water with strong,

distance-eating strokes.

"Caramon and Sturm!" Tas threw his head back,

laughing. "Ready or not, here they come!" He dove and

angled through the water, coming up beside Keli. Staag shot

up behind him, grabbed, and missed by a hand's breadth.

"Tas! They're too far away!"

Tas yanked the boy under the water, ignoring his

sputtering protest. Staag's thick legs thrashed to the right of

them, and Tigo surfaced just behind the goblin.

Tas released Keli, jerked his head to the left, and dove

down and around the goblin and Tigo before either could

get his bearings. Keli followed gamely, hoping with all his

heart that the kender knew where he was going.

Down just didn't seem like the answer to their

problems.

 

Sturm shouted once, then again. He'd lost the hook-

handed man or found Tas and the boy - Tanis couldn't be

sure which and did not spend a moment's concentration

wondering. His hands knew nothing but his bow, his eyes

only his arrow's target. That target, the gray-skinned,

maddened goblin, had dragged Caramon beneath the lake's

surface and held him there now.

His breath held tightly, legs braced wide, Tanis waited

the interminable space of five heartbeats for Caramon to

surface again, afraid to loose his arrow for fear that

Caramon would come up between it and the goblin. Dimly,

he was aware of Raistlin's soft intake of breath, of Flint's

curse and then his whispered plea.

Caramon did not surface.

Tanis let fly and prayed for the gods' grace, for their

favor, for mercy.

Rainbows danced in the air, shimmering along the

tumble of the falls. Mercy, and the arrow, were delivered at

the same time. The shaft flew true and took the goblin full

in the throat. In the veil of the mist, Sturm broke the water,

graceful as a dolphin leaping.

Seeing himself alone, he dove again, resurfaced, and filled

his lungs with air. He returned to the water twice, and the

second time he came up dragging Caramon, gasping, to

light and air.

They were alone in the lake, Staag's body gone into the

rage of the falls, Tigo vanished. There was no sign of Tas

and the boy.

Though they dove and searched for longer than those

on the shore knew anyone could survive beneath the water,

they did not find Tas or his small companion.

Caramon raised his fists to the thundering falls. The

dying sun colored his brawny arms red and gold. His howl

of rage echoed for a long time between the shores, so loud

and grieved that Tanis did not hear the small clatter of his

own bow when it fell from his hands to the rocky shore.

Numb, Tanis watched as Caramon and Sturm made

their way back to land. He joined Raistlin and Flint to help

them, awkward and earth-bound again, onto the shore. For a

long time he felt vacant, emptied. The feeling well matched

what he saw in Caramon's eyes, in Sturm's, in Flint's

stunned disbelief.

Then after a time, when the sun was nearly gone and

they were still waiting - for something - he heard the old

dwarf draw a sharp, hard breath.

"He's lost his mind." The words hardly matched the

breathless awe, the chilled amazement, of Flint's tone. "By

Reorx's forge, if that kender ever had a mind to lose, he's

lost it now. Tanis! Look!"

Tanis raised his head from his drawn-up knees, looked

to where Flint pointed. Impossible, the half-elf thought

dully, he's dead, drowned.

"Impossible" was not a word one could apply to a kender's

resourcefulness with any hope of accuracy. Tas - topknot

flying in the wind from the falls, arms spread for balance -

negotiated a natural bridge no wider than the span of two

hands across the cascade's spout high above the lake. Even

as Tanis watched, the kender turned his head as though

speaking to the one who followed him on hands and knees.

Tanis scrambled to his feet and ran out to the edge of

the shore. Sturm and Caramon joined him, squinting up into

the last light of the day.

"Aye," Sturm muttered. "And there's that hook-handed

villain who escaped me in the lake! How did they GET

there?" He looked around wildly as though seeking a way to

get to the arch above the falls. There was only the lake, and

he would have made that swim again.

- Tanis held him back. "You'd never get there in time,

Sturm."

"Where does he go after he gets across? There's

nothing but cliff and rock!"

Tanis shook his head. "Nowhere," he whispered. He

turned away from the lake and saw Raistlin standing above

him, looking into the rainbow dance of the falls' mist. The

young mage smiled, his light eyes eager and sharp.

"Raistlin, can you help him?"

The mage nodded slowly, thoughtfully, his eyes still on

the jeweled mist and the last shafts of sunlight. "I think I

can. He has a mountain climber's skill, our little friend, and

it is a good thing he does: he's going to need it."

 

Stone bit sharply into Keli's hands. Stalled and frozen

in the middle of the narrow rock span, he dared not look

down, could not look back.

Across the arch Tigo crouched, a lean and hungry

predator waiting for his prey to realize that it was trapped,

caught. There was no need for him to venture on the bridge,

no need to pursue farther. At last he would have his

murderous revenge!

Across the bridge, his back to the spray-soaked wall,

Tas shouted, "Keli! Come on!"

"I - I can't - I can't - " Keli could not move, it was all he

could do to speak.

"You have to! You can't stay there! Pretend you're a

spider! Spiders don't ever fall! Come on! It'll be fun!"

Fun! Keli swallowed dryly and tried hard to be a

spider, wishing all the while he were a bird instead. Hand

over hand, he crawled across the slick stone bridge,

swearing futile boy's oaths under his breath. Fun!

"That's it!" Tas called. "I told you it would be fun!"

Tigo, across the span, laughed. His laughter was

ghostly, only faintly heard above the roar of the water. Keli

ignored him, concentrated on Tas and the bridge.

"Come on, Keli, a little more! You've almost got it!

Ever do anything as much fun as this?"

Keli groaned and shook his head. He regretted that at

once. The bridge seemed to sway and rock under him. "No,"

he panted, staring at his white knuckles. "Nothing like this!"

Hand to hand, knee to knee, Keli crept, trying not to

give in to black-winged vertigo, wishing it weren't so hard

to breathe.

After what seemed a lifetime of crawling, Keli's fingers

touched the kender's, cold and slick. Tas leaned a little

forward to grasp a wrist, then an arm. "Up now, on your

feet. I've got you."

Keli gained his feet, wobbled a little, and then

straightened.

"That's right. Now just edge over here. We can both fit

on this ledge. Probably."

Probably! "Crazy as a kender" was an expression Keli had

heard from time to time. He used to think he knew what it

meant. Now he was certain. Keli dragged up every bit of

strength he had and lurched hard against the wall. He

pressed his face to the wet, black stone, shuddering. "Now

where?"

Tas attacked the answer obliquely. "We can't go back,

but he's not coming on, either."

"What, then?"

"We can always wait."

Out over the lake the jeweled and dazzling mists of

sunset were gone. On the far shore twilight's purple

shadows gathered, the outriders of the night.

"It would be nice," Keli said tightly, "if we could fly."

"Sure would," Tas agreed, "and a lot better than being

stuck up here"

Keli wanted to wail. He clamped his back teeth hard

and whispered, "Then - but - why are we out here? I thought

you knew a way OUT of this mess!"

Tas shrugged. "I didn't think he'd follow us. I thought

he was drowned in the lake. Twice."

Across the arch Tigo sat, his back against the stone,

patient as inevitable doom. Keli couldn't look at him

without feeling sick, without feeling, in imagination, the rip

of his grapnel hand and the long, shattering fall to the water

below.

Light, the faint and fading gold of sunset, the silver of

approaching twilight, danced up from the black surface of

the lake and came together, shining in the gloaming like

hope promised.

Far below, the red-haired bowman Tas called Tanis and

one of the young men who had been in the lake stood on the

shore. The other was in the water again and swimming hard

toward the falls. The dwarf and the slim young man moved

quickly to the north.

"Tas, what are they doing?"

"Something, they're up to something. Look! Tanis sees

us! He's pointing." The kender leaned so far out to see that

Keli had to catch him back by his belt.

"Don't DO that!"

Clearly the fact that he'd almost tumbled to his death

didn't bother the kender at all. He laughed, and the sound of

his glee skirled high above the roar of the falls.

"Look, Keli! Raistlin's doing something to the air!" Tas

thumped the boy's shoulder joyfully, nearly knocking him

from his tenuous perch. "I don't know what he's up to, I

usually don't, hardly anyone ever does. But it's always

magic, and it's always worth waiting for."

Clinging like a soaked bat to the wall, Keli swallowed

his nausea. Whether or not what the mage was up to was

indeed worth waiting for the boy couldn't say, but he didn't

see that they had much choice.

 

Raistlin's hands moved, deft and certain, in magic's

dance. He gathered translucent rainbows and gemmed mist,

separated their shimmering strands, and wove them swiftly,

one around the other, into a rope of gleaming enchantment.

It grew quickly, the magic rope, and leaped away from

the young mage's hands, directed and sped upon its way by

will and spell. Out across the black surface of the water it

flew, with the grace of a hawk rising, with the certainty of

one of Tanis's well-drawn arrows speeding to its mark.

Sturm leaped into the lake, cutting through the icy

water with powerful strokes. By the time he reached

Caramon, the shining line had passed well over their heads,

flying toward the arch and Tas's outstretched hand. On the

shore Flint shouted, his voice rising high in triumph, ending

on an oddly broken note, a cry of warning.

Tigo was halfway across the bridge, the hook that passed

for a hand glittering balefully in the fading light.

 

Tas stepped in front of Keli and wound the shimmering

rope around the boy's hands. "We'll go together. It'll hold, I

swear it. Just slide right down. It won't burn your hands -

you can hardly feel it."

Keli eyed the water, then Tigo advancing slowly across

the arch. "Tas, it's not a rope - it's LIGHT AND AIR! It can't

hold us!"

"Oh, sure it will. It's Raistlin's magic." Tas cocked his

head as though he'd had a sudden thought. "You're worrying

again, are you?"

"Worrying?" Keli gasped. "Tas, I'm so afraid I can't even

think!"

"But it'll hold. I TOLD you: it's magic. And Raistlin

does the best magic I've ever seen. He'd never let you fall."

"Tas, the rope's not real!"

"It IS real! But - well - look! Down in the lake. There's

Caramon and Sturm - Did I tell you that Sturm wants to be

a knight? Like your father. He'll be a good one, too. He

knows that solemn old Code and Measure like he made 'em

up himself, and - "

"TAS!"

"Well, right. So if you do fall - which you won't - they

will get you. You'll be all right. Now let's go or we're going

to have an appointment with Tigo real soon!"

That last, more than any of Tas's assurances, decided

Keli. He grasped the rope, silver and gold, woven of magic

and light. He squeezed his eyes tightly shut, sucked in a

lungful of air, and left the ledge.

Tas followed.

Behind them Tigo raged, a beast whose prey had

flown, wingless, from his reach, abandoning him to his

impotent anger.

 

*****

 

The air was cool and shivery by the night-dark lake.

Far over the water's black surface stars reflected and, Keli

thought, as he hunched closer to the fire, something else did

too. Ghostly light and shimmer, faintly rainbowed and

silver. A residue of Raistlin's magic? The boy thought so.

None sat waking now in night's darkest hour but Keli

and Tas, the half-elf Tanis, and the dwarf Flint. The young

mage had been the first asleep. Keli knew nothing of magic

or its tolls, but it was clear to him that Raistlin's light-

weaving had left him drained. It seemed to Keli that the thin

young man was hardly strong enough to exert such effort

often. Or, the boy thought as he stole a covert glance at the

sleeping mage, maybe he is. Even in exhaustion something

of power and strength had lighted the mage's eyes.

The mage's brother was Caramon, warrior big, with

mischief dancing in his brown eyes, a kind of magic of his

own. He slept so soon after his brother that the difference

could hardly be measured. His snoring was like low

thunder.

"Asleep between one bite of rabbit and the next," Flint

had growled. "We could be witnessing the dawn of a new

age of miracles." Keli had wanted to laugh at that, but he

didn't. The old dwarf bore a forbidding look in his eyes,

scowled easily and grumbled often. Here was one who

would need a wide berth.

For a time it looked as though Sturm would stay awake

long enough to make good his claim on the first watch of

the night. He didn't. Likely, Keli realized, his friends knew

him well enough not to argue the point. And well enough to

know that Sturm's exertions in the lake would put him

quickly to sleep.

Tanis - his red hair the color of copper in the firelight, his

long elven eyes sometimes the gray-green of leaves turned

to an approaching storm, more often emerald bright -

divided his time between smoothing Flint's grumbling and

listening to the endless stream of Tas's chatter. This he did

with the air of one who knows that a storm will not end

until all the thunder has rolled and all the rain has fallen.

These, then, were Tas's friends of whom he'd been so

certain. Of all of them only Tanis and Flint remained awake

to hear the tale of capture and escape told in odd tandem by

Keli and Tas. Though neither, Keli thought indignantly,

seemed to want to credit Tas with the heroics Keli stoutly

attributed to him. His back propped against a rock, his feet

as close to the fire as he dared put them, Keli now looked

first at Flint, then at Tanis.

"If it hadn't been for Tas, Tigo would have killed me.

He's a real hero."

"Hero!" Flint laughed. "That one? Aye, lad, and I'm

Reorx's forgemaster!"

"He IS," Keli declared stoutly.

Tanis tried, for the sake of Keli's rising anger, to

swallow his own laughter. He glanced at Tas crouched

before the fire. The kenders dignity was not in the least

disturbed by Flint's customary derision.

"He saved my life," Keli insisted. "He got those two

good and lost, found the caves behind the falls, and the

stairs that led up to the top. I'D never have known about the

caves or the stairs or the bridge."

Flint shook his head. "I don't suppose Tanis's tracking

or Raistlin's light-weaving had anything to do with the fact

that you're here and safe, lad?"

Keli did not quail before the dwarf's gruff question, but

defended his friend. "They did, and I thank you all for what

you've done. But - but you were almost too late. And - "

Keli foundered, looking from one to the other. They were

still amused, and Keli could not understand what was so

funny. "And - Tas DID save my life."

"Risked your neck about a half a dozen more times

than you remember or know about is more like it," Flint

growled. "It's lucky you are that you're here to tell us the

tale.

"Look at you, lad, you're half-starved despite eating a

rabbit and a half, and dead tired. Get some sleep now, you'll

see the right of the matter in the morning."

"I know the right of it," Keli maintained. He looked to

Tas, who only shrugged.

"They're a little slow," the kender drawled. He grinned

then, suddenly, and that grin was like the flash of a comet

across a midnight sky. "But they always manage to catch

up." He stretched and yawned hugely. He shot one quick

look at Flint and then winked at Keli. That wink, always

trouble for someone, sparked Keli's smile.

Flint started to protest, but Tas only grinned again. He

waved an off-hand goodnight and went to find a place to

sleep. As tired as he was, Keli knew he wouldn't be able to

sleep yet. He settled down more comfortably near the fire

and sighed.

After a moment Tanis said, "We'll have to get you

home somehow, Keli."

"Just back to Seven Wells would be fine," Keli

murmured. "I'm sure my horse is still there and there is the

message to be delivered to my father's friend."

"Oh, no," Flint rumbled. "If we let you out of our sight

now, who knows what you'll get yourself into next? Home,

lad, and the message can be delivered along the way." He

reached into his pack, pulled out a block of wood, and

applied his dagger's blade silently for a time. Keli would

have offered his thanks, but Tanis caught his eye and stilled

him with a smile and a shake of his head.

When Flint looked up again, he spoke not to Keli but to

Tanis.

"If we've any sense at all, we'll make for home

ourselves after we've delivered this lad and his message."

That was not what the half-elf had expected to hear.

"Back to Solace this early in the summer?"

Flint was quiet for a long moment. When he spoke at

last his voice was rough. Almost cold, Keli thought.

"I thought he was dead," Flint said, and Keli knew it

was Tas of whom he spoke. "I really did. I didn't fear it.

Fear still allows you to slip hope in behind it. I thought he

was dead from the minute I saw my mark 6n that rock, and I

didn't expect to find anything else.

"It is a bad thing to be without hope." He cleared his

throat softly and went on. "And Caramon. When he didn't

come up from the lake, when Sturm had to dive to find him,

I thought, between the first time and the last, that he was

dead, too."

Keli felt that fear, and heard it in the dwarf's voice. His

eyes were not so hard now, his expression not nearly as

forbidding as it had been. An odd look graced his rough

features, but Keli could not put a name to it. He'd seen the

look before on his father's face.

Tanis poked up the fire and by its flare Keli saw that he,

too, had thought his friends dead. When he spoke, though, it

was not to reassure himself but Flint. "They're all right

now."

The old dwarf drew a long breath and let it out in a heavy

sigh. He looked at his young friends sleeping around the

fire: Caramon, his scabbarded sword lying near to hand;

Sturm, who slept deep and looked as though he could wake

fast at need; Raistlin, likely walking in dreams only he

could understand; and Tas, curled like an exhausted pup

against Caramon's back. When the dwarf spoke again, Keli

sensed that some decision was being made. He sat forward

and listened.

"Aye, Tanis, they are. But the lands are changing, lad.

I feel it in my bones that things are shifting, growing

darker. At first it was good to have them along on these

trips for their company. Lately, it's been good having them

along because I could not ply my trade, such as it is these

days, along the old routes without them. Look at what

happened to the lad here! Goblins and bandits! And rumors

of worse and stranger things haunt the roads now."

Tanis reached out absently to ruffle Keli's hair. "You'll

not keep them safe in Solace by wishing it so, old friend."

"No, I know them better than that. And we're partners,

you and I, have been for a long time. This isn't a decision I

can rightly make for both of us." Flint shook his head. A

smile warred with a scowl. The scowl won, but only barely.

"And we don't get much done these days chasing that pesty

kender from one end of the land to the other, do we? No,

home sounds better and better to me."

As hard as the dwarf was to read, that was how easy it

was to divine Tanis's thought: plainly he doubted that

Solace would keep Tas or any of his friends long for all that

it seemed to be home. But aloud he only said, "All right,

then, Flint. Home it is, for Keli and for us."

Solace won't keep them long, Keli thought. Hawks

may grace your wrist for a time, his father had once told

him, but they do not domesticate well at all.

Now, Flint leaned forward and gently roughed the

sleepy boy's chin. "Home, aye, lad?"

Keli smiled in the night's shadow. "Oh, aye, home."

 

By the Measure

 

Richard A. Knaak

 

His head was pounding, and his mouth was dry. He

had neither eaten nor slept for two days - not since burning

Standel after a day of mourning. Standel, his one

companion. The only other knight to accompany him on his

flight from an Order that had decayed. Brave, strong

Standel. He had never understood his own death.

Garrick scanned the terrain as well as his bleary eyes

were able. More of the same. Villagers were coming from

the south, away from the advancing army sent by the

Dragon Highlord. They were seeking protection from the

garrison at Ironrock. The knight smiled bitterly through

cracked lips. How long did they think a garrison of one

hundred men was going to hold out against an army one

hundred times its size? Not to mention the added pressure

of trying to feed several hundred refugees.

He steered Auron away from the group. The war-horse

turned reluctantly, perhaps sensing the grain the people

carried. The horse had been forced to subsist on what little

it could forage in this bleak area. Garrick sympathized with

its plight, his own last meal having consisted of a handful of

berries and some cheese and hardbread bought from the

innkeeper who had been indirectly responsible for Standel's

death. The lands he had traveled through since offered

nothing in the way of sustenance. The inhabitants

themselves had long ago spirited away anything edible.

He could not believe what the Order had become. The

older knights smiled patronizingly at his plaints;

some of the younger ones scoffed. Some understood him,

though. Understood that even the Knights of Solamnia had

turned away from Paladine more than they admitted. The

Knights were no longer an Order that aided the repressed so

much as a petty sect living on its past glories and shunning

those they believed had turned on them. Never mind that the

Order had such black marks as Lord Soth to live down.

In his worn state, he did not notice the second group of

villagers until they were almost on him. Like so many

before, they spat at him as they passed and cursed him for

being what he was. A stocky man with slightly gray hair

and a perpetual scowl blocked his path with an open cart

drawn by two oxen. Several other villagers stood behind the

man.

"What do you want here, oh great and noble knight?"

The venom fairly dripped from his mouth.

Garrick sighed. "I have sworn by the Measure that I will

defend my fellow men from the evil that is the Queen. I

intend to keep that pledge."

They laughed. Laughed loudly. The laughter was

magnified a thousand times in Garrick's mind, though he

knew it would come. It always had. The loud, bitter

laughter.

The stocky leader stepped closer, his eyes shifting back

and forth between the knight and the warhorse. It was

obvious that he did not trust either of them. Closer now, he

studied Garrick's battered armor, the chipped and bent

weapons, his pale and sweating face.

"Aye, you look like a terror that will frighten away the

dark ones. Frighten them into conquering the world, I'd

say!"

There was more laughter, though much more muted

than before. The looks the villagers gave Garrick were ugly,

full of hate. Hate for his not having been there when it

counted. The leader shifted closer, his intentions clear. Pull

the knight down into the mud where he belonged. The

knight drew his well-worn blade with a speed that belied his

weary appearance. He kept the group at bay with the

weapon, allowing no one within arm's length.

"For your own sakes, move on."

Muttering, they did so, much more quickly and

complacently than Garrick would have thought possible for

them. He realized why with a sadness that sank him deeper

into the darkness he had ridden in since Standel's death. He

was nothing to them. If anything, they were disgusted with

him. Disgusted with all the knights.

It hurt Garrick that they had good reasons for their

hatred.

The few huts he passed now were stripped of anything

worth carrying. Mere shells. Skeletons. It was as if the war

had already been through here. In a sense, he realized,

perhaps it had. Standel would have been stronger, more able

to cope with the shouts, the curses, the looks. Garrick could

not understand why he should live while a better knight

should die so ignominiously. Not for the first time since his

companion's death, he wavered slightly in his belief in the

Measure.

The ground reached for him. Garrick steadied himself and

wiped his brow. To collapse this close, to leave his task

unfinished, would be unforgivable. Paladine would surely

condemn him. He waited for exhaustion to overtake him,

but something held back the final fall. A warmth in his

chest, around his neck. A feeling of guidance and love.

His shaking hand tugged hard on the chain circling his

throat. The medallion given to him so long ago gleamed

despite the lack of any sunshine. On each side of the

medallion were engraved words from the Measure. More

important, the medallion carried the face of Paladine as

known by the Knights of Solamnia.

The pain in his mind eased. Paladine had not

condemned him after all. There was still some purpose to

Garrick's life, some reason the god still watched over him.

He thanked his lord and allowed the piece to thump against

his chest again. Though his body was worn beyond the

limits of most men, he smiled gratefully. He would be

allowed the chance to fulfill his Oath.

Somewhere to the south lay his objective. Somewhere

to the south, perhaps four days, perhaps only two, lay part

of the advancing army of the Dragon Highlord - a sizable

portion commanded by one of the Highlord's most

dangerous generals. Pushing ever closer, its only real

obstacle was the tiny garrison four days north from

Garrick's present location.

They would be forced to travel through the woods to

obtain the pass, he realized. In the woods, they would be

vulnerable. In the woods, he stood a chance.

He came across the bodies just after crossing a stream.

They had been carelessly stacked to one side. Plague

victims. The stench nearly overwhelmed him. The knight

shivered. Better to die in battle than waste away in the end.

He covered his nose and mouth with tattered, dirty cloth and

urged the warhorse to move at a quicker pace. That their

loved ones had left these poor shells to rot did not bother

him. Now was a time to take care of the living, to help those

still with the breath of life within them. The dead were in no

hurry.

The light began to fade as the sun, hidden by clouds,

plunged closer toward its own death. Garrick eyed the huts

in this region. Unlike those he had passed shortly before,

these were more or less whole. Knowing them to be

contaminated, though, he could not bring himself to rest in

one. He dared not rest, anyway. Each moment was as

precious to him as if it were his last.

The woods came into view less than an hour later,

marking the beginning of the pass even before the great

ridges that stood to each side. Garrick blinked, rather

surprised that he had made it this far. That in itself was a

miracle. He gave thanks to Paladine and suddenly felt warm

all over.

The first trees were little more than stumps. This part

of the forest had been raped by the desperate villagers.

Panic had finally taken over at some point. To one side was

a small stack of firewood. A little farther, a tree stood with

its trunk chopped half through. Idly, Garrick wondered if

the woodsmen had fled because of plague or because of the

approaching horde.

Auron was hesitant to enter the woods and would do so

only after much persuasion. Garrick frowned. The warhorse

was not prone to hesitancy. The knight put one hand on the

hilt of his sword, but did not draw it. With more urging, he

managed to get the horse to move at a reasonable pace.

The woods were deathly silent. No birds, no ground

creatures. Not even the faintest hint of a breeze. Auron

snorted. Garrick tightened his hold on the sword. He

searched for but did not find any trace of draconian activity

in the woods. The feeling of death was in the air, though. It

was as if animal life had abandoned this area to the Queen.

Even the trees seemed to have given up; many were

obviously dying - another sign of things to come should the

armies of darkness emerge triumphant.

He rode on. The night air cooled his burning head. He

forgot some of his pain. To either side, the ridges grew

higher and higher. Garrick pulled his mount to a halt

momentarily and picked out a likely spot on one ridge.

Auron snorted and would not move. The animal had given

more than most and had finally reached its limit. Even its

training could not overcome such exhaustion.

Garrick patted the animal gently and dismounted.

Leaving the horse to rest, he made his way to the ridge top.

It was steep but by no means impassable. Discarding some

of his heavier equipment, the knight made progress.

He thanked Paladine that it was not a long climb. The

campfires became visible just after he had cleared the tops

of the trees. Further in, the pass sank deeply, giving him a

much better view of the region than he had hoped. Seeing

the vast number of fires, Garrick knew he had located the

Queen's forces. They had dared to settle in an area where

they could easily have been trapped if there had existed an

army to trap them. The northern garrison, of course, was too

small. All other resistance had been crushed. The

commander of the army had a right to be confident.

Tomorrow they would head through the pass and into

the unprotected lands. It would not take them long to reach

the garrison then. The battle would be even shorter.

Once more, he wished that Standel had survived rather

than he. Standel would have looked at the massed forces

and scoffed. He would have organized, would have planned.

Garrick had only a few wild ideas and a hope that Paladine

would grant him the chance.

His head pounding, Garrick returned to his mount. The

horse was grazing peacefully. He saw no reason to disturb

the animal. Auron had already performed miracles for his

master. The knight could not honestly ask for anything

more. It was up to Garrick alone.

With shaking fingers, he pulled out the medallion. It

was still warm to his touch and seemed to shine even in the

darkness. He caressed it for a moment and then sank to his

knees in prayer.

 

They came just before dawn.

He had just put out the last of the fires. Now he rested

against the side of a tree, sword drawn, shield ready. He had

released Auron and sent him away, not wishing so loyal a

beast to perish for little reason.

The fires had been easy to build. The forest was dying;

branches littered the ground. Most were dry and made good

kindling. The fires were strong, though not long in burning

themselves out. That they existed was more than sufficient

for Garrick's purposes.

By their slowed movements, he knew that scouts had

found the remains of more than one of the fires. He had

been careful to scatter a few fragments around each fire,

junk he had gathered on his way here. Just enough to lend

truth to the thoughts of the enemy - that the Queen's foes

awaited her army in this forest.

Garrick heard the hiss of an indrawn breath. A leathery,

misshapen foot moved into sight.

The knight's sword was a blur. It was into and out of the

draconian's neck before the creature had a chance to die.

The body solidified to stone and tumbled forward. Garrick

glanced around the tree and then darted swiftly away.

He did not stop until he was some distance from the area

where he had killed the reptilian warrior. Again, he pushed

himself tightly against the tree and waited. This time, the

wait was not long. His eyes were already getting blurry;

soon he would be unable to see.

These scouts were men. His first blow took out the

closest of the two. The scout had time to gasp and no more.

Even as he fell, Garrick was already working on his

companion. This man had time to ready his weapon, but his

skill was far inferior to the training a Knight of Solamnia

received. Garrick disarmed him first and then stunned him

with a blow to the shoulder. When the man attempted to

crawl away, Garrick knocked him out. Sheathing his sword,

he dragged his senseless opponent behind a tree. He forced

himself to concentrate on necessary actions. There were

some things that had to be done.

He stayed as long as he felt was safe and then moved

off to what would be his third, and probably final, position.

He dared not take any longer. His head was already

pounding.

Falling against a tree, he sought desperately to catch his

breath. They were ready for him now. The bodies of their

fallen comrades had alerted them to the immediate threat.

No longer did they attempt to sneak through the brush.

Garrick estimated at least five adversaries, two of whom

were almost within striking distance. He steadied his hands

as best he could and blinked several times in a futile attempt

to clear his vision. He could hear the hiss of the draconians

as clearly as if they were breathing in his ears.

The first to pass him made the mistake of looking the

wrong way as it passed. Garrick nearly sheared its head off.

Unfortunately, his speed had slowed considerably. The

draconian petrified and fell, pulling the great sword from

the knight's weakened grasp even as it dropped.

Weaponless, Garrick's luck nevertheless remained with

him. The second draconian had been momentari ly stunned

by the sudden attack. Before it could react properly, Garrick

was already on it. They struggled fiercely, the draconian's

awkward build proving a disadvantage in hand-to-hand

combat on the ground. Only the knight's exhaustion evened

the contest.

There were shouts from all around, both human and

draconian. A patrol had arrived. Garrick was torn away

from his adversary, who remained on the ground, gasping

for breath. He was able to strike one human in the stomach,

sending the recipient of the blow back a good four or five

steps. Then, his arms were pinned behind his back and he

was forced down. A draconian slapped him hard on the

face. There was the sound of steel being drawn, but

someone muttered something Garrick was unable to

understand. The muttering was followed by the sound of the

weapon being sheathed once more. As he had surmised,

they had been ordered to take him prisoner.

Two of the draconians, their wings fluttering in anger,

held him tight while one of the humans bound his hands

together behind him. Someone produced chains. Garrick's

feet were hooked together so that he stumbled when he tried

to take normal steps. His helm was torn from his head and a

leather collar with a leash attached to it wrapped around his

neck, nearly choking him. He stumbled then and fell to his

knees. Determination more than anything else made him

stand once more. He could barely feel the blows of his

captors anymore.

A human who must have been in charge led the entire

group back to camp. They were obviously convinced that a

large band of knights was lurking somewhere in the woods.

Having faced one knight who, despite his appearance, was

readily capable of taking on a good half dozen opponents,

they were in no hurry to meet up with a larger force. The

various members of the patrol took turns pulling him. Had

they not been convinced that he must have information of

some sort, they would have gladly killed him in order to

speed up their retreat even more.

At some point during the trek, Garrick could hold out

no longer. His head felt like it was bursting. The woods

became unbearably hot. He was no longer able to

coordinate his movements, nor could he even tell what was

happening around him.

Mercifully, the entire world chose to go black.

 

Cold reality struck him in the face and dripped down

his neck. Garrick shivered and tried to focus his eyes. The

light of midday burned into his very mind, forcing him to

close his eyes once more. He tried to stand, but found

himself bound tight to some sort of chair. Someone stirred.

"Shall I throw another bucket in his face, General?"

The voice was as cold as it was commanding. "I think

not. If our knight is anything of a man, he will open his eyes

and face us. Still, if he is a coward, perhaps another bucket

of water would be . . ."

Garrick gritted his teeth and forced himself to look into

the light, despite the agony it caused him each moment.

After seeing nothing but glare for the first few seconds, he

was eventually able to make out two figures. One had the

slightly stooped look of a draconian. The other was human -

so to speak. All Garrick could tell at first was that the

human stood a good seven feet in height. Both the knight

and his captors were in a large tent. Tables and chairs stood

to one side. Numerous piles of armor and equipment lay

scattered elsewhere. There seemed to be no one purpose for

the tent. For now, it served as his prison.

The giant chuckled softly. "Very good. I see the Knights

of Solamnia deserve something of their repu tation after all.

I was beginning to think it was all myth."

"Untie me." The words escaped the knight's lips as little

more than a croak, but the giant caught them nonetheless.

"Oh, I couldn't risk that. You might overwhelm us and

crawl to safety - given six or seven hours head start."

The draconian hissed its amusement. Garrick studied

the two as they became clearer. The reptilian aide was much

like its brethren, save that it was motley-colored compared

to those the knight had seen earlier. There was, however, a

vicious look in its eyes, one that said that this draconian

would readily pull Gar-rick's fingers from his hands and his

arms from his shoulders if given the chance. By all practical

consideration, this was the general's torturer.

The general himself was most definitely a giant among

his fellow men, and not just in height. He easily outweighed

Garrick by almost one-third again his own weight, and none

of it could be called fat. Strength alone, though, was not

sufficient to coordinate a major army with great success.

The knight did not doubt for one minute that the massive

frame was matched by an equally impressive mind.

"I am General Krynos of Culthairai, a land I'm sure

you've never heard of and which does not deserve any

notice whatsoever. When I learned of the Queen's return

and the armies being raised, I seized the chance to join and

prove my skills. Up until now, though, I've lacked a

sufficient challenge."

In truth, even the Knights of Solamnia had been awed by

some of the accounts they had heard about Krynos. The

armies he had crushed would have turned back a number of

Dragon Highlords, much less their various generals. It was

even said that the next opening in the ranks of the Highlords

would see the addition of Krynos.

Only a garrison stood in his way. A tiny army. A tiny

army and Garrick.

Krynos stroked his rich, black beard. He was a

handsome, proud man. Proud and stubborn.

"What is your name, Knight of Solamnia?"

"Garrick."

"That's it? Just Garrick? Not Garrick the Great? The

Champion? The Draconian Slayer?"

The wings of the torturer spread in anticipation. The

draconian bore a huge reptilian smile that told of deadly

delights to come when Garrick was its to play with. The

knight pointedly ignored the creature.

"Just Garrick."

"Well then, 'Just Garrick,' how many of your comrades

lie in wait in the forest? The scouts and patrols count at

least three dozen fires. The Knights of Solamnia, whatever

their faults, do not run away. Even against impossible

odds."

"I am the only one. You can search all you like. You

will find no others. I came on my own."

Krynos laughed, and the draconian hissed. The sharp

claws of the latter slapped Garrick hard across the mouth.

He could feel the blood flowing from his lip. The general

put a hand out to halt another blow by the torturer.

"Not yet - and not the mouth. We want to be able to

understand him when he talks. And you will talk, Knight.

Ssaras is very good at this job, especially with humans. You

would do well to give up on such a stupid tale and tell us

where your comrades have hidden themselves. I can afford

to wait them out for a few days. Nothing lies beyond them

that can stop me. Only an already-battered land and a tiny,

insignificant garrison. The nearest force of substantial

strength is two weeks away and much too busy with

problems of its own to bother worrying about me."

It did not surprise Garrick that the general was so well-

informed about the region. That was perhaps one thing that

had helped the knight. Used to the thoroughness of his

information network, Krynos could not accept the solitary

presence of Garrick. The fires might be real; they might be

fakes. If one knight could wait in hiding, could not others?

Everyone knew that the Knights of Solamnia were skilled in

all aspects of warfare. Who knew what sort of tricks they

might pull? Krynos could not afford a mistake at this time.

Even a minor one would cause him a loss of face.

Garrick remained silent. Krynos frowned and then,

nodded to Ssaras. The draconian waddled eagerly to a table

upon which a number of devices, recognizable and

unrecognizable, had been placed. The creature selected one

and showed it eagerly to its master. The general eyed it with

almost clinical interest before shaking his head.

Disappointed, the draconian put down the instrument and

waited for further orders. Krynos turned his attention back

to his prisoner.

"Where are your companions, Garrick? How do they

plan to meet us? In one massive charge on the field? Sounds

foolish, but I know your Order. I wanted to become of your

kind before I came to my senses and turned to the Queen."

Earlier, such a statement might have stung Garrick.

Now, though, he was well beyond such petty things. It was

difficult enough just to remain conscious, much less be

bothered by meaningless slurs from the tongue of his foe.

The general snapped his fingers. Ssaras scurried over to a

pile of odds and ends and picked something up. Garrick

gradually identified it as his own shield. The general took it

from the draconian and looked at it with some amusement.

"Perhaps I am overestimating the noble Knights of

Solamnia. Perhaps they are indeed skulking around in the

woods, hiding out of sight, fighting like elves or gully

dwarves - with no honor - coming from behind their

opponents." He dropped the shield and spat on the front.

One heavy boot came down on the wet spot. With little

effort, Krynos had put a great dent in the shield.

Garrick's growing madness threatened to burst then, but

the warmth around his chest checked it. It occurred to him

then that they had removed his armor but not his medallion.

He could see no way that they could have possibly missed it

in their search.

Ssaras looked hopefully at the general. Krynos was

calculating his possibilities.

"Get Thaygan."

The torturer hissed. "Thaygan is a fraud. All clerics are

frauds, General."

"Would you like to tell that to the Queen herself,

Ssaras? She might beg to differ."

The draconian quieted immediately. Without further

ado, it scurried away to seek the cleric. Garrick muttered a

prayer to Paladine. Should Thaygan be a strong enough

cleric, the knight would have little chance of defending his

mind from the psychic onslaught. Unlike many of his

brethren, he had a strong respect for the power of clerics.

A strong, gauntleted hand pulled his head up by the

hair. Krynos moved close to him, so close that Garrick was

able to feel the other's hot breath on his face. "Tell me what

I want to know now, and I'll spare you the tender touch of

Thaygan. In his own way, he leaves a prisoner much worse

off than Ssaras does."

"There is only me."

The general's eyes flared. "Do you swear to that?"

Garrick avoided the binding trap by repeating his

statement once more. As he hoped, his refusal to swear only

convinced Krynos even more that there were other knights

lurking around somewhere near or in the forest ahead.

The general let Garrick's head drop. He paced the width

of the tent several times before the sudden presence of the

dark cleric brought him to a startled halt. The cleric stared

at the general and then at the prisoner, who was struggling

feebly with the bonds. Nothing of the cleric was visible save

his hands.

"You have need of my services, General Krynos?"

"Regretfully so. I need information from this man, and

you know how stubborn Knights of Solamnia can be."

"A Solamnic Knight? Here?"

"Are your ears still stuffed with the chants and

incantations of your order? A Knight of Solamnia, found in

the woods - and where there's one, there's more. I want the

truth from him. Beware, though. He is not in the best of

condition. I fear my men must have mussed him up a little

bit too hard."

The cleric drew back his hood. Garrick had the brief

notion that he was being visited by Death itself. The cleric

was emaciated beyond normal tolerances. To the prisoner, it

seemed as if Thaygan's face should crack in pieces each

time the old man spoke.

As the cleric stepped toward the knight, Krynos

actually blanched slightly. Garrick dimly wondered what

could frighten a man of the general's reputation. That

thought vanished with all others as the cleric reached down

and put a hand to each side of the prisoner's head.

The knight fell down an abyss. He screamed all the way.

Somewhere, he could hear a commanding voice that

demanded things of him. The words meant nothing to him,

though, and he kept falling.

A mighty hand came from the darkness. It glowed with

a light all its own. With little effort, it caught the

plummeting Garrick and held him tight. The pressure of the

monstrous grip was not stifling; rather, it reassured the

knight. Overwhelmed by a wave of peace and love, Garrick

slid off into velvety blackness.

 

He awoke briefly to see two men arguing. One was

incredibly ancient and looked more like an old corpse. The

other was a giant who looked capable of breaking the thin

man in two without trying. They seemed to be arguing

about something. Occasionally, one would point at Garrick.

The knight waited patiently for someone to ask him a

question. When none was forthcoming, he drifted slowly

back to sleep.

THE GOLDEN-ARMORED MAN LOOKED DOWN

AT GARRICK WITH FONDNESS AND RESPECT.

GARRICK FOUND HIMSELF UNABLE TO LOOK THE

OTHER STRAIGHT IN THE EYES. HE DID NOT FEEL

WORTHY OF THE AUDIENCE GRANTED TO HIM.

THE OTHER SMILED. "IT IS TIME, GARRICK, TIME

YOU JOINED THE RANKS. TIME YOU JOINED HUMA

AND THE OTHERS."

FOR THE FIRST TIME, THE YOUNG KNIGHT SAW

THE RANKS BEHIND PALADINE. AMONG THEM

STOOD ONE HE KNEW WELL. FROM HIS PLACE,

STANDEL NODDED GRAVELY TO HIM - AND THEN

BROKE OUT INTO A BIG SMILE.

PALADINE BADE HIM STAND. "THE TIME IS NOW,

GARRICK."

 

"Time to wake, Knight!" A rough hand shook his head.

Garrick's vision was red, and he realized belatedly that

blood was dripping from his forehead. His right foot felt

numb, his arms burned with excruciating pain. He spat

blood from his mouth.

A draconian stood next to the general. It was Ssaras and

what expression was readable on the reptilian face showed

that the creature was angry beyond words. The draconian's

breathing was haggard, as if it had been laboring hard. Of

the cleric, whom Garrick only vaguely remembered, there

was no sign.

General Krynos scowled at him. "What are you made

of, Knight? For three days, you've endured tortures that

have turned other men into screaming maniacs! You've sat

there all this time, mumbling to your god! Even Thaygan

could get nothing from you!"

Garrick did not answer. There seemed no need for a

reply, and his head hurt too much to think, anyway.

"You are useless to me, Knight. Whether or not your

allies are out there - and I admit for the first time that you

may have fooled me by giving me the truth - I will lead my

army come the morrow. We will be through the pass and

well on our way to the garrison by the time the day is

ended. The Queen will see who among her followers is

most valuable to her."

Ssaras swayed unsteadily. The general frowned. With

some effort, the draconian stood straight. Its mottled color

looked even more splotchy than before.

Krynos wiped the sweat from his forehead. "In all

fairness, you've proved a worthy challenge. Any last request

before I have Ssaras make an end of you?"

With superhuman effort, Garrick forced himself to sit

straight. The glazed look was gone from his eyes. "I

demand death in combat."

The general raised an eyebrow. "Combat? You can

barely stand, much less fight. I will make Ssaras give you a

swift, painless cut across the throat. Yes, that would be

much better, much more efficient, I think."

Garrick virtually ground the words out with his teeth. "I

demand death in combat - with you, unless you're afraid."

One mailed fist went for a weapon. The general was

barely able to restrain himself. He slowly released his grip

on the hilt of his sword.

"Very well. I shall grant your request for death."

The torturer looked at him in shock. "Master! Think

what you say! This is a trick!"

"It is the request of a dead man, Ssaras! If he wishes to

fight me, then so he shall. It will give me some little

amusement before I begin final preparations for our

departure. Untie him, Ssaras."

"Lord master Krynos, powerful warlord, I beg - "

"Untie him - unless, of course, you think that I am

incapable of defeating one such as he."

Ssaras moved over to Garrick and pulled out a knife.

For a brief moment, the draconian eyed the knight's

unprotected throat. A frown appeared on the reptilian's face

as it tried in vain to discern something.

"I'm waiting, Ssaras."

The draconian hurried about its work. The strangling

bonds fell away. Slowly, carefully, Garrick rose from the

chair he had been tied to for at least four days. His muscles

were cramped, but he otherwise felt little pain.

He moved one foot and discovered part of the reason

for such little pain. Much of his body was numb, probably

permanently. Blood still trickled from a few wounds.

Garrick purposely turned his mind to attaining a weapon of

some sort.

"Ssaras, present him with an appropriate toy."

Scurrying to a junk pile of Garrick's own equipment,

the draconian pulled out the chipped, dirty sword. In a

mockery of the knights, the creature held it high and waved

it three times, hissing the whole while. Krynos smirked and

motioned the torturer to get on with things.

Ssaras dragged the sword over to Garrick and dropped it

by the knight's feet. Garrick bent down slowly and retrieved

it, each movement sending shocks through his system. If not

for the medallion still hidden under his tunic, he would have

given in to his pain. Only the warmth and strength it

provided kept him going.

With the shadow of a smile, General Krynos pulled out

his own weapon. It was a tremendous broadsword which

many men would have had to handle with both hands. The

general swung it around easily with only one. He saluted

Garrick. "Are you ready?"

In answer, the knight held his sword before him and

tested its balance. It was like holding an old friend.

Somewhere to the side, by the tent entrance, Ssaras hissed

displeasure.

"Ready."

The look of amusement left the face of General Krynos

the moment he saw the sword coming toward him. He was

barely able to block the blow. Cursing silently, he backed

away to regain his balance. Garrick followed through,

giving his larger opponent little time to do anything but

defend. The draconian jumped up and down, hissing all the

time. Sharp claws continually stroked the hilt of the knife

that the creature always kept tucked in its belt for when a

prisoner broke loose. The draconian's greatest fear was not

knowing whether its master would approve of such

initiative or cut off his servant's head.

Krynos was bleeding from three minor wounds, but

Garrick's attack was slowing. The general was able to

breathe and think now. The tide was turning swiftly.

All his strength left Garrick's arm with a suddenness that

surprised both fighters. The knight's sword went flying

toward the tent entrance, where an alert Ssaras was barely

able to leap aside before the blade buried itself in the spot

where the draconian had just been standing. Garrick blinked

and let his hand fall to his side. Krynos moved in to finish

the fight and his opponent with one thrust.

Garrick fell to the ground, untouched by the general's

blade.

Krynos stood there, staring at the body. The torturer

rushed over and turned the knight face up. The reptilian face

moved to within an inch of Garrick's. After a quick

examination, the draconian looked up at his lord.

"He is dead. His wounds must have been more than he

could stand."

"It's a wonder he lived through what he did." The

general sheathed his weapon. "He was half-dead when the

patrol brought him in. I wonder why."

"What shall I do with him, master?"

"Bury him. He deserves that much - fool that he was."

"As you command." The draconian left the tent.

General Krynos, late of Culthairai, studied the figure

sprawled before him and sighed. He had been hoping for

much more from the knight. The war had grown dull.

 

The four soldiers that buried Garrick, Knight of

Solamnia, were half-asleep. Most of them were sweating

profusely, despite the cool breeze blowing. One had to be

excused to seek out a cleric after he nearly fell into the hole.

The remaining three continued their work, trying to finish

the job quickly and get back to more important things, like

their card game. In their haste, not one of them happened to

notice the medallion which slipped out of hiding when the

corpse was tossed in. Even as they buried it with the body,

the medallion seemed to glow brighter and brighter, despite

the lack of any real light.

 

*****

 

On the following morning, the army did not move. A

great number of soldiers complained about heat and great

thirst. Most of them had become bedridden. The number of

ill grew quickly.

The clerics were of no help whatsoever. They had been

the first to be stricken and, oddly, the worst cases. Most of

them died within a day.

General Krynos attempted to organize the remainder of

his troops. He had the healthy separated from their fallen

comrades. Yet more and more men collapsed, a total of one-

quarter of the army's strength in only one day.

Confusion reigned. Some soldiers attempted to sneak

away. Many were caught and executed, and the rest were

tracked down. Each time, they were found dead no more

than a few hours from the main camp.

It was General Krynos who first understood what had

happened. He had let the bait of the trap lure him into a

battle with the one foe he could not defeat. Even as he

himself fell victim to the plague, which by that time had

claimed almost half his army, he could not understand how

he and the others, especially the late cleric Thaygan, could

have missed the signs.

Four days later, the plague, which Garrick had fought to

a stalemate for more than a week, had wiped out all but a

few scattered remnants of the once-powerful army. The

tales told by the survivors would prevent any other army

from coming through that way for the rest of the war. Even

the clerics of the Queen refused to go near, for they could

feel that the power of Paladine was involved somehow.

With time, the villagers would return, the garrison

would be reinforced for an enemy that would never come.

No one would remember the single knight who had kept his

vow the only way he knew how.

 

The Exiles

 

Paul B. Thompson and Tonya R. Carter

 

He dreamed of battle. The small bed shook with the

shock of phantom cavalry and the tramp of spectral men-at-

arms. In the midst of this dream melee a deep voice said,

"Sturm, wake up. Get up, boy."

Sturm Brightblade opened his eyes. A tall, burly man,

dark of eye and fiercely moustached, towered over him.

The torch he carried cast smoky highlights on his steel

breastplate and wolf-fur mantle.

"Father?" said the boy groggily.

"Get up, son," Lord Brightblade said. "It's time to

go"

"Go? Where, Father?"

Lord Brightblade didn't answer. He turned quickly to

the door. "Dress warmly," he said before going out. "Snow

is flying. Hurry, boy." The door thumped shut behind him.

Sturm sat up and rubbed his eyes. The tapers in his

room were lit, but the ashes in the grate were cold. He

pulled on a heavy robe, wincing when his feet touched the

bare stone floor. As he stood, unsure of what to do next, he

heard a knock on the door.

"Enter," he said.

Mistress Carin, handmaid to his mother, the Lady Ilys,

bustled in. Her usually cheery face was pale under a close

flannel hood.

"Are you not yet dressed, Master?" she asked. "Your

mother sent me to speed your packing. Do hurry!"

Sturm rubbed his nose in confusion. "Hurry, Mistress?

Why? What's happening?"

"It's not for me to tell you, young lord." She hastened

across the narrow room to a black wooden chest and began

tossing clothing out of it. "This, and this. Not that. This,

yes," she muttered. She glanced at the puzzled boy and said,

"Well, get your bag!" Sturm pulled a long leather bag from

under the bed. He was big for his eleven years, but the bag

was nearly as long as he was tall. As clothing rained on his

bed, Sturm gathered each item and folded it neatly into the

bag.

"No time for that," Carin declared. "Just fill the bag,

Sturm."

He threw a single woolen stocking aside. "Where are

we going, Mistress?" he demanded. "And why are we

going?"

Carin looked away. "The peasants," she said.

"The people of Avrinet? I don't understand. Father said

they were suffering from the hard winter, but - "

"There's no time for talk, young lord. We must hurry."

Carin shook her head and dug into the half-empty chest

again. "It's a terrible thing when people forget their place. . . ."

Sturm was still methodically folding every article of

clothing when the maid took it away from him and stuffed

in the last few remaining items.

"There," she said. "All done." She dragged the bag to

the door. "Someone will come for that. In the meantime,

finish dressing. Wear your heaviest cloak - the one with the

fur hood."

"Mistress Carin?" Sturm's lost tone halted the woman.

"Are you coming with us?"

She drew her short, round body up proudly. "Where my

lady goes, so go I." And then she was gone.

The main hall of Castle Brightblade was in a hushed

tumult. Only a few candles burned in the wall sconces, but

by their troubled light Sturm saw that the entire household

was astir. In recent days, many of the servants had fled,

taking tools and petty valuables with them. Sturm had only

the vaguest notion of how things were beyond the castle

walls.

Armed men stood at every door, pikes at the ready.

Sturm fell into a stream of rushing servants and was carried

with them to the door of the guardroom. His father was

there, with another large man who lifted his head when the

boy entered. Sturm recognized his father's good friend and

fellow knight, Lord Gunthar Uth Wistan.

"I'm packed, Father," Sturm said.

"Eh? Good, good. Go to your mother, boy. You'll find

her in the north corridor." He looked back to the map spread

on the table before him. Sturm bowed his head and

withdrew, his heart heavy. He leaned against the outside of

the guardroom door.

"He's only a boy, Angriff," he heard Lord Gunthar say.

"Not yet a man, much less a knight."

Lord Brightblade replied, "Sturm is the son and

grandson of Solamnic Knights. Our blood goes back to

Berthal the Swordsman. He must learn to cope with

hardship."

Sturm lifted his chin and strode away. Following the line

of burning torches along the corridor, he ran a finger in a

joint of mortared stones, as he had every day since

becoming tall enough to do so. This might be the last time

Sturm would trace the crack. He slowed his pace to make

the feeling linger.

Overhead, a loophole shutter banged loose in the wind.

Sturm mounted the narrow steps to the loophole and

reached out into the cold to catch the wayward shutter.

Through the silently falling snow he saw a red glow on the

horizon. It was too early for dawn.

"Close that shutter!"

Sturm whirled. Soren Vardis, sergeant of the household

guard, was striding toward him. He took the steps two at a

time. Soren reached easily over Sturm's head and closed the

shutter, letting the bolt fall in its slot with a loud clank.

He smiled at the boy. "There are bowmen in the woods,"

he said. "A face in a lighted window makes an excellent

target."

"Sergeant, what will the villagers do?"

A crack in the shutter let in the red glow. It striped

Soren's face with a streak of blood. He looked at Sturm,

standing so straight and proper. "I suppose you have a right

to know," he said. "The peasants are in arms. They've set

fire to the north wood and burned the fallow pastures east

and south. Your father's cattle have been stolen and

slaughtered. Some of my men were killed in Avrinet, but

not before reporting that the villagers were preparing to

attack."

"They can't get in the castle," Sturm said in a pleading

tone.

"Alas, young lord, they can. I have less than a hundred

men to defend all of the wall, and of those I trust not

twenty."

Sturm could not fathom these revelations. "Why are

they doing this, Soren? Why? My father never used them

harshly."

"The common folk, here as throughout Krynn, blame the

knights for not calling down the aid of Paladine in the dark

times." Soren shook his head in sor row. "In their mad anger

they have forgotten all that the knights have done for them."

They descended the steps. "So Father will fight our way

out?" asked Sturm.

Soren cleared his throat. "My Lord Brightblade will

remain behind to defend his home and lands."

"Then I shall stay, too!"

The sergeant paused and rested a battle-hardened hand

on the boy's shoulder. "No, young lord. Your father has

given orders that you and the Lady Ilys be sent to far Solace

for safety. Our duty is to obey." He knelt in front of Sturm

and scrubbed away the tears with his rough thumbs. "None

of that now, lad. Your mother will need all your strength to

make this journey. It will fall to you to be the Brightblade

man of the party, you know."

Wind sighed through the north corridor. The double

doors to the courtyard were open. A two-wheel cart waited

in the calf-deep snow. Lady Ilys, splendid in a cape of white

rabbit, was bidding farewell to her husband.

"May the gods go with you," Lord Brightblade said,

clasping her hands between his own. "You will always be

my lady."

Their cheeks touched. "And you, my lord," said Lady

Ilys.

The sniffling from the front of the cart was Mistress

Carin. Sturm and Soren halted before Lord Brighblade. The

sergeant saluted. The master of Brightblade Castle clapped

the guardsman on his ironclad shoulders.

"My best man-at-arms," he said. "Keep them safe,

Soren Vardis."

"Aye, my lord."

He faced his son. "Sturm, heed what your mother and

the sergeant tell you."

"Yes, sir." How he ached for just one embrace! But that

was not his father's way, not even at a time of parting.

Soren lifted him into the back of the cart, then mounted

his own horse. Mistress Carin snapped the reins, and the

cart jerked forward. Sturm buried his face in his sleeve. He

couldn't bear to leave. In spite of Soren's admonition, the

bitter tears returned.

At the west gate, torches were doused before the portal

opened. The guardsman and the cart moved into the night.

The castle was quickly lost from sight in the swirling snow.

The road west was high-centered and paved with stone, a

relic of the great days before the Cataclysm.

Sturm and his mother were nestled among the soft

heaps of baggage. Though warmed and rocked by the easy

motion of the cart, neither could find sleep. The boy could

hear the sharp clat-clat of the war-shod hooves of Nuitari,

Soren's black gelding. The sergeant kept to a measured pace

as he watched the road ahead for trouble. As soon as was

practical, they would leave the well-marked, well-paved

track for a less conspicuous route. If the peasants had a

mind to pursue them, they would be harder to find that way.

Soren reined up short. He snagged the carthorse's bridle

and pulled the beast off the road. No sooner was the party

screened by a stand of cedars than Sturm heard a low

rumble of voices. His heart beat quickly as he peeked

through the slatted side of the cart.

A band of rough-looking men came slogging through

the snow. Some wore fresh, hairy hides over their backs,

hides with the Brightblade brand.

"I'm cold!" one declared loudly.

"Shut your gob, Bron. We'll all be warm enough when we

put the torch to the knights' hall!" Ugly laughter greeted the

boast. Sturm heard his mother praying quietly to Paladine.

Soren led them back onto the road. Thev reached the

fork the sergeant wanted. Mistress Cann hauled back the

reins, and the cart slipped off the stones into a narrow,

muddy rut. The naked, black arms of leafless trees closed

over their heads. At last Sturm dropped into a light and

troubled sleep.

He awoke to the sound of weeping. "Mother?" he said.

She put a hand over his mouth. "Quiet, child." He saw

the tracks of tears on her face. He sat up and saw what was

making her cry.

Below, across a snow-gilt field, three houses burned.

Against the curtain of flame dark figures moved. Cows and

calves bawled in pain as cudgels beat them to the ground.

Angry, starving men tore them to pieces with billhooks and

hand scythes.

"They would do the same to us," said Lady Ilys.

Sturm looked to the sergeant in helpless anger. Soren

was afoot, his back to Nuitari, sword drawn. The fire

displayed his blue eyes burning under the brim of his

helmet. There was nothing he could do against twenty. And

there were the women and boy to protect.

They slipped away as if they were the brigands. The

snow continued until dawn, when the sun split the dense

gray clouds. Their hearts did not lighten with the sky. They

ate cold bread and cheese, and sipped tepid melted snow

from the sergeant's pigskin water-bag.

Sturm spelled Mistress Carin on the reins. He simply kept

them clear of the traces, as the old carthorse was content to

follow the rutted path without guidance. Carin fussed over

Lady Ilys, trying to screen her from the new sun and cold

wind. Sturm knew the woman was exhausted. He wondered

why his mother let her carry on with needless niceties of

castle protocol.

Sturm stayed at the reins until midday, when Soren

halted again for food and a consultation.

"As I recall," he said, chewing on a strip of dried beef,

"the way forks again not far ahead. If we go straight, we'll

end up in the mountains along the coast. Should we bear

south, we'll reach the coast in a day's steady ride."

"Where on the coast?" asked Lady Ilys.

"Near the port of Thel, where ships on the Inland Sea

often call."

"Ships, yes ... a sea voyage would be more comfortable

than rolling in this cart," she said. "Could we find passage

to Abanasinia in Thel?"

"Easily, my lady. 'Tis a thickly traveled route."

"Then we shall proceed to Thel, then take ship."

The carthorse wheezed and shivered. "I pray the beast

holds out till then," said Soren.

The beast did not. By the time they reached the fork, the

poor carthorse collapsed in harness, never to rise again.

"Oh, lady, what shall we do?" Carin wailed.

"Nuitari will have to serve," said Lady Ilys. Soren could

only obey in silence. He loosed the tracings from the dead

animal and dragged the carcass aside. Then he backed the

black, straight-limbed Nuitari between the poles of the over-

burdened cart. Soren patted the horse's nose consolingly.

"There's no shame in it," he said in a low voice, though

Sturm was near and heard him. "We all must serve beneath

our worth sometime, my friend."

Day passed and night came. The two bright moons rose,

shone their faces on Krynn, and set again. Mistress Carin

drove all night, and Sturm noticed that his mother parted

with one of her fine scarves so that her maid might have

some protection from the facing wind.

The air warmed with day, and the ice on the track

changed to mud. It gripped the cart wheels and the

sergeant's boots with fervor, but neither Soren nor the brave

Nuitari complained. They climbed a long, grassy hill to an

ancient ring of standing stones. Strange images were graven

on the triliths. Sturm knew dark forces were abroad in the

land. He held close to his mother when they stopped amid

the ruined circle.

Soren advanced to the crest of the hill. He pointed down

to a vista Sturm could not see. "It is Thel," he said.

 

Thel was a modest town of five-hundred souls, but to

Sturm's eye, it was a complete city. Some of the half-

timbered houses had three stories - not so tall as the towers

of Castle Brightblade, but so full of people! Sturm was

fascinated.

Soren walked the cart along the high street. The toll of

four days and nights on the road was obvious. Even Lady

Ilys was bedraggled, her fair face chapped by raw wind and

her soul weighed down with bitterness and hurt.

The Thelites paid them no large attention as they

passed. Strangers and refugees were common in the town.

Lady Ilys, for her part, ignored them in turn.

"Rabble. Riff-raff," she said through pursed lips.

"Remember, Sturm, you are the son of a knight. Do not

speak to these people unless they address you properly, with

the deference due us."

Soren found an inn off the waterfront. He went in to

dicker with the owner, leaving the women and boy in the

cart. Sturm climbed atop the baggage and watched the

passing crowds with total absorption.

One fellow in particular caught Sturm's eye: he was

short and slender, a green mantle draped over his shoulders.

His ears drew back in sharp points, and his eyes slanted

down at the corners. He walked with smooth, unconscious

grace.

"There's elf blood in him," Mistress Carin said

knowingly.

Across the street, a hulking figure loafed in an open

doorway. A shaggy mane of hair did little to conceal his

ugliness, and his lips could not hide the jagged teeth

protruding from his outthrust jaw.

"Half-orc," said Carin.

Soren returned. "My lady," he said. "The innkeeper has

a small private room for you and Master Sturm. Mistress

Carin may have a place by the kitchen hearth, and I a bench

in the beerhall. All this for four silver pieces."

"Four! That's outrageous!"

"I chaffered him down from seven."

"Very well," she said. "If it is the best we can do." She

sniffed the moist, salty air. "I suppose there are ELVES and

things in there?"

"No, lady. In the cold season, such folk generally go to

warmer climes."

"Let us be thankful for that, at least." Lady Ilys took

four coins from her purse. Soren helped her down from the

cart and escorted her and Sturm into the inn.

The innkeeper was a fat, bald man who grinned through

rotten teeth. He bobbed his head and waved Lady Ilys to the

stairs. Before Sturm reached the steps, the innkeeper let out

a howl.

"Put that back, you two-legged rat! Don't tell me you

found it; I know you stole it!" he cried. A diminutive

manlike creature, a head shorter than Sturm, silverware

poking out of his pockets, stood by a beer keg. When the

innkeeper yelled again, the little man put his fingers in his

ears and stuck out his tongue. Spoons, coins, and buttons

cascaded from his clothes onto the floor.

"I'll swat you good, you roach!" the innkeeper bawled.

He reached for a stout broom. The tiny fellow - a kender,

according to Carin - stooped to retrieve his booty. The

broom's first swipe was a miss, but the innkeeper caught the

kender by the seat of his pants and swept him out the door.

"My 'pologies, ma'am," the fat man said. "I never allow

them kender in here, but they slip in sometimes when I'm

not watchful."

Lady Ilys gave the man a glacial look and dropped only

three silver coins in his palm. The man was too flustered to

protest. He bowed and backed away. Soren hoisted two

bags on his shoulders and went up the steps, chuckling.

The room was small, and the beds were stacked one

above the other. Sturm was delighted and climbed nimbly

up the ladder to the top bunk.

"We will need more money for the voyage," Soren said.

"May I have my lady's approval to sell the cart for what it

will bring?"

"Nuitari too?" asked Sturm, aghast. Soren nodded

curtly.

"See to it, Sergeant. We shall not stir till your return,"

said Lady Ilys.

It was long dark before Soren came back. He thumped

on the door. Mistress Carin admitted him. Soren bore a

wide trencher of food. He'd intercepted the innkeeper's wife

on the stair and taken the heavy platter off her hands. Soren

set the trencher down on the lone table and announced, "We

have a ship."

Sturm stabbed a slab of boiled mutton with his knife. A

stern look from his mother froze him at once.

"What ship? And where bound?" asked Lady Ilys.

"The good ship SKELTER is bound directly for

Abanasinia and the Hartshorn River," said Soren. "From

there we can go upriver to Solace itself."

"Who is master of this SKELTER?"

"One Graff, a mariner of many years' experience on

these seas."

"Very good, Sergeant. And when do we sail?"

"With the morning tide, my lady."

WITH THE MORNING TIDE. Sturm repeated those

words over and over in his head. Since leaving the castle, he

had imagined their quick deliverance. He would hear a

sharp tattoo of hoofbeats behind, and Lord Bright-blade

would gallop over the hill at the head of a troop of

horsemen. "Come back! All is well!" he would shout. How

would his father ride to them across the sea? The answer

was clear, and Sturm did not like it.

 

The good ship SKELTER lay fast against a long wooden

pier. Short and round, she was freshly caulked and painted.

Sturm wondered what exotic cargoes had been carried

under the green planking of her hull.

Dark-skinned sailors clung to the rigging, doing

mysterious things with lengths of rope and bundles of

sailcloth. Sturm never took his eyes off them as he trailed

after his mother and Soren down the pier. The captain of the

SKELTER greeted them at the foot of the gangplank. He

clasped his own hands across his belly and bowed shortly to

Lady Ilys.

"Captain Graff, at yer service, ma'am," he said. His

beard was plaited in intricate braids, and a dull gold bead

hung from one earlobe. "We'll be weighing anchor ere the

sun strikes the housetops of Thel. Will ye board now?"

She made only the slightest nod of assent. Mistress Carin

went ahead, and two husky sailors fell upon their baggage.

Soren stood aside, one hand on the pommel of his sword.

Sturm stayed by him, taking in the busy spectacle of a ship

being readied for sea.

"Will it be a long voyage, Sergeant?" asked the boy.

"Depends on the sea and the wind, young lord. And the

skill of the mariners."

"Couldn't we wait a while longer? For news from

Father?" asked Sturm.

Soren did not reply. He stared at the housetops of the

town, waiting for the pink sky beyond them to blaze yellow,

then blue. Vapor steamed from his nostrils in the chill air.

"Sergeant, I shall board now," Lady Ilys said. Soren

offered his arm. "Come along, Sturm," she said. The boy

responded with a sigh. He dragged his feet up the worn

plank, looking back often to the barren hills east of town.

Lines fell from the ship to the water. Gangs of sailors

manned two broad sweeps and rowed SKELTER out of Thel

harbor. Open pilot boats guided them past the bar into the

Inland Sea. Sturm watched them turn back as SKELTER'S

single sail was raised.

Captain Graff rigged a screen of hides below the

sterncastle for Lady Ilys and Carin. Barrels and crates of

trade goods were pushed aside to create a space for the

women under the castle platform. A smoky oil lamp was lit,

and Mistress Carin set to making pallets for her lady and

Sturm.

The ship rolled with a steady motion to which Sturm

quickly adapted. He wanted to go on deck and watch the

sailors at their work, but Lady Ilys forbade him. The strain

of recent days was bearing on her hard, and she wanted

most of all to rest.

"Stay by me, Sturm," she said. "I need a strong man at

my side while I rest. I won't feel safe otherwise."

She took off her fur cape and lay down, pulling the soft

wrap around her as a blanket. Sturm lay down, his back to

hers, vigilant as a knight and wary as a Brightblade - for all

of ten minutes. Then he, too, lapsed into heavy slumber.

 

He sensed a change. The ship's motion had lessened.

The air in the hide enclosure was close and hot. Sturm

rolled to his feet, tightened the drawstring of his pants, and

went out on deck.

A cold, thick, white fog had settled on the warmer sea.

The SKELTER glided under a feeble following wind. They

were far out in the midst of the Inland Sea. No land was

visible; indeed, nothing could be seen ten paces beyond the

ship's rail.

Sturm prowled the waist of the ship, scampering out of

the way of the sailors as they tightened the mainsail tackle.

The big square of canvas hung limply in the misty air,

flopping only rarely when a stray gust struck it.

Soren was on the poop. The steersman leaned on one

leg behind the sergeant, shifting the thick black staff of the

rudder with practiced ease. Timbers and rigging creaked as

SKELTER eased across the flat, languid water.

The weather was no fairer the second day at sea,

Captain Graff and his first mate - a squat, dwarvish fellow

with yellow eyes - put their heads together by the mast.

Naturally, Sturm was on hand to listen.

"Do ye think it's for the wind cord?" asked the mate.

Sturm was fascinated by the brass tooth in the front of the

man's mouth.

"Nay, 'tis not the time. This cursed mist may rise soon,

and the natural wind will spring up," said Graff.

Sturm asked Soren what the mate meant by 'wind cord.'

"Magic," he said. "Mariners often buy wind from seaside

warlocks. They keep the wind bound in knots of magical

cord. When the ship's master needs a breeze, he unknots as

much of a blow as he dares."

"Is there much magic on the sea?" Sturm asked, wide-

eyed.

Soren wiped mist from his helmet brim before it could

drip off. "Far too much to suit me, young lord. This fog

seems too clinging to be nature's work."

Midday was no brighter than dawn. The sea flattened

out like the puddled wax around Sturm's study candle in

Castle Brightblade. The lapping waves fell silent, and the

sail stayed slack against the mast. Captain Graff emerged

from below deck with a length of rawhide two spans long.

Sturm peered through the sterncastle rail as the captain

crossed the waist and mounted the steps to the poop.

"Sargo," he said to the helmsman. "I'm loosing a knot."

"Aye, aye, sir."

Graff put one end of the cord in his teeth. There were a

dozen knots along its length. The idea of a magic cord

intrigued and repelled Sturm at the same time. Such power

was forbidden to the knightly orders.

Graff picked at the first knot with his blunt fingernails.

In the stagnant air, each of his mutters was clear.

"Come loose, you son of a snake," he said.

Soren moved suddenly off the rail to the sternpost. He

gazed into the fog. "Captain Graff," he said calmly. The

master of the SKELTER cursed some more at the tough loop

in the cord. "Captain!" Soren barked, using the parade-

ground voice that Sturm had heard so often from the

training yard. The old seaman looked up.

"Don't bother me, lad; I'm engaged," he said.

"There's a ship out there," Soren said. "It's coming toward

us."

"What? Eh? Do ye have the second sight?"

"No, just two good ears. Listen!"

Graff put a hand to his ear. Sturm came up on Soren's

left and listened, too.

There ... a faint knocking sound . . . like two blocks of

wood slapping together.

"By the gods, yer right!" Graff said. "Those are oars

beating, or I'm a thieving kender!"

Idle sailors collected in the stern to hear the

approaching ship. Soren backed out of the press, drawing

Sturm with him.

"You must go and tell your mother what is happening,"

he said.

"What IS happening, Soren?"

"A galley, a ship rowed by many men, is close upon us.

I fear they mean us mischief."

"Pirates?" asked the boy, half-fearful, half-delighted.

"Mayhap, or rogues of a darker stripe. Run to your

mother and tell her this."

Sturm slipped down a stayrope, as he'd often seen the

sailors do, and dropped to the deck outside his mother's

enclosure. He pulled back the flap. It was dim and smoky

inside, but he spied Mistress Carin tending a small fire in a

copper pan.

"Mother! Mother!" he called.

"What is it?" Lady Ilys said from the shadows.

"Sergeant Soren says a rowing ship is coming for us. It

may be pirates!"

Mistress Carin gasped. Lady Ilys's face appeared out of

the darkness. She was very pale, and her expression was

grim.

"Why would pirates bother so small a ship as this?" she

asked.

"It's so foggy, my lady, Paladine wouldn't know us for

who we are," Carin said.

"Sturm, fetch the sergeant to me. I want a soldier's view

of the matter." The boy bowed hastily to his mother and ran

out to find Soren.

The thump and swish of oars was clearer now, even to

Sturm's young ears. The fog swallowed the sound,

dispersing it, making it hard to tell from what quarter the

galley approached. Definitely astern; that was certain.

"Sergeant! Sergeant!" Sturm shouted. He found the

guardsman on the poop deck, whetting the blade of his

broadsword. The SKELTER'S crew of lean, raffish seamen

nervously shifted hatchets and cutlasses from hand to hand.

Only Captain Graff and Sargo, the aged helmsman, were

calm.

"Sergeant, my mother wishes to speak to you," Sturm

said.

"I honor your noble mother, but I regret I cannot leave

the deck just now," Soren said. "The enemy, it enemy they

be, is near."

"Where? Where?"

"Treading on our heels."

Sturm strained to see. The oars pounded ceaselessly. ...

"Ship on the port stem!" sang out a man in the rigging.

Out of the white murk came a massive object wrought in

bronze. To Sturm it looked like the head of a mace.

"The galley's ram," Soren told him.

"Hard a-starboard!" cried the captain. Sargo put the

tiller over, but the becalmed SKELTER scarcely noticed.

Graff ordered the helm kept over. He held the wind cord

aloft and undid the knot he'd worked so hard to loosen.

"Elementals of the air, I release you!" he exclaimed.

The sail snapped out with a crack, and the deck dropped

from under Sturm's feet. SKELTER heeled sharply to

starboard just as the phantom galley charged through the

dead water where the roundship once plodded.

Wind freed from the cord sang in the rigging. "How

long will it last?" Soren asked the captain. Graff rubbed his

ears and shrugged, a confession of total ignorance.

SKELTER bounded over the waveless sea, tearing the

fog apart like rotted cheesecloth. The galley trailed them,

trying to draw nearer. Sturm held on the port rail, the wind

in his eyes, as the galley swept clear of the mist. The bronze

ram gave way to a black timber hull that cut the water in

spurts with each dip of the oars. The galley's upperworks

were daubed blood red. Movement on the deck suggested

men behind the red planking, and a hedgehog of spears

bristled in the air. Below them, blending back into the fog,

were the oars, black with water, rising and falling in time

with a muffled drum.

"Keep back from the rail, lad," the captain told Sturm.

"They may have archers."

The boy forgot his mother's request and stood with

Sergeant Soren on the port quarterdeck. The magic wind

pushed the roundship without falter for one notch of the

candle. At one notch and a half, the galley ran its oars in.

The SKELTER'S crew cheered. Sturm said, "Have we

bested them, Captain?"

"Not yet, lad, not yet."

Sturm saw dark triangles billow from the galley's masts.

Their pursuers were taking to sail, using SKELTER'S own

wind to keep up with them.

The sun burned a hole in the clouds. Details of the black

galley stood out at once. A pennant whipped from the

foremast. Sargo squinted his good eye at it.

"That be no pirate," he said. "That be a ship of Kernaf."

"Who is Kernaf?" asked Sturm.

" 'What' be more like it - the isle of Kernaf. That's a

ship of their navy," Graff said.

As Sturm watched, the magic wind diminished, and the

SKELTER slowed. The galley wallowed in the press of sail

and drew along their port side.

"Hail, ship of Kernaf!" Graff shouted through his hands.

"What would ye want with us?"

"Heave to! We mean to board!" was the reply. Sturm

could see men massing on the forecastle.

"We're a free trader out of Solamnia. What business

have ye with us?" bawled Graff.

"You are sailing in waters claimed by our great Sea

Lord," the Kernaf spokesman said. "Heave to, or we'll take

you by force."

Oars sprouted from the galley's sides like legs on a

centipede. "Go, young lord. Go to your mother," said Soren.

He plucked a dagger two spans long from his belt. "You

must defend her when all else is lost."

Sturm accepted the iron blade. It was heavy and keen,

and in the guardsman's hand it could easily pierce a single

thickness of mail. Sturm darted across the deck to the hide

enclosure. Mistress Carin and Lady Ilys stood together by

the starboard bulwark, amid the wine casks and clay pots of

oil.

"Mother, I am here to defend you!" he said, brandishing

the dagger.

"Come here," she said. She gathered Sturm in her arms

and hugged him tightly. "My brave boy," she said. "Carin

and I heard all."

Shouts from the deck: "The ram! The ram!" SKELTER

leaped sideways in the sea, rolling far to starboard. Lady

Ilys and Carin fell back on the pots and casks. Sturm's head

banged onto the deck, and the dagger flew from his hand.

Above came the sounds of fighting - heavy thuds, the

ring of metal on metal, the screams of the wounded and

dying. Men fell overboard with loud splashes.

A shaft of sunlight slashed into the enclosure. Kernaffi

marines had cut down the hides. Sturm groped dazedly for

the lost dagger. The boarders charged in. Mistress Carin

bravely faced them, but the nearest man grabbed her by the

hair and dragged her out on deck. Lady Ilys called for her

son. By then Sturm was crawling about, searching for

Soren's weapon. The Kernaffi approached Lady Ilys, but

she walked out on her own and stood regally in a circle of

poised javelins.

Sturm saw his mother confront the rough, kilt-wearing

Kernaffi. His throat tightened when the ring of spearpoints

closed in. He cast around desperately for the dagger. Back

among the crates of cloth the braided handle gleamed.

Sturm reached for it. ...

A rough hand grasped the hood of his cloak and hauled

him to his feet. "KOY ESK TA?" said the Kernaffi, laughing

in the boy's frightened face.

By the time Sturm was drag-marched to deck, the battle

was over. The Thelite sailors were bunched together by the

mast, on their knees and begging for mercy. Sheer numbers

of javelin-armed Kernaffi had forced Soren back to the

starboard rail. They pinned him there, spearpoints at his

throat. Soren's broken sword lay at his feet, as did a good

number of wounded Kernaffi.

Carin was weeping. Lady Ilys comforted her. There

was a scuffle on the poop deck. Two marines in conical

leather hats shoved old Captain Graff down to the main

deck.

"Who commands here? I demand to see yer captain!"

Graff said, rising to his feet.

"POLO KAMAY!" said the Kernaffi holding Sturm. All

eyes followed his glance.

Down a narrow boarding bridge came two

extraordinary figures. The first, in a gilded breastplate and

plumed helmet, was obviously the commander of the galley.

Behind him, and taller by half a head, came a woman in

mail and black leather armor. A corona of copper-colored

hair shone around her conical cap.

"Which one is the ship's master?" said the woman,

stepping down onto the SKELTER.

"I am Graff."

"Captain, this ship is ours. Yield your cargo manifest."

"Demons take you!" he said, spitting at her feet. The

woman backhanded him with one mailed fist. Graff's head

snapped back, and blood ran from his split lip.

"I am Artavash, lieutenant to our great Sea Lord," said

the woman in a loud, ringing voice. "You people are now

his prisoners."

The plumed commander went to Lady Ilys and Carin.

"What's this? Passengers?" he said. "Lady Artavash, look

here!"

The tall warrior woman looked down at Lady Ilys. She

ran a finger over the nap of the fine velvet dress Sturm's

mother wore. "Wealthy, highborn, or both?" she said. When

Lady Ilys failed to answer, Artavash drew a knife and put

the point to Carin's stomach.

"It would cost me not a moment's rest to gut this lady

like a chicken," she said. "Who are you?"

"Lady Ilys, wife to Lord Brightblade of Solamnia."

"And why is a great knight's lady traveling the open sea

without her noble husband?"

Lady Ilys's lips set firmly until Artavesh pushed the

knife tip through the first layer of Carin's dress. The maid

inhaled sharply.

"We are traveling - for our health," Lady Ilys said.

Artavash laughed and translated the remark for the

Kernaffi. They joined her in mocking laughter.

"MUJAT! Enough!" She turned to the galley's

commander and said, "Well, Sir Radiz, how shall we treat

this poor company?"

"They have nothing we want, lady. Why not let them

sail on?" the beplumed Kernaffi said.

Just then, Sturm managed to slip his arms out of his

cloak. He dropped on his heels and left the marine holding

an empty bundle of cloth. Sturm ran to the women. He

pushed the knife away from Carin and interposed himself

between Artavash and his mother.

Artavash turned her strangely burning eyes on him.

"Well!" said the red-haired warrior. "Here's a young hero.

Another Brightblade, I'll wager."

"Sturm, Angriff's son," the boy said.

Artavash smiled. "How old are you, boy?"

Sturm was put off balance by this ordinary question.

That, and the smile of one who was in fact quite beautiful.

"E-eleven years," he said.

She unlaced the mitt from her right hand and ran

tapered fingers through his long brown hair. "Ah, yes. Our

master will be pleased to meet you."

"Lady, I do not think - " began Radiz.

"That I know," Artavash snapped. "Take the boy and

the women to the SEA RAVEN."

Radiz glared at Artavash, but held his temper in check.

A quartet of Kernaffi shepherded the women and Sturm

toward the boarding bridge. Soren started to struggle

against his captors despite the naked blade at his throat. A

sharp exclamation from one of the soldiers brought

Artavash and Radiz up short.

"What about him?" asked Radiz.

"Kill him," said Artavash with a shrug.

"No!" cried Sturm. He ducked under a hedge of

javelins and dashed to the sergeant. "Please do not harm

him!"

"And why not?" demanded Artavash. "He is a man-at-

arms, and dangerous. I cannot take him aboard the SEA

RAVEN as a guest."

"He is my f-friend," Sturm pleaded.

Artavash went to where the five Kernaffi held the far

bigger Soren immobilized. The sergeant was the only man

present tall enough to look her in the eye.

"Give me your oath," she said, "that you will be

peaceful, and I will let you live."

Sturm looked up at him and his eyes said, "Please,

Soren!"

"Don't do it, man!" Captain Graff shouted. "Don't trust

that bloody sea witch!"

Artavash whirled and flung her knife at the old captain.

It buried to the hilt in his chest. The soldier holding him let

Graff sag to the deck. Sturm stared in shock at the growing

stain of red soaking through the captain's coat.

Artavash stood over the dying man. "Do you think I am

to be trifled with, old fool? Mine is the power of life and

death here." She flung her unmailed hand at Soren. "Will

you give your oath?"

"I cannot," said Soren. "While I live, I cannot willingly

allow my lady or my lord to enter anyone's captivity."

Artavash smiled again. The effect on Sturm was near

magic, for, in spite of her violent acts, he was charmed.

"Good, good," she said. "That's what I wanted to hear.

Sir Radiz! Strip this man of his arms and armor. Set him to

an oar on the SEA RAVEN, and mind you, double-chain

him. It would not do to have him loose among the other

slaves."

The Kernaffi hauled the belligerent sergeant to the

bridge. Lady Ilys and Carin waited until the men surged by.

Artavash went to Graff and rolled his limp form over with

the toe of her boot. She freed her blade and wiped it clean

on the captain's sleeve.

Lady Ilys and her maid started for the bridge. Sturm

moved in behind his mother. Just as he was about to step

up, a hand grabbed his ankle. He almost cried out in

surprise, for it was the captain who held him.

"Boy," Graff whispered.

Sturm knelt. He swallowed hard and said, "Yes, sir?"

"Take . . ." Graff's leathery fingers were twined in the

wind cord. "Take . . ." he gasped again. "Ver' strong ..." Dry

rasping filled the old man's throat, and the captain breathed

his last.

Sturm stared at the dead man until a voice broke his

trance.

"What have you got there?" said Radiz. Sturm showed

him, his heart pounding for fear he might be punished.

Radiz looked uncomprehendingly at the strip of rawhide.

He rolled it between his fingers and gave it back to Sturm.

"Come along," he said.

From the forecastle of the SEA RAVEN, SKELTER

seemed small and forlorn. The impact of the ram had been a

glancing one, and the hull was crushed rather than torn

open. The surviving Thelite sailors lined the rail as the

galley backed away.

"What will happen to them?" asked Sturm.

"With luck, they can bring her in," said Radiz. "If they

sink, it will be the sea god's fault, not ours."

Even at his young age, Sturm found that hard to

believe.

 

The stern of the SEA RAVEN was covered by a luxurious

pavilion. Walls of rosewood and cedar rose from the oak

deck. Overhead was a cloth of gold canopy, and tinkling

brass chimes hung from ivory ridge posts inside.

Artavash swept in and bade Lady Ilys and Sturm to sit.

She unbuckled her armor and tossed the segments in an

ebony chest whose hasp and hinges were of silver. A

steward appeared, dressed in red velvet vest and billowing

silk pantaloons.

"Wine, Dubai," Artavash said. She scratched her sides

where the armor chafed, just like Sturm's father always had,

and settled onto a heap of plush pillows.

Sturm strained his neck taking in the opulence of the

pavilion. When Dubai returned with a silver ewer and three

goblets, he had to ask, "Is this your ship, Lady?"

"Mine? No. It belongs to the Lord of the Sea. I'm not

even its captain; Sir Radiz sees to our progress over the

water."

The steward poured three measures of dark red wine.

Artavash sipped, nodded, and allowed Dubai to offer the

other two goblets to Lady Ilys and Sturm. Sturm's mother

refused for the both of them.

"You offend my hospitality," Artavash said darkly.

"I would prefer to be recognized as a prisoner, rather

than a guest," Lady Ilys said. Artavash sent the wine to

Mistress Carin. She too declined to drink.

"Pah! Why are you northerners so haughty? Could your

noble Order of knights prevent the Cataclysm? Has your

devotion to Paladine brought you glory? You mystify me.

Wealth and power belong to the strong. If you cling to your

outdated ideals, you will all vanish like the ancient deities

you serve." Artavash took a long drink, then waved for

Dubai to refill her cup.

"What is to become of us?" asked Lady Ilys.

"That is for the Lord of the Sea to decide."

"We cannot be ransomed. Lord Brightblade will not pay

one copper to you."

"Your knight's money means nothing to my master.

Gold runs from his fingertips, and his tears are purest

silver."

"If not for vulgar money, why did you take us?" Lady

Ilys demanded.

Artavash leaned back, reaching out to idly stroke

Sturm's hair. "My master will have a use for you, never

fear."

Another measure of wine disappeared down Artavash's

throat. Dubai filled her goblet automatically.

"If you do not drink with me, I shall finish the wine

alone," she said.

"Drunkenness is a common fault of barbarians," said

Lady Ilys.

Artavash glared and flung the silver cup at Sturm's

mother. Lady Ilys closed her eyes but did not cower. The

goblet hit the rosewood panel behind them, and wine

splattered over them like scarlet rain. A single drop ran to

the corner of Sturm's mouth. It tasted sweet and hot.

"I will not be insulted on my own ship!" Artavash

declared. "Guard! Guard!" Two armed Kernaffi entered the

front flap. "Escort this LADY and her servant to a cabin

below. Put a watch on the door." She stood, to get the

benefit of her commanding height. "Now, begone!"

Lady Ilys rose and put out a hand to her son. Sturm rose

also, defiant.

"He will remain," said Artavash. Sturm could feel the

tension between the two strong-willed women. This time his

mother did not press her point, and instead, drew him close

and kissed his forehead.

"Be wise," she said in a confidential voice. "And

remember who and what you are."

Artavash sent the steward out so she and Sturm would

be alone. "You are a brave boy," she said. "You might have

been killed on the roundship, yet you defended your mother

and friends courageously."

"Tomorrow is too late to be brave, my father says,"

Sturm replied.

"Hmm, just so. Your father is a wise man. Is he a great

warrior as well?"

"He is a Solamnic Knight." That said it all.

Artavash held out her hand. "Come, sit by me. I wish to

know you better." Sturm half-knelt in the pile of cushions

by her right hand. She said, "You are educated, are you

not?"

"I know my letters, and have studied the Chronicles of

Huma."

"Huma? Who is that?"

"You don't know? Huma was the greatest hero of

Krynn." Sturm cleared his throat and recited:

 

THUS HUMA, KNIGHT OF SOLAMNIA,

LIGHTBRINGER, FIRST LANCER,

FOLLOWED HIS LIGHT TO THE FOOT OF THE KHALKIST MOUNTAINS,

TO THE STONE FEET OF THE GODS,

TO THE CROUCHED SILENCE OF THEIR TEMPLE.

HE CALLED DOWN THE LANCEMAKERS, HE TOOK ON

THEIR UNSPEAKABLE POWER TO CRUSH THE UNSPEAKABLE EVIL,

TO THRUST THE COILING DARKNESS

BACK DOWN THE TUNNEL OF THE DRAGON'S THROAT.

 

Sturm finished the canto. Artavash was smiling again.

Very quietly she said, "And this demigod, this Huma; you

are a descendant of his?"

"From olden times, yes," Sturm said with pride.

"I cannot wait to present you to my master," she said.

 

The fog dispelled and never returned. SEA RAVEN'S

oars beat day and night.

Sturm worried about Soren. There had been no sign of

the sergeant since he disappeared into the dark, fetid hold of

the galley two days ago. Artavash was not available, so the

boy complained to Radiz.

"You will not like what you see," Radiz told him.

"I want to see Sergeant Soren," Sturm insisted. The

commander agreed without any more argument.

"Perhaps it would be instructive for you to visit the

benches," he mused.

The boy and the commander descended a steep set of

steps into the hold. There, a long wooden walkway ran from

forecastle to stern. Below on either side were the rowers'

benches. Four men were chained to each oar, and twenty

oars were set on each side. Hard, grim-faced men prowled

the walk, lashing the rowers at random. The sight and smell

of the neglected slaves was fearsome.

Soren was not hard to find. Compared to the skinny

wretches around him, he was a giant. Radiz let Sturm on the

catwalk to speak with his friend.

"I'm sorry, Soren!" he said, choking on disgust and

angry tears. "I didn't know they'd put you in this horrible

place!"

The guardsman hauled back his oar. "Don't - worry -

young - lord," he panted in time to the sounding drum.

"Alive - there is - hope."

"Hope is a good breakfast, but a poor supper,"

countered Radiz. He led Sturm away. The boy went back to

his mother. He sat between Lady Ilys and Carin and said

nothing to anyone for a long time.

After four days and three nights, the SEA RAVEN hove in

sight of land. The coast of Abanasinia lay like a low, brown

cloud off the port beam. Lady Ilys looked longingly at the

far shore.

"So near" she said. Sturm leaned on her arm. "If I knew

we were close enough, I'd throw you overboard to swim it

and find help."

"I could try," he said eagerly.

She stroked his tangled hair. "No, my son. I fear you

would drown."

Abanasinia receded as the SEA RAVEN bore south and

west. A plume of smoke followed the wind away from the

mountaintop.

"Kernaf is a fire-mountain," explained Artavash. "The

natives call it 'HEJ MARAF,' - the Furnace."

"Are you not a native?" asked Sturm.

"Me, a fish-eater? My ancestors laugh at the idea!"

Sturm peeked at Radiz. The swarthy face under the

shiny helmet could not conceal annoyance at her insult.

SEA RAVEN gained steadily against an offshore breeze.

The sea was empty of ships, even as she drew in sight of the

mouth of the main harbor. From the high forecastle, the city

of Kernaf spread in a half-circle around the bowl-shaped

bay. Two tall, stone towers flanked the narrow harbor

entrance. The tower tops were blackened by fire.

"Has someone attacked your town?" asked Sturm.

Radiz squinted into the morning glare. "No, boy. Those

are signal towers. Fires were burned up there to mark the

entrance for passing ships," he said.

"Don't they use them anymore?" Sturm asked. Radiz

was silent.

Artavash ordered message pennants sent as the galley

churned to its haven. They passed large numbers of fishing

smacks moored to buoys. They were waterlogged from

neglect. In the main dockyard, large merchant ships swung

untended at anchor, their rigging ragged and their main

yards lying rotten on their decks.

"Strange," said Lady Ilys. "Everything looks

abandoned. I thought this would be a teeming port."

"Not a soul in sight," agreed Mistress Carin.

That changed when a light ketch skimmed out to meet

the SEA RAVEN. A Kernaffi stood in the boat and called to

the galley in his native tongue. Radiz replied at length.

"What do they say?" asked Sturm.

"Merely the greetings of our great lord to his returning

ship," said Artavash. The man in the boat did not look so

very pleased to Sturm.

SEA RAVEN dropped anchors fore and aft. The oars

were run in. The pilot ketch put about and tacked back to a

long stone pier. Radiz shouted orders, and all hands except

slaves assembled on the main deck.

A squat barge rowed out to the galley's bow. Sturm, his

mother, and Carin followed Artavash to a ramp that led

down to the bobbing barge. Sturm stopped short of the

ramp's end.

"What about Sergeant Soren?" he said.

"He will come ashore with the other rowers," said

Radiz.

Sturm appealed to Artavash. "He must come with us,"

he said. She seemed willing to accommodate the boy's

wishes, so she sent for the sergeant. Soren was half-carried

from the hold and dumped on the ramp by Kernaffi sailors.

"You see, my lady, how four days with an oar tames

the boldest warrior," Radiz said. Artavash laughed all the

way down to the barge.

Sturm helped his friend stand. "Are you well, Soren?"

he said.

"Well enough, my lord." His quilted tunic was in tat ters,

and red welts streaked his back. The rowing master had not

spared Soren the whip. The guardsman's hands were also

raw from gripping the heavy oar.

The barge glided in to the pier. An honor guard awaited

them. Brass horns blared as Artavash led the group up some

steps to the street. A parade formed:

the warrior woman leading Sturm by the hand, followed

by a grim Lady Ilys and Carin. Soren, Radiz, and the

Kernaffi guard brought up the rear. Fifes shrilled and drums

rumbled as they began to march.

The streets of the city were as empty as the harbor. A

few people peered out their windows, and some curious

loafers filled open doorways. As soon as they caught sight

of Artavash, doors closed and shutters shut.

"Passing strange," Sturm said. "Harbors without ships,

streets without people."

"The natives seldom venture out this time of day,"

Artavash replied. "They think it's too hot."

The parade turned a comer. Ahead rose an imposing

facade, a palace of some sort. Before the palace was a high

wooden platform covered with a golden canopy. Artavash

halted Sturm ten paces from the foot of the platform. The

guards ran ahead, forming a double line from Artavash to

the bottom of the steps. Javelins clanked on shoulders in

salute, and the music stopped.

"Hail, Lord of the Sea!" Artavash cried.

"KAI! NAM KAMAY DURAT!" echoed the guards.

Sturm shaded his eyes. How warm it was here! The

afternoon sun glared over him, making sweat break out on

his face. Maybe the natives had the right idea!

Something stirred on the platform. A thin shape, black

against the dazzling light, came to the front of the platform.

Two hands rose, spread in greeting.

"Welcome, beloved Artavash. Who have you brought to

me?" said a high, reedy voice.

"Noble guests, my lord." She introduced Lady Ilys,

Carin, and Soren. Then she pushed Sturm forward. "And

this, Master, is Sturm, Angriff's son, of the house of

Brightblade."

A thin, gurgling sound emanated from the platform.

"So? Come closer, young fellow, that I may see you better."

Sturm cast a glance back at his mother for guidance.

Artavash didn't wait; she put a hand to his back and steered

him up the wooden steps. When the shade of the gilded

canopy fell across his face, he saw the man known as the

Lord of the Sea.

He was tall, and so thin his back bowed under the

weight of his large head. The black robe he wore hung

loosely from his shoulders. Long, smooth fingers were

clasped together at the Sea Lord's waist. And his face -

Sturm would long remember that face! Two black eyes

glittered on either side of a sharp nose. The skin of his

beardless face was gray and dry as autumn leaves . . .

strange that his hands, though bony, were pink and

unwrinkled. The Lord of the Sea had only a few wisps of

black hair clinging to his globular skull.

"My name is Mukhari Ras," he said. His voice was like

a creaking door. "I am so pleased to meet you." He

extended a hand to the boy. Sturm took it uncertainly. It was

dry and hot, almost feverish.

"Have I done well?" asked Artavash.

"Oh, very well, far better than I expected," said

Mukhari Ras. "And you shall be rewarded. All my loyal

subjects will be rewarded."

He picked up a large canvas sack, grunting from the

obvious weight. Shuffling to the front of the platform,

Mukhari said, "Loyal men of Kernaf! I am pleased with the

guests you have brought me. Taste the gratitude of Mukhari

Ras!" So saying, he dipped his hand in the sack and flung a

handful of the contents into the air. A shower of gold coins

fell on the soldiers below. The men broke ranks and

scrambled after the money, which rang and rolled on the

paving stones.

Sturm blinked. He saw coins hit the ground, but it was

sand, common sand, that Mukhari threw by fistfuls from the

sack.

"You - you're a magician!" he said.

"No, boy. I am no crude conjurer, but a humble acolyte

of the mysteries of cosmic matter. My alchemical art has

made me master of this island. Soon I shall command all the

Inland Sea." Mukhari threw another handful of sand to the

Kernaffi. "More! Take more! All the gold in the world is

yours if you serve me!" The men dropped their weapons

and crawled on all fours in the dirt. They filled their helmets

with gold and laughingly chased each new coin as it struck

the ground.

The sack emptied, Mukhari Ras tossed it aside. "That's

done," he said, showing blackened teeth in his smile.

"Artavash, my dear, bring the boy and his noble

companions to the palace. I shall receive them for dinner."

 

Sturm, Lady Ilys, and Carin were taken to an airy suite

of rooms on the east side of the palace. There, amid

billowing sheets of gauze, the smell of incense, and the

ever-present tinkling of wind chimes, bowls of scented

water were brought for their bathing. Vested servants stood

by with towels, even presuming to pat dry the Solamnians'

faces and hands for them. "What odd people they are," said

Carin. "That Mukhari Ras is the oddest of them all. Who

could imagine a quacksalving alchemist as the ruler of an

island? It's - it's contrary to nature, that's what it is," said

Lady Ilys.

"Mother, what will become of us?" Sturm said once the

towel was taken away from his face.

"I cannot guess," she confessed. "A man who throws

gold in the street cannot desire ransom money. In truth,

were it not for the violence of our being brought here, I

would believe we were honored guests."

Sturm was uneasy. Why had no one else noticed that

Mukhari's gold was only sand? He opened his mouth to

mention it to his mother, but before he could say a word,

Artavash appeared at their door.

"The table of my master is laden. Let us eat," she said.

Dinner in the palace was a major event, presented in an

elaborate style. Sturm enjoyed sitting on the floor at the low

table, though Lady Ilys provoked a minor crisis by insisting

that a proper chair be provided for her. It was not decent,

she said, for a well-born lady to squat on her haunches like

the family wolfhound.

As the diners - including Sir Radiz, Artavash, and Soren

- were busy hacking open their first course of melon, Lady

Ilys said, "Lord Mukhari, may I ask how you came to rule

this country? Your servant," she gestured to Artavash,

"admits not being native to Kernaf."

The alchemist, who sat by a plate heaped with fruit,

replied, "I was marooned on the south coast of Kernaf by

men of my own land."

"What land is that?" asked Sturm.

"Moranoco, or as you call it, the Plains of Dust."

"You were exiled then?" said Lady Ilys. Without

looking, she handed a napkin to Sturm. The boy blotted

melon juice from his chin.

"Indeed, lady; as you are now, so was I once a hard-

pressed refugee. By my skill in the Art, I won the loyalty

and affection of the people of Kernaf. I know the straits you

are in, which is why I make you welcome."

"Your servants have not always been so kind," Soren

said, giving Artavash a caustic glance. The warrior woman

plunged a blunt table knife into her melon and split the fruit

in two.

"Ah, well! It has been explained to me that your ship

refused the SEA RAVEN'S summons and resisted with blood

when boarded. Is it surprising that my good Artavash

resorted to stern measures to bring you here? If murder and

plunder were our aims, you would not be dining with us

now," Mukhari said.

Carin looked confused. Lady Ilys said, "Why do your

ships stop free traders on the open sea?"

"Tribute is necessary for the maintenance of Kernaf's

position," said Artavash. She popped a sliver of melon in

her mouth. Sturm watched her every move with fascination.

There was silence around the table for a moment.

Everyone was eating except Mukhari. Sturm wondered why

he had the choicest fruit on his plate if he weren't going to

eat any of it.

The alchemist fixed his black eyes on Lady Ilys.

"Where were you bound, Lady?"

"Solace, in Abanasinia," she replied.

Mukhari wiped his mouth on a linen napkin, though no

food had touched his lips. "Shall I put one of my ships at

your disposal?"

"That would be wonderful!" said Mistress Carin.

"It is gracious of you to offer," said Lady Ilys.

Radiz interjected, "Only SEA RAVEN is on hand, Lord."

"When can it be ready for sea?"

"Not for nine days, Lord. The hull was strained when we

rammed the roundship. The seams should be re-caulked,"

Artavash said. Radiz opened his mouth to say something

but was cut off by her harsh glance. "No other vessel is

expected back in less than a fortnight," she said.

"It seems you must be my guests for nine more days,"

Mukhari said. "So that you will be comfortable, please feel

free to roam my palace at will." He stood to leave, though

the second course had yet to be served. "And now I retire to

my nightly studies. Good health to you, my friends."

He waved a hand through the air. A slim glass vial

appeared in his fingers. Mukhari hurled the vial to the floor.

It shattered, and a coil of rose-colored smoke snaked out.

The smoke enveloped Mukhari Ras. The last thing Sturm

saw was the alchemist's face. In a halo of pink smoke he

looked quite benign.

The cloud dispersed, and Mukhari was gone.

"Oh!" said Carin.

"Tricks," muttered Radiz.

 

It was hot. Sturm rolled over and pushed back the slick

satin sheets. Currents of air stirred the filmy curtains, but

the heat in the room was stifling. He got up, pulled on his

Kernaffi-style pants and vest, and checked on his mother.

Lady Ilys was sleeping soundly. Her cheek was cool and her

forehead dry. So why am I sweating so? wondered Sturm.

He tip-toed through the colonnade to the main room.

The cool tiles felt good under his feet. Beyond the columns

was an atrium. Stars glittered overhead. As Sturm stood

searching for familiar constellations, he heard footsteps and

muffled voices. He went to the door and lifted the latch.

Two Kernaffi soldiers flanked a third, taller man.

Chains clinked faintly from the middle man's wrists and

feet. Sturm cracked the door wider. The men passed a wall

torch. The fettered man was Sergeant Soren - and he was

gagged, too.

Sturm shut the door quickly. His mind raced in tan dem

with his heart. Why was Soren in chains? Where were they

taking him? When the footsteps faded around the corner,

Sturm knew he had to follow.

The massive suite door swung back without a whisper.

Sturm saw the hinges were made of ruby. There seemed no

limit to the wealth of the alchemist-lord. He slipped down

the hall, straining to hear the last word of the Kernaffi

guards and Soren. The palace was still.

He kept close to the wall, just as he did when he played

'Storm the Citadel' in Castle Brightblade. His damp palms

moved stickily over the glossy wood panels. A strange,

irresistible smell came to Sturm's nostrils, an odor of spice

such as he had never known before. Where the corridor

crossed another he stopped, uncertain which way to go. A

fresh waft of spice drew him to the right. Down the hall a

high, curving staircase of black marble spiraled up,

following the sweep of the palace wall. Midway up, a single

torch burned in an iron bracket.

Sturm mounted the steps. The odor was stronger and

more compelling with every rising step. As he passed under

the torch, Sturm heard a peculiar sound - the gurgle of slow-

moving liquid. The steps ended at a black door studded with

silver spikes. It was ajar.

Sturm's hand reached out, wavered ... He could not

resist. He touched the door with one finger, and it opened

wide for him.

Even yellow light filled the room beyond. It was a

workshop of some sort, filled with all sorts of strange

things: tables laden with crystals of odd color and shape;

stuffed animals with glass-bead eyes that stared knowingly

back at Sturm. Shelves lined with fancy canisters and

bundles of dried herbs, neatly labeled in some foreign

script. And books. More books than Sturm had ever seen in

his life.

He found the source of the gurgling and the spice

aroma. An elaborate arrangement of clear tubes and bottles

bubbled slowly on a round table in the center of the room.

Beside this apparatus was a large red candle, as thick as his

wrist. The odor was coming from it.

"Careful, young lord," said Mukhari Ras, appearing

ghostlike from a deep alcove. "The essence still is very

delicate, and I have need of it soon."

Sturm flinched and stood away from the table. The fluid

in the tubes was thick and dark, very like the color of -

"Blood," said the alchemist. "Merely the unwholesome

remnants of my last experiment," said the alchemist. He

drew nearer even as the boy shrank from him.

"Human blood?" asked Sturm in a small voice.

"Of course," said Mukhari. "No other kind is of any use

to me."

Sturm slowly pointed to the red, sweet-smelling candle.

"What is this made of? It smells good."

"I am pleased you noticed. It is a very SPECIAL candle.

You see, I cannot smell it at all." Sturm couldn't believe

that. The spicy aroma was almost overwhelming in the

close room. "Only very special people can smell it. The

young and pure."

A cold hand came to rest on the back of Sturm's neck.

"What does that mean?" he asked.

"It means, my boy, that I needed to know what sort of

boy you are, to know if you were suitable for my purposes."

Sturm backed a step. "What purposes?"

"At the command of my Dark Goddess, I seek the true

restorative medicine, the elixir of life. My research

uncovered the formula, but to make it work, I need noble

blood. Your blood."

"Mine!" cried Sturm. "Why mine?"

"You passed the test. The candle led you here."

Sturm bumped into a table. He cast about wildly for a

way out. Mukhari did not seem to notice. He looked far

away, musing about his experiments.

"Artavash brought me children from Kernaf, but they

were imperfect, unworthy. The elixir made from their blood

was only partially effective." He held out an arm and pulled

back the loose sleeve to his shoulder. "See? I have the arms

of a man of thirty, while the rest of me rots at sixty-six."

Fear and disgust rose sourly in Sturm's throat. "So

that's why the town is empty - you murdered the children!"

"Don't be silly, boy. Most families fled, true, but they'll

come back once I'm rejuvenated. They will come back and

fall to their knees to worship the Goddess of Darkness who

grants eternal life!"

"Life purchased at the cost of others! Paladine will not

allow this!"

"And who is Paladine's representative? You?" Mukhari

grinned evilly at the boy. "No matter. In two days the dark

moon will rise, and the celestial conditions for the making

of the elixir will be propitious."

"You will not suceed - Sergeant Soren - " Sturm began

shrilly.

The alchemist clucked his tongue. "He cannot help you.

Even now he lies trussed up in my dungeon. As for you, my

young lord, if you give me the slightest difficulty, I shall

order harm done to your mother and her maid."

"You will not!"

"Nonsense, boy. You're not in Solamnia. I am master

here."

Sturm closed his hand around a smooth, cold object - a

flask. He hurled the flask at Mukhari and turned to run. The

aged alchemist dodged awkwardly. Mukhari, reached for a

braided bell cord. Hidden chimes rang. A concealed door

sprang open, and Artavash came in. Sturm rushed blindly

into her grasp.

"Take charge of him, my dear," Mukhari said. "Only

don't bruise him. I wouldn't want him less than perfect for

processing tomorrow."

"As you command, master," said Artavash. She laid a

firm hand on his neck and guided Sturm from the room.

* On the stairs Sturm said, "So - so this was your plan all

along?"

"Why do you think my master had me scouring the

seas?" she said. "Other ships have come and gone, seeking

pure blood for Lord Mukhari's work. Noble offspring are

hard to find; they're usually well guarded. It was the

greatest stroke of luck that I intercepted your ship."

Sturm didn't feel at all lucky. He submitted without a

struggle as Artavash took him to her chambers. All the

while, even when she bound him to a heavy chair with

silken sashes, he was thinking, thinking. He batted the

feeling of helpless terror that gnawed at his mind. Soren a

captive, his mother and Carin hostages, . . . and himself. To

be bled dry, his life drained to further the evil work of the

Queen of Darkness . . .

He thought of his father, standing on the battlements of

Castle Brightblade with only a few loyal retainers while a

mob of madmen howled around them. Lord Brightblade

would meet the foe face to face, head to head, to conquer or

perish. It was the knightly way. It was the Brightblade way.

The tremors in Sturm's limbs faded. In their place a heat

grew in his chest. He was angry. His father had trusted him

to take care of his mother, and he had failed! And who

would bear the Brightblade name back to their ancestral

home if not him?

"Be still, boy," Artavash said. She tipped a clay cup to

her lips and drank.

"Lady Artavash?" said Sturm, his voice cracked with

emotion.

"What do you want?"

"Would you help me?"

She yawned and kicked off her sandals. "Don't be silly,

boy."

"All you need do is untie me. Then I'll get Soren, and

together we'll take my mother and Mistress Carin - "

"You're not going anywhere. Mukhari Ras has decreed

your fate." Artavash sat on her high couch and leaned back

against the wall. She laid the naked blade of a shortsword

across her lap.

"How can you serve a man like him? H-he is a monster

who kills children!" said Sturm.

"Children die every day," she said flatly. And with that,

young Sturm saw Artavash for what she was: a heartless

mercenary. Her only loyalty was to her paymaster.

She drained another cupful of wine, the last of many

that evening. "Now, go to sleep." Artavash slumped over a

pile of pillows. Her hand went slack, and the clay cup rolled

out of it.

Sturm waited until her breathing was soft and regular

before he tried to shift the chair. The stout seat bumped

loudly on the bare stone floor. Sturm froze. Artavash

snorted and buried her face deeper in the satin cushions.

He gazed longingly at the sword Artavash had drawn,

now lying point out on the couch. If he could only reach it!

He strained against the sashes, but the silken knots only

tightened further. Sturm relaxed and shook the damp ends

of his long hair from his face.

The lamp above Artavash's couch guttered and went

out. In the dense darkness, Sturm could feel his pulse

throbbing in his hands and feet. He wiggled his fingers

under the binding. His hands were crossed over his lap, so

his left hand was over his right pocket, and vice-versa.

There was a lump in his left pocket he recognized as

Captain Graff's wind cord. He counted the knots. Two

hands, plus one; eleven fresh gusts of magic were locked in

that dirty strip of rawhide.

But it WAS magic. As a knight, he was forbidden by the

Measure to make use of it. Still ... to fight the Dark Queen. . . .

 

The day dawned bright and hot. Sturm awakened from a

tense, shallow sleep with the sun in his eyes. His body

ached from being tied all night. Artavash did not stir until a

pounding on the door compelled her to rise.

"What in thunder?" she grumbled, her voice husky and dry.

"Where is my son?" demanded Lady Ilys through the door.

"Here, Mother! I'm in here!" he shouted.

Artavash winced. She yanked a bell pull by her couch.

By the time she staggered to the door and opened it, eight

soldiers were waiting for her outside. Two more stood by

with Soren, whose hands were chained together.

Artavash slit Sturm's sashes with the shortsword, and

the young Brightblade threw his arms around his mother.

"They're going to kill me!" Sturm cried.

"This can't be true!" Lady Ilys gasped, turning to

Artavash, who merely shrugged.

"My lady, your son spoke truly. These people mean to

kill young Sturm," said Soren.

Lady Ilys pushed her son behind her skirt. Mistress

Carin moved in on Sturm's other side. Lady Ilys declared,

"No one shall move from this spot until some explanation is

given for the barbarous manner in which we are being

treated!"

Artavash rubbed her temples a few times and said, "The

explanation is this. My master, Mukhari Ras, has need of

your son's life. If you interfer in the slightest way, you, your

maid, and your man will be speedily killed."

"Impudent pirate! Do you think my son is a lamb, to be

butchered for that walking scarecrow's evil purposes?"

"It matters little what you say, Lady. Mukhari Ras

commands it, and it will be done." She gestured to the

Kernaffi soldiers. They pulled Lady Ilys and Carin apart.

Artavash reached for Sturm.

Chained or not, Soren could not stand idly by as

Artavash laid hands on his charges. He gathered the bond

links in his hands and lashed out at the nearest man. The

guard folded under the blow and bowled over his comrades.

Soren lumbered forward. Artavash released Sturm and

turned to meet the sergeant.

"No, Soren! Stop!" cried Sturm. Artavash nimbly

dodged the guardsman's rush. She brought the flat of her

blade in hard on Soren's head. The sergeant buckled and fell

face down on the cool marble floor. Carin screamed.

Artavash waved the sword point under Carin's nose.

"Don't shout so! My head is splitting!"

"Too much wine," said Lady Ilys coldly.

"Enough! By the gods, your tongue is sharper than a

dozen swords," Artavash said. "I have no more time to dally

with you. The guards will lock you in your rooms." She

gave the orders in Kernaffi. Two men picked up Soren, and

the rest formed in close order around the two women.

"Sturm! Sturm!" his mother called. He made a step

toward her, but was collared by a grim-faced Artavash.

"The time for indulgences is past," she said. "If you

resist, the two women will die."

"Mother!" he cried desperately.

"Come." Artavash seized Sturm by the wrist and

dragged him away.

Radiz joined them in the main hall. He was splendid in

his fine armor and plume, but his face was expressionless.

He and Artavash exchanged a look Sturm could not fathom.

Then the Kernaffi gave him a handkerchief.

"Dry your eyes," he said with a strange note of

compassion.

Radiz and Artavash stood on either side of him as

Sturm faced the steps leading up to the palace roof. Radiz,

Sturm noted, kept one hand on his sword hilt all the way to

the roof.

Four bearded Kernaffi priests stood to one side, offering

up prayers and incense to the Dark Queen. Radiz stopped

and bowed to them, but Sturm thought he detected a look of

disgust on the man's face when he rose. Artavash shaded

her aching eyes from the brilliant sun.

Ten paces away, Mukhari Ras worked to prepare the

special table for his great experiment. His gaunt, bent figure

scuttled from one side to another, reminding Sturm of the

vultures that haunted the southeast tower of Castle

Brightblade. The alchemist's wide black robe added to this

impression.

The air was still. The sun burned fiercely over them.

Sturm shivered in spite of the heat. PLEASE, PALADINE,

PLEASE SAVE ME!

"Bring him over. Come, come along," said Mukhari,

waving his youthful hands. Sturm rubbed his cold, sweating

palms on his pants. He looked to Radiz for some sign of

sympathy. The commander of the SEA RAVEN stared

straight ahead and said nothing.

Halfway to Mukhari, Sturm stumbled. He heard the

snick of a sword being freed from its scabbard. A strong

hand grabbed the back of his vest.

"Pick up your feet, boy," said Artavash.

Mukhari was waiting, hands folded deep into his

voluminous sleeves. Up close, the table was basically just a

copper funnel flat enough to lie on. The legs were heavy

columns of marble.

"Put him on the table," instructed Mukhari. The priests

chanted louder and began to beat a brass gong.

Shouts and clangs of metal rose from the open stairwell.

Radiz drew his weapon out of reflex. Artavash shoved

Sturm to Radiz and got her own sword ready. A death-

scream cut the air, and a few heartbeats later, Soren

bounded up the steps, a bloody sword in his chained hand.

"Sturm Brightblade! I am here!" he roared.

"Stop that man!" quavered Mukhari.

Artavash moved out to meet Soren. His stolen blade

thrust in; she parried and beat his sword out of line. Soren

was severely hampered by his bonds. Only with his

extraordinary strength could he even carry on such a fight.

He cut hard at Artavash, one, two, three - right-left-right.

She dodged, fox-quick, and struck home in the guardsman's

chest. Soren staggered back. Artavash circled, circled;

feinting an overhand cut, she changed direction in the wink

of an eye and thrust through Soren's weakened guard. The

point of her blade grew out his back.

Eye to eye, she said, "You should have stayed on your

oar." Artavash recovered, and Soren collapsed.

Sturm broke free from Radiz and ran to his fallen

friend. "Soren! Soren!"

His eyes were open. He said, "My lord . . . sound the

charge."

"Leave him, boy. He's dead." Radiz was standing over

Soren. Nearby, Artavash casually wiped the blood from her

blade.

Sturm was numb. With leaden feet, he walked between

Radiz and Artavash to the alchemist's killing table. His hope

was gone. Four steps to go. Below the neck of the table's

funnel was a large iron pot. Three steps. Mukhari was pale

and sweating in the heat. Two steps.

He had nothing left, nothing at all but Graff's wind

cord. Magic . . . forbidden . . . The last step . . .

Artavash swept Sturm off his feet and laid him on the

table. The metal was warm from the sun. "Lie still," she

warned. "Remember your mother."

She backed away. Mukhari Ras loomed above him.

With both hands, Mukhari clasped a long, wickedly curved

dagger. Sturm's heart missed a beat. His jaw tightened, and

he said the briefest prayer of his life:

"Paladine, help me."

The dagger wavered in the frail alchemist's grasp.

Artavash opened Sturm's vest and shirt. Mukhari Ras

smiled down at him. "Here, then, is your destiny," he

whispered. "I give you to my Queen!" He closed his eyes

and raised the dagger high to strike.

Down came the blade. Sturm held out the wind cord

taut between his fists. The keen edge of the dagger scraped

the briefest instant against the rawhide. Mukhari felt it and

opened his eyes. "What - ?" was all he could say before the

cord parted.

A mighty wall of wind, invisible, irresistible, blast ed

across the palace roof. The emaciated alchemist, his robes

filling with air like black bat's wings, was lifted off his feet.

Screeching with terror, Mukhari Ras flew backward to the

edge of the roof. An upward gust filled his skirt, lofting

him. The Lord of the Sea soared into the sky, borne by the

ensorceled wind. On and on he flew, his brittle body spread

flat by the torrent of air, until he was lost in the billowing

clouds and dust.

Mukhari was gone, but the danger was not yet passed.

The wind blew Sturm over the table, but he managed to

thrust an arm through the funnel hole. He held on dearly as

the tempest howled around him. Retorts and alembics from

the spirit still toppled over and were blown away. The

Kernaffi priests collapsed in a heap, only to be torn from

each other by the brutal wind. One by one they were swept

away, the last pair clinging together even as they were

carried off.

Sturm cried out in pain as the wind tore at him. He

thought his arm would snap off at the shoulder, but he was

able to get a relieving grip with his free hand. The table

shifted and turned. Sturm pressed his face to the copper top.

Dust scoured the roof, stinging the boy's exposed flesh. Just

when it seemed he could endure no more, the wild fury

abated.

He clung fiercely to the table, the instrument of death

that had preserved his life. He heard a faint call for help.

Gingerly, Sturm removed his aching arm from the funnel

hole. The arm was black and blue from wrist to elbow.

The cry came again: "Help me, help . . ." Sturm shaded

his eyes and looked around. He was alone on the roof.

Everything, including Soren's body, was gone.

Radiz, his plume bent at an angle and his golden armor

dented, hobbled up the steps. He stared around. The groan

for help came again. Radiz and Sturm walked converging

paths to the edge of the roof.

"At last, we are free!" he murmured.

Dangling from a rain gutter was Artavash. The gaping

dragonmouth spout had snagged her long military cape as

she fell. Now she was suspended high above the housetops

of Kernaf.

"Help me!" she pleaded. The cape tore a little and

Artavash begged for quick assistance.

Sturm eyed Radiz. The Kernaffi blinked dazedly. "I

leave it to you, boy. If you wish, we'll bring her up. Or I can

cut her free and let her fall. What do you wish?"

Her gray eyes appealed for mercy. "She killed Soren,"

Sturm said.

True," said Radiz. He pulled the sword from his belt.

"No," said Sturm. "The Measure teaches mercy, even to

our enemy."

He dropped on his stomach and reached for her cape.

Radiz took hold as well. They hauled Artavash to safety.

Once securely on the roof, she rolled over on the tiles and

gasped for air. Radiz took her sword and knife away.

He jerked Artavash around on to her stomach and

quickly bound her arms and legs tightly. When she cursed

too loudly, he drew a brightly colored scarf from his pocket

and jammed it into her mouth. At last he stood and faced

Sturm.

"Now, what can I do to make amends, young lord?"

asked Radiz.

Sturm cradled his bruised arm and frowned with

concentration. "I wish to leave," he said. "I want a ship to

take my mother, Mistress Carin, and me to Solace. It was

my father's wish that we go to Solace, so that is what we

shall do."

Radiz nodded. As they walked slowly to the steps, the

commander laid a reassuring hand on the boy's shoulder.

"Whatever made you think of using the old sailor's magic

string?" he asked.

"I didn't plan it," said Sturm, swallowing. "My only

thought was to turn Mukhari's knife away."

"You didn't realize cutting the cord would release all

the wind?"

Sturm shook his head. "I don't know anything about

magic. It's not a fitting subject for knights."

Paladine would forgive him for bending the Measure. . .

.

At the top of the stairs Sturm paused. "Radiz?"

"Yes, young Sturm?"

"Would you have your men search for Sergeant Soren?

He deserves an honorable burial."

"It shall be done."

They descended the steps together. Radiz remarked,

"You know, Mukhari was right about one thing; you are a

noble lad."

"I am my father's son," said Sturm.

The voices of the boy and the Kernaffi commander

echoed through the palace halls long after the rooftop had

returned to the clean air, bright sun, and nature's honest

wind.

 

The road to exile was very long. For Sturm Brightblade, this was

only the beginning.

 

Heart of Goldmoon

 

Laura Hickman and Kate Novac

 

The air of excitement was high as the Que-shu tribe

milled before the ancient stone platform that was the focus

of their village. Everyone was clad in colorful festive

raiment. Adding to the delight of the senses was the

delectable smell of foods being prepared for the celebration

to come.

One by one, however, the exhilarated men, women, and

children fell into silence as their attention was caught by a

lone young woman, climbing the granite construction

before them. Soon, all was still. No child giggled, no babe

even cried. Nothing disturbed the faint shuffling sound

made by the slippered feet of the holy woman as she

ascended to the platform.

The woman was Goldmoon, princess and priestess of

the Que-shu. Those who watched knew that upon her death

- in the far future - Goldmoon would become a goddess, as

had her mother, Tearsong, and all her deceased ancestors.

Goldmoon was the tribe's link to their gods. Her father,

Chieftain Arrowthorn, would also achieve godhood, but, as

revered as he was, the silence and awe of the crowd was

reserved for the slender woman who was his only heir.

Goldmoon's long, silken hair was brighter than the

golden grasses waving in the fields near the village. Sight of

her hair still astonished the dark-haired tribesmen. "It is a

mark of her favor with the ancestors," they said. As she

reached the platform and bowed to the crowd, the sun

glinted from those golden tresses, and no one present

witnessing her grace, her beauty, or that bright crown of

hair doubted Goldmoon's worth in being honored with this

ceremony.

Goldmoon turned from the platform edge and bowed

respectfully to her father, who had previously ascended the

platform. Though it was her mother's blood that decreed

Goldmoon's status as priestess, it was her father's greatness

as a warrior that had won him Tearsong's hand in marriage.

Only Arrowthorn's cunning and wisdom had kept the reins

of power from being torn from their family's hands after the

crushing blow of Tearsong's early death, and had held them

until she, Goldmoon, was old enough to serve as priestess to

her people.

Goldmoon moved to Arrowthorn's right side and fixed

her gaze out over the plains to the mountain on the northern

horizon. She could not see it from here, but she knew that

near the summit was a vast cavern, called the Hall of the

Sleeping Spirits, where the mortal remains of Goldmoon's

dead ancestors lay, behind a door opened by the rays of

Lunitari, the red moon, only once every ten years. On the

morrow, Goldmoon would journey to that cavern for the

first time to speak with her ancestors, her gods. She found

herself excited and perhaps a little anxious.

First, however, must come the games that would decide

who her escorts were to be. Only those two warriors who

proved to be the best would accompany and protect her on

the journey. Twenty young Plainsmen, lean and muscled, all

eager for the honor, filed onto a lower tier of the platform

and formed a semicircle before their princess. Goldmoon,

seemingly transfixed by the heat thermals shimmering in

the air before her, appeared not to notice the men.

When the last man took his place, however, Goldmoon

turned her gaze to the historian seated on the platform

behind her father, writing on a parchment with deliberate

strokes. She heard Arrowthorn let out a breath that might

have been a subdued snort of annoyance at Loreman. The

historian's painstaking slowness was an obvious ploy to

demonstrate to the tribe the importance of his own position.

Loreman finished writing the names of the contestants with

a flourish, then looked up and nodded to the princess.

Goldmoon had already performed hundreds of religious

ceremonies. Since her mother's death she had carried all the

burdens of priestess - praying for her people, their crops and

livestock and weaponry, tending the sick and injured,

settling disputes, burying the dead. But because of the

infrequency with which the door to the Hall of the Sleeping

Spirits opened, she had not been able to perform this most

important ceremony, during which she would dedicate her

life to her people. Now, this day had arrived. These men

seated below her would fight for the privilege of escorting

her, and undoubtedly one of them would eventually court

her, as her father had courted her mother.

"One of you had better be worthy," she said silently to

the men.

Goldmoon unfurled her personal banner; the gold

crescent moon emblazoned on the dark cloth shone in the

sun as brightly as her hair. She called out, "May the

blessings of the Ancient Dead give courage, endurance, and

strength to the greatest among you."

Cheering in reply, the Plainsmen held the banners of their

individual houses aloft.

Leaning down, the priestess drew a crystal dagger from

her boot scabbard. Cunningly fashioned and hollow within,

the dagger doubled as a vial containing a handful of sacred

sand. With a twist, Goldmoon slipped the handle from the

blade and poured some of the fine, warm, dry contents into

her palm. Turning with a flourish, Goldmoon sprinkled the

golden powder over the men before her, taking care that no

head should escape at least a little dusting.

Resisting the impulse to brush the remaining grains

from her palm, the priestess began to touch each head With

her fingertips in blessing. Each warrior, as she stood before

him, knelt and gazed up at her with admiration and

devotion. All but the last one.

He wore well-cared-for but well-dented armor, and his

clothing showed equal signs of wear and repair. His was not

a familiar face, but Goldmoon recognized his banner as

belonging to a poor family that lived in a hut at the edge of

the grazing lands the Que-shu shared with bordering tribes.

The warrior's name was Riverwind, and there was

something about him that Arrowthorn, Goldmoon's father,

spoke about with other men, but it was a subject always

dropped when she entered the room.

Goldmoon moved into position before Riverwind,

wondering idly what emotion she would see in his eyes, but

he stepped back with a feline grace. Startled, and annoyed

at the break in the smoothness of the ceremony, Goldmoon

managed not to show her surprise. Believing the young

peasant too simple to understand the ritual, she said softly,

"We are not quite finished. If you will kneel before me, I

will bless you."

"I need no blessing to pass this day's test, and I will not

kneel to you or any other mortal creature," Riverwind

replied. He spoke quietly, but his deep voice sounded across

the platform.

Goldmoon stiffened with repressed anger. She would

not be embarrassed before the tribe, her holiness denied.

She gestured for the guards to come from the side of the

platform. They stood behind the infidel, prepared to haul

him away at her command.

Before she could motion for them to remove Riverwind

from her sight, however, Arrowthorn was by her side

interceding. "If it please, your grace," he whispered to her,

"this one" - he glared icily at Riverwind - "intends no

disrespect; he simply does not believe as we do."

The chieftain spoke up so the crowd could hear,

"Riverwind, grandson of Wanderer, why are you here at this

ceremony? It is not required for you to attend."

Riverwind shifted his eyes from the daughter to the

father. Goldmoon's breath caught in her throat at his daring

and pride. Yet the warrior's blue eyes showed not a hint of

nervousness. Calmly, but with enough volume to carry to

the tribe below, he replied, "I am a warrior, and my

swordarm will be a strength to my people. Although I do

not worship as you do, you have my loyalty. I, too, desire a

safe journey for my Chieftain's Daughter. Today's games

will prove my worth."

Riverwind glanced away from Arrowthorn, capturing

Goldmoon's own reluctant gaze. He smiled ever so slightly.

Goldmoon quickly shifted her focus out across the plains.

What she had seen in those eyes in that brief instant caused

her to shiver despite the golden heat of the sun. It was the

look of a hunter stalking his prey.

"Well said," Arrowthorn stated, then he turned to the

waiting crowd. "Let the games begin."

Goldmoon stood stunned, not seeing the men before her

or the plains spread out around her. She could not believe

what she had just heard. How could her father give his

approval to this arrogant, rebellious peasant? And how dare

he circumvent her will? He might be her father, but SHE

was the priestess!

The warriors filed from the altar, Riverwind at the end

of the line. Goldmoon followed behind him stiffly. She took

each step down the stairs firmly, as though she were

trodding on this Riverwind's head.

The chieftain followed his daughter, appearing

completely calm. Loreman remained up above, still

scratching away at the parchment with his quill, relating his

version of the events which had just passed.

 

Goldmoon entered her lodge, closing the door behind

her father. Then she whirled about, free to vent her anger

and confusion. "I do not understand how you could allow -"

"Silence!" Arrowthorn said.

Goldmoon bit back her words.

The chieftain surveyed his daughter critically. She

wore a formal robe that Tearsong, his dead wife, had also

worn, and was, but for her hair, the image of her mother.

She performed all the duties of Chieftain's Daughter

without trouble or complaint. Goldmoon was, in fact,

nearly flawless, yet Arrowthorn could never bring himself

to tell her so. Godhood was not earned by the careless.

He suppressed his pride and snapped, "Your circlet is

crooked."

Goldmoon felt her face flush crimson as her hands rose

to straighten the slender silver band on her head.

"How are young men supposed to see a goddess in you

if you do not take better care of your appearance? That

won't do. Take it off. Have your women comb your hair

again before you replace it."

She was a full-grown woman of power, yet her sub jects

would be astonished to see how she shook before her

father's words.

Still, it was not easy for Arrowthorn to watch his only

child tremble with shame. He put his hand on her shoulder

and lifted her chin to bring her eyes up to his own. "It would

hardly matter in Riverwind's case. His whole family is

cursed thus."

"What do you mean?" she asked.

Arrowthorn drew in a long breath. "Wanderer,

grandfather of Riverwind, learned too much in his

wanderings. He broke pact with our gods and taught his

family to do the same."

"Is that why they are so poor?" Goldmoon asked,

remembering their shabby hut out on the plains.

"That is not important. Suffice it to say that I do not

question their loyalty, despite their peculiar beliefs."

"But, how can you not when they deny us?"

"You remember once we spoke together of those

among us who say their faith is strong, or their loyalty is

great, and yet the truth is another matter?"

Goldmoon nodded. The priesthood of the Que-shu passed

from mother to eldest daughter, but - peculiar among the

tribes of the Plains - the position of chieftain went to the

man who won the hand of the priestess. Such a man's

worthiness was judged both by the priestess herself and the

current chieftain, her father. It was a tradition stemming

from antiquity, a tradition that had kept the royalty of the

Que-shu strong. Yet there were men, especially chieftains'

sons and spumed suitors, who rankled that their bids for

power were thwarted by one healthy girl-child grown to

womanhood. Arrowthorn had warned her once that many

argued against this tradition, though none dared do so in the

royal family's presence - yet. That was why she must be

perfect in her example. The people obeyed their goddess-to-

be, but evil men could turn them away from her if they

could make her seem no more than a mortal woman.

Arrowthorn continued, "And just as it would not be

expedient to probe these false claims of loyalty too deeply,

we accept the loyalty of those who claim a different belief."

"But why?"

Arrowthorn sighed. "Because they are only mortals, my

child. And though mortals are not infallible, they must be

given the freedom to make their own choices. How else are

we to choose the truly righteous when it comes our time to

judge as gods?" Goldmoon mused over that for some

moments, then argued, "But we must teach them the true

path."

"Teach, but not force them to march along it."

"Perhaps Riverwind could be coaxed to follow the

path," Goldmoon pointed out.

Secretly, Arrowthorn thought: He might follow quarry

down it some ways, but he'd drag it back once he'd shot it.

Aloud, he merely warned his daughter, "I would not waste

too much time on him, my daughter. Men like Riverwind

will take orders, but persuasion only brings out their

stubborn streak. More likely he will make you look

foolish."

"Is that what you discuss with Loreman and the rest

when I am not about, how his family makes us look

foolish?"

Arrowthorn would not lie, so he merely shrugged and

replied, "Among other things."

"Like what things?"

But Arrowthorn turned about to go, commanding her as

he left, "Have your hair done, replace the circlet, and go

about your other duties. They are numerous this day, aren't

they?"

 

As the contest time neared, Goldmoon crossed the

challenge ground, her hair and circlet now as perfect as the

rest of her appearance. All about the edges of the clearing

warriors were warming up and practicing. As they caught

sight of her, they stopped their activity and watched her

approach. The priestess kept her eyes fixed on her

destination, the weapons tent. Thus, while all eyes were on

her, it was she alone who saw a man crawl out from beneath

the canvas near the rear of the tent.

Goldmoon's brow furrowed upon recognizing the

intruder. It was Hollow-sky, son of Loreman. The historian

was a man of wealth and influence in the tribe;

his family had kept the records of the Que-shu for many

generations. Goldmoon knew that he had been one of her

mother's suitors, but it was impossible for the priestess to

imagine Tearsong choosing him over Arrowthorn. His

stature was only average, his frame wiry, and the features of

his face - though considered handsome and refined by many

women - were so pale and ill-defined that Goldmoon

sometimes felt sorry for him. He faded into the background

beside her father's strongly masculine and still hearty form.

Loreman wasn't half the warrior her father was, he was

arrogant and tight with his money, and he lost his temper or

brooded when he did not get his way. After Tearsong died,

he had argued constantly with her father about the

management of the tribe. Yet Lore-man's son Hollow-sky

was among the few men Arrowthorn had judged fit

company for his daughter in her childhood.

The princess had thought once how magnanimous that

was of her father, but she came to realize it had been the

chieftain's way of bartering for peace with Loreman. The

unity of the tribe was of the utmost importance to her father.

He would buy it at any price, even if it meant selling his

daughter's affection to his enemy's son.

Once, Goldmoon might not have minded, for when she

was a child she had loved Hollow-sky dearly. But when

Hollow-sky began training as a warrior with his older

brother, Hawker, he had changed. For the next few years

her former playmate, engrossed in more "manly" pursuits,

had practically ignored her. When his attentions to her were

finally renewed, it had been all too obvious that he was not

interested in her as a friend, but only as a prize.

At first, his attentions had been exceedingly satisfying,

for then she had thought Hollow-sky was attractive and

powerful; but soon his personality began to irritate her as

Loreman's irritated her father. Worse, his courtship was

tainted by his persistent conviction that he was the wiser,

the stronger, the superior of the two of them. He made

decisions for her without her leave, or tried to dissuade her

from decisions she had already considered carefully. When

they fought, he made a point of reminding her of their

youthful games to coax her out of her anger, tainting the

only pleasant memories she had of him.

Unfortunately, her father seemed to assume her

dwindling feelings of friendship for Hollow-sky would

grow into love because of his own need to keep the tribe

unified, and others whispered what a perfect match they

would be - he so strong, she so beautiful. No one could see

how her feelings had changed, and she had no mother to

counsel her.

Now Hollow-sky was up to some mischief in the weapons

tent, a place he should not even be near. Goldmoon knew

she should question him, but she did not want to confront

him today. She didn't want to listen to his excuses or even

speak with him, so she said nothing as she approached the

guards posted at the opening to the weapons tent. Oblivious

to their fail ure, they bowed respectfully to the priestess and

held back the flaps of the tent for her to enter.

Left alone inside, Goldmoon found nothing apparently

amiss. All weapons were stored here on festival days,

ostensibly in acknowledgement of the chieftain's

sovereignty, though it coincidentally cut down on injuries in

brawls that might develop as the celebration wore into the

night. Goldmoon shrugged. Whatever Hollow-sky had been

up to she would get out of him later. For now she must put

him out of her mind and bless the warriors' weapons.

She took a deep breath to calm herself, but her eyes

caught on some feathers that she recognized as marking

Riverwind's sparring pole. There was nothing shabby about

the rare and precious wood, probably something his

grandfather, Wanderer, had harvested on his journeys.

Angrily Goldmoon snatched it up and started to toss it to the

side. "We'll see what a marvelous weapon this is and what a

great warrior he is without my blessing." But then she

noticed the thin crack running along the upper third of the

pole. She saw at once that it was not a natural crack.

"Hollow-sky!" she whispered.

Knowing that Hollow-sky and his brother, Hawker,

were clear favorites to win the contests, Goldmoon

immediately assumed he'd done this deed for her. Perhaps

he'd even tell her later how he had paid Riverwind back for

the unbeliever's insult to herself.

Unsure she wanted this sort of championship,

Goldmoon debated what to do. Perhaps ignominious defeat

was the fate the ancestors had decided for Riverwind. Yet . . . why

would the gods have let her discover the crack, if not to correct the

matter?

Her duty was clear to her.

Finding another pole of the same rare wood was not easy.

She had to substitute one of her father's old poles, and

affixing Riverwind's feathers to the replacement was a

nuisance. Finally, when she had finished the work and

placed the substitute pole among the blessed weapons, she

began to have second thoughts.

Her father's sparring pole was a weapon her mother had

undoubtedly blessed, perhaps even the one her father had

used when he'd won the right to escort Tearsong to the Hall

of the Sleeping Spirits. Stubbornly she tried to recall if there

was a way to UNsanctify the weapon.

"Goldmoon?" Arrowthorn entered the tent and looked

quizzically at his daughter. A slight smile crossed his lips.

"Still praying? They are only going to fight one another,

you know, not our enemies 1"

Goldmoon lowered her eyes to hide her worry and

confusion. "Father, please. This is serious to me."

"Forgive me. Of course. But everyone waits on you."

Goldmoon followed her father and took her place in the

viewing stand. The contests started with a series of

wrestling matches. The tribe all gathered about, unreserved

in their cheers and boos. Goldmoon watched silently with

intense interest. She was the leader of a warrior tribe and

was herself a trained fighter, as were all Que-shu women.

A new bout was just starting when she heard

Clearwing, one of her female attendants, whisper to the

other, "Perhaps it's true what they say of this Riverwind."

Goldmoon's eyes remained on the games, but her

attention was drawn to her servants' conversation.

"What?" Starflower, her other attendant, whispered

back.

"They say he was raised by leopards," Clearwing

replied.

"What nonsense!" Starflower sniffed. "There are no

leopards on the plains."

Clearwing shrugged. "My grandmother says he was

raised by leopards and that Wanderer brought him back

with him from one of his wanderings."

Goldmoon turned her attention back to the wrestling.

Riverwind's bout was just starting. Undeniably powerful

and graceful, there WAS something feline in his movements.

"You have to admit he has the grace of a cat,"

Clearwing added, echoing her mistress's thoughts.

"So true!" Starflower said with a sigh.

Not wishing to listen to any more praises of Riverwind,

Goldmoon sent both girls off with some coin to purchase

stickycakes to keep their mouths closed. The smell of the

sweetened bread set her stomach rumbling, but she bore it

stoically. The royal family ate in public only on ceremonial

occasions so as not to remind their subjects of their

mortality.

 

The wrestling matches, a footrace, and an archery

contest culled the contestants down to eight. The ancestors

had yet to bring Riverwind to his knees, and Goldmoon

wondered if he attributed his victory to whatever gods he

did worship. As he came forward with the others to collect

his sparring pole, the priestess watched him deliberately,

but he gave no sign at all that he detected the switch she had

made. He did, however, look up at her and smile.

The grim hunter's expression disappeared from his eyes.

His smile was that of a young man, warm and friendly, and

Goldmoon saw there the loyalty her father had not

questioned.

The final event was longsticks, a contest fought in a large

circle, in which the fighters had to stay armed and within

the circle. At the judge's signal, the men engaged each other

with dangerous thrusts and parries, and the crack of wood

shattered the air.

Two men quickly managed to knock each other out of

the ring and roll clumsily into the crowd, instantly

disqualifying themselves. Goldmoon saw that Hawker and

Hollow-sky were being very aggressive, smashing at their

opponents' weapons time and again. Riverwind, with a

series of unrelenting, well-timed jabs and blows, wore down

his opponent, Treewhistle, until Treewhistle lost his grip on

his pole. The weapon clattered to the ground and rolled out

of the circle before its owner could retrieve it.

There was a sudden snap of wood, and then another, as

Loreman's sons both broke the weapons of those they

fought. Goldmoon frowned. This could not be coincidence.

The full extent of Hollow-sky's activities in the weapons

tent was now clear. This was sacrilege! She would let him

know of her displeasure.

Simultaneously, the brothers turned on Riverwind. It

seemed a foregone conclusion that they would double-team

him and win the contest together, but Riverwind had had a

moment to breathe and analyze their movements. He held

his pole high, almost inviting them to smash it. Only one of

them could strike without getting in the other's way, so

Hawker declined in his brother's favor.

Hollow-sky swung, but Riverwind was a blur of color

as he dodged, weapon and all, beneath Hollow-sky's arms.

The unblessed warrior slammed his pole at the unsuspecting

and relaxed Hawker. Hawker's weapon soared from his

hands over the heads of the crowd and landed on the

viewing stand at Goldmoon's feet.

Hollow-sky, witnessing his brother's defeat, seemed about

to smash his weapon down on Riverwind's head, but the

judge rushed forward between the two, proclaiming them

the winners. Riverwind and Hollow-sky would be

Goldmoon's escorts to the Hall of the Sleeping Spirits.

The crowd cheered, but the priestess eyed both

critically as they approached her. Hollow-sky gave

Riverwind a vicious glare, then stepped forward as

Goldmoon extended her hand to touch his forehead in

blessing. But Hollow-sky grasped her fingers and pressed a

lingering kiss on them.

Though this was hardly customary, the crowd cheered

again, laughing. There was, after all, that other aspect to

these games - finding a warrior worthy of courting their

priestess/princess. Distressed, however, by the ardor in

Hollow-sky's gaze and still angered by the broken poles, the

princess was determined to show him no favor. She held her

hand out to Riverwind to give him the same advantage.

Riverwind looked startled at the slender, graceful

fingers before him. He took the hand as though it were very

fragile and turned it over, seeming uncertain as to what he

should do.

"Well, Riverwind?" Goldmoon said, arching her

eyebrows expectantly. Inside, the sudden fear surged that,

for religious reasons, this . . . peasant might refuse to kiss

her, and she would be embarrassed before the whole tribe.

"Perhaps he reads your palm, my princess," Hollow-sky

joked.

Goldmoon was instantly grateful to Loreman's son for

breaking the silence and saving her.

"No," Riverwind replied gravely. "That is not one of my

skills."

"What? You don't even see a long journey?" Goldmoon

teased, though inwardly she was growing just a little

nervous - the warrior's grip on her wrist was now quite firm.

Riverwind's countenance grew more serious, though his

smile never entirely left his lips. "A journey you shall have,

no doubt. And with my protection it will be a safe one. I

swear."

Without turning her hand over he lifted it to his lips.

Goldmoon's heart started pounding as she felt him sniff at

the scent on her wrist and then, very gently, kiss her palm.

Long after he released it and she lowered it to her side, she

could feel Riverwind's warm breath on her hand.

 

The Princess Goldmoon spent the remainder of the

afternoon in the privacy of her lodge while the rest of the

tribe began celebrating in earnest - eating, drinking,

dancing, arguing, and brawling. The music filtered into her

quarters, making the priestess wish that she could join them,

like any other young woman. She sat at her loom, but her

shuttle lay unmoving in her lap. Riverwind and Hollow-sky

would be seated with her at the evening feast, and she was

anxious to know what further surprises they had in store for

her.

Finally, her father sent a servant, signaling that it was

time for the priestess to dine with the tribe.

A flute and a drummer accompanied her entrance to the

torchlit feasting grounds, where she sat at her father's right.

The two chosen warriors then entered as the tribe sang a

victory song in their honor. They sat opposite her.

Goldmoon rose and, with a quick wary glance at Riverwind,

invoked a blessing over the food. If the shepherd/warrior

objected, he gave no sign. Then the feast began.

Goldmoon hadn't eaten more than two bites, however,

before Hollow-sky rose and begged leave to speak.

"I have a gift to present to you, Princess, in honor of

this day," he announced.

As the young man spoke, his father, Loreman, walked

proudly toward the head table. He wore a ceremonial cloak

decorated with feathers, and he was carrying a heavy, ornate

leather book.

Loreman lay the book on the table beside Goldmoon,

saying, "It has taken me many long hours to complete this

work. It is a history of the generations of Que-shu since the

great Cataclysm three hundred years ago. I have condensed

many old writings and made them into one book. The last

page, you will see, describes the events of this very day. It

is for all the people of our tribe to read, but we give it into

the care of the princess, and hope she is the first to read it."

There were many murmurs of appreciation from the

people seated at the tables near the royal family. A book

was a rare thing, and the gift was completely unexpected,

especially coming, as it did, from Loreman, who was not

noted for his generosity. Goldmoon ran her hand along the

smooth cover, delighting in its texture.

Hollow-sky leaned over the table, placing his hand over

her own. "Read it carefully, Princess," he whispered.

Goldmoon wanted very dearly to see this last page. She

wondered if Loreman had anticipated his two sons winning

today's contests, and if he had had to rewrite it. Hawker,

seated at his father's table, did not accept defeat graciously,

and did not bother to hide his scowl. Goldmoon was

suddenly very pleased that Riverwind had defeated him.

"We had best keep it from harm by storing it in your

lodge right away," her father suggested, and he abruptly

whisked the book out of her possession.

"Perhaps she would prefer to leave it on display or to

look at it further," Loreman argued.

"Forgive my haste, Loreman, but it may rain, and we

would not want it damaged," Arrowthorn replied in a tight,

sharp voice.

The two men stared at each other in an obvious contest

of wills, but a moment later the historian deferred with a

bow and returned to his own table.

Arrowthorn summoned some of his own men to convey

the book to his daughter's lodge.

Goldmoon, anxious to cover the moment's strain, called

for the musicians to play. Her father, too, recognized the

need for distraction and bid them, "Play a merry tune, to

whet the people's appetite for dancing so that they might not

overeat."

Laughing at the chieftain's joke, the people began to

feast in earnest. Goldmoon noted that Riverwind had a

hearty appetite, if not the most dainty table manners.

Hollow-sky, on the other hand, though well-trained in what

passed for courtly graces among the Que-shu, picked sulkily

at his meal.

 

Less than half an hour into the meal, young people

began to rise from their tables to dance. Goldmoon felt a

momentary twinge of envy at their freedom and knew that

the emotion had shown on her face when Riverwind asked,

"Would you like to dance?" Once again he gave her that

warm smile.

Hollow-sky quickly interjected, "Chieftain's Daughter

does not dance. But then an infidel shepherd could not be

expected to know her as well as a longtime family friend.

Perhaps a short walk would suit better," he added, holding

out his arm for her to take.

Goldmoon gritted her teeth. It was true that she did not

dance. If she were to grow winded, it would be another

reminder to her subjects of her mortality, something her

father objected to. But Arrowthorn had left the meal early to

throw the bones with his generals, and since he was free to

indulge in the vice of gambling, Goldmoon could not see

what harm there could be in one little dance. There was

another reason, as well. She was determined to show

Hollow-sky that he could not make her decisions for her.

"Chieftain's Daughter does dance, she just does not

always choose to do so," Goldmoon replied coldly. "She

chooses to dance now with Riverwind. Later she chooses to

walk with Hollow-sky, for she has a few things to say to

him."

"Alas, lady, but I must rest early tonight if I'm to be a

good guardian in the morning," Hollow-sky objected.

"Then rest well, Hollow-sky," Goldmoon remarked,

shrugging. Abruptly, she took Riverwind's arm and moved

toward the dancers.

Actually, Goldmoon had NEVER danced in public

before. Humming the music, she had practiced in the

privacy of her lodge, doing as many of the steps as she

could recall seeing. But REALLY dancing was quite

different. As Riverwind led her away from the tables, she

began to stiffen.

A calloused but gentle finger ran down the inside of her

forearm, startling her into looking up at her partner. "The

musicians want to know what dance you choose,"

Riverwind said softly.

"Please, choose for me," Goldmoon whispered back

urgently.

"Something simple enough for my great, clumsy feet,"

he joked.

Goldmoon looked up into his blue eyes. He knows, she

thought, that at this I am not infallible, yet he is kind

enough to cover for me.

Riverwind untied the long, burgundy sash at his waist

and held it above his head with a great flourish. "The

princess chooses 'Tiger-hunt,'" he announced loudly.

Goldmoon relaxed. Tiger-hunt was a reel. Very simple.

She noted Hollow-sky's sister, Ravenhair, smiling weakly at

her, obviously vexed. But for Goldmoon, Ravenhair had the

highest standing among the women of the tribe. She would

have led the dance if the princess had remembered her place

and stayed off the dance ground.

The high staccato notes of the flutes pierced the air as

Goldmoon took her place a few paces behind Riverwind.

Riverwind stamped his foot and tossed one end of the sash

behind him. Goldmoon echoed the stamp with a lighter

patting of her foot, just short of the sash's end. Riverwind

walked a few steps forward, pulling the sash in a teasing

manner, a hunter baiting a tigress.

Goldmoon pounced forward and scooped up the end of

the sash in one graceful motion. She gave it a tug and

Riverwind spun on his heel to face her. The hunter's look

was in his eyes again, and the torchlight glittering in his

blue irises made them appear red. Holding the sash between

them, the shepherd and the princess circled one another,

Goldmoon entranced by those eyes.

She had always found this dance a little silly, and never

understood its popularity. It seemed better suited to

children's play. Yet, as Riverwind fell to one knee and she

spun about him at the end of the sash, she suddenly

understood the dance's true meaning.

Riverwind gave a tug, and Goldmoon began spinning

toward him, winding herself into the sash. As soon as she

was within his reach, Riverwind caught hold of her and

pulled her self-tied form down to his knee. With his arm

wrapped about her, it seemed to Goldmoon that Riverwind

was not as large as her father, but there was no doubt he

was powerful, at the height of his manhood.

There was a pause in the music, and Goldmoon became

aware that all about them young men were taking the

opportunity to snatch kisses from their "helpless" partners.

Her heart beat with anticipation. With a flick of her tongue,

Goldmoon moistened her lips, but Riverwind held her

stiffly, his eyes averted from her face, staring out into the

starlit night.

Though his face was stem, Goldmoon could tell that he

was breathing more heavily than the dancing's pace

warranted, and with her arm pressed against his naked

chest, she could feel his heart pounding.

Goldmoon leaned closer. Riverwind's breathing

quickened. He started to turn his face directly to hers when

the flute trilled without warning and the dance resumed.

Riverwind and all the other "hunters" gave a tug on

their sashes, sending the "tigresses" spinning outward like

tops. In a flurry of laughter and bright-colored clothes, each

woman shifted around the next man.

"I'll have that flute player flogged!" Goldmoon

muttered to herself as she smiled politely at her new partner,

Hartbow, Watcher's son. They repeated the same silly

pantomime with his blue sash. Hartbow's eyes were blue,

too, but the light did not catch them the way it had

Riverwind's, and Hartbow's look was not very predatory.

He, too, took no liberty with her as she sat, bound up, on his

knee, but smiled shyly at her.

It was the same with all the rest of her partners. Some,

she sensed, would have kissed her if they'd had more nerve.

Hollow-sky would certainly not have hesitated, but he had

not stayed for the dance. Still, she found herself irritated

that no other Que-shu warrior had the courage to touch his

lips to her own. No one had even held her as closely as

Riverwind had.

"Is Riverwind kissing his other partners?" she wondered

curiously. "Does he watch them with the same hunter's

look?" It was impossible to sneak a peek at him, though,

and still pay attention to what she was doing. The pauses in

the music and the uneasiness of her partners became more

unbearable. Embarrassed and frustrated, she vowed silently

not to wait until her wedding night for a kiss. . . .

Then Goldmoon was once again only one partner away

from Riverwind. He danced with Ravenhair. They held each

other as aloofly as possible. Goldmoon understood that

Ravenhair resented Riverwind's defeat of her brother,

Hawker. But whether her escort had been so distant with all

his other partners, the princess could not know.

The last repeat to the dance came with all the original

couples together. Goldmoon studied the lines of

Riverwind's back and legs, not truly paying much attention

to the sash he snaked in front of her, so she was a little late

diving for it. But when he tugged, she had a firm grip and

tugged back with equal ferocity.

He looked just a little surprised, which made her smile,

and if she could have seen herself, she would have

recognized the tigress in her eyes. She spun about him,

pulling hard, watching his muscles strain to hold onto the

sash. Then she twirled herself into his arms. Bound, sitting

on his knee with his arms about her, she realized that he was

as much a prisoner as she, hardly able to dump his princess

on the ground before the whole tribe. The tigress had won.

Placing her arms around Riverwind's neck, Goldmoon

pulled his head toward her and pressed her soft lips against

his, just as she'd seen the others do but as she'd never done

herself.

Riverwind's arms tightened about her, and he kissed her

back with a passion that sent an unexpected thrill of

pleasure through her body. His mouth tasted of the sweet

fruit they'd eaten at dinner, and his bare arms were warm

against her sweat-cooled flesh. Suddenly he pulled his head

away from hers, as though he had just realized he was

kissing Chieftain's Daughter before the entire tribe. His face

flushed darkly as he heard murmurs and giggles.

Goldmoon, breathing hard, spun out of his sash without

his help. She turned abruptly and walked from the dance

ground, leaving her partner behind as the music diminished.

Her father, standing at the edge of the crowd, watched

her approach. But before he could begin to chide her,

Goldmoon raised her chin and announced, "I go now to my

lodge to pray for a safe journey to the resting place of my

ancestors. Good night, my chieftain." She kissed him gently

on his cheek and walked past him. Suddenly he didn't seem

so very much larger than Riverwind. For that matter,

Riverwind did not seem quite so overpowering either.

 

Arrowthorn came to Goldmoon's lodge before dawn,

before even the night owls ceased their hunting. He sat

beside her on the edge of her cot. "We must speak."

Goldmoon sat up with a yawn. She thought the lecture

on dancing was coming. But when she looked at

Arrowthorn, she knew something much more serious was

wrong. Her father looked tired, as though he had not slept.

"It's about Riverwind, isn't it?" She sighed.

Arrowthorn snorted derisively. "Among other things,"

he answered. "Since he is still the least of our worries, we

will start with him. You know you can never marry him?"

"Oh? Why not?"

"Because our tribe has enough trouble remaining stable

without you adding the killing blow. Riverwind is an

unbeliever. The man you marry will become chieftain when

I die, and the chieftain cannot be an unbeliever. If a

chieftain denies your authority, he denies his own, leaving a

wedge for another power to drive into the tribe, destroying

it."

Goldmoon shrugged. "Riverwind is taking me to the

Hall of the Sleeping Spirits. There, when I speak with the

gods, he will learn his error."

"More likely the gods will speak with you and not allow

their words to be heard by the heretic," Arrowthorn argued.

"But for his disbelief, he would make a good chieftain,"

Goldmoon countered. "Even you were Impressed with him -

I could tell. I will beg the gods to give him a sign. Surely

Mother will not deny me that."

At the mention of Tearsong, Arrowthorn's warrior's

frame shuddered. The years since his wife had died of fever

and slipped into godhood had been too long and too lonely.

He had carried all the responsibility for raising their

daughter, ruling and protecting the tribe, and keeping the

likes of Loreman from tearing it apart. But the joy that

should have been his reward - lying beside Tearsong every

night - was denied him. His leadership and strength had

suffered from her absence, and he knew it better than any

other. Whenever he let Loreman get his way without an

argument, whenever he wasted entire evenings gambling,

whenever some battle scar ached or a coughing fit seized

him (as they did more and more often these days),

Arrowthorn was full of self-loathing. He cursed his

unworthiness and lived in despair that he would ever join

Tearsong as a god.

The only thing he had to feel proud of was Goldmoon,

but if she continued with this stubborn championing of the

heretic Riverwind, she, too, would be lost.

There were more immediate dangers than River wind,

however. "We waste time on this," Arrowthorn declared.

"We must speak of the book."

"Hollow-sky's gift? I was wondering about that. I could

not find it last night. I wanted to read the last page."

"It is in my lodge. If I could, I would bum it before I

would let it defile your eyes."

"Father! Why?"

"It is full of slanders, vile insinuations against the line

of priestesses and all the warriors they have married and

made chieftains. At the same time it praises Loreman's line.

One who reads this book would think the tribe survived

only because of the wisdom and generosity of Loreman's

ancestors."

"But how can that be? Loreman said he condensed it

from ancient writings?"

"If I could get my hands on those writings . . . but

Loreman's grandfather hid them away from the tribe. 'For

safekeeping,' he said, in anticipation, no doubt, of the day

his jackal heirs would gain the daring to threaten us."

"They've given it to me in public, for the whole tribe to

read, so we could not bum it," Goldmoon reasoned.

Arrowthorn nodded. "Loreman must have hoped that

you would believe it, be shamed by it, and marry one of his

sons to gain some semblance of respectability."

"That is exceedingly unlikely." Goldmoon sniffed.

"There was a time you cared very much for Hollow-

sky," he said quietly.

Goldmoon's eyes narrowed.

Arrowthorn looked away from his daughter, his eyes

misted with tears she must not see. The chieftain had hoped

Goldmoon could love whatever man she must marry, but

her disgust for Hollow-sky was clear. He spoke softly,

"This matter has weighed heavily on me for many years. I

do not want you to be unhappy, Goldmoon, and I can

understand that your feelings for Hollow-sky have cooled

now that you are older and your judgment more sound. But

if no other powerful warrior of worthy family can be found,

you must consider Hollow-sky your only suitor. Your

marriage to him would keep our tribe together." He paused

and added, "That is your duty."

Goldmoon breathed deeply, controlling her turbulent

feelings. It was rare that her father expressed his concern for

her happiness, and she was touched that he did so now. But

that did little to soften her anger. Now any accusations she

made against Hollow-sky for sabotaging his opponents'

poles yesterday would look like a weak counter-attack;

Hollow-sky's character did not enter into this, only his skill

as a warrior and his family's position in the tribe. The

injustice galled her.

"Why must my duty to the tribe always come first?"

she asked. "Why can't I choose with my heart as other

women may?"

"You are not as other women." Arrowthorn raised his

hands as though they were the trays of a balancing scale.

"Weigh carefully which is more important, your heart or

your duty. Consider - Loreman is powerful, Hollow-sky

may become even more so. Unless you wed a strong leader

whom all the people will follow, you will never be able to

fend off the historian's or his son's lust for the office of

chieftain. They will divide and splinter the tribe. Then there

will be no priestess, no Book of the Gods, no faith. We must

prevent this at all costs, even if it means sacrificing our

happiness." He rose and gently stroked her hair as he had

when she was a child. Then he left without another word.

Goldmoon's head remained bowed in humility at her

father's words and the tears she had seen gleaming in his

eyes. Arrowthorn was right. The tribe must be kept together

at any price. She could not leave her people without her

guidance as a priestess. And the Book of the Gods must be

preserved, for in that volume the names of those who were

to become gods at death were written down. The faith that

had bound her people since the time of darkness must

remain intact. She resolved to put her father's worries to

rest. She would bear the burden for these responsibilities,

but on her own terms.

It was now imperative that Tearsong help her bring

Riverwind to the true religion of the Que-shu. If the warrior

became a believer, her father could have no strong objection

to their union. She was confident that Loreman and Hollow-

sky would be no match for her with Riverwind by her side.

 

The princess was dressed in her riding leathers of

doeskin when Clearwing and Starflower finally came in to

attend her. She had already packed up her own bedroll for

travel.

"Forgive us for keeping you waiting, mistress,"

Clearwing begged.

"It is of no matter, Clearwing," Goldmoon said softly.

"I rose very early. Just do my hair quickly. I'm anxious to be

off."

The very first golden rays of morning lit the grasslands

as Chieftain's Daughter stepped from her lodge to begin her

journey to speak with her gods. Many villagers had turned

out to see her off, despite the early hour. Riverwind held her

horse's reins and stroked the animal's forehead. Hollow-sky

stepped forward.

"Allow me to help you up, Princess."

Goldmoon paused. Her father watched them, looking

older and more tired than she had ever seen him look

before. She could make his life and her own much simpler.

Hollow-sky's hand reached out for her own.

What kind of goddess has no pride? she thought. She

turned a withering look on Hollow-sky and said in a frigid

tone, "I've been riding horses since before I could walk! Do

I look as if I need help, Hollow-sky, son of Loreman?" She

grabbed her horse's mane and pulled herself onto its back.

Hollow-sky and Riverwind mounted their own beasts

while Clearwing and Starflower climbed into a small cart

driven by Clearwing's younger brother.

Without warning, a flutter of dark wings swooped

down on the princess. Goldmoon felt a pinch at her scalp.

She cried out more from surprise than pain. Glancing up,

she saw a huge raven circling overhead, cawing fiercely,

waiting for another opportunity to strike.

"It is an evil omen!" Loreman cried.

"Nonsense," Riverwind countered. The bird plunged

again at the princess, but a twang of a bow put an arrow

through its breast, and it dropped to the ground with a thud.

A boy in the crowd retrieved it and handed it up to

Riverwind, for it had been the shepherd's arrow that felled

the creature.

"You are a very quick notch and aim," Goldmoon

complimented him.

Riverwind smiled at her.

"It is an omen," Loreman repeated more loudly, "of

war!"

"Just a crow" - Riverwind laughed - "that wanted to

steal the princess's shiny treasure." Carefully he drew out

several strands of long, golden hair clenched in the bird's

claws. He held them up for the crowd to see. "Wealth

beyond any man's dreams," he called out. "Who can blame

the poor crow?"

The crowd laughed, and as the sun shone even brighter,

the evil feeling was dispelled. The crowd cheered as the

party left, Goldmoon in the lead.

When the near-silent party crossed into lands the Que-

shu shared with other tribes - sometimes disputed over -

Hollow-sky took the point, which he considered his by his

superior rank, while Riverwind rode behind the princess.

As they settled into their new positions, Goldmoon held

her horse back from Hollow-sky's and signaled for

Riverwind to ride alongside her. She saw that the raven was

strapped to his saddlebag.

"What are you going to do with that bird?"

Riverwind grinned. "Later, we will see if it is good

eating. Some of them are, you know."

Goldmoon shook her head. It was not a dish she had

ever been served. Noticing then that the Plainsman had her

strands of stolen hair still wrapped about his fingers, she

gave a slight, hastily concealed smile.

Riverwind looked down at his hand to see what made

her smile. "Stolen gold," he murmured, flushing. "These are

yours, I believe, lady," he said, untangling the golden

threads from his fingers and leaning over to hand them to

her.

Goldmoon took the hair carefully.

"It is a lovely color." Greatly daring, he reached over to

push back a strand of living hair that had fallen across her

eyes.

Feeling a thrill at his touch and knowing that her own

cheeks must be burning, Goldmoon hastily smoothed her

hair over her shoulder. To cover her pleasure, she held up

the broken strands. "Thank you for saving these for me,"

she laughed awkwardly. "I can hardly be Goldmoon without

the golden hair."

Riverwind looked back at her. "Of course you can. You

were Goldmoon when you were born, and you were quite

bald then."

"That's ridiculous!" Goldmoon said, shocked. "How

dare you?"

Riverwind shrugged. "It's true. You can ask Hollow-

sky, if you like - he must remember. Though he's not likely

to tell you the truth if he thinks it will displease you."

Goldmoon closed her mouth on the disparaging

comment she had been about to make. Riverwind certainly

understood Hollow-sky. She thought for a moment, then

argued, "I don't believe there is such a thing as a bald baby.

I've never seen one."

"Well, you've never seen anyone with hair like yours,

have you?" Riverwind returned. "I was five when I first saw

you. I remember asking Wanderer if you'd been sick,

because you had only tiny, pale wisps of hair. He told me

that you were going to have light hair, and that sometimes

light hair comes in more slowly. He said such things were

natural among distant tribes. You will see for yourself, no

doubt."

"What do you mean?" Goldmoon asked.

"When you have a baby of your own," Riverwind

explained.

Goldmoon flushed and looked away, disturbed at the

direction the conversation had taken. She lowered her head,

allowing her golden hair to fall across her feverish cheeks.

The thought of bringing up little Hollow-skys,

grandchildren for Loreman, was disgusting! But Riverwind

. . .

She was silent for so long that Riverwind asked, "Is

something wrong, Princess? Have I offended - "

Goldmoon shook her head. "Tell me about your

family," she said, glad to change the subject. "Didn't your

father used to be a tanner? Why did he leave the village and

become a shepherd?"

Riverwind raised his eyebrows in surprise. "The story is

common knowledge," he answered.

"I have not heard it," Goldmoon replied firmly.

Riverwind shrugged and proceeded to explain. "During

the summer of drought, the Que-shu battled with the Que-

kiri, and my grandfather Wanderer was wounded. Your

father went to the village of the Que-kiri to negotiate a

peace, and since you were still far too young to sit in

judgment, Loreman sat in your place. As Wanderer lay

dying, Loreman came to him and offered to write his name

in the Book of the Gods - to make him a god for his bravery

in battle. But Wanderer refused, saying that men could not

make gods of each other."

Goldmoon bit her lip, determined to hear Riverwind's

story in full before debating truths with him.

"Loreman was angry and declared that Wanderer had

planted a dark seed, meaning, of course, my family's belief

in gods more ancient than the gods of the tribe. Loreman

decreed that the seed must not spread beyond our family. So

he confiscated my father's trade and cast us out. We may

live only at the edge of the Que-shu's lands. Therefore,

tending sheep and hunting are our only ways of making a

livelihood."

"And having granted Loreman the authority, my father

could not undo what he had decreed," Goldmoon added.

She silently determined that she would do something to

reverse Loreman's ban on Riverwind's family when she

returned. She had only to prove to Riverwind that her

ancestors were the true gods to get him to give up his

ridiculous belief in the foreign gods of Wanderer.

Hollow-sky dropped back by the twosome, causing the

cart-horse behind them to whinny in annoyance and prance

to reposition itself behind the riders' horses. A peevish look

marred Hollow-sky's fine-boned face. He gave Riverwind a

cursory glance of disdain and then turned his attention on

Goldmoon. "Great Lady," he began, "if you would ride

ahead with me, I would enjoy talking with you on such a

fine day."

Riverwind's face darkened with hostility, and

Goldmoon wished Hollow-sky would vanish.

"Lady?" Hollow-sky queried, impatiently. His hands

gripped his reins too tightly.

Riverwind's hand slid smoothly along his longstick in a

vaguely threatening manner. In response, Hollow-sky, with

seeming casualness, ruffled the feathers atop his own pole.

If I do not separate them, Goldmoon thought, they are

likely to continue with yesterday's contest.

"Please excuse me," she said regretfully to Riverwind.

"Come, Hollow-sky." She nudged her horse ahead a bit, and

Hollow-sky followed.

 

The party of riders and servants made only a few short

stops to stretch their legs. They ate dried meat and fruit on

the trail. It was a typical summer afternoon on the open

plains - hot and still. Grass insects hummed and swarmed

and made a nuisance of themselves. The only excitement of

the ride came when their passing flushed birds out of the

grass or when snakes or small animals underfoot startled the

horses.

At last, just when Goldmoon felt she could no longer

bear her own trickling sweat, they began to climb into the

hills at the foot of the mountain that held their goal. Cool,

pine-scented air reached the travelers, renewing their energy

and spirits.

The trail became steeper and narrower. Just when it

seemed that the cart could go no farther, a high meadow

came into view. Here Goldmoon instructed Clearwing and

Starflower to unhitch the cart horse and load it with her

belongings. They were then to make camp and await her

return, which should be by midday the next day. Her

serving women were reluctant to let her go on without them,

but she repeated her orders, eyeing them sternly. No one but

herself and her two escorts were allowed on the holy

ground.

Goldmoon and her escorts continued upward with the

cart horse. The trail grew worse; in some spots it became

almost vertical. The cart-horse-turned-pack animal balked,

and Riverwind had to dismount and coax, tug, and push it

along. Hollow-sky watched without offering to help, an

amused look on his face. Finally, they came to a spot where

the horse refused to be moved no matter what Riverwind

did.

Tossing her horse's reins disdainfully to Hollow-sky,

Goldmoon slid off her horse and joined Riverwind. She

covered the animal's eyes with her hands and murmured

softly in its ears. When she sensed the beast relax, she

tugged gently and it followed her along the rim.

Riverwind stared at her with admiration, but Goldmoon,

failing to acknowledge it, remounted without a word, and

they continued on.

The path divided unexpectedly on the lower slopes of

the mountain itself, one trail heading up the west slope, the

other the east.

"Which way, Princess?" Hollow-sky asked.

Goldmoon's brow furrowed in puzzlement. "I do not

know. I thought there was only one trail."

"The shadows are lengthening," Hollow-sky said

unnecessarily. "If we take the wrong route and need to turn

back, we shall have to travel in the dark to be there when

Lunitari's rays open the cavern, and that could be

dangerous."

The princess wondered why Arrowthorn had not

warned her of this. She looked for signs that one trail was

newer than the other, but she really could not tell.

"Why don't you rest, Princess?" Hollow-sky said. "I will

scout down one path and return as quickly as I am able. And

you, shepherd, scout the other."

Goldmoon bristled. Riverwind was not an underling for

Hollow-sky to command, and worse, the son of Loreman

was again making decisions and giving orders on her

behalf.

"You will scout the trail, Hollow-sky," she said firmly,

"and Riverwind will remain here as guard." Her tone

brooked no argument.

Hollow-sky sat stiffly astride his horse as Riverwind

dismounted, tossing a tight-lipped smile at his rival.

Hollow-sky's fingers strayed to the feathers atop his long

stick as they had earlier. Ignoring the subtle challenge,

Riverwind defiantly turned his back on Hollow-sky.

The Plainsman stood alertly at the path's divide and

watched Hollow-sky depart, as Goldmoon sat down on the

ground and leaned against a tree.

"Come sit with me, please," she commanded.

Riverwind lowered himself into a cross-legged position

before his Chieftain's Daughter.

"I have something for you. I made it during the ride

across the plain," Goldmoon whispered. She held out her

hand, displaying a small golden circlet. "You rescued them

from the crow," she said, and Riverwind saw that she had

woven the strands of her hair which he had rescued into a

lacy ring. She laid it in the warrior's palm, where it

glistened golden in the sun.

Riverwind was silent for many long moments staring

down at the gift. When he finally slipped it around a finger,

Goldmoon let out the breath she found she'd been holding

for fear he would reject it.

Drawing a chain from his shirt and removing it over his

head, Riverwind said, "I would like you to have this."

Goldmoon quickly shook her head. "You don't have to

give me anything in return."

"You must take it," Riverwind insisted. "I have already

accepted two gifts from you."

"Two?"

Riverwind reached up and placed a hand over the pole

strapped to his back. "This was not Wanderer's weapon."

"Well, I'm afraid his weapon was . . ." Goldmoon

paused confusedly - "damaged."

"I thought as much. Why did you replace only mine?"

"It was the only one I knew about. I wanted the contest

to be judged by the gods, not by mortals."

Riverwind nodded. "I see."

"But I am not displeased that you were one of the

victors," Goldmoon assured him.

Riverwind smiled at her, the smile of a friend. "Then

please," he said, "accept this."

Taking the chain from him, Goldmoon saw that it was

made of common brass, but the charm hanging at the end -

two circles joined together - was of brilliantly polished

silver-blue steel, so valued a metal among the Que-shu that

it was never used to make jewelry.

"It's called an infinity sign or a forever charm. But it is

more than a decoration - it will protect you, keep you from

harm."

Looking slightly puzzled, Goldmoon ran her fingers

around the steel circles. "This has something to do with the

ancient gods, doesn't it?" she asked.

Riverwind nodded. "It is the symbol of a goddess, but

her name was lost to the memory of our people as were all

the names of the true gods. I suspect Loreman knows them,

but he will not say."

On first hearing that the charm was a symbol of a strange

goddess, Goldmoon was tempted to reject the gift.

However, if Loreman does not like it, she thought, perhaps

there is some good to it. She slipped the chain over her head

and tucked the amulet into her shirt.

Riverwind, too, let out his held breath and smiled gently

at his princess.

They sat quietly, giving in to their fatigue. Goldmoon's

eyes closed.

 

The sound of galloping hooves startled Goldmoon

awake. While she slept Riverwind must have tucked her fur

cloak around her. He stood alert, his bow at the ready. But it

was Hollow-sky who rode up, his face flushed with

excitement.

"This must be the right path. It leads to a road like none

I have ever seen before. Hurry, the sun is going down."

Goldmoon and Riverwind mounted up and followed

Hollow-sky down the path he had scouted. About a quarter

of a mile along it suddenly turned into a broad road, at least

ten feet wide and paved with huge, flat stones, work never

seen among the tribes of the plains. Still, it seemed familiar

to Goldmoon, though she could not tell why.

Although the slope was steep, traveling was easier now,

for the way was quite smooth and they could let the horses

trot. There was still plenty of light in the sky when they

arrived at the landmark Arrowthorn had described to

Goldmoon - a large stone arch straddling the road.

"I recognize this stonework," the princess said, relieved

to know they were on the right road. "It's just like the

platform in our village."

Riding underneath the arch, she halted her horse where

she could touch the cool rock. Looking up, she saw symbols

carved on the underside of the arch. Many were

unrecognizable, but the largest, carved at the apex of the

arch, consisted of two circles joined together. Goldmoon

drew out the amulet Riverwind had given her and gasped

softly. The steel charm glowed with a soft blue light in the

shadow of the rock.

"Is something wrong, Princess?" Hollow-sky asked,

turning to see why she had not passed all the way through.

Instantly Goldmoon cupped her hand about the symbol

to hide its light and tucked it back into her shirt. "No,

nothing," she said coolly, riding on through the archway.

Beyond the arch was a large, grassy clearing,

surrounded by tall, ancient pine trees. The clearing sloped

upward to a stairway carved out of the stone of the

mountain. Set into the cliff face at the top of the stairs was a

pair of huge stone doors. Goldmoon sat motionless on her

horse for several minutes, just gazing at those doors.

Beyond them, she knew, lay her ancestors who were now

gods and goddesses. But most special to Goldmoon was her

mother, Tearsong.

Goldmoon remembered her mother alive, laughing and

beautiful. She also remembered her ill and dying. And she

remembered her dead, encased in the sarcophagus which

held her remains until the doors above had opened ten years

ago, allowing Arrowthorn to entomb them at last. The

princess's dearest and most secret wish was to see her

mother again, as a goddess, laughing and beautiful.

A touch on her forearm made Goldmoon turn. Silently,

Riverwind made a gesture toward the plains they had

crossed. Far below, the sun was setting on the golden fields,

painting them a rosy-purple hue. She could pick out a

hundred hawks rising on late afternoon thermals, sighting

prey, and swooping down on their dinners. Farther off,

barely visible, were the thin wisps of smoke which she

knew came from her father's village. "It's beautiful," she

whispered.

"Shepherd, you cook supper while I tend to the

animals," Hollow-sky ordered, tossing a bag of ground

grain at Riverwind's feet.

Riverwind nudged the bag with his boot and said flatly,

"I will roast the crow instead - after I've cared for my own

horse and pitched the princess's tent."

Hollow-sky clenched his jaw, and his eyes narrowed as

he inhaled deeply, an angry reply bubbling to his lips.

Assessing the tension, Goldmoon took command. "It is

kind of you to raise my tent, Riverwind," she said lightly.

Turning to Hollow-sky, she added, "You may make the

porridge after you've attended to the pack animals."

"As you command, Princess," Hollow-sky replied

coldly.

When Riverwind finished pitching her tent, Goldmoon

arranged her things within. She laid out the ceremonial garb

she would wear later - a long, sky-blue gown embroidered

with gold crescent moons on the hem and sleeves.

Outside, Riverwind roasted the bird that had stolen

Goldmoon's hair, while Hollow-sky stirred a pot of boiling

cereal, eyeing the bird with apparent disdain. In the brisk

mountain air, after the long day's journey, Goldmoon would

have found anything delicious. Hollow-sky's well-prepared

meal was quite satisfying, but the smell of Riverwind's bird

was mouthwatering. So when the warrior declared it done

and offered her a portion, Goldmoon could not resist,

though Hollow-sky only sneered and would have none of it.

Replete, Goldmoon rose to go to her tent. She smiled

when she saw Riverwind attempt to hide a yawn and fail

utterly.

Hollow-sky, on the other hand, seemed to be filled with

energy. "If it pleases you, Princess, I will take first watch.

Riverwind has worked hard to get us here, he could use

some sleep."

Goldmoon looked at Loreman's son, amazed at his

sudden thoughtfulness, not to mention the fact that he'd

asked her permission before making a decision.

Observing her astonishment, Hollow-sky said lamely,

"It is the least I can do."

Wordlessly nodding her assent, Goldmoon hurried off

to her tent. The night air was bitter cold. Once wrapped in

her warm sleeping furs and rugs, the princess/priestess

dropped off to sleep immediately.

 

She seemed to have slept only a few minutes when

Hollow-sky, at the door to her tent, called her name softly.

"Dawn is only half an hour off."

Shaking off the temptation to curl up in her warm rugs

again, Goldmoon dressed hurriedly in her ceremonial robe

and stepped out of the shelter of her cozy tent into the

predawn coolness. It was time for the ceremony for which

she had waited all these years. She fastened several, small,

ancient crystal globes on her belt. In the Hall of the

Sleeping Spirits, they would be filled with sacred sand.

"Where is Riverwind?" she whispered to Hollow-sky as

he handed her a torch.

"I could not wake him, so I took both watches. The

sheep-herder sleeps like a rock," he said, contempt in his

voice.

"Try again!" Goldmoon commanded.

Hollow-sky shrugged. "Why bother? The sheep-herder

is not a believer. The ceremony will mean nothing to him.

He may even spoil it. Let him sleep."

Hollow-sky's refusal to obey her orders angered the

priestess.

Goldmoon quickly knelt by Riverwind's bedroll and

gave the warrior a shake. But he did not respond.

She spun about and stood to face Hollow-sky. "You've

drugged him," she accused.

"Yes," he admitted. "I couldn't let him spoil my plans."

"YOUR plans? What are you talking about?" The

princess suddenly felt chilled and even a little frightened in

the predawn darkness. She began to search through her

saddlebags for something, anything, that might bring

Riverwind around.

Hollow-sky shrugged. "I know you will think this

presumptuous of me, but I guarantee you will find my plans

infinitely preferable to my father's."

"I know about the book, if that's what you mean." She

could see nothing of use among her things.

Grabbing her arms, Hollow-sky forcibly turned her

back around to face him. "You have no idea, do you?" He

grinned and then said, as if explaining to a child,

"Goldmoon, my father wants the title of chieftain for

himself, but he can't take it as long as Arrowthorn has an

heir. If you were out of the way, my sister Ravenhair would

be priestess, then my father would be chieftain."

"Out of the way?" she asked in a sharp voice,

determined not to reveal the fear spreading through her.

"Yes. Gone. Dead!" He bit off the words as he drew a

sharp dagger from his belt and grabbed her roughly around

the waist. The knife's edge glinted in the pale light as

Hollow-sky held it menacingly near her throat.

"So why didn't you kill me in my sleep?" Goldmoon

demanded, feeling the world reel about her. Stubbornly she

forced herself to concentrate.

"I told you, I have other plans. I want you for myself,

though the gods know why. You really are an arrogant

witch sometimes. We'll marry, and then I'LL be chieftain.

Loreman wants the power for himself, but the knowledge

that his son, and later his grandchildren, will rule should

satisfy him. In the meantime, he'll be content with your

dowry." He smiled slightly, a smile that made Goldmoon

shudder. "You should thank me for saving your life."

With his free hand, Hollow-sky clenched her hair close

to the scalp, forcing her head to tilt back. As tears came to

her eyes, Loreman's son kissed her as no man had ever

dared to kiss her before. His passion was not an expression

of affection, but an assault.

Struggling to wrench her face from him, Goldmoon

gasped, "You're dreaming! I'll never marry you." Desperate,

she threatened the first thing that came to her:

"I'll scream! I'll - "

"There is no one to hear you," he said, sneering.

His crushing grip bruised her shoulders through the

silken cloth of her gown. She forced her arms down on the

hand holding the dagger and almost succeeded in thrusting

him away. He snatched at her and ripped the sleeve from

her shoulder. Holding her more firmly than before, his face

just inches from hers, the dagger point resting gently against

her chin, he said, "Of course, you love the peasant!" He

gave Riverwind's unconscious body a sharp kick and smiled

cruelly when Goldmoon flinched. "That's why we'll ride

down to the Que-kiri this morning. Any woman a man can

drag to their priest, they'll declare married. Then, if your

father ever wants to see you again, he'll have to agree to my

worthiness and accept the vows of the Que-kiri as binding."

HE IS INSANE! Goldmoon thought to herself. I will

humor him, stall him, until the doors to the hall open. Then

surely the ancestors will aid me!

Goldmoon felt the weight of the forever charm against

her breast. Her fingers closed around it. "Please, if this

charm truly has a god, then help me now!" she prayed

silently. A slow tingling sensation rose in the fingers that

held the charm. It was so slight that she wasn't certain she'd

felt it. She waited expectantly. Nothing happened. She

suddenly felt foolish and angry with herself for even testing

the charm.

Forcing herself to relax, she pressed against him,

though his hot breath on her face sickened her.

"That's better," Hollow-sky whispered, squeezing her

tighter. "Oh, Goldmoon, you'll get used to the idea. You'll

discover that I'm more of a man than . . . than that shepherd

there." He motioned at the still figure behind his back and

moved his face close to hers. "You are so beautiful," he

murmured, and then he kissed her again, even more

intimately than before.

As Hollow-sky kissed her, she was astonished to detect

movement in Riverwind's sleeping-bag. His head poked

above the edge, two fingers pressed against his lips in a

gesture for silence.

She roughly pushed Hollow-sky back. He scowled and

thrust the dagger toward her threateningly, but it never

reached the skin. The forever charm gleamed brilliantly,

and a single arc of lightning leaped from it and flashed

down the dagger, causing Hollow-sky to yelp in pain and

drop the weapon. Goldmoon gasped in wonder.

As Hollow-sky stared disbelievingly at his burned hand,

Riverwind threw back his bedclothes and stood.

The man reputedly raised by leopards stalked his prey so

silently that Hollow-sky was totally unaware of him until

Riverwind's two fists landed on his neck. Hollow-sky

stumbled forward, stunned, letting go his grip on

Goldmoon, who fell back away from him.

The shepherd could have drawn his sword and finished

Loreman's son before he ever knew what hit him, but

instead Riverwind slid his sparring pole off his back and

waited for the other man to recover.

Hollow-sky turned about, his eyes widening with

astonishment. "How - ?" he started to gasp.

"Draw your pole, carrion crow," Riverwind snarled. "I

didn't eat your drug-tainted porridge."

Hollow-sky's hand went for his sword, but Riverwind's

pole lashed out. Hollow-sky cradled his injured hand in his

other already stinging hand.

"I didn't hurt you badly. Draw your pole before I do,"

Riverwind warned.

Hollow-sky drew out his sparring pole. The two

warriors circled each other warily. Goldmoon crouched on

the grass in the pearl-gray of the predawn sky as the

echoing crack of wood shattered the silence.

The men thrust and blocked, using jabbing maneuvers

that she hadn't seen at the games. With a sharp intake of

breath, she realized they weren't sparring but using moves

meant only for real combat. Riverwind took a fierce jab

under the kneecap, and she heard his gasp of pain. But pain

seemed to spur the Plainsman on, for he suddenly whirled

his pole aggressively, trying to disarm his opponent.

Hollow-sky twisted his pole vertically and stopped the

twirling of Riverwind's stick, nearly disarming the

princess's champion.

The men were more evenly matched than Goldmoon

had thought. Hollow-sky was good. Why he had bothered to

sabotage his opponent's poles for the contest, Goldmoon

could not understand. Is it possible he did not believe in his

own skill, or is he simply so inured to his father's

treacheries that he just automatically cheated? she

wondered.

Goldmoon bit her lip anxiously.

The sky had taken on a faint reddish light, indicating

that the red moon, which would open the doors to the hall,

was about to rise. The dawn of the sun was brightening the

sky all about her. She could see the combatants' faces

clearly now. Riverwind's features were grim and

determined. Hollow-sky's eyes were filled with bloodlust

and hatred. Goldmoon shivered, but not with cold.

Sweat trickled off the men's bodies despite the cool

mountain air. They circled each other again, waiting for an

opening in the other's defenses. Goldmoon's fingers dug

into the flesh of her arms as the tension rose like the mist in

the meadow.

Suddenly, Riverwind snarled like a wild cat. The sound

mocked a real wild cat's so accurately that it flushed a small

flock of birds from the trees. The noise of their wings

diverted Hollow-sky's attention for just an instant, but that

was all it took. Riverwind knocked his adversary down, and

Hollow-sky lost his grip on his pole. Riverwind closed in to

deliver a blow that would knock the traitor senseless - or

worse.

But Riverwind's injured knee slowed his attack, and

Hollow-sky rolled away, scrambling to his feet. He slipped

beneath Riverwind's blocking swing and ran up the stairs

that led to the doors of the Hall of the Sleeping Spirits,

dragging his pole behind him. Riverwind pursued him, just

two steps behind. Goldmoon sprang to her feet and ran

across the grass, following the warriors up the stairs.

As she reached the top step, Lunitari, the red moon, made

its appearance above the horizon, shedding its light directly

across the great stone doors. Very slowly the massive

portals began to swing outward, showering gold sparks

down on the two men locked in their deadly struggle. The

footing on the rock platform out side the doors was slippery

with sand, and the sides adjacent to the staircase edge and

the door fell off sharply over sheer cliffs.

Goldmoon forgot her desire to gain entrance to the hall

as she watched Riverwind, by jabs and blows, push Hollow-

sky toward the cliff. Both men teetered dangerously near

the edge.

The opening doors nudged Riverwind slightly, breaking

his concentration and forcing him to struggle to keep his

balance. In that moment, Hollow-sky managed to land a

blow across the side of the shepherd's head and face. Dazed,

Riverwind raised his staff to block the next attack, but his

reactions were slowed. Hollow-sky jabbed wickedly at the

shepherd's already injured knee, bringing him crashing

down on both knees. Seeing Hollow-sky close in on

Riverwind, Goldmoon, consumed by fear for Riverwind's

life, drew her crystal dagger.

She lunged forward, holding the dagger high over her

head. Hollow-sky, intent on the kill, failed to look up.

Goldmoon slammed the dagger down hard, gashing his

right arm deeply. Hollow-sky's blood splashed over her

dagger and wrist and onto the rock platform.

Startled, Hollow-sky staggered backward - and lost his

footing on the sandy precipice. He tumbled over the edge,

and his scream echoed up the cliff face, seemingly forever .

. . until his body hit the ground below. Bathed in red

moonlight, Goldmoon stood staring over the rock's edge,

her hair stirred by a gentle thermal rising from below.

"Goldmoon! Come away from there," Riverwind cried,

shaken.

As if in a dream, the priestess of the Que-shu turned from

the cliff face and moved to the shepherd's side, helping him

to his feet. Hollow-sky's scream echoing through her head,

she sheathed her dagger without cleaning it.

"I had no choice. He was going to kill you!" she said

and suddenly burst into shuddering sobs.

"I know," he answered. "I wanted to protect you this

morning, but felt helpless while he held the dagger to your

throat. Then the charm . . ." His voice trailed off as

Goldmoon softly answered, "Yes, it protected me." Pulling

her close to his chest, he stroked her hair in a gentle,

calming motion.

Suddenly Goldmoon was very much aware of the man's

arms around her. Then, remembering why she was here and

how urgent it was that she convince Riverwind of the reality

of her gods, she sprang away from him.

"The hall!" she cried. "We must get inside and hold the

ceremony quickly before the doors close!"

As though mocking her attempts, the first ray of

sunlight shot over the horizon, striking the doorway. The

huge stone doors began closing on their own, scraping and

rumbling against the stone platform beneath them.

"Hurry!" Goldmoon insisted, tugging Riverwind. With

his injured knee, Riverwind had to lean on her to make it

through the rapidly narrowing portal.

As they slipped through the opening, it closed with a

thunderclap. Beneath the deafening echo, Goldmoon heard

Riverwind gasp in pain. "Are you all right?" she asked.

"My injuries are minor," he answered curtly. "How do

we open the doors again?"

Goldmoon hesitated. "I'm not sure we can. The

ceremony is supposed to be held quickly between the red

moon rising and the sunrise, while the doors stand open."

"You mean you risked being trapped in here?" Riverwind

hissed angrily. "It's not enough you almost get yourself

killed attacking Hollow-sky, you have to also bury yourself

alive!"

"I stabbed him to save your life," Goldmoon reminded

him with equal curtness.

Riverwind drew away from her. "You should have run,"

he said coldly, "not tried to save me. After all, I'm supposed

to protect you, not the other way around."

"You are no use as a bodyguard if you are dead!"

Goldmoon retorted, not understanding her own anger.

Remembering those terrible moments when she thought

Riverwind was going to die, she began to tremble.

"I suppose not," Riverwind said, chagrined. She could

hear him withdraw even further.

Reaching out, Goldmoon found his hands in the

darkness and took them in her own. "And, if you had died, I

would have died out there, too," she whispered.

Riverwind drew several deep breaths without speaking.

Goldmoon could feel his hands quivering in her own.

Releasing his hands and moving forward, she wrapped her

arms about him and rested her head against his chest. This

time she noticed that his leather armor smelled of the spiced

oil used to clean it. Riverwind pressed her near, holding her

gently. In the cold, damp cavern, he radiated heat like a fire.

"When you first approached womanhood," he

whispered, "and I saw then your beauty, I asked my family

what age you would have to be before Arrowthorn would

allow men to court you." He stroked her hair as he spoke.

Not interrupting him, Goldmoon luxuriated in the feel

of his broad back beneath her hands, of his arm about her

shoulders.

"My adopted parents tried to make me see that my

poverty and faith would always keep us apart," Riverwind

continued, "but I would not believe them. You never

noticed me when I watched you, but others did, and

Loreman himself came to our hut to warn my parents to

keep me away from you."

Goldmoon guessed that that must have been the time

she'd first heard her father discussing Riverwind with

Loreman in hushed tones.

Riverwind continued his story. "My father sent me out

to watch sheep in the fields farthest from the village. My

mother's skill at weaving is great, so many send their

daughters to apprentice under her, even though Loreman

has forbidden it. My mother would invite the loveliest of

these girls to eat with our family, but the memory of your

face stayed with me. Then one night, Wanderer's spirit came

to me and told me of the games held to choose escorts for

the priestess's pilgrimage to this place. He said that some

day you would give your heart to one of those escorts."

"And so I have," Goldmoon whispered. She raised her

lips, so that she could kiss him, but Riverwind pulled away

from her and held her at arms length.

"I must admit," the warrior said, "I felt certain of

myself, seated next to you at the banquet. I could not

imagine you with Hollow-sky, though my mother often

warned me that the two of you were a likely match. When I

saw you watching the dancers and realized you wanted to

dance, I thought, 'She is just a woman, like other women.'

But I was wrong. You will never be just a woman. You are

and always will be Chieftain's Daughter. Now I doubt my

worthiness. I am still poor, and our gods remain different."

Goldmoon was silent for many moments, before she

said, "If I do not doubt your worthiness, then neither should

you. And your fortunes might change."

"And the gods?" Riverwind asked.

"They will show us a way."

"Whose?"

"Yours, mine, both - it makes no difference. My mother

used to say that hope is a gift from the gods we must never

lose."

"My mother has said that, too," Riverwind replied.

"Well, we must find some way out of here, or it will truly

make no difference to our corpses!"

Goldmoon felt him take her hand in his and together

they edged their way along the wall. They reached the

passageway without trouble.

Wondering if her eyes were playing tricks, Goldmoon

asked, "Is that a light ahead?"

"I think so." They moved more quickly along the

corridor toward the light. Soon it grew bright enough that

they could see all about them. Looking for the source of the

illumination, Goldmoon saw movement on the smooth cut

rock. Looking closer, she realized that the light came from

brightly glowing red spots on the insects' backs.

"I think they're fire beetles," Riverwind said.

"Those are only in children's stories."

"I think we are in a children's story," Riverwind said,

able to chuckle a little in relief. "Let me have your crystal

globe. These little light legends may not live in other

passages, so we will need to take them with us."

Goldmoon unfastened the crystal globe from her belt

and surrendered it. The other two globes still lay on the

grass outside. Riverwind gently scraped several of the

beetles into the sphere.

"Here's the lid," she offered.

"I'm afraid they might suffocate."

"Air will get in. There are tiny holes in the lid," the

priestess explained. "I've often wondered why. Do you

suppose these globes were originally made for this

purpose?" she asked.

"This one functions well as a lamp. That is all that is

important." Riverwind held the globe up by its straps, and

they made their way safely into the crypts of the Que-shu

royalty.

The crypt cavern was so huge that their little light did

not illuminate the ceiling or the walls beyond. At the edge

of the darkness they could make out the shape of the tombs.

The very first they came to bore the inscription, "Tearsong -

beloved of Arrowthorn." Goldmoon slid her hand along the

words and then snatched it back. The rock was cold. "Cold

as death," she thought, shuddering slightly. She moved

hurriedly past the memorial to her mother.

The floor sloped down as they passed the remains of

three centuries of the princess's ancestors. At the bottom of

the slope, Goldmoon could make out a stone altar, carved

with the forever sign of her amulet. Realizing that she

shouldn't be able to see the carving in the darkness, she

became aware that the light around the altar was blue, not

red, and that it came from the altar.

The priestess knew that the moment she had awaited

had come. She knelt in front of the altar and sang:

 

"THE RED SUN HAS RISEN.

THE BLUE DOORS HAVE OPENED.

I KNEEL HERE BEFORE YOU,

TO SING YOU MY SONG.

YOU WHO HAVE LEFT US,

WE ASK FOR YOUR BLESSING."

 

Goldmoon waited patiently in prayerful silence for

several minutes, but nothing happened, no one answered.

Fear crept into her. Was there some part of this ceremony

that her father had not known about, something that

Tearsong had carried with her to the grave?

Then a voice spoke, "My beloved child! What

joy it is to see you!"

"Mother!" Goldmoon cried out. Her throat constricted

in emotion as all the years of loneliness and longing for

Tearsong, of quickly suppressed doubt that she would ever

actually speak to her again, overwhelmed the young

priestess.

Tearsong's laughter rang through the hall like tinkling

glass and filled Goldmoon with a pleasure that was also

painful. The air shimmered with light as Tearsong's form

coalesced in the air behind Goldmoon. Tears of grief and

joy welled in the princess's eyes. A harvest of loving

memories, which had long lain dormant in sorrow, filled

her. Her mother's sculpted features and jet-black hair were

even more lovely than she remembered.

"Mother. This is Riverwind," Goldmoon started to say,

turning around to summon the warrior forward, but all was

darkness behind her.

"I cannot appear to Riverwind."

"But you must! You see, he does not believe that - "

" - that I am a goddess." Tearsong nodded. "He is right.

I am a spirit only, and I have only a little time to speak with

you - so listen carefully. You are a woman now, Goldmoon,

and you must hear the truth and accept it. The gods of the

Que-shu, the gods I served all my life, are false. It makes no

difference whether or not Loreman has written your name in

the tribe's Book of the Gods. Men cannot make gods of each

other."

"But I am Chieftain's Daughter!" Goldmoon protested

in disbelief.

The spirit of Tearsong smiled at her daughter's arrogance.

"Your status in life, whether chieftain or healer, priestess or

shepherd, has no influence on the judgment of the true gods.

And the true gods will be your final judges, not your tribe,

not your father, not myself. The true gods reward each

person in the afterlife according to his or her virtues, not

some circumstance of birth."

Goldmoon shook her head, stunned. After Lore-man's

betrayal and Hollow-sky's attack, this was too much to bear.

An idea came to her. "This is some kind of test of my faith.

Oh, Mother, I will never turn from our gods. I will believe

in you always."

A sad expression crossed Tearsong's face. "Your love

for me is very great," she said. "That is why I was chosen to

tell you of the true gods."

Tears filled Goldmoon's eyes, streaming down her

cheeks, dropping onto her robe, leaving dark marks on the

blue fabric. "But the spirits of the Que-shu will not obey me

after death if I am not a goddess - " the princess argued,

feeling cheated.

Her mother's tone sharpened impatiently. "You would

do better to be grateful now for the gift of life and all it has

to offer you, than to dwell on what power you will have in

death." Death, even without godhood, had not robbed

Tearsong of her air of authority. Goldmoon was instantly

silent and looked down at the ground in shame.

Tearsong's voice softened at the sight of her daughter's

confusion and unhappiness. "Time grows short. Will you

listen to what I have to tell you, daughter?"

"Yes," Goldmoon nodded, eager to please her mother,

lest she leave her.

"This place was really once the temple of one of the

true gods, Riverwind's gods, a goddess known as the Great

Healer. Long ago, after the Cataclysm, people despaired and

abandoned their belief in the true gods. They must believe

again, or this world will be conquered by an ancient evil. I

have been sent to offer you the first of many tests. If you

pass these tests, you will, in time, serve the Great Healer

and lead people as her priestess, as a true healer."

"Tell me what this test is, and I will accept it."

"It will not be easy. If you pass this test, harder tests

will follow, tests that may break your spirit, others that may

destroy your body."

Goldmoon straightened her back and answered proudly,

"I accept that."

"Very well, daughter. The first test is this. You must

sacrifice these three things:

 

THAT WHICH HINDERS HEALING.

THAT WHICH HINDERS LOVING.

THAT WHICH HINDERS DARING.

 

"Let Riverwind guide you. He will be the leader of a

leader. It is foreseen that someday he will bring great power

to your hands."

"But he already has, Mother," Goldmoon said excitedly.

"He gave me this." The princess removed the forever charm

and held it out for her mother to examine.

"That is the symbol of the Great Healer. It is powerful,

but only on these sacred grounds." The vision of Tearsong

reached out and took the amulet. "When you have passed all

the tests set for you and have become a true servant of the

Great Healer, this amulet will be returned to you." The

vision began to fade. "Farewell, daughter. I know you will

prove worthy of the honor bestowed upon you. Remember

that my love is with you always." Then the vision was gone.

Goldmoon remained kneeling, still feeling the warmth

of her mother's love and puzzling over the test her mother

had given her. She did not know how long she had been

silent when she heard Riverwind crying out her name. The

altar no longer glowed blue, and all about her was darkness.

When she turned toward Riverwind's voice, she could see

the circular, red glow of their fire-beetle lantern.

"I'm over here," the princess called out.

"Goldmoon! Are you all right?" the warrior asked as he

ran, limping, up to her. "Where have you been? Why didn't

you answer me?"

"I've been here all along, holding the ceremony I came

to perform. I didn't hear you call me."

"I've been shouting your name for a long time now,"

Riverwind insisted. Goldmoon could see that his face was

pale and anxious.

"How strange," the princess whispered. "And I thought

YOU had disappeared."

Riverwind's voice grew stem, hiding his fear for her in

a show of annoyance. "Don't ever go off without me again!

There's no telling what evil creatures inhabit this tomb! And

you with nothing to defend yourself but that stupid crystal

dagger of yours."

"It isn't a stupid dagger," Goldmoon retorted. "It is a - "

The princess stopped in mid-sentence. She had been about

to say that it was a sacred relic of the Que-shu, but a sudden

insight made her gasp: A dagger HINDERED healing. She

drew it from her boot-sheath. She had not wiped off the

blade after stabbing Hollow-sky, and the traitor's blood

made the crystal appear to be rusted. Shuddering from the

memory of his final, long scream, she placed it on the altar.

"Riverwind, hand me your shield," she commanded.

Puzzlement clearly written on his face, Riverwind

unstrapped the wooden disk from his arm. "What are you

going to do?" he demanded.

Goldmoon put her fingertips on his lips and said, "Trust

me." Riverwind let her take the shield from him. She

stepped close to the altar and raised the shield high over her

head, but then she paused and lowered it again to her side.

If she destroyed the dagger, she would have to explain to

her father, probably to the whole tribe, why she had done

so. Loreman would find some way to twist her action to

make it seem evil. Her father would never forgive her. The

tribe would not easily let go of their belief in their false

gods.

Stealing a glance at Riverwind, she saw that he looked

weary and ill. He limped with each step, and there was a

blood-red bruise on his cheek where Hollow-sky's longstick

had struck him.

If she earned the amulet back, she could heal all his

wounds, make him whole. That was a power unknown in

her tribe, a power that could help them all. A power, her

mother had said, that might prevent an ancient evil from

conquering mankind. She raised the shield quickly and

smashed it down upon the crystal weapon.

Goldmoon dropped the shield to the side as the shards

of crystal began to glow with a blue light; the light grew

brighter until it was painful to look at. The sound of glass

chimes tinkling in the wind crescendoed. Goldmoon heard

her mother's voice.

"Taste now what you will know in full one day, my

child, but think of the healing as a GIFT from the gods, not

a power."

The shards of crystal on the altar spun about as though

they were sand caught in a dust devil.

Riverwind gasped in fear.

Then, in a flash, the jagged crystalline shards flew at the

princess, penetrating her flesh like darts.

"Goldmoon!" Riverwind shouted. He dashed forward to

catch her as she fell back from the altar. Her skin glittered

with the splintered crystal.

"I'm all right," she whispered calmly.

Riverwind gasped. There was no sign of pain on her

face, no sign of blood on her robes. "You should be dead."

"No," she answered hesitantly. "I have never felt so

alive!"

Riverwind lowered her gently to her feet, but he did not

let go of her fully.

Placing her hands on his cheeks, Goldmoon wished for

him to feel as she did.

The warrior drew a deep breath of surprise. She smiled,

feeling the tingling energy flow from her hands into him.

The crystal shards faded and disappeared. The weariness

left Riverwind's face, and the color returned to it. The

wound on his cheek vanished without a trace of a scar, and

he stood up straighter, without any sign of pain in his knee.

"What have you done?" he asked in awe.

"I've sacrificed the dagger as my mother told me to do."

Riverwind's eyes narrowed. "I see. You've spoken to

your gods." His tone was bitter.

"I've spoken with my mother," Goldmoon corrected.

She could tell that the blank look he gave her masked

disbelief.

"Oh, Riverwind," she said softly, drawing him near.

"Wanderer was right! You are right! My mother told me

this and more, much more! But - "

Goldmoon lowered her head, her voice caught in her

throat. She hadn't realized how hard this would be to

confess. Maybe she wouldn't tell him! Maybe she should let

him continue to think of her as a goddess. She had her

pride, after all. ... Suddenly, the feeling of peace began to

seep from her. Her love for Riverwind turned into a knot of

anger and resentment.

Riverwind, sensing her growing coldness, began to

draw away from her. . . .

THAT WHICH HINDERS LOVING!

"Don't! Please don't leave me!" she cried, clinging to

him in panic.

"I won't!" he whispered, holding her close. "Not if you

want me! Tell me," he added wistfully. "Did your mother

say there was a way for us, even though you are a

goddess?"

"That's what I've been trying to tell you," Goldmoon

said, ashamed. "I'm NOT a goddess. I am mortal." Half

teasing, yet half fearful, she glanced at him through her long

lashes. "Can you love an ordinary woman, one who is not a

goddess?"

"You - ordinary?" he repeated, his breath coming faster.

"You could never be ordinary," he said solemnly.

Sinking into his arms, Goldmoon longed to remain

there, wrapped in this blessed happiness forever. But a

thought caused her to raise her head and look up at him.

"My mother told me that she is not a goddess, nor are any of

our ancestors. The true gods are the ones Wanderer taught

your family to believe in. I sacrificed the dagger as part of a

test so that I might one day become a priestess of the Great

Healer, one of the ancient goddesses whose temple this

once was. But when I sacrifice my pride and return to the

village and tell them what I have learned, denying the old

ways, I will be ridiculed. I will be Chieftain's Daughter no

longer."

Riverwind smiled down at her. "You will always be

Chieftain's Daughter," he said, smoothing the golden hair.

"That is not something that depends on false gods, it is

something within you. Even if you had not been

Arrowthorn's child, you would be a leader. And someday, I

know, you will lead people to the true gods. That is

something to be proud of. It is only your pride in false

things that you need to sacrifice."

Goldmoon entwined her fingers in his hair and pulled

his head down so his face was within her reach. The lantern

light made his eyes sparkle red, and a grin fluttered across

his lips just before their mouths met.

The shepherd's tenderness eased her worries about the

future. As Riverwind caressed her lips with his own, he

kneaded away all the tension in her shoulders with his

fingers.

They both whispered, "I love you," simultaneously.

Goldmoon laughed, and Riverwind smiled with a pleasure

the priestess had never imagined she could evoke in the

man. He put his arms about her shoulders and pulled her a

little closer. But Goldmoon was tired of respectful, delicate

embraces. She pressed against his warrior's body and

wrapped her arms about his waist to keep him from pulling

away.

Without witnesses to inhibit him, he let the passion of his

kiss match her own. All the while, his hands slid her long

hair up and down her back, against the silky fabric of her

robe. Goldmoon wanted to bring him the same sensual

pleasure he gave her, but his armor covered him like a shell.

She wriggled one hand beneath the leather and then inside

his shirt, where she could press her fingertips against his

back.

Riverwind straightened, and his head jerked up. A low

moan rumbled through his chest as Goldmoon ran her

fingers along his spine.

"You sound like a cat purring," she teased.

Riverwind gave a little snarl like a wild cat. Though

she'd heard him use it in the battle with Hollow-sky, it

startled her now. Riverwind grinned at the look on her face,

then bent over and very lightly licked her behind the ear. He

drew her hands forward and flicked his tongue over both

palms.

Goldmoon shivered with delight. She caught the ends of

the ceremonial sash about his waist and wound them once

about his wrists. "Now I am the tiger hunter," she joked and

pressed against him harder, kissing his mouth, then his chin,

his throat.

Goldmoon had never before sensed so much buming

warmth within her body. The dank cavern no longer felt

chill, but Riverwind suddenly struggled free of the sash and

held her away from him. "This hunt must end," he gasped.

"What's wrong?" she asked, frightened by the way his

whole frame shuddered.

The warrior took a deep breath and let it out slowly.

Calmer, he stroked her cheek with his forefinger. "We will

change many of our people's ways," he explained, "yet there

are some customs which we ought still to follow. I have yet

to ask your father's permission to court you."

Goldmoon tapped her foot in annoyance. "I suspect that

I might change more customs than you, if I have my way,"

she retorted.

"Is the honor of marriage vows so worthless a thing to

wait for?" he asked.

"No, but Father might not agree," Goldmoon said

tightly.

"He cannot deny me," Riverwind pointed out, "if I go

on a courting quest."

She gave a sly grin. "The look on Arrowthorn's face

will be worth seeing." More seriously she added, "I will

wait for you, Riverwind, however long it takes." She

sighed. "Though I do not think the waiting will be easy."

"And now," Riverwind said firmly, "we must find the

way out!"

 

"What's that?" asked Riverwind, tilting his head to hear

as they walked along by the light of the fire-beetle lantern.

"It sounds like water running," Goldmoon replied,

listening. She licked her dry lips. "We can fill our

waterskins, at least."

"Better yet," said Riverwind, "it is probably an

underground stream that may lead us to the surface and out

of here if we follow it!"

Hope rising in their hearts, the two hurried toward the

source of the sound and came upon a swiftly flowing,

underground river.

"Crow's luck!" Goldmoon snapped with annoyance as

the strong current tore her waterskin from her grasp.

"Don't worry, I'll get it," Riverwind offered, stepping

into the water to reach after the bag.

"No, Riverwind. The water's too swift. Leave it,"

Goldmoon ordered.

But Riverwind took another step, then slipped on

something underfoot, and plunged forward with a cry. He

tried to swim back to the bank, but despite his efforts, the

current dragged him off into the darkness.

"Riverwind!" Goldmoon screamed. She stood up and,

in her haste, knocked over the lantern. The lid fell off and

the fire beetles skittered out and away from the water.

Echoes of her call rang through the cavern, mocking

her. Absolutely alone in the pitch-black, unfamiliar cave,

Chieftain's Daughter stood frozen with terror.

"I've got to go after Riverwind! What if he's hurt? But

do I dare?" she whispered, her fear of drowning pulling her

back from the water as strongly as her love for Riverwind

pulled her toward it.

Suddenly Goldmoon laughed grimly. "Of course I

dare," she cried out. Tearsong had told her to sacrifice that

which hindered her daring - her fear.

The princess unfastened the clasp to her fur cloak and

let it fall to the ground. Taking a deep breath, she dove into

the water toward the spot where Riverwind had

disappeared.

The cold of the water was a painful shock. Goldmoon

tried to surface immediately, but the weight of her long

dress hindered her and the undercurrent held her in its

clutches. Her lungs were ready to burst.

That's it, she thought. I'm going to drown. Let it be

quick, without pain, she prayed. She began to feel numb all

over.

But with a last burst of energy, Goldmoon kicked her

legs hard, driving her up into the small pocket of air

between the deep water and the top of the cavern.

Her respite was short-lived. A deep thrumming filled

the air all about her. A waterfall, she realized, and she was

being carried straight toward it!

Light blinded Goldmoon's eyes, and for a moment, as

she shot over the edge of the waterfall, she felt as though

she were a hawk hanging over the world. Then she plunged.

Shooting pains surged from her stomach and heart, and

when she hit the water below, she was too disoriented to tell

up from down.

Then strong arms grasped her and pulled her gently

from the water to the shore. Too weak to do more than turn

her head, she smiled sweetly as Riverwind collapsed beside

her. They lay dripping and shivering on the sweet-smelling

grass in the warm sunshine, taking deep breaths of the fresh

air.

They were in a valley beneath the mountain. The

waterfall poured out of a cliff face so far above them that

their survival seemed a miracle.

"I knew," Goldmoon gasped, "that you would find us a

way out."

Riverwind laughed, and Goldmoon laughed with him.

She rolled near to him and lay her head on his shoulder.

Then she sighed heavily and her eyes became clouded with

concerns for the future - now that they had one. "We'll have

to explain about Hollow-sky. At least now we know just

how far Lore-man will go. He won't catch us off guard

again."

"I don't understand," Riverwind said. "After he tried to get

Hollow-sky to kill you, won't your father just banish his

family?"

"We have no proof - just Hollow-sky's words - and he is

dead. Loreman is very powerful; there are too many people

who will take his side. Since Hollow-sky failed, Loreman

will probably denounce him as a traitor himself."

"And what do we say about us?" Riverwind asked.

"Father won't be pleased," she said. "But I will tell him

that I will wed none but you."

"If I ask him for a courting quest, can he deny me?"

Riverwind asked tensely.

"No. He'll be forced to follow tradition. But he may send

you to find or do something impossible."

"If it will earn me you, the gods will aid me."

Riverwind smiled gently and slid his fingers through her

wet hair.

Goldmoon shifted her position and sat up on her knees,

facing him. "Tearsong told me that one day you would

bring great power to my hands. So I know you will return

triumphant."

"And quickly," Riverwind added hopefully.

"Do you know what happens at the questing ritual?"

Goldmoon asked.

Riverwind shook his head no.

"Well, after you've spoken privately with Father, you'll

stand before the whole tribe. Arrowthorn will proclaim that

you will go on a quest to prove your worthiness to be my

husband. Then, he'll ask me if that is what I want - "

"And you'll say yes," Riverwind added with a smile of

certainty.

"Well, yes." She smiled back. "Then he'll announce us

betrothed, until such a time as the quest is fulfilled or

forsaken."

"It will be fulfilled," he said solemnly, capturing one of

her hands in his own.

"And then," she said, "we'll kiss before the whole tribe.

. . ." She placed her free hand on his shoulder and leaned

toward him. She heard his swift intake of breath before she

kissed him lingeringly. "Well, perhaps not quite like that,"

she whispered sweetly.

"The servants are probably wondering where we are,"

Riverwind said huskily. "It's going to be a long way around

the mountain to find them."

"I know."

"We should get started," he added.

"If I must wait for you," Goldmoon whispered, once

again settling herself in the crook of his arm with her head

on his shoulder, "surely you can wait for me - until . . .

until . . ." She pondered. "Until the sun dries my hair," she

said finally, laughing.

"That may take some time."

"But not long enough." Goldmoon sighed.

"I will enjoy the waiting," Riverwind assured her as he

spread locks of the golden strands across his armored chest.

"Who knows? Maybe a cloud will pass by."

 

Raistlin's Daughter

 

Margaret Weis and Dezra Despain

 

I first heard the legend of Raistlin's Daughter about five

years after my twin's death. As you can imagine, I was

extremely intrigued and disturbed by the rumors and did

what I could to investigate. In this I was assisted by my

friends - the old Companions - who had by this time

scattered over most of Ansalon. We found versions of the

legend in almost every part of the continent. It is being told

among the elves of Silvanesti, the people of Solamnia, and

the Plainsmen who have returned to Que-shu. But we could

find no verification of it. Even the kender, Tasslehoff

Burrfoot, who goes everywhere and hears everything (as

kender do), could discover no first-hand information

regarding it. The story is always told by a person who heard

it from his aunt who had a cousin who was midwife to the

girl . . . and so forth.

I even went so far as to contact Astinus, the Historian,

who records history as it passes before his all-seeing eyes.

In this, my hope to hear anything useful was slim, for the

Historian is notoriously close-mouthed, especially when

something he has seen in the past might affect the future.

Knowing this, I asked only for him to tell me whether or not

the legend was true. Did my twin father a child? Does he or

she live still on this world?

His response was typical of that enigmatic man, whom

some whisper is the god Gilean, himself. "If it is true, it will

become known. If not, it won't."

I have agreed to allow the inclusion of the legend in

this volume as a curiosity and because it might, in the

distant future, have some bearing upon the history of Krynn.

The reader should be forewarned, however, that my friends

and I regard it as veritable gossip.

- Caramon Majere

 

Twilight touched the Wayward Inn with its gentle

hand, making even that shabby and ill-reputed place seem a

restful haven to those who walked or rode the path that led

by its door. Its weather-beaten wood - rotting and worm-

ridden when seen in broad daylight - appeared rustic in the

golden-tinged evening. Its cracked and broken

windowpanes actually sparkled as they caught the last rays

of dying light, and the shadows hit the roof just right so that

no one could see the patches. Perhaps this was one reason

that the inn was so busy this winter night - either that or the

masses of gray, lowering clouds gathering in the eastern sky

like a ghostly, silent army.

The Wayward Inn was located on the outskirts - if the

magical trees deemed it so - of the Forest of Wayreth. If the

magical trees chose otherwise, as they frequently did, the

inn was located on the outskirts of a barren field where

nothing anyone planted grew. Not that any farmer cared to

try his luck. Who would want anything from land

controlled, so it was believed, by the archmages of the

Tower of High Sorcery, by the strange, uncanny forest?

Some thought it peculiar that the Wayward Inn was built

so close to the Forest of Wayreth (when the forest was in

appearance), but then the owner - Slegart Havenswood -

was a peculiar man. His only care in the world, seemingly,

was profit - as he would say to anyone who asked. And

there was always profit to be made from those who found

themselves on the fringes of wizards' lands when night was

closing in.

There were many this evening who found themselves in

those straits apparently, for almost every room in the inn

was taken. For the most part, the travelers were human,

since this was in the days before the War of the Lance when

elves and dwarves kept to themselves and rarely walked this

world. But there were a few gully dwarves around; Slegart

hired them to cook and clean up, and he was not averse to

allowing goblins to stay in his place as long as they behaved

themselves. There were no goblins this night, however,

though there were some humans who might have been taken

for goblins - so twisted and crafty were their faces. It was

this large party who had taken several of Slegart's rooms

(and there weren't many in the small, shabby place), leaving

only two empty.

Just about the time when the first evening star appeared

in the sky, to be almost immediately overrun by the

advancing column of clouds, the door to the inn burst open,

letting in a chill blast of air, a warrior in leather armor, and

a mage in red robes. From his place behind the dirty bar,

Slegart frowned. It was not that he disliked magic-users

(rumor had it that his inn existed by the grace of the wizards

of the tower), but that he didn't particularly like them

staying in his place.

When the big warrior (and he was a remarkably big young

man, as both Slegart and the others in the common room

noted) tossed down a coin and said, "Dinner," Slegart's

frown broadened immediately to a smile. When the big man

added, "and a room for the night," however, the smile

slipped.

"We're full up," growled Slegart, with a significant

glance around the crowded common room. "Hunting moon

tonight ..."

"Bah!" The big warrior snorted. "There'll be no moon

tonight, hunting or otherwise. That storm's going to break

any moment now and, unless you're partial to hunting

snowflakes, you won't shoot anything this night." At this,

the big man glanced around the common room to see if any

cared to dispute his remark. Noting the size of his

shoulders, the well-worn scabbard he wore, and the

nonchalant way his hand went to the hilt of his sword, even

the rough-appearing humans began to nod their heads at his

wisdom, agreeing that there would definitely be no hunting

this night.

"At any rate," said the big man, returning his stem gaze

to Slegart, "we're spending the night here, if we have to

make up our beds by the fire. As you can see" - the warrior's

voice softened and his gaze went to the magic-user, who

had slumped down at a table as near the fire as possible -

"my brother is in no condition to travel farther this day,

especially in such weather."

Slegart's glance went to the mage and, indeed, the man

appeared to be on the verge of exhaustion. Dressed in red

robes, with a hood that covered his head and left his face in

shadow, the magic-user leaned upon a wooden staff

decorated at the top with a golden dragon's claw holding a

faceted crystal. He kept this staff by him always, his hand

going to it fondly as if both to caress it and to reassure

himself of its presence.

"Bring us your best ale and a pot of hot water for my

twin," said the warrior, slapping another steel coin down

upon the bar.

At the sight of the money, Slegart's senses came alert.

"I just recollect - " he began, his hand closing over the coins

and his eyes going to the warrior's leather purse where his

ears could detect the chink of metal. Even his nose

wrinkled, as though he could smell it as well. " - a room's

opened up on t'second floor."

"I thought it might," the warrior said grimly, slapping a

third steel piece down on the bar.

"One of my best," Slegart remarked.

The big man grunted, scowling.

"It's goin' to be no fit night for man nor beast," added

the innkeeper and, at that moment, a gust of wind hit the

inn, whistling through the cracked windows and puffing

flakes of snow into the room. At that moment, too, the red-

robed mage began to cough - a wracking, choking cough

that doubled the man over the table. It was difficult to tell

much about the mage - he was cloaked and hooded against

the weather. But Slegart knew he must be young, if he and

this giant were, indeed, twins. The innkeeper was

considerably startled, therefore, to catch a glimpse of

ragged, white hair straying out from beneath the hood and

to note that the hand holding the staff was thin and wasted.

"We'll take it," the warrior muttered, his worried gaze

going to his brother as he laid the coin down.

"What's the matter with 'im?" Slegart asked, eyeing the

mage, his fingers twitching near the coin, though not

touching it. "It ain't catchin', is it?" He drew back. "Not the

plague?"

"Naw!" The warrior scowled. Leaning nearer the

innkeeper, the big man said in a low voice, "We've just

come from the Tower of High Sorcery." Slegart's eyes grew

wide. "He's just taken the Test. . . ."

"Ah," the innkeeper said knowingly, his gaze on the

young mage not unsympathetic. "I've seen many of 'em in

my day. And I've seen many like yourself" - he looked at

the big warrior - "who have come here alone, with only a

packet of clothes and a battered spellbook or two all that

remains. Yer lucky, both of you, to have survived."

The warrior nodded, though it didn't appear - from the

haunted expression on his pale face and dark, pain-filled

eyes - that he considered his luck phenomenal. Returning to

his table, the warrior laid his hand on his brother's heaving

shoulder, only to be rebuffed with a bitter snarl.

"Leave me in peace, Caramon!" Slegart heard the mage

gasp as the innkeeper came to the table, bearing the ale and

a pot of hot water on a tray. "Your worrying will put me in

my grave sooner than this cough!"

The warrior, Caramon, did not answer, but sat down in

the booth opposite his brother, his eyes still shadowed with

unhappiness and concern.

Setting down the tray, Slegart tried his best to see the

face covered by the hood, but the mage was huddled near

the fire, the red cowl pulled low over his eyes. The mage

did not even look up as the innkeeper laid the table with an

unusual amount of clattering of plates and knives and mugs.

The young man simply reached into a pouch he wore tied to

his belt and, taking a handful of leaves, handed them

carefully to his brother.

"Fix my drink," the mage ordered in a rasping voice,

leaning wearily against the wall.

Slegart, watching all this intently, was considerably

startled to note that the skin that covered the mage's slender

hand gleamed a bright, metallic gold in the firelight!

The innkeeper tried for another glimpse of the mage's

face, but the young man drew back even farther into the

shadows, ducking his head and pulling the cowl lower over

his eyes.

"If the skin of 'is face be the same as the skin of 'is

hand, no wonder he hides himself," Slegart reflected,

wishing he had turned this strange, sick mage away -

money or no money.

The warrior took the leaves from the mage and dropped

them in a cup. He then filled it with hot water.

Curious in spite of himself, the innkeeper leaned over

to catch a glimpse of the mixture, hoping it might be a

magic potion of some sort. To his disappointment, it

appeared to be nothing more than tea with a few leaves

floating on the surface. A bitter smell rose to his nostrils.

Sniffing, he started to make some comment when the door

blew open, admitting more snow, more wind, and another

guest. Motioning one of the slatternly barmaids to finish

waiting on the mage and his brother, Slegart turned to greet

the new arrival.

It appeared - from its graceful walk and its tall, slender

build - to be either a young human male, a human female,

or an elf. But so bundled and muffled in clothes was the

figure that it was impossible to tell sex or race.

"We're full up," Slegart started to announce, but before

he could even open his mouth, the guest had drifted over to

him (it was impossible for him to describe its walk any

other way) and, leaning out a hand remarkable for its

delicate beauty, laid two steel coins in the innkeeper's hand

(remarkable only for its dirt).

"A place by the fire this night," said the guest in a low

voice.

"I do believe a room's opened up," announced Slegart to

the delight of the goblinish humans, who greeted this

remark with coarse laughs and guffaws. Even the warrior

grinned ruefully and shook his head, reaching across the

table to nudge his brother. The mage said nothing, only

gestured irritably for his drink.

"I'll take the room," the guest said, reaching into its

purse and handing two more coins to the grinning

innkeeper.

"Very good. . . ." Noticing the guest's fine clothes,

made of rich material, Slegart thought it wise to bow. "Uh,

what name . . . ?"

"Do the room and I need an introduction?" the guest

asked sharply.

The warrior chuckled appreciatively at this, and it

seemed as if even the mage responded, for the hooded head

moved slightly as he sipped his steaming, foul-smelling

drink.

Somewhat at a loss for words, Slegart was fumbling

about in his mind, trying to think of another way to

determine his mysterious guest's identity, when the guest

turned from him and headed for a table located in a

shadowed comer as far from the fire as possible. "Meat and

drink." It tossed the words over its shoulder in an imperious

tone.

"What would your . . . your lordship like?" Slegart

asked, hurrying after the guest, an ear cocked attentively.

Though the guest spoke Common, the accent was strange,

and the innkeeper still couldn't tell if his guest was male or

female.

"Anything," the guest said wearily, turning its back upon

Slegart as it walked over to the shadowy booth. On its way,

it cast a glance at the table where the warrior, Caramon, and

his brother sat. "That. Whatever they're having." The guest

gestured to where the barmaid was heaping a wooden bowl

full of some gray, coagulating mass and rubbing her body

up against Caramon's at the same time.

Now, perhaps it was the way the mysterious guest

walked or perhaps it was the way the person gestured or

even perhaps the subtle sneer in the guest's voice when it

noticed Caramon's hand reaching around to pat the barmaid

on a rounded portion of her anatomy, but Slegart guessed

instantly that the muffled guest was female.

It was dangerous journeying through Ansalon in those

days some five years before the war. There were few who

traveled alone, and it was unusual for women to travel at all.

Those women who did were either mercenaries - skilled

with sword and shield - or wealthy women with a horde of

escorts, armed to the teeth. This woman - if such she was -

carried no weapon that Slegart could see and if she had

escorts, they must enjoy sleeping in the open in what boded

to be one of the worst blizzards ever to hit this part of the

country.

Slegart wasn't particularly bright or observant, and he

arrived at the conclusion that his guest was a lone,

unprotected female about two minutes after everyone else in

the place. This was apparent from the warrior's slightly

darkening face and the questioning glance he cast at his

brother, who shook his head. This was also apparent from

the sudden silence that fell over the "hunting" party

gathered near the bar and the quick whispers and muffled

snickers that followed.

Hearing this, Caramon scowled and glanced around

behind him. But a touch on the hand and a softly spoken

word from the mage made the big warrior sigh and stolidly

resume eating the food in his bowl, though he kept his eyes

on the guest, to the disappointment of the barmaid.

Slegart made his way back of the bar again and began

wiping out mugs with a filthy rag, his back halfturned but

his sharp eyes watching everything. One of the ruffians rose

slowly to his feet, stretched, and called for another pint of

ale. Taking it from the barmaid, he sauntered slowly over to

the guest's table.

"Mind if I sit down?" he said, suiting his action to his

words.

"Yes," said the guest sharply.

"Aw, c'mon," the ruffian said, grinning and settling

himself comfortably in the booth across from the guest, who

sat eating the gray gunk in her bowl. "It's a custom in this

part of the country for innfellows to make merry on a night

like this. Join our little party . . ." - The guest ignored him,

steadily eating her food. Caramon shifted slightly in his

seat, but, after a pleading glance at his brother, which was

answered with an abrupt shake of the hooded head, the

warrior continued eating with a sigh.

The ruffian leaned forward, reaching out his hand to

touch the scarf the guest had wound tightly about her face.

"You must be awful hot - " the man began.

He didn't complete his sentence, finding it difficult to

speak through the bowl of hot stew dripping down his face.

"I've lost my appetite," the guest said. Calmly rising to

her feet, she wiped stew from her hands on a greasy napkin

and headed for the stairs. "I'll go to my room now,

innkeeper. What number?"

"Number sixteen. You can bolt lock it from the inside to

keep out the riff-raff," Slegart said, his mug-polishing

slowing. Trouble was bad for business, cut into profits.

"Serving girl'll be along to turn down the bed."

The "riff-raff," stew dripping off his nose, might have

been content to let the mysterious person go her way. There

had been a coolness in the voice, and the quick, self-

possessed movement indicated that the guest had some

experience caring for herself. But the big warrior laughed at

the innkeeper's remark - a chuckle of appreciation - and so

did the "hunting" party by the fire. Their laughter was the

laughter of derision, however.

Casting his comrades an angry glance, the man wiped

stew from his eyes and leaped to his feet. Overturning the

table, he followed the woman, who was half-way up the

stairs.

"I'LL show you to yer room!" he leered, grabbing hold

of her and jerking her backward.

Caught off-balance, the guest fell into the ruffian's

arms with a cry that proved beyond a shadow of a doubt

that she was, indeed, a female.

"Raistlin?" pleaded Caramon, his hand on the hilt of his

sword.

"Very well, my brother," the mage said with a sigh.

Reaching out his hand for the staff he had leaned against the

wall, he used it to pull himself to his feet.

Caramon was starting to stand up when he saw his

brother's eyes go to a point just behind him. Catching the

look, Caramon nodded slightly just as a heavy hand closed

over his shoulder.

"Good stew, ain't it?" said one of the hunting party.

"Shame to interrupt yer dinner over somethin' that ain't none

of yer business. Unless, of course, you want to share some

of the fun. If so, we'll let you know when it's your tur - "

Caramon's fist thudded into the man's jaw. "Thanks,"

the warrior said coolly, drawing his sword and twisting

around to face the other thugs behind him. "I think I'll take

my turn now."

A chair flung from the back of the crowd caught Caramon

on the shoulder of his sword arm. Two men in front jumped

him, one grabbing his wrist and trying to knock the sword

free, the other flailing away with his fists. The mob - seeing

the warrior apparently falling - surged forward.

"Get the girl, Raist! I'll take care of these!" Caramon

shouted in muffled tones from beneath a sea of bodies.

"Everything's . . . under . . . contr - "

"As usual, my brother," said the mage wryly. Ignoring

the grunts and yells, the cracking of furniture and bone,

Raistlin leaned on his staff and began climbing the stairs.

The girl was fighting her attacker with her fists - she

apparently had no other weapon - and it was easy to see she

must soon lose. The man's attention was fixed on dragging

his struggling victim up the stairs, and he never noticed the

red-robed mage moving swiftly behind him. There was a

flash of silver, a quick thrust of the mage's hand, and the

ruffian, letting loose of the girl, clutched his ribs. Blood

welled out from between his fingers. For an instant he

stared at Raistlin in astonishment, then tumbled past him,

falling headlong down the stairs, the mage's dagger

protruding from his side.

"Raist! Help!" Caramon shouted from below. Though

he had laid three opponents low, he was locked in a vicious

battle with a fourth, his movements decidedly hampered by

a gully dwarf, who had crawled up his back and was beating

him over the head with a pan.

But Raistlin was not able to go to his brother's rescue.

The girl, weak and dizzy from her struggles, missed her step

upon the stairs and swayed unsteadily.

Letting go of his staff - which remained perfectly

upright, standing next to him as though he were holding it -

Raistlin caught the girl before she fell.

"Thank you," she murmured, keeping her head down. Her

scarf had come undone in her struggles and she tried to

wrap it around her face again. But Raist lin, with a sardonic

smile and a deft movement of his skilled hands, snatched

the scarf from the girl's head.

"You dropped this," he said coolly, holding the scarf

out to her, all the while his keen eyes looking to see why

this young woman hid her face from the sun. He gasped.

The girl kept her head down, even after losing the

scarf, but, hearing the man's swift intake of breath, she

knew it was too late. He had seen her. She checked the

movement, therefore, looking up at the mage with a small

sigh. What she saw in his face shocked her almost as much

as what he saw in hers.

"Who . . . what kind of human are you?" she cried,

shrinking away from him.

"What kind are you?" the mage demanded, holding

onto the girl with his slender hands that were, nevertheless,

unbelievably strong.

"I - I am . . . ordinary," the girl faltered, staring at

Raistlin with wide eyes.

"Ordinary!" Raistlin gripped her more tightly as she

made a half-hearted attempt to break free. His eyes gazed in

disbelief at the fine-boned, delicate face; the mass of hair

that was the brilliance and color of silver starlight; the eyes

that were dark and soft and velvet-black as the night sky.

"Ordinary! In my hands I hold the most beautiful woman I

have seen in all my twenty-one years. What is more, I hold

in my hands A WOMAN WHO DOES NOT AGE!" He

laughed mirthlessly. "And she calls herself 'ordinary!' "

"What about you?" Trembling, the girl's hand reached

up to touch Raistlin's golden-skinned face. "And what do

you mean - I do not age?"

The mage saw fear in the girl's eyes as she asked this

question, and his own eyes narrowed, studying her intently.

"My golden skin is my sacrifice for my magic, as is my

shattered body. As for you not aging, I mean you do not age

in my sight. You see, my eyes are different from the eyes of

other men. . . ." He paused, staring at the girl, who began to

shiver beneath the unwavering scrutiny. "My eyes see time

as it passes, they see the death of all living things. In my

vision, human flesh wastes and withers, spring trees lose

their leaves, rocks crumble to dust. Only the young among

the long-lived elves would appear normal to me, and even

then I would see them as flowers about to lose their bloom.

But you - "

"Raist!" Caramon boomed from below. There was a

crash. Endeavoring to shake off the gully dwarf - who was

holding his hands firmly over the big man's eyes, blinding

him - Caramon tripped, and fell headlong on a table,

smashing it to splinters.

The mage did not move, nor did the girl. "You do not

age at all! You are not elven," Raistlin said.

"No," the girl murmured. Her eyes still fixed on the

mage, she tried unsuccessfully to free herself from his

grasp. "You - you're hurting me. . . ."

"What are you?" he demanded.

She shrugged, squirming and pushing at his hands.

"Human, like yourself," she protested, looking up into the

strange eyes. "And I thank you for saving me, but - "

Suddenly she froze, her efforts to free herself ceased.

Her gaze was locked onto Raistlin's, the mage's gaze was

fixed upon her. "No!" she moaned helplessly. "No!" Her

moan became a shriek, echoing above the howling of the

storm winds outside the inn.

Raistlin reeled backward, slamming into the wall as

though she had driven a sword into his body. Yet she had

not touched him, she had done nothing but look at him.

With a wild cry, the girl scrambled to her feet and ran up

the stairs, leaving the mage slumped against the wall,

staring with stunned, unseeing eyes at where she had

crouched before him on the staircase.

"Well, I took care of the scum. Small thanks to you,"

Caramon muttered, coming up beside his brother. Wiping

blood from a cut on the mouth, the big warrior looked over

the railing in satisfaction. Four men lay on the floor, not

counting the one his brother had stabbed, whose inert body

was huddled at the foot of the staircase in a heap. The gully

dwarf was sticking out of a barrel, upside down, its feet

waving pathetically in the air, its ear-splittling screams

likely to cause serious breakage of the glassware.

"What about damages?" Slegart demanded, coming

over to survey the ruin.

"Collect it from them," Caramon growled, gesturing to

the groaning members of the hunting party. "Here's your

dagger, Raist," the warrior said, holding out a small silver

knife. "I cleaned it as best I could. Guess you didn't want to

waste your magic on those wretches, huh? Anyway - hey,

Raist - you all right?"

"I'm . . . not injured. . . ." Raistlin said softly, reaching

out his hand to catch hold of his brother.

"Then what's the matter?" Caramon asked, puzzled.

"You look like you've seen a spirit. Say, where's the girl?"

He glanced around. "Didn't she even stay to thank us?"

"I - I sent her to her room," Raistlin said, blinking in

confusion and looking at Caramon as though wondering

who he was. After a moment, he seemed more himself.

Taking the dagger from his brother's hand, the mage

replaced it on the cunningly made thong he had attached

around his wrist. "And we should be going to our rooms,

my brother," he said firmly, seeing Caramon's gaze go

longingly to the pitcher of ale still on their table. "Lend me

your arm," the mage added, taking hold of his staff. "My

exertions have exhausted me."

"Oh, uh, sure, Raist," Caramon said, his thirst forgotten

in his concern for his brother.

"Number thirteen," grunted Slegart, helping the ruffians

drag their wounded comrade off into a comer.

"It figures," Caramon muttered, assisting his brother up

the stairs. "Hey, you got a good look at that girl? Was she

pretty?"

"Why ask me, my brother?" Raistlin replied softly.

Pulling his hood down low over his face again, he evaded

his brother's question. "You know what these eyes of mine

see!"

"Yeah, sorry, Raist." Caramon flushed. "I keep

forgetting. Damn! That one bastard broke a chair over my

back end when I was bending over. I know I got splinters. . .

."

"Yes, my brother," Raistlin murmured, not listening.

His gaze went to the door at the end of the hall, a door

marked with the number 16.

 

Behind that door, Amberyl paced restlessly, clasping

and unclasping her hands and occasionally making that low,

moaning cry.

"How could this happen?" she asked feverishly,

walking back and forth, back and forth the small chamber.

The room was chill and dark. In her preoccupation,

Amberyl had allowed the fire to go out. "Why did this

happen? How could it happen? Why didn't any of the wise

foresee this?" Over and over again she repeated these

words, her feet tracing the circular path of her thoughts out

upon the grime-encrusted wooden floor.

"I must talk to him," she said to herself suddenly. "He is

magi, after all. He may know some way . . . some way to ...

help. . . .Yes! I'll talk to him."

Grabbing up her scarf, she wound it around her face again

and cautiously opened the door. The hallway was empty

and she started to creep out when she realized she had no

idea which room was his.

"Perhaps he isn't even staying the night," she said,

sagging against the door frame in despair. "What would I

say to him anyway?" Turning, she started back into her

room when she stopped. "No, I MUST find him!" she said

and closed the door firmly so that she might not be tempted

back inside. "If he isn't up here yet, I'll go after him."

Moving down the hall, Amberyl crept near each door,

listening. Behind some she heard groans and muttered oaths

and hurriedly shied away from these, realizing that her

attackers were inside, recovering from their fray with the

mage and his brother. At another door there was the shrill

giggle of a female and the deeper laughter of a man.

Amberyl continued to number 13.

"But, Raist! What am I supposed to say to the girl?

'Come down to our room, my brother wants you'?"

Recognizing the voice, Amberyl pressed closer against

the door, listening carefully.

"If that is all you can think of saying, then say that."

The whispering, sneering voice, barely heard above the

howling of the storm wind, sent tiny prickles of pain

through Amberyl's body. Shivering, she drew closer still. "I

don't care what you do, just bring her to me!"

Amberyl heard a shuffling sound and a deprecating

cough. "Uh, Raist, I don't know how grateful you think she's

gonna be, but from what I've seen of her - "

"Caramon," said the whispering voice, "I am weary and

sick, and I have no more patience to cope with your

stupidity. I told you to bring the girl to me. Now do so. . . ."

The voice trailed off in coughing.

There came the sound of heavy footsteps nearing the door.

Fearful of being caught listening, yet unable to leave,

Amberyl wondered frantically what to do. She had just

decided to run back to her room and hide when the door

opened.

"Name of the gods!" Caramon said in astonishment,

reaching out and catching hold of Amberyl as she shrank

backward. "Here she is, Raist! Standing outside in the hall.

Eavesdropping!"

"Is she?" The golden-eyed, golden-skinned mage

looked up curiously from where he sat huddled by the fire

as his brother half-dragged, half-led Amberyl into the room.

"What were you doing out there?" he asked, his eyes

narrowing.

For a moment, Amberyl could say nothing. She just stood

staring at the mage, twisting the bottom of her scarf in her

hands.

"Hold on, Raist," Caramon said gently. "Don't yell at

her. The poor thing's freezing. Her hands are like a ghoul's.

Here, my lady," the big man said awkwardly, leading her

closer to the fire and drawing up a chair for her. "Sit down.

You'll catch your death." He put his hand on her scarf. "This

is wet from the snow. Let me take - "

"No!" Amberyl cried in a choked voice, her hands

going to the scarf. "No," she repeated more softly, flushing

to see Raistlin look at her with a grim smile. "I - I'm fine. I

... never . . . catch cold. Please. . . ."

"Leave us, Caramon," Raistlin said coldly.

"What?" The big man looked startled.

"I said leave us. Go back to your pitcher of ale and the

barmaid. She appeared not insensible to your attractions."

"Uh, sure, Raist. If that's what you want ...." Caramon

hesitated, looking at his brother with such a dumb-founded

expression on his face that Amberyl started to laugh, only it

came out in a sob. Hiding her face in her scarf, she tried to

check her tears.

"Leave us!" Raistlin ordered.

"Sure!" Amberyl heard Caramon backing out the door.

"Just . . . just remember, you're not strong, Raistlin . . . ."

The door closed gently.

"I - I'm sorry," Amberyl faltered, raising her face from

the scarf, using the hem to dry her eyes. "I didn't mean to

cry. I lost control. It - it won't happen again."

Raistlin did not answer her. Comfortably settled in a

battered old chair, the mage sat calmly staring at Amberyl,

his frail hands clutching a mug of tea that had long ago

gone cold. Behind him, near at hand, his staff leaned against

the wall. "Remove the scarf," he said finally, after a long

silence.

Swallowing her tears, Amberyl slowly reached up and

unwound the scarf from her face. The expression in the

golden eyes did not change; it was cold and smooth as

glass. Amberyl discovered, looking into those eyes, that she

could see herself reflected there. She wouldn't be able to

enter again, not as she had on the stairs. The mage had put

up barriers around his soul.

Too late! she thought in despair. Too late. . . .

"What have you done to me?" Raistlin asked, still not

moving. "What spell have you cast upon me? Name it, that I

may know how to break it."

Amberyl looked down, unable to stand the gaze of those

strange eyes a moment longer. "No - no spell," she

murmured, twisting the scarf round and round. "I - I am not.

. . not magi... as surely you can tell - "

"Damn you!" Raistlin slid out of the chair with the speed

of a striking snake. Hurling the mug to the floor, he grabbed

hold of Amberyl's wrists and dragged her to her feet.

"You're lying! You have done something to me! You

invaded my being! You LIVE inside me! All I can think of

is you. All I see in my mind is your face. I cannot

concentrate! My magic eludes me! What have you done,

woman?"

"You're hurting me!" Amberyl cried softly, twisting her

arms in his grasp. His touch burned. She could feel an

unnatural warmth radiate from his body, as though he were

being consumed alive by some inner fire.

"I will hurt you much worse than this," Raistlin hissed,

drawing her nearer, "if you do not tell me what I ask!"

"I - I can't explain!" Amberyl whispered brokenly,

gasping as Raistlin tightened his grip. "Please! You must

believe me. I didn't do this to you deliberately! I didn't mean

for this to happen - "

"Then why did you come here ... to my room?"

"You - you are magi. ... I hoped there might be some

way . . . You might know - "

" - how to break the enchantment," Raistlin finished

softly, loosening his grip and staring at Amberyl. "So - you

are telling the truth. It is happening to you. I see that now.

That's the real reason you came here, isn't it? Somehow I

have invaded your being as well."

Amberyl hung her head. "No. I mean yes. Well,

partly." Raising her face, she looked at the mage. "I did

truly come here to see if there wasn't some way . . ."

Laughing bitterly, Raistlin dropped her hands. "How

can I remove a spell when you won't tell me what you have

cast?"

"It isn't a spell!" Amberyl cried despairingly. She could

see the marks his fingers had left on her flesh.

"Then what is it?" Raistlin shouted. His voice cracked

and, coughing, he fell backward, clutching his chest.

"Here," Amberyl said, reaching out her hands, "let me

help - "

"Get out!" Raistlin panted through lips flecked with blood

and froth. With his last strength, he shoved Amberyl away

from him, then sank down into his chair. "Get out!" he said

again. Though the words were inaudible, his eyes spoke

them clearly, the hourglass pupils dilated with rage.

Frightened, Amberyl turned and fled. Opening the door,

she plummeted out into the hallway, crashing headlong into

Caramon and the barmaid, who were heading for another

room.

"Hey!" Caramon cried, catching Amberyl in his arms.

"What is it? What's the matter?"

"Your - your brother," Amberyl said in confusion,

hiding her face in her long hair. "He . . . he's ill. . . ."

"I warned him. . . ." Caramon said softly, his face

crumpling in worry as he heard his brother's rasping cough.

Forgetting the barmaid, who was setting up a disappointed

cry behind him, the big warrior hurried back into his room.

Amberyl ran blindly down the hall, yanked open her

door, and stumbled inside her room to stand, shivering,

against the wall in the darkness.

 

She may have slept. She wasn't certain. Her dreams

were too near her waking thoughts. But she'd heard a sound.

Yes, there it was again. A door slamming. Though it could

have been any one of the rooms in the inn, Amberyl knew

instinctively whose door it was.

Rising from the bed on which she'd been lying, fully

dressed, the girl opened her door a crack as a voice echoed

down the hall.

"Raist! It's a blizzard out there! We'll perish! You can't

take this!"

"I am leaving this inn! Now!" came the mages voice.

No longer whispering, it was hoarse with anger and fear. "I

am leaving, and I go with or without you. It's up to you!"

The mage started walking down the hall, leaning upon his

staff. Stopping, he cast a piercing glance at Amberyl's room.

Panic-stricken, she ducked back into the shadows. The

mage headed toward the stairs, his brother standing behind

him, hands spread helplessly.

"This has to do with that girl, doesn't it?" Caramon

shouted. "Name of the Abyss, answer me! I - He's gone."

Left alone in the hall, the big warrior scratched his head.

"Well, he won't get far without me. I'll go after him.

Women!" he muttered, hurrying back into the room and

reappearing, struggling to lift a pack to his back. "Just after

we got out of that damn magic forest, too. Now, I suppose

we'll end up right back in it."

Amberyl saw Caramon look down the hall toward her

room and, once more, ducked back.

"I'd like to know what's going on, my lady," the big

man said in her general direction. Then, shaking his head,

Caramon shouldered the pack and clumped hastily down the

stairs.

Amberyl stood for a moment in the darkness of her

room, waiting until her breathing calmed and she could

think clearly. Then, grabbing her scarf, she wound it tightly

around her face. Pulling a fur cloak from her own pack, she

cautiously crept down the hall after Caramon.

 

Amberyl could recall no worse storm in her life and she

had lived many years in the world, though she was young

yet by the standards of her kind. The snow was blinding.

Blown by a fierce wind, it blotted out all traces of any

object from her sight - even her own hands held out before

her were swallowed up by the stinging, blinding white

darkness. There was no possible way she could have

tracked Raistlin and his brother - no way except the way she

did it - by the bond that had been accidentally created

between her self and the mage.

Accidental. Yes, it must have been accidental, she

thought as she trudged along. Though the snow had been

falling only a matter of hours, it was already knee-deep.

Strong as she was, she was having some difficulty plowing

her way through the steep drifts and she could imagine the

magic-user ... in his long robes...

Shaking her head, Amberyl sighed. Well, the two

humans would stop soon. That much was certain. Wrapping

her scarf tighter about her face, covering her skin from the

biting snow, she asked herself what she intended to do when

they did stop. Would she tell the mage?

What choice do I have? she argued with herself bitterly

and, even as she asked the question, she slipped and

stumbled. There! she thought, a sickening wave of fear

convulsing her. It's beginning already, the weakness that

came from the bond. And if it was happening to her, it must

be happening to him also! Would it be worse in a human?

she wondered in sudden alarm. What if he died!

No, she would tell him tonight, she decided firmly.

Then, stopping to lean against a tree and catch her breath,

she closed her eyes.

And after you've told - then what?

"I don't know . . ." she murmured to herself brokenly.

"The gods help me. I don't know!"

So lost in her fear and inner turmoil was Amberyl that,

for a moment, she did not notice that the snow had suddenly

ceased falling, the cutting, biting wind had lessened. When

she became aware of the fact, she looked around. There

were stars, she saw, and even moonlight! Solinari shone

brightly, turning the snow silver and the white-covered

woods into a wondrous realm of the most fantastic beauty.

The woods. . . . She had crossed the boundary.

Amberyl laid her hand gently upon the trunk of the tree

against which she leaned. She could feel the life pulsing in

the bark, the magic pulsing within that life.

She was in the magical Forest of Wayreth. Though the

blizzard might rage unabated not one foot away from her,

here, within the shelter of these trees, it could be summer if

the wizards commanded it. But it wasn't. The wind, though

it had ceased its inhuman howl, still bit the flesh with teeth

of ice. The snow was piled thigh-deep in places. But at least

the storm was not permitted to vent its full fury inside the

forest. Amberyl could see now quite clearly. Solinari's light

against the snow was bright as the sun. No longer was she

stumbling in the dark, led on only by the burning

remembrance of the mage's golden eyes, his touch. ...

Sighing, Amberyl walked on until she found tracks in

the snow. It was the humans. Yes, her instincts had led her

unerringly. Not that she had ever doubted her powers. But

would they hold true in this forest? Ever since she had come

to this land, she had been hearing tales about the strange

and magical wood.

Pausing, Amberyl examined the tracks, and her fear

grew. There were two sets - one pair of footprints that went

through the deepest drifts without stopping. The other,

however, was a wide swath cut through the snow, the swath

left by a man floundering along in heavy, wet robes. In

more than one place, she could see quite clearly the marks

of hands, as though the mage had fallen. Hurrying forward,

her heart began to beat painfully when she saw that one set

of tracks - the mage's - came to an end. His brother must be

carrying him! Perhaps he ... perhaps he was . . .

No! Amberyl caught her breath, shaking her head. The

mage might be frail-looking, but there was a strength in him

greater than the finest steel blade ever forged. All this meant

was that the two must stop and find shelter, and that would

work to her advantage.

It wasn't long before she heard voices.

Dodging behind a tree, keeping within its moon-cast

shadow, Amberyl saw a tiny bit of light streaming outside

what must be a cave in the side of a cliff, a cliff that had

apparently appeared out of nowhere, for she could have

sworn she had not seen it ahead of her.

"Of course," she whispered to herself in thankful-ness,

"the mages will take care of one of their own. Do they know

I am here?" she wondered suddenly. "Would they recognize

me? Perhaps not. It has been so long, after all. . . ." Well, it

did not matter. There was little they could do. Hopefully,

they would not interfere.

"I've got to get help, Raist!" she heard the big warrior

saying as she drew near. Caramon's voice sounded tense

and anguished. "You've never been this bad! Never!"

There was silence, then Caramon's voice rose again in

answer to words Amberyl could not hear.

"I don't know! Back to the inn if I have to! All I know

is that this firewood isn't going to last until morning. You

yourself tell me not to cut the trees in this forest, and they're

wet anyway. It's stopped snowing. I'll only be gone a few

hours at most. You'll be safe here. Probably a lot safer in

these accursed woods than I will." A pause, then. "No,

Raist. This time I'm doing what I think best!"

In her mind, Amberyl could almost hear the mage's

bitter curse, and she smiled to herself. The light from the

cave was obliterated for an instant by a dark shadow -

Caramon coming out. It hesitated. Could the man be having

second thoughts? The shadow half-turned, going back into

the cave.

Quickly murmuring words to herself in a language that

none on the continent of Ansalon had heard for countless

centuries, Amberyl gestured. Barely visible from where she

stood, a glimmer of firelight burst into being far off in

another part of the forest.

Catching a glimpse of it from the comer of his eye,

Caramon shouted. "Raist! There's - a fire! Someone's close

by! You stay wrapped up and . . . and warm. . . . I'll be back

soon!"

The shadow merged with the darkness, then Amberyl

saw the bright glint of armor in the moonlight and heard the

heavy footsteps and labored breathing of the big man

slogging through the snow.

Amberyl smiled. "No, you won't be back very soon, my

friend," she told him silently as he passed right by the tree

where she was hiding. "Not very soon at all."

Waiting until she was certain Caramon was well off on

his pursuit of the elusive blaze that would, she knew, keep

always just beyond his reach, Amberyl drew a deep breath,

said a silent prayer to her god, and crept swiftly through the

sparkling silver snow toward the cave.

Pushing aside the blanket Caramon had strung up in a

pathetic attempt to block out the elements, Amberyl entered

the cave. It was cold, damp, and dark, being lit only by a

fire that sputtered feebly near the doorway to allow for

ventilation. Glancing at it, Amberyl shook her head. What

firewood Caramon had been able to find was wet with snow

and ice. It was a tribute to the big man's skill in woodslore

that he had been able to coax a flame from it at all. But it

wouldn't last long and there was no wood to replace it when

it was gone.

Peering into the shadows, Amberyl couldn't find the mage

at first, though she could hear his rattling breath and smell

the spicy fragrance of his spell com ponents. Then he

coughed. A bundle of clothes and blankets near the fire

moved, and Amberyl saw a thin hand snake out to clasp

hold of a steaming mug that stood near the blaze. The

fingers trembled, nearly dropping the mug. Hurriedly

kneeling by his side, Amberyl caught hold of it.

"Let me help you," she said. Not waiting for an answer,

she lifted the mug in her hand, then assisted Raistlin to sit.

"Lean on me," she offered, seeing the mage endeavoring

weakly to prop himself up.

"You're not surprised to see me, are you?" she asked.

Raistlin regarded her for a few moments with his flat,

golden eyes, then - with a bitter smile - rested his frail body

against Amberyl's as she settled down beside him. Chilled

as he was, Amberyl could feel that strange warmth emanate

from the thin body. He was tense and rigid, his breathing

labored. Raistlin lifted the mug to his lips but began to

cough again, a cough that Amberyl could feel tear at him.

Taking the mug from him, she set it down and held onto

him as he choked and gasped for breath, wrapping her arms

around him as though she would hold his body together.

Her own heart was torn, both in pity for him and his

suffering and with fear for herself. He was so weak! What if

he died?

But, finally, the spasm eased. Raistlin was able to draw

a shuddering breath and motioned for his drink. Amberyl

held it to his lips, her nose wrinkling at the foul smell.

Slowly, Raistlin sipped it. "I wondered if you would

find us here," he whispered. "I wondered if the wizards

would allow you inside the forest."

"I wondered the same myself," Amberyl said softly. "As

for me finding you" - she sighed - "if I hadn't, you would

have found me. You would have come back to me. You

couldn't help yourself."

"So that's the way it is," Raistlin said, his breathing

coming easier.

"That's the way it is. . . ." Amberyl murmured.

"Help me lie down," Raistlin ordered, sinking back

among his blankets. Amberyl made him as comfortable as

possible, her gaze going to the dying fire. A sudden gust of

wind blew the blanket aside. A flurry of snow hissed and

danced on the glowing embers.

"I feel myself growing strangely weak, as though my

life were being drained off," the mage said, huddling into

the wet blankets. "Is that a result of the spell?"

"Yes ... I feel it, too. And it isn't a spell," Amberyl said,

doing what she could to stir up the blaze. Coming around to

sit in front of the mage, she clasped her arms around her

legs, looking at him as intently as he stared at her.

"Take off your scarf," he whispered.

Slowly, Amberyl unwound the scarf from her face,

letting it fall about her shoulders. She shook out her snow-

wet hair, feeling drops of water spatter on her hands.

"How beautiful you - " He broke off. "What will happen

to me?" Raistlin asked abruptly. "Will I die?"

"I - I don't know," Amberyl answered reluctantly, her

gaze going to the fire. She couldn't bear to look at him. The

mage's eyes burned through her, touching something deep

inside, filling her with sweet pain. "I have . . . never heard

of this . . . happening to - to a . . . human before."

"So you are not human," Raistlin remarked.

"No, I am not," Amberyl replied, still unable to face

him.

"You are not elven, nor any of the other races that I am

familiar with who live upon Krynn - and I tell you - What

is your name?"

"Amberyl."

"Amberyl," he said it lingeringly, as though tasting it.

She shivered again.

"I tell you, Amberyl," he repeated, "I am familiar with

all the races on Krynn."

"Wise you may be, mage," Amberyl murmured, "but

the mysteries of this world that have yet to be discovered

are as numberless as the snowflakes."

"You will not reveal your secret to me?"

Amberyl shook her glistening hair. "It is not my secret

alone."

Raistlin was silent. Amberyl did not speak either. Both

sat listening to the hissing and popping of the wood and the

whistling of the wind among the trees.

"So ... I am to die, then," Raistlin said, breaking the

silence at last. He didn't sound angry, just weary and

resigned.

"No, no, no!" Amberyl cried, her eyes going to the

mage. Reaching out impulsively, she took his thin, wasted

hand in her own, cradling her cheek against it. "No," she

repeated. "Because then I would die."

Raistlin snatched his hand from hers. Propping himself

up weakly on his elbow, his golden eyes glittering, he

whispered hoarsely, "There IS a cure? You can break this . . .

this enchantment?"

"Yes," Amberyl answered without a voice, feeling the

warm blood suffuse her face.

"How?" Raistlin demanded, his hand clenching.

"First," said Amberyl, swallowing, "I - I must tell you

something about . . . about the VALIN."

"The what?" Raistlin asked quickly. Amberyl could see

his eyes flicker. Even facing death, his mind was working,

catching hold eagerly of this new information, storing it

away.

"The VALIN. That is what it is called in our language. It

means . . ." She paused, frowning, trying to think. I suppose

the closest meaning in your language is LIFE-MATE."

The startled expression on the mage's face was so funny