DRAGONLANCE TALES II
THE REIGN OF ISTAR
All Rights Reserved.
OCR'ed by Alligator
Paladine, you see the evil that SURROUNDS ME!
You have been witness to the calamities that have been the
scourge of Krynn.... You must see now that this doctrine of
balance will not work!
"... I can sweep evil from this world! Destroy the ogre
races! Bring the wayward humans into line! Find new
homelands far away for the dwarves and the kender and the
gnomes, those races not of your creation....
"... I demand that you give me, too, the power to drive
away the shadows of evil that darken the land!"
So the Kingpriest prayed on the day of the Cataclysm.
He was a good man, but intolerant, proud. He believed
his way to be the right way, the only way, and insisted that
everyone else - including the gods - follow his thinking.
Those who disagreed with him were, by definition, evil
and, according to the law, must be "converted" or
destroyed. The stories in this volume deal with the effects
of such edicts and beliefs on the people of Ansalon at the
time prior to the Cataclysm.
Michael Williams begins this series, appropriately,
with a prophecy for the last days in "Six Songs for the
"Colors of Belief," by Richard A. Knaak, tells the story
of a young knight who travels to Istar in search of the truth.
He finds it, though not quite in the way he expected.
A crusty old trainer of young knights must cope with a
most unorthodox recruit in "Kender Stew," by Nick
"The Goblin's Wish," by Roger E. Moore, is a tale of a
disparate band of refugees, driven together by need, who
almost find the power to overcome evil. Almost.
Lives of Horgan Oxthrall," by
together in the face of a common enemy, as told by a clerk
Nancy Varian Berberick writes about alliances of a
more intriguing nature in "Filling the Empty Places."
Dan Parkinson tells how the small and seemingly
insignificant can end up playing an important role in
history in "Off Day."
Our novella, "The Silken Threads," reveals the fate of
the true clerics and tells how Nuitari, the guardian of evil
magic, attempts to thwart the ambitions of the black-robed
wizard known as Fistandantilus.
We are delighted to be visiting Krynn once again,
along with many of the original members of the
DRAGONLANCER game design team and some new
friends we met along the way. We hope you enjoy THE
REIGN OF ISTAR and that you will join us for further
journeys through Krynn in subsequent volumes in this
Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman
Songs For the
According to legend, the author of these songs is the
obscure Silvanesti bard Astralas, born about the time of the
Proclamation of Manifest Virtue. Well over a century old
when his voyage commenced, the elven prophet supposedly
set sail for Istar shortly before the Edict of Thought
Control, returning with a series of confused and confusing
visions of an impending disaster. He vanished under
mysterious circumstances around the time of the
Cataclysm; some say that he was destroyed by the elven
priestesses of Istar, acting in accordance with the edict.
Some also say that in the nightmare days of chaos that
followed the Cataclysm, Astralas traveled the forests of
Ansalon, forever reciting these songs. The fifth of the songs
- the account of the visions themselves - occurs in more
than a hundred oral versions throughout the continent. This,
however, is the only known manuscript version.
Archivist of The Qualinesti
Astralas, called into song
by the fluted god
Branchala of the leaves,
called when I haunted
the woods of Silvanost,
two thousand and sixty years
since the signing of scrolls,
since the sheathing of armies.
O when the god called me,
the twin moons crossed
on the prow of my ship,
and the ocean was red on silver,
upon inarticulate light
from the settled darkness
rushing, awaiting my song.
And O when the god called me,
this was my singing,
my prophecy compelled
in a visitation of wind.
The language of wind
is one tongue only,
pronounced in the movement
of cloud and water,
voiced in the rattle of leaves
in the breath between waiting
and memory, it stalks
elusive as light and promise.
The language of wind
is the vanishing year
preserved in recollection,
and always it yearns
for a season the heart
might have been in its wild anointing.
And the wind is always your heartbeat,
is breathing remote
as the impassive stars,
and it moves from arrival to leaving,
leaving you one song only:
OH, THAT WAS THE LANGUAGE OF WIND,
you say, and WHAT DOES IT MEAN
TO THE LEAVES AND THE WATER,
always, WHAT DOES IT MEAN?
So it found me the first time
at the banks of Thon-Thalas,
at the last edge of river,
after the ministries
of inkwell and tutor,
after the damaged heirloom of days,
when the long thoughts burrow
and the childhood dances
on dark effacements of memory,
losing the self in the dance.
I remembered too much, unabled
for the sword and buckler,
for spellbook and moon,
for altar and incense,
for the birds' veiled grammar
and the seasons' alembic,
and always the river
was telling me telling me
COME, ASTRALAS, COME TO THE WATERS:
I AM THE LAST HOME, it was saying,
THE REFUGE OF DREAMS
AND THE SLEEP OF REASON.
COME TO MIDCURRENT, ASTRALAS.
I SHALL CARRY YOU PAST YOUR FAILURES.
COME TO MIDCURRENT AND OPEN YOUR ARMS
AS YOU FALL INTO SPINDRIFT,
TO MOVEMENT, TO LIGHT ON THE WATER,
TO WATER ITSELF, ENRAPTURED AND LOST
AS THE WHOLE WORLD VANISHES.
And always the river
spoke like this, always the dark current
lulling the heart and the mind
into that undertow
where the homelands shift
behind you and fade,
and you think they have vanished
in the necessity of rivers,
in the battlements of forest,
so that if you return
to recover your path
you are lost in the maze
of leaf and inevitable current,
of fore and aft,
of the homelands always receding.
So spoke the river,
and darkly I hearkened,
suspended in darkness,
in the heart's surrender.
A boat for the passage
I began to fashion,
hides stripped in the lime pits
sealed with tallow
and stitched by the tendon of flax
as the awl and the needle
passed through and over
the supple and skeletal wood:
The sails bellied forth
in carnivorous winds,
and in dark, in surrender,
the ship moved rudderless,
launched on insensible currents,
borne to the South
where the Courrain covers
the edge of the world.
And borne to the South
I lay on the deck,
and the boat was a cradle, a bride's bed,
a gray catafalque carried into the night,
it was strong wine and medicine,
sleep past remembrance
and past restoration,
and as I lay down
in the veinwork of halyards
I decided to rise up no longer.
And the date of my death
was my embarkation.
Something there is
in the rudderless sailing,
as the husk of desire,
architectures of boat and body
coalesce with the water
and the disburdening wind.
In the south, the sails filled with words
and the boat took wing
above the denial of waters.
Softly the wind spoke
under the pulse of the sails:
COME, ASTRALAS, RIDE INTO PROPHECY:
I AM THE BREATH OF A GOD,
the wind was saying,
THE SOURCE OF DREAMS
AND THE WEBWORK OF REASON.
ASTRALAS, OPEN YOUR ARMS:
I SHALL PASS THROUGH YOUR FINGERS
AS BRINDLED LIGHT,
AS A VISION FROM THE BROWS OF A WEARY KING.
HASTEN TO ISTAR, DOMED AND TEMPLED,
WHERE SUNLIGHT REFRACTS
ON BRONZE AND SILVER,
ON CRYSTAL AND BURNISHED IRON.
TEN VISIONS THERE
YOU SHALL READ AND INTERPRET,
IN THAT COMFORTABLE CITY
WHERE TRUTH WITHOUT PAIN
GOVERNS THE SPAN OF THE HAND,
GLITTERS LIKE MOONLIGHT
OVER IMMOVABLE WATERS.
BUT YOU, ASTRALAS,
IMPRESSED FOR YOUR TERRIBLE VOYAGE,
CANNOT MAKE TRUCE WITH THE WIND AND THE WATER
IN THE BREATH OF YOUR VEINS,
BECAUSE THEY ARE WITH YOU FOREVER.
The trees wept blood
at my departure,
staining the whiteness
of birches and butternut,
glittering dark on the maple and oak,
blood that was falling
like leaves in a thousand countries,
greater than augury,
sprung from prophetic wounds,
as I sailed through the mouth
of ancient Thon-Thalas
like a prayer into endless ocean.
In the mazed and elaborate swirl
of omens, of long prophecies,
comes a time when you stand
in the presence of oracles,
but what they foretell
is mirrors and smoke.
When I reached the Courrain
I was standing on deck,
despair having moved
to the country of faith,
and slowly the coast took a shape
and a name, as the forest
dwindled to Silvanost,
green on water on green.
At long last, to portside
lay the watch fires of Balifor,
the manhandling country of kender,
of hoopak and flute
and rifled treasuries.
The smoke from the coastline
mingled with clouds from the mountains
in the high air resolving
to nebulous hammer and harp,
to veiled constellations,
as the shores of Balifor
sighed with departures of gods.
North and west along the coast,
cradled by pine-scented wind,
by infusion of hemlock,
the long plains climbed
into mountainous green,
and everywhere forest and ocean,
ocean and forest twined
with the westernmost haze
of the damaged horizons,
until the traveler's fancy
supposes Silvanost rising again
in dreams of retrieval,
but instead it is priest-ridden Istar,
sacrifice-haunted, where freedom is incense,
the long smoke rising
destroyed in its own celebrations.
There in the branching seas,
in warm waters harmful and northern,
the wind took me westward
skirting a desolate land.
Now the sea is a level
and heartless country,
boiling with unsteady fires:
The salt air smothers
the coastal lights,
but the mast, the shipped oars,
ignite with the corposant,
and all through the water
a green incandescence,
and often at night
the coastline is dark, obscured
by the luminous reef
by the Phoenix of Habbakuk,
low in the canceling west,
and the wind and the water
are borrowed and inward as light.
And on those same nights,
on the face of the waters,
embarks from the starboard to port
like a dream beneath memory
as though from the ocean
a new land is rising, proclaimed
by the distant and alien
calls of the whales.
The compass needle
flutters and falls
into vertiginous waters,
and waking to sunlight
fractured on spindrift,
the impervious jade
of the ocean below you,
you dismiss the night, you turn it away,
which is why this song
returns to you quietly
at full noon, when the assembled sea
is changing past thought and remembrance
above the eternal currents.
And now the northerlies
rising fierce, equatorial,
the madman's wind,
the mistrals of prophecy,
guiding me into the bay.
Karthay tumbled by to the portside,
the city of harbors
where the sorcerer's tower
waits out the erosion of mountains,
as the northerlies lifted
my boat from the waters' embrace.
Into the Bay of Istar we rushed
like an unforeseen comet,
like a dire thing approaching
the webbed and festering streets,
the harbor's edge
where the wind sailed over me,
calming the vessel
at the feet of the mountainous piers:
where the wind sailed over me,
catching the web of the kingdom
as it blew where it wished,
and none could tell
where it came or went,
and it dove through the alleys,
vaulted the towers,
and lay waste the house
of the last Kingpriest.
The augurers took it
as one immutable sign,
to add to the bloodtears
of alder and vallenwood,
to the pillared eruptions
of campfire and forge,
to the flight of the gods
and the gods returning.
And the sound of my coming
was a warning sign.
Ten visions, O Istar, lie sleeping
in the great crystal dome
of your Kingpriest's Temple,
where the walls recede from the plumb line,
where foundations devolve
through corundum through quartz,
through limestone through clay,
to the half-fallen dreams of foundation.
Ten visions lie sleeping
and my song has awakened them all.
For my words are the leveling wind,
are the blood of the trees
and the fire on the shores,
the gods walk in my song,
where ten visions waken
in the hands of my singing:
I offer them, glittering, shattered,
and the gods break in my hands.
Istar, your army in Balifor
is a gauntlet, clenched
on a quicksilver heirloom.
Your priests in Qualinost
are dazzlements of glass
fractured on red velvet.
Your light hand in Hylo
steals breath from the cradle:
Ice on the glove.
In Silvanost, the white thighs of the women
wade through the muddied waters
Your sword arm in Solamnia
entangles in filaments,
in the spider's alley.
Your children in Thoradin
dream away ancestries
of green earth and sun.
The shards of remembered Ergoth
collect to a broken vessel
from dispersion they call the planet's twelve corners.
One name on the lips of Thorbardin
the rows of teeth
Your fingers in Sancrist
fumble the intricate hilt
of a borrowed sword.
But, Istar, the last song
is yours, the song at the center of songs:
A bleached bone on the altar.
And last generation of Istar,
born of bright stones
drawn from the crown
of a mountebank's hat,
whose goodness is ordinance,
stripped of the elements
in the hearts fire
and the earth of the body,
in the water of blood
and the air's circumference:
You have passed through your temple
unharmed until now,
but now all of Istar
is strung on our words
on your own conceiving
as you pass from night
to awareness of night
to know that hatred is the calm of philosophers
that its price is forever
that it draws you through meteors
through winter's transfixion
through the blasted rose
through the shark's water
through the black compression of oceans
to yourself to an abscess of nothing
that you will recognize as nothing
that you will know is coming again and again
under the same rules.
So says the wind
in one tongue only,
pronounced in the movement
of cloud and water,
given voice by the rattle of leaves.
In the breath between waiting
and memory it stalks
elusive as light and promise.
So says the wind
in the long year preserved
in the heart'srecollection,
and always it yearns
for another and blessed year
that the heart might have been
in its wild anointing.
And the wind is always your heartbeat,
is breathing remote
as the impassive stars,
and it moves from arrival to leaving,
leaving you one song only.
OH, THAT WAS THE LANGUAGE OF WIND,
you say, AND WHAT DOES IT MEAN
TO THE LEAVES AND THE WATER,
and ALWAYS is what it means.
Colors of Belief
Richard A. Knaak
Arryl Tremaine stepped into the common room of
Timon's Folly, the inn where he was staying, and
immediately noted the eyes that fixed on him. He was clad
in simple traveling clothes. Those in the inn could not
know for certain that he was a Knight of Solamnia, but they
COULD mark him as a foreigner. That in itself brought
attention enough. Had he not prudently decided to leave his
armor back in his room, the rest of the patrons would not
have pretended that they were looking anywhere but at him.
Ignoring the others, he marched toward the innkeeper,
a heavy, bustling man named Brek. The innkeeper was the
only one to give him any sort of greeting, likely because he
felt a kinship with the young knight. Brek's grandfather had
been the Timon whose folly had earned the inn its name -
and likewise drove the family to leave Solamnia. Timon
had been a Knight of the Sword, like Tremaine.
Tremaine was of the opinion that Timon's line had
grown much too soft in only two generations.
"Good evening, Sir Tremaine," the man said in a voice
that carried well. Now all the patrons looked up.
"Master Brek." Arryl Tremaine's own voice was low and
just a hint sharp at the moment. "I have asked you to not
use my title."
Solamnic Knights were a rare sight in the land of Istar,
much less the holy city of the same name. Arryl, coming
from the more secluded southwest of his own country, had
never truly understood why. Both the knighthood and the
Kingpriest - he who was ruler of Istar - served the same
lord, the god of light and goodness, Paladine. Once
compatible, the two servants no longer seemed to be able to
work side by side. There were rumors that the church had
grown jealous of the knights' power, and the knights
jealous of the church's wealth. A Tremaine never bent low
enough to believe such rabble-rousing. The House of
Tremaine might have seen better days, but the pride of the
family was still very much in flower. The young knight had
come to Istar three days earlier to learn the truth.
"My apologies, Master Tremaine. Have you decided to
take your meal here? We've not seen you since you arrived.
My wife and daughters fear you find something amiss with
Arryl had no desire to talk about either food or the
innkeeper's family, especially where Master Brek's
daughters were concerned. Like many a woman, they were
taken with the young knight's handsome, albeit cool, visage
and his tall, well-honed form. Arryl in no way encouraged
them and, in point of fact, found the thought of mixing base
desires with his holy trek to Istar sacrilegious.
"I have come merely to ask some information of you
before I retire for the day."
"So early? It is barely dark, Master." Brek thought the
knight a little odd. It was clear that the innkeeper either had
forgotten or had never been told by his grandfather about
the daily rituals of a Solamnic Knight.
Arryl frowned. He wanted answers, not more questions
about his personal habits. "I saw a man arrested by the city
guard, a man who had simply been standing by his cart and
selling fruit. I have made purchases myself from him in the
past day. The soldiers gave no reason for his arrest,
something unheard of in my country. He was chained and
dragged - "
"I'm certain there was a PROPER reason for it, Master
Tremaine," Brek interrupted quickly. His smile suddenly
seemed strained. "Will you be staying for the Games,
Master? Rumor has it that there will be something special
going on this time. Some say the Kingpriest himself will
"I do not believe in these so-called Games. And I've
seen enough of the Kingpriest, thank you." Everywhere
Tremaine wandered through the vast city, with its tall white
towers and extravagantly gilded temples, he saw the
benevolent image of the holy monarch smiling down at
him. The many majestic banners, which had initially
reminded Tremaine of his training days at Vingaard Keep,
all bore a stylized profile of the Kingpriest. Sculpted faces,
like the one that hung high on the wall behind Master Brek,
invoked a frozen blessing on the knight.
Worse yet were the statues, especially the one
portraying the Kingpriest holding a smiling baby in one
hand and a writhing, many-headed snake in the other. The
snake was some artist's interpretation of the dark goddess
Takhisis, Paladine's eternal nemesis. Arryl was outraged.
All knew that Huma, a Knight of Solamnia, had defeated
the Dragonqueen! Huma had invoked the aid of the gods -
Paladine - not the Kingpriest!
As for Paladine, the god for whom Istar had originally
been erected, he was represented, but not nearly as often as
the master cleric. In fact, many of Paladine's tributes had
him standing shoulder to shoulder with the Kingpriest, as
though they were equals!
"Holy Istar seems more concerned with the greater
glory of the servant than it does of the one who is his
master," said Arryl sternly.
Brek paled, cast a darting glance sideways at three men
seated in a booth. "If you'll be excusing me, Sir ... Master
Tremaine, I - I must be about helping my wife." Master
Brek was gone before the knight drew another breath.
Apparently speed was not one of the traits diluted by two
generations of sloth.
Shrugging, Arryl turned and headed for the stairs
leading to his room. He had much to think about. The
pilgrimage to holy Istar had been a great disappointment.
Tremaine hoped that his evening prayers would give him
the answers he needed.
The knight had taken no more than a dozen steps when
a voice from a comer table asked dryly, "Could you spare
us a moment, Sir Knight?"
Arryl would have declined, then he noted the silver-
and-white robes worn by the three men.
They were clerics of the Order of Paladine. Arryl
acknowledged their presence with a polite nod. "Good
evening to you, brothers."
"May the blessings of the Kingpriest be upon you,
brother," responded the smallest of the trio. His
companions said nothing, merely nodded. It was clear that
the one in the middle was the senior. "Am I correct? Do we
have the honor of addressing one of our Solamnic
The two acolytes, for that was what they must be,
looked more like soldiers than priests. Of course, the Order
of Paladine contained capable fighters, even if they were
forbidden to use blades. They fought with blunt weapons,
such as maces, like the ones these two had resting on the
table. Arryl suspected that these two acted as bodyguards
for the third, which said something for his authority and
Not that he looked all that powerful. The priest was
thin, with slightly hunched shoulders. His face was long
and narrow and reminded Arryl of a rat. Nevertheless, the
man WAS a holy brother.
"I am Arryl Tremaine, Knight of the Sword," he
"As I thought. A Solamnic warrior." The cleric clasped
both hands together. Arryl noted that the priest wore thin
leather gloves that matched the cleric's robes. The index
fingers pressed tight, forming a steeple. The knight
wondered if there was something wrong with the man's
hands, that he should hide them under gloves. The weather
was certainly not cold enough to make protection desirable.
"Forgive me for not introducing myself," said the cleric. "I
am Brother Gurim."
Although it might be a sin in the eyes of Paladine,
Tremaine could not help feeling repulsed by the man's
countenance. Brother Gurim had eyes like a rat that
watched everything. His nose was long and crooked. It
looked as if it had been broken and had not healed properly,
which made little sense, considering that Gurim should
have been able to heal himself. The priest was nearly bald,
his sparse hair combed into a poor semblance of a monk's
A twisted smile stretched Brother Gurim's thin lips,
which only made the resemblance to a rodent even
The knight realized he'd been staring impolitely. He
finally remembered to acknowledge the cleric's
introduction. "I am honored by your acquaintance. If you
will forgive me, I must retire to my quarters to prepare for
Gurim nodded in understanding, but did not bid the
knight farewell. "How pleasing it is to meet one of our
brothers engaged in the struggle against the Dark Mistress.
How pleasing to know that not all of you knights have
lapsed in your faith."
Arryl was angered, but careful to maintain his poise.
"We knights are faithful to the tenets set down by Paladine.
Our faith lapses in man, not the god."
Gurim nodded and smiled unpleasantly. "Is that so?" The
gloved hands separated. Brother Gurim placed them on the
table, palms down. "I shall not detain you from your vigil,
then, Sir Knight. I merely wished to state that I am pleased
you are visiting Istar. I pray for the day when the
knighthood once more takes its rightful place as His
Holiness's tool against the minions of evil. Your presence
has encouraged me in that respect."
"I am glad I have pleased you, Brother." Tremaine
bowed low so that the look of disdain was not visible. The
knighthood a TOOL of the Kingpriest? The Knights of
Solamnia were as strong in their beliefs as any in holy Istar.
Strong and INDEPENDENT... as Paladine ordained when
he and the gods Habbakuk and Kiri-Jolith appeared before
Vinas Solamnus, the knighthood's founder, and instructed
him to break from his evil master, the emperor of Ergoth.
There had been a knighthood long before there had
ever been a Kingpriest.
Tremaine started toward the stairs. Brother Gurim drew
a symbol in the air. "Go in peace, Sir Knight. May the
blessings of the Kingpriest be upon you."
Arryl glanced back. "And may Paladine watch over
Brother Gurim's rat smile remained in Arryl's mind all
the way up the stairway and down to where his quarters
were located. Only when he began his evening prayers did
the sight at last fade, and only when he was deep within his
own mind did Brother Gurim's distasteful countenance
The memory of the man, unfortunately, did not.
By the end of his fifth day in the holy city, Arryl
Tremaine had seen enough. He doubted the sanctity of Istar
and its leaders. Istar was not the bastion of good that he had
imagined during his childhood. It was not the city of
miracles. Parts of the city were beautiful, certainly, but
parts of it were ugly, filled with unfortunates living in
poverty and squalor. The bad parts were ignored, however,
by most of Istar's citizens, who seemed to think they might
pray them away.
That day, Arryl told Brek he would be leaving Istar on
That night, Arryl was within sight of the inn when he
heard a stifled cry and a grunt. A warrior experienced in
combat, Arryl recognized the sound of someone being
beaten or stabbed. It came from an alley to his right.
This being holy Istar, the law forbade men to carry
weapons, unless they were part of the priesthood or the city
guard. Daggers were allowed, since no one liked to go
about the city completely unarmed, but they were to be
bonded, strapped securely in their sheaths.
Arryl struggled with the bond that held his dagger in
place as he hurried to the alley. Whoever had bound the
dagger had done a good job, however, and he finally gave
up, deciding to rely upon his other skills instead.
Solinari shone brightly. By the moons light Arryl could
see three men fighting among themselves. Or rather, two of
them were beating a third. The two attackers wore swords
at their sides.
When he was almost within arms reach of them, the
knight shouted, "Stand away and surrender!"
The two men released the third, who lay unmoving.
One attacker already had a knife out. The second assailant
drew a broadsword. In the shadows, Arryl could not make
out the features of either man, but he guessed their type:
bullies, who relied on brute strength and quick results. Skill
The first slashed with his blade, then tried to follow
through with a meaty fist. Tremaine let the dagger pass him
by, fended off the oncoming hand with a sharp blow of his
own, and kicked out with his foot.
The hard toe of his boot caught the man just below the
kneecap. Yelping, the attacker fell to the street, his empty
hand clutching his leg.
The tip of a sword grazed Arryl's forearm. Tremaine,
rather than stepping back as most people would have done,
dove forward while the second assailant was still
completing his swing. His adversary realized what was
happening, but by the time he began to pull his sword back,
Arryl had him by the waist.
The two men crashed against the alley wall. The
swordsman, caught between the wall and the Solamnian,
grunted, dropped his blade, and tried to regain some of the
air that had been shoved out of his body by the crushing
Tremaine gave him no quarter. With his left hand
balled into a fist, he struck his hapless opponent hard in the
Folding over, the second man fell.
Arryl heard movement near him, and he kicked out to
the side with his foot. The first attacker, just about to leap,
went flying against the opposite wall.
There was no resistance after that.
Barely breathing hard, Arryl looked for the victim. It
did not surprise him when he found no one. The
unfortunate had likely crawled off as soon as he had been
able to do so. Arryl could not blame the man. There were
few whose courage and abilities matched those of a
Arryl was just debating what to do with his two charges
when a group of armed soldiers, obviously the city guard,
appeared at the end of the alley.
"What goes on here?" asked another man, stepping
forward. Unlike the others, he wore the robes of the
"These men were beating another. I ordered them to
surrender, but they chose to attack ME instead."
The soldiers began to filter into the alley. Several men
reached the two dazed assailants and half-dragged the limp
forms away. The cleric, meanwhile, ordered a torch
brought so that he might better survey the scene. After
observing the alley and the weapons dropped by Tremaine's
adversaries, the cleric turned his attention to the waiting
knight. Seen by the flickering light of the torch, the priest's
pale face and emaciated countenance made him look like a
"Why did you not call the guardsmen?"
"They wouldn't have arrived in time. A man's life was
"So you say." The cleric sounded skeptical.
Arryl's temper rose a bit at the thought that someone
would dare question his word, but he reminded himself that
the priest did not know he was a Knight of Solamnia.
"Is the sword your weapon?" The cleric pointed at the
blade lying on the street.
"I had no weapon. These belonged to them."
The cleric was genuinely impressed. "You took on two
men without a weapon?"
Tremaine shrugged. "I am a Knight of Solamnia, a
Knight of the Sword. I have been trained to fight with or
without weapons. The two who attacked were hardly a
threat." Arryl shrugged. "Swords and knives in the hands of
novices are generally more dangerous to themselves than to
The city guardsmen glanced at each other and muttered
among themselves. The cleric demanded quiet. Arryl noted
the silver stripe running across the man's chest, the same
stripe he had seen on Brother Gurim and several other
clerics since his arrival. He wondered briefly about its
meaning, but the priest demanded his attention again.
"Your name, Solamnian?"
"I am Arryl Tremaine."
"Arryl Tremaine, I want you to come with us."
"Excuse me, Brother, but I would like to return to my
quarters. I have been negligent in the performance of my
The cleric smiled. "I commend your dedication, but this
is a matter of justice. The laws of His Holiness and the
great Paladine have been broken. Surely you see that this is
of much greater import than missing one day of prayer?"
Arryl hesitated, then nodded. The cleric had a point. The
law had been broken and Tremaine was a witness. Likely
they wanted him to testify against the two.
"Come, then, Sir Knight," said the cleric pleasantly.
"Walk beside me. It is not often that we have one of our
Solamnic brothers among us."
VERY UNDERSTANDABLE, Tremaine thought. When
he left Istar tomorrow, he certainly would never be back.
The city guardsmen suddenly closed in around him and
jostled him roughly. Angered at their effrontery, Arryl
started to reach for his sword, then reminded himself that
not only was he not the prisoner, but that his sword was
back in his quarters.
To his astonishment, the guardsmen took him to the
Temple of Paladine.
"Why are we here?" Tremaine asked. "I would have
thought felons would be taken to the headquarters of the
The emaciated priest, who still had not introduced
himself, gave Arryl a look that said that only a foreigner
would ask such a question. "The city guard is the physical
arm of justice. Defining and overseeing the law is a matter
for the Order of Paladine."
Despite the merit of the statement, the Solamnian had
his doubts. "You have not yet explained my purpose here.
Am I to act as witness?"
"That is up to the inquisitors to decide."
INQUISITORS? Arryl disliked the sound of that.
The temple itself was as splendid as anything in Istar.
Immense marble columns rose high in the air. Intricate
friezes representing both the history of Istar and Paladine's
glory decorated the walls. Sculptures and other valuable
artifacts lined the halls. The temple had been built long
before the present Kingpriest. The additions made since his
rise to power were gaudy and seemed out of place. His
banners and masks were everywhere, but here the true
wonder of Paladine overwhelmed that of his servant, as was
A pair of tall silver - TRUE silver - doors led to the
chamber where the inquisitors meted out justice. Tremaine
and the others waited for several minutes, the knight trying
not to grow impatient.
The doors suddenly swung open. Two large acolytes,
armed with very solid-looking maces, pushed the doors
aside and stood guard. One of them nodded to Arryl's
The guards shoved Arryl forward, as if HE were the
prisoner ! He glared at them angrily.
The room was lit by only a handful of torches, but it
was still enough light to allow Arryl Tremaine to study his
surroundings. The contrast between this chamber and the
rest of the temple was astonishing. It seemed that the
original builders had forgotten to finish this room once the
walls were up. To be sure, the familiar banners and masks
commemorating the Kingpriest were present, but little else.
The only furniture consisted of a table and three chairs atop
The doors behind them closed.
Three hooded and robed figures entered from a side
door that the knight had not noticed in the dim light. They
all wore the same robes that Brother Gurim and the cleric
beside him wore, white with a silver stripe running across
the chest. Tremaine guessed now what that symbol meant.
These specific clerics served as the keepers of justice in the
Their hoods masking their features, the three
newcomers sat down in the chairs and faced the group. The
one in the center clasped his hands together and asked, "Is
this the one involved in the struggle, Brother Efram?"
Arryl's companion stepped through the line of guards
and took a position two or three feet in front. The knight
tried to follow him, but the soldiers formed a tight ring
around him. Arryl frowned, but did nothing more,
assuming that this was merely a matter of protocol.
Brother Efram bowed respectfully and answered, "This
is the one."
The spokesman for the triumvirate signaled someone
beyond the side doorway. Arryl was shocked to see the two
men he had beaten enter on their own. The knight was the
one being guarded!
"This is the man?" the center figure asked them.
"You are dismissed."
The two departed. The hooded clerics focused their
attention on Arryl, who was growing extremely angry. He
was forced to remind himself he was in a temple of
"You are Arryl Tremaine, Knight of Solamnia?" the
"I am!" he answered proudly.
The center cleric folded his hands together again. "You
appreciate the letter of the law, do you not, Sir Knight?"
"I do. What - "
"Then you realize that you have transgressed."
"I - " Arryl stiffened. He could hardly believe what he
was hearing. "I am INNOCENT of wrongdoing! What do
you mean by saying that I have transgressed?"
A second inquisitor spoke. "Arryl Tremaine, you are
charged with preventing two members of the city guard
from performing their duties. Further, you assaulted and
injured both soldiers."
"This is preposterous!" Tremaine retorted. "They were
beating an unarmed man senseless! When I called to them
to stop, they did not identify themselves. They attacked me!
I defended myself!"
"Where is this third man?" asked the same cleric.
"I ..." Tremaine had no answer. His only witness had
vanished during the struggle. "How could I know these
men were guardsmen? I am innocent! This is madness!"
"None of us are truly without sin," the center cleric
intoned. The third inquisitor, who had not spoken yet,
nodded agreement. The spokesman added, "And you of all
people, Knight of Solamnia, should know that ignorance of
the law is no excuse. Think of the chaos if we allowed
For Arryl Tremaine, the world ceased to be. All that
existed for him were the three men and their incredible
accusations. What was HAPPENING here?
They took him then, realizing he was weakest at this
moment. Two guards caught hold of his arms and pinned
them, while two more clamped manacles around his wrists,
ankles, and throat. Arryl was too proud to resist; against so
many, his struggles would have been useless. In less than a
minute, the knight was shackled.
"Arryl Tremaine," said the inquisitor, "you have been
found guilty of crimes against the laws set down by the
Kingpriest of Istar and Paladine himself. To argue against
those laws is to argue against your very faith."
Arryl said nothing, his mind dazed as he tried to
understand what was happening.
"You are hereby sentenced to the Games, there to train
and fight for your eventual freedom ... if Paladine deems
you worthy of salvation."
THE GAMES? As with everything else, even Arryl's
sentence bordered on the absurd, the unbelievable. The
Games were death itself, senseless, bloody conflicts that
were AGAINST the laws of Paladine, as set forth in the
Oath and the Measure.
"Place him in a cell for the night and see to it that he is
sent to the arena first thing in the morning," the inquisitor
ordered. Brother Efram bowed. To Arryl, the inquisitor
said, "May the Kingpriest watch over your soul, Sir
The three hooded clerics rose. Arryl shook free his
guards' hands and marched out, glaring balefully at the
inquisitors. His mind noted and locked on one feature
concerning the third inquisitor, the silent one. Arryl tried to
hold back to get a better look, but the guards shoved him
toward the doors.
Nonetheless, Tremaine was certain that the third
inquisitor - and ONLY the third inquisitor - had worn a thin,
elegant pair of gloves.
Arryl Tremaine stood outside the tall walls of the
arena, staring at it with disgust and loathing. Until his
misguided pilgrimage to Istar, he had considered the
Games the one aberration, the one pit of darkness he had
been willing to admit existed in the holy center.
Certainly he had not thought to ever find himself
inside, sentenced to fight for a crime he had not committed.
Now he was just one among a group of dour men, standing
in a wagon that had drawn up just outside of the stonework
leviathan. The arena looked massive enough to seat every
citizen of Istar. From where he stood, he could see a
portion of the field where men killed one another for the
amusement of the masses.
In Istar, holiest of holy places.
"Step down, step down!" ordered an ugly, scarred
dwarf, who apparently was in charge of the arena. "My
name is Arack. This here is Raag." Raag was an ogre.
Yellowish of skin, he was taller than even the tall Tremaine
and had a warty face that Arryl doubted even the proverbial
mother could love. The ogre was the most monstrous thing
the Solamnic warrior had ever come across.
The knight, with his proud air and stiff, upright stature,
stood out in comparison to the slouchy, slovenly half-dozen
others. Most had the hang-dog expression of long-time
felons. Arryl took an interest in only two - a boy dressed in
motley, who obviously had no idea what was going to
happen to him, and a half-elf, whose face was that of a man
who knows he is doomed. Having studied the rest during
the short, bleak trip from his cell to this place, Arryl
guessed that most would not survive long enough to win
Arryl Tremaine glanced about and grimaced at the ex
terior of the arena, adorned with the benevolent visage of
the Kingpriest. Brother Gurim came immediately to mind.
BROTHER GURIM. The rat-faced cleric was
responsible for his being sentenced to this place, of that
Arryl was certain. A night in a dank prison cell had been
long enough for the Solamnic warrior to question the law
and authority by which he had been judged. Something was
amiss. It was too coincidental that the same man who had
spoken to the young knight only a day prior, and who had
overheard what Arryl was forced to admit may have been
injudicious remarks about Istar, should be one of the
inquisitors at his sudden, mad trial.
Marble masks lined the arena walls, each visage
gazing down in sculpted tenderness upon the monarch's
spiritual children when they entered on the days of the
Games. Through the open gateway Arryl could see the
faces that adorned the inside of the arena. Probably the
countenance of each succeeding monarch replaced that of
his predecessor. Not at all to Arryl's surprise, he saw very
little tribute to Paladine.
Once again, Tremaine wondered whether Istar,
stronghold of Paladine, had forgotten exactly who it was its
citizens were supposed to worship.
"You there!" The dwarf walked up to him. For one of
the hill folk, Arack was surprisingly lean, like a small cat.
Knowing the strength of Arack's kind, Arryl wondered if he
could take the dwarf in combat. One did not gain authority
in an arena without some prowess. "Which are you?"
"I am Arryl Tremaine."
"The knight." The dwarf looked him over, pausing at
one point to eye Tremaine's flowing, well-groomed
Solamnic moustache. "Yer in good shape. Last o' yer kind I
saw looked more like a merchant man than a fighter. Round
as a tub."
Raag laughed. Arryl kept silent, figuring the dwarf was
only trying to provoke him into a fight.
"I understand you took on two of the city guard,"
"I did what I thought was right. I did not know they
were guardsmen," Arryl replied sternly.
The dwarf snorted. "Yeah, that's what they all say!"
Arack pointed the knight out to the other prisoners. "Ya
see this man? Fought the city guard. Beat 'em. both ... and
There was a subtle movement away from the
Solamnian, as if anyone who had crossed the guard was
"What's yer best weapon?" the dwarf asked, all
business again. His eyes sparkled with some scheme.
Arryl had the uncomfortable feeling the scheme
involved him. "Sword."
"Just that? 'Sword,' he says. Any particular TYPE of
"Broadsword. Short sword." Tremaine decided not to
tell him more.
Scratching his chin, Arack considered. "You'll be
going to Nelk's bunch, then."
"I will not fight. I will not become a part of this
barbaric ritual! This place, these Games, are an affr - "
"You'll go to Nelk's group, whatever you end up
doin'!" That was the end of the discussion, as far as Arack
was concerned. He stepped away from the knight and
moved on to the half-elf, who was surreptitiously
observing the Solamnian.
Arryl Tremaine knew that arguing would be a waste
for now. He kept quiet, turned his mind to other matters.
He wondered what Master Brek would think when he did
not return. It occurred to him that maybe the innkeeper
knew exactly what had happened to the knight, perhaps
had had a hand in it.
The fight ... outside the inn ... No, Arryl couldn't
believe something so monstrous, not even of Brother
Gurim. The knight wondered about his belongings....
MY ARMOR! Arryl was horrified that he could have gone
so long without thinking of the armor passed down from his
grandfather. "Master Arack!" he called.
The dwarf glanced over his shoulder. "What do you
want, Sir Knight?" he asked with a sneer.
"My armor! What has become of it?"
"The guard'll return it to ya, if it's decided ya should
wear it in the arena! Now keep yer place!"
The city guard DID have his belongings, then. Arryl
was most concerned with the armor. Those who had seen
him ride into Istar in full armor might have thought him an
elegant, rich knight, but the truth was that, while the House
of Tremaine was not poor, like so many of its cousins, it
had learned to be frugal. He had been fortunate in that his
grandfather's suit had fit him with very little alteration and
had also borne the symbol of the order to which the young
Tremaine had always aspired to join. Among many Houses
of Solamnia, armor, when still serviceable, was a treasure
to be handed down until the day when someone else might
be able to don it.
Of course, if such a suit did not fit, then a new one had
to be put together. Some knights preferred new armor.
Arryl considered it an honor to wear the armor of a noble
There was nothing he could do about his armor, save
hope that someone in the city guard did not take a fancy to
Raag's leering visage loomed before him. The ogre's
rancid breath struck Arryl like one slap after another.
"Knight!" Raag grinned, revealing sharp, yellowed teeth.
"Take these two as well," Arack called, jabbing a thumb
at the half-elf and the confused-looking boy, dressed in the
sort of loose, colorful clothing worn by peasants in the
villages far to the southwest of Istar. Arryl recalled hearing
that those places were very relaxed in their worship of the
gods. They were even said to worship the gods of
neutrality, despite the Kingpriest's efforts to alter their
thinking. Arryl wondered what sort of crime brought a
mere boy, who couldn't be more than fourteen, to the arena
and how the gawking boy was expected to take part in the
The Games at this time consisted of both live combat
and tournament battle, with more of the former than the
latter. The difference between the two was that "live"
combat usually meant "live" death as well. Tournament
battles were fought between gladiators of exceptional skill,
who were too valuable to let themselves get killed, and
generally ended when one of the men was disarmed. None
of the prisoners were to be a part of those tournaments. The
Games Arryl and his fellows had been chosen to play
would be very, very real.
Raag led them into the arena and out onto the field.
The sound of two weapons ringing against one another was
almost deafening. A group of fighters - obviously veteran
gladiators - stood in a circle, cheering on two combatants.
The battle sounds stirred something inside Arryl. He craned
his head to see. It was evident from the frequency of the
strikes that here were two opponents who not only fought
with speed, but with skill.
Despite the noise, someone noticed Raag's approach. It
paid to notice the ogre before one became a temporary
obstacle in his path. The gladiators gave way for the
oncoming ogre. Arryl made a quick study of the men.
Hardened fighters all, but lacking in the grace and elegance
of a knight. If not for the arena, many of them would have
ended up mercenaries or highwaymen. More than a few had
probably worked as one or both during the course of their
Raag, gruff as ever, turned to Arryl and pointed at the
duelist to the left.
"Nelk. Arack say, you fight with Nelk."
Arryl stared, amazed.
Nelk was an elf.
A maimed elf. Arryl wondered about the sort of elf
who would deal in death, decided he must be a dark elf, one
of the outcasts of elven society.
Tremaine studied Nelk. He seemed no different from
the few elves the knight had met, except that the arrogant,
delicate features were marred by a sardonic twist of the
mouth, as if Nelk - that could not be his true name - had
seen too much of the world and not found it to his liking.
But he handled a mace with a skill becoming that of a
Solamnic master, a necessary skill, since the elf lacked the
lower half of his right arm and could not, therefore, have
used a shield to any real purpose. His natural grace and
agility also served to compensate for his physical handicap.
Nelk's opponent was a human, a thin, brown-haired
man who both looked and moved like a snake. He fought
with a sword and Arryl, who took an instant dislike to the
serpentine man, grudgingly had to admit he was skilled.
It was a strange duel, mace against sword. Both men
were caught up in their practice and it was evident that here
were two masters. Arryl forgot his troubles, watching the
two skilled fighters at work. Although Nelk had only one
arm, his mace was nearly three feet long. He moved with a
speed that few humans could match. His heavier adversary
compensated for a lack of elven speed by utilizing both
sword and shield as few men in the knighthood could have
The weapons clanged together again and again, never
remaining motionless. Each time one duelist seemed about
to break through the defenses of the other, a counterassault
brought them back to their standoff.
Then, Arryl saw the human make a blunder. An over-
extension of his arm left his side vulnerable. It was a very
slight mistake, but a master such as Nelk should have been
able to capitalize on it easily.
Nelk ignored it. The gap in the human's defenses
vanished instantly. Once again the two were on even
"Hold, Sylverlin!" The elf stepped back, still guarding
himself. His serpentine counterpart did the same. Both men
saluted each other, then smiled grimly. Nelk was not
breathing hard at all; his human adversary seemed only
slightly put out by the strenuous activity. Arryl silently
applauded their abilities.
Turning, the elf eyed the newcomers. The rest of the
gladiators melted away as he walked over to inspect the
small group Raag had brought him. "What is this?"
"Arack said," was all the ogre commented.
"Mine, then." The elf surveyed the trio of prisoners. He
seemed amused by the boy, and sneered at the half-elf.
Most elves - even dark ones - looked down upon half-
breeds as being less than either of the two races from
which they had sprung.
Nelk paused when he came to Arryl. "You are a
fighter, I see."
"Solamnian," Raag offered.
"Ah. The knight," said Sylverlin, coming up behind.
Both instructors studied Tremaine with interest.
Tremaine straightened. "I will not fight in your
"Won't you?" Nelk shrugged. "We'll see. Arack gave
you to me and that is all that matters."
"Too good for us?" Sylverlin hissed. He even sounded
like a serpent.
"Arack waits," Raag grunted.
Satisfied that Nelk was now in charge of the three, the
ogre turned and departed without another word. Nelk
watched him go, seeming to appraise the ogre's every
"He'd still beat you, my good friend," the reptilian man
commented offhandedly. "Raag's quick in the head when
he needs to be, not to mention having a skin as tough as a
"I am well aware of both my limitations and his,
Sylverlin. Best to worry about your own. If we had been
dueling to the death, I would have crushed your rib cage
after that last ploy of yours."
"You mean the opening I left? Wasn't a mistake, my good
friend." Sylverlin bowed in mockery to Arryl, then slid off
in the opposite direction Raag had gone.
"I knew it was not," the elf commented with a wry
smile, his voice loud enough for the knight to hear. "Why
else would I have avoided it?" The elf's slanted eyes
returned to Arryl. "As for you, you will fight, human. You
will fight for the simple reason that you will die if you do
not. You ... and others because of you." His glance went, as
if by accident to the half-elf and the boy. "For now, you
should get something to eat, I think. You will need your
strength today. That is a promise. Go with them."
He pointed to several gladiators who leered at the
newcomers and made crude comments about "last meals"
Arryl stiffened and reached for a sword that wasn't at his
side. Nelk laughed and sauntered away.
The half-elf leaned toward Arryl and whispered, "They
will kill us on the spot if you choose to give them trouble
now! Best to live and find a better moment, human!"
Tremaine reluctantly gave in and started walking. The
half-elf's words made sense to him, but he wondered
exactly when that better moment might come. Escape
seemed impossible. The arena was well protected;
archers and sentries were everywhere.
An indrawn breath from the half-elf made Tremaine
shift his gaze. "What is it?"
"The senior inquisitor is up in the stands with the arena
masters!" his companion muttered. "Pray he is not here
concerning us! If so, we go from having little chance to
Following the direction of the other prisoner's eyes, the
knight focused on a man who had been watching the duel
between Nelk and Sylverlin from the stands.
Arryl Tremaine tripped and nearly fell. He stared and
stared at the rat-eyed priest. Arryl was certain now. He had
stepped into a nightmare whose master was the gloved
Was this TRULY what Istar had become?
Sylverlin marched Arryl out into the arena after the
meal and handed the knight a sword. Arryl dropped it at
the man's feet. Sylverlin told him to pick it up. Arryl told
him the same thing he had told the elf earlier: "I will not
fight." The knight fully expected to be beaten or tortured.
Sylverlin clenched his fist, seeming to enjoy the idea.
"Leave him be," ordered Nelk. He made Tremaine
stand aside while the elf took the half-elf and the boy and
added them to another group of mixed unfortunates.
Sylverlin glowered, obviously disappointed. He obeyed
Nelk, however, though he flashed the elf a vicious glance
that Nelk saw but ignored. The abandoned sword remained
at the knight's feet, as if a challenge of some sort. Arryl
folded his arms and stood unmoving the rest of the
At the end of the day, he again expected to be
punished. Nelk ordered Arryl into the line with the others.
That was all. No mention of punishment. Sylverlin joined
Nelk; the two seemed as attached as two branches of the
same tree. They walked off together, now apparently the
best of friends.
During the evening meal, the half-elf chose to join
Arryl. No one else sat near them. The other men, both
veteran gladiators and newcomers, were unwilling to sit
next to either a Solamnic warrior who had fought the city
guard or a half-elf whose crime was the fact that he
existed. The only one who seemed to want to join them
was the peasant boy, who also sat alone. He gave the two
of them a shy, nervous smile, obviously hoping to be
invited. Tremaine started to signal him over, but his
companion shook his head.
"I would like to talk to you alone. My name is Fen
Sunbrother," the half-elf said in a low voice. He had a
swarthy complexion and his mixed background gave him
exotic features. A thin beard attested to the fact that his
human half had at least some dominance. "What are you
Tremaine hesitated. While Solamnia had been built on
the principles of justice and fairness, mixed breeds like Fen
Sunbrother were not accepted members of society. It may
have been that his own desperate situation made the knight
more tolerant, for he found himself replying, "I am Arryl
"We are both outcasts, it appears." Fen indicated the
empty benches around them. "You hardly seem the type
who should be here. Knight of Solamnia, yes?"
"I am a Knight of the Order of the Sword."
"Thought that." Fen glanced warily around, as if he
expected someone to be spying on their conversation. "You
need not tell me, but I would be interested to know for what
reason you are here."
"I am innocent of wrongdoing. I came to the aid of a
man being beaten. I did not know the bullies beating him
were city guardsmen."
The half-elf gave him a sour smile. "Crime enough
here, depending on the situation. Tell me about it."
Arryl did, leaving nothing out. After a day of having no
one willing to hear his side, he was gratified to find a
sympathetic ear. Fen Sunbrother listened, and as he
listened, his expression turned dark and bitter.
"I have all the luck. I am constantly allying myself with
those who draw the ire of the mighty." The half-elf took a
bite of his food, grimaced, but swallowed it nonetheless.
The food at the arena was designed to keep the men fit
enough to fight; taste was not a priority. "You have brought
the attention of the inquisitors down upon you. Worse, you
have attracted the personal wrath of Brother Gurim."
"What have I done to the man?"
"What have you done? It could be any number of things"
Fen poked the gruel with his finger. The hole formed did
not fill in when he pulled the finger out. "The worst part of
being in the arena is not the possibility of death - it's the
Arryl did not smile.
The half-elf shrugged. "There is something that you
must understand, Tremaine. In Istar, the clerics are the law.
Among the clerics, the inquisitors are justice. It is they who
define the words of the Kingpriest and how those words
affect the citizens."
"Would that they were as concerned with the word of
Paladine as much as that of the Kingpriest," said Arryl
Fen's eyes widened, then he nodded in understanding.
"You knights are very strong in your faith, not to mention
vocal about it. You've been talking like that for the past few
days, haven't you?"
"What of it? I am within my rights - "
"In SOLAMNIA, you would be within your rights, but
not here...." Fen shook his head. "Istar is another matter. A
Solamnic Knight, one of the legendary warriors of justice
and good, rides into the holy city and finds it not so holy.
Small wonder that you incurred the wrath of Brother
Gurim. To him, you are a threat to the order."
"For speaking out?" Arryl realized his voice had risen.
He glanced around, but everyone else was working hard to
pretend they had not heard him. "I am only one man! What
sort of threat could I be?"
The half-elf grunted, began eating his gruel again.
Between bites, he muttered, "You come to a place few of
your kind ever visit and you immediately question the ways
of the priesthood. Those who rule Istar have long seen the
Solamnic Orders as rivals, jealous of the priests' wealth and
Tremaine recalled Brother Gurim's words at the inn. I
PRAY FOR THE DAY WHEN THE KNIGHTHOOD ONCE
MORE TAKES ITS RIGHTFUL PLACE AS HIS
"Brother Gurim may even think this a plot by your kind
to undermine the authority of the Holy One. That alone
would be enough to have you executed," added the half-elf.
It was such a preposterous thought that Arryl could not
take it seriously. He decided it was time to turn the
conversation. "And you, Fen Sunbrother? What harm have
you done that sentences you to the arena?"
He had expected something on the order of thievery,
but the half-elf shrugged and said, "I'm a 'breed.' A
"That is hardly a crime."
The half-elf turned his attention to the unappetizing
gruel. "Welcome to Istar, Sir Knight."
Another day dawned. Arryl refused to take the sword
Sylverlin handed to him. Sylverlin taunted, jeered, insulted
him. The knight ignored him.
Nelk watched in silence.
Sylverlin shoved the knight a couple of times, but did
him no harm. Tremaine wondered at Nelk's ploy. It would
have been simple enough to execute the knight, but
someone appeared to want more. Someone wanted Arryl to
fight in the arena. He thought he understood. If he gave in,
it would be as great a victory for his captor as if he HAD
died in battle. It would mean that Gurim had broken the
knight, could claim he was weak.
Arryl had no intention of bowing to the will of the
Eventually Nelk sent Sylverlin off to instruct some of the
gladiators in the finer points of swordplay. The snakelike
man was showing them how to PRETEND to strike an
opponent. None of the veteran gladiators wanted to
accidentally die or kill one of their comrades during
tournament combat. The prisoners, of course, had no
choice. They could only hope to survive long enough to
either win their freedom or be offered a place in the
"This will avail you naught, Solamnian," said Nelk,
glancing at the sword.
"I will not fight. Execute me if you will, but I will not
go against the Oath and the Measure by fighting for the
pleasure of others."
Nelk laughed. "Do they teach such arrogance in the
knighthood or is it something you were born with?" Arryl
refused to respond. The elf stepped closer, his voice
lowered. "You WILL fight in the Games, Knight! Listen to
me! I had hoped you would not force me to this, but I want
you to know that - "
"Nelk!" Sylverlin shouted. "Spectators!" With his
blade, he pointed to their right.
Brother Gurim was once again in the stands. The hood
covered his unsightly features, but Arryl had now learned
to look for the gloves. Brother Gurim gestured to Nelk.
The maimed elf gave Arryl a long, intense look and
whispered, "You may have lost your last chance, human
Nelk and Sylverlin went over to talk with Brother
Gurim. The two had barely departed when Fen Sun-brother
and the boy, struggling beneath weaponry enough to arm a
legion, joined the knight. Arms full, the boy smiled
cautiously at Tremaine, who nodded in return.
"What did the Cursed One want of you?" Fen asked.
Arryl's brow knitted. "Cursed One?"
"You don't know what 'Nelk' means in Elvish, do you?
Never mind. Did he threaten to have you beaten?"
"He said nothing of that, but I think something is going
to happen soon."
The half-elf shook his head. "And you'll just let it happen
to you! You'll take their punishment... or the axe if they
decide you're not worth the time. Mark me, Tremaine.
Brother Gurim has let you live this long for a reason. He
has a reputation for playing games with his victims."
"Is he really that bad?" the boy asked shyly. It was the
first time Arryl had heard him talk. "But he's a cleric!"
"Yes, he is," Sunbrother snarled. "So?"
"Do not frighten him unnecessarily," the knight
"You there, BREED!" One of Sylverlin's trusted
gladiators struck Fen on the side of the head. "The guards
don't like quiet talk! Get movin'. Arack'll count all those
swords before he lets you back out of the storeroom!"
Fen Sunbrother staggered beneath the blow, grimaced,
and moved on, his younger companion struggling to keep
up. Tremaine thought over the half-elf's warning, but
remained unmoved. He could and would continue to resist,
despite whatever punishment Nelk or - more likely -
Sylverlin decided to mete out.
Arryl stared at the cleric, trying to will the man to meet
his gaze. Not once, however, did Gurim glance at him. The
inquisitor knew the knight was watching him, was
deliberately ignoring him. Arryl felt his temper rise. The
cleric was baiting him, and it was working.
The conversation between the gladiators and the cleric
was short, which might have been good or might have been
bad. Nelk and Sylverlin returned to the field. Brother
Gurim, accompanied by his two large shadows, departed
the arena. Nelk's countenance was carefully indifferent.
Sylverlin gave Arryl a serpentine grin.
Nelk did not talk to the knight again that day. No one
spoke to Tremaine or asked him to pick up the sword. A
decision had been made, obviously, and the instructors
were only waiting for the proper moment to carry it out.
That night, Arryl Tremaine made his peace with
Paladine. He did not expect to live out the morrow.
Arryl was certain of his fate when the groups were
rearranged. The half-elf, the boy, and most of the veteran
gladiators were sent to the opposite end of the arena in
order to commence with a series of practice duels. Nelk,
Arryl, and a much smaller but distinct group remained in
the area where the knight had stood the day before. Nelk
was instructing the group in the uses of a mace against a
sword. He seemed preoccupied. Tremaine guessed
something of far greater import had possession of the elf's
Nelk ignored Arryl, save to tell him where to stand.
From his vantage point, the knight could see clearly the
elaborate box set aside for the Kingpriest. Fen had
informed him that the Kingpriest seldom appeared at the
Games, but that other high-ranking clerics often sat in the
He was not very surprised, then, when Brother Gurim
and his two acolytes entered the box only a couple of hours
into the day's training.
The senior inquisitor seated himself in the very center
of the box and, looking rather bored, settled himself to
observe the practice. His hood had been pulled back. As
with the day before, he seemed to pay no attention to Arryl.
The cleric was intent on watching Sylverlin's group.
Nelk ordered one of his subordinates to take over. His
eyes flashed to Brother Gurim, then to Arryl. The maimed
elf, mace still in hand, walked slowly over to the knight,
who regarded the elf with cool disdain.
"I tried to warn you," Nelk said in a low voice. "He
knew all along that it would be useless to threaten YOUR
life, but he enjoys his own games almost as much as he
does those in the arena."
"What do you mean?" Tremaine frowned, convinced it
was a trick.
"One way or another, he will make you do what he
wishes, no matter how many lives it costs." He glanced in
Arryl understood. Fear gripped him. He stared at the large
group on the opposite end of the field. The gladia tors
clustered about, staring at a body lying on the ground.
"Sometimes," Nelk was saying, "there are those who do
not make it to the Games."
THE BOY! was Arryl's first thought.
"Blessed Paladine!" He started to run, but the elf's foot
tripped him up.
Arryl tried to regain his feet, but found the hooked and
jagged head of the elf's mace against his throat.
"It's already too late, Sir Knight. It was too late before I
even started to speak." Nelk stepped back and allowed
Arryl to rise. Several gladiators from Sylverlin's group
were heading toward them, carrying a limp form.
"It seems there's been another training accident,"
Sylverlin shouted jovially.
The victim was not, as Arryl had feared, the boy.
"Fen Sunbrother," he murmured. Part of the half-elf's
body had been covered by an old, stained cowhide, but
blood had already seeped through it. Arryl guessed he had
Nelk called out, "What happened?"
"What always 'appens?" retorted the lead gladiator, a
grizzled bear of a man with scars all over his arms and face.
" 'e fairly threw 'imself on the blade! 'e was warned about
movin' like that, but 'e wouldn't listen!" As an afterthought,
the bulking figure added, "Master Sylverlin couldn't 'elp
but run 'im clean through."
The head of Nelk's mace rested, as if by accident, on
Arryl's shoulder. The knight took the hint and watched in
impotent rage as the gladiators carried the body from the
field. Tremaine's gaze shifted to where the senior inquisitor
sat. For the first time, Brother Gurim stared back.
"Accidents could happen at any time," Nelk was saying
casually, "especially to those who are not familiar with
weapons. Take the boy, for instance...."
The knight turned sharply. "You wouldn't!"
"HE would," the elf replied, indicating Brother Gurim.
"Can you stand by and let others die because of your
The Oath and Measure of the knighthood said
otherwise. To allow others to die in his place would be
tantamount to cowardice.
"The boy can be saved," Nelk said softly. "Brother
Gurim wants you, not him."
To prove that a cleric could make a Solamnic Knight
yield his principles. To make a knight bow to the cleric's
will. Brother Gurim's countenance might be expressionless,
but his eyes were not. The senior inquisitor would order the
boy's death if Arryl rejected his demands.
Arryl turned away, faced Nelk. "What will happen to
the boy?" the knight asked.
"A mix-up. He should have been sent to work cleaning
the temple floors for a month in order to make his penance.
These things happen." Nelk shrugged. "Sometimes the
mistakes are rectified, sometimes not."
HOLY ISTAR! Arryl thought bitterly. There was no
choice. The Oath and Measure demanded he protect the
innocent from harm. "I agree, providing you personally
guarantee the boy's life."
"It will be guaranteed. I swear to that. You have not
dealt with the eccentricities of the inquisitor as I have. He
will be happy to give the boy back his life, if only to prove
how benevolent he can be."
There was relief in Nelk's eyes, a strange thing, the
knight noted. The elf removed the mace from its resting
place and, turning it upside down, sank the head into the
It was a signal, a signal of Arryl's defeat. The moment
the mace touched the ground, the inquisitor rose and
departed the arena. No backward glance, no lingering.
Brother Gurim had seen his adversary bend knee to him
and that was all the cleric wanted. For now.
The maimed elf smiled. "Pick up your sword and join
us. I want to see what you can do."
Tremaine knelt and picked up the sword that had been
handed him each day. They will see what I can do, he
vowed. He had been forced to this decision, but now that
the barrier had been breached, he had no intention of
holding back. The gladiators would see what it was like to
face a true knight.
Brother Gurim would see what being a Knight of
Solamnia truly meant.
Nelk made certain Arryl was present when the city
guard marched the boy away. It took some time for the
guard to explain to an annoyed Arack that there had been a
mistake. The dwarf evidently did not like mistakes. He lit
into the hapless guard commander with a tongue that lashed
out as hard as his fists. Tremaine could see that Arack's
anger was genuine. This helped convince the knight that the
boy would indeed receive lighter punishment.
"I gave you my word," said Nelk.
It was on that same day, shortly after the boy's
removal, that the swordmaster issued his challenge to the
Sylverlin watched the two duel with avid, jealous
attention. He did not interrupt, but stood patiently by. Nelk
finally called a halt. "What is it you want, Sylverlin?"
The tip of the snaky human's sword pointed at the
knight. "I've come for him. I need to see if he'll be ready for
Arryl, still burning over the half-elf's murder, started
forward. Nelk darted between the two.
"He'll be ready. I will see to him."
"You?" Sylverlin scowled. "You're mistaken, friend
Nelk. This one is definitely mine."
"It is you who are mistaken, friend Sylverlin."
Sylverlin glanced at the wary knight. "A pity," he said,
shrugging. "I'd hoped that our blades might cross. Now, no
such luck. You'll be dead before I get the chance."
Arryl would have replied, but Nelk was quicker. He
brought the mace around and pushed the swordmaster's
blade away. "Never wish ill, Sylverlin. The gods have a
habit of returning such wishes to their makers."
The serpentine fighter laughed, bowed mockingly to
the knight, and left without another word. Arryl was barely
able to restrain himself from charging after.
"He has marked you for his own sport. This changes
everything," Nelk muttered.
Tremaine studied the elf's features. A sense of
foreboding washed over him as he noted his companion's
dark expression. "What do you mean?"
"Sylverlin has never really cared about those I choose
to fight. But you, Knight, are something special to him. He
hates your kind and always has. He murdered the last
knight quickly enough. Some say he is one of your cast-
offs. Who knows? The only man he wants to fight more
than you is me and that is forbidden to him. Sylverlin never
argues with Brother Gurim."
Arryl stared. "I am to fight you in the arena?"
"You MUST fight me, human!" Nelk paused, then
quickly whispered, "I could not save the half-elf, but I
might be able to save YOU, Knight of Solamnia!"
At first, Arryl thought his ears had betrayed him.
Nelk gave him a barely perceptible nod. "I can save
you from the arena, Arryl Tremaine, just as I have saved
others. You won't be the first."
Tremaine had already had enough treachery. He pulled
away from the elf. "I will not fall prey to any more traps set
by Brother Gurim! Give me to Sylverlin, who does not
pretend to be other than he is! He still owes for Fen
"This is not a trap! I have saved others and, if it had been
in my power, I would have saved even the half-breed!
Listen, for I doubt we will have long to talk! There is a way
for you to escape the arena and Istar, but to succeed you
must put total faith in me!"
"Why should I?" Arryl scoffed.
Nelk dropped his mace, reached out, and grabbed the
knight's sword by the blade's sharp edge.
"Are you mad?" Arryl snatched the weapon back, but
blood was already streaming from the wound in the elf's
"Watch," Nelk commanded. His eyes closed and he
whispered something. Arryl felt a tingle in the air.
The elf's wound began to HEAL! First slowly, then
with ever-increasing speed, the deep cut closed and sealed
itself. A scab formed along the wound, but it only remained
a moment. In the matter of a breath, a thin scar was all that
was visible of the cut, yet Nelk was not finished. Even the
scar dwindled away, ever shrinking until the only evidence
of the self-inflicted injury was the blood that had stained
the elf's hand.
Nelk wiped his palm on the sleeve of his shirt. "You're
a cleric of Mishakal!" Arryl gasped.
"I serve the goddess."
"But ... your maimed arm ..."
"I chose not to heal myself in order to hide the fact that
the goddess still favors those who keep the true faith. Have
Brother Gurim perform the same miracle and see if he can
heal himself. You will find that the inquisitor seems to be
lacking somewhat in his faith, or perhaps his god lacks
faith in him." The elf eyed his companion. "Will you listen
to me now? Will you believe in me?"
Tremaine lowered his sword blade. "If I thought my
sentence just, I would still ignore you, but there is no
justice in Istar." He shook his head. "And little faith, other
than yours. What must I do?"
Nelk nodded his approval. "Sylverlin is eager to match
blades with you, but I have been granted the right to face
you in the arena. When open combat begins, we must be
certain that Sylverlin does not come between us. The battle
must be my mace against your blade." Nelk shook his head.
"Always before I have trusted my skill, never mentioned
my plans to those I rescued for fear they would weaken and
betray us both! This situation with Sylverlin, though, and
your own worthy abilities, have made this change
necessary. I find I must trust YOU, Knight!"
"What about Sylverlin? He cannot be allowed to go
unpunished for what he has done!"
"Leave the swordmaster to me. The time is fast
approaching when he and I will clash. He might call me
friend, but there is no love between us. We are marking the
day. You might wish his death now, Knight, but rest
assured I have prior and greater reasons than you. What
concerns us now is making certain that it is we two alone
who face each other during the Games. No one else must be
allowed to come between us."
Arryl was still not pleased about leaving Sylverlin to
the elf, but Nelk WAS a cleric - a true cleric. "I will abide
by your decision, but tell me, why do you risk yourself
here? Why do you do it?"
The elf considered his answer well before giving it to
the knight. "Because there is a balance to maintain ... and
Istar threatens to tip it too far the wrong way."
"Very well, then. Tell me now your plan. What
happens when we come to blows?"
Nelk tapped Arryl's chest with the tip of his mace.
'Then, while the crowd and Brother Gurim watch, I will kill
you, Sir Knight."
So EAGER FOR BLOOD!
The day of the Games came too soon, yet not soon
enough. Arryl stood in the line of anxious gladiators, his
eyes scanning the packed stadium. Istar seemed especially
eager to watch the blood flow this day. Tremaine had heard
rumors that HE was the attraction. It had been rumored that
a Knight of Solamnia was among the fight ers. Despite the
fact that his armor was still a prize of the city guard, he had
no doubt that most of the crowd had picked him out
Across from him stood Nelk ... and Sylverlin.
The Kingpriest's box was filled, but the holy monarch
himself was absent as usual. Today the box played host to a
group of men garbed in identical silver-and-white robes. In
the center sat the only one wearing gloves, Brother Gurim.
Arryl could not clearly make out his features, but he
guessed the senior inquisitor had a smile on his face. For
Gurim, all was right in the world. This day was to mark yet
Arryl wished he could drag the false cleric down to the
field and tell him the truth.
The tournament had been played, the exhibitions had
finished. All that remained was the final mass combat. A
free fight, in which a man could only hope that he survived
the time limit. Arryl heard some of the prisoners plotting
desperately to keep in the back, away from the rest of the
combatants. Their plans collapsed when Arack informed
them that hesitation would not save any man here. The
archers on the walks had orders to shoot any gladiator who
shied from battle. The prisoners had to fight. As long as
they did, they had a chance. Arack emphasized the last, and
the prisoners looked more hopeful.
Arryl could have told them the truth. They were
doomed. Most were unskilled fighters, even barring the
days of training. They had learned enough to hack and
slash, but the skilled fighters were few and far between.
The masters of the Games did not want their hand-picked
Arryl knew the outcome, having been forewarned by
Nelk. The skilled fighters had already been picked out by
the veteran gladiators. Two, even three, would converge on
the newcomers while the rest took on the other prisoners. It
might look as if the sides were even, but the experience and
brutal skill of the gladiators would almost immediately turn
the tide in their favor. The crowds would cheer because
most of their favorites would win and no one would pay
any mind to the dead, who were convicted criminals,
Sylverlin was grinning with anticipation. Nelk was
eyeing Tremaine with an almost indifferent expression. He
had armed himself with a sinister-looking ball-and-chain
mace that gave him almost half again the reach of his other
weapon. Tremaine was somewhat startled by the change,
and tried not to think of what an accidental blow might do
to him. His only protection lay in a rusting shield, his
sword, and his skill.
The horns sounded their death knell. The gladiators
charged their chosen opponents. They all avoided the
knight, knowing he was reserved for Nelk.
All except Sylverlin. He ran up behind Nelk. Tremaine
shouted a warning.
The elf turned. Sylverlin shot past him, sword ready.
"You are mine, Knight!" Sylverlin hissed.
Tremaine moved to meet him.
Nelk ran up alongside his friend as if he now planned
to join Sylverlin in the duel against Arryl. The spiked ball
of the elf's mace swung back and forth, a wicked-looking
pendulum. It grazed Sylverlin's leg.
The swordmaster howled in pain and collapsed into a
writhing heap on the now-bloody surface of the field.
"The goddess has blessed it," said Nelk, smiling at
Arryl. Nelk was on him, mace cutting a deadly arc. The
one-armed elf moved with far more speed than the
Solamnian was expecting, struck at him with lethal skill.
Had he not trusted Nelk, Arryl would have suspected that
the elf was indeed trying to kill him!
Arryl brought up his sword and jabbed, keeping the
other at bay, as they had planned. Nelk nodded and, his
back to the crowd, he winked at Arryl. The two circled one
another, feinting strikes, but, as far as onlookers were
concerned, they were too expert to fall prey to such tricks.
The crowd cheered.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, Sylverlin appeared. Sword
raised, he headed for Nelk, prepared to stab the elf in the
Arryl had no time to shout a warning. Nelk could not
have heard him if he had. The knight thrust forward. Nelk
reacted to the attack by stepping aside, still unaware of the
true danger. Sylverlin's blow caught the elf's shoulder, but
Nelk's movement left the human gladiator open to
The knight's blade sank to the hilt in Sylverlin's
stomach. Arryl jerked his sword free. Sylverlin slid off the
blade to the ground.
Arryl heard a rattling sound behind him. Instinctively,
he started to turn, and forced himself to stand still. This was
A thick chain wrapped around his throat. Arryl
pretended to struggle to free himself, then suddenly
realized Nelk wasn't pretending to kill him!
The crowd had hushed, breathless with excitement.
"Sylverlin was mine!" Nelk shouted loudly, and
wrenched the choking chain tighter.
Once more, Arryl thought, my beliefs have been
betrayed ... and this time it will be fatal.
He tried to lift his sword to strike the elf, but he lacked
the strength. The blade slipped from his nerveless fingers.
He tried to speak, to curse Nelk, to plead. All that escaped
his lips was a pathetic gasp.
The dying knight saw the silver-and-white figure of
the senior inquisitor rise to his feet in anticipation.
The chain crushed Arryl's windpipe. Bone crunched;
the pain was horrifying. He fought to breathe, but he was
choking on his own blood. He staggered and would have
fallen, but the cruel chain held him upright. He saw the
stands and then the sky, and then he was falling. Fire burst
in his eyes, his head, his lungs. When the flames died,
"Trust in me," a voice whispered ... and laughed.
When Arryl woke, he realized two things.
The first thing was that, despite the knowledge that he
had died, he was not dead.
The second was that he was lying on his back in a field
that must be far from the arena, for he could neither hear
the crowds nor see the high walls.
Dazed and confused, his hand instinctively reaching for
his throat, Arryl sat up. He was well, whole, no trace of
injury. Just like the cut on the elf's hand ...
Arryl looked around, saw Nelk seated astride a tall
black horse. In his hands, he held the reins of Arryl's own
horse. Armor - his grandfather's suit of armor, packed
neatly and strapped to a packhorse - glinted in the sunlight.
"The terror of death must have been worse for you than
for most of the others I've brought back. I wondered if you
were ever going to wake up."
Brought back! The knight stood. He glowered at the
amused elf. "What do you mean, brought back? You killed
"Yes. Then I brought you back to life. That is within
my powers as a true cleric."
"You are NOT a cleric of Mishakal!" The knight
recalled his last thoughts. "You told me you were a cleric
of the goddess!"
"Ah," said Nelk cunningly. "You never asked WHICH
Arryl reached for his sword and immediately
discovered that it was not at his side.
Nelk held up the scabbard and weapon. "YOU chose to
make me a follower of the gods of good, not me. I am not a
cleric of Mishakal, true. I am a servant of Kinthalas, whom
you term Sargonnas."
SARGONNAS, consort to the Dark Lady, Takhisis,
Queen of Darkness.
"Why did you bring me back?" Tremaine demanded
suspiciously. "Why? For what purpose?"
Nelk considered the matter. "What I said to you in the
arena holds true, Knight. There IS a balance to maintain,
though I must admit the Dark Lady would like to see it shift
in her favor. I do what I can to help those I think will aid
the cause. Those I rescue are beholden, however little they
may realize, to my own patron."
"You expect such thanks from me?" Arryl asked
"I expect nothing. I find it amusing to think that a
Knight of Solamnia, imprisoned by the Order of Paladine,
owes his life to a servant of his god's eternal foe."
Tremaine could not deny what the elf said, but he was
determined that neither Sargonnas nor Takhisis would ever
own the knight's soul. He would die first... again. "I am not
your slave, dark elf! Give me my sword and we will fight.
Fairly, this time."
"I will return your sword, Sir Knight, and the rest of
your belongings, which took some doing to procure. As for
a battle, that may yet be what the future holds for us, but
not now. I will not fight you. And I do not think you will
strike me." Nelk tossed the sword to the knight.
Tremaine caught the sheathed blade, but did not draw
"If it will ease your conscience, I have no hold over
you. You may continue your way, free once more, but with
perhap's a little more understanding of the world." Nelk
smiled. "You have my word."
"What happens now? Where am I?" Arryl asked
gruffly. His greatest desire at the moment was to return to
the master keep of the knighthood and reorient his own
beliefs. The world that once had been black and white had
become too complex, too gray.
"We are a half-day's ride northwest of Istar, a safe
place, though we should not stay too long. You need to be
on your way, and I have to return - "
"You are RETURNING to Istar? To the Games?"
"Of course. I was on leave of absence to take Sylverlin's
body to his kin," Nelk said grimly. "His kin were jackals.
They enjoyed what was left. You did me that favor, Knight.
Sylverlin had discovered my secret and threatened to reveal
me. Sylverlin is dead and my secret is safe ... for a time.
Only you know that I am a cleric, and I doubt you would be
willing to inform Brother Gurim, would you?"
Tremaine did not reply.
Nelk nodded. "I thought not. It may be that Brother
Gurim or Arack or some other will discover that I have
been saving lives, but, until then, I will continue to serve
the goddess. There will be more like you. The inquisitors
are very busy men." The elf smiled, looking much like
Sylverlin at that moment. "If you are strong enough to ride,
I recommend you do. Best not to take chances." He tossed
the reins of both Arryl's steed and the pack animal to the
confused and bewildered knight.
"I refuse to thank you."
"I do what I must." Nelk waited until Tremaine had
mounted before adding, "If you could forego wearing your
armor until you are farther from Istar, I would recommend
"I ... understand."
Nelk took a tighter hold of the reins in his hand. "May
the blessings of Kinthalas and Chislev be upon you, Arryl
The Solamnian glanced up at the mention of the latter
name. Chislev was a neutral goddess who had a fondness
for the elven race. She was the goddess of nature, of life in
Nelk met his gaze. "Yes, I will not deny that my own
blood, however darkened, might also be responsible for my
desire to maintain the balance of life."
Turning his horse, the cleric started to depart. Arryl,
though, felt he needed something solid to cling to,
something to explain the inexplicable.
"Nelk, wait. I need to know ... Fen told me ... Nelk is
not your true name, is it?"
"No, Sir Knight." Bitterness crept into the elf's voice.
He halted his steed. "It was given to me when I was cast
out. There is no direct translation from my tongue, but it
essentially means 'of no faith, lacking in belief.' To my
people, that name was the greatest punishment they could
lay upon me."
"How could they - "
"By their beliefs, I was ever a betrayer of the way.
Even though I still followed the gods, I did not follow them
in the manner elves deemed proper. In that, my people are
more like Istar's clerics than they want to admit." The elf
raised his good hand in farewell ... and blessing. "May your
own beliefs stay strong, Knight of the Sword. But may they
not blind you to truth."
Arryl Tremaine remained where he was until the elf
had vanished over a nearby hill. The knight was still at a
loss concerning the elf, who was and was not everything
Arryl would have expected of a worshiper of the Queen of
To Tremaine's surprise, he found that despite the
corruption and insanity that he had seen in the holy city, his
faith WAS still strong ... and it was the dark elf's doing.
Arryl didn't understand exactly how, yet. Perhaps he never
would. But Nelk had been right. From now on, Arryl would
champion his faith and help fight injustice - wherever he
"May Paladine watch over YOU as well, Nelk," he
called as he mounted his own steed. "You are right.
Someday, we WILL meet again."
For he intended, someday, to return to Istar, holy Istar.
Moran moved a swordsman forward, feinting the game
piece sideways to prevent ambush. "Your mercenary is
Rakiel's mouth quirked. "For the first time in our
lives." He stretched a slender, thinly muscled arm out and
withdrew the mercenary down an alley.
They were playing Draconniel, said to have been
invented by Huma himself to keep knights ready for war.
The game grid was laid over a map of Xak Tsaroth, and the
dragon side was moving small raiding parties through the
back streets, down the storm drains, and inside market
carts. Moran, accustomed to the open play favored by
Solamnic Knights, was intrigued by Rakiel's underhanded
style - and a little appalled.
He brought a second swordsman forward. "I'm
preparing a sortie down Grimm Street."
"Your frankness does you credit." Rakiel withdrew a
previously concealed bowman from Grimm Street.
"Perhaps it's just as well that you honor-bound knights no
longer fight wars."
Once the cleric's caustic remark would have cut through
Moran. A long, thin man, Moran awakened morning after
morning in a lonely, wide bed, knowing that he had spent
his life training for a war he would never fight: a grand and
glorious war on dragonback, a war such as the great Huma
had fought. No more. The dragons were driven away. Istar
was bringing "peace" to the world. He had thrown himself
into drilling squire novices with a ferocity that had earned
him the name "Mad Moran."
Now in his fifties, "Mad Moran" was a legend,
parodied for his sternness, revered for his teaching. He
seldom smiled. He never laughed.
A door, opening far below, distracted Rakiel from the
game. He peered out the tower window. "Someone's
coming in. More novices?" He said the word with distaste.
Istar was beginning to resent the Solamnic Knights' claims
to piety, as well as, perhaps, their wealth.
Moran fingered his moustache thoughtfully. "The boys
are not due till tomorrow, and I've interviewed them all
and read their references." He considered who the late
caller might be. "The meat and fruit and other supplies
were delivered yesterday, and the cook quit this morning."
All sensible cooks quit before drill season. "Probably
someone volunteering for knighthood," he decided.
Rakiel snorted. "You're dreaming. These days the
volunteers go to the clerics. The knights only get
disinherited second sons and," he added with a hint of a
sneer, "the needy poor, the people who think that the
knights' treasury will open up to them when they sign on."
Moran winced. Rakiel was a "guest," here in the
Manor of the Measure in Xak Tsaroth to prepare a report
for the clerics on knighthood and training methods - or so
he claimed. Actually, he never missed an opportunity to
discredit the knights, and he seemed to take an uncommon
interest in the treasury.
"These novices aren't like that," Moran said stiffly.
"Not after gold, I grant you, but what about that first
one, Saliak? Power hungry, if anyone ever was."
"His father's a knight," Moran said. "His son will learn to
lead." In fact, the father was impoverished and bitter, and
that had affected Saliak, the son. Moran had found Saliak
arrogant, self-centered, and - Moran suspected - a trace
cruel. Without the discipline of the knights, the boy's
obvious talent and courage would never come to anything.
"So Saliak will learn to lead," Rakiel said dubiously.
"Well, 'lead us not into evil,' as has been said. And what
about Steyan? A tall and clumsy oaf of a boy."
Moran waved that aside. "I'm tall. I was clumsy. He's
quiet and a little sensitive. He'll do just fine."
Steyan had won Moran's heart when, instead of asking
first at the interview about swords or armor, the boy had
blurted out, "Is it hard seeing friends die? I'd want to save
Moran had said simply, "Sometimes you can't."
The tall boy had scratched his head and muttered,
"That's hard." And he'd still agreed to learn to be a knight,
as his father and mother wanted. He was the fourth son and,
obviously, would inherit nothing. He would have to make
his own way in the world.
Moran shook himself back to the present. "What do
you think about Janeel and Dein? Their parents are fairly
well off. Their pedigrees are fairly established."
Rakiel mimicked, "Their minds are fairly easily led.
See if they amount to anything." He folded his arms. "At
least they stand a better chance than the fat one. He won't
last a day."
"The fat one," Moran said, annoyed, "has a name, too."
But he couldn't remember it. The fat one, at the interview,
had the habit of ducking his head and letting his older
brother do all the talking - and the brother had never
mentioned the other boy by name. "He'll find self-respect
"Only if the others let him look through the blubber."
Rakiel laughed at his little joke. "And these are the 'flowers
of youth' that come to the knights. Once it was probably
different, I'm sure, but how can you care about these ...
these ... dregs? They're hardly worth the money spent on
them. Do you really think you can make knights of them?"
Before Moran could answer, he cocked an ear to the
sound of footsteps far below. "I was right. A volunteer."
Rakiel said acidly, "Aren't you going to rush down to
"If he really wants to be a knight," Moran said, "he'll
climb all the way. You don't think my rooms are in the
tower just to keep me above the heat and the dust, do you?"
Mad Moran was dropping into character. "Training begins
on the walk up and never stops." He added with
satisfaction, "Put that in your report."
The footsteps stopped outside the door and loud
knocking began immediately. No hesitation, Moran noted
to himself. Good. He waited at the door, putting on the
Mask, the fierce, moustache-bristling, confidence-draining
facial expression that the novices came to know and dread.
Moran always thought of the Mask as hanging over the
door, where he could grab it and "put it on" over his real
face before striding down to the lower hall for lecture and
The knocking stopped. There was an odd scraping
sound, then nothing. Moran, sword in hand, threw open the
door, swung the blade across at chest height on a young
The sword arced at eye level past the boy in the
doorway, who didn't even blink.
A child, Moran thought disappointedly. Then he saw
the eyes: clear and innocent, but thoughtful, set in a face
that had its first (premature?) wrinkles. The boy's hair fell
over his forehead in a tangle, all but blocking his vision.
Moran studied him as a warrior studies a new
opponent. The boy wore a baggy jerkin and faded breeches.
He held a battered duffel in one hand and a stray piece of
brass that Moran thought he recognized in the other.
The boy stared interestedly at the knight. Moran had a
hawk nose and bristling white moustache; he looked fierce
and remote except on the rare occasions when he smiled.
"You could have killed me," the boy said.
No fear, Moran thought. None at all. "I may yet. What
have you come for?"
Rakiel half-rose at the daunting boom of the Voice,
companion to the Mask.
The boy said simply, "I want to become a Knight of
Rakiel chuckled aloud. The cleric's laugh ended
abruptly when Moran, with a single wrist flick, sent the
sword flying backward to THUNK, quivering, in the wall
Moran resisted the temptation to see where the sword
had landed. Always assume, Moran's own mentor, Tali-sin,
had said, that it landed well if you still have work in front
of you. Part of Moran was pleased that his skill had
impressed Rakiel as much as it had the boy.
"Tarli. Son of" - he hesitated and said finally - "of
Loraine of Gravesend Street. She sewed funeral clothes."
The Mask nearly cracked for the first time in Moran's
career. "Loraine of Gravesend. A dark-skinned woman,
one-half my height, slender, red hair?"
Tarli shook his head. "Gray and red when they buried
her. It's been a year."
Moran felt as if the Mask were looking at him;
Moran's own sternness was piercing him. "We met. She
did work for ... a ... friend of mine." He added gruffly,
"You're holding my door knocker."
"So I am." Tarli turned it over in his hand, as if startled
to see it. He passed it to the knight. "It came off."
The boy peered beneath Moran's arm and stared at the
bound books that stood on the simple shelf above the bed.
"THE BRIGHTBLADE TACTICS? Bedal Brightblade?"
Tarli ducked around the knight, entered without being
invited. He reached past the startled cleric, pulled the
book out. "Handwritten." He turned to a careful
drawing of an intricate parry-and-thrust pattern, trying
to follow it through with his left hand. "Did you write
"I did." Moran tried not to sound proud. It had
taken years of reading, and more years of testing
technique, until he was sure of how the legendary Bedal
Brightblade had fought. "There are twelve copies of
that book, one for each trainer of squires plus the
He had unintentionally dropped the Voice and
Mask, and immediately brought them back.
"Swordplay is nothing. If you want to be a knight, there
is the Oath and there is the Measure, and they are all.
The Oath is four words, the Measure thirty-seven three-
hundred-page volumes. Which is more important?"
"The Measure," Tarli said firmly, then added, just
as firmly, "unless it's the Oath."
Moran pointed a single finger at the boy. "EST
SULARUS OTH MITHAS. My honor is my life."
Tarli looked at him blankly. "Isn't everybody's?"
Moran stared at him a long time to be sure he
wasn't joking. Rakiel regarded them both with
amusement, which he didn't bother to hide.
"Put your gear in the barracks downstairs, Tarli,"
Moran said. "Classes begin tomorrow."
"Yes." Tarli added quickly, "Sire." He bowed,
bumping the writing desk and bouncing the Draconniel
pieces. As he headed toward the door, he gave Rakiel a
nasty whack with the duffel.
Tarli," Moran began.
The boy whirled, knocking over a candlestick. In
picking up the candlestick, he shattered the water jug
on the dresser.
Moran regarded him gravely. "The book."
"Oh. Right." Tarli handed it over. "I'd like to read
They could hear his dragged duffel bump behind
him all the way down the stairs.
Rakiel stared at Moran in amazement and disgust.
"Surely you're not admitting him?"
"He admitted himself."
Rakiel laughed, a nasty noise. "Are the knights as
desperate as all that?"
Moran was looking down the stairs. "The knights
choose first for honor, and second for noble family." It
hadn't always been true.
"But you don't even know his father." The cleric's lip
curled. "HE may not even know his father."
"Then I'll judge the boy and not his family."
Rakiel sniffed. "It's insupportable. He's not only
common, he's probably a bastard."
"Not nearly as much as a cleric I could name," Moran
muttered, well beneath his breath.
Rakiel was ranting on. "And so short. He hardly looks
human. Do you suppose he's ..."
Moran, staring out the window, said absently, "Loraine
was very short."
IT WAS THE HOTTEST SUMMER ANYONE COULD
REMEMBER. ALL THE TRAVELERS WHO HAD TARPS
PUT THEM UP AND WERE LYING UNDER THEM. THE
OTHERS TRUDGED AS FAR AS THE CITY WALLS AND
LAY IN THE NARROW MIDDAY SHADOWS.
ONLY MORAN RODE ON, A THIN, TIRED KNIGHT
PULLING A CART THAT HELD A SWORD, A SHIELD,
AND A CORPSE. THE BODY HAD BEEN REVERENTLY
WRAPPED IN A BLANKET. MORAN HAD KEPT IT
COOL WITH WATER FROM HIS PRECIOUS TRAVEL
RATION. HE PASSED THE OBELISK AT THE EDGE OF
TOWN, GLANCED AT THE FINAL LINE ON IT:
THE GODS REWARD US IN THE GRACE OF OUR HOME
HE TURNED AWAY.
MORAN RODE PAST THE NEARLY COMPLETED
TEMPLE OF MISHAKAL. SEVERAL WANDERERS
GAWKED AT IT, ALL OF THEM MORE IMPRESSED
WITH THE STONEWORK THAN A SINGLE DUSTY
KNIGHT OF SOLAMNIA.
HE KNOCKED AT A SHABBY WOODEN BUILDING.
ITS STONE REAR WALL WAS A SIDE WALL OF THE
ENTRANCE GATE FOR THE STAIRCASE CALLED "THE
PATHS OF THE DEAD." A YOUNG GIRL ANSWERED.
"I'M LOOKING FOR ALWYN THE GRAVER," SAID
"HE'S BOUGHT INTO HIS OWN WARES," THE GIRL
SAID SIMPLY. "THE BUSINESS IS MINE NOW. I'M
MORAN LOOKED AT HER AND THOUGHT AT
FIRST, "NOTHING BUT A CHILD." HE LOOKED AT
HER EYES AND QUICKLY REALIZED THAT SHE WAS A
WOMAN - JUST GROWN SHORTER THAN MOST.
LORAINE COULDN'T SEE OVER THE CART SIDES.
SHE CLIMBED ONE OF THE WHEELS, STARED IN,
THEN GASPED AT THE SIGHT OF THE SWORD AND
SHIELD. "WHO IS IT?" SHE WAS LIKE A CHILD AT A
PUPPET SHOW, WAITING FOR THE NEXT SURPRISE.
HER SHINING RED HAIR SPILLED OVER HER
SHOULDERS AS SHE LEANED IN, WATCHING MORAN
UNWRAP THE BODY: TALISIN, HIS BLACK
MOUSTACHE EVEN BLACKER AGAINST HIS ICE-
WHITE SKIN. THE BACK OF HIS HELM WAS SPLIT IN
MORAN SAID DULLY, "THE GREATEST
SWORDSMAN SINCE BRIGHTBLADE, KILLED BY A
HE TURNED ON HER, SHAMED BY THE STING OF
TEARS IN HIS EYES. "MEND THE ROBE, PATCH THE
CAPE, GIVE HIM NEW LEGGINGS - EVERYTHING.
HE'LL BE ENTOMBED WITH HIS FAMILY; HE'S
NOBLE, AND A HERO, AND THE BEST - " MORAN
COULDN'T TALK ANYMORE.
LORAINE, SURPRISINGLY STRONG, ROLLED THE
CART INSIDE BY HERSELF. SHE QUICKLY
MEASURED THE BODY AND FIGURED CLOTH AND
LABOR COSTS WHILE MORAN STOOD BY, EMPTY
"COME BACK IN TWO DAYS," SHE SAID.
AS HE TURNED TO GO, SHE LAID HER HAND ON
HIS ARM. "AND COME BACK OFTEN AFTER THAT."
HE NOTICED HOW CLEAR HER EYES WERE, HOW
SOFT HER VOICE COULD BE. "YOU'LL NEED TO
TALK, AND I - " SHE LOOKED SUDDENLY
EMBARRASSED AND STRAIGHTENED HER GOWN,
PATTED HER HAIR OVER HER EARS. "YOU'RE LIKE
NO ONE I'VE MET. I LOVE STRANGE PLACES AND
AS HE LEFT, HE HEARD HER SINGING, IN A
CLEAR, YOUNG VOICE, " 'RETURN HIS SOUL TO
HUMA'S BREAST ...' " MORAN HAD SUNG THE SONG
HIMSELF, IN A VOICE CRACKED WITH GRIEF, TWO
TO HIS SURPRISE, HE CAME BACK TO SEE HER
WITHIN A WEEK AFTER THE FUNERAL.
On the front wall of the classroom hung a tapestry (on
loan from the permanent gallery of the city fathers)
picturing knights riding silver and gold dragons, aiming
lances at red dragons and riders. The dragons, woven in
metal thread, glittered disturbingly in the grim gray hall.
The novices were excited. Two of them were leaping
benches in mock swordplay, and almost all of the rest were
ringed around the term's first fight: two boys, rolling on the
Moran strode into the room, carrying two breastplates.
The boys froze in place, then drifted to seats. Tarli's lower
lip was bleeding. Another novice - Saliak, Moran noted -
had bloody knuckles.
Oh-ho, Moran thought. It's starting already. He
walked in silence to the flat table below the tapestry and
turned to face the novices, who were now sitting quietly on
the low wooden benches. Only Tarli, sitting apart from the
others, was too short for his feet to touch the floor.
Two other novices sat apart: the ungainly tall boy, and
the fat one. Moran, from long experience, knew that the
three would be targets in the barracks.
He slammed one of the breastplates on the table. It
clanged loudly. All the boys jumped.
"This," he said coldly, "is the armor of a Knight of the
Sword. The hole you see was made in combat, by a lance."
This," he said, slamming the second breastplate on the
table, "was worn in the last week of drill by a novice,
training to become a squire. The hole was made in practice,
by a lance.
"The holes are exactly alike. So were the wounds -
In the silence that followed, a number of boys glanced
at each other nervously.
"Can a lance really go through armor like that?" Tarli
asked with interest.
Silently, Moran turned the breastplates around,
showing the small exit holes the lance points had made.
One of the novices gagged.
Moran looked and found him. "Janeel. You have
something to say?"
The boy coughed, cleared his throat. "Sir, if it would
help the training, my father knows a true healer."
Moran said flatly, "While you are training there will be
no plate armor and no healers."
He let that sink in. "The greatest favor that I can do the
Knights of Solamnia is to kill any of you who can't defend
yourselves, before you fail in the field, where other knights
are depending on you. When a novice dies, I offer thanks to
Paladine that it happened here and not later. That is why" -
he lowered his voice slightly - "I give you every chance to
die that I can manufacture, before you are even squires."
Moran moved to the door at the back of the room. "I'll
be back. If any of you want to leave, do it now." He eyed
Saliak, who already had the look of a leader. "Don't shame
anyone into staying. That's a little like murder."
He walked out and went to reinspect the drill
A short time later he walked back in and went straight
to the front. When he turned around, he saw a group of
frightened but determined novices, who had just learned
that honor could be fatal but were willing to be honorable.
Where Tarli had been, he saw an empty space.
He was relieved, both for the boy and for himself, but
he also felt a sudden, sharp disappointment that only the
Mask kept him from showing.
"Those of you who remain," he said, "may die for it.
Some in training, some in service, and some in combat -
yes, even in these times." The pain of this next story was
duller after all these years. "The knight I first squired for
was killed in combat. I have vowed, since then, to prepare
each novice well for an honorable life and a fitting death."
They stared at him, and he let it sink in. For the first
time, these boys were getting some sense of what their
deaths might look like. They were also feeling, for the first
time in their lives, grown-up courage.
He looked at the faces in front of him and felt relieved
that Tarli had left; the boy had an innocence that would be
destroyed by training -
A terrible growl came from directly underneath Saliak,
who let out a startled, high-pitched shriek, leapt straight up,
and scrambled over the second and third row of benches to
find the door. Most of the others jumped, but settled back
Saliak made it almost to the door before he turned to
see. Smiling innocently, Tarli crawled out from under the
front bench. He took a seat in Saliak's place.
Saliak slunk back and sat next to Tarli.
Tarli, bright eyed and grinning, said to Moran,
"Excuse me, Sire."
The Mask stayed in place, not acknowledging what
had happened, but Moran didn't miss the stony glares of the
embarrassed novices, or the utter hatred on the face of the
Tarli, Tarli, Moran thought with a surprising rush of
exasperated fondness, I couldn't have charted a rougher
path for you than you just mapped out for yourself.
When class was over, Rakiel stepped out from behind
the dragon-covered tapestry. He'd been observing. "What
do you think of them?" he asked.
"The usual," Moran answered shortly. "Too much
ambition, too much energy, not enough thought."
Rakiel chuckled. "And can you make them think?"
"Fear can." Moran looked out the window, saw Saliak
take an ill-advised swipe at the back of Tarli's head. Tarli
heard it coming - how, Moran couldn't imagine - and
ducked the blow. Saliak stumbled. Tarli, stepping aside, let
him fall. Saliak, without getting up, threw a well-aimed
stone, which struck Tarli in the shoulder.
Moran turned from the window. "This afternoon we
start with the first lance drill. That would scare anyone.
They'll think about what they're doing, from then on."
"Even that Tarli?" Rakiel shook his head. "Face it, he's
not fit to be here. He's a head shorter than any of them, and
he's making enemies already." He grimaced with distaste.
"Moreover, he plays jokes like a kender. Frankly, I don't
think some paltry lance drill will make him think."
" 'Some paltry drill'? Perhaps you should try it, then."
Rakiel glanced at the tapestry; his eyes lingered on the
lance points. "Some other time. Draconniel tonight?"
Moran glanced pointedly at the niche behind the
tapestry. "I'll be observing the boys tonight. Over dinner? It
would be my pleasure." And, oddly, it was a pleasure. At
least Rakiel was someone to talk to.
The oddity didn't escape Rakiel. " 'Your pleasure'?
Really, Moran, you must be starved for company."
HE WAS LONELY FOR THE FIRST TIME IN HIS
LIFE. HE SPENT MOST OF THE SUMMER WITH HER.
FIRST HE TOLD HER ABOUT PLACES HE'D
VISITED, THEN HE TALKED ABOUT TALISIN AND
HOW IT HAD HURT TO SEE HIM DIE IN SOME MINOR
SKIRMISH WITH A BUNCH OF GOBLINS.
FINALLY HE TOLD HER HIS DEEPEST SECRET:
THAT HE WAS NO LONGER SURE WHAT BEING A
KNIGHT MEANT, AND THAT HE WONDERED
WHETHER OR NOT, BY DOUBTING THE MEASURE,
HE HAD VIOLATED THE OATH.
LORAINE LAUGHED, AS SHE OFTEN DID, AND
TOLD HIM HE WAS TOO SERIOUS. HE TRIED TO
RUFFLE HER HAIR, AS HE OFTEN DID, AND AS
ALWAYS SHE DUCKED AWAY UNDER HIS HAND.
EVERY MORNING THAT SUMMER, MORAN WOKE
UP ANGRY. AT NIGHT, ANGER TURNED TO PASSION,
AS IT SOMETIMES DOES TO MAKE AGING MEN FEEL
YOUNG. HE LAY AWAKE FOR HOURS THE NIGHT
LORAINE, LEAPING UP, KISSED HIS NOSE (HE
CAUGHT HER, AS HE ALWAYS DID) AND SAID, "I
HOPE YOUR HONOR IS NEVER AS SOFT AS YOUR
IS IT, HE WONDERED? DO I WANT TO STAY A
KNIGHT AND LIVE FOR A WAR THAT WILL NEVER
COME, OR WOULD I RATHER GIVE MY WHOLE LIFE
THAT WAS EIGHTEEN SUMMERS AGO, SHORTLY
BEFORE TARLI WAS BORN.
In the afternoon breeze, the wooden saddle-mounts
creaked on the ropes and pulleys. The squires looked from
the mounts to the rack of shields and metal-tipped lances,
and stared uneasily at the suspicious-looking rust-brown
stains on the courtyard stones. The stones had been
scrubbed well, but the stains were too deep to come out.
Moran was proud of those stains; he'd spent much of
last week painting them on and aging them. "Right."
All heads turned. He stood in the archway, a twelve-
foot lance tucked under his arm as easily as if it were a
He saluted with the lance, missing the arch top by
inches. He flipped the lance over his right shoulder, then
his left, then spun it around twice and tucked it under his
arm, all without scraping the arch.
Tarli applauded. His clapping slowed, then stopped,
under his classmates' cold stares.
"The lance," Moran said loudly, "is the knights' weapon
of tradition. Huma consecrated one, called Huma's Grace,
to Paladine. A single knight, with a single lance, defeated
forty-two mounted enemies during the Siege of Tarsis."
He looked over the group with disdain. "Let me also
mention that your lance may - just may - keep you alive
while you are squires. Later you'll train with footmen's
lances. For now - " He pointed the lance suddenly under
Saliak's nose, then transferred the lance to his left hand and
all but stabbed Tarli. "You and you, choose lances and
Saliak flinched. Tarli, to Moran's pleasure, did not
"On the barrels?" Tarli cried in excitement. He stared
at the wooden mounts, whose reins ran through eyelets to
join the pulley ropes.
"They're not barrels, runtlet," Saliak hissed.
Tarli shrugged. "They're not horses, either. What are
they supposed to be?"
Saliak said, "Who cares," and pulled the first lance
from the rack. He snapped it up, then down, in a clumsy
salute. He was long-limbed and strong. Despite his
inexperience, he could control the lance well.
Tarli lifted his own lance upright and staggered as the
weight toppled him backward.
"It's too long," he complained. His classmates
Moran regarded him solemnly. "Grow into it."
Saliak laughed loudly.
Carrying his lance clumsily by the middle, Tarli
walked over to his mount, which was scored with lance
hits. A stubby board projected from under each side of the
saddle. He studied them. "If these were bigger, I'd say they
He turned to face Moran, his face alight. "It's supposed
to be a dragon, isn't it? You're training us to fight dragons,
like in the classroom tapestry."
Good guess, Moran thought. Once that was probably
true; now the drill was kept to honor Huma and to make
beginning squires feel clumsy and humble.
Aloud he said only, "Spotters," and passed the ropes to
the boys. "When I give the signal, raise the mounts into the
air. Riders, mount up, take reins and shields, and fasten
The two combatants straddled their mounts. Saliak sat
easily and comfortably with bent knees, the unmistakable
pose of someone who had owned and ridden horses. Tarli
could only reach the stirrups by half-standing.
They set the lances in the saddle-mounted swivels. The
greater weight of the lance was in front. Tarli kept his
weapon upright by putting nearly his full weight on the butt
end. He swung the point up clumsily.
Saliak swung his sideways, up, down, and circled it. He
smiled at Tarli. "Say good-bye."
Moran paused before signaling the start. "Yes?" he said
to Steyan. "Did you want to say something?"
Steyan, who looked as if he hadn't slept in nights,
glanced back at Saliak speculatively.
"Nothing," he mumbled finally. Several of the other
novices looked relieved.
Moran turned to the riders, dropped his raised hand.
"Now." The spotters tugged on the ropes. The mounts
swung into the air.
Tarli nearly dropped his lance when his mount jerked
upward; his spotters had pulled too hard, possibly
intentionally. He recovered, but his lance popped out of the
swivel, and he was forced to bear its full weight. The tip
dropped to where it couldn't threaten anyone except Tarli's
Early days, thought Moran. Let him make his mistakes
here, where he might survive.
On the riders' first pass, Saliak speared Tarli's shield,
knocked it to the ground. His classmates cheered.
Tarli stared down at the shield, then, brushing his hair
out of his eyes, he looked up at the exultant Saliak. Tarli's
expression was excited and confused, but unafraid.
At a tug on the reins, Saliak's spotters dragged him
backward, then launched him straight at Tarli.
Saliak swung his lance sideways. Tarli crouched
against the saddle, avoided being slashed.
By intention or by accident, Saliak sliced through
Tarli's reins. Tarli's spotters, given no signals, tugged
Tarli lurched from side to side, trying to avoid being
smashed against the courtyard walls. He glanced at Moran,
the boy's eyes asking for help or advice.
Moran watched silently.
Saliak pulled back on his reins and hung motionless,
watching Tarli's flight. Drying his palms on his legs, Saliak
grasped the lance firmly. His spotters slowly pulled him
backward, preparing for his forward arc.
Tarli glared in frustration at the lance he could barely
hold. Suddenly, he took the reins in his mouth. Holding the
lance crosswise, like a balance pole, he smashed it against
the saddle pommel. The lance broke in two.
The watchers gasped. Tarli threw down the lance point,
tied the broken reins hastily around the butt, and whirled
the stick over his head by the leather thong. The stick
whirred like a living thing. Tarli's mount swung crazily.
Saliak dove toward him.
Saliak aimed the lance straight for Tarli's unguarded
Tarli leaned away, brought the whirling lance end
down on Saliak's lance, breaking it. The pieces bounced
over Saliak's shield, struck him in the forehead.
Stunned, Saliak dropped his reins. Tarli shifted his
small body to the center of the saddle, whirled the lance
The mounts, both out of control, swung past each other.
Tarli got in four more good hits before Saliak fell off into
the arms of his spotters.
Tarli slid off his mount easily, catching the footrest and
lowering himself to the ground to shorten his fall. He ran to
where Saliak sat, dazedly rubbing his eyes.
Tarli bent down and patted the bigger boy. "Don't cry."
Moran had seen one man look at another as Saliak did
at Tarli. It was in a seaside tavern in Tarsis. The ensuing
fight involved marlinespikes, and the memory made Moran
Saliak staggered to his feet, turned away. Tarli
shrugged and went to join the others, but they edged over to
Saliak. Even the tall, thin one and the fat one, possibly
fearing their classmates, shunned Tarli.
Moran looked impassively at them all. "Drill is over
until we can repair the mounts." The other boys looked
more relieved than disappointed. "Go to your barracks."
Tarli stayed behind to pick up the thonged stick he had
made. He looked up and noticed the knight standing over
"I've made an enemy," the boy said.
Moran nodded. "Only one?"
A grin flickered across Tarli's tired face. "Saliak is the
best-liked boy in Xak Tsaroth. Maybe in the world. His
father hosts his own festival in autumn. His father and
grandfather were both knights."
For just a moment, Tarli sagged. "I wonder what that
feels like, to have a father so important that everyone
respects you before you even do anything."
He left the courtyard, swinging the stick on the thong.
Moran stared after him, aching inside.
THEY WALKED THROUGH THE MARKET BY
EVENING, LORAINE TUGGING ON HIS HAND. THEY
LOOKED MORE LIKE FATHER AND DAUGHTER THAN
LOVERS. FROM TIME TO TIME, A BREEZE WOULD
SWEEP THE MARKETPLACE, AND SHE WOULD
CAREFULLY, ALMOST PRIMLY, PAT HER BEAUTIFUL
HAIR IN PLACE OVER HER EARS. MORAN LOVED
HE ENJOYED TELLING HER ABOUT THE MARKET'S
VARIOUS WARES. "THAT GADGET, THAT'S
GNOMEWARE FROM MOUNT NEVERMIND... IT'S
PROBABLY ILLEGAL TO SELL IT, AND IT'S CERTAINLY
DANGEROUS. THAT AXE, THE DWARVES USE THOSE
UP NORTH TO CUT FIREWOOD. THE BLADES'LL
LAST A DWARFS LIFETIME, LET ALONE OURS. THAT
HAMMOCK, THAT'S MADE BY NET WEAVERS FROM
Tarsis. TALISIN AND I WENT THERE ONCE, WHEN I
WAS YOUNG...." HE STOPPED.
LORAINE REACHED UP AND TOUCHED HIS ARM.
"YOU MISS HIM ALL THE TIME."
"WHEN I WAS YOUNG, HE WAS EVERYTHING TO
ME. HE TOOK ME EVERYWHERE, AND PEOPLE WERE
GOOD TO ME JUST BECAUSE I WAS WITH HIM. I
LEARNED ALL I KNOW OF THE WORLD FROM HIM."
"HE WAS LIKE A FATHER TO YOU. EVERYONE
NEEDS SOMEONE LIKE THAT." SHE REGARDED HIM
CRITICALLY. "YOU'D MAKE A WONDERFUL
HE LOOKED DOWN AT HER NERVOUSLY. "WHAT
MAKES YOU SAY THAT?"
SHE LAUGHED AND SWUNG ON HIS ARM LIKE A
SMALL GIRL. "BECAUSE IT WORRIES YOU. YOU
DON'T LIKE JOKES, DO YOU? SOMEDAY, 'SIRE,' I'LL
MAKE YOU LAUGH AGAIN."
Late that night, Moran stood brooding in the courtyard.
He had dined with Rakiel, then watched the novices from
one of the Manor of the Measure's observation niches.
Moran expected hazing and abuse, but the novices
seemed cruder than those in past years. To some extent,
Tarli was to blame. Tarli's presence, Moran corrected
himself. Novices always attacked those different from
themselves, and Tarli was so different....
As if Moran had conjured him, Tarli appeared in the
barracks window. "Good evening, Sire. By the way, I did
you a favor."
"Favor?" Moran was learning, already, to be leery of
The boy nodded. He must have been standing on tip toe
to be seen from below. "I made you more of those short
lances like I used today."
"Did you, now? Wait. Made them how?"
"From the other lances. I told you they were too long. I
broke them into thirds, mostly ... some halves for the larger
"You broke the lances?" Moran gasped. Huma, pray for
us all! "All of them?"
Tarli shifted uncomfortably. "I did my best. Besides
those on the rack, I found just the one storeroom full - the
one with the lances in colors. Was that all?"
Sweet Paladine! "The ones in colors ... You mean red,
silver, and gold? For parade dress, for the full knights?"
Moran shook his head, not wanting to believe. "Those were
Tarli waved a hand. "Don't thank me. They weren't
locked up that well. It was easy." He dropped from the
window; he must have been standing on a stool. "Good
Moran dashed, panic-stricken, to the weapons store. He
spent the evening going through the lances and confirming
that they could not be reassembled.
The treasury would cover replacing the lot, but the
paperwork would be a quest in itself.
In the end, Moran gratefully accepted Rakiel's offer to
write the requests to release funds. Rakiel's help almost, but
not quite, made up for the cleric's sour I-told-you-so smile.
"Breaking and entering should be a handy skill for the
boy's future. Tell me, can the treasury really afford to train
a bastard AND a vandal?"
"The treasury," Moran snapped, "could afford to
replace the entire manor."
"Really. Just with the funds available to you?" Rakiel
raised an eyebrow, not believing. "Well, let's hope Tarli
isn't that ambitious."
Rakiel moved a spy across the grid. "So what are they
Moran munched a breakfast roll. " 'Kender Stew.' They
claim he's not human." He moved a footman, casually
speared the spy. "They've hung his pack above his reach,
and they call him an animal and chain him up. I'm not
supposed to know."
Rakiel stared at him, shocked.
Moran buttered another roll. "Oh, and the tall one,
Steyan, is 'Mount Nevermind.' Night before last, they
sawed partway through his bed legs and, when his bed
broke, made him stay up fixing it. Maglion, the fat one, is
'Gully Gut.' They make him eat table scraps and pretend
that he's part gully dwarf and that they're doing him a
"Aren't you going to stop them?"
Moran looked surprised. "Why would I? I spend all day
drilling them to death, then chew them up and spit them
out. They're frustrated all the time. They take it out on each
other at night."
He pointed the butter knife at Rakiel. "Then, one night,
one of them will start to think about the Measure. Really
think about it. He'll be afraid, but he'll stand up to the
others and say, 'This is wrong. We shouldn't do this.' The
next day they'll all be living the Oath."
Rakiel's expression was dubious.
"It happens every year," Moran assured him.
"And in the meantime," Rakiel retorted, "you let them
torment each other, even when they pick on your own - "
"My own what?" The butter knife was still a butter
knife, but suddenly the blade glittered in the light from the
"Nothing," Rakiel said with a nervous smile. "I can't
imagine what I was thinking."
As with all unceremonious business of the knights, the
classes were taught in the language known as High
Common. Only the beginning part was in the old tongue.
Moran took a place in the first row of novices as they said,
"EST SULARUS OTH MITHAS" and sat.
Moran stood between Tarli and Saliak, who had ended
up sitting next to each other for the term. Neither boy
wanted to look cowardly by moving away from the other.
Besides, Saliak often enjoyed himself by punching and
prodding Tarli when the older boy thought Moran wasn't
Instead of moving to the table, Moran sat on the bench
and turned to Saliak after the recitation of the Oath. "Why
did you say those words?"
"You make us," Saliak answered nervously.
"Why do I make you?"
"Because the Oath is important," Tarli said.
Moran turned the full force of the Mask on the boy.
"What makes it important?"
Before Tarli could answer, Moran snapped his head
around to the second bench. "You, Maglion. What makes
the Oath important?"
Maglion turned bright red. "Wh-what it means ..."
"No." Moran stood, walked to the front, slowly and
"The Oath," he said quietly, "does not mean anything.
The Oath IS everything. Day, night, waking, sleeping,
honor is your life.
"Once you know that, you can no more do wrong than
you can rise from the dead unaided." He eyed Maglion
coldly. "Do you understand?"
"Yes." But Maglion sounded unhappy.
"You do," Moran agreed, "and maybe you don't like it"
The boy turned even redder. "Well - I mean - so, if a
knight has been insulted, let's say wronged repeatedly" - he
took great care to look away from Saliak - "then a knight
should fight the person that wronged him? A duel? For
revenge, I mean?"
"For honor. Never for revenge."
"If you're fighting him, either way, what's the
Moran leaned forward, hands on the table. "Suppose
someone tormented you for months and you challenged
him and demanded an apology. If he didn't give one, you
could fight him. But if he apologized sincerely, you'd have
no choice but to accept it and not fight. That's the
Steyan muttered under his breath.
"Is that a problem?" Moran asked quietly.
The tall boy scratched his head, looked from side to
side for help, and finally said, "It's hard."
"It is." Moran intentionally dropped the Mask and
spoke as a simple human being. "Honor, when it's easy or
you can't avoid it anyway, tastes better than food or drink.
When you don't want it, it eats at you, day and night."
Tarli, looking unusually solemn, said suddenly, "What
if one kind of honor fights with another?"
Moran did not reply immediately. Finally he said,
slowly and carefully, "Learn this, and learn it well. There is
only one kind of honor. Don't ever believe that a conflict
with the Oath or the Measure means that there's a conflict
of two honors."
He relaxed. He alone knew what a crisis of faith that
sort of question produced in a man. "There are, however,
conflicts between kinds of duty," he added.
LATE IN THE SUMMER SHE SAID PLAYFULLY,
"ARE YOU A FAMILY MAN?"
"I'VE TOLD YOU." MORAN HAD SHOWN HER HIS
FAMILY TOMB, RECITED MOST OF HIS ANCESTORS'
SHE POKED HIM IN THE RIBS TEASINGLY. "I MEAN,
WOULD YOU BE GOOD TO A CHILD, NO MATTER
WHO THE CHILD IS, OR WHAT IT'S LIKE?"
"OF COURSE I WOULD."
SHE WAVED HER ARMS, LAUGHING AT HIM, BUT
THERE WERE TEARS IN HER EYES, TOO. "I MEAN
LOOK AFTER AND TRAIN, AND SEE TO ITS NEEDS.
DO YOU PROMISE, EVEN IF THAT CHILD COMES
BETWEEN YOU AND SOMETHING ELSE YOU WANT
TO DO?" HER LAUGHTER FADED. "PLEASE - "
UNHESITATINGLY HE SAID, "I'D DO ALL THAT
AND MORE. NO MATTER WHAT I HAD TO GIVE UP."
HE PICKED HER UP EASILY AND KISSED HER
REPEATEDLY. HE PROMISED THAT HE WOULD
ALWAYS, FOR HER SAKE, "LOOK AFTER AND TRAIN"
LOOKING BACK, HE REALIZED THAT HIS
PROMISE HAD MADE HIM THE BEST TEACHER THE
KNIGHTS HAD EVER HAD.
Out in the courtyard, Moran squinted at the sun.
"Awfully bright, don't you think?" he asked casually. In
the past month, the novices had learned to dread his
He stared around in surprise. "No? Ah. You're young.
You don't notice. Don't worry. I'll take care that you don't
hurt your eyes by squinting."
He handed each boy a blindfold, told him to put it on.
With some misgivings, he gave Tarli's to Saliak. The older
boy tied it around Tarli's head, all but planting his foot in
Tarli's back to pull the knot tight. Tarli, raising his hands to
his head, made a small, startled sound.
"Something wrong?" Moran asked.
"Not really." Finally Tarli said hesitantly, "This is so
tight, it hurts."
"Think of the pain as a distraction. You may have to
fight in pain someday." He held the boy's shoulder, mostly
to keep him still. "Now you tie on Saliak's blindfold."
Saliak flinched. He hadn't thought about that. Tarli, his
skin puckering beneath his own blindfold, grinned. Saliak
didn't make a sound when Tarli tightened the blindfold, but
Moran saw the older boy grimace in pain.
Moran passed each blind and groping boy a dagger.
Maglion yelped when he pricked his finger on the point;
the rest jumped at the sound.
Moran guided each of them, stood them against one of
the walls. "And now," he said calmly, "all you have to do is
walk across the courtyard without being stabbed. Simple
enough, I'd think."
It was. If you used your ears and remembered that
defensive weapons were as important as offensive, the task
wasn't hard at all. The novices began to shuffle tentatively
across the courtyard.
It wasn't as dangerous as it sounded; most boys were
afraid to strike at all, sure that they were exposing their
hands to a blade.
Moran moved among them with a short sword,
occasionally parrying a novice's thrust, more often touching
a novice's back to remind him he was exposed.
Tarli, from either uncommon sense or recklessness -
Moran couldn't decide which - skipped halfway across the
yard before the others had gone a step. Alone in the center,
he cocked his head, listening carefully and stepping around
each of the approaching novices, who were tiptoeing and
shying away from each other, striking at nothing and
ducking from the same.
Tarli reached the opposite wall in record time and
stood listening. Moran felt a burst of pride in him.
Saliak, nearly halfway across, called softly, "Here,
kender. Little Kender Stew, come on, boy." He clucked his
tongue. "I've got something for you." He sidestepped away
from the target spot his own voice had defined.
Tarli smiled and stepped back into the courtyard. He
moved behind Saliak and matched him step for step.
Saliak called in a sweet voice: "Here, kender. Don't be
afraid, little fella. Do you want my surprise?"
Tarli licked one of his fingernails, then reached up and
pressed it against Saliak's neck.
"Depends. What is it?" Tarli asked conversationally.
Saliak froze at the feel of what he thought was the cold
point of a dagger.
Faron, hearing Tarli, shuffled toward him, dagger
Tarli stepped back from Saliak, who all but leapt away.
Faron made a quick thrust, low enough to pierce Tarli's
Tarli, his head cocked, caught the rustling of cloth. He
turned and smacked Faron's wrist with the dagger's hilt.
The other boy yelped, dropped his dagger, and Tarli
snatched it up.
Faron fell to his hands and knees, searching for his
weapon. Tarli stood beside him and called loudly, "Janeel!"
Janeel lurched toward him, fell over Faron, and lost his
dagger as well. Tarli stepped between them and shouted,
"Paladine help me! Steyan! Somebody! They've got my
A number of boys advanced on what they thought was
easy prey. After the first few went down in a heap, the rest
were inevitable victims.
Gradually the groans and mutterings of the defeated
pile of arms and legs sank to nothing. Except for Tarli, only
Saliak, feinting determinedly around the empty courtyard,
was still upright.
"Dein?" Saliak sidestepped. "Faron?"
Faron and Dein, half-buried in the pile, were cursing
each other and Tarli.
Saliak had wrapped his shirt around his arm in a
makeshift shield and used his dagger as a probe to find
someone. "Janeel?" He sounded afraid. "Anybody?"
Then he did something that impressed Moran. Saliak
ran end-to-end in the courtyard, his fingers outstretched.
When he touched the far wall, he spun around and ran the
As luck would have it, both times he missed the pile of
novices. He stood still and called out, "Is everyone all
right? You sound like you're in pain. Do you need help?"
The worst among them is becoming a knight, Moran
thought with satisfaction.
Saliak was now thoroughly frightened. "Answer me!"
He leapt to one side, as though something he couldn't see
had lunged at him. "Sire, tell me they're all right!"
Although he remained silent, Moran was moved.
Tarli tiptoed over to Saliak.
"Booga-booga-booga!" Tarli yelled and poked Saliak
in the ribs with his finger.
Saliak screamed and slashed wildly. Tarli leapt back,
laughing. The others, hearing the noise, struggled to stand,
grunting and cursing.
Moran viewed glumly the shambles of the exercise.
"All right, take off your blindfolds."
Those who could helped those who couldn't. They
gaped at what they saw: themselves, unarmed, in the center
of the courtyard, and Tarli, still blindfolded, standing
confidently over a stack of daggers.
Most of the boys were bruised, hardly any cut. Moran
supposed that the exercise might be judged a success.
Saliak tugged angrily at his blindfold. "It won't come
off." Several boys tried to untie Saliak's blindfold, but
every tug made the knot tighter. Finally Janeel asked Tarli
for a dagger.
Tarli shrugged and tossed it, lightly and easily, without
having to look, then he cut his own blindfold off, picked up
his ever-present duffel and thonged stick, and walked to
lunch alone, whirling the stick, listening to it hum.
Saliak, rubbing the marks out of his head, stared
viciously after him. "I'll kill the little animal. I'll kill him.
I'll kill him."
Moran, standing behind him, said coldly, "Saliak."
Saliak spun, reddening. "Sire."
"A word of advice: Don't attempt it blindfolded. You'll
Steyan laughed aloud. Saliak shot him a nasty look.
Moran thought sadly, He'll pay for that laugh. Rakiel
watched the boys limp out of the courtyard. "Tarli's hearing
is amazing - for a human," he commented.
"It's a common enough human talent," Moran retorted
irritably. "My own hearing - " He stopped.
"You were about to say something about your
hearing?" Rakiel prodded him.
"It's fairly good." He looked pointedly at the cleric,
daring him to continue. Rakiel smiled, shrugged, and
walked off. As soon as he was alone, Moran began sorting
and counting the daggers. The count was woefully off. A
trip to the barracks - and Tarli's duffel - replaced only a few
of them. Tarli was vague about what had happened to the
rest. A search of the manor produced no more daggers.
Moran spent the evening in more paperwork, helped by
a sarcastic and skeptical Rakiel. A late-night bout of
Draconniel, in which Moran lost seven footmen to Rakiel's
suicide squadrons, did nothing to improve the knight's
"Another expense?" Rakiel asked a week later.
Moran grunted. This one was for missing pots and
pans - Tarli had used them in the nightly barracks battle,
"Doesn't anyone ever ask you if you're overspending?"
the cleric demanded.
"No." Moran gritted his teeth, then said calmly, "Knights
trust one another. I write the forms, I sign and seal
documents, and I hold the gold and silver in the treasury
room below, not far from the novices' barracks and ... Oh,
Paladine!" It was the first time in twenty years that Moran
had sworn aloud.
Rakiel watched, amazed to see an old man run so fast.
By the time the cleric arrived, puffing and panting from
his exertions, Moran was standing in the open door, staring
at the shelves laden with sacks of gold, coins, caskets,
bowls, and chalices. There were noticeable gaps.
Moran started down the hall, then turned back around.
"Here." He tossed Rakiel the key. "Make an inventory, then
lock up as tight as a dragon's ... Tight." Rakiel nodded
dazedly. "Then sit against the door till I come back."
Moran was planning for a long search, but it was all too
short. He found the missing items standing on a stone
windowsill in the barracks.
A golden chalice, encrusted with gems, tapered into a
griffin's foot, clutching a silver semispherical base.
A marble chest was inlaid with onyx. The top handle
was in the shape of a red dragon swooping down on a
knight and horse. The dragon's eyes were rubies; the
knight's shield was a single multifaceted emerald.
A tray, inlaid with pearl, jet, and diamonds, portrayed
the tomb of Huma by moonlight. The tray was propped up
so that the diamonds, catching the sunlight, reflected onto
"Aren't they beautiful?" Tarli was sitting on the bed in
the comer. The bed legs had been removed, or maybe he
had traded beds with Steyan. He was alone in the room,
calmly whittling on the thong-stick.
Moran pointed to the articles in the window. "Are those
... Did you ..."
"Put them there? Yes. I borrowed them." Tarli, stick in
hand, walked to the window. "The room needed something
cheerful, and - can you believe it? - these things were just
sitting on shelves in the dark. I thought they'd remind some
of us of our training," he finished quietly.
"Are these the only things you ... borrowed?"
"They were all I could carry." Tarli looked around the
bare, dismal room critically. "I could go back for more - "
"No!" Moran said, then, more calmly, "Don't go into
that storeroom again. Don't take things out of it again.
Don't do anything at all in relation to the storeroom, unless
I give my written permission to do so."
"All right, Sire." Tarli looked puzzled.
"And now I'll take these back." Moran gathered up the
chalice, the chest, and the tray.
"Why? They won't do anyone any good, shut up in that
Moran said delicately, "The knights prefer that these
things be locked away, to discourage thieves."
"No!" Tarli was shocked. "Thieves? Here?" A
monstrous idea occurred to him. "Among the novices?"
"It's been known," Moran said dryly.
Rakiel had completed the inventory when Moran
returned. The cleric quickly added the last three items. "Do
you want to see the list - ?"
Moran shook his head. He sat heavily on an oaken
chest whose lock, he noted thankfully, was rusted shut and
intact. "That's the lot. Sorry to put you to the extra work."
"No trouble." Rakiel crumpled the list and stuffed it in
his robes. "I assume it was Tarli who stole them. Have you
noticed - ?"
Moran cut him off. "Go to the basement. Bring me a
handful of spikes and a hammer. I'm sealing this door."
Rakiel did not move, eyed him grimly. "Have you
noticed," he said determinedly, "that the novices are right
about his being like a kender? He doesn't have the pointed
ears, of course," he added hastily, "or the topknot hair, and
he is a little taller, but his habits, and his recklessness, and
Moran glowered at the cleric. "Loraine was human.
Very short, a bit odd, but human. Go."
Rakiel left. The knight, alone on the trunk, sagged and
closed his eyes, too tired even to dream of Loraine.
Moran sat clearing away his manuscripts. Drill reason
was nearly over.
The game of Draconniel was over as well; last night
Rakiel's forces, depleted over months of ruthless tactics,
withdrew in disorder. Moran killed and captured as many
as mercy and logistics allowed, then accepted Rakiel's
sullen congratulations and gladly slipped downstairs to
check on the novices.
In retrospect, he wished he had stayed with Rakiel.
Hidden in his niche, Moran listened to the boys in the
barracks. This was their last night. In the morning, the
novices would be given squires' tunics and the names of the
knights they would serve.
The boys had smuggled in cakes and ale - Moran had
known - but they didn't feel like eating or drinking. It was
no longer fun breaking the rules.
Unfortunately, none of them felt that way yet about
bullying their three victims.
Janeel, with false heartiness, said, "Gully Gut can
celebrate for us."
Dein and Faron had bound Maglion's arms to his bed.
By now he offered only a little resistance, mechanically
pushing the others away. Only his eyes showed anger and
Steyan, his legs doubled up behind him and his body
stuffed into an open trunk, watched as best he could. His
head and neck were bent forward to fit in the trunk, which
was labeled, "Gnome's Shortening Device."
Tarli was chained, muzzled, and gagged. Set in front of
him were a gnawed bone and a sign:
beware! kender bites!
Tarli watched the others with patient indifference.
"Mustn't leave you thirsty." Janeel poured a full flagon of
ale down Maglion's throat, some of it foaming into the fat
boy's nostrils. He choked and sputtered.
"And now" - Janeel waved a cake in front of Maglion
like a conjurer - "a nut cake! Made with real honey. Don't
you want it? Or should I feed it to Kender Stew?" He held
it to Tarli's nose. "Poor Kender Stew. Has to beg for treats."
He spun, and mashed it into Maglion's face. "Gully Gut
gets them for nothing."
He pulled the fat boy's hair, forced open his mouth, and
shoved the entire cake in. Then he mashed Maglion's jaw
up and down on the cake. A single angry tear leaked from
the fat boy's eyes.
"Wait." The voice sounded weary, embarrassed, and
ashamed. To Moran's surprise, it was Saliak who spoke.
"This is wrong. I've been wrong."
He wiped Maglion's face clean, using one of his shirts
as a towel, then untied his arms. The fat boy took the shirt
from him without a word and finished cleaning himself.
"I thought it was fun." Saliak bent down and undid the
strap buckles on Steyan's knees and elbows. "I thought,
they're strange, and we're not, and it's only ... fun."
Steyan, free of the trunk, stumbled and fell. Saliak
massaged Steyan's arms and legs to bring the feeling back.
"We all thought that." Saliak looked around anxiously.
"Didn't we? We all laughed." He looked as far as Tarli and
looked away, flushing. When Steyan groaned and rolled
over, Saliak stepped to Tarli.
"I never thought about the Oath." Saliak unlatched the
chain. "And the Measure was just, well, classroom stuff."
He unbuckled the muzzle and said, as he untied the gag, "I
wouldn't blame you if you wanted to hit me."
"Fair enough," Tarli said, and kicked Saliak in the
The others gasped, in surprise and in sympathetic pain.
Maglion and Steyan looked as though, after a rainy spring,
the sun had broken through.
Saliak, when he could rise to his knees, gasped, "Is that
any way for a knight to fight?"
Tarli shrugged. "You'd rather fight face-to-face?"
Saliak looked green. "I'd rather not fight just now"
"But you insulted my honor. Repeatedly. And now you
Saliak blinked several times; he was having trouble
focusing. "The Measure says that if I choose not to fight,
and have apologized, then you must accept my apology."
Tarli nodded. "So it does." He added, so casually that
Moran's heart froze within him, "But my own code is more
important than the Measure. Face-to-face?"
Saliak nodded, grunting with the effort.
"Good." Tarli tilted Saliak's head up. With the taller
boy on his knees, the two boys were on eye level. Tarli
clenched his hands together and swung them both into
Saliak's face, knocking him backward.
"This may hurt a little - "
After a few more punches, Tarli propped Saliak upright
with the thonged stick and began a systematic top-to-
bottom dismantling of Saliak, punches only. Moran,
watching in dismay, had to admit that what Tarli did not
know about mercy or the Measure, he clearly made up for
with his knowledge of anatomy.
At length, Tarli, staggering under the weight, carried
the beaten Saliak to bed. Steyan and Maglion shook Tarli's
hand several times. Then, to Moran's immense relief, the
two larger boys dressed and bandaged Saliak. Everyone but
Tarli seemed at last to understand what the Measure was, to
Moran hated doing it.
He could see Loraine's laughing face, quizzical and
completely trusting. All that summer, she had never looked
as though she thought anyone would hurt her, and he had
tried very hard never to be the one who did.
After breakfast, Rakiel, with every show of sympathy and
every indication of smugness, went down the stairs and sent
Moran argued with himself a final time. The best I
could hope for, he said to himself, is that it would be many
years before he failed. And then it would be trial, and
conviction, and the black roses of guilt on the table.
He sat quietly, rehearsing what he would say. As many
years as he had sent squires from the manor, Moran always
hated good-byes - unexpected good-byes the most.
AT THE END OF THE SUMMER, LORAINE CAME
TO HIM. "I'M GOING AWAY. DON'T ASK, AND DON'T
HE ARGUED, BUT SHE STOOD FIRM. "YOU HAVE
YOUR DUTY. YOUR HONOR IS YOUR LIFE,
REMEMBER? KEEP YOUR HONOR FOR MY SAKE.
REMEMBER YOUR PROMISE TO ME."
SHE KISSED HIM. HE TRIED TO CATCH HER, BUT
SHE TWISTED OUT OF HIS HOLD AND WAS GONE -
BOTH FROM HIS ARMS AND FROM XAK TSAROTH.
SHE WAS CARRYING A DUFFEL THAT HE HADN'T
EVEN NOTICED SHE'D BROUGHT. HURT, HE
WATCHED HER WALK AWAY. AS THE WINDS FROM
THE SIDE STREETS BLEW ACROSS HER, SHE
CAREFULLY PATTED HER HAIR IN PLACE OVER HER
EARS. SHE DID NOT LOOK BACK.
MORAN RETURNED TO HIS STUDIES. YEARS
LATER, WHEN HE HEARD THAT LORAINE HAD
RETURNED, HE DIDN'T GO TO VISIT HER.
Tarli knocked. For once, Moran didn't put on the Mask,
but left his face as gentle and weary as he'd seen it in the
mirror. "Come in."
Tarli had his duffel and thonged stick with him. He
looked at Moran quizzically. "I've never seen you at your
desk. Is that where you wrote THE BRIGHTBLADE
"Yes." Moran gestured at the other chair. "Sit down."
Without further delays, he began: "Tarli, I've watched
your progress these past few weeks. You've done wonders,
in spite of your size."
Tarli nodded proudly.
"And in every situation - and I know that in some
training sessions you've faced real danger - you haven't
shown the slightest fear."
Tarli looked puzzled. "Of course not."
"Most of your classmates found it harder. In three
decades of novices, you're probably the most courageous
boy I've ever taught."
Moran did not smile back. "However, your courage
showed itself in - well, in strange ways. Instead of using
weapons, you broke or ... took them. Instead of accepting
training as offered, you took it and reshaped it. It would
not be too much to say that you changed everyone else's
Tarli sat rigidly. "I did my best for them." He seemed
not to understand what was happening to him.
"There has also been a problem of property" - Moran
tried to dance around it - "private property. You don't seem
to acknowledge others' property as off-limits, unavailable."
Tarli frowned, irked. "If people would just label things
"We can't label everything, and what with one thing
and another - " Moran waved his arm. "Lances, daggers,
miscellaneous books, and foodstuffs - this has been the
costliest term I can remember."
Tarli scratched his head. "I've heard people saying that
costs are going up all over the city."
Moran said more diffidently, "Finally, in private,
you've faced a certain amount of ... of hardship from the
other boys. For the most part, you endured it patiently."
Tarli's eyes widened. "You knew, then."
Moran nodded. "I needed to know how each of you
would respond. Being a knight is learning to act like a
knight." He finished, watching Tarli's face, "Not just in
training or in combat, but at all times."
Finally Tarli said, unembarrassed, "Then you know
about last night, too."
"I do." Moran cleared his throat. "You fought in direct
defiance of the Measure. What you said, even more than
what you did, shows that you don't believe in the
Moran sighed. "Believe me, Tarli, I'm sorrier than you
can imagine. But you just weren't meant to be a knight.
You have your own way of doing things, your own view of
others' rights, and your own code of honor, and they'll
never square with becoming a knight." Righteous but
unhappy, he faced Tarli.
"You're absolutely right, Sire. The knights are all
wrong for me." Tarli made it sound as though it were the
Moran stared at him. "You don't mind?"
"Not anymore." Tarli frowned. "I would have minded
when I started. Did you know, I promised my mother that
I'd try to become a knight?"
Moran shook his head, partly to clear it.
"She said it would be good for me and for the
knighthood." He sighed loudly. "Sometimes, these past
few weeks, I've wondered if she meant it as some kind of
Possible, Moran thought, smiling sadly. Very possible.
"Ah, well. Time to go." Tarli stood up, but he didn't
leave. "By the way, I do have another name, Sire."
Moran stiffened. "So I assumed."
"I just don't use it, since my father and mother weren't
married." He looked, clear-eyed and innocently, at Moran.
"Your mother's name was good enough," Moran said
gruffly. Since that summer, Loraine had become elevated in
Moran's mind into a sort of spirit-woman, someone whose
love was too wild and pure for Moran.
"By rights I can use the other name." Tarli didn't sound
bitter or ironic, merely stating a fact. "Did you know that?"
Moran nodded. "I assumed you didn't know the name."
He added quickly, "Which is not an insult to your mother.
She was a wonderful woman. I knew her well, you know."
"I knew that."
Moran licked his lips, which were suddenly dry. "Of
course you have the right to use your father's name. I think"
- he paused and braced himself - "I think he'd be proud."
"Are you?" Tarli asked quietly.
Moran was stunned by the simple directness of the
question. Tarli had to repeat it.
Finally Moran stammered, "I ... uh ... She never told
"Well, my mother told me. And she always told the
truth." Tarli looked tolerant of someone else's failing. "She
said you probably wouldn't like it if I took your name. She
said you might feel awkward about it, training boys like
you do. It didn't make sense to her, but she thought you'd
want it that way."
Moran nodded. "She was good to me when I needed
her most. Except for leaving, she was always good to me."
He asked a question he'd wondered about for eighteen
years. "Did she know that I would have married her?"
Now Tarli looked startled. "She never told you? She
knew, but she didn't think it would work. You're very
different from her." He added calmly, "But I think she
"I think so, too" Moran thought, briefly and with regret,
of the demands of knighthood, of bastardly scandals in the
knighthood, and of the fact that conflicts of duty can be
every bit as painful as conflicts of honor. "You have my
permission. Use my name if you wish."
Tarli smiled. "Thank you, but I think I'll keep using my
own name, plus my formal name, now that I'm an adult."
Moran, amused by this sudden eighteen-year-old adult,
said, "And what name is that?"
Tarli answered easily and calmly, "Tarli Half-Kender."
Moran's jaw sagged slowly, like something settling into
a swamp. "Half ... kender?" he repeated faintly.
"That's right." Tarli flipped the broken lance end-for-
Moran remembered Loraine's words. No MATTER
WHO THE CHILD IS, OR WHAT IT'S LIKE? And her
laughter. I LOVE STRANGE PLACES AND STRANGE
MEN. Even her constant patting of her hair, over her ears.
"I suppose I could use 'Flamehair.' It's a respected name
among her people, you know. I didn't want to use it at first,
since it would look like social climbing."
Moran's room reeled around him. "Half-Kender?" How
could he have been so stupid? Or was it that he just
wouldn't admit it to himself?
"That's right." Tarli stared off into space and said
reflectively, "But my mother left her people and came here.
Kender all love wandering. That's why she left here, too,
Tarli walked around the room with his duffel, looking
absently at things. The shaken Moran would later discover
that a bottle of wine, a table knife, and a copy of THE
BRIGHTBLADE TACTICS had disappeared. "I'd better get
But Tarli stopped and rummaged in the duffel, which
seemed disturbingly full. "Could you give these back to
your cleric friend?"
Moran took the offered scrolls. "He gave these to you?"
"Not exactly." Tarli grinned. "I just needed something to
read one night, and his room was unlocked - or almost." He
trailed off, then brightened. "The parts about the knights'
treasury are pretty good."
Moran unrolled the top scroll (the seal was already
broken) and read:
MOST REVERED CLERIC ANSILUS, IN ISTAR.
GREETINGS, AND THE BLESSINGS OF THE ONLY
TRUE GODS, FROM THEIR SERVANT AND YOUR
BROTHER RAKIEL; MAY YOU AND THEY SPEAK
WELL OF HIM.
WRITTEN WHEN THE MOON SOLINARI IS ON
THE WANE IN THE MONTH OF THE MOON
LUNITARI ASCENDANT IN THE QUEEN OF
SO FAR, THINGS GO WELL. I HAVE LEARNED
THE EXTENT OF THE KNIGHTS' WEALTH HERE IN
XAK TSAROTH AND BELIEVE THAT IT IS MORE
THAN IS NEEDED FOR A DEFENSIVE TRAINING
FORCE IN PEACE TIME. I WILL RECOMMEND
THAT THE CHURCH COULD MAKE BETTER USE
I HAVE GAINED ACCESS ONCE TO THE
TREASURY, AND HAVE ENCLOSED AN ITEMIZED
LIST OF ITS CONTENTS. I AM UNSURE HOW THE
MONEY AND PRECIOUS METALS ARE
TRANSPORTED FROM THE TREASURY AND
WHERE THE KNIGHTS' MAIN STORE IS, BUT I
HOPE TO FIND OUT SOON. THE OLD MAN WHO
TRAINS THESE PEASANTS IS A FOOL...
Moran closed his eyes, remembering Rakiel asking
questions, Rakiel filling out forms, Rakiel offering to
handle requisitions for the lances.
"Plus this. I kept it because of the map - I love maps -
but I don't suppose I'll be back here ever."
The "map" was a floor plan of the Manor of the
Measure, with the storeroom marked in red. On the bottom
of the scroll was a careful tracing, from the top, bottom,
and end, of the treasure room key.
"I'll kill him," Moran muttered, but even as he said it
he recoiled. There was no honor in Solamnia's best-trained
weapons master killing a cleric who trembled when the
knight brandished a butter knife.
Moran turned the paper over thoughtfully. If he could
soothe his honor somehow and refrain from slaying Ra kiel,
this page alone, sent to the Order of the Rose, would
humiliate the clerics and probably keep the knights in Xak
Tsaroth free of their influence for years to come.
"Thank you for showing me this," Moran said.
Tarli smiled, looked at the knight affectionately.
"Uncle Moran, you've been good to me."
"Uncle Moran? You may call me 'Father.' "
Tarli nodded, almost shyly. "I'd like that. You know,
you've been almost a spiritual guide to me - "
Moran, holding Rakiel's tracing of the knights' treasury,
had a wild idea.
"I may still be your guide," he said slowly. "Tell me,
Tarli, where will you go from here?"
Tarli frowned, considering. "No idea," he said finally.
"Maybe to meet my mother's people again. I've been with
them, and they're nice." He frowned still more, and Moran
was reminded forcibly of himself. "But sometimes I think I
ought to make something of myself."
Moran took a deep breath and said carefully, "Have
you considered the clergy?"
From his blank expression, clearly Tarli never had.
The blankness turned to wonder. "You know, you're
right," Tarli said excitedly. "They're perfect. I'd have a
wonderful time. The more I know of clerics, the more their
code seems more like mine than the knights' does." He
looked up suddenly at Moran. "No offense."
"Oh, none." Moran hid a smile.
"Tell me, do the clerics accept common - accept people
Ah, Tarli, Moran thought fondly, there ARE no other
people like you. His hand closed in a fist around Rakiel's
letters. It was hard, not killing a man for a debt of honor,
but this way might be better.
"I'll write your recommendation myself. The clerics
owe me a large favor. You'll get in, sight unseen." He
pictured, briefly, Tarli in a classroom of fledgling clerics.
This was better than murdering Rakiel in uneven combat.
"Thank you." Tarli was genuinely surprised and
pleased. "Mother always said you would be good to me."
"Ah. And what will you do as a cleric?"
Tarli's eyes looked far away and dreamy. "I'll go to my
mother's people. Something tells me they'll need clerics in
He swung the stick at his side. "And I'll take them this
weapon I've designed. It's a great thing for short people in a
fight. I need a name for it." He spun the stick over his head.
"Isn't that a wonderful sound? Hoop," he said happily.
Moran scribbled a quick note. "Take this to the clerics
and wait. I'll be sending ... some other items ... on to the
Knights of the Rose." After a brief moral struggle, he
added, "I hope the church will open many doors for you."
"If it doesn't, I'll open them myself." Tarli stuffed the
note in his duffel, which by now was bulging ominously.
He said quickly, "Good-bye, Father."
Moran's arms remembered what eighteen years could
not erase. He caught Tarli and held him. Tarli kissed his
cheek. Not even the Mask could have kept a few tears from
Tarli dropped back to the ground and, in a gesture
surprisingly like Loraine's, patted his hair back over his
ears. It didn't matter, since his ears - however well they
heard - looked exactly like his father's. He walked to the
door, turned back suddenly.
"Maybe I'll be able to teach the clerics as much as I've
taught the knights."
And he was gone.
Moran, watching from the window as Tarli rode off on
Rakiel's horse, laughed out loud for the first time in many
years. "Maybe you will, Tarli. I know you will!"
The Goblin's Wish
Roger E. Moore
The human carried a broad-headed spear with a
crosspiece mounted behind the spearhead. The crosspiece
would keep a speared boar from running up the shaft and
mauling the hunter, but the human didn't think the
crosspiece would be necessary when the spear ran the
kender through. If the spear went in right, it shouldn't make
any difference what the kender did.
The little guy was only a hundred paces ahead now,
and the chase was obviously getting to him. The man, on
the other hand, had run after prey all his life. He knew if he
could just get on a good, firm, downhill slope, he was sure
to put the little unbeliever on a spit and collect on his hair.
There was a five-gold bounty paid on kender scalps in
Aldhaven. That was ale for a month. Good-bye, kender.
The kender was fast, though, the man had to give him
that. The little guy's filthy brown hair whipped back and
forth as he ran through briars, splashed through creeks, and
vaulted over rocks in his panicked flight, and his bare feet
were quick and sure, even up dirt slopes. But the kender
didn't have the long legs the human had. The hunter knew
that was how the gods of evil marked their lost children,
with misshapen limbs that mirrored their souls. Some
people killed kender and their wicked kind out of
righteousness, but righteous causes did not impress the
hunter much. Bounty money was reason enough.
The kender disappeared around a ridge, nearly falling
over an exposed tree root. The man put on some speed,
sensing his time was near. He'd never killed a kender
before, though he'd once stabbed an old drunken goblin
behind a barn and had gone for a lost elven boy two
summers ago with a club, battering the lad until not even
his own mother would have recognized him. The hunter
had gotten only two gold for that scalp, which infuriated
him to this day. He wouldn't be cheated this time, or the fat
priest in Aldhaven who paid out the bounties would get a
little lesson in the consequences of not keeping his word to
The hunter rounded the ridge, arms tensing for the
throw or the thrust, and there was the kender - down. The
unlucky little guy had fallen over a log in an old creek bed
covered with dead leaves, and he was trying to get up but
was crying out because he'd hurt his leg. It wouldn't hurt
much longer, the man thought, and he lifted his spear to run
it through the willowy kender's rib cage. The human was so
close he could see the kender's wide brown eyes. The
kender put up his hands to ward off the blow, but thin
palms had never stopped a spear.
A thing like a red-and-black spider leaped out of the
bushes on the low creek bank to the hunter's right. In a red
fist it held a steel machete that swung down too fast to see
or block. Pain jolted the hunter's body from his right thigh
where the blade hacked its way through trousers and skin
and muscles, biting into the hard bone. Blind with agony,
the hunter went down. The spear jammed into the dirt and
fell from his grasp, landing behind him. Then all he could
do was scream.
The scalp hunter was able to think a little bit as he
screamed, because he didn't want to die here. He tried to
get up to run but had lost all feeling in his leg below the
wound. He looked down in terror and saw his thigh cut
open right down to the broken white bone. He gripped the
flesh to pull it shut and stop the bleeding, but his hands and
arms were slippery with blood. The air was full of the sharp
tang of gore. There was movement down the trail behind
him. The hunter looked through pain-dimmed eyes and saw
the goblin there, walking casually, its red-splattered
machete dangling in one hand.
It was a goblin, the hunter knew, because it looked a lot
like the old drunken one he had killed, but this goblin was
big and young and did not look drunk at all. It wore a
ragged black tunic with a thin rope belt. Wiry muscles
flowed under its dirty red skin. Its black eyes were relaxed
and seemed to smile, though its round face was as cold as
stone. The goblin eyed the now-silent kender, then bent
down and picked up the boar spear with its free hand to
examine the tip. The goblin tossed its machete aside.
"Don't kill me!" the man screamed in the trade tongue.
"In the gods' names, don't kill me! I was after the kender!
Please, get a me a healer! I'll give you anything, anything at
all, but please don't kill me!"
The goblin snorted gently and looked down at the
hunter. "Get priest? What you think maybe priest do for me
when I knock door, eh? Think maybe priest say, 'Hey,
goblin, here silver for you. Be good, you go home?' "
"Don't kill me!" The man sobbed, tears running down
his face. The pain in his leg was unearthly, and the blood
just kept coming out. "Please don't kill me. Please."
The goblin hefted the spear, feeling its balance, then
gripped it hard in both hands and upended it, ramming it
into the hunter's abdomen, pushing it through and twisting
it until the man's last screams and spasms had passed and
his head fell back on the leaves, his mouth and eyes open
The goblin jerked out the spear and stuck it in the ground.
He recovered his machete and wiped it off on the hunter's
stained trousers, then stood up and looked at the kender
again. The kender was on his feet down in the gully, staring
at the dead human.
"Rats," said the kender. "You got him too quickly."
The goblin lifted his chin, judging the distance to the
kender. The spear could reach him with a good toss, and
the machete with the right spin. But the kender was doing
nothing to require immediate action, and he had no
obvious weapons. "Too fast, say?" the goblin asked, mildly
"Yeah," said the kender. "He would have run right into
my pit in another three steps." The kender stuck out his
bare left foot and nudged at the thick patch of leaves before
him. A stick shifted, revealing a long, dark split in the
ground. The goblin carefully took a step closer and saw
that, indeed, there was a pit in the center of the dry gully. It
was an expertly done pit, at that.
The goblin stepped back, eyeing the kender with a
faint amount of respect. He hadn't seen a kender in years
and had thought they were all dead in these parts. Pointing
down with his machete at the dead human, the goblin
asked, "He want hair bounty on you?"
"I guess so," said the kender, still looking at the man.
"I was about to skin a deer when he saw me. He just started
running after me, and I ran away." The kender sighed and
looked up at the goblin, the hunter forgotten. "Say, are you
The goblin's empty stomach lurched when the deer was
mentioned. He could go for several days with no solid food,
but it had already been two days and the taste of grass and
leaves did not appeal to him. He had been an informer and
extra muscle for a human moneylender in East Dravinar
when the Kingpriest's men had broken into the warehouse,
with magical lights and swords in their hands. The goblin
was the only one to get out through the skylight before the
vigilantes seized the rope. The screams of the thieves and
other thugs had grown faint behind him as he fled across
the rooftops to escape into the countryside. Stolen food
from farm houses had helped for a while, but the farmers,
after the first half-dozen break-ins, had been prepared for
"Are you hungry?" the kender repeated, still waiting for
a reply. "I mean, I've got a whole deer, and the meat won't
go to waste with two to eat it. Do you want some?"
The goblin thought about it some more, fearing a trick,
but his stomach won. "Yes," he said simply, marveling at
the novelty of it all. No one had ever asked him if he was
hungry before. No one had particularly cared.
He'd just make sure the kender didn't try anything
without catching the wrong end of the machete first. Just to
be safe, he picked up the spear, too.
"Well, let's be off, then," the kender said, waving the
goblin on to join him as he set off into the woods. "Mind
the pit. It took me a week to make all the stakes."
"We really should go back and bury the human at some
point," the kender said, kicking through a big pile of brown
leaves. "I mean because of the wild dogs and wolves and
things. And the smell, too. I don't live here, so it wouldn't
bother me much, but I have some pits here, after all, and
there are always humans about, you know. I wonder if
anyone will miss him - the man, I mean. No one ever seems
to miss us, people like you and me. The humans have each
other to look after. We have no one. We just have to stay
alive when the humans come. That's the way it's always
been, hasn't it? My parents told me it wasn't, but I learned
different. They said some humans were nice. I never saw
the nice ones. Maybe my parents were telling me a story,
right? They always used to tell me stories about heroes and
dragons and ghosts and elves. They told some good ones.
Do you know some stories to tell? I bet you do, the way
you handled your sword. I was sure glad to see you, even if
I had the pit ready. You never know what might happen. I
found a wolf in one of my pits once and I nearly fell in
looking at him. The wolf was almost dead, and I felt sorry
for him, so I had to kill him. I forgot that other things
besides humans might fall into the pits. It would have been
... um ... i-ron-ic if I had fallen in. My father taught me that
word. He was good with words. What's your name?"
The goblin hesitated. The kender's chatter was more
than a little annoying and was bound to grow worse, but
playing along with the charade of friendship would keep
the kender off guard for now. Kender were supposed to be
trusting, if unbearably nosy. "Do not have one," he said
"No kidding? No name at all? I've never heard of that
before. Didn't your parents call you anything?"
The goblin had never known his parents, having been
sold into slavery as an infant and having escaped in his
teens. He had been called many things by the human thugs
who had also worked for the moneylender, but none of the
names were worth remembering.
"Eh," the goblin said at last. "Do not know why."
"How strange," the kender said. "I thought everyone
had a name. Mine is ..." The kender stopped, then looked
down in sudden embarrassment as he walked. "Well," he
finished quickly, "what's important is that we're alive, and
that's what counts. My father always said that. He was
The deer carcass lay on a hillside among a pile of
leaves. A broken arrow shaft protruded from the space
behind the deer's front left shoulder; a bow leaned against a
nearby tree. The deer had been cut half open, and flies
swarmed about the entrails. The kender searched in the
leaves for a moment, bent down to pick up a long-bladed
knife with a bone handle. The goblin tensed, but the kender
merely sat down by the deer to finish dressing it.
The kender continued talking throughout the whole
process. His easy patter about the forest and its secrets were
of more than passing interest to the goblin, who suspected
that he might have to live in the wilderness for some time
to come. The kender had obviously lived here long and had
In the back of his mind, the goblin knew that one of
these days it might be necessary to kill the kender,
particularly if food became too scarce to be shared. Until
then, he would listen and learn, and would watch his back
just in case the kender's syrupy friendship turned out to be
as false as a human's.
The goblin watched his back, and the kender talked and
talked. The kender borrowed the goblin's things, and the
goblin took them away again. Three weeks flew by. The
winter rains were now six weeks away.
The minotaur had fallen into a stagnant pool of cold
water and red leaves, where it lay unconscious. Its breath
rasped slowly and heavily as the leaves endlessly rustled
around it and flies feasted on the open, filthy wounds
across its back and shoulders. The twenty-foot length of
mud-choked iron chain, linked to the manacles on its
wrists, had gotten snagged on a log, which the weakened
minotaur had been unable to pull loose before collapsing.
The goblin caught the kender by the arm as the latter
approached the huge brown figure. "Damn, you crazy!" he
growled. "What you do, eh? One bite, we all bones." He
hefted the boar spear in a muscular red fist. "I finish it and
"No!" The kender grabbed the goblin's arm and pulled
it down. For a second the goblin started to resist, almost
turning the spear to run it into the kender's chest, but
holding off. Instead, he simply shoved at the kender with
his free hand and sent him sprawling.
The kender immediately got to his feet, face filled with
rage. "No!" he shouted. "I want to help him! If it was you,
I'd help you! Look at his chains! He was a human's slave! I
want to save him!"
"We have no food to feed him in winter!" the goblin
retorted. "We live good, bellies full now, but food gone
when rain come. You say you hungry in cold rain, hunting
bad. He hungry, too. What you feed him, eh? You like him
chew off leg?"
The heated argument continued unabated for several
minutes. Finally, the goblin cursed and turned his back on
the kender, walking the two miles back to the cave where
they lived. Damn the little bastard! Did he want to start a
city out here in the forest? The fool was not thinking with
his head. The minotaur was more dangerous than a
company of city guardsmen. The goblin once saw a chained
minotaur bite off the arm of its slave overseer, though it
knew it would be killed for its crime. The minotaur had
roared with laughter until the massed humans had beaten it
unconscious with clubs before dragging it away to its fate.
The goblin fumed and stamped around the cave, finally
realizing it was cold. The kender had always gathered wood
in the evening while the goblin sharpened their weapons
and relaxed. Everything had been just fine until now. The
goblin knew how to use the fire-starter bow, but he didn't
know where the kender found all the wood for the fire pit.
When he went outside, all he could see were sticks and
leaves, no burning wood.
And the kender did most of the hunting and cooking,
The goblin stamped around some more.
Maybe the minotaur could be bargained with. The goblin
had no illusions about whether or not the minotaur would
be a grateful and friendly ally, but even a brute like that
would see the value in having two lesser beings tend to its
wounds and hunt for it. And having a monster like that
around might not be a bad idea, if it could be managed.
Minotaurs were as savage and brutal as could be imagined.
They were damn strong, mightier than humans. They hated
humans more than they hated any other being, and they
hated the slave-taking, holier-than-all Istarians most.
The goblin cursed himself for believing this would
work. The kender was infecting his brain. He should just
kill both the kender and the minotaur and let them rot.
But the kender did almost all the hunting and cooking.
The goblin sullenly picked up his weapons again and
left the cave. Life wasn't fair. He hated that.
The tired kender looked up, knee deep in the water
alongside the minotaur, and a grin broke out on his face. "I
knew you'd help," he said with relief.
They made a crude sledge before nightfall, roping two
long rough poles together with a ragged length of hemp that
the kender recovered from disassembling an animal snare.
It was past midnight when they got back to the cave with
the minotaur and set him down inside. The huge brown
beast had never once stirred. The goblin staggered off to
collapse in a corner and fall asleep.
When he awakened, it was long past sunrise. Cold,
cooked venison was spitted over the fire pit; the fire itself
had long gone out. The minotaur's festering wounds had
been carefully cleaned and dressed with old rags from the
cave's rag pile, donated by many farmhouse clotheslines.
The kender apparently had found nothing to cut the huge
chain the minotaur was dragging around. The chain was
carefully wound into a loose pile by the minotaur's side.
The goblin rubbed his face and got up. He noticed the
kender had succumbed to exhaustion and was asleep,
sitting upright against a cave wall, some rags in his lap, a
bone needle and sinewy thread in his hand. He'd been
stitching together a crude blanket.
Then the goblin saw that the minotaur, still lying flat on
its stomach, was watching him. The beast's dull eyes were
as large as a cow's, with the same deep brown color. Long
scars crisscrossed the monster's muzzle and low forehead.
One broad nostril was split open from an old wound. Long
yellow teeth gleamed dully against its thick lips.
Trying to pretend he hadn't been caught off guard, the
goblin nodded at the beast. Suddenly the idea of having a
live minotaur in the cave did not look as good as it had
earlier. The goblin could almost feel the monster's
enormous teeth tear into his flesh. The minotaur made no
move to get up, and the goblin took care of a few minor
chores with an air of forced casualness. The minotaur must
be very weak to skip a live meal. The goblin made his
Chores finished, the goblin walked over to the fire pit
and carefully sawed off a piece of venison with his
machete. Very slowly, he moved over to the minotaur and
knelt down near its scarred, long-homed head. He could see
no readable expression on the creature's bestial face.
If this worked, they would have a new ally. The goblin
was sure that the minotaur would eventually kill both the
kender and himself if they weren't careful or if it went
hungry. But the goblin had worked with the strong and
brutal all his life, and he knew the value of strength in
numbers. He hoped the minotaur knew this lesson, too. At
least the minotaur wasn't a human. It was poor consolation,
but in these days, it helped.
The goblin held out the piece of venison near the
minotaur's muzzle, letting it smell the food. Then he moved
the venison closer to the monster's mouth.
The huge nostrils flared and snorted. The minotaur
stirred slightly, then grimaced with pain. Its teeth were
bared as its lips drew back and it closed its eyes, but it
quickly forced itself to relax and open its eyes again.
With a carefully measured move, its gaze fixed on the machete that
the goblin gripped in his other hand, the minotaur opened its mouth,
revealing a set of teeth that rivaled those of the largest bear. Its
breath was unspeakably foul. Very gently, it took the venison and
began to chew.
Four weeks passed. The minotaur recovered. The
kender was overjoyed and talked until the goblin dreamed
of killing him just to shut him up. Both goblin and kender
hunted now; the minotaur sat silently in the cave. Though
the minotaur never spoke, the goblin feared that the beast
would react violently the moment the two smaller beings
asked anything of it, so he worked more than he had ever
worked when it was just him and the kender, and he
grumbled about it under his breath. But deep inside he was
satisfied. He began to think that bringing the minotaur to
the cave had been his own idea. He had a boss again, a
strong boss who could eat humans for breakfast if it chose.
It was worth the trouble for the added power and safety -
just as long as the minotaur didn't go hungry.
The wind grew colder. The kender raided some of his
old caches, laid more traps, and brought more food and
supplies to the cave. The goblin was able to build a
windbreak of huge branches and rocks at the cave's
entrance, and this doubled as camouflage for the cave in
case humans were about. The minotaur ate a whole deer
now every three or four days, and its muscles bulged until
they were like huge knots of steel under its ugly brown
hide. It still never spoke, though the kender talked
incessantly now, a beatific look on his face as he gladly
tended his new friends.
The kender still borrowed the goblin's things, but the
goblin no longer cared. He had too much else to worry
about. The winter rains were almost upon them.
The goblin watched his quarry - a large buck worth half a
week of food for them all - leap out of bow range and
bound away. The cry had startled it. Cursing softly to
himself, the goblin leaned forward in the bushes and
strained to hear against the stirring leaves.
He heard nothing now. A bird? His grip on the bow
and arrow relaxed.
No. Not a bird. He could hear it again. It was a human,
maybe, crying out. He'd probably fallen in one of the
kender's pits. Perhaps the kender heard it, too, but the
kender was nowhere to be seen. Figured. He was probably
distracted by something again when he should be hunting.
It was amazing that the kender had lived this long.
If the human was alone, it wouldn't take much to finish
him off and pick through his belongings. He might even
have some money. The goblin didn't plan to live in the
forest forever. It wouldn't hurt to save a little change for a
Crouching low, the goblin moved through the
crackling brown undergrowth, sliding from tree to tree.
Cool wind blew over his face and through his black rags.
He kept an arrow nocked. He had only three more arrows if
the first one missed, which it often did. He wasn't the
experienced hunter the kender was.
Laughter reached his ears, human laughter. The goblin
stayed down, listening, then moved forward more slowly.
Hidden among rock outcroppings and thick briars, he
climbed up a low hill. Someone was saying something in a
nonhuman language. It sounded like an elven tongue,
Silvanesti. The speaker mumbled; his words were unclear.
"I can't understand you," said a human voice in a
language the goblin remembered well from his days in East
Dravinar. 'Talk Istarian, boy."
Someone mumbled again. The goblin was almost at
the top of the hill. No guards were visible. He carefully
checked his bow, arrows, and machete, then began to crawl
toward a fallen tree trunk overgrown with briars and thick
vines, slightly downslope on the hill's far side. The wind
covered the sounds of his movements.
"Talk to me, gods damn you!" Beefy smacks sounded
from the hill's other side.
A few seconds later, the goblin reached the fallen log
and looked down the slope.
There were three humans, two men and a woman. All
wore the brown and gray leather of Istarian free rangers.
Once the defenders of Istar's forested west, the free rangers
were now no better than mercenaries and bounty hunters. A
thin, blond-haired man was leaning into the face of a male
elf, whose arms were wrapped back around a tree trunk and
presumably tied there. The elf's head sagged; cuts and
bruises were visible through his long, sun-bleached hair.
Both his eyes were blackened and swollen. The elf's fine
clothing, too light for the weather, had been deliberately cut
and ripped to shreds.
"You listening to me?" the blond man demanded. His
right hand gripped the elf's hair and pulled the prisoner's
head up and back. "Anything getting through your pointy
ears? Why were you trailing us, elf? What were you after?"
The elf started to mumble through thick, puffy lips. His
knees had given out, and he hung upright only because he
was tied in place.
The goblin chewed his lower lip. An elf and some
rangers. Great. Two of a goblin's worst possible enemies.
Maybe there should be a dwarf here, too, just to round
things out. But it looked like there soon would be one less
elf, and that was fine with the goblin. Damn shame the
rangers had probably robbed their victim first. This day was
nothing but bad pickings all around.
"The elf said something about a sword," said the
massively built, dark-haired man standing nearby. He
sounded uncertain. "Didn't the captain find a long sword, a
ceremonial thing of some kind, in a box with that elf the
boys caught yesterday?"
"I thought he said sword, too," said the woman with
them. She had the plainest face the goblin had ever seen on
a human, but she was heavily muscled, too, with short,
stringy hair the color of old hay.
"Hey, elf!" yelled the thin, blond man, his mouth
against the elf's left ear. The elf winced and tried to turn his
head away. "Hey, can you hear me? Did you want that
pretty sword with the gems on it? Was that what you
When no response came, the blond man slammed his
fist into the elf's abdomen. The three humans waited as the
elf vomited and choked and gasped for air.
"This is taking all day," said the woman. "We gotta get
back to the troops. We should just take this sword and sell
it to the clerics in Istar, make our fortune! Either gut him
here or take him with us."
"Shhh!" said the blond man. He leaned close to the elf,
listening as the elf's lips moved. The goblin heard no
"So it was the sword, right?" the blond man said.
Without waiting for a response, he added, "Is that sword
magic, boy? Does it got magic powers?"
The other two humans stood a little straighter, startled
by the question. They watched the elf intently.
After a pause, the elf nodded, his face slack. He was
"Damn," said the blond man. He looked up at the other
two humans, a smile crossing his face.
There was a whisper in the wind, followed almost
immediately by a thump. At the same moment, the huge
man with the dark hair bent back, his hands clawing behind
him at the dull-colored arrow that had struck him directly
between his shoulder blades. The arrow was sunk in almost
to the feathers. The man made a strange wheezing sound,
then pitched forward on his face.
"Oh, great Istar!" the woman said, wide-eyed. Her
hands pulled her sword free, and she and the thin, blond
man ran for cover behind separate trees. They crouched
down, both clearly visible to the goblin. The man on the
ground did not move. The elf hung limp from the tree, his
chin against his chest. The wind started to blow harder.
The goblin slowly reached down to his side. His
fingers touched the curved wood of his bow.
The blond-haired man, his nerve gone, made a break
for it. He took off from his tree, running in a straight line
for a clump of bushes about a hundred feet away. The
woman started after him, but she must have heard the arrow
as it went past her, for she dropped to the ground, rolling
until she was behind a pair of close tree trunks. From there,
she could hear the blond man scream as he writhed in the
leaves and dead ferns.
"I surrender!" the plain-faced woman cried in the trade
tongue. "Don't shoot! I've got kin who'll pay my ransom!"
"Then come out!" the kender's voice called. (It figured,
thought the goblin.) "Leave your sword!"
"I've got a big ransom!" the woman yelled again. The
goblin could see the white in her face, as pale as a drowned
man's skin. She looked as if she would be blubbering any
time now. The blond man was not so much screaming now
as making short, gasping cries, trying to pull out the arrow
buried deep in his lower back.
"Just come out slowly," said the kender. "Very, very
The woman tossed out her useless sword, then got to
her feet. Her legs shook as she placed her hands on her
head. "Don't shoot me!" she yelled again, looking around
with huge eyes and a trembling lower lip.
"I'm over here," said the kender. He stood up, his bow
lowered but his arrow nocked.
The woman saw him and stared, surprised at his size
and obviously reconsidering her chances of survival. The
goblin could see it on her face. If I can get close enough to
that little bastard, he knew she was thinking, I can make
hash of him. It's my only chance.
"My kin can pay a big ransom for me," she said, her
voice gaining strength. "Lots of gold, I swear it. Just don't
hurt me. Promise me that you won't hurt me."
"I promise," said the kender.
The long arrow that thumped into the woman's chest
took her by surprise. She staggered back, her hands still on
her head. Her eyes grew terribly big and round before she
fell over backward. She never made a sound.
The goblin lowered his bow. It was the first time in
four days that he'd hit anything on the first try. He waved at
the kender, then started down the slope toward the gasping
The goblin found the minotaur sitting in front of the
cave, gnawing on a deer's thigh bone. The overwhelming
odor of dried blood and ripe manure carried on the air. The
goblin was actually getting used to it.
"Eh," said the goblin, almost apologetically.
The minotaur, ears up and alert, glanced in the goblin's
direction. Yellow teeth tore away a scrap of deer meat. The
thick chain links hanging from the beast's wrist manacles
swung and clinked.
The goblin swallowed the bile churning in his
stomach, but he went on, even daring to smile. "Kender
and me hunt deer, but kill humans. Shoot three. We find
damn elf, much bad hurt, bring him back. Elf no good, eh?
I know, but maybe elf know woods, good ways to hunt.
Maybe we make him teach us. Want maybe keep elf alive
for now. OK?"
The goblin hesitated, wondering if any of this was
sinking into the minotaur's brain. It hadn't spoken a word
since they'd found it. Humans said minotaurs weren't very
bright, but this one had to be dumber than dirt.
The minotaur continued chewing on the bone, watching
the goblin with its dull brown eyes. The goblin felt he had
done all he could to safeguard the elf's survival, at least
until the issue of the magical sword was cleared up. After
that, the minotaur could dine on Silvanesti meat when the
kender's back was turned, for all the goblin cared. The
goblin nodded to the minotaur, then went back to help the
kender carry the elf up to the cave. There they laid the elf
out on the kender's bed - a pile of rags on the packed-earth
The kender was frantic to do things for the elf. Before
long, the elf was undressed, wrapped cozily in the kender's
own blankets. The goblin busied himself by going through
all the loot that he had taken off the bodies of the rangers
and the elf as well. The kender gently washed the elf's face.
The goblin carefully counted thirty-six Istarian gold pieces,
ten Istarian silver coins, and two rings. It was more money
than he'd ever had, even in East Dravinar in the good old
days. He couldn't spend it, but it felt awfully good. He
wrapped the money in cloth to muffle it, placed it in a
pouch, then tied it inside his clothing behind his belt, where
not even the kender's light fingers would find it.
He lifted the elf's backpack and looked it over. Its
quaint, elaborate tooling and stitching occupied his
curiosity briefly, then he undid the straps and looked inside.
He snorted. Books and papers ... and a small bag of
gold coins, twelve of them, each with an elven king on one
side and a swan on the other. Silvanesti for certain. The
rangers must not have gotten around to searching the elf's
gear if they had missed this. The goblin palmed the gold
and was about to empty the rest of the backpack's contents
into the fire pit when he noticed the biggest book.
Except that the book in the elf's backpack was white, it
was just like the red spellbook the goblin had seen a Red
Robe reading one day, three years ago, on the banks of a
mountain stream. Of course, the goblin had given that
wizard a wide berth. It wasn't smart to mess with wizards.
The goblin eyed the book before gazing at the battered
elf. If the rangers had found the book, the elf would have
been dead long ago. The goblin wondered if that wouldn't
have been best. A minotaur knew but one way to kill you
and would at least be quick about it; a wizard knew a
thousand, and he often took his time. The Istarians burned
wizards at the stake, but it was not uncommon for whole
Istarian villages and towns to go up in flames themselves
shortly after such events. Better to turn away from a wizard
than to raise your hand against him.
The goblin chewed his lower lip.
Better to turn away, but maybe better still to make a
wizard your ally - even an elf - if you could do it.
The kender, muttering to himself all the while, finished
cleaning and dressing the elf's wounds. The goblin, coming
out of his reverie with a start, made a production of
relighting the fire until the kender went outside to wash off
in a stream. Once he was alone, the goblin carefully
replaced all of the Silvanesti coins and made sure the elf's
things were in order inside the pack before strapping it
shut. He then took both the backpack and the elf's pouch-
laden belt and stored them in the back of the cave where the
minotaur and kender weren't likely to find them. (The
kender had already fully explored the shallow cave and was
unlikely to search it again.) Then there was nothing to do
but wait - and think.
The elf regained consciousness later that afternoon.
The kender was beside himself with joy and talked without
stop for two hours afterward, pestering the elf with
questions that he lacked the strength to answer. This gave
the elf a chance to eye his surroundings and take in the
goblin and minotaur; upon seeing the latter, the elf's eyes
widened and he seemed too afraid to move. The goblin kept
to the background and took care of minor chores that the
kender usually handled, saying nothing. The minotaur
merely grunted when it saw the elf, then went outside and
sat down to dine on a freshly killed boar taken from a pit
trap, noisily tearing into its dinner with its bare teeth.
When the kender ran off to fetch some water from the
nearby stream, the goblin ambled over and sat down on the
ground next to the elf, who tried to edge away. The goblin
pretended not to notice.
"You feel good?" asked the goblin in the trade tongue.
He knew only a few Silvanesti words, and he had never had
the chance to learn the goblin tongue - not that an elf would
have appreciated it. "No human beat face for fun now, eh?"
The elf looked as though he couldn't think of anything
to say. His eyes were blood-red spheres nestled in great
black bruises that covered nearly his entire face.
"No need worry, eh," said the goblin with a squint-eyed
grin. "The humans you meet, they get sick. Bad sick. We
can do nothing. Maybe bury them later. More humans
maybe out in woods, looking around, but you safe here."
The goblin reached over and gently poked at the elf with a
stiff finger. "Eh, you Silvanesti?"
The elf stared in tight-lipped silence at the goblin.
"Yes? No? Not matter," said the goblin, looking down
to check his fingernails for dirt. "You think, eh, goblin not
like elves. Maybe he do for me hard." The goblin looked
into the elf's eyes with a knowing smile. "Maybe goblin
want you to live. Maybe we all help each other. You wear
The elf licked his lips, seeming to overcome some
obstacle inside him. "Yes," he whispered. He was
obviously afraid, but the goblin could tell the elf wanted to
come out with it. Pride, no doubt. And perhaps an arrogant
honesty. "I wear the wh - " The elf coughed painfully and
swallowed, then continued in a weaker voice. "I am of the
"Hmmm." The goblin made a face, looked down at his
fingernails. It figured. "Good magic not help much, eh?
You maybe looking for something when humans catch
The elf started to reply, then stopped. His wide-eyed
gaze locked onto the goblin.
Gotcha, thought the goblin. "Humans that beat you say
they take magic sword from elf, maybe not long ago.
Maybe humans go to Istar with sword, give Kingpriest.
What you think Kingpriest do with sword? Maybe cut off
little elf, goblin heads?"
The elf's face twisted. He made an effort to get up,
without success. "No," whispered the elf, rolling back in
despair. "Did they take it? Are you sure they have it?"
"Eh," said the goblin, feigning indifference. "They say
they have sword with gems. Pretty sword. Humans gone
The elf's eyes closed. "My cousin," he whispered. He
took several deep breaths, then continued. "They must have
caught my cousin. I was looking for his trail when my
horse broke a leg. Then the humans found me. They asked
why I was following them, but I wasn't. I just wanted my
cousin and the sword." He roused himself again, looking at
the goblin. "Did they say anything about my cousin?"
The goblin shrugged and shook his head. He knew
what must have happened. He knew the elf knew, too.
The elf groaned and again tried to get up, but he was
very weak and fell back limply. Sweat beaded up on his
forehead. His breathing became labored, but soon evened
out as he fell unconscious and slept.
For several minutes, the goblin sat by the elf in silence.
Instinct confirmed that the sword had to be magical. An elf,
especially one who was a wizard, would not waste time
worrying about a simple weapon. What could the sword do,
though? Magical weapons were capable of doing anything,
the goblin had heard. Some were said to hurl lightning,
others to bum like torches, still others to cut through stone.
The goblin had never before dreamed he would have the
chance to get a magical sword of his own. He was certainly
thinking about it now.
"How is he?" asked the kender as he came in with the
full water bucket. "Is he still alive? Did he say anything?"
The goblin snorted and got up, dusting off his hands.
"Still alive. Not say much, need sleep. Maybe all right
soon." He looked down at the sleeping figure. "Not bad elf.
Maybe we get along, eh? First time for everything."
"Running no good," the goblin observed the following
morning. Leaving the cave, he found the elf standing
upright by the entrance. A cold wind moaned through the
branches. The sky was overcast, as usual.
The elf turned and almost fell over, but he grabbed for
support from the rock face behind him. The elf wore stolen
clothing that the kender had provided. The outfit was old,
mismatched, and ill fitting, but better than nothing.
"I wasn't going to run," said the elf softly. He looked
with a trace of anxiety in the direction of the minotaur, who
was slowly wandering among the bare tree trunks some
distance away. The beast had wrapped its chain around its
waist and tied it there, like a belt, allowing its hands and
arms some range of movement. The chain links clinked
together lightly as it walked.
The goblin nodded in approval. "Good you stay. No
horse, no luck." He waved a hand at the forest. "Nice new
home, eh? You like? Stay long time with us, maybe?"
The elf looked away, his hands clenching and
unclenching. His breathing was short and shallow.
You're exhausted and in pain, but you want to escape,
thought the goblin. You want to escape and get that sword
back. It's so obvious, it's laughable.
"I - " began the elf. He wrung his hands, seemingly
unaware of what he was doing. He was watching the
minotaur, who was casually breaking off tree limbs as thick
as a grown man's arm, then dropping them or hurling them
away. The kender would use them for firewood later.
"Tell me story, why you here now," said the goblin,
sitting down on a rock. He was relaxed even though he
didn't have his machete or spear. He knew he wouldn't need
The elf was silent. He looked down at his clenched
"No story, eh?" said the goblin in mock
disappointment. "Maybe tell good story about magic sword.
Make no matter now. Sword gone. Humans got it. Tell
about sword. Good to hear story, start day."
The elf unclenched his hands. "It was just a sword," he
said without looking up.
The goblin grinned mirthlessly. "Just sword, eh?" he
said. "Dirty sword, no good? You sure you wear white
Stung, the elf flushed, but still did not look up. "It was
a gift for a friend," he said. "It ... had a lot of personal value
for me, too."
"Hmmm," said the goblin, after a minute had passed in
silence. "Not much story, eh. We find you, shoot humans,
save life, fix you up, and you have no story. Eh! Wizards
all alike." He made a gesture with his hands, resigned to the
ingratitude of the universe. "We save white book, even.
You throw many spells all you want. Play good wizard all
day. Still sword gone. Still no story. Eh I"
The elf blinked and looked directly at the goblin. "My
spellbook?" he asked in astonishment. "You have my
spellbook? Where is it?"
"In cave," said the goblin easily. "All safe for you. Eh,
some goblins not stupid. Work together, maybe live. Fight
each other, all die. Winter coming, you know. Rains start
soon. Maybe you use spells, we live to spring. You stay,
grow strong. We safe from humans here. You leave, eh, we
not care. But humans, maybe they not so nice next time."
It would be tricky, the goblin knew. If the elf had the
magic to obtain the sword, he would certainly have done so
by now. But he didn't have the sword, he hadn't stopped the
rangers from beating him up, and he hadn't managed to
escape even now. He might not have the magic to do much
of anything. But maybe he did and just needed time to
prepare. It would be tricky, baiting him like this, easing
him into the circle, making him give up his secrets.
"You not trust me" the goblin said at last. "Maybe
good thing. Elves, goblins like water and fire. Humans,
they kill us both, but we not care. That fine with you,
maybe?" The goblin gave a short laugh. "Look! You see
me, you see kender, you see minotaur. We work together.
You alive also. Think! Wizards good at thinking. Real
enemy is who, eh? Think!"
The elf did not answer for a minute. He looked
embarrassed as the goblin spoke. "I apologize," he finally
said. "I'd just never imagined that ... well, that - "
"That goblin get smart, eh? Or kender? Or - " The
goblin jerked a thumb in the direction of the minotaur.
"Istar make us smart. No time for stupid things. We stick
together or Istar collect our hair. You, wizard, maybe worth
more gold than me, minotaur, kender." The goblin grinned,
rubbing his own short, wiry hair. "My head, I like much,
The elf actually smiled. Then he looked around, and
the smile faded as he saw the bare trees and low clouds and
seemed to look beyond them.
"Cousin gone," said the goblin softly. "Why you risk
life for sword?"
It was the moment of truth. The goblin's eyes narrowed
as he leaned forward on the rock.
The elf looked down at his hands and wrung them
together for several long minutes.
"It was a gift for my cousin," he said at last, looking at
something only he could see. "I made it with the help of my
brethren in the Orders of High Sorcery. Over the years, my
cousin had shielded many in the orders from Istar, defying
his own family to do it, and we wished to reward him. I
asked that we make him a sword, one that he could use as
his wisdom saw fit."
The elf took a deep breath and let it out, never looking
up. His eyes seemed to glisten. "I rode out to meet him at a
prearranged place south of here, but an Istarian patrol
chased us. He got the sword, but didn't have time to undo
its case before we split up. I tried to find him. Then my
horse ... You know the rest."
The goblin nodded solemnly. The sword, he shouted
inside. Tell me about the sword, you maggot elf.
The elf licked his lips and went on. "The sword was
named the Sword of Change. We wanted to fulfill my
cousin's dearest dream, whatever the gods would grant, so
we gave the sword the power to do just that. It will grant its
user one wish. It is not all-powerful, but the gods of magic
will grant the user what he asks for if it is within reason."
He grimaced at a thought. "I've been guilty of worrying
more about the sword than my cousin's life, but the sword
could do much harm in the wrong hands. The Kingpriest no
doubt could find a use for it to build his power. He could
root out traitors, gain victory in battle, grant himself many
more years of life. Now it's ..." He lifted his hands, then let
them fall, his shoulders sagging.
The goblin quietly digested this. The idea that a sword
was capable of so much power was almost too ridiculous to
believe, but the practical aspects of having a sword like that
were not lost on him at all. A parade of wishes flowed
through his head. Food, riches, women, physical might,
rulership, immortality - he would ask for any of these if the
sword were his - or if it became his, one day. It began to
seep into his mind that perhaps the sword wasn't totally out
of his grasp. It certainly couldn't hurt to find out if the elf
knew anything more that would be useful in obtaining the
sword. The goblin would have to prepare himself for the
journey, though it meant abandoning the elf, the minotaur,
"Wow," said the kender.
The elf spun around and nearly fell again. The goblin
jumped in surprise. Eyes full of wonder, the kender was
sitting on the hillside over the cave mouth, beside a few
small saplings only thirty feet away. The goblin had never
"A sword that can do all that," said the kender in awe.
"And you cast magic, too? I can't believe it. That's
incredible. Are you going to capture the sword? Can we see
it if you do? What's it look like? My mother and father told
me all about magic, and they said it was the best thing. I'd
love to see a magic sword. Where is it? Can you find it?"
The elf slowly swallowed, appearing confused and
unsure. He glanced from the goblin to the kender. "If I
knew where the men who took it were, I might have a
chance to get it back," the elf said. "If my cousin is ... if he
is dead, then I should see that the sword stays out of
Istarian hands. I could not sleep, knowing they had it and
could use it."
"Great!" shouted the kender, leaping to his feet. "Can
we go with you? He and I are great hunters" - he pointed to
the goblin - "and we can track and set traps and do all kinds
of stuff. And the minotaur can carry things. He's strong!
We won't get in the way, I promise. We'll be good! Are you
going to cast spells to get the sword back? I can't wait!"
Both the elf and the goblin stared at the kender in
astonishment. The goblin looked at the elf. The elf looked
back at the minotaur, who was now sitting under a tree,
taking a nap.
"Well..." said the elf.
"Then let's get going!" shouted the kender. "I'll grab
my stuff!" HeScooted down the slope and ran into the cave,
past the camouflage branches.
The elf and goblin stared at each other. Each seemed to
be about to ask a question. Neither did.
The elf cleared his throat. "I really should recover that
sword. The Istarians will use it against us and against
everyone not of their faith, and we will suffer for it.
Making that sword was foolishness. Letting it go to the
likes of them is worse."
The goblin shrugged and glanced at the minotaur. "You
know, that fine by me, you get sword. Fine that we go for
walk. But maybe big one not like to take walk with us," he
said in a very low voice, nodding in the minotaur's
direction. "Hard to tell with big one."
The elf thought. "Maybe I can do something about
that," he said. "I don't like doing this, but ... could you find
that white book you said you found? I think I have a spell
there that might..." He let his voice trail off.
The goblin made a show of looking up into the trees,
then motioned for the elf to follow him into the cave.
Everything was working out so perfectly that the goblin
had trouble believing it. The possibility that he would soon
have the sword in his hands made it hard to think. He'd
have to calm down and use his head. There was too much
at stake to blow this. And he'd have to start thinking about
the wish he would make the moment his hand closed on the
sword's hilt. There were so many things he had always
wanted, and now ...
There was no sound in the forest but the rustling of dry
leaves and the cold wind in the bare branches. Beneath the
tree where it rested, the minotaur leaned back, eyes almost
closed, perfectly still except for the gentle rise and fall of
its barrel-sized chest. One of its broad, cupped ears flicked
away a horsefly, then curled back like the other toward the
They traveled east under a dark sky for the rest of the
day. Behind them were the woods that the kender had
known all his life. The kender was quite excited about the
trip and talked incessantly, though he looked back now and
then, too, and was sometimes silent. Nervously eyeing the
placid minotaur, the goblin marched along quickly to keep
up with everyone else. The elf's spell of charming did
indeed seem to have tamed the huge beast, though the
goblin was careful never to annoy it. There was no sense in
pressing one's luck. Once the elf felt certain of the
minotaur's obedience and that it understood the widely used
trade tongue, the elf paid little attention to the beast and
merely had it carry their heavier supplies. These included a
few bags the elf had dropped when the humans had
captured him. The elf fussed over these for several minutes
before assuring himself that they were safe and unharmed.
The Istarian free rangers had left a remarkably clear
trail behind them. The goblin spat on the ground as the
kender traced it back with ease. In the old days, the goblin
had heard, no living thing could find the path a ranger took.
Obviously, that had been a VERY long time ago.
They bedded down that night, too exhausted to talk.
The kender took first watch in the evening, unable to sleep
from excitement. He talked to himself a lot, however,
which kept the elf and goblin awake until the elf relieved
the kender and forced him to get some sleep himself.
On the afternoon of the second day, the foot trail of the
rangers merged with that of a larger party of humans with
horses and wagons. The signs of a camp on the edge of the
forest were fairly fresh, abandoned not more than a day
ago. A bonfire had been built in a broad clearing;
the large ash pile was still smoking slightly.
There was a grave, too, with an elf's battered helmet
pounded into the soil above it. The elf rested his hand on
the soil for a few moments, then stood, said nothing. The
goblin noticed, though, that the elf's eyes seemed unusually
red thereafter. The goblin shrugged; vengeance would
make the wizard fight all the harder. And it meant one less
elf in the world.
"We've got to move more carefully," said the kender,
scuffing his bare feet through some flattened tall grass. "If
they rest in the evenings, we could catch them as early as
tomorrow morning. But they could catch us, too. We killed
three of their scouts, but they might not miss them right
away. It looks like they have about twenty men, probably in
armor. They might have slaves, too. Those footprints right
there are barefoot. The slaves probably stay in the wagons
when the Istarians are traveling. Looks like children, maybe
a woman, too."
"Where are they heading?" the elf asked, shading his
eyes to look into the distance. The sky was overcast, but the
cold sun managed to peek through irregular breaks in the
"East, probably back to Istar. It looks like a regular
patrol, border checkers. They must all want to get back
home. They used to come into the woods when I was small,
but not so much lately. We should stay low and near trees
whenever possible." The kender turned to look up at the elf.
"Say, what spells are you going to use when we find the
The elf looked down with a faint smile. "This was all
your idea. I thought you knew."
"No, really," said the kender. "You're a wizard. You
should know about stuff like this. Are you planning to
throw a blast of fire at them? Are you going to blow them
up just like that? Can I watch if I'm quiet?"
The goblin, who had turned to continue the trek,
stopped to hear the elf's response. The same thought about
their tactics had been going through his mind, too, but he
had planned to ask about it this evening when they made
camp. Would the elf do all the work for them?
The elf's lips pressed tightly together. His face was
now less puffy, but it was an off-green color, the bruises
and cuts fading away slowly. "We'll see," he said. "I have a
few things with me that might help. I'll need to think it out,
but we should be able to put on quite a show. I doubt that
the patrol will ever forget it."
The kender nodded with excitement, the goblin with
satisfaction. The minotaur wandered on ahead to kick at
The kender's guesswork on the location of the Istarians
proved to be reasonably accurate. By late evening, even the
goblin could tell that they were not far behind the humans.
The oddly assorted companions elected to camp for the
night, forgoing a fire to prevent their being spotted. They
planned to catch the humans on the following night. The elf
guessed it would be their last chance to do so before the
humans entered territory that was more heavily defended.
That evening, before the light in the sky was gone, the
elf carefully outlined the plan he had developed for
assaulting the Istarian camp. He brought out the things that
the order had gifted him with before he had left with the
Sword of Change, and he went over their uses, point by
point. It would be difficult to take on the Istarian force,
especially since the four of them were far outnumbered.
But the elf pointed out that they had the weight of magic
and surprise. If a kender and a goblin could kill three
rangers, they certainly had a chance against the rest.
The kender was beside himself with excitement at the
plans; the minotaur seemed indifferent and uninterested.
The goblin listened carefully to the explanation and fought
to control his mounting tension. He mentally thanked
himself for not having burned the wizard's books and for
the silver tongue it had taken to open up the elf's foolish
trust. This elf was truly dangerous. It seemed he could do
And it was that very thought that brought back a tale
the goblin had heard, and his blood ran cold with fear.
Nonetheless, he asked the question with earnest innocence.
He cleared his throat to get everyone's attention. "Hear
talk from men of Istar, back when, that priests of Istar hear
you think when you not talk." The goblin tapped the side of
his head with a red finger. "Maybe they do this to you or
us, find us out?"
"I doubt that they have a priest with them, but it's
possible," the elf replied, unhappy with the thought. "I've
heard about the priests' mind-reading, too. Only the more
important priests can do that, but ... let's hope for the best."
The goblin grinned. "Eh, hope for best, yes. Maybe you
can do this listen-to-thoughts trick also, eh? You hear their
thoughts so we know what they think?"
"No, I'm afraid not. There were a few spells I was
never able to learn, and the mind-reading spell was one of
them. I couldn't learn to cast a fireball spell, either, but I
think I've taken care of that. I've always wanted to throw a
fireball, but what I've got is better."
The goblin laughed and nodded. His mind was safe.
His plans were secure. The relief he felt almost left him
light-headed. He knew a White Robes wizard would not lie,
and he was grateful for that flaw as much as he despised the
elf for it.
The goblin busied himself, setting up camp without
even being asked, which was unusual for him, but welcome
by the elf and kender. The goblin had already come to
terms with what he needed to do to get the sword at the
least amount of risk to himself. All he needed was to lay his
hands on the sword for a few seconds, long enough to make
his wish, which he now knew by heart. After that, he'd have
no worries at all.
The elf took first watch that evening. The others
bedded down in the darkness of a thicket at the foot of a
hill. The minotaur simply stretched out on the ground,
chains rattling, and was asleep almost at once. The goblin
and kender bedded down as well. After long minutes of
forcing his tension-tight stomach to settle down, the goblin
closed his eyes and prepared to take a much-needed rest.
"Are you still awake?" came the kender's voice. The
goblin jerked, and his eyes opened instantly. Then he
realized the kender wasn't talking to him. The soft voice
came from where the elf had gone on guard duty.
"Of course I'm awake," the elf said.
The goblin sighed and lifted his head slightly. With his
night vision, he could see the elf settle down on the ground
next to a log, about fifty feet away. The kender wandered
out of the dark undergrowth and sat down by the elf. The
little nuisance was wrapped in a blanket he had brought
from the cave. The goblin tried to close his eyes to sleep,
but found rest impossible now. He resigned himself to
staying awake a while longer, watching the elf and kender
and listening to them talk.
"I can't sleep," the kender said, scooting closer to the
elf. "I'm a little excited about tomorrow night. I've been in
fights before, but never one like this. Is it bad to be excited
"No," said the elf. "I'm feeling a little ... er ... excited
myself, but it will pass. Just remember your part, and when
the time comes, you'll be ready for it."
The kender sighed. "I hope so. I keep thinking about
what it will be like, and I can't seem to make my mind slow
down enough to drop off. My head's all full of things."
Your head is full, yes, thought the goblin. It is full of
The elf grunted. "You know," he said, "I never did ask
you what your name was. We've been so preoccupied that I
never got around to it."
There was a little silence. "Well, I wasn't really going
to tell you, because I was talking with the goblin a few
weeks ago when we first met, and he said he didn't have a
name. I figured it would be im-po-lite to tell him my name
when he didn't have one to tell me. My father taught me
"Hmmm," said the elf. "Well, so you're worried about
offending what's-his-name, the goblin?"
"Yeah," said the kender, scooting a little closer to the
elf. "So you can't tell me your name, either. We have to be
The goblin gently shook his head in disgust. He had long
ago given up trying to plumb the depths of the kender's
bizarre mind. It simply made no sense. Still, he felt odd
hearing the kender's reason for never telling his name. It
made the goblin vaguely uncomfortable, and he couldn't
The little guy was now practically stuck to the elf's
side. The elf raised his arm and hung it back over the fallen
log to keep from poking the kender in the head with his
"Magic is great," said the kender. "I never knew you
had so much magic. I've wanted to see magic all my life
because my parents always told stories about it. They said
it was the most marvelous thing, but it wasn't fair because
kender couldn't cast magic, no matter how hard they
studied. But elves and humans knew how. Is that true?"
"I'm afraid there's some truth to that," the elf said.
"Kender can cast spells if they serve the gods, but the
Orders of High Sorcery are closed to them." He shrugged
his shoulders, but his voice betrayed a certain relief at his
The goblin was appalled. A kender casting spells? The
very idea was chilling. Gods above, there was enough
trouble in the world already. Istar would be less of a threat
than a kender wizard.
"By the way," said the elf. "That's mine."
"What? Oh! I'm sorry." The kender handed something
back to the elf. "It fell out of your pocket."
The elf put the item on the ground far away from the
kender. "If I lose anything else, I won't be able to cast any
spells tomorrow," he warned.
"Oh," said the kender. There was a pause. "Here. I
found these, too."
The elf took the offered items with a deep sigh.
Thanks," he said, and all was quiet for a while.
"I used to ask my parents if I could learn to cast magic
when I got older," the kender said. "My mother said maybe
it was a good thing I couldn't, since if you want to become
a magic-user, you have to pass a test, and they make you do
terrible things in the test. Is that true?"
The elf was silent for perhaps a minute. It was a differ ent
kind of silence than merely thinking. The goblin found
himself turning his head to hear better, straining to hear
The kender poked the elf gently in the side with an
"What?" asked the elf blankly. "Oh, the test. Yes, we
do have to take the Test of High Sorcery. The test doesn't
really make you do terrible things, but you ... you have to
... um ... go through some terrible things. The bad things
just ... happen to you. I don't think I want to talk about my
test right now. I want to keep my mind clear and ready for
"Oh." There was a brief silence. "Would I have made a
good magic-user? I'm thirteen now. Is that old enough to
be a wizard?"
The news surprised the goblin. He had seen very few
kender in his life, but because they had all looked to be the
size of human children, he never thought twice about this
kender's age, assuming it was about thirty or so. Thirteen
was far younger than he had expected of someone,
especially a kender, with so much ability at wilderness
survival and lore.
"Thirteen is a little young," the elf finally commented.
"But a few wizards start not long after that age. Some
The kender seemed to be thinking hard about
something after that. Finally, he blurted out, "Could you
cast a spell for me?"
The goblin blinked in shock. What?
"Well, I could," said the elf slowly, "but most of the
spells I have right now should be saved for tomorrow
night." He paused for a moment, then said, "I suppose I
could try one small thing. I can relearn a new spell in its
place in the morning."
The kender leaned forward in excitement. "Really? A
He dropped his voice, glancing back at the goblin and
minotaur. The goblin closed his eyes, though he figured
they'd never know if he was awake or not unless he moved
"All right, I'm ready!" the kender whispered. "You
won't set anything on fire, will you? It's awfully dry out
here and it hasn't rained in the last five days. Anything but
that is fine."
"Don't worry," the elf said softly, and he raised his
hands. "IMPILTEH PEH."
A faint blue light - a tiny ball the size of a fingernail -
began to glow in the darkness between the elf's fingers. The
goblin caught his breath, not daring to make a sound and
reveal himself. He had never seen magic before; either, and
the sight of it frightened him as much as it excited and
The elf's fingers began a slow, waving dance around
the ball, and the ball responded by moving from one hand
to the other, swaying back and forth. In a moment, the ball
divided into two balls of equal size, then each ball divided
again and there were four, then eight, each rolling to the
rhythm of the elf's hands. By the faint, mobile light, the
goblin could see the kender's eyes shining.
The elf's hands moved, altering the pattern. The eight
blue balls began to chase each other in a small circle,
changing colors from blue to violet, then to red, orange,
yellow, green, and blue again. The balls began to change
colors out of sequence with each other, whirling around
between the elf's outspread fingers as he manipulated their
magical essence. They formed an oval pattern in the air,
chasing each other faster and faster, until they were a
single, unbroken cord of golden light that gyrated like a
coin rolling on its edge in a tight circle, just before falling
The elf's lips pursed, concentrating on the pattern. The
circle began changing shape as it revolved in the air, taking
the form of a square, then a triangle, then a five-pointed
star. Then its shape altered even more: a flying bird, a
leaping rabbit, a swimming fish, all whirling around
The elf's fingers changed the pattern again. Now it was
deep glowing green, a narrowing column that revolved
more slowly until it stopped over one outstretched palm
and began to grow leaves like a live plant. Each leaf
appeared in outline, then filled in with soft color; thorns
formed on the main stem. The top of the plant bloomed into
a bright red bud, which slowly grew until a rose of crimson
light reached up toward the sky.
The elf uttered a soft word, and the plant collapsed into
a small ball of pale white light. In moments, it formed a
mouselike shape that scampered around on the mage's palm
with lifelike curiosity. When it had finished exploring the
hand, the mouse stood up on its back legs, did a short
dance, took a deep bow to the kender and wizard, and
vanished into a dot of light that slowly faded from sight.
It was completely dark now. The goblin had forgotten
how to breathe. He slowly shut his mouth, unable to believe
it was over. He blinked and resisted the urge to rub his
eyes. It was magic. Real magic.
Then he heard the kender sniffle.
He looked at the little figure by the elf's side. Both of
the kender's hands were pressed to his face, covering his
eyes. The kender suddenly drew in a ragged breath and
began to cry.
The elf's arm dropped over the kender's shoulders.
"What's wrong?" he asked in confusion.
The kender leaned into the elf's chest as he wept, his
thin body shaking. Long minutes passed in the night as the
"My mamma and daddy told me magic was beautiful,"
the kender sobbed. "They said they had never seen it
before, but they knew it was good. They wanted to see it so
badly but no one would show them. They told me that
humans weren't all bad, and maybe someday a human or an
elf would show us some magic if we were patient with
them. They didn't think humans would hurt them, but the
humans did. The humans hurt them, they hurt my mamma
and daddy a lot and I couldn't help them because I was too
scared and I hid, and when the humans were gone, I had to
bury them and say the goodbye prayers like they taught me.
I was too scared to help them, even when they were really
hurt bad. I wish I had magic then so I could have helped
them. They wanted to see magic so bad." He shook as he
wept, his face hidden in the elf's clothes.
The goblin realized that his hands were clenched into
cold, trembling fists. Something burned in his eyes; it was
hard to see. Slowly, the goblin unclenched his hands and
covered his hot face with them. He hated weakness, he had
hated it all his life, and now he was filled with it. He hated
himself for it, and it was all the kender's fault - the
damned, weak, stupid, wretched kender. Wet streams
flowed down the goblin's cheeks, and he bit his lower lip
until he tasted blood.
Tomorrow, he thought. Let tomorrow come fast.
No stars were out. A tall fire burned just up the slope
of the hill, visible through the thick trees and under-brush.
The crickets called from all around.
"So you think you know how to handle that elf girl?"
the grinning guard said. "You think she's not too much of a
match for you?"
The smiling guard had turned to face his companion, who
was bending over to pick up firewood. The goblin drove his
knife into the grinning man's lower back, straight through
his leather armor. The guard knew instinctively he was
going to die, the pain was so great. He was terrified and
tried to scream, but the scream wouldn't come out through
the goblin's calloused hand that was clamped over his
mouth and face, twisting his head back with incredible
force. The man reached back to grab his attacker, but agony
filled his head and made him forget everything. The goblin
let the body sag to the ground.
"You bet I can handle her," said the guard picking up
the firewood. He crouched down to adjust the load in his
arms, reaching for a few more pieces. "Good redeems its
own, they say, and I'm gonna redeem that elf girl before she
gets to Istar. She's gonna know the ways of man, and I'm
gonna be the head priest. They can have the other slaves.
I've waited too long to pass this one up."
He picked up the last piece of wood, and the goblin
slapped his hand tightly over the man's mouth and pulled
him into his hard chest. The razor-sharp blade sliced swiftly
through his throat. The man knew what was happening, but
could do nothing to stop it, and trying to scream did
nothing useful at all.
Then it was quiet again in the night woods, and soon
the crickets began to chirp. Everything smelled of blood.
The goblin grinned, wiped off his blade, and moved on
through the wood. He felt no weakness at all now, not with
the spell of magical strength the elf had cast upon him. He
thought he could lift a horse now if he wanted to, maybe
ten horses. And he wore a ring that altered the sounds
around him, so a man would think he had heard an owl
hoot if the goblin spoke, or heard the wind blow if he
walked up. It was too good to be true. In his excitement, he
barely noticed the cold.
The main encampment of Istarians was on the hilltop,
packed tightly around the bonfire in the chill air. Down the
slope, in a clearing, half hidden from the hilltop by trees,
was a cluster of several wagons and all the Istarians' horses.
The elf had scouted ahead with his spells and reported
finding slaves in one wagon: an elven woman, an old
dwarf, and three children - human or elven, he couldn't tell.
The other three wagons were empty. The kender's estimate
of twenty men was close; the goblin guessed twenty-four -
twenty-one now that he had killed three men in the last few
minutes of circling the camp.
The elf and minotaur were down by the wagons,
attacking the guards there. The elf cast a spell that silenced
the minotaur's rattling chains. The goblin crouched down,
pulled a thin, ceramic flask from a leather pouch on his
rope belt. It was time. Uncorking the lid, he drank the
contents, screwing up his face at the bitter taste. Wiping his
mouth, he stood up, tossed the flask aside, and moved
toward the firelight in a crouch. He had to reach the top of
the hill before the kender arrived with the fireball.
Every step of the way, the goblin pictured the sword.
He saw himself holding it instead of his machete, and saw
himself after he made his wish, the one wish, the only wish.
The thought almost made him hurry too fast and give
himself away to the humans, who were directly ahead of
him. He dropped down behind a tree and faded into the
darkness. He was only two hundred feet from the fire on
top of the hill.
"It's not like we're killing real people, you know." The
human who spoke kept his voice low, but his tone was sure
and knowing. He shifted his stance, and his armor clinked.
Chain mail, maybe with plate. "You and I, we're real
people. We know the difference between right and wrong.
The great gods blessed us with vision that no other race
has. That's the vision to see our destiny. We're not like the
mongrel races who see only to the next day's meal. They
don't deserve to breathe our air. By the blessed gods, do
you want to live in a city with goblins?"
There were two men ahead of the goblin, thirty feet
away, near a pile of brush and branches from a fallen tree.
He could see them well in the firelight. One wore metal
mail, the other riveted leather. The goblin guessed that the
one in mail was a leader, maybe a knight. The man would
be hard to kill if this wasn't done right. The goblin
wondered if he should just go around them, but he hated
leaving anyone alive behind him, especially people who
didn't want to live with goblins or breathe their air.
The man in the riveted leather looked away from his
companion, his grip loosening on his spear. "No, Your
Reverence," he mumbled.
The goblin froze. Gods of Istar, he thought, a priest.
Perhaps a priest that could tell what you were thinking!
"Well, neither do I," said the mail-armored man,
looking at the other with a half-grin. "No one does. You
know what kinds of evil things goblins do, don't you? Well,
certainly. We have to destroy them, and you know that's
right. And kender. Forgive my asking, but would one of the
gods of good ever have created a kender?"
"They - " The other man stopped, obviously trying to
think this out carefully. "They aren't ... I mean ... kender,
they cause trouble, I know, but - "
The mail-armored man snorted good-naturedly. He
looked away at the distant bonfire in the center of the camp,
surrounded by the secure clutter of bedrolls. The dim
firelight was reflected in his polished steel breastplate.
"You're trying to tell me that kender aren't as bad as
The leather-armored man took a breath, thought better
of his answer, and said nothing.
"So you DO think kender aren't as bad as goblins." The
mail-armored man sighed. "You think we're doing wrong,
is that it? We're doing the will of the gods of good and the
Kingpriest of Istar, and it's wrong?"
"No." The man seemed badly frightened. The goblin
could barely hear the answer. "No, that's not it, Your
"Ah," the cleric said, the misunderstanding apparently
cleared up. "The captain said this was your first campaign.
I know it's hard, and everything seems confusing at times.
Maybe all the time, right?"
The other man looked at the ground and seemed to nod
in the affirmative, unwilling to speak.
The goblin's worst fear was eased. If the priest could read
minds, he wasn't doing it now. The goblin studied the
ground ahead of him, then reached into a side pocket and
pulled something out. He couldn't count on a clean kill
through mail armor, so he'd have to use the potion's powers
and work around it. He slowly crept out from the tree's
"It was confusing for me, too, when I started." The
cleric suddenly sounded strangely vulnerable. "It was
terrible for me at first. I wasn't worried about fighting
goblins, but other things threw me. We had to fight
dwarves once. They put the fear of evil into me, with their
shifty little eyes and ratty beards and stumpy bodies. They
fought like" - the cleric dropped his voice and turned his
dark eyes on the recruit - "like the Seven Evil Ones were in
There was only silence after his words, except for the
distant crackling of the fire. The wind seemed to be
picking up around them.
"It was a terrible war in the mountains," said the cleric
in a low voice. "I saw my friends crushed by avalanches,
shot by bolts and arrows. They lay in my arms with their
limbs hacked away, begging me to heal them. The dwarves
did this to us in the mountains. They didn't fight like
humans. They weren't human. They were evil reborn. I saw
it all then, and I came to believe at last in their evil. I wish
to the gods even now that there had been a better way for
me to learn than to have gone through that. I'll not see my
friends die in my arms for that again, bleeding away and
me not able to stop it because all my spells were gone to
others wounded earlier." The cleric's eyes were like
dancing black flames.
The cleric reached up, patted the other man on the
back. "I like you, boy. You remind me of the way I was,
before the war in the mountains. I wish you could always
be like that. I really do. You're a lot happier for it."
The leather-armored man coughed and dared a weak
smile. The cleric smiled back at him. The leather-armored
man reached up to wipe the sweat from his forehead.
Something moved across his feet and crawled up his legs.
The man jumped when he felt it. Something had him
by the feet, and he lost his balance and fell over, dropping
his spear. The cleric began struggling and slapping madly
at his thighs. He was seeing tall grass and vines and roots
and briars and saplings knot themselves around his calves
like iron chains. The two men opened their mouths to shout
or scream. No cries sounded. Instead, the crickets chirped
more loudly, the wind blew harder, night birds called. The
men on the hill by the fire went on about their business.
The goblin came swiftly out of the darkness. He
whipped a flexible wire over the cleric's head, twisted the
wire around his neck, and pulled it tight in less than a
second, snapping the cleric's head back with great force.
The cleric's eyes bugged out; he fought to get his fingers
under the wire but found no space. His tongue came out
between his teeth, and his eyes stared, white, at the stars.
The man on the ground struggled to get free of the vines
and grass that tightened over his legs and chest and arms
and reached up for his face, and he screamed and screamed
and heard only the crickets and the night birds and the wind
in the trees above.
Then the cleric collapsed, falling backward into the
grasping grasses and vines, and the dark shape released the
garrote and looked at the fallen man with cold eyes. The
leather-armored man saw it and believed the cleric about
the evil then, he believed it all, and he screamed like a
madman right up to the end. And no one heard him.
It's all too good to be true, thought the goblin.
"Where in the Abyss are they?" muttered the captain,
heedless of the sleeping men around him. He had to be the
captain, the goblin decided, though the man wore no armor.
His bearing and movements marked him at once as a man
who was in charge. "Hey, you!" he shouted to the sentry
standing across the camp. "Get out there and tell those two
dung-eaters that the fire's dying, and they're to get their fat
asses back up here with the wood right now. And tell them
I want to see them afterward, too. If they've got time to
hunt squirrels, they've got time for a few other things I've
got in mind for them. Go!"
The sleeping men slept on. The chosen soldier saluted
with a grin and took off into the woods, passing the unseen
goblin and leaving the bearded captain to slap at
mosquitoes and gnats. "I hate being out here," the captain
muttered. "I hate all of the camping out crap, with little
things that bite and sting. The wilderness doesn't give a
damn about me or my rank or anything. I can't fight back."
The goblin looked at the soldier heading into the
woods. The man wasn't likely to find the last two bodies,
covered up as they were, but if he kept going he'd soon find
the first three. Time was running out. Hidden behind a
cluster of saplings, the goblin rubbed his arm muscles and
looked back at the camp. He counted twelve sleeping rolls
around the clearing; the captain was standing guard now by
himself. The other men must be down the slope with the
horses and wagons, if they were still alive - which the
goblin doubted very much.
The kender was due. The goblin had to get there first,
to look for the sword. He took the time to squint against the
firelight and search the clearing for any sign of a box or
crate that might contain a sword. There was only one pile
of belongings and supplies, and that was on the edge of the
clearing, about two-thirds of the way around to the left. He
couldn't make out what was in the pile very well; the fire
interfered with his night vision. His only hope was that the
captain had thought the sword valuable enough to bring it
into the camp to prevent its being stolen.
The goblin carefully moved back from the light and
began making his way around the camp's edge toward the
left side. He tried not to think of the possibility that the elf,
the minotaur, or even the kender would find the Sword of
Change first. He had dreamed about the sword so much in
the last two days that he couldn't imagine not having it.
There was so much to gain, and he deserved it so badly.
The wish would pay for a lifetime of loneliness,
deprivation, and brutality. It would set him above all
worries ever again.
He still felt as if the strength spell was working. He
didn't know if the plant-control potion was active or not,
but he didn't care. If he could get close enough to the
supplies and find that sword, he wouldn't need to entangle
the soldiers with plants again; he could just take off and run
with his prize. No. He changed his mind. He would use the
potion's effects if it still worked. Better to snag everyone
with weeds until he had time for his wish. Then it wouldn't
The slope in the woods behind the supplies fell off
steeply, dropping at least twenty feet straight down through
the tree limbs. The goblin kept as low to the ground as he
could while he moved, taking his time. Any minute now,
the guard in the woods would find someone's body and set
up an alarm. But the goblin couldn't afford haste. He
reached the edge of the grassy cliff. It was bathed in
shadows cast by the supply crates and chests, blocking the
fire's light. The goblin decided to risk standing up in a
crouch, and he took a much better look around the camp.
Right then, the kender flew down out of the sky and
landed in the middle of the camp, not a pike's length away
from both the captain and the goblin himself.
It happened so fast that the goblin froze in the act of
taking a step, and the captain didn't even shout to wake
everyone up. The kender merely landed and looked around,
then waved a hand at the captain and gave him a devilish
grin. The kender, his dark hair full of tangles and his
scarred face smudged with dirt, came up to the captain's
breastbone. The kender wore his usual filthy mix of torn
clothes and animal hides, and he held a huge bag cradled in
his arms: the fireball.
"What in the Abyss!" whispered the captain. His right
hand slowly edged up his back toward a dagger sheath.
Keeping his face blank, he waved at the kender.
The kender hopped into the air, did a smooth back flip,
and landed on his feet again, his face alive with excitement.
He nodded at the captain and made a motion of looking
briefly toward the sky, as if urging the captain to try it, too.
The captain licked his lips. His fingers were working
on untying the dagger straps. "I'm ... I'm afraid I can't fly
like that," he said, forcing a smile. "But that was real
Out of the comer of his eye, the goblin noticed an arm
snake quietly out of a bedroll about ten feet behind the
kender, reaching for a sword on the ground. The captain
seemed to see it, too, but he kept from looking in that
direction after the first glance.
"Do you know any other tricks?" the captain asked,
"Sure!" said the kender, then looked instantly contrite.
"Not supposed to talk," he mumbled apologetically. "My
mistake. But here's my last trick anyway."
The soldier in the bedroll behind the kender lifted the
sword, then slowly rolled forward to get within striking
distance. The goblin tensed. He hadn't the faintest idea
what to do next.
The kender crouched and leaped into the air. Still
carrying the bag, he flew straight up into the darkness. The
soldier in the bedroll flung himself forward. His sword
whipped down, missing the kender completely.
"Camp awake!" roared the captain, forgetting the
dagger and pulling his long sword free instead. "To arms!
Get the rocks out of your asses and get up! To arms, the
gods damn you!"
The kender was gone now, lost against the starless black
of the night sky. The goblin backed farther into the
undergrowth until he was on the edge of the cliff. There
was nowhere to go. He kept the bulk of a tree between him
and the awakening camp, and silently cursed the kender for
nearly getting himself killed.
Sleepy, frightened men tore at their bedrolls, flailed
about for weapons and armor and helmets and shields. The
captain, swearing at all the gods, stared up into the sky for
the flying kender.
"Sorry I missed 'im, Cap'n," said the warrior. "I had 'im
right there before he took off. Was he a wizard?"
"Had to be," said the captain tightly, still looking
upward. "He flew."
"What's going on, Captain?" one of the men shouted,
his armor half-on, an axe in his hand.
The bearded captain looked down. All his men were up
now, crowding around. "You," said the captain, pointing to
a red-haired man. "Get down the hill and get the priest up
here; we could be having some trouble. Tell him there's a
wizard loose. Take three men with you. Don't - ow, damn
it!" The captain clapped his hand over his eyes, rubbed
them vigorously with his fingers, and other men around the
camp nearest the fire did the same. Sparks flew up from the
bonfire's flames as a black, powdery rain began.
It was the start of the fireball.
The goblin realized his danger when the black dust
came down and the men in the camp swore. He knew he
should get away, but he hesitated just a moment before
escaping, because he couldn't figure out where to go
without being seen. That was all the time he had and it was
The fireball was an explosion of white and yellow light
half as big as a city block. It billowed out over the bonfire,
filled the entire clearing, framed the flying bodies of men at
its base for an instant before it swallowed them whole.
A solid blinding wall of superheated flame and air
reached for the goblin through the black branches and
leaves, incinerating the trees as it came. The flames found
him and burned the hair from his arms and face, set his rags
on fire, and roasted every scrap of skin that faced the
inferno. In agony, the goblin instinctively flung up his
hands to ward it off. There was no time to be truly afraid.
He had no time to react, except to move.
He turned and threw himself off the cliff. He fell
through space, bathed in firelight, the wind roaring for a
moment in his ears, the distant sloping ground rushing up
to meet him.
The ground slammed all of the air from his lungs when
he hit. He rolled in a crazy tangle of arms and legs down
the slope until he struck a tree with his back. He couldn't
breathe. A million thorns and sticks had torn his burned
skin. A flaming mass of leaves landed around him. He
forced himself to his knees without thinking at all. He
fought for air and felt a dozen sharp knives stab him
through the lungs. It was the worst pain he had ever known,
worse than the bums and cuts. He got numbly to his feet,
not daring to breathe again, and staggered forward,
heedless of everything, until he fell over a log. Something
struck his forehead like a hammer, and the world went out.
For a minute, the goblin could not remember what was
going on or why he was even here. All he knew was a
peculiar numbness. Strange images began to filter back to
him, part of some awful dream that ran around and around
in a storm inside his head. He remembered who he was,
but nothing about where he was or what he was doing here.
He lay back, feeling some of the numbness slip away into a
slowly building pain that covered his whole body. He
dreamed that he had bathed in lava and been beaten with
I am out in the night in a forest, he thought. There's a big
fire on a hill above me. I should get away from here, but I
don't know where this is or why I'm here.
He started to roll over but didn't, wincing from the
awful pain that started deep in his chest. He slowly began
to remember the kender, then the minotaur and elf. He even
remembered the sword, but he had no idea why he should
care about it.
After a while, he remembered that, too.
He finally got to his knees, but stayed there, his bruised
chest aching with every wheezing breath he drew. The blast
had been the elf's coal-dust fireball, the one he said he'd
worked on with the help of gnomes, who had provided the
coal for the enchantment. The goblin wondered if the
kender could have survived the blast, being so far up in the
sky. The elf had warned the kender about staying aloft too
long. The spell would fade and drop the little guy from the
clouds to his death. Maybe the kender wouldn't have to
worry about that possibility, if his curiosity had gotten the
best of him and he'd tried to watch the blast close up. The
goblin found himself hoping the kender was still around
somewhere. After all, he told himself, the kender did all the
Then the goblin remembered the elf and the minotaur.
The elf would be looking for the sword right now, and he
had the minotaur's help as well as his spells.
That's all right, the goblin thought suddenly. I'm going
to kill that elf. I'm going to kill that elf and the minotaur,
too. I can do it; I've killed lots of men tonight. I'll just kill
everyone. I'm so strong, nothing can get me. I just need to
get that sword, and that's all I'll ever need. I have to do it
Carefully, using a tree trunk for support, the goblin got
to his feet and began to stagger back up the hill.
Smoke drifted across the countryside in the night as
flames leaped through the dry trees, sending yellow sparks
skyward by the thousands. The bottoms of the clouds
The goblin began climbing the hill, pulling himself up
foot by agonizing foot. His burned, aching hands clung to
branches, bunched weeds, and stones. He climbed until he
knew he had been climbing for years without end.
Somewhere along the way, he lost his magical ring. Several
times he felt delirious and babbled about things that seemed
to make lots of sense but never stayed long in his mind. He
yelled and sang and grasped a last handful of grass, pulled
himself up on his stomach, and saw that he had made it. He
was still singing something, a tune he'd heard the thugs sing
in East Dravinar, but the song faded away as he coughed on
the smoke and the stench of burned flesh. He rested for a
moment, then pulled himself up to look around.
It took a while, but eventually he realized that the fires
on the hilltop were going out. It took a few moments longer
to realize that it was probably the doing of the elf wizard.
The goblin watched dumbly as a small fire in front of him
died away into a blackened smear of ash and smoke. Only
the much-weakened bonfire still burned with any heat and
The goblin shivered as a violent chill passed through
him. He knew it was from both fear and the beating he'd
taken, especially from the bums. He had to find the sword.
He couldn't go on much longer. He moved forward on his
hands and knees, his body alive with pain, looking for the
As he did, he heard someone stumbling toward him
through the scorched remains of the camp. The goblin
coughed and looked around.
A blackened apparition in guardsman armor held out its
arms to the goblin as it approached. Its face was burned
beyond recognition, and its fingers were gone, leaving only
the black stumps of its hands. The figure walked stiffly
toward the goblin. The man was blind and unaware, trailing
smoke from the remnants of his smol dering clothes.
The goblin shrieked in terror. He couldn't even think of
fleeing or fighting; All he knew was that it was a dead man,
a dead man he had helped kill, and it wanted him. He knew
all the stories about dead men. He didn't want to know any
The burned apparition stumbled over a body on the
ground before it collapsed with a muffled cry. For a
moment it tried to rise, then it fell flat and was still at last.
The smell hit him then, and the goblin retched, but he
forced himself to look away from the dead man and began
crawling again. He knew he'd find worse as he got closer to
the blast, but it didn't matter. He had to find the sword.
A jumble of blackened wood appeared in the dying
firelight, only thirty feet away. With a burst of energy he
didn't think he could find, the goblin gave out a gasping
cry, then hurried forward on hands and knees, heedless of
what he had to crawl over or through to get there.
Restless fingers reached for the smoldering boxes. He
saw that they really had been camp supplies, but it was still
possible that the sword was among them. He was so close
now, so close to the only power he would ever know, that
he couldn't stop looking. He got to his knees and tried to
examine the boxes in the dimming firelight.
And, almost at once, he saw one that stood out from
the rest. It was a weapons case, once covered with fine
elven carvings in the wood but now half-charred. It was
just a little bigger than a sword would be. He snatched at it
with an agonized, inarticulate cry, dragging the case to him
as he fumbled for latches or locks. His fingers found one,
snapped it open, and emptied it out.
But it was already empty.
It was already empty.
He checked the inside of the box again.
It was still empty.
Someone moved through the camp behind him. The
goblin turned around, shivering but feeling no pain at all
from his wounds.
"Oh, gods!" cried the elf's muffled voice. His face was
white with shock, and he held a cloth to his nose and mouth
with his left hand to ward against the awful stench in the
air. "You're hurt! Don't move!"
The goblin dully dropped his gaze to the elf's right
hand, which held a gleaming, jewel-encrusted long sword,
point down, at his side.
The elf sheathed his sword in a scabbard that the goblin
did not recognize.
"I found the Sword of Change with one of the guards
by the horses," the elf said hastily, coming up to kneel and
check the goblin's injuries. "The man must have won it in a
dice game or something. The minotaur's just down the
slope. The slaves ran off into the hills. Let's get you to a
creek and get you washed off. If that kender's around
anywhere, we'll get him to bandage you up. Damn, you're
really hurt. How close were you to the fireball? Couldn't
you get away from it?"
The goblin's shoulders slumped, and he seemed to melt
into himself. The elf reached out and gently took the goblin
by one arm, trying to help him up. The goblin flinched at
the painful touch, but didn't get up. He sat on the ground
and stared at the elf's feet without a trace of expression.
"Come on," said the elf. "We have what we came for,
and now we must look after your wounds." He reached
down again with both hands. The goblin looked up stupidly
at the elf's face. Then he looked down and saw the sword.
"Come on," the elf urged.
The goblin stirred, reaching up to the elf with both hands
as he sat back on the balls of his feet. He took a sudden
deep breath and lunged forward through the elf's arms. As
he hurtled past the elf's side, he snatched at the sword hilt
with both hands. The sword snagged, then pulled free of its
He had the sword. HE HAD THE SWORD!
"Gods, no!" shouted the elf, starting for him.
The goblin stumbled backward, nearly falling before he
caught himself. The elf almost grabbed him, but the blade
came up. The elf dodged and jumped back, almost a
moment too late.
"Please!" pleaded the elf. "You're crazy! You don't
have any idea of what you're holding!"
The goblin stared for a moment, then laughed - a wild,
mad, painful laugh that rang in the night across the hilltop.
His eyes were glistening balls of blackness in his burned,
filthy face, his mouth open to the black sky. His chest
shook as if each breath was killing him.
"Give me the sword!" the elf shouted. "Give it to me!"
The goblin still laughed and shook his head. He felt
giddy, as if his soul were leaving his body. He seemed to
hurt all over. "It my sword," he managed to say, though the
pain in his lungs stabbed him with every word. "It my
sword! My sword!"
"You'll ruin everything, you fool!" the elf yelled. "It's a
wish sword! We can fight Istar with it! We can save
ourselves and our people from Istar if we use it right! We
have the chance now! Give me the sword!"
The goblin shook his head slowly. He kept the sword
point facing the elf, ready to thrust in case the elf did
something stupid like charge. But the goblin was feeling
very tired now. It seemed like a year since he'd slept last.
The sword was very heavy, and his chest was starting to
hurt more than usual. He tried to swallow, but it hurt too
The elf held his pose, his arms reaching out to the
goblin from a crouched stance. Then he slowly let his arms
drop, and he stood up. "Fine," said the elf in a different, flat
voice. "I should have known better. I should have known.
This is the way you want it, so" - the elf raised his hands
into the air - "I have no choice."
The elf's hands began to glow.
The goblin's mouth fell open. He raised his sword -
and he couldn't remember his wish.
"ALIAKIADAM VITHOFO MILGREYA!" shouted the
elf. "SOMALITARAK CIONDIAMAL FREETRA - "
A huge, dark shape arose from the brush behind the elf,
its massive brown bulk and long horns silhouetted against
the light of the dying fire. The goblin saw the minotaur and
fell back with a wild cry. He landed on his backside and
knocked the wind out of his lungs. He didn't release the
sword, simply held it before him.
The minotaur swung its arms in a huge, rapid arc. The
black iron chain whipped around, struck the elf in the back,
smacking him like a giant's hammer. The elf was thrown
forward into the air, crashing in a heap on the ground. The
magic on his hands flared up - and died out.
The elf writhed on the ground, gasping for air. He
managed to roll onto his chest and pushed himself up to
face the minotaur. The elf's chest heaved, and his face
twisted in grotesque pain. The goblin could see in the
firelight that the back of the elf's shirt was stained dark and
wet where the thick chain had struck him. Not daring to
move or think, the goblin stared at the minotaur, which
was standing upright now, facing the elf. From the
minotaur's large hands dangled the long black chain,
readied for another strike.
The goblin tried to remember his wish, but it wouldn't
come to him. He couldn't think of it at all.
"Well," said the minotaur in the trade tongue, as it
looked at the elf, "aren't you going to throw a spell at me?"
The elf wheezed, seeming to find it hard to breathe.
The goblin stared at the huge brown monster and forgot
about breathing entirely.
"You ... can talk," the elf gasped at last.
"Very good," the minotaur said. It spoke lazily, but with a
perfectly precise grasp of the trade tongue. "You have
learned something about your world that you did not know
before. I've heard that elves value knowledge, so this
information will serve you well in the afterlife."
"Wait," said the elf, trying to catch his breath. "Just
wait. We set out ... to get the sword ... so that we could ...
use it against ... our common foe ... Istar. We have to - "
"No," said the minotaur. "We each set out to gain the
sword for our own purposes." The minotaur flicked a
glance in the goblin's direction. "I would guess that our
friend the goblin merely wants power. Maybe he wants to
be a god. But my need of the sword is far simpler."
The goblin wondered if he was dreaming. The elf
pulled himself up a bit, but couldn't seem to sit upright
now; he grimaced as he settled down, chest against the
earth again, his breath coming shallow and quickly.
"You don't appear to have heard me," said the
minotaur. The chain in its fists swung slightly.
"No! I heard!" said the elf quickly. "Why? Why?"
"Because this is the way of the world: Only the strong
deserve to rule, and the strong should use any means at
their disposal to accomplish this. Because true strength is
revealed in chaos, in the destruction of all borders and laws
and boundaries, so that each being may challenge every
other for the right to rule. Once I take that sword, I will
ensure my chance to rule the world, from sea to sea and
beyond, for all time, by wishing for the doom of the
civilized world. My brethren and I will have our freedom at
last, and we will command what's left of this sad, tortured
The elf stared at the minotaur. "Madness," he
"No more mad than your hope to destroy a part of Istar's
power with this sword. You'd open the gates to chaos in
your own way, but you'd leave justice and order in the
world intact. Those who make the laws and govern the
armies would probably find minotaurs to be as
inconvenient as do the Istarians - and they might not be as
willing to save our race for enslavement."
The goblin figured that the elf's back was broken, and
indeed it might be, but the elf seemed to gather some
strength as he spoke next. "If we use ... the sword together,
we ... can break the hold ... Istar has on us!" he pleaded
softly. "We can start to ... throw down slavery ... and killing
and prejudice everywhere, and be free! We can ... have a
"Did you not attempt to enslave me with one of your
spells before we left on this quest?" asked the minotaur,
raising a thick eyebrow. "If that's a sample of how your
new world is going to be, I confess I find it lacking. I threw
off that spell, thanks only to my willpower - the same
willpower that allowed me to survive long enough in this
mad wilderness to be found by that pathetic kender.
Besides, I really have no quarrel with slavery or killing - as
long as it is the minotaurs who are doing the enslaving and
murdering. It is the way of the world. You elves should
really come out of your forests once in a while and see
what the world's all about."
Sweat dripped from the minotaur's broad snout. "This
has gone on long enough. You have had your fun tonight.
And now I'd like some fun myself." It stepped forward,
arms and chain swinging back and around.
The elf raised a hand. "ELEKONIA XANES," he said,
pointing his index finger in the minotaur's direction.
A pulsing stream of white light burst from the elf's
finger, flashed into the minotaur's chest. The beast flinched
and threw back its head, roaring in agony. Then it came on,
maddened, the long chain lashing down to strike at the elf's
head. The goblin came to his senses and rolled to get out of
The elf gave a strangled cry when the chain struck
him. The goblin heard the chain lash down again, and
again, and he kept rolling to get away.
Then he remembered his wish.
He remembered it perfectly.
He stopped rolling and held onto the sword's hilt as he lay
on his chest, facing away from the smashing and rattling
sounds as the minotaur flailed at the fallen elf.
"I wish," began the goblin in a choking voice, his chest
burning and his hands shaking, "that I would be - "
He heard the minotaur's earth-shattering roar directly
behind him. Panicked, he brought the sword up as the
minotaur leaped at him.
It was cold, but the goblin didn't feel the cold very
much. The chill from the ground seeped into his body and
through his bones, but it seemed very distant and not very
real. It was odd that he felt no pain. For some reason, he
thought that he should.
Someone was calling, someone close by. The goblin
opened his eyes and saw dark gray clouds rolling overhead,
heard the wind tossing the tree branches. Something cold
and wet struck him on the forehead. Rain, maybe.
A new sound began. It was the stupid kender. He was
crying. The goblin stirred, trying to look in the kender's
direction, but he couldn't move very well. He found it hard
Footsteps thumped over to his side. Small, cold hands
touched his cheeks, wiping away dirt and blood. Turning
his head, he saw a thin face with tangled brown hair and
"Are you alive?" the kender asked, his voice almost
breaking. "I saw you move. Please say you're alive."
The goblin licked his lips. His mouth felt very dry, and
it tasted awful. "Yes," he said. It hurt to speak; the wind
almost carried his voice away.
"I'm sorry I wasn't here," the kender said, choking back
his sobs. His hands continued to clean the goblin's face. "I
got lost last night because of the explosion and the wind,
and I crashed in some bushes. I came down far away and
kept falling over things and getting stuck in briars and
almost twisted my ankle. What happened?"
"Fight," the goblin managed to say. Was the kender
going to talk him to death? He suspected that he was dying
anyway. Then he remembered. "Minotaur," he whispered
fearfully, trying to look around.
"The minotaur's over there." The kender waved an arm
blindly to his right. "I'm sorry. He ... he's dead." The
kender started to cry again but fought it down. "The
humans killed him with the gem sword. The elf's dead, too.
The humans beat him up. I don't want you to die, too."
With a sudden effort, the goblin forced himself to sit
up a few inches and looked in the direction the kender had
indicated. The minotaur lay collapsed in a dirty brown
heap, the sword's silver blade protruding from its back.
The goblin remembered now the minotaur's roar as it had
leapt upon the blade, its full weight smashing into the
goblin's face and chest. Then the awful gurgling howl as it
arose and tried to breathe with a shaft of steel through its
lung and heart.
The goblin eased himself back down, fighting the dull
pain that came from his chest. I should be happy, he
thought. I killed a minotaur. But I feel so tired. It isn't
worth it to move. I just want to ... Oh. The -
"Sword," whispered the goblin. He tried to reach
toward the dead minotaur. "Sword."
The kender wiped his eyes and leaned closer. "What?"
"Sword," said the goblin. He tried to reach for it.
Things seemed to get dark and that frightened him, but his
hand caught the kender's hand, and he felt less afraid.
Stupid kender, he thought, and the world slowly drifted
One of the wagons carried shovels. It took the rest of the
day, with intermittent droplets of rain falling all around, for
the kender to dig a pit large enough to bury his three
friends. The goblin had asked for the sword, so the kender
carefully cleaned it after removing it from the minotaur's
chest, never touching the blade. He held it by its hilt as he
prepared to lay it at the dead goblin's side.
"I wish ..." the kender whispered, then closed his eyes
to better remember the words that his parents had taught
him. He could remember only the end of the good-bye
prayers, so he said that. "I wish you peace on your journey,
and hope you will be waiting for me at the end of your
Because his eyes were closed, he did not see the sword
glow briefly as he spoke. The light faded away when he set
the sword into the goblin's hand.
The kender filled the pit halfway with dirt, then
covered it with rocks to keep out wolves and other
creatures. It was dawn the next day before he was finished.
He left the Istarian soldiers where they lay. Then he
Raindrops began falling all across the hilltop. Within
minutes, the land was awash in a cold, blinding torrent.
The Three Lives of Horgan Oxthrall
Research of Foryth Teel, scribe serving
My Most Honored Master:
Regretfully, information detailing the history of the
Khalkist dwarves during the century preceding the
Cataclysm is sparse and, for the most part, of questionable
veracity. Nevertheless, I shall endeavor to collect the scraps
that yield themselves to me and present them to you in as
sensible a manner as possible.
The tale begins with the Istarian invasion of the
Khalkist Mountains in 117 PC, following the dwarven
reaction to the Proclamation of Manifest Virtue (118 PC).
The Khalkist dwarves' refusal to renounce Reorx and swear
obeisance to only the gods of good was viewed as a direct
challenge to the authority of the Kingpriest. The resulting
disastrous campaign is, naturally enough, given scant
treatment in the surviving human histories.
The few traversable routes through the crest of the high
Khalkists - most notably, Stone Pillar and White Bear
passes - were the only overland roads connecting the
eastern and western portions of the empire of Istar.
Angered by the effrontery of the human proclamation, the
dwarves turned their backs on a lucrative income (from
tolls on the passes) and closed their realm to Istar.
The emperor invaded late the following summer (117
PC), delaying the assault until then in order to minimize
the difficulties presented by the deep snow in the heights.
He sent two of his legions against each of the two major
passes - a total army of some forty thousand men. The
rugged terrain confined each force to a single deep valley,
and though each marched but a score of leagues from the
other, neither was in a position to support its counterpart in
the event of difficulty.
The dwarves capitalized on this disadvantage quickly,
meeting the two southern legions with some eight thousand
doughty warriors. Meanwhile, the northern wing of the
Istarian army advanced over rougher ground, pushing
toward the lofty divide at a snail's pace.
Making his attack in the south from ambush, at the
fording of a rapid stream, the dwarven commander timed
the onslaught perfectly. (Incidentally, reports indicate, but
do not confirm, that the dwarven field army was led by
High Thane Rankil himself.) Waiting until half of the
Istarians had crossed, the Khalkist army annihilated an
entire legion and harried the second all the way back to the
lowlands. There the remnant of the human legion
remained, its fighting spirit shattered on the granite
foothills. The heights loomed like jagged daggers to the
west, casting shadows of an early sunset over Istar. (I beg
Your Excellency's forgiveness of my metaphorical excess!)
By this time, the northern legions had penetrated to
Stone Pillar Pass, without seeing a single dwarf. Then,
abruptly, the attacks began - sudden strikes from
concealment. There seems to have been a simple sameness
to the tactic:
A wedge of stocky, bearded dwarves bearing keen battle-
axes or steel-headed hammers charged from a ridge line or
ravine, slashing into the human column, then disappearing
before the Istarian army could concentrate its forces. The
attacks were repeated; the position of the legions became
untenable. The human troops endured short rations, harsh
weather, and constant harassing combat, but their generals
ordered them to stand firm.
After several weeks of this treatment, during which
every grown, able-bodied male dwarf was drawn into the
Khalkist army, the centurions commanding the two trapped
legions gradually came to grips with the precariousness of
their situation. Food had begun to run low, and the icy
menace of winter was a constant reminder behind the harsh
autumn winds. Desperate, the commanders ordered a march
back to Istar.
The humans surrounded their heavy, ox-drawn supply
wagons with many ranks of guards and rumbled down the
high valleys. The oxen led the charge against the dense
dwarven formations when the Khalkist forces strategically
chose to block the Istarian army's retreat.
Reports from Istarian sources, Excellency, confirm the
truth of this last tactic, claiming that the oxen presence was
often effective against dwarves. It seems that the wagon
handlers fed the beasts a gruel laced with rum before the
battle - a goodly dose reputed to have made the normally
equable oxen most disagreeable. They are great creatures,
of course, and must have loomed over the dwarves in
Nevertheless, the stocky mountain dwellers tried to
stop the Istarian army, even as roadblock after roadblock
crumbled before the lumbering beasts of burden as the oxen
scattered the dwarves. Still, High Thane Rankil remained
stubbornly determined to obliterate the two legions.
The humans finally were cornered before the last river
crossing - a historical site called Thoradin Bridge, which I
have located on a pre-Cataclysm map - leading to the safety
of the Istarian Plains. Here a company of young dwarves
stood, and once again the oxen were drawn to the fore.
At this point, Excellency, it becomes difficult to sort
the legend from fact. We know that the human force was
lost in total - the greatest military defeat suffered by Istar
to that date. As for the course of the battle, little is known.
However, I have uncovered a somewhat implausible
tale. Dwarven legend has it that a young dwarf, one
Horgan of Squire, employed some great magic - often
referred to as the power of Reorx - to lure the oxen away
from the bridge, diverting the fateful charge that would
have ensured the human escape. It is said that this Horgan
wore a tunic embroidered with silver thread, portraying as
its symbol the Great Forge of Reorx. It seems, indeed,
Excellency, that the youth was host to a miracle! Many
accounts have been cited - dwarves who saw the blessing
of Reorx ignite in young Horgan, leading the enemy army
Reports of specifics vary here, Your Grace, but I am
assured that witnesses attested to beams of silvery light
emanating, sometimes from the ground, at other times
from the clouds. Others heard choruses of heavenly voices
- songs that tore the hearts of even stalwart dwarves with
their pure beauty! O Exalted One, it makes me tremble to
think of it!
But, excuse my rambling. In any event, with the failure
of the oxen's charge, the defense of the bridge held and the
human army met its grim fate. Legend has it that the river
was tainted blood red all the way to Istar itself. (A
precursor, if you will, of the great bloodletting that the
gods would send against that unholy city! Indeed,
Excellency - a sign of the coming, the making of the very
Bloodsea itself! How splendid is the will of the gods -
shown to us through the window of history!)
The tale concludes with the young hero dubbed, by the
high thane himself, as Horgan Oxthrall.
It seems that, technically, Horgan Squire was too young
to serve in the army. But, as the war gradually had
developed into an epic victory, every young dwarf who
could break free from his hearth and home hastened to bear
arms. Apparently, Horgan wove a beard of goat hair over
his own sparse whiskers to give the appearance of maturity.
The ruse worked - he was accepted into one of the last
companies mustered for the war.
It was this company of young dwarves, formed with
virtually no training, that was sent to the valley of Stone
Pillar. This untried, inexperienced unit found itself standing
astride the final link in the human escape route. Then, the
miracle occurred - the oxen followed the youth into the
ditch, and the human charge was stopped.
At the ceremony, Horgan seems to have been given
some official post, perhaps honorary. I'm not certain.
Nothing further of him appears in the histories.
I have enclosed this legendary note, Your Grace, for
your enjoyment as much as anything else; I cannot swear to
its veracity. Yet I FEEL - and I hope you do as well - that
there is a least of hint of real destiny in the tale.
As to the rest of my assignment, I can report little
progress. Many have heard tales of a brave courier of the
Khalkists - one who carried historical texts of the dwarves
into the mountains on the eve of the Cataclysm, there to
conceal them for some future age. But no one can give me
even a hint of the whereabouts of such a cache.
As always, I shall continue my labors to bring to light
more of this obscure phase in the history of our world!
Your Most Humble Servant,
FORYTH TEEL, Scribe of Astinus
O Exalted Historian!
Please forgive my inexcusable delay in the filing of
this report. I beg your indulgence, only to hear the tale of
my recent discovery - and of the light it sheds upon our
earlier image of history! I write to you by faint candlelight,
from a windswept vale in the high Khalkists. My reasons
for coming here, and my news, I shall endeavor to
communicate while blood still flows through my cold-
I have not sent word, Excellency, for I have been on
the pathways of history for many months. I journeyed into
the mountains to investigate a report that had filtered down
to me from the most convoluted of sources - a young stable
hand, who has a cousin who visits the high country, and
there hears tales of the shepherds, and so forth.
The gist of the tale that reached my ears was the story
of a cheesemaker who kept a herd of milk cows in the
highest valleys of the Khalkists. In search of shelter one
day, this humble dairyman stumbled upon a cave that had
lain hidden since the time of the Cataclysm and had been
only recently revealed by avalanche.
Within the cave he found a skeleton and a bundle of
tightly wrapped scrolls. A shred of the wrapping was
brought to me. Your Grace can no doubt imagine my
excitement when the pattern of dye marked the scrap as
dwarven - PRE-CATACLYSMIC dwarven!
Could this be the lost messenger? The one who carried
the records of the dwarves into safety, even as the
Cataclysm showered death across the lands of Istar? I
hoped, but could not believe for certain. Yet the piece of
evidence could not have come at a better time. Due to my
ceaseless and uncomplaining diligence, I had exhausted
every other bit of documentation in my local sources. It had
begun to seem that the tale of the Khalkist dwarves would
vanish into legend a full century before the Cataclysm, but
now - now I had HOPE! Indeed, the proof was profound
enough to draw me from the comfort of my study,
uncomplainingly, to make the strenuous pursuit of
knowledge for the library.
My journey into the heights has been arduous in the
extreme. I wish you could see, Excellency, the slopes that
yawned below me, the dizzying spires of rock poised
above, as if waiting for the moment to cast a crushing
javelin of stone onto my poor and unprotected head!
Always I kept in mind my duty, to be borne without
complaint, as you command.
But I digress. I finally reached the small, remote village
of Saas Grund, still some miles below the cheese-maker's
farm. Here, however, that worthy dairyman met me and
provided me with one of the scrolls he discovered. That
volume piqued my hunger for more, and so it is with
resolute and uncomplaining vigor that tomorrow I
accompany the man even higher into the mountains, to his
lofty abode. No matter the precipitous slopes before me,
nor how deep the depths of snow! Not even the icy bite of
the killing wind shall deter me, nor make me long for this
comfortable fire ... the fire that even now sends its warmth
to my bones and soothes my weary muscles and promises
to restore life to my poor, benumbed fingers. The fire, and a
little spiced wine ...
Forgive me - once again I lose my path.
In short, I pen this note to you tonight, Most Esteemed
Historian, in the hopes that you soon shall receive the
remainder of my tale. But even in the one scroll I have
perused I have discovered a story of relevance to my earlier
work. I admit, however, that I present it to you with some
embarrassment, since it seems to contradict an incident I
had earlier reported.
The scroll I read is the family journal of Horgan
Oxthrall - the young warrior I told you about who
miraculously drew away the oxen at the Battle of Thoradin
Bridge. It was written later in his life, in 92 PC, to be
precise, as he worked in the service of his thane.
Horgan recalls, in this journal, the story of that day of
battle, when the human invasion had been broken. He
described that sturdy wooden river-crossing that he had
only later learned was called Thoradin Bridge. The battle of
twenty-five years ago was a memory that had been etched,
vividly, against the canvas of his brain. In his mind he
could still hear the white water frothing below him. He
saw, as if it had been this morning, the snorting oxen
lumbering toward him, steaming breath bursting from the
monstrous creatures' black nostrils.
And, as always with the memories, came the guilt, the
lingering sense of shame that would never quite give him
the room to breathe.
He knew the tale that legend had created, of course:
the power of Reorx had blessed him at the moment of
battle-truth, and he had cast a thrall over the massive oxen
leading the human train, luring them away from the charge
that certainly would have opened the escape route across
the bridge. Horgan even remembered the looks of awe upon
the faces of his comrades as they witnessed the "miracle."
Yet, in his own mind, he recalled the stark terror that
had seized him like the coils of a constricting serpent,
threatening to crush his chest and squeeze his bowels into
water. All he could think of was escape, but shock
prevented his legs from responding even to this, the most
basic of emotions. Even as his comrades streamed away
from him, panicked by the oncoming beasts, Horgan
stumbled numbly until he stood, alone, before the
We see proof of one thing in his words, Excellency:
oxen did indeed inspire a panicked terror in the dwarven
troops - a terror that seems peculiar to their race. Of course,
most of the Istar War had been fought in terrain too rough
for the beasts to play any major role, but on flat ground the
huge, buffalolike creatures loomed over the dwarves and
were truly intimidating.
Horgan's mind reeled, and here - in his own words - we
learn of another source of his shame. It seems that the
young hero was stinking drunk! Before the battle - quite
against orders - he and several in his platoon had snitched a
bottle of potent rum. Horgan claims to have guzzled far
more than his share. Indeed, he states that his hands shook
so much that he spilled the stuff all over himself.
Now he stood there, dumb with shock, gesticulating
wildly - to some mysteriously. Finally, his brain's frantic
messages to flee reached his legs, and Horgan turned
toward the ditch. The bridge stood open to the human
But the oxen ignored their drivers' commands and
veered sharply from the road. Bellowing loudly, pawing the
earth with their great hooves, and snorting in agitation, the
beasts lumbered after Horgan, following the dwarf
determinedly into the ditch. To the other dwarves, it had
seemed a miracle. The wagons were immediately mired,
blocking the road and the bridge, and the entire human
army was crushed. Only Horgan Oxthrall knew the real
The oxen stared at him stonily, their eyes glazed, their
breath putrid ... and rank with rum. You will remember that
the poor creatures had been fed a goodly dose of spirits
themselves. Now, in the midst of battle (probably starting
to sober up), they sniffed out this equally intoxicated dwarf
and followed him in eager anticipation of more rum!
Of course, none of the other dwarves figured out what
was going on. Horgan was a hero. After the battle - when
presumably, EVERY dwarf stunk of rum - the thane
appointed Horgan to the elite order of Thane's Scouts.
As one of the scouts sworn to High Thane Rankil,
Horgan's job was to routinely patrol the rugged Khalkist
heights, which formed the border of a dwarven nation
surrounded by enemies. The scouts were drawn from the
finest, proven veterans of the Istar War. It is in the service
of his thane that Horgan Oxthrall labored for twenty-five
years, a full quarter century after the victorious war. Lonely
patrols through the heights, battles with groups of human
brigands and trespassers - it was a solitary and adventurous
life that seemed to suit Horgan well.
Incidentally, My Lord Historian, it appears that Horgan
performed well among the scouts. He mentions that he
held the rank of captain and was assigned to patrol the
most remote areas of the realm. He was one of the few
dwarves who worked alone.
His words tell us of the way his service changed in the
years preceding 92 PC. He patrolled the mountains as
always, alert for human incursion. But lately there had
come another foe, one that presented a grave threat to the
lonely scouts, isolated in their posts on the frontier.
Ogres. For long years the dull humanoids had avoided
the mountains, since the inherent hatred between ogre and
dwarf ran deep and universal among both races. The
dwarves, with greater organization and led by heroic
fighters, had banished the ogres in earlier centuries, but
now they came again, fleeing from the even greater
menace of the Kingpriest's bounty hunters. Those ruthless
killers sought them out, together with hobgoblins,
minotaurs, and other creatures that had been branded as
"evil" by the ruler of Istar. The scalps and skulls of these
unfortunate beings - including females and young - were
taken to Istar, where a handsome bounty would be paid in
the name of the gods.
Horgan Oxthrall began his journal while he was on the
trail of one of these ogres. Apparently many thoughts had
been churning in his mind for some time, no doubt agitated
by his long periods of solitary marching. His writing shows
a need to communicate, for he shares the tale of these days
in some considerable detail.
He first spotted the ogre from a distance of many
miles, across the expanse of a high basin. To the best of
Horgan's knowledge, the ogre had not seen the dwarf. Only
through the most diligent efforts did Horgan locate the
For three days, Horgan tracked his quarry along the
valleys and slopes of the Khalkists. The ogre worked his
way through a series of low, brushy vales, moving slowly
and cautiously. The dwarven scout gradually shortened the
gap between them, though during the pursuit he did not
spot the ogre again. Horgan wondered if the creature knew
he was being followed. If so, he might be leading the dwarf
into a trap. But then the dwarf shrugged, accepting the
threat implicit in that possibility but undeterred from his
In any event, Horgan ALWAYS eyed his surroundings
as if he expected an ambush at any moment. The dwarf's
keen eyes examined each patch of rough ground, each
shallow stream bank or nearby ridge, considering them for
lines of fire, potential cover, and routes of retreat - all the
while steadily pumping his stocky legs.
The trail wound downward from the lofty crests. The
ogre and, some miles behind, the dwarf, skirted the
foothills of the Khalkist Mountains near the borderlands,
where the outposts of Istar asserted the Kingpriest's
arrogance at the very feet of the dwarven realms. Alert for
humans, Horgan nevertheless maintained his pursuit,
steadily closing the gap.
On the fourth morning, Horgan reached the ogre's most
recent campfire to find the ashes still warm. His quarry, he
deduced, was less than four hours ahead of him. The
monster's trail led along a crude pathway that followed the
floor of a narrow, winding valley. A deep stream
alternately meandered and thundered beside Horgan, in the
same direction as the ogre's trail.
The mountainsides to the right and left loomed so
close, at times, that the place became more like a gorge
than a valley. The view before Horgan was often restricted,
though sometimes the dwarf would come around a bend to
see several hundred yards of the path before him. Every
once in a while the route crossed the stream on a crude but
sturdy log bridge.
It was as he approached another of these bridges, where
the stream had dropped through a deep chute some fifty
feet below, that his long pursuit reached its climax. A trio
of tall, straight pine logs had been lashed together to form a
crossing. Horgan's instincts tingled, his senses heightened.
The dwarf saw footsteps leading to one side of the
path, before the bridge. Turning to investigate, he peered
between a pair of sharp boulders. The trail of the ogre led
to the mouth of a narrow cave, less than a hundred feet
away, and disappeared within.
Shrewd, thought Horgan Oxthrall, studying the
shadowed niche. The vertical slash in the rock stood
perhaps nine or ten feet high, but only half that in width.
The ogre might lurk anywhere inside, perhaps armed with a
crossbow or spear. Either weapon, hurled at the dwarf,
could end the fight before it began.
Then, to his surprise, Horgan saw movement within
the cave. A dark form loomed in the entrance. Tension
surged through Horgan's body. His right hand clenched the
smooth shaft of his axe, while his left reached behind to
pull his shield from his back.
The hulking shape moved forward, abandoning its
sheltering darkness. Horgan saw it, felt the ancient racial
hatred that lay so deeply within the dwarven character. An
urge to attack the ogre swept through the dwarf with
frightening intensity. The monster's great mouth dropped
open; the thick gray lips moved grotesquely. Horgan
noticed that the creature had three great teeth jutting from
its lower jaw - an extra tusk near the center of its lower lip.
The words - crude Common spoken in a deep, guttural
voice - shocked Horgan. He had pictured his opponent as a
dull beast, incapable of communication or articulation. The
dwarf stared at the ogre, too surprised to reply.
The creature loomed over Horgan. The ogre's barrel torso
rested upon legs as thick as gnarled oak roots. The face,
despite its trio of sharp tusks, did not look bestial. Arms,
bulging with straps of sinew, rippled downward to hamlike
fists that swung nearly to the ogre's knees. He wore a jerkin
of stiff, dirty leather and, in his right hand, held a battered
long sword. The ogre's eyes were small but surprisingly
bright, and they glittered at the dwarf with frank appraisal.
Horgan claims that he felt no fear of his opponent's
size. (Indeed, Excellency, nimble dwarves with their
diminutive stature had historically outmatched much larger
ogres in hand-to-hand combat. Too, there is no reason to
suspect that he would be less than candid in his private
Then the dwarf astonished himself by feeling a
grudging awareness of respect. The ogre had emerged from
concealment - where he could have lurked in ambush - to
confront his enemy in a fair fight.
"Unless you want to surrender to the rightful authority
of Rankil, High Thane of the Khalkists," the dwarf told the
ogre, after a few moments of mutual assessment, "you don't
have any choice except fight me."
The ogre snorted scornfully. "Gobasch not quit -
Despite his bluster, the ogre did not advance. Gobasch
raised his sword and Horgan saw that the weapon was
longer by several feet than the dwarf's entire body. The
blade was mere bronze, marked with many nicks and
grooves. The ogre held the weapon across his body, ready
to parry but not to attack.
Horgan hesitated. He recalled feeling pity for the
homeless creature before him, driven here by the same
humans who had harassed the dwarves. At the time,
Horgan felt ashamed of the impulse.
For several seconds the two creatures, mortal
adversaries by race and heritage, remained frozen. Horgan
sensed that the ogre desired escape more than battle.
Horgan himself was oddly reluctant to fight. He couldn't
Then, in a flash, he recalled the bitter memory of his
cowardice at Thoradin Bridge. His face flushed with shame
and anger. Clenching his axe, he raised it and took a step
forward, his shield couched carefully at his chest.
Gobasch raised his great sword.
Suddenly, by mutual consent, both combatants halted.
Another sound intruded into their tightly focused
"Horses!" grunted Horgan, as he heard the
unmistakable clattering of hooves upon rock.
"Men!" Gobasch snarled, his voice louder than
Horgan's but still hushed.
With a flash of irritation, Horgan realized that the
ogre's observation was more acute - it was the humans, not
their poor, dumb mounts, who mattered.
Carefully the dwarf backed away from the ogre,
determined to investigate the new intrusion without giving
this monster a fatal opening. But Gobasch sought the
shelter of his dark cave again, vanishing into the shadowy
entrance. Horgan imagined that he could see those two tiny,
bright eyes glittering outward at him and the valley.
Instantly the dwarf whirled, crouched low, and scanned
the trail below him. In another moment he saw them: three
humans on horses, moving up the valley at a walk. They
wore silver helmets and breastplates, and the one in the
lead wore a bright red cloak. A matching plume trailed
from his helm. The pair who rode behind were clad in
billowing capes of green and bore no badge of rank upon
Horgan cast another glance at the cave. All was still
within. Boldly, he raised his axe and shield and stepped
onto the pathway. He had advanced to the beginning of the
crude log bridge before the riders, on the other side of the
stream, saw him.
"Hold," cried the human in the crimson cloak, raising his
hand. His two comrades reined in and regarded Horgan
suspiciously. His tunic, emblazoned with the hammer sign
of the high thane, clearly marked him as an official, and
this apparently did not please the humans.
But it was the tall man, the one who had commanded
the halt, who spoke first. Horgan identified him by the
gold-hilted short sword resting, for now, in the man's
scabbard, as a centurion of Istar.
"Greetings, dwarf," the centurion said, making the
word sound like an insult - to Horgan's ears, at least. The
man shouted to be heard over the sound of the stream
surging through the gorge fifty feet below and between
Horgan studied the human silently. He rode a huge
horse, a bay that pranced and pawed the earth in apparent
agitation at the delay.
"You have crossed the borders of our realm," Horgan
Oxthrall shouted back, curtly. "This is the land of High
Thane Rankil of Khalkist, and you are trespassers. In his
name, I bid you depart!" He fingered the axe easily, just to
show them that he was not afraid to back up his words with
"We cannot depart," replied the human loudly, his tone
still firm. Horgan figured the fellow was having a hard time
trying to sound persuasive when he had to shout in order to
be heard. "Our mission is a holy one!" the centurion
Horgan blinked, momentarily nonplussed by the reply.
Then his anger took over. "Nothing of Istar can be holy!"
"It's worth gold!" added the officer, though his face
flushed angrily. The two other riders dismounted casually,
stood next to their horses, and talked quietly to each other.
Horgan concentrated on the centurion.
"Istarian arrogance!" Horgan snapped bitterly, his voice
ripe with scorn.
"Watch your tone, dwarf!" ordered the officer in
warning. "The power of Ultimate Goodness shall not be
"Get yourself back down the valley, and you'll hear no
words to offend your ears - or the ears of your precious
"The KINGPRIEST has offered a bounty for the slaying
of the evil races. Earlier today, we spotted an ogre moving
along this trail. We are god-bound to kill him and carry his
skull to the high throne of Istar!"
Horgan's mind churned. Istar! How well he
remembered the legions marching into the heart of the
Khalkists a quarter century earlier - and on just such a
spurious quest! Then it had been the dwarven insistence on
the worship of Reorx, their traditional god all across the
race of Ansalon, that had pitted Istar against their race.
In the arrogant eyes of the Kingpriest, Reorx, as a
neutral god, was no better than a deity of evil. How many
humans had perished as a result of that arrogance? Horgan
didn't know. (We do, however, Your Grace; the figure was
somewhere around thirty-two to thirty-four thousand men.)
Horgan's dwarven blood rose to his face as he
considered the scope of the Kingpriest's newest arrogance.
The would-be emperor of all the world dared to send bands
of his agents into dwarven lands to pursue his edicts!
"Any enemy found here is the rightful prey of High
Thane Rankil - be it human, ogre, or any other trespassers!"
"Your impudence will cost you, runt!" growled the
human officer. His hand flexed and, in a fluid motion, he
drew a long sword of gleaming steel from beneath his
crimson cloak. The great bay reared eagerly.
Horgan immediately looked for the other two humans,
who had been chatting idly beside their horses. This
instinctive alertness saved his life for, with astonishing
quickness, one of the standing humans twisted free from his
green cloak and raised a weapon - a crossbow!
The scout stepped backward, setting his cleated boot
firmly against the slippery surface of the log bridge.
Horgan ducked, raising his shield to cover his face. The
bolt from the small crossbow punched into the circle of
protective metal with such force that it knocked the dwarf
onto his back. He struck the logs of the bridge heavily,
barely retaining his balance on the edge of the span.
Horgan's heart leaped into his throat as he teetered
over the brink of a fall. Below him he saw icy water
through a barricade of sharp-edged granite boulders. In
another instant, he recovered to crouch low on the bridge.
Feverishly, the crossbowman placed another bolt in the
groove of his weapon and began to crank back the heavy
spring. The centurion, still mounted, stared at Horgan with
eyes that bulged white, over lips twisted by fanaticism. Yet
he had enough discipline to hold his horse in check.
For a dizzying second, Horgan writes, he was frozen
with fear. He recalled another bridge, a quarter century
earlier. There, too, he had looked into the snorting nostrils
of a great beast that had been lashed into the service of
humans. The beast was different now, as was the bridge,
but the humans, he saw with sudden and crystalline clarity,
were the same. (This point,. Excellency, seems to have
dawned on Horgan with the brightness of a clear sunrise.
Indeed, he goes on and on about it. I have summarized
pages in the above paragraph.)
Perhaps it was this new recognition, or perhaps simply
the additional experience of his years in the thane's service,
that imbued him with the will to act.
"For Reorx and Thoradin!" he bellowed, his legs
pumping as he rushed across the bridge - straight at the
humans! The steel cleats of his boots chipped into the logs,
propelling him with a quickness that obviously stunned the
trio of Istarians.
"Stop him!" cried the centurion, his voice a mixture of
alarm and surprise. "Shoot him!"
The crossbowman lowered his weapon, sighting with
difficulty on Horgan's chest. Fortunately for him, the target
grew larger with each passing second. Unfortunately -
again, from the bowman's perspective - the target did not
At the end of the bridge Horgan dove forward, tucked
his body into a ball, and executed a forward roll. He heard
the CLUNK of the crossbow and the curse of the shooter as
his missile sped over the compact bundle of the dwarf's
Completing one somersault, the dwarf bounced to his
feet, shield and axe poised and ready for battle. "Hah!" he
shouted, looking up at the snorting bay. The quivering
horse reared away from the strange figure.
"Heathen! Paladine will curse your impudence!"
bellowed the centurion, struggling to control his horse as
the steed danced in agitation.
"Flee! Run back to Istar!" bellowed Horgan. He darted
past the centurion and lunged at the two horses held by the
second footman. The poor beasts stared in terror at the
bounding, sputtering dwarf. In another instant, they broke
and turned to gallop down the trail. The two footmen
hesitated, then ran after them, not wanting to be left to walk
through hostile territory.
"The fires that are evil's reward will be your just end!"
The officer shrieked his curse as he tried to whip his horse
through a tight turn. But Horgan circled faster, until he
once again stood before the narrow bridge.
Furious, the centurion urged his steed to the very brink
of the gorge, took a vicious cut at Horgan with his sword.
The dwarf dodged underneath the singing steel. Chopping
savagely, Horgan hacked his axe into the rider's leg.
The man screamed in pain and terror as he struggled to
keep his balance. The horse skipped away from the cliff's
edge. The wounded man toppled to the ground, landing
heavily at the brink of the precipitous drop.
"You're no better than that ogre!" hissed the centurion.
His fingers grasped and tore at the grass as he slipped
toward oblivion. "The gods curse all of you who would
thwart the Kingpriest's justice!"
Horgan watched the human slide over the lip of the
cliff, uprooted grass tufted in his clenched fingers as his
feet kicked empty air. The centurion twisted into space, his
face a mask of stark terror. Then, his red cloak billowing
around him, the man smashed onto the boulders of the
stream bed. The dye of the robe blended with his blood,
flowing downward through the rapid stream.
(Note, Excellency, if you will forgive my aside, that
once again we have this image of blood flowing downhill
to Istar. A foretaste of the Bloodsea, rendered in the hand
of an adventuring dwarf, nine centuries before the
Cataclysm! Oh, poetry and prescience!)
Wearily, Horgan clumped back across the bridge. He
remembered with a sense of vague detachment the ogre
who had started this fracas.
Here, in his journal, Horgan Oxthrall records that he
reached a point of decision in his life. He was filled with
disgust and loathing for the humans and their arrogant lord.
Considering the ogre, the dwarf found it hard to muster the
same kind of antipathy - despite the racial hatred that was
so much a part of his being. He wondered if the human had
spoken an inadvertent truth in his dying breath. Were
dwarves any better, truly, than ogres? Did they not have
more in common with ogres, in some ways, than they did
with their so-called civilized neighbors in Istar?
He came back to the clearing and found Gobasch
standing before the cave mouth and looking at Horgan with
an expression of bewilderment on his great, three-tusked
"Why you fight for me?" asked the ogre.
Horgan scowled. Why, indeed? So that he would have
the honor, the pleasure, of slaying the ogre for himself?
There had to be a better reason than that, he told himself.
"No human has been allowed in these mountains for
twenty-five years!" he huffed, angrily.
The ogre stood before him, his huge sword held
defensively across his chest. Chin jutting in determination,
Gobasch regarded the dwarf, the ogre's three tusks bristling
in Horgan's eyes.
"And ogres? How long for them?" grunted Gobasch.
Even as his mind grappled with the question, Horgan
knew the answer. If he carried out his duty now, he would
be no better - in his own mind - than the human bounty
hunters he had just confronted.
"Go on," Horgan said to Gobasch. "Get out of here!"
He indicated the valley, the ogre's route before Horgan had
caught up with him. There, through the foothills, lay wild
country - and beyond, the plains of Istar.
The ogre blinked, suspicious.
"Move, by Reorx! Before I change my mind!" shouted
Still blinking, Gobasch looked cautiously over his
shoulder. He kept looking, all the way down the trail, until
he disappeared from sight.
At this point, Horgan sets his journal aside. It is not for
another year that he again takes pen to paper, and then it is
to record, briefly, the events of the intervening annum.
Horgan Oxthrall, being a dwarf of true honor, reported
the incident to his thane. The closing words of his journal
are difficult to read, but indicate that his gesture toward the
ogre cost him his post in the scouts, and he was banished
from the high thane's court.
Nevertheless, as I read his words, penned in the year
following his banishment, I see no sign of regret, no desire
to change the decision he had made with regard to
Gobasch, the ogre. If anything, the words of Horgan
Oxthrall fairly swell with pride.
This is the first scroll of the cheesemaker's find. It leads
me to believe, Excellency, that the tales of the Last
Messenger are true! Somewhere in the heights above me
lies the tomb of this hero who preserved the history of the
Khalkist dwarves. I go to seek this trove, an opportunity
that any historian would seize - though not all, I dare to
venture, with as much stoicism as I!
With the coming dawn, Master, I set out for the icy
ramparts that have framed my view for these past months. I
will send further word with all the haste I can muster,
though I doubt that ready accommodation will present itself
for the passage of messages.
Until my next word, I remain,
Your Devoted Servant,
FORYTH TEEL, Scribe of Astinus
My Most Honored Master:
I can only beg the gods of good and neutrality to see
that this missive retraces the path I have recently traveled.
My own survival I take as proof of divine providence - and
should this brief note reach your hands, I shall claim no
less than the benevolent intervention of Gilean himself!
Of course, Your Grace, as always I press forward
without complaint, but - by the GODS, Excellency! - the
summits that have loomed above and below me! The
thundering avalanches spewing their deadly weight across
my path a dozen times a day! And this, along a route
imperiled by monstrous bears - beasts that could tear the
limbs from a man without apparent effort, jaws that could
snap off a head....
Forgive me, Lord. My nerves are not at their best.
Truth to tell, we saw no bears. Still, the knowledge of their
presence, you may be sure, robbed me of even a single
decent hour of sleep.
Now I have reached this cheesemaker's place, and before
me are spread the scrolls of the Khalkist dwarves. As soon
as my hands thaw out enough to unroll the parchment, I
shall continue my perusal. (In the morning, hopefully, the
sun will come out and, by its pale heat, I may manage to
save a few of my fingers.)
In the meantime, I await this humble dairyman, for he
has ventured out into the night. He promises to bring me
something of interest. But until his return, the scrolls
around me shall keep my attention. I turn to them now.
Excellency, hours of reading allow me to present a
summary of the additional scrolls. Further efforts yield a
wealth of material, all relevant to the history of the
Khalkist dwarves - -but alas, little of it relating to the
decade immediately preceding the Cataclysm. The mystery
left by their disappearance remains.
I have unearthed a few items of note, mostly gleaned
from the tales of dwarven lore. I have endeavored, as
always, to cull these legends into the most conclusively
Extensive financial records were saved by the bold
messenger, who gave his life to carry these scrolls to
safety. It is clear that the dwarves were taxed by their thane
at an extreme rate during the years 60 PC through 10 PC.
Then the tax records end. Was this massive treasure
expended? For what? Is it hidden somewhere? Destroyed
in the Cataclysm? Or taken by the Khalkist dwarves when
they left ... wherever they have gone?
One dwarven record postdates 10 PC, and this is
unusual for not only the date, but that once again we
encounter our friend, Horgan Oxthrall - though only in a
peripheral sense. The record itself is the history of a battle
that was fought at Stone Pillar Pass, around 7 PC. It is the
last known contact, in human records, with the Khalkist
It seems clear, as claimed by Istar, that the Kingpriest's
invasion of the mountains in 7 PC was considerably more
successful than had been the attempt of a century and a
decade before. However, the Istarian tales of great victories
and righteous massacre of the "dwarven heathens" are, at
best, grotesque exaggerations.
For one thing, evidence indicates that this was a war
with few battles. Indeed, I can find evidence of only one
major skirmish. It occurred on the Stone Pillar Pass road
and is hailed by the Istarian histories as the Kingpriest's
greatest victory - a "rout" of the defenders.
There is a note in one of the scrolls about this battle,
however, and it is interesting to contrast the dwarven point
of view with that of the humans. From the dwarven
perspective, the engagement is regarded as a moderately
successful holding action. A gorge in the road was held for
one day, and then abandoned - as so many dwarven
positions were abandoned in this war.
Indeed, it seems as though the dwarves fought merely
to gain time for a withdrawal into a more remote,
unassailable position. Finally, they were able to fall back so
far that the humans could no longer find them.
In his arrogance, the Kingpriest declared the war
"won," his enemies "destroyed." The truth seems to be that
the dwarves simply yielded the mountains to the humans
and disappeared. Their escape route and destination remain
one of the great mysteries of the world.
Forgive me, Your Grace, I wander. There are two
unique points associated with the Stone Pillar Battle. I feel
confident enough of their veracity to report them.
First, the curious reference to Horgan Oxthrall, who
once again plays a role on the stage of history. He was the
commanding general of the dwarven army standing against
Istar. (I get ahead of myself, Your Grace. A new thane,
Rankilsen, had taken the throne. Oxthrall's banishment
ended in 12 PC. The venerable warrior had been readmitted
into society. He took command of the field army shortly
Second is a tale that defies ready explanation, yet is
referenced enough to compel its inclusion here. As the
battle waned, the human forces - with rare initiative -
attempted to encircle the dwarven army. Reports indicate
that this tactic almost succeeded, save for the intervention
of a sudden reinforcement. An unexpected brigade marched
out of the mountains in support of the dwarves, breaking
the human flanking action and allowing the dwarven army
The curious thing is the identity of this rescuing
brigade: you see, all of my sources are adamant in their
insistence that the army of Khalkist was saved by a brigade
of OGRES! Where they came from, where they went -
these are questions that will entice future historians. What I
know is this: The ogres fought as allies with the dwarves
against Istar and then, like the dwarves themselves,
Implausible? Certainly. But it seems to be a fact.
I have to wonder, as I know you, Excellency, yourself,
must be wondering: Could this have been a return of the
boon, a life for a life?
Gobasch and Horgan meet again on the field, the
bodies of the shattered human army scattered like trampled
weeds around them.
"I come onto your lands again, dwarf," says the three-
tusked ogre, his jowled face wrinkling into a wry grin.
Horgan looks up at the beast as his army escapes,
filtering into their caves and tunnels, turning their backs on
a sun that most of them, during their lifetime, will never
"I thank you for coming," Horgan says, quietly.
The two clasp hands awkwardly. The sun sinks,
casting mountain shadows across the human camp in the
valley. Multitudes of fires blink in the darkness, and
drunken revelry begins. To the humans, it was a "victory"
"They are your mountains now," adds the dwarf,
turning to join his people. "Care for them well."
"We shall do our best," Gobasch replies.
I hear a noise at the door, Your Grace. It is my host,
returning with his mysterious burden. I see - he brings me
the skull of the messenger, this lone courier who brought
the secrets of the dwarves into this remote range before the
Cataclysm! My historian's heart thrills for their brave hero,
perishing so that his words could be read in a future age.
Who is this brave soul? Why did he strike out, alone, to
carry the tale of history?
Imagine my shock, Excellency, when the cheesemaker
holds out the whitewashed skull, the remains of this
courageous figure. For the skull belongs to an ogre! From
the jaws jut three yellowed, but clearly recognizable, tusks.
As always, Excellency, I seek the truth in your name;
Your Humble and Devoted Servant,
FORYTH TEEL, Scribe of Astinus
Filling The Empty Places
Nancy Varian Berberick
The minotaur fell to his knees on the cracked, filthy
cobbles of Beggar's Alley. Covered with rough red fur, the
man-beast had the head of a bull, horns as long as my
forearm, hair like a mane growing down between his
shoulder blades. He foamed from the corners of his mouth
like an animal.
I'd taken the minotaur two days before in an
unexpected end to a fruitless search for heretics. He'd come
at me like a storm, rising up out of the tall savannah grass,
a knife in each fist; charged me roaring, dark eyes afire
with battle-joy. Minotaurs don't much like humans or
anyone else, and they do love to fight. But this one, it
seemed, hadn't reckoned on my horse. The gray reared
high, hooves flailing, and the minotaur went down before
he knew what had hit him. He stayed senseless long enough
for me to get the manacles, hobbles, and chains on. They
have a strength beyond believing, those horned man-beasts.
Bound and hobbled is the only way you can take 'em
I never liked bringing live heretics to Istar, but sometimes
- like in the heat of summer, when you don't really want to
be traveling with the dead - you have to. That's the way of
things and seasons, and that's the way I was working in that
long, hot summer of my thirtyfifth year. By then I'd been
fifteen years in the bounty trade. I'd had good times and
bad, pockets filled with gold and just as often empty. In
Istar they called me "Hunter-Doune," and I was good at my
Fair quiet it was in Beggar's Alley that evening, but for
the minotaur cursing and panting on the cobbles. Rats ran
in the filthy gutters. Tumbledown shacks and unpainted,
drab houses huddled together, empty and looking lonely. At
sunset the panderers and pickpockets did a better trade over
by the great temple. From a distance - beyond the alley,
beyond the market and the slave auction - rose a hymn, a
gathering of elven voices, as soft and sweet as any dream of
what song should be. The holy choir was beginning
evening devotions. Elven women, famous throughout the
world for their piety, lifted eerily pure voices in praise to
the gods of good. Tonight they celebrated wise Paladine
and his gentle, compassionate Mishakal.
The minotaur, struggling to his feet again, lifted his
dark, homed head. He spat in the direction of the temple. I
should have kicked him for it, but because no one was near
to see what could be considered my own heretical
omission, I let the minotaur have his way. I wasn't one for
tormenting prisoners. It's bad business.
I had a partner once - a mountain dwarf. That was all
right, no chargeable heresy in those days to be seen with a
dwarf. Toukere Hammerfell, his name was. He'd been in
the bounty trade longer than I had, and I remember all the
advice he gave me.
"One thing you need to know in the trade, Doune, my
friend," he once said. "Don't let feelings become part of the
hunt. Now, some people think this means don't let softer
feelings get in the way. No pity, none of that sweet
nonsense. But the harder feelings are just as much a trap. If
you want to do well in this business, you'll empty out all
those places where your feelings are, the soft and the hard.
Mercy costs you money, Doune. So does taking time to
plague a man with kicking and beating when he's going to
be dead soon anyway."
Toukere would pause to take a long drink of ale and
wipe the thick foam from his black beard. We were taking
our meal in the Hart's Leap that day, a tavern known for the
goodness of its ale. He always liked his ale, Toukere did,
and he held that no one could talk well or wisely unless he
had some in his belly.
"A heretic's a heretic, Hunter-Doune, whether it's some
woman weeping over her babe or some ugly minotaur all
chained up and looking like an easy thing to kick. The only
thing you want to worry about is how much you're getting
paid for 'em. Worrying about feelings - theirs or yours - is a
waste of time."
A HERETIC'S A HERETIC.
As it happened, Toukere had found out that this simple
definition worked to the Kingpriest's advantage, too. Not
long after that night the Kingpriest spun a new twist in his
religious logic: He decided that since most dwarves
worshiped the gods of neutrality - the crafter-god, Reorx of
the Forge the most honored among them - then the whole
race must be evil because they would not worship the gods
of good. Notice went up in the paymaster's den that a
bounty hunter could make sixty gold on a dwarf. Now, I
never knew how Touk worshiped - or even whether he did -
but the night the notice went up, he parted with more gold
than I'd ever known him to, got me and everyone in the
Hart's Leap drunk enough to forget where we were - or who
we were - and sneaked out the back door.
He left Istar without me, and with no word of farewell.
Ah, yes. He robbed a minor shrine to Mishakal on the
way out of Istar, getting himself some traveling money, and
likely needing it after his trick at the Hart. The cleric at the
shrine resisted, was dead of his wounds before morning.
And so the bounty on Toukere Hammerfell was larger than
that on the average dwarf - one hundred gold, a sixty-forty
split between heresy and murder.
That was years before. Since then, I'd heard a few
rumors that someone over Xak Tsaroth way had finally
claimed the gold on Touk. For the most part, I got over
missing my partner, but I lost my taste for ale, learned to
like wine. Ale didn't taste like ale after Touk left.
So at the end of that long, hot summer day, with
sunset's gold shining on the broken cobbles of Beggar's
Alley and the air filling with hymns, I didn't kick the
minotaur. I took care of business as Toukere and I used to:
jerked the chain and got my prisoner moving again.
I hustled him down the alley, out into the wide avenues
where the wealthy and the pious live. The tall, beautiful
towers of Istar rose gleaming and shining around us. I
herded the minotaur along the broad, tree-lined street
where flower beds made lush and fragrant medians, and
hummingbirds danced in the air like living jewels. The
street led to the great temple, and beyond that holy place
was the jail.
People on their way to prayer stopped to cheer as we
passed, and in an excess of zeal, a young man, dressed in
brocades fashionably cut to imitate hunting gear, scooped
up what my horse left on the cobbles and hurled it at the
heretic. But the fancy bravo didn't know what to do about
the mess on his hands after that. I laughed about it all the
way to the jail, was still laughing when I turned the
minotaur over to the guards and went to the paymaster's
den to collect my gold. A small place, the den; a little
wooden shack crouched behind the jail where the
Kingpriest wouldn't see it. He didn't mind that his clerics
and clerks paid bounty on heretics. He just didn't like to
see it done.
The walls of the den were filled with the usual notices
that reward would be paid for those who served the gods of
neutrality or the gods of evil; for kender and elves and
humans, dwarves and ogres and goblins, minotaurs, and
any cleric who declined to worship the gods of good.
The bounty had been doubled again on Kell, the infa
mous outlaw-heretic who professed to revere the gods of
good, but who scorned the Kingpriest's practice of using
torture and execution to convince people that they must
worship those wise and gentle gods.
(Some holy defender of good that Kell was. Ask
anyone about Kell and you heard the tale of how he robbed
and murdered a whole family of pilgrims on their way to
Istar to worship at the great temple. Or the one about him
looting wayside shrines and slaughtering the clerics. A real
favorite was that he liked to sneak into wakes and steal the
silver pennies off dead men's eyes. All in all, Kell didn't
sound like he was much better than the Kingpriest.)
Every bounty hunter knew that he could retire richer
than an elf lord if he managed to capture Kell, but, though
everyone knew what his crimes were, no one knew where
in all of Ansalon this fellow, Kell, was hiding. No one even
knew what he looked like. Was he a dwarf or human or elf?
It depended on which rumor you liked best.
I didn't do more than glance at Kell's bounty sheet that
day. There was a time when I'd been eager to hunt for Kell,
but that was a while ago, and now I remembered what
Toukere used to say about him:
"When you think on it, Doune, my friend, no one really
knows whether this terrible heretic, Kell, is much more
than a bad dream the Kingpriest has from time to time
when his food is too rich. I like the gold as much as the
next one - maybe more, eh? - but I stick to the easy prey.
No sense wasting time chasing savannah-wind that's all the
time changing direction."
Then he'd called for another tankard of ale.
There was a kender at the Hart's Leap. The race's
heretical status didn't bother kender enough to keep them
out of Istar, though no few of that free-worshiping kindred
had met the heretic's fate there. Ah, but you know kender:
those light-fingered thieves don't worry about much. This
one was young, a likable-looking fellow, the way kender
can be when they're not torturing you with their eternal
chatter and endless nonsense. Red-haired and slim, with a
thief's long, nimble fingers, he wore kender motley - yellow
leggings, blue shirt, green cloak and purple-dyed buckskin
boots. He had six or seven pouches and wallets about him,
all stuffed full with pack-rat junk.
Except for me and the kender and the barman, the
tavern was empty. Careful people were still at devotions or
keeping discreetly out of sight. There were plenty of tables
to choose from, but the kender was sitting at the table by
the Hart's only window, the one with the knife-scarred top,
where Toukere and I used to sit reckoning a bounty's split
and drinking ale. Chance, the barman, always kept that
table clear for me, no matter how crowded or empty the
place was. Now he only shrugged when I scowled to see
the table occupied.
"He's here lookin' for you, Doune."
That was thirty gold in kender topknot sitting at the
table. Ah, life is mighty sweet, I thought, when the bounty
comes looking for the hunter. I fingered the hilt of my
sword, told Chance to get me some food, and said that I'd
like to have it by the time I got back from hauling the
kender's butt to the jail.
But Chance closed his hand round my wrist, gripping
hard. "Maybe you should eat first, eh, Doune?"
The kender cocked his head, eyes alight and grinning
as if he was expecting to have some fun.
Then someone told me - a woman's voice, as soft and
deadly as a steel blade cutting cold air - that no one would
be hauling kender anywhere tonight.
I turned fast on my heel, sword half drawn, and nearly
spitted myself on her blade. The tall swordswoman set the
point of her steel gently against the base of my throat.
Chance never lifted voice or hand in my defense.
"How much did they pay you, Chance?" I asked
"Just exactly enough," he said, not even bothering to
try for shame. He said no more, and I heard him leave for
"Gently," the swordswoman said, smiling and
flattening out her words so that they were a taunt. "Gently,
Doune, if you like living."
I like living well enough. I dropped my sword point,
but not the sword.
She was human, like me, but dressed and geared like
an elf whose family had some means. Silk and buckskin
and low-heeled riding boots of the finest cut. I'll tell you
now, she was well made, long-legged and slender of waist.
She was round in all the best places, and there wasn't much
need to guess about that. The cut of her blouse showed
more than the silver-and-sapphire necklace she wore.
I tried a question. "How do you know my name?"
"Who hasn't heard of Hunter-Doune?" She grinned, as
cocky as a scamp bent on mischief. "You're a legend where
I come from."
Light from an oil lamp gleamed on the steel between
us, hers high, mine low and useless. She gestured to the
"Peverell," she said, "relieve him of his weapons."
The kender did what kender love to do. He got my
dagger, found the small knife I always kept sheathed in my
boot, lifted the sword from my hand before I knew he'd
reached for it. He also took the bounty notices I'd gotten at
the den and the fee I'd collected not an hour ago. He would
have taken the teeth from my head if his companion hadn't
called him off.
"Now, Hunter-Doune," the swordswoman said, "come
join Peverell and me for a drink and a bite, eh?" She
sheathed her weapon. "It could be to your profit."
I eyed Peverell, back at the table and happily sorting
through his take. "Hasn't been so far," I said.
"I suppose you're right. Pev! Give Doune his purse."
The kender screwed up his face in protest, but he
emptied the gold coins onto the table, then tossed the purse
"AND the gold," the woman said firmly.
Long eyes bright, the kender cocked his head.
Something needing no words passed between the two and -
for a wonder - Peverell scooped up the coins, came and
gave them all to me. I took the gold, pursed it, and stashed
it in my deepest pocket, watching him trot back to the table.
He was uncannily quiet for one of his kind. I smiled sourly.
"Someone cut out his tongue?"
"No," she said, "someone slit it. Works out the same. A
bounty hunter who took him and couldn't stand the chatter.
Didn't keep him, though. Kender are hard to hold. But I
expect you know that. Now," she said, cold and no longer
pretending courtesy. "Do you want to know where the
heretic Kell is hiding, or is that little bit of gold enough to
keep you happy?"
Chance brought us platters piled high with mutton and
cabbage and potatoes, a jug of wine for me, and a great
pitcher of ale for the others. Fair pleased with himself, old
Chance was, and acting like I should thank him.
Outside the window, high up in the sky, I saw the two
moons - the red and the silver - shining brightly. Chance
had barred the door, lighted only the few lamps we needed
to see what we were eating. The swords-woman told me
that her name was Alyce. She said she was a mercenary's
daughter, that since her father's death she'd taken up the
family trade, hired her sword to merchant caravans needing
to make their way through the goblin-haunted passes of the
mountains ringing the Plains of Istar.
Now some might think that mercenary work is a strange
way for a woman to keep herself in sapphire necklaces, but
I had no reason to doubt that Alyce was capable of the
work she claimed to do. She'd gotten up behind me quickly
enough, and that fine jeweled sword was no stranger to her
hand, but, for all that, I'd heard no reason to believe that she
knew more about Kell's whereabouts than anyone else.
"Well," she said, tucking into a second helping of
mutton with a wharf man's appetite. "There's not much I
can do to convince you that I know where Kell's hiding -
except to say that a friend of mine tracked him to his lair
not longer that two weeks ago."
"But this friend didn't kill or capture him?"
She laughed, and the kender clapped his hands in
delight, his brown eyes kindling with merriment.
"My friend's not foolish enough to go out alone after a
man who's supposed to have done all Kell is accused of."
She smiled slyly. "If Kell were an easy take, surely some
bounty hunter would have snatched him by now, eh? Pev
and I were supposed to meet our friend here, go after him
together, but our friend is ... not available."
I snorted. "Not available to make himself rich?"
"He's been jailed." Alyce downed her ale, all business
now. She nodded to Chance, who quickly refilled the
pitcher. "The barman says you know the jail well - having
helped fill it up often enough over the years. Help me
break out my friend and you can come along."
"You want me to arrange a jailbreak? Sorry. I put 'em
IN jail - I don't break 'em out."
"Exactly," she said, "that's why you're the perfect
choice. You'd have it done before anyone even suspected
what was going on."
I thought about that for a while, and she - impatient -
leaned across the table, her blue eyes alight.
"A quarter share, Doune I Help me get my friend out
of jail and we'll be on our way to claiming a bounty so
great that no place you could stash the treasure will be
Well, she wasn't much exaggerating about the bounty,
and I was always tracking the gold. But I was also careful.
"Supposing I do this jailbreak? What's to keep you and
your friend from getting rid of me and going after the
Alyce's eyes grew sharp and cold. She drew her sword
and I reached for where mine should have been. She made
no threat, only laid the jeweled weapon flat on the table
"This is my father's sword," she said, ignoring my own
gesture. "I have never sworn an oath on this steel that I
didn't mean to keep."
I believed her. Maybe it was the way her voice
sounded, low and freighted with fierce pride. Or maybe it
was the look in her eyes, straight on and unflinching, like
the light gleaming along the blade's keen edge. Out of the
comer of my eye I saw Peverell idly tracing some old
calculation Toukere or I had carved in the oaken table-top.
I'M HONEST WHEN I WANT TO BE, DOUNE, MY
FRIEND. AND WHEN A MAN RECKONS THE SPLIT
WITH HIS PARTNER, HE'D BEST WANT TO BE
HONEST OR HE'LL DESERVE TO BE DEAD.
Toukere had had the same straight-on look in his eyes
as Alyce did now when he'd said that. By that look - its
absence or its presence - I'd always judged a man's nature.
Or a woman's. I guess I reckoned on it this time,
"Who's this partner of yours?" I asked. "A lover?" She
tossed her head, and her short, dark hair swung and
bounced. "Dinn's a friend. Sometimes he acts like a
hotheaded fool, but I love him dearly. He comes from
people who have only one word for both loyalty and
honor. Hard enemies, these people, and good friends. My
father earned his friendship, and Dinn says that I inherited
it." Her voice dropped low. "On his soul and my father's
sword I swear that I'll deal honestly with you, Doune."
It was a powerful oath. I knew none like it to offer her.
She asked if I had a father; I told her I must have at one
time. A mother? Dead, I said. No sister or wife, she
supposed. I told her she supposed right, and none of the
women I knew had the kind of soul I'd care to swear an
oath on. She looked at me with a mocking, exaggerated
expression of pity.
"Well," I growled, "I don't expect they're swearing any
oaths on my soul either."
The kender whistled a rising note, like a question, to
catch Alyce's attention. When he had it, he hit his two fists
against each other, then clasped both hands together. Alyce
shrugged with the air of someone who has come to the
bottom of the coffer and expects to find nothing but dust.
To me she said: "I don't suppose people in your line of
work have many friends."
"Not many," I said flatly, "and the one who was closest
to me is a long time dead."
"Was he a good friend?"
A good companion, an honest partner, and one who
made his escape from Istar in such a way as to leave plenty
of witnesses to the fact that I'd had nothing to do with it.
"Yes," I said quietly. "He was a good friend."
She thought about that for a long moment, her blue
eyes no longer bright and jeering, but soft and very serious.
"Swear by your friend's memory, Hunter-Doune. Swear
that you'll deal honestly with me." Then I couldn't see her
eyes at all for the veil of her dark lashes. Only her lips
moving in a secret little smile. "It'll be well worth your
That's all I needed to hear. I placed my hand over hers
and took an oath on a friend's memory.
Good thing she waited until I'd sworn before she told me
that her partner was the minotaur I'd brought to Istar's jail
only hours ago. Good thing for her, but not so good for
Peverell. The mute little kender laughed so hard that he fell
out of his chair. And not so good for me. I'd been two days
in the minotaur's company and I suspected he'd not readily
agree to become my partner in the hunt for Kell. But I was
sworn now, and by Touk's memory.
Too, there was all that gold to consider.
Peverell was hot to pick every lock on every door in
the jail. When I told him that we wouldn't get in that way,
he showed me how deeply he resented this slight to his
thievish abilities. Mute he might be, but he'd raised the
skills of obscene and insulting gesture to high art. Alyce
calmed him, and from there the night's work was no more
than the usual game: Get some weapons for the minotaur,
some mounts for Alyce and me - no sense getting horses
for Peverell or Dinn; Alice said that neither would ride if
you paid 'em - then bribe the right guard and pay off the
right cleric. The bribe and the payoff were huge, took all
the ninety gold pieces I'd earned on the minotaur and a lot
more besides. Alyce had to part with her beautiful sapphire
"I consider it an investment," she said. She cocked a
thumb at my empty purse and grinned coolly. "You should,
I did. A quarter share of Kell's bounty would make the
gold I'd paid in bribery seem like the pittance in a beggar's
I was right about Dinn. He joyfully would have given
up all hope of freedom for even the slimmest chance of
killing me. But Alyce managed him, and it was something
to see her go toe-to-toe with that brute, harrying him in
hissing whispers like an angry fishwife.
"Use your head, Dinn," she said. And she insisted -
often - that he remember why they were here. She
demanded - just as often - that he carry through with what
The kender, over his fit of the sulks, came up close to
the tall, red-furred minotaur, gestured elaborately. Dinn
growled and shook his horns at Peverell, sullenly asking
Alyce to translate.
"He's saying just what you know is true, Dinn. We
That made some difference, caused the minotaur to
subside. "Arr, well," he growled, glaring at me. "Let's do it
"Thank you, my friend." Alyce patted his rough-furred
shoulder and rose up on tiptoe to kiss that ugly snout
(which made him growl and HARRUMPH and shuffle his
I kept one eye on Dinn, for all that everyone seemed
happy and friendly together. I'd been the one to shame him
by dragging him chained and hobbled into Istar. Minotaurs
usually like to erase the memory of shame by killing
anyone who knows about it.
An unwelcoming place, the savannah; hot and dry and
without landmarks. This is the land of the nomad clans, and
there are no borders to cross; nothing to warn you that
you're in some clan's territory, for the nomads have no
individual territories. Always moving, settling nowhere, the
long-braids consider the whole savannah theirs. They have
a hard greeting for visitors - a flint-tipped arrow, a lance's
We went carefully, Alyce and I riding; Dinn loping
ahead, a tall, homed outrunner tracking steadily west to the
blue-hazed mountains. Sometimes Peverell trotted beside
him, unseen but for the parting of the high grass as he went,
the wake of a small, mute kender. More often, he stayed by
Alyce. Like all kender, he loved to talk, and she had more
patience for his silent language - and clearly a greater
understanding of it - than the minotaur did.
I was used to riding alone since Toukere and I had
parted ways, and I was used to quiet. But soon I found
myself liking the sound of Alyce's voice: low because of
the danger, thrilling when she was keen on her subject,
gentle when she was thinking aloud. Alyce did a lot of
thinking out loud, about politics and history and gods.
"I'll tell you something, Hunter-Doune," she said, one
blazing noonday when the savannah ran rippling under a
hot wind. "I've always heard that gods are about balance,
good and neutral and evil all lending their weight in the
measure against chaos. I think it's politics that makes
heretics, not wrong thinking. Which, if you believe what
you hear, is just what this outlaw, Kell, thinks." She
glanced at me out of the comer of her eyes. "If you believe
what you hear."
She seemed to know a lot about Kell, and I wondered if
she'd conceived some romantic fancy for the outlaw. I
asked her about this, in a joking way. Peverell, trotting
beside us, looked up at me, signing swiftly, laughing
"What'd he say?" I asked.
"Kender nonsense," she said stiffly. "I have no fancies
about Kell. A good hunter should know what she's hunting,
how the prey thinks, what it will defend, where it goes to
hide, where it is vulnerable." She smiled, as though to
herself and over private thoughts. "Don't you agree,
I said I was a bounty hunter, not a boar hunter.
"So you are." She laughed, mocking again. "And a
good one who wastes no time thinking about the heretics
you hunt. Right?"
"No sense in it. They're nothing more than the promise
of gold, payable on delivery." I slipped her a sideways grin.
"Thanks to politics."
Again Peverell gestured, his whole bright face a
question; this time Alyce translated.
"He wants to know whether heretics are people to you."
I shook my head. "They're profit."
The kender signed again, and Alyce looked at me for a
long moment, her eyes all soft and gravely thoughtful, as if
she were weighing the balance of me on a scale.
"Empty enough for the wind to howl through, aren't
"Did he say that?"
"No. I did. How'd you get so empty?"
"Tricks of the trade." I shifted uncomfortably to
another tack. "Why are you worrying about how I feel? I
don't see that YOU'RE holding a whole lot of mercy for
She looked away, out across the golden, shifting
savannah. "My feelings for Kell are ... personal," she said.
"I'm not a bounty hunter by trade."
"Oh? What'd he do, steal the pennies off your dead
She winced, and I was sorry I'd said it. I'd come close
to some truth, one that hurt.
"Come on, Alyce," I said, and surprised myself to hear
how gently I'd spoken. "Don't worry about me and my
feelings. They haven't got all that much to do with you
The old, taunting light, brittle and bright, came back to
her eyes. "Not much," she said, and she laughed.
I thought the laughter was forced.
That's the way we talked during those long, hot days on
the savannah. Sometimes she mocked, as she'd done in the
Hart; sometimes she was serious, and I liked that best. Soon
I began to wish that the kender would stay with Dinn. I was
getting to like Alyce's company, the nearness of her, her
voice, even her thoughtful, considering silence.
There were possibilities in her silence. At night, as I slept
- Alyce wrapped in rough woolen blankets with a tall fire
between us - those possibilities changed into dreams in
which the minotaur and the kender had no roles to play.
But the kender was with us more often than not, and so
we three were together - Alyce, Peverell, and me - when,
at the end of our third day of travel, the sun set in a blaze of
red and ahead of us Dinn spotted the nomad woman and
My horse danced skittishly, sidled away from the
minotaur's horns. Dinn smiled thinly when he saw that,
tossed his head so that a horn came dangerously close to
the horse's shoulder ... and my leg. He pointed to the tall
grass where it parted counter to the wind's direction.
"Two," he said to Alyce. "Long-braids."
The nomad woman ran swiftly, though she went
hunched over, burdened by the weight of the small boy
clinging to her back. The boy's head bounced limply in
rhythm to her swift, ground-covering stride. His sun-
browned leg was streaked with blood. The woman's course
would take her right across our path.
Answering the instinct of fifteen years, I reached for
the coil of rope hanging from my saddle. One good cast and
I'd have her and the child roped, down, and trussed.
Alyce, seeing my gesture, said, "How much for those
Eighty gold, I told her. Forty for each, the woman not
being worth more than the child.
Alyce smiled coldly. "Your share of Kell's bounty is
worth ten times that. Are you with me, Hunter-Doune?"
I didn't answer. I was watching the woman run.
Although the wind covered our whispering and our mounts
were still, something - a silence of birds, maybe - must
have spoken to her instincts. She threw a swift look over
her shoulder and stumbled, startled to see us. Her eyes were
large and dark, like empty holes in a mask of terror. The
sight chilled me, squeezed my heart so that it was as if I felt
the desperate fear myself.
The woman recovered quickly, hitched the boy up higher
on her back, and ran faster.
I took my hand away from the rope, saw Alyce
watching me - not weighing anything, not taunting. Rather,
she smiled the way you do when you first meet someone
and you're thinking that you like what you see. Peverell
looked from one to the other of us, then gestured
something. His hands flew too fast for me to get his
meaning, but Alyce did. A dark scowl replaced her smile as
she told him to stop talking nonsense.
They say that the red moon, Lunitari, is the daughter of
Gilean, the deity who is the keeper of all the knowledge
possessed by the gods. Solinari, the silver moon, is
Paladine's son, and he watches over all the magic being
done in the world. That night, while the others rested, I
walked the first watch and saw these two moons - gods'
children, if you will - rising. First to rise was Lunitari.
When I squinted eastward across the plains, I thought I saw
the tall towers of Istar silhouetted against the red disk, dark
like a jagged bite taken out of the moon's rim. Second up
was Solinari, and he rose a little north of Istar, avoided the
teeth of the Kingpriest's city.
Foolish fancy, eh? Well, I had a lot on my mind - too
much for sleeping - and I kept coming back to the memory
of how I'd felt when Alyce smiled after I'd let the nomads
That was just more foolish fancy. Why should I care
how I weighed out in her eyes? Aye, she was long-legged
and lovely. Her blue eyes, when they weren't mocking,
spoke of possibilities, inspired dreams. She was round -
and surely soft and warm - in all the right places, but so
was many another woman, and I knew that well enough.
The only difference between Alyce and them was that she
was a good hand with a sword, good to talk to ... and she
was leading me to a quarter share of a fine, large bounty.
Sometimes she looked at me in such a way as to make
me want to be what she seemed to hope I was.
Empty? Maybe once. Maybe still, but Alyce, when she
looked at me with her eyes soft, a little hopeful, and
gravely thoughtful, made me think that she might be able to
fill some of those empty places in me.
I shook my head hard, as if I was trying to shake out
this nonsense. It WAS nonsense, I told myself. Isn't one
woman just as good as another on a cold night?
I was looking at the silver moon when I thought that, so
I guess you could say I was praying for something, maybe
for an answer, or a way to understand why it mattered to
me what Alyce thought.
Of course, Solinari didn't have much to say about it.
The children of gods have their own business to tend.
When the moons were past their heights I left my
watch, stepped carefully around the sleeping minotaur, and
sat beside Peverell at the campfire. He gave me a sideways
look, then signed something to Alyce. When I asked her
what he'd said, she didn't answer right away. I had the idea
that she wasn't thinking about how to translate, but whether
to. Finally she repeated his gestures, slowly, the way you
enunciate each word for the hard of hearing. A long
reaching up with both hands to cup something, an abrupt
dragging down motion.
"Sun setting," I guessed.
She raised four fingers, and I suggested that this,
coupled with the first gesture, meant four days passing.
"Right again." Her blue eyes danced as she made the
fists-and-clasp gesture I knew to mean FRIEND. "You
know that one. How about this?"
She repeated Peverell's last gesture: slammed her right
fist hard onto her level left palm. Then she mimicked his
expression: wide-eyed, drop-jawed surprise.
"What do you think that means, Hunter-Doune?"
"I have no idea."
She moved her lips in a secret little smile. "It's the
whole point of what Pev said. I'll leave you to consider it."
I spent the night listening to the wind sigh down the
starred sky, thinking long and hard about Peverell's
gestures. Might be, I thought, that Peverell's fist-in-palm
gesture meant an ambush. If so, perhaps he and Alyce were
anticipating Kell's surprise to find himself at last taken.
And that in only another four days. But nowhere in that
interpretation did Peverell's friend-gesture fit.
Last, before I made ready to sleep, I remembered
Alyce's secret smile.
Now I remembered this wasn't the first time I'd seen
her smile like that. The first time was in the Hart's Leap,
right after she'd hunted around trying to find an oath for me
to swear. An oath that maybe I wouldn't have given if I'd
known it was Dinn I had to help break out of jail.
Cold and creeping came suspicion.
Might be, I thought, that there's another way to
interpret Peverell's gestures and Alyce's secret smile. Might
be they were having a laugh over how surprised I'd be to
find that the oath she took on her father's sword signified
nothing but a means to an end - the minotaur's release from
jail, the capture of the heretic Kell, and a third share of the
bounty instead of a quarter.
Four days. Friendship. And a violent, smashing
Alyce - her considering looks, her soft eyes, her
surprised pleasure when I let the nomads go? What were
those things? Bait, maybe. Four are better than three on the
savannah - until the three got where they needed to go.
Time to get out. Time to cut my losses and get out.
I stayed - for the sake of the gold, I told myself. What I
didn't admit - didn't even know then - was that I'd foolishly
come too far down the road of fancy to turn back.
Alyce kept to herself after that night. Quiet and
brooding, she spoke to Dinn only when she had to, and
spoke to me hardly at all. She had something on her mind,
and if she talked to anyone about it, that one was Peverell -
who seemed to know about, and maybe even sympathize
with, whatever troubled her.
They conversed in his silent, graceful language of
gesture, and so I had no idea why she'd grown so suddenly
We left the savannah three days after we saw the
nomad woman and her child. We made camp that night in a
blind canyon, a long slot of stone and tall, rising walls. No
need to post watch there. The only way into the canyon was
in clear sight of our camp.
We'd no more than built a fire when Alyce looked
around to find the kender missing. "Dinn," she said.
"Where'd he go?"
The minotaur made the kender's fist-hitting-palm
"Damn! I TOLD him - " She glanced at me, then took
another tack. "Dinn, are you sure?"
Dinn shrugged. "I'm never really sure what he's trying
to say, but that is my guess."
Ah, she wasn't happy with that answer. Nor was she
very happy when I asked her what the gesture meant. Blue
eyes glinting, she said, "It means that that kender's going to
find himself in some big trouble next time I see him."
She said no more.
As we ate, the red moon cleared the high canyon walls,
spilled light over the stone, made the shadows a web of
purple. Alyce, who'd displayed a wharfman's appetite at the
Hart, picked only absently at her food. When she tired of
that, she bunched a rough woolen blanket into a pillow and
stretched out before the fire.
She lay silent, staring up at the narrow sky, the
gleaming stars. The fire's flickering glow made her pale
cheeks flush rosy, her dark hair shine, but I only watched
that from the comer of my eye. Dinn, sitting in the night
shadows and honing his daggers, had the most of my
attention. He worked with sure, even strokes and
sometimes sparks leaped from the steel and stone. When
that happened, the minotaur would look up at me, his dark
eyes gleaming, his large yellow teeth bared in something
like a smile.
"Doune," Alyce said after a while. "We're near Kell's
hideout. Tomorrow, we'll be playing a whole different
I looked away from Dinn, not liking the sound of that.
"What do you mean?"
She looked at me, her eyes neither soft and thoughtful,
nor brittle and jeering. She wasn't smiling. Her expression
"Doune," she said. "Can I trust you?"
I answered evenly, though I didn't know where the
question was leading. (And, no, it didn't remind me of my
own doubt. Doubt had haunted me for the past three days.)
"I swore I'd deal honestly with you, Alyce."
She nodded. "On your old friend's memory."
I said nothing, remembering Peverell's fist-hitting-
palm gesture, repeated again tonight. Ambush for Kell, or
betrayal for me? I didn't know, and I waited to see where
Alyce's questions would lead. Dinn put aside his daggers,
watched and waited, too. But he wasn't watching Alyce. He
was watching me.
Alyce said, "Doune, you also said that bounty hunting
is just business. Can we trust you to stand by us, no matter
what we find tomorrow?"
I laughed without humor. "Unless this Kell of yours has
an army with him. Then you can trust me to do what
anyone with sense would do - cut my losses and run. Live
to hunt another day, eh? This is a strange time to be talking
She shrugged. "Not really. Tell me, Hunter-Doune,
what would you do if - "
A loud whistle - a sudden pattern of sharp notes, shrill
enough to make the hair stir on the back of my neck - broke
the night silence.
"Goblins," Dinn rumbled, reaching for his daggers.
I scanned the dark heights, saw nothing but shadows
and the baleful eye of the red moon gleaming. I listened
hard for Peverell's whistle, but heard only the ghostly echo
of night wind trapped in the canyon. Then, darkness
become solid, goblins lined the heights, black against the
moonlit sky. I counted a dozen. Although distance might
fool the eye about details, I knew that the least of them was
taller than I and more muscular than even the minotaur.
You might think that none of this mattered much, that
we could slip through the shadows and the dark, head for
the mouth of the canyon and take our chances running and
hiding until we lost them in the dark and the mountains. We
A huge goblin stepped forward to the edge of the drop.
It held something high, like a dark cleric offering sacrifice.
Alyce cursed softly. The goblin held the kender above its
head, had voiceless Peverell for a hostage and a shield.
Peverell writhed in the goblin's grip as if he wanted
nothing more than to overbalance his captor and send him
plunging to a bone-shattered death. So furiously did he
struggle that I knew he'd not give a thought to his own
bones until he was in midair himself. Yet he was lightly
built and had not one tenth of the goblin's strength. His
struggling was worth nothing but the goblin's annoyance.
Alyce gestured to Dinn, pointed to the canyon entrance.
Wordless understanding passed between them in just one
look, as though a whole plan had been unfolded and
discussed. The minotaur didn't like it, whatever it was, but
Alyce reached up, stroked his red-furred shoulder.
"Don't worry, my friend. I'll be fine. Now, go. Go."
He obeyed, as he always did, but in the fire's light I saw
his eyes gleaming, all reflected animal glare and as red as
Lunitari hanging high in the sky above the canyon's black
walls. A dire warning, that look, and directed at me.
"Don't worry," I said, sarcasm not even thinly veiled.
"I'll be fine, too, Dinn."
He exercised admirable restraint, did no more than
feint a lunge at me as he passed by - and I still have two
eyes today because I kept as still as stone when one of his
twisted horns came close to my face. Alyce smiled in a
cold, absent way.
"You shouldn't bait him like that, Doune. There might
come a time when I'm not near to restrain him."
"Might come a time when I'd welcome that."
She said nothing, likely recognizing bravado when she
heard it. I looked over my shoulder at the mouth of the
canyon, yawning blackness with silvery stars hanging
above. I turned back to Alyce, saw her studying me.
"Is this where a bounty hunter decides to cut his losses
and run, Hunter-Doune?"
I snorted. "Could I?"
"Go and try," Alyce said flatly. With her sword's
gleaming tip she pointed to the goblins. They'd found a
narrow path, a winding way down the black canyon walls.
They went slowly, being obliged to keep behind the one
who was still shielding himself with Peverell. But they
came on steadily, and I saw that my first count was wrong.
There were more than a dozen of them; at least twice that.
"There's no profit in this for you now, Hunter-Doune."
None at all.
In that moment the silver moon, Paladine's son lagging
behind Lunitari as he always does, rose above the stony
heights. By Solinari's light I saw Alyce's face in profile, as
white as marble. All her attention was on the kender caught
in the goblin's dutches.
The big goblin flung the kender to the ground, laughed
when he saw him hit the rough stone and tumble the rest of
the way to the canyon floor. Peverell lay where he fell, a
pitiful jumble of arms and legs. When I looked at Alyce, I
saw one thin line of silver on her cheek, moonlit tears.
"Are you with me, Hunter-Doune? Or will you leave
She was not weighing me now, or taunting. She really
didn't know how I would answer. By the light of wise
Paladine's son, I saw in her eyes the knowledge that with
me or without, she'd probably not get out of this canyon
alive. I saw her wanting to believe that I would not abandon
I'd be a fool to stay, but that would be nothing new. I'd
been a fool for the last three days, should have gotten out
when I knew I wasn't sure whether I trusted her. What had
made me stay?
It was a jeweled moment, one of those spaces in the
soul when you understand that something has happened to
change you. Those moments have their sudden, unlooked-
for absurdities to send you laughing, if only silently. Once
I'd asked the silver moon why I cared what Alyce thought
of me. A bit late in answering, was Solinari, but he
answered me now, softly, like a whisper in my heart.
WHAT A DAMNED ALL INCONVENIENT TIME TO
FINALLY FIGURE OUT THAT I'VE FALLEN IN LOVE ...
Maybe Alyce heard the laughter in me. For one
moment, swiftly fled, she smiled as though she agreed.
I hefted my sword, took comfort in its trusty balance.
"I swore to deal honestly with you, Alyce. By my
reckoning, that means sticking by you now."
We stood braced, back-to-back, when the goblins
entered the canyon.
Night fighting is a hard thing, all shadows and moon-
gleaming steel, all cold sweat and heart leaping in your
chest. When the odds are good, it's hard to tell friend from
foe, but that wasn't anything for us to worry about. The
odds weren't good. There was only Alyce and me, with
never the slim breadth of a steel blade between us.
She used her blade like a sword dancer, whirling the
steel so that the whistle of it filled the canyon. Any goblin
who got too close lost at least a limb. One lost his head.
That was all very fine and flashy, but I like the dependable
parry and thrust. I spitted the first two of the fanged goblins
that came at me, was ready to take on a third when I heard
Dinn roaring somewhere near the canyon's mouth. I
couldn't turn to see what cause he had for bellowing, but I
heard Alyce suck in her breath, a soft hissing counterpoint
to her sword's whistle.
The goblin who'd come to take the place of the one I
killed feinted from the side, dove in under my guard. He
caught me around the neck and did what his fellows
couldn't do - separated Alyce and me as he threw me hard
to the stony ground. I heard Alyce cursing above me, saw
the star-filled sky, felt the goblin's claws raking my face.
The goblin knew how to use his knees. In two thrusts
he knocked the wind from me with a knee to the belly -
and nearly all the sense with a knee to the groin. I twisted
onto my side, hunched over the hurt. The goblin sank his
fangs into the muscle between neck and shoulder, gnawed
as though he'd like to have chewed his way to my heart.
A dagger whistled past my head, its cold steel stinging
my cheek, drawing blood. And the goblin fell off me, the
blade through its neck. I didn't stop to marvel over my luck.
I scrambled for my sword and saw Alyce ringed by three
goblins - big as boulders, gray-skinned, clawed, long fangs
dripping. Her sword flashed, singing as it cut the air. I ran
to her. Limping and listing, still hunched over my pain, I
didn't know what I could do for her. Still, I ran. Her fine
silk blouse was splattered with blood, and the silver moon's
light showed me that it wasn't black goblin blood. It was as
red as rose petals, and it was hers.
Alyce cried me welcome. I severed a goblin's head
with one chopping blow of my sword, kicked the corpse
aside, and Alyce and I were again back-to-back. The
goblins came at us howling, nightmares come to life. We
were outnumbered, fighting only to kill as many as we
could before we fell.
Close by, I heard a piercing whistle - sharp and high
and urgent. Peverell? No. It couldn't be. Someone shouted
"Kell!" as though it were a war cry, a call to arms.
I looked up, thinking, WHERE? Then, AS IF WE
DIDN'T HAVE ENOUGH TROUBLE.
That moment's distraction cost me. I went down under
the weight of two goblins, and Alyce, kicking and hacking
at my attackers, yelled, "To me! To me!" as though she
were giving an army a rallying point.
The night exploded, as if the moons and every one of
the countless stars had burst to rain red and shower silver
down on me. In the storm of light, flaring and running,
shadows leaped to thrice their height. Alyce's face shone as
white as snow, her sword like ice gleaming. A rush and
babble of shouting and screaming filled the wildly rocking
night, just as though an army HAD come.
Too late for me, though, sword-cut and bleeding ...
Peverell - bruised and scraped and grinning - threw
himself down on his knees beside me, gestured wildly, but
I couldn't figure it out. The light, the running, raining red
and silver, began to fade, then vanished altogether, taking
feeling and sound with it.
I awoke in another place, a sturdy cottage so light and
bright and clean that if I did not have wounds and weakness
to gainsay the thought, I'd have believed the canyon no
more than a place in a nightmare. The first thing I saw was
Peverell, and he was chattering to an elderly woman in his
silent way, his hands swooping and flying. After a while,
the old woman, her face wrinkled like a winter apple,
shooed him away as though he were a pesky hen gotten
into the house. I wondered, in a vague kind of way, what
they'd been talking about, but I fell asleep again.
I slept often and long. One evening I awoke to find
Dinn standing beside me.
"There is no longer debt between us, human," he said.
"You kept her safe when I could not. They're right. You'll
do, Hunter-Doune, if you live." He said that last
grudgingly, with a sullen shake of his horns.
Dinn wasn't the only one who was unsure whether I'd
survive my wounds. I wasn't all that certain about it myself,
but Alyce wasn't having any of that. She was always near,
and one morning I awoke to see her standing in the open
doorway, looking out. Her left arm was bandaged above the
elbow. She wore a soft blue gown of some light, wide-
woven fabric, the hem of it just brushing sun-browned
I don't know why I remembered it then - with her
looking like a breeze-blown flower come to settle on the
doorstep, but in memory I heard someone shout, KELL!
and heard her yell, TO ME! TO ME!
"Are you Kell?" I asked her.
She turned from the doorway, her blue eyes darkly
thoughtful. She was weighing a risk. Finally she said, "Yes.
You see, Hunter-Doune, Dinn does know where that
terrible heretic Kell hides out."
"But why - ?"
She shook her head, laid a finger on my lips, then she
pressed her own lips to my forehead. To check for fever,
Later that day I awoke and Alyce was not in the
cottage, but I wasn't alone. I had a visitor. He sat in a chair
pulled close to the side of the bed, a tankard of ale in his
hand. His eyes, dark and a little flecked with blue, were
soft-focused, as though his thoughts were far away.
On second look, I saw that what I'd thought was
sunlight glinting in his black beard was the silvering of
time's passing. He'd aged, and that shouldn't have been
surprising. It had been about seven years since I'd last seen
him. When he saw me awake, he turned in the chair, and I
saw that he'd lost something since the last time I'd seen
him: a leg. In its place, strapped to the stump where a knee
should have been, was a carved wooden peg.
Although it hurt to move, I raised my left hand, palm
up, and hit it with my right fist. Now I knew the meaning of
Peverell's puzzling gesture: A hammer hitting an anvil.
Four days. Surprise. Friend.
"Touk," I said, though hoarsely for trying to sound
calm. "Where am I?"
"Ah, well, that's a story." He raised the tankard, drank,
and held it out to me.
"No," I said. "I don't drink ale."
Smiling a little, as if he were looking down a long road
to an old memory, he said, "Guess you had your fill the
night I left Istar, eh? Well, then, listen good, Hunter-Doune.
There's a lot to tell about me and the Vale."
He told me there were two mages living in the Vale. They
had made the sky over the canyon rain red and silver light.
He grinned when he said that, held that those mages did a
fine job of scaring the feeble wits out of the goblins with
their little light game. He told me there were five clerics,
and some declared their allegiance to the gods of good by
their white garb. Others wore the red of neutrality.
According to Toukere, it was one of the red-robed clerics
who had healed the worst of my hurts.
"And there's enough people - young men and old,
grannies and mothers and children - to fill up a small
town," he said. "Some of 'em you saw in the canyon, which
is no great distance from here. Good fighters when they
have to be, but mostly they're farmers."
"But this is no town, Touk, is it?"
He allowed as how it wasn't, not exactly. The Vale was
a deep, high-sided valley tucked between two rising
mountain peaks. The people who lived there hunted the
highlands, raised cows and chickens and pigs, had a fine
forge at the broad fording place of the river. Kell's father
had founded the place.
"Alyce - Kell - told me her father was a mercenary."
Touk shrugged. "He was, once, for a while, but he was
a pretty good thinker, and he got to thinking that this habit
the Kingpriest has of slaughtering in the name of goodness
is a strange one. Once that idea got hold of him, it didn't let
go. He opposed the Kingpriest's persecutions with
everything he had - heart and soul. He did more than talk
about it. He settled this place.
"You call his daughter Alyce," Toukere said, "but that's
only a traveling name. Here we name her Kell, for that's
what her father called her. Kell o' the Vale."
He told me that all the folk who lived in the Vale were
free believers in whatever god or gods they chose. Many of
them had come by way of dark paths, hunted for bounty
and driven by desperation into the goblin lands. He said
that every one of them - men and dwarves and elves, one
kender and a minotaur - owed their lives to Kell, the heretic
who, like her father, did not believe that torment and
execution were fit ways to honor the gods of good.
"We get on well, Hunter-Doune. By which I mean we
don't kill each other over the big matters, and we feel free
to squabble over the small things."
He finished off the ale and thumped the mug against
his wooden leg. He winced a little when he did that, and I
saw that the wood was newly carved. The amputation
wasn't old enough to be used to.
"We're awfully close to goblin lands, here," he said.
"That's good and bad. Good because it keeps the
Kingpriest's spies and casual visitors away. Bad because we
have to keep patrols on our borders against the black-
hearted goblins. I am - " He ran his palm along the wood
again. "I was the one who led those patrols. No more."
"What happened, Touk?"
He shrugged. "Just what it looks like. Lost my leg to a
goblin's axe, lay too long for the cleric to heal me. But I'm
not here to talk about me, Doune. I'm here to talk about
Now, go reckon this - because I can't. There he sat, my
old partner whose advice I'd remembered and lived by even
all the years after I'd thought him dead, the old friend
whose memory I'd sworn by - and I was suddenly angry.
Angry and wondering why he'd not found a moment to
spare to let me know that he was not dead.
"You want to talk about me?" I said bitterly. "Why, I'm
just fine, Touk. Sword-cut, my ribs broken, gnawed by
goblins, and the rest of me feeling like I've been run over
by a wagon. But otherwise, fine. How've you been?"
"Now hear me, Hunter-Doune," he said. "Hear me."
"Hear you? No, Touk Hammerfell. You listen to me - "
"Hear me!" His dark, blue-flecked eyes flared, as they'd
so often done when - as he liked to say - I had the stubborn
fit on me.
"It's me who told Kell to bring you here," he said, "and
that was a risk. I knew you seven years ago, Hunter-Doune,
but I didn't know what you'd become since then. Still I
talked Kell into taking the risk. Ah, blackmailed her, I
guess you'd say, told her she owed me for my leg."
He sucked in his cheeks, as he did when he was
thinking, then spoke in a rush, as he did when he was trying
to get past sentiment.
"I've never forgotten you, Hunter-Doune, and I hoped
... I hoped you'd still be the man I remembered. I'd have
gone for you myself, but you see I couldn't. We need
someone trusty, and someone keen-witted. Someone who -
" He shook his head, then went off on another tack.
"They're mostly all farmers here, not fighters. The minotaur
wanted the job. He wants nothing more than to be killing
goblins every chance he gets. But you know how minotaurs
are. Hotheaded and not good at leading men. I'll tell you, he
didn't much like being the bait in this game."
"Bait? For what? For me?"
"Well, I've been dead these seven years, haven't I?
Caught by some bounty hunter in Xak Tsaroth." He
grinned, an old familiar twist of his lips. "I don't reckon
you'd have believed it if anyone came to say that your old
friend Touk Hammerfell wanted to have a chat."
I gave him that.
"So we used Dinn for bait. A nice big minotaur - worth
what, ninety gold these days? - wandering your usual
stomping grounds and ready for the taking."
I sighed, and he gave me a sharp look.
"I'm not doing a very good job explaining, am I?"
"No," I said. "You're not."
There came a soft sound, a bare foot whispering against
the floor rushes. Alyce stood in the doorway, as bright as a
sapphire in a golden fall of sunlight. She came to stand
"Let me try," she said. "Doune, we need a new captain
for our border patrol" - she rested a hand on Touk's
shoulder - "and you come highly recommended."
"Why did Kell himself - herself - come after me?"
She laughed, her blue eyes sparkling. "I told you when
we first met that you were a legend where I come from.
Touk insisted that you were the man we need, but I like to
make very certain about the people who are going to live
here. There wasn't all that much danger for me in Istar.
They're too busy spinning up legends about Terrible Kell to
know who I really am. So, who better to decide whether
you were trustworthy?"
"And if you'd decided that I wasn't?"
"Easy enough to lose our way in the canyons." She
smiled, her cheeks dimpling. "They're very twisty and
winding. You'd have had no trouble believing that Dinn
had lost his way."
I looked at the ceiling, trying to get all this into shape.
No murdered party of innocent pilgrims? I asked.
None, she told me. No looted shrines and slaughtered
clerics? Not a one, she said. No silver pennies stolen from
dead men's eyes?
She shuddered. "I hate that story worst of all. No. I
have my ideas about what's right, and I see that they get
heard out there in the world. That's all."
I nodded. "No bounty then, I suppose?"
"None. Just a job, Hunter-Doune, guarding good people
and keeping them safe. A home with an old friend." She
glanced away, her eyes hidden beneath the veil of her dark
lashes. "And some new ones. Are you with us, Hunter-
Touk looked from her to me, raised an eyebrow. "Well,
well," he muttered. "So that's the way of it, eh? I thought
the kender was just making it up."
"Oh, hush, Touk," she said, her cheeks flushing, but
she didn't say it very insistently.
Touk laughed and slapped his knee - his good one. "So
what about it, Hunter-Doune? Are you with us?"
Once Alyce had promised me a bounty so great that no
place I could stash the treasure would be empty. I'd been
thinking about gold; she'd been talking about a home, a
place of trust, and an old friend. Now, watching her smooth
white cheek coloring rosy, I understood that she was
offering something more.
I told Touk that I'd sworn a good oath to deal honestly
with Alyce, said that I reckoned that the oath held for Kell,
Later, when the sky was filled with stars and Solinari's
light shone in though the window, Alyce - the terrible
outlaw, Kell o' the Vale - brushed her lips against my
forehead in such a way that I knew she wasn't thinking
"Once I thought it would be impossible to fill up those
empty places of yours," she whispered. "I thought Touk
was wrong, that you weren't the man for us. But when I
saw you watching the nomad woman running, when I saw
you feeling for her, really FEELING so that you wanted to
turn away but couldn't - "
She smiled, as she had then, as though she were seeing
me for the first time and liking what she saw.
"Welcome home, Hunter-Doune."
She kissed me again, and I felt her lips move in a smile
like a promise.
In a place of shadows, small shadows moved.
Sunlight filtered among tumbled stone debris, where
great blocks of granite lay in mountains of rubble, braced
one against another where they fell. The light shone down
through cracks and crevices to illuminate the smooth, damp
floor of a meandering tunnel far beneath the ground. Here
centuries of rainwater had scoured gullies beneath the
rubble, gullies that led downward to larger, cavernous
sumps below the massive foundations of a great temple.
In the dim light, shadows wound their way upward -
small, furtive shadows moving in single file, moving
silently ... or nearly so.
THUMP. The line of shadows slowed, became shorter
as trailing shadows converged on those in front. The
foremost shadow spun around and said, "Sh!"
"Somebody fall down," a voice whispered.
"Sh!" the lead shadow repeated, emphatically.
Then they were moving again. The source of the
eroded gully was a V-shaped opening between squared
stones, a seep where stones had settled, pulling apart from
The lead shadow paused, said, "Sh!" again, and
disappeared into the cleft. The others followed, into
Darkness, then dim light from somewhere ahead. With
the light, the sounds of voices and the smells of cooking
food. The light came through a narrow crack;
the lead shadow stopped again. Others piled up behind,
and again there were abrupt, soft sounds.
THUD. A hushed voice, "Oof!"
Another voice, "Ow! Careful!"
"Somebody bump into somebody."
"Somebody fall down again."
Silence again, and the little shadows crept one by one
through the crack and into a large, lamp-lit, vaulted room
where ovens radiated, meat sizzled over coals, pots steamed
on blazing grates, and people worked - people far larger
than the shadowy little figures that darted across an open
space and under a laden cutting table.
One of the tall people in the kitchen glanced around.
"What was that?"
"What?" another asked.
"Did you see something just then?"
"No. What was it?"
"Nothing, I guess. Take a look at those loaves, will
A large person turned away and bent to peer into an
oven. "A few more minutes. I ... now where did THAT go?"
"Half a duck." The voice sounded mystified, then
irritated. "Come on, now. These roast ducks are for the
guards' hall. Who took it?"
"I didn't, so don't glare at me. It doesn't matter. Get that
tray ready. You know how the guards are when they're
"All right, but I hope nobody notices that there are only
eleven and a half ducks here."
Large people came and went, and the little shadows
worked their way from cover to cover, across the kitchen to
a half-open pantry door in a shadowed corner. Behind
them, another voice shouted, "How many loaves did you
put into this oven? I think some are missing"
Through the pantry the little shadows moved, fanning
out, investigating everything. Here and there, small items
disappeared from shelves and benches. Past the pantry was
a wide hall, dimly lit, where linen robes hung from pegs on
the walls and pairs of sandals lay beneath them. Curtained
cubicles lined the hall. From behind some came the sounds
of rhythmic breathing and an occasional snore.
"Oh!" a voice whispered. "Pretty."
Tools and implements lay on heavy-timber benches in
a stone-walled workshop. As the shadows passed, a few of
these items disappeared. At the far wall of the workshop,
tanned and treated hides stood rolled and bound. Other
hides hung on the wall, and others were stacked in piles
beside large, covered vats.
A shadow paused near a big elk hide, freshly cured.
"Pretty," a whisper said. "Make nice sleeping mat."
"Gorge'! I take that for hisself," another whisper noted.
"After th' fight, he will," the first said, determinedly.
Candles lighted a wide eating hall, where large men sat
at long tables, wolfing down food and ale as servants
carried in laden trays, took them out empty.
"Burnish and polish, scour and shine," a deep voice
growled. "I'm about worn out from rubbing armor."
"Captain's orders," another grunted. "Spit and polish all
the way. Big things afoot."
"Whole council's here now," a third said. "The ninth
delegation just came in. Kingpriest's birthday, the clerics
Between ranks and rows of large legs and big feet,
small shadows scurried single file beneath a row of tables.
Here and there, near the edge of the tables, bits of food
"Somebody fall down again," a faint whisper
Above the table a guardsman turned to the one next to
"Who fell down?"
"Who did WHAT?"
"Never mind. I ... owl Keep your feet to yourself,
Beyond the feasting hall, past a crack behind a
tapestry, a wide, dim room held ranked cots. Here and there
were sleeping men. Suits of armor hung on wooden stands.
Shadows moved about.
"Not much here," a voice whispered. "Nice stuff, but
all way too big."
"Here somethin'. Hey, nice an' shiny." Metal clinked
After a time, the shadows were gone, back the way
they had come. Except for the ordinary sounds of the
temple, now there was only silence.
Through ancient seeps caused by ancient rainfall,
shadows moved - small, hurrying shadows laden with
bulging net sacks, armloads of various things, and objects
of all descriptions. The seeps widened into caverns and
ahead were glows of light and the muffled sounds of
THUMP ... CLATTER. CRASH.
The line slowed. "What now?" the lead shadow
"Somebody fall down."
The shadows moved on, then stopped abruptly as a
mighty roar came from somewhere - a roar like the rushing
of water. A shout mingled with the sound, then stopped
abruptly, only to return as a frantic echo of someone
splashing and coughing.
The shadows had disappeared into hiding places. Now,
as the sound subsided, they crept forth again, cautiously.
"What that?" one or more whispered.
"Who knows?" the answer came. "Gone now, though.
Again the shadows moved, hurrying toward the light.
Again splashing ...
"Stop!" the lead one ordered. "What this stuff on
"Dunno. Wasn't here before."
"Not water. What is it?"
"Smells funny. Tastes good, though. What is it?"
Slurping sounds. "Who knows? Stop wastin' time! Let's
The Off Day was never planned. Like most historic
events in This Place during the long and lusterless reign of
His Boisterousness Gorge III, Highbulp By Choice and
Lord of This Place and Maybe Some of Those, the Off Day
It began innocently enough, with a question posed by the
Highbulp's wife and consort, Lady Drule. The lady,
accompanied by a gaggle of other female gully dwarves,
had just returned from an expedition into the Halls of the
Talls, in search of something - some said it was roast rice
and stew bones, which could sometimes be scrounged from
the kitchens when the Talls were distracted; some said it
was feathers; some said nice, juicy mice; and most simply
didn't remember what it was.
Some things - as far as the Aghar were concerned -
were worth remembering, and some were not. Reasons for
actions already taken rarely qualified as worth
remembering. It was the excursion itself that mattered.
Lady Drule and others had gone as far into the halls as
they dared - through middens and pantries, rooms and
shops, through a dining place where Talls were having a
meal and talking about someone's birthday, and into
interesting places where there were cots, personal effects
cabinets, and various things just lying about.
The Aghar ladies, instinctively adept at scurrying
through half-open doors and under tables, at hiding in
shadows and creeping unobserved among the ranked feet
of larger species, had quite a successful expedition, by
gully dwarf standards. Most of them returned before
nightfall - whether all of them returned was not known,
because none of them knew for sure how many had gone in
the first place - and the treasures they brought back to This
Place were a source of great excitement for at least several
There were two clay pots with morsels of food in them;
an assortment of gnawed bones; an ornamented sandal far
too large for the foot of any Aghar; two white linen robes,
each of which would make marvelous clothing for eight or
ten Aghar; a keg nearly half full of Tall ale; half a roast
duck; a mirror; a footman's pike three times as long as the
height of Gorge III himself; two loaves of bread; a heavy
maul; a potato; fourteen feet of twine; a chisel; a Tall
warrior codpiece, which would make an excellent tureen
for stew; and a complete dressed elk hide, with skull-pan
and antlers attached.
This final treasure so delighted Gorge III that he
claimed it as his own ... after the scuffle.
Tossing aside his rat-tooth crown, Gorge pulled the elk
hide over his shoulders, squirmed about beneath it for a bit,
then emerged with the skull-pan on his head, huge antlers
jutting above him. The remainder of the hide trailed far
behind as he moved.
Never in his life had he felt so regal. He strutted
around in a circle, demanding, "See! All look! Highbulp
impres ... pres ... lookin' good!"
He was so insistent on showing off that a crowd
gathered around him, elbowing aside Lady Drule and the
others who had actually acquired the treasure. Murmurs of
"See Highbulp," "Mighty Gorge," and "Who th' clown in
th' elk suit?" arose among them.
"All kneel!" Gorge demanded regally. "Make obei...
obe ... make bow to Great Highbulp."
A few of his subjects dropped to their knees
obediently, though most had lost interest and wandered
away by then. Some of those behind him, kneeling on the
trailing length of the elk hide, discovered that it was a very
comfortable mat. Two or three promptly lay down upon it
and went to sleep.
"Pretty good," Gorge nodded, satisfied at the attention
he was receiving in his regal new garb. Then, "Uh-oh!"
The weight of the great antlers above him tipped forward,
off balance. The nod became a bow, the bow a cant, and
with a tremendous clatter of antlers and oaths, the
Highbulp fell on his face, buried completely beneath the
The opportunity was too much for some of his loyal
subjects. Noticing those already asleep on its rearward
expanse, others now crawled aboard and curled up for their
With the hide thoroughly weighted down by sleeping
gully dwarves, it was all that Gorge could do to crawl out
from under it.
His wrath abated somewhat when a sturdy young
Aghar came running from somewhere, shouting at the top
of his lungs, and skidded to a halt before him. The youth
was soaking wet and stained from head to toe - a deep,
"Highbulp!" the newcomer gasped, panting for breath.
"News from royal mine!"
"You from mine?" Gorge squinted at him. "What is
"Yes, Highbulp." The red-stained one grinned. "I Skitt.
Work in royal mine."
"Fine." Gorge thought a minute. "What is work?"
Shrugging, he turned away, trying to recall what had so
irritated him just a moment before. Peering around, he
walked into a splay of elk antlers and found himself
Lady Drule hurried forward, shaking her head.
"Highbulp clumsy oaf," she muttered, and began
extricating her lord and husband from his dilemma.
"Highbulp listen!" the red-dripping miner insisted.
"News from mine!"
Gorge was in no mood to listen, but Drule turned to
the newcomer. "What news?" she asked.
"News! News from mine! What news?"
"Oh" Skitt collected his thoughts, then stood as tall as
a person less than four feet in stature can stand. "Hit pay
dirt," he said. "Mother load. Real gusher."
"Pay dirt?" Gorge was interested now. "What pay dirt?
Mud? Clay? Pyr ... pyr ... pretty rocks? What?"
"Wine," Skitt said.
Gorge blinked. "Wine?"
"Wine," Skitt repeated, proudly. "Highbulp got royal
wine mine, real douser."
Drule finished the untangling of His Testiness from the
elk antler trap, then strode to where Skitt stood and moved
around him, sniffing. "Wine," she said. "From mine?"
"Whole mine full of wine," he gabbled. "Musta hit a
Drule stood in thought for a moment, then turned to
the Highbulp. "What we do with wine?"
"Drink it," Gorge said decisively. "All get intox ... intox
... inneb ... get roarin' drunk."
"Dumb idea, Highbulp," a wheezy voice said. A tiny,
stooped figure, leaning on a mop handle, came out of the
shadows. It was old Hunch, Grand Notioner of This Place
and Chief Advisor to the Highbulp in Matters Requiring
"Drinkin' main-vein mine-wine not dumb, Hunch," the
Highbulp roared. "Good idea! Got it myself!"
"Sure," Hunch wheezed. "Drink it all, then what? We
all wind up with sore heads an' nothin' to show for it. 'Stead
of drink it, trade it. Get rich."
"Trade to who?"
"Talls. Plenty of Talls pay good for wine. I say make
trade. Get rich better than get drunk."
Drule found herself thoroughly taken with the idea of
becoming rich. Visions of finery danced in her head -
strings of beads, unending supplies of stew meat, matching
shoes ... a comb. "Hunch right, Gorge," she said. "Let's get
Outreasoned and outmaneuvered, the great Highbulp
turned away, grumbling, and began reclaiming his elk hide
by kicking sleeping Aghar in all directions.
"Calls for celebration," Drule decided.
Hunch had wandered away, and the only one remaining
to discuss such matters with her was the wine-stained mine
worker. Skitt stood where he had been, not really paying
much attention, because he had caught sight of the lovely
Lotta, a pretty young Aghar female quite capable of making
any young Aghar male forget the subject at hand.
Still, he heard the queen's statement and glanced her
way. "What does?" he asked.
"What does what?"
"Call for celebration. What does?"
"Ah ..." Lady Drule squinted, trying to remember.
SOMETHING certainly called for celebration. But she had
lost track of what it was. Like any true Aghar, Drule had a
remarkable memory for things seen, and sometimes for
things heard, but only a brief and limited memory for ideas
and concepts. The reasoning of her kind was simple:
Anything seen was worth remembering, but not much else
was, usually. Ideas seldom needed to be remembered. If
one lost an idea, one could usually come up with another.
She had an idea now. Turning, she shouted, "Gorge!"
A short distance away, the Highbulp kicked another
sleeping subject off his elk hide, then paused and looked
around. "Yes, dear?"
It was then that Lady Drule asked the question that led
ultimately to that most historic of episodes in the legends of
the Aghar of This Place: the Off Day. The question came
from a simple recollection of something she had heard in
the Halls of the Talls, during her forage expedition with
other ladies of the court.
"Gorge," she asked, "when your birthday?"
It was the acolyte Pitkin who discovered that Vat Nine
had been drained of its blessed contents - drained down to
the murky dregs, which were beginning to dry and crust
over. At first, he simply could not believe it. Making the
sign of the triad, he closed the sampler port and backed
away, pale and shaking, reciting litanies in a whisper.
"I have been beguiled," he told himself. "It is only an
illusion. The vat is not empty. The vat is full."
Murmuring, he knelt on the stone floor of the great
cellar and did obeisance to all the gods of good, waiting
while his prayers eased the tensions within him, letting the
light of goodness and wisdom flood his soul. Still shaken
then, but feeling somewhat reassured, he climbed the stone
steps to the catwalk and returned to the sample port of Vat
Nine. With hands that shook only slightly, he unlocked it
again, muttered one further litany, and opened the lid.
The vat was empty. Candlelight flooded its dark
interior, illuminating the draft marks at intervals on the
inner wall. A dozen feet below, shadowy in the reeking
murk, drying dregs lay crusting, inches below the lowest
draft mark. Pitkin's pale face went ashen. The vat could not
be empty. It was not possible. Yet, there was no wine
Easing the sampler lid down again, he locked it and
stared around the cavernous vault. From where he stood, on
the catwalk, the great vats receded into shadows in the
distance. Nine in all, only their upper portions extended
above the hewn stone of their nestling cradles. Each of
them was many times the size of Pitkin's sleeping cell four
levels up in the Temple of the Kingpriest. The huge flattop
vats seemed a row of ranked monoliths of seasoned
hardwood, their walls as thick as the length of his foot.
Each one nestling into a cavity of solid stone, the vats were
like everything else in this, the greatest structure of Istar,
the center of the world. They were the finest of their kind ...
The wines they held were blessed by the Kingpriest
himself. Not personally, of course, but in spirit, in somber
ceremonies performed by lesser clerics on behalf of His
Radiance. For two and a half centuries the wines had been
blessed. Every Kingpriest since the completion of the
temple, at every harvest of the vines, had blessed the wines
of the nine vats.
Symbolic of the nine realms of the Triple Triad - the
three provinces ruled directly by Istar, the three covenant
states of Solamnia, and the Border States of Taol, Ismin
and Gather - the wines were part of the holy wealth. The
best of vintage, produced entirely by human hands and
made pure by the blessings of the sun, these were the wines
of the nine vats.
The wines that were SUPPOSED to be in the vats, Pitkin
corrected his thought. The wines that vats number one
through eight did indeed hold - Pitkin had inspected them
himself, as he did every morning - and that Vat Nine
somehow did not.
His mind tumbled and churned in confusion. How
could Vat Nine be empty? No vat was ever empty. These
were no table wines. Readily available elven wines were
used for routine. No, these wines were sacred, used only on
rare occasions and only in ceremonial amounts. What was
used was replenished by the stewards at regular intervals -
always by the finest of human vintage from each of the
Made of sealed hardwood, cradled in solid rock, no vat
had ever leaked so much as a drop of precious fluid. And
there was no way to remove any wine from any vat except
by unlocking the sampler port. And only he had the keys.
Pitkin wanted to cry.
Slowly, on shaking legs, he made his way to the sealed
portal of the cellar vault. A hundred thoughts besieged him
- approaches to explaining what he had found, to
formulating apologies for such an unthinkable
disappearance, to the wording of a plea for clemency - but
none had any merit.
There was only one thing for him to do. He must
simply report the disappearance of Vat Nine's wine and
pray for the best.
"Wizardry," the second warder muttered, staring into
the empty vat. "Evil and chaos. Mage-craft. Spells."
"Mischief of some sort," the high warder agreed, "but
... wizardry? Within the very temple itself? How could that
be? There certainly are no mages here ... save one, of
course, but he is sanctioned by the Kingpriest himself. The
Dark One would use no such mischievous spells. All the
other wizards are gone-driven to far Wayreth. All of Istar
has been cleansed of their foul kind."
"Then how can you explain this?" a senior cleric from the
maintenance section insisted. "An entire vat of wine - four
hundred and, ah, eighty-three barrels' count, by yesterday's
inventory - it certainly didn't get up and walk out by itself,
and there has been no cartage below the third level for the
past week, not even porters."
"Thieves?" a junior cleric suggested, then turned pink
and looked away as scathing glances fell upon him. It was
well known that the Temple of the Kingpriest was
inviolate. In all of Istar, in all of Ansalon, there was no
edifice more theftproof.
"Only dregs," the second warder muttered, still staring
into the drained vat. He prodded downward with a long
testing rod. Its thump as it tapped the bottom of the vat was
muted. "Waist-deep, drying dregs. How could this have
happened, unless ..." He lowered his voice. "Unless by
magic? Dark and infidel magic."
From below the catwalk a curious voice asked,
"Brother Susten, are you aware that you are wearing only
"I can't find the other one," the chief warder snapped.
"Please concentrate on the matter at hand, Brother Glisten.
This is no time to count sandals."
Far in the distance, beyond the vault doors, a loud,
exasperated voice roared, "I'm tired of this game, you
bubbleheads! I want to know who took it! Now!"
Heads turned in surprise. Several clerics hurried away
toward the sound, then returned, shaking their heads. "It's
nothing, Eminence," one of them said to the chief warder.
"A captain of temple guards. He, too, has lost some part of
his attire, it seems."
Again the irritated voice rose in the distance, "This has
gone far enough! What pervert took my codpiece?"
"Gone," the second warder muttered, staring into the
emptiness of Vat Nine as though mesmerized. "All that
wine, just ... just gone."
"Sorcery?" The keeper of portals rasped, staring in
disbelief at the assembled clerics before him. "Magic?
Don't be ridiculous. This is the Temple of the Kingpriest.
Mage-craft is not allowed here, as all of you very well
"Our accumulated pardons, Eminence," the chief
warder said, shifting his weight from sandaled foot to bare
foot and back, "but we have given this matter the most
serious of study, and we can arrive at no other
The keeper of portals glared at them in silence for a
long moment, then spread his flowing robes and seated
himself behind his study table. He sighed. "All right, we
shall review it once again. One: Even if magic were
somehow introduced into the temple - and what mage
would dare such a thing? - what purpose would be served
by draining a vat of blessed wine?"
"Evil," someone said. "The purposes of evil,
"Two: His Blessed Radiance, the Kingpriest himself,
oversaw the evacuation of the Tower of High Sorcery in
Istar. Every last mage and artifact was removed, and every
magic-user of any degree driven away - not just from Istar
but from the nine realms. The tower is empty, and its seals
"Dire evils have their way," someone said.
"There is the ... Dark One," someone else whispered,
then blushed and lowered his head, wishing he had not
"Three." The keeper of portals continued grimly,
pretending not to have heard. "It is patently impossible for
that wine to have disappeared - " He stopped, scowled, and
" - by any device other than sorcery," the chief warder
finished softly, trying to look pious rather than victorious.
"Wizardry?" the master of scrolls whispered, shaking
his head. White hair as soft as spidersilk trembled with the
motion. Here in the shadows of his deepest sanctuary,
where few beside the keeper of portals - and of course the
Kingpriest himself - ever saw him, he seemed a very old
man. Very different from the dignified and reverent
presence who sat at the foot of the throne when the
Kingpriest gave audience in the sanctuary of light.
Again the master shook his head, seeming very frail
and sad as long as one did not look into his eyes. "After all
these years ... evil still confronts us in Istar."
"There is no other answer, August One," the keeper of
portals said, sympathetically. For more seasons than most
men had lived, the master of scrolls - next to the Kingpriest
himself, the very epitome of all that was good and holy -
had born upon his frail shoulders the weight of
righteousness in a world far too receptive to wrong. Now
he looked as though he might break down and weep ... until
he raised his eyes.
"Evil," the old man whispered. "After all we have
done, still it rears its vile head. Do you know, Brother
Sopin - but of course you do - that my illustrious
predecessor, my own venerated father, died of a broken
heart, realizing that even his strenuous efforts as advisor to
His Radiance had not stamped out evil forever. He truly
believed that such had been done, first with the
Proclamation of Manifest Virtue, and subsequently by
sanctioning the extermination of evil races everywhere. He
believed, for a time, that we had succeeded, just as the third
Kingpriest and his advisors believed that THEY had
stamped out evil for good the day this temple was blessed
in the names of all the gods - of good, of course," he added
as an afterthought.
The master of scrolls raised rheumy old eyes - they
seemed so at first glance - to gaze at his visitor. "He once
even believed the tenet of the first Kingpriest, that by
bonding the might of Solamnia with the spiritual guidance
of Istar, the forces of evil could be driven from the world."
"It is regrettable, August One," the keeper said
"Yes. Regrettable. I have said it before, good Sopin.
Evil is an abomination. Evil is an affront to the very
existence of the gods, and of men. Yet how to eliminate it,
finally and forever?" His question was rhetorical. He
obviously had the answer.
"Yes, August One?"
"We know now - the Kingpriest himself must know as
well - that evil cannot be conquered by unifying states and
building temples. Neither by driving away practitioners of
chaos, nor even by eliminating evil acts and evil races ...
though that has yet to be thoroughly tested, I understand."
"Such things take time, August Brother. Even the
vilest of races resist extermination. As to the practices of
evil men, when they believe they will not be found out ..."
"Time," the master of scrolls rasped, in a voice as dry
as sand. "There is so little time, Sopin. This business of the
wine missing, this willful and arrogant exercise of a
sorcerous spell, right here in the holiest of places in this
entire world ... Don't you understand it, Sopin? Don't you
see what it means?"
"Ah ... well, it might be ..."
"It is a challenge, Sopin. Worse, it is a taunt. Evil is
gaining strength in the world, because we have yet to kill it
at its source!" The rheumy eyes blazed at the keeper, and
now he saw the fire in them, the eyes of a zealot.
"August Brother! Do you mean - ?"
"Yes, Sopin. As has been argued before. It is time to
go to the root of evil. The very minds of men."
The keeper went pale. "August Brother, you know that
I agree, but is this the time for so drastic a policy? People
are - "
"People are children for us to lead in the true path,
Brother Sopin, at the pleasure of His Radiance, the
Kingpriest." The master of scrolls gathered his robes
around him, shivering. He was often cold, of late. "The
Grand Council of the Revered Sons, Brother Sopin ... I
believe they are all present now, in Istar? His Radiance
has received their respects."
"They are all present, Highest. Each of the nine realms
has sent a delegation for tomorrow's festivity, and all the
members of the council are present, though I have word
today that one of the high clerics is ill. None have been able
to heal him. Perhaps tomorrow - at the time of the festivity
- he will be better."
"As the gods of good will," the master of scrolls
agreed, then looked up again at his assistant. "Ill? Which of
them is ill?"
The keeper looked agitated. "Ah ... it is Brother Sinius,
August One. The high cleric of Taol."
The master of scrolls stared at him. "Taol? The ninth
realm? The one from whose realm came the disappeared
"By the gods of ultimate good! There lies evil's perfidy,
Sopin. It lulls us with subtlety until we expect all of its
machinations to be subtle. Then, when we are lulled, it
strikes - simple and direct. Through the blessed wine, it
strikes directly at us. None can heal him, eh? I must speak
of this to His Radiance himself, Sopin. Tomorrow's council
of light ... there is business to discuss."
"It is the Kingpriest's birthday, August. Is such
"The council is present, Brother Keeper, and so is the
evil. Leave me now, Brother. I must prepare a petition. I
shall suggest an edict - the same that I have submitted so
many times before. But His Radiance must consider it,
Brother Sopin. Beyond that, it must have the sanction of the
Grand Council of Revered Sons."
"Yes, August One." Sopin felt a chill rise up his back.
The Kingpriest require the sanction of council? Only one
order of business could explain that. The master of scrolls
meant to propose the opening of the Scroll of the Ancients.
It was the one artifact in the keeping of the priesthood
that the first Kingpriest had so feared that it was sealed by a
spell. It could be opened, but only by separate, secret
incantations recited in unison by all the members of the
Grand Council of Revered Sons.
The knowledge contained in the Scroll of the Ancients
was a power that the first Kingpriest had found so fearsome
that he trusted no man with it - not even himself, or any of
his successors. The Scroll of the Ancients, it was said,
contained the secret of mind reading. With its power, one
could enter and adjudge - possibly even control - the minds
Never in the history of Istar had the scroll been
opened. Never had the high council agreed to it, though it
had been proposed many times. Among the nine there were
always those - notably those of the Solamnic Knighthood -
who argued that the altering of free will was an
abomination. And usually there were some - generally the
elves - who worried that the gods themselves might not
condone such a thing. It could, they pointed out, destroy the
very balance upon which the universe relied.
Certainly the neutral gods would be outraged, for free
will was sacred to them. Even the gods of good and light,
some whispered, might consider the exercise of mind
control as an arrogance.
The keeper of portals shivered again, realizing that the
scrollmaster was looking directly at him now. In those eyes
there was no touch of age, no frailty, no question of
purpose. The ancient eyes blazed with a zeal as bright as
fire and as cold as ice.
"The gods of good rely upon us, Sopin," the old one
said. "They entrust us and empower us. We MUST not fail
them again. The source of evil lies in the minds of men. It
is there that we must stamp it out."
The great Highbulp Gorge III, leader of all the Aghar
of This Place and Maybe Some of Those, was stumped by
Lady Drule's question. He hadn't the vaguest idea when his
birthday might be - wasn't altogether sure what a birthday
was - and had far more important things to occupy his mind
... if he could remember what they were.
One of them, of course, was the wine mine. Gorge
wasn't at all certain, but he suspected that wine was an
unusual commodity for mining. Then again, the world was
full of mysteries and it was usually best not to dwell on
He didn't even know where the mine was, exactly. The
combined clans of Bulp always had a mine going
somewhere (generally near the town dump), on the off
chance of finding something useful, but the mine's location
shifted as often as the location of This Place did.
This Place was portable, which served the gully
dwarves' purposes. Years of abuse and misuse by other
races had built certain instincts into the Aghar, and one was
to not stay in any place long enough to be discovered. This
week, This Place was here. A week or two ago, This Place
had been someplace else, and a week or two hence, This
Place might be in some other place entirely. This Place was
wherever the Highbulp said This Place was.
Gorge didn't remember exactly why his tribe had left
the previous This Place - past decisions based upon past
circumstances were seldom worth remembering - but he
was proud of his selection of the current This Place. A
natural cavern in a limestone formation, its outside entrance
was concealed by huge mounds of rubble left by the Talls
who built the giant structures soaring above. This Place
extended deep beneath the fortress parapets of the great
temple of Istar and was joined by ancient, eroded seeps to
the pantries of the great structure.
It was a fine place for This Place, and the fact that it had
been discovered by accident - several gully dwarves had
fallen into it, literally - was not worth remembering. To
Gorge III, it was simply one more evidence of his personal
genius as Highbulp, on a par with other accomplishments
such as ... Well, whatever they were, he knew there had
been any number of them.
Probably the only actual act of genius the leader of the
Aghar of This Place had ever managed was to proclaim
himself Gorge III instead of simply Gorge. The
enumeration had the desirable effect of keeping his subjects
thoroughly confused - an accomplishment that all leaders of
all nations and all races might envy. Few among the Aghar
could count to two, and none could count as high as three.
Thus, there was always a certain awe among them when
they addressed their lord as Gorge III.
Simply by virtue of his name, they were never quite
sure who - or what - he was. That alone eliminated any
possibility of competition for his job.
Deciding to be Gorge III had been an inspiration. Now,
many years later, the Highbulp sensed another inspiration
coming on. He didn't know what it was, but its symptoms
were not quite the same as indigestion and it had something
to do with the way he felt when he put on his new elk hide
with its enormous antlers. Somehow, the improbable attire
made him feel like a Highbulp of Destiny.
So, when his beloved consort - what's-her-name -
suggested a celebration in honor of his birthday, Gorge
readily agreed and promptly forgot the entire matter. He
was far more interested in strutting around in his elk hide
and feeling important than in planning formalities.
Drule, on the other hand, had no such preoccupation.
"Hunch!" She summoned the grand notioner. "We
celebrate Highbulp's birthday!"
"Fine," the ancient said, starting to doze off.
"Hunch!" she demanded. "Pay attention!"
He woke up, looking cranky. "To what?"
"Highbulp's birthday! Celebrate!"
That stumped Lady Drule for a moment, then she
countered, "Highbulp say so."
Hunch sighed. "All right. When Highbulp's
"Tomorrow," she decided. Other than today and
yesterday, it was the only day that came to mind. And the
Highbulp certainly had not been born yesterday. "Make
"Who knows? Ask Highbulp."
The conversation was interrupted by a clatter and a
flood of oaths. The great Highbulp, trying to wear elk
antlers atop his head, had fallen on his back.
The grand notioner approached and stood over his
liege, poking at him with the mop-handle staff. "Highbulp.
What you want to do tomorrow?"
"Nothing," Gorge grunted, getting to his feet. "Go
With his answer, the grand notioner returned to Lady
Drule. "Highbulp say for celebrate, all go 'way, do
It was not exactly what Drule had in mind, but she was
busy with other matters by then. Some of the court ladies
were bickering over the new stew tureen, and it was
obvious to Lady Drule that they should have more than one
tureen. An entire table setting might be nice.
Hunch frowned and repeated the Highbulp's order.
"For celebrate, all go 'way, do nothing," he said.
Drule glanced around. "No work? Nothing?"
"Off day, then." She nodded. "Tell everybody,
tomorrow is Off Day."
Skitt, the miner, was one of the first to hear the news,
and helped to spread word of it. "Tomorrow Off Day," he
told everyone he could find. "Highbulp's orders."
"What is Off Day?" someone asked him. "What we
supposed to do on Off Day?"
"What we do on Off Day?" someone else asked.
Skitt had no answer. He hadn't heard the details. For his
own part, though, he intended to go to work.
Among the spoils of the ladies' foray, he had found a
reaver's maul and a chisel. Skitt might have been only a
gully dwarf, but he WAS a dwarf. The use of tools was
strong in his simple soul. He couldn't wait to see what he
might do with a reaver's maul and chisel in a wine mine.
Thus it was that on one fateful day, two birthdays were
celebrated - one above, in the Temple of the Kingpriest in
the city of Istar, seat of clerical power and center by
proclamation of all the world, and one below.
The high cleric of Taol had been under the weather,
owing to a pardonable excess of elven spirits used to
counter the grueling effects of a long and arduous journey
to Istar. But when it was announced that the pious festivity
of the new day would be preceded by a petitioned meeting
of the grand council, his health improved markedly. One
did not send regrets when the Kingpriest summoned the
Thus all nine of the Most Revered Sons - the high
clerics of the nine realms - were in attendance in the Hall of
Audience when the panels of glowing stone were rolled
back to flood the chamber with glorious light, light that
seemed to emanate from the throne revealed there, and
from the person who sat upon it.
None of them would remember afterward exactly what
the Kingpriest looked like. No one ever did. There was
always only the lingering impression of immense good,
flowing upon waves of light.
In the entire great chamber, there was only one small
comer where shadows lurked, a niche among the great
floral carvings that rose from the radiant floor. To one who
might notice such things - and few did, in the presence of
His Radiance - it seemed only a slight anomaly in the
magnificent architecture, an inadvertent cleft where the
light was blotted out. But to Sopin, who lived daily in the
sanctums of the temple, the corner was a source of dread.
He glanced that way and thought he saw movement there,
among the shadows. He could not be sure, but it seemed
that the Dark One was present.
Sopin shivered and turned his eyes away, letting his
troubled thoughts evaporate in the brilliance of the light
from the throne of the Kingpriest.
There were the prayers and the rituals, the lavishing of
appropriate unction toward each of the good gods of the
universe, and then it began. "Revered Sons." The voice
that came from the source of light was as warm and
comforting as the light itself, as resonant as the rays of the
sun. "Our beloved brother, the master of scrolls, has
petitioned for audience, as is his right. He proposes an
edict, one which has been considered before, and one
which would require your sanction."
Sopin settled himself into his cubicle, ready for a long
and learned debate. He had heard it all before, and now he
would hear it again, and he wondered if the outcome would
be any different.
Never had he seen the master of scrolls so determined,
though, and he wondered if it were possible that evil itself
might provoke its own final demise.
Time would tell.
Skitt had about given up on replenishing the source of
the wine, which had run dry after an hour's flow. A large
part of the cavern of This Place was now waist-deep in
wine, but no more had come lately from the pay dirt vein.
When he finally managed to widen the vein enough to
squeeze through - it struck him as slightly odd that the
tunnel had started in stone and ended in wood - he found
beyond a sticky, reeking mass of pulp. His maul and chisel
had little effect on the mess and, in fact, he very nearly lost
He had almost decided that the gusher was no more
than a pocket with a dry hole beyond, when splashing
sounds behind him caught his attention and he backed from
the tunnel to see what was going on. Across a small lake of
spilled wine, Lady Drule and a sizable entourage of other
Aghar females had launched a makeshift raft and were
poling themselves toward the dark seeps that led to the
Halls of the Talls. Many of them carried empty sacks and
bits of net.
Skitt waved at them from the mine entrance.
Some of them waved back, and Lady Drule called,
"Why you here on Off Day, Skatt?"
"Skitt," he corrected.
"Skitt, then," she said. "Why?"
"Dunno," he admitted. "Somebody give me that name,
I guess. Where ladies go?"
"Need more stew bowls," she called back. "Lady
Grund remember where they are. Place where Tall guards
stack metal clothes."
"Have nice day." Skitt waved again.
"Skatt supposed to say, 'Have nice Off Day.' This Off
"Oh." Skitt waved again. The raft was past him now
and approaching the ledge where the seeps began. Having
nothing better to do, Skitt went back into his tunnel, took a
deep breath, and plunged into the wall of sticky stuff. It had
occurred to him that somewhere beyond there might be
more wood or rock - something that he could cut with his
Gorge III was feeling grumpy. He glared around in the
dimness of the central cavern, seeing only a few of his
subjects here and there, all of them ignoring him.
Everybody, it seemed, had decided to take the day off. No
body was arguing, nobody was scurrying about bumping
into one another, and worst of all, nobody was paying him
any attention. He was surly and miffed, but he didn't know
quite what to do about it.
"This insubor ... insub ... in ... this no fun," he
grumbled, and nobody seemed to care.
Even old Hunch was no help. The grand notioner
simply had shrugged and said, "This Off Day, Highbulp.
Nobody got to do anything on Off Day. Not even put up
with Highbulp. Me, too." And with that he had turned his
back and wandered off.
For a time, the Highbulp fumed and stamped around.
When that gained him no attention, he got his elk hide,
pulled it around him with the great antlers jutting upward
atop his head, and sat down to sulk.
As usual, when Gorge III set out to sulk, he went to
sleep. His eyelids drooped, he yawned, the great antlers
teetered and swayed above him, then tipped forward, held
upright only by the elk hide on which he was sitting. His
mind drifted off into muddy visions of hot stew, cold lizard,
stolen ale, and comfortable confusion.
It seemed that Gorge III was alone in the cavern of
This Place. It seemed that the cavern had grown darker, and
that there was no one anywhere except himself. Or maybe
there was someone else, but he couldn't see who it was.
"So THIS is the answer," said a soft voice. Gorge
couldn't remember the question.
"Poor Highbulp," the voice whispered. "Gets no
"Right," Gorge tried to say, but it didn't seem worth the
The voice soothed him, weaving its slow way through
drifting dreams. "Need to do something special to get
respect," it said. "Something grand and glorious. Something
"Sure," he thought about saying. "That nothin' new.
Highbulp glorious all the time."
"But SPECIAL," the voice purred. "Need to do
"Like what?" the Highbulp considered asking.
"Move," the voice suggested.
"Don't want to," Gorge might have said. "Just got
"Oh, but a big move," the voice insisted. "A migration,
Highbulp, a great, grand, glorious migration. Lead your
people to the Promised Place."
"What Promised Place?"
"Far," the voice whispered. "Very, very far. A long
journey, Highbulp. Destiny ... the Highbulp of Destiny.
What is the name?"
"Great ... Gorge III ..."
"The great Highbulp who led his people to the
Promised Place ... destiny, Highbulp. YOUR DESTINY."
"Des'ny," the Highbulp mused and might have
whispered. "Great Highbulp. Highbulp of Desi ... Den ...
"Right. Destiny. Where this Promised Place?"
"West, Highbulp." The voice receded, became faint.
"Far, far west of here. Very far away."
The voice seemed to continue, but it was no longer
speaking to Gorge. It spoke only to itself. "So does the
mightiest torrent," it said, "begin with a single drop of
"Drip?" the Highbulp might have wondered.
"Drip," the dream voice agreed.
Once they had crossed the lake of wine, it wasn't far at all
to where Lady Grund remembered finding the bit of Tall
armor that made such a nice tureen. With Lady Drule in the
lead and Lady Grund guiding, the Aghar ladies made their
cautious way through the old seeps to the lowest of the
middens, through pantries and stowages, to a hole where a
cracked stone had settled into eroding clay. The hole
opened into a crawl space behind an ornate cabinet in a
huge, vaultlike room where a hundred or more sleeping
cots were ranked along the walls. Tables and benches stood
in neat rows beyond them, and the open central area was a
forest of wooden racks where suits of armor hung.
Dozens of the cots had human men sleeping in them,
and the rack nearest each occupied cot glistened with
Drule peered from behind the cabinet, listened
carefully to a chorus of snores, then nodded to her
followers. With a finger at her lips, she said, "Sh!"
Quietly, methodically and efficiently, the Aghar ladies
crept from rack to rack, collecting burnished iron
Skitt came near to drowning in pulp before he found
solid matter in the wine mine. The pulp shifted and flowed
around him as he pushed forward through it, threatening to
swamp him. But he kept going and, after a time, bumped
into something solid. A wooden wall.
" 'Bout time," he muttered, feeling the surface with his
hands. It was like the other wood that had produced the first
gusher. With maul and chisel, he went to work.
Beyond was solid stone, and he wondered for a
moment if he had gone in a circle and was tunneling out
near where he had tunneled in. He was tempted to forget
the whole thing and take up rat hunting or something, when
a revelation came to him.
"This Off Day," he told himself. "Off Day means don't
have to do anything ... not even quit."
Fortified by this insight, Skitt renewed his efforts,
chiseling away at the stone in reeking darkness. Beyond the
stone was more wood. "Give it one more shot," he
muttered, "THEN go hunt rats." In his mind, he fantasized
that - if he could make a name for himself as a wine miner
of note - possibly the lovely Lotta might consent to go rat
hunting with him.
At least the wood was easier to chisel than the stone. It
was very old, seasoned wood, and he enjoyed the shaping
of it as he carved a tunnel, an inch at a time. Gradually the
sound of his maul changed, becoming deeper, more
reverberant with each blow, and intuition prickled at his
"Might have somethin' here," he whispered. "Sounds
like maybe pay dirt."
The maul thudded and the chisel cut, and abruptly the
wood before him bulged and splintered. Skitt had only time
to gulp a breath before a roaring tide engulfed him and
carried him, tumbling, back the way he had come - back
through the tunnel of wood, of stone, of wood;
back through the mushy path of reeking pulp, through
wood again, through stone and flung him outward to splash
into the frothing, tossing waves of the wine lake in the
He bobbed to the surface, gasped for air, and stared at
the entrance to the mine several yards away. A vast torrent
of dark wine was pouring from the hole, roaring and
foaming as it met the lake's rising surface.
"Wow!" Skitt gasped. "Whole 'nother gusher!"
Still clinging to his maul and chisel, Skitt bobbed and
eddied on the tormented purple surface, trying to stay
afloat. His head bumped something solid and he found
himself looking up at a raftload of Aghar ladies carrying
laden nets and sacks.
"You fall in?" one of them asked him.
"Lake's a lot bigger than before," another commented.
Lady Drule was kneeling at the raft's edge, dipping wine
with an iron bowl. She sniffed at it, took a dainty sip, let it
roll on her tongue for a moment, then nodded. "Good," she
decreed. "What you say this is?"
"Wine," another told her.
"Wine, huh? Pretty good."
Lady Drule bent to look at the barely floating miner.
"Skatt - "
"Skitt," he corrected, blowing spume. "See any dry
She looked around. "Sure. Grab on."
Skitt clung to the raft. The ladies poled for the far
shore. A curious crowd of Aghar had gathered on the bank,
some to see what the latest expedition had produced and
some who had already been there, sampling the wine.
As the ladies waded ashore with their loot, Lady Drule
remembered the miner in tow. "Get Skatt," she ordered,
"Skitt," burbled the clinging Skitt. Half-drowned and
becoming more inebriated by the minute, he was having
trouble keeping his head above wine. Strong, small hands
reached for him, took firm hold on his ears, and lifted him
until he could climb onto the raft, then steadied him as he
crawled across it to the safety of dry ground.
He sprawled there and looked up into bright, concerned
eyes. It was Lotta.
"Skitt all right?" she asked.
"All right" He belched. "Fulla wine, though. Hit 'nother
Several other young gully dwarves were intently aware
of the attention being paid to the wine-logged miner by the
"He got somethin' goin'," one of them said.
"Got Lotta goin'," another agreed. "You know anything
about mine? Or wine? Or work?"
"What's to know?" A third shrugged. "Just dig, keep
diggin'. Somethin' bound to turn up."
With one final gaze at the recumbent Skitt, basking in the
glow of Lotta's undivided attention, the other young Aghar
dashed away and went looking for tools. This being Off
Day, and having nothing better to do, they had decided to
go into the mining business.
The acolyte Pitkin thought that yesterday had been a
bad day. Today turned out even worse. His morning duties
now included the inspection of only eight vats - the ninth
had been sealed the day before by the chief warder - but
nagging intuition made him more and more nervous as he
worked his way along the catwalk.
It couldn't happen again, could it? Not again?
Somehow he knew, even as he opened the sampler
port on Vat Eight, what he would find. Nothing.
Vat Eight was empty.
It was a pale and shaken messenger who ran all the
way from the chief warder's quarters in the lower temple to
the vast upper halls with their radiant stone, to hand a
sealed message to the captain of the guard outside the
portals of the great hall of council. The messenger knew
what was in the message. The lower levels were buzzing
with gossip, and everyone, from the highest maintenance
personnel to the lowest cooks and keepers, was worried.
The messenger was almost too worried to notice the
odd appearance of the captain of the guard ... but not quite.
As he returned to the lower levels, he wondered why such
a magnificently attired soldier would wear one piece of
armor so out of keeping with all the other pieces. From
polished helm to burnished braces, from fine, oiled chain
to fine-worked scabbard, from gleaming gauntlets to
glistening plates, every piece of his armor was perfectly
matched to every other piece - with one notable exception.
That particular piece looked as though it might have
Within the grand chamber, the sealed message was
passed from the clerk of entry to the clerk of the vestry,
then carried silently to the clerk of the keep, who handed it
across to the aide of the keeper of portals. A moment later
the keeper himself rose to his feet, bowed toward the throne
and approached it, kneeling at the base of its pedestal. He
lowered his eyes and raised the opened message toward the
"Share this news," the Voice of Radiance said.
Sadly, the keeper of portals turned toward the Grand
Council of Revered Sons. Holding the message at arm's
length, he read to them its brief contents.
Vat Eight of the blessed wines - the vintage from the
border province of Ismin - was empty, as empty as the vat
from Taol, discovered only the previous day.
"Evil strikes at us," the master of scrolls said when
Sopin had finished. "So subtle a taunt, yet so direct a
challenge. O Most Radiant - O Most Revered Sons - we
Somewhere beyond, where shadow dimmed the
radiance, a quiet voice whispered, "Destiny."
Within hours, at least a dozen would-be wine miners
were at work in the royal mine, and more Aghar were on
their way. The earliest arrivals found a sizable lake of wine
in the cavern below the mine, but only a trickle coming
from the mine itself. Armed with various delving tools,
they entered single file and traced Skitt's route, going
through a long tunnel of rock and a short tunnel of wood,
through a sagging tunnel of congealed sludge to another
tunnel of wood, which led again to rock, then to wood, then
to a seeping mass of wet pulp. Here, dim light filtered
through from above and anxious Tall voices sounded
muddled, muted by the pulp.
In silence, the Aghar waited until the light and the
voices faded. They heard the distant boom of a heavy port
When all was silent, the one in the lead said, "Come on.
Maybe more pockets of wine. Let's get 'em."
In single file, they trudged through the cavern of
sludge, only their heads and candles rising above it, and set
to work on the wooden wall beyond. After some tunneling
they encountered stone, then wood again.
The caverns of This Place roared with the thunder of
released wine, flowing and frothing through two empty
vats, spewing outward from the mine shaft into the growing
lake beyond, carrying a round dozen gully dwarves
tumbling with it. Their shouts and splashes resounded as
they hit the roiling, rising surface of the wine lake.
When the commotion finally died down and the
drunken gully dwarves had been fished out by their peers,
several dozen others picked up tools and headed for the
mine. It became a contest to see how much wine could be
mined and who could produce the most.
It also was an interesting way to spend Off Day - as
good a way as any, since nobody was sure what Off Day
was all about, anyway.
By the time the glorious radiances of the grand
chamber began to soften, to take on the pastels of evening,
a visitor might have thought that the Temple of the
Kingpriest at Istar - the most awesome piece of
architecture in the entire world - was in a state of siege.
In the upper reaches, white-faced clerics and ashen
functionaries rushed here and there, carrying messages,
pausing for fervent prayer, gathering in clumps and clus
ters to whisper among themselves. In the lower levels, daily
routine was a shambles. Warders and coding clerks came
and went from the wine vaults. A general, emergency
inventory had been ordered, an audit of every artifact,
every store and every commodity.
And to top everything else off, half a company of
temple guards on the noon-to-night shift refused to leave
In the evening hours, the final holdouts on the Grand
Council of Revered Sons conceded. There was no
reasonable explanation for what was happening within the
temple, but things were becoming worse by the minute.
There would be no decision reached today regarding
the unleashing of the power of the Scroll of the Ancients.
Nor would such a matter be decided tomorrow, or even
next week. But the zeal of the master of scrolls was having
its effect upon the Revered Sons, assisted by the air of
chaos in the temple.
It was only a matter of time before the Kingpriest
himself conceded that the ultimate power was needed in the
battle against evil. Thanks to the master of scrolls, when the
power was called for, the council would sanction it.
"Destiny," the whisper in the shadows said again. But
in the entire chamber, only the keeper of portals heard it.
Intuition told him that it meant something, but reason could
not define it.
"Drip." The Dark One in the shadows laughed.
Far beyond the temple, in the skies over Istar, thunder
In filtering light of dusk, Gorge III, Highbulp by
Choice and Lord of This Place and Maybe a Lot of Others,
glared at his subjects crowded around him. It wasn't his
presence that had drawn them, as much as that this part of
This Place was the only high ground left in This Place, and
even here they were ankle-deep in wine.
His elk antlers towering over him and all the rest, the
Highbulp muttered every curse he knew ... which at the
moment was two or three. "This abomin ... abom ... this no
good!" he roared, his voice echoing through the cavern.
"Too much wine! Wine all over everything!"
"Should'a traded it off when you had the chance,
Highbulp," old Hunch snapped. "Prob'ly too late now."
"This place lousy place for This Place." The Highbulp
snorted. "Inoccup ... unoccu ... not worth livin' in."
Most everyone else had watched the wine rising
through the day, but it had come as a nasty surprise to
Gorge III. After sulking for part of the morning, he had
slept the rest of the day and it hadn't occurred to anyone to
wake him. He had awakened only when he had rolled over
and gotten wine up his nose.
Now he came to a decision. "Time to leave," he
announced. "All pack up. Let's go."
No one moved. Some simply stared at him, others
hadn't heard him at all.
"Matter with you?" he roared. "Highbulp say pack up!
So pack up!"
"Don't have to," someone near him sneered. "Don't
have to do anything. This Off Day."
"Highbulp's orders," someone else explained.
"Happy birthday, Highbulp," another said, wiping
wine-muddied feet on his lord's trailing elk hide cloak.
"Maybe Highbulp have some stew?" Lady Drule
suggested. "Got real nice set of stew dishes ..."
" 'Nough!" the Highbulp bellowed. "Off Day through!
All over! Off Day off! Pack up!"
Status quo restored, everyone scattered obediently to
do his bidding. Everywhere in This Place, gully dwarves
scurried about, splashing through various depths of wine,
stumbling over one another, packing up to leave. When the
Highbulp said this place was no longer This Place, it was
time to head for another place.
"Where we go this time, Highbulp?" Lady Drule asked,
stacking codpieces. "'Cross town, maybe? Better
When he didn't respond, she glanced around at him. He
was standing very still, gazing off into nothingness, his elk
antlers towering above him.
"Highbulp?" Drule said.
"Drip," he whispered, seeming puzzled.
Drule stared. "What?"
"Dest. .. des ... destiny," he murmured. "Highbulp of
Destiny. How 'bout that!"
"Highbulp!" Drule prodded him with a stick.
He turned. "Yes, dear?"
"Where we go from here?"
"West," he said, his eyes aglow. "Great migra ... mig ...
big move. Long way."
Something in him said that, as of this day, nothing in
the world would ever be quite the same again. Destiny was
in motion and nothing now could alter it. He didn't know
how he knew that, but he did. Without the words or the
concepts to voice it, Gorge III had a feeling that the history
of the entire world had just begun.
"Destiny," he said, for anyone who wanted to hear.
The Silken Threads
Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman
The Tower of High Sorcery at Wayreth is, at the best of
times - such as now, with the war's end - difficult to find.
Guided by the powerful wizards of the Conclave, the tower
roams its enchanted forest, the wildest of the wild creatures
within its boundaries. One often sees young mages
standing, hovering, on the outskirts of Wayreth Forest, their
breath coming fast, their skin pale, their hands nervously
clenching. They stand hesitating on the outskirts of their
destiny. If they are bold and enter, the forest will permit
them. The tower will find them. Their fate will be
That is now. But then, long ago, before the Cataclysm,
few found the Tower of High Sorcery at Wayreth. It
prowled the forest only in the shadows of night, hiding
from the light of day. Wary of interlopers, the tower
watched all who ventured within (and there were few) with
restive, suspicious eyes, prepared to pounce and destroy.
In the days right before the Cataclysm, the wizards of
Ansalon were reviled and persecuted, their lives forfeit to
the holy zeal of the Kingpriest of Istar, who feared their
power, claimed it was not spiritual in nature.
And he was right to fear them. Long and bitter were
the arguments within the Conclave, the governing body
of magic-users. The wizards could fight back, but in so
doing, they were afraid they would destroy the world.
No, they reasoned, it was better to withdraw, hide in the
blessed shadows of their magic, and wait.
It was Yule, a strange Yule, the hottest Yule anyone
in Ansalon could remember. Now we know the heat
was the wrath of the gods, beating down upon an
unhallowed world. The people thought it was merely an
odd phenomenon; some blamed it on the gnomes.
On one particular night, the wind was still, as if the
world had ceased to breathe. Sparks jumped from the
black fur of the cat to the black robe of its master. The
smell of doom was in the air, like the smell of thunder.
On that night, a man entered Wayreth Forest and
began to walk, with unerring step, toward the Tower of
No enchantment stopped him. The trees that would
attack any other intruder shrank back, bowed low in
reverent homage. The birds hushed their teasing songs.
The fierce predator slunk furtively away. The man
ignored it all, said no word, did not pause. Arriving at
the tower, he passed through the rune-covered walls as
if they did not exist, alerted no guard, roused no one's
interest. He walked unhindered across the courtyard.
Several white- and red-robed wizards walked here,
discussing, in low voices, the troubles afflicting the
outside world. The man strolled up to them, pushed his
way between them. They did not see him.
He entered the tower and began to climb the stairs
that led to the large rooms at the very top. Guest rooms
and rooms for apprentice mages were located at the
bottom. These were empty this night. No guests had
been permit ted in the tower for a long, long time. No
apprentices studied the arcane art. It was far too dangerous.
Many apprentices had paid for their devotion with their
The rooms at the top of the tower were inhabited by the
most powerful wizards, the members of the Conclave.
Seven black-robed mages ruled the evil magic of night,
seven white-robed mages ruled the good magic of day, and
seven red-robed mages ruled the in-between magic of
twilight. The man went straight to one room, located at the
very top of the tower, and entered.
The room was elegantly furnished, neat, and ordered,
for the wizard was rigid in his habits. Spellbooks, bound in
black, were arranged in alphabetical order. Each stood in its
correct place on the bookshelves, and each was dusted
daily. Scrolls, in their polished cases, glistened in
honeycomb compartments. Magical items - rings and
wands and such - were stowed away in black-lacquered
boxes, every one labeled clearly as to its contents.
The wizard sat at work at a desk of ebony, its finish
reflecting the warm yellow glow of an oil lamp suspended
from the ceiling above his head. He was at work upon a
scroll, his brow furrowed with concentration, his lips
silently forming the magical words his pen, dipped in
lamb's blood, traced upon the parchment. He did not hear
his guest's arrival.
The doors to the wizards' rooms in the tower have no
locks upon them. Every wizard is respectful of another's
privacy, respectful of personal possessions. Thus the visitor
could enter unimpeded, had no need to wait until a bolt was
thrown, a lock unlocked - not that there existed any lock
that could have stopped him. He stood on the threshold,
gazing at the wizard in silence, waiting, respectfully, until
the mage completed his work upon the scroll.
At last the wizard sighed, passed a hand that trembled
from the reaction to his concentrated effort through his
long, iron-gray hair, and lifted his head. His eyes widened;
his hand sank nervelessly to the tabletop. He stared, then
blinked, thinking the apparition might vanish.
It did not. The man, clad all in black, from the satin-
lined cowl to the velvet hem that trailed the stone floor,
remained standing in the doorway.
The wizard rose, slowly, to his feet.
"Approach, Akar," said the man in the doorway.
The wizard did so, limbs weak, heart fluttering, though
Akar had never before known fear of anything on Krynn.
He was in his forties, tall and well built. The iron-gray
hair, long and luxuriant, framed a face tight-lipped,
resolute, unforgiving, unyielding. He went down on his
knees awkwardly; never in his life had Akar bowed to any
"Master," he said humbly, spreading wide his hands to
indicate he was open to receive any command, obey any
summons. He kept his head lowered, did not look up. He
tried to, but his heart failed him. "I am honored."
The man standing before him made a gentle motion
with his hand and the door shut behind him. Another
motion, a whispered word, and the door disappeared. A
solid wall stood in its place. The wizard saw this obliquely,
out of the comer of his eye, and a chill shook him. The two
were locked in this room together, with no way out, except
"Akar," said the man. "Look at me."
Akar raised his head, slowly, reluctantly. His stomach
clenched, his lungs felt paralyzed, and sweat was cold on
his body. He gritted his teeth against the cry that welled up
in his throat.
A white face, disembodied within the shadows of the
black cowl, hung over Akar. The face was round, with
heavy lidded eyes and full lips, and it was cold, as cold as
stone that hangs suspended in the vast void of space, far
from the warmth of any sun.
"Speak my name, Akar," commanded the man. "Speak it
as you speak it when you summon my power to enhance
"Nuitari!" gasped Akar. "Nuitari! God of the black
The pallid face glowed with a ghastly, unholy light. A
pale, translucent hand reached out of the darkness.
"Give me your left palm."
Akar raised his left hand, wondering, as he did so, that
he had the power to move it.
Nuitari clasped hold of Akar, the god's pale, delicate
fingers closing over the human's tanned, strong hand.
Akar could no longer swallow his screams. Pain
wrenched strangled cries from him. The chill that flowed
through his body was like the burning of ice on wet flesh.
Yet his hand did not move, he did not wrench it from that
dread touch, much as he longed to do so. He remained on
his knees, gazing up at the god, though his limbs twisted
with the agony.
The heavy-lidded eyes flashed; the full lips smiled.
Nuitari let loose his grasp suddenly. Akar clutched his
chilling, burning hand, saw five livid marks - the fingers of
the god - upon the skin.
"My mark will be the sign and symbol of our
discussion," said Nuitari. "That you may know, should you
by chance ever doubt, that I have spoken to you."
"If I would ever know doubt, it would only be to doubt
my own worthiness of such an honor," said Akar, staring at
the imprints on his flesh. He looked again at Nuitari. "How
may I serve my lord?"
"Rise, be seated. We have much to discuss and we
should be comfortable."
Akar rose to his feet, stiffly, awkwardly, and returned to
his desk, trying to keep from wringing his wounded hand.
He knew what was expected of him, despite his suffering,
and conjured up a chair for his guest, a chair that was made
of night, held together by stars. This done, he stood humbly
until his guest had seated himself, then Akar sank behind
the desk, glad to be able to sit before he fell. He kept his
hand hidden in the folds of his robes, bit his lips now and
then as sharp flames of ice flickered over his skin.
"The gods are angry, Akar," said Nuitari, the heavy-
lidded eyes watching the flickering light of the oil lamp
hanging above him. "The scales of balance have tipped,
threatening the world and all who live upon it. Krynn's
destruction has been foreseen. In order to prevent that end,
the gods have determined to take drastic measures to
restore the balance. Within a fortnight, Akar, the gods will
cast down from the heavens a mountain of fire. It will
strike Ansalon and split it asunder. The mountain will fall
upon the Temple of the Kingpriest and drive it far, far
beneath the ground. Rivers of blood will wash over the
temple, and the waters of the sea will drown it forever.
This doom the gods intend, unless mankind repents, which,
between you and me, Akar" - Nuitari smiled - "I do not see
Akar no longer felt the pain in his hand. "I thank you
for the warning, Master, and I will carry it to the other
members of the Conclave. We will take such steps as are
necessary to protect ourselves - "
Nuitari raised his pallid hand, made a gesture as if to
brush away the inconsequential. "Such is not your concern,
Akar. My brother, Solinari, and my sister, Lunitari, both
walk the halls of magic, bearing the same message. You
have no need to fear. Nor," he added softly, "do you have
any need to become involved. I have another, more
important task for you."
"Yes, Master!" Akar sat forward eagerly.
"Tomorrow night, the gods will come to Ansalon to
remove those clerics who have remained true to their faith,
those who have not been swayed by the corrupt tenets of
the Kingpriest. At this time, the Lost Citadel will reappear,
the true clerics will enter, and a bridge will form, leading
from this world into worlds beyond. All true clerics may
cross that bridge and will be sent to other realms far from
this. Do you understand, Akar?"
"I do, Master," said Akar, somewhat hesitantly, "but what
has this to do with me? I have little use for clerics,
especially those who serve the god Paladine and his ilk.
And there are none left alive who serve Her Dark Majesty.
The Kingpriest saw to that with his edicts. The dark clerics
were among the first to face his inquisitors, the first to feel
the hot fires of the so-called 'purging' flames."
"None left alive. Did you never wonder about that,
Akar shrugged. "As I said, Master, I have little use for
clerics. Takhisis, Queen of Darkness, was long since
banished from the world. I could only assume that she was
unable to come to the aid of those who called out her name
to save them from fiery death."
"My mother remembers those who serve her, Akar,"
said Nuitari. "Likewise, Akar, she remembers those who
Akar flinched as the pain in his hand flared through his
blood. He gnawed his lip and cast down his eyes.
"I beg forgiveness, Master. How may I serve our
"On the night when the bridge forms, good and true
clerics will cross from this plane to the next. It will be
possible, at that particular moment, for the souls of the dark
clerics who wait in the Abyss to cross as well."
"Those who have perished serving the Dark Queen in
this world will be able to return to it?"
"As all good and true clerics leave it. And thus, after
the fall of the fiery mountain, there will be no clerics left in
Krynn except those belonging to Her Dark Majesty."
Akar raised his eyebrows. "Truly an interesting plan,
Master, and one that surely will aid Takhisis in her return to
this world. But what has this to do with me? Forgive my
speaking plainly, but it is the son I serve, not the mother.
My loyalties lie to magic alone, as do yours."
Nuitari appeared flattered by this answer. His smile
widened, and he inclined his head. "I am doing a favor for
my mother. And the wizard who serves the mother will find
rich reward from the son."
"Ah!" Akar breathed softly, settled back in his chair.
"What reward, Master?"
"Power. You will become the most powerful wizard on
Krynn, now and in the future. Even the great Fistandantilus
"My teacher," Akar muttered, paling at the name.
"The great Fistandantilus will be forced to bow to your
"Fistandantilus?" Akar stared. "I will be his master?
How is that possible?"
"With the gods, all things are possible."
Akar continued to look dubious. "I know the
tremendous power of this mighty wizard. It is a power that
might well rival that of a god."
Nuitari frowned, and the black robes stirred. "So he
fancies himself. This Fistandantilus has displeased my
mother. Even now he is in the Temple of the Kingpriest
seeking to usurp the Dark Queen. He aspires to heights far
above him. He must be stopped."
"What must I do, Master?"
"If the blood of a good and true person is spilled in
anger upon the bridge, the door to the Abyss will open and
the dark clerics may return."
"How am I to find the Lost Citadel, Master? None
know its location. It exists only in the planes of magic.
None have seen it since the beginning of time!"
Nuitari pointed. "The lines upon your hand."
Akar's hand pulsed and throbbed; skin writhed, and
bones shifted. The pain was, for an instant, almost
unendurable. He gasped, pressed his lips over a cry. Lifting
his hand, he stared at it in silence. At length, drawing a
shuddering breath, he was able to speak. "I see. A map.
Very well. Have you further instructions, my lord?"
"Steel must draw the blood."
Akar shook his head. "That makes matters more
difficult. The only steel weapon we mages are permitted to
carry is a dagger."
"You may find another to perform the deed. It doesn't
have to be yourself."
"I understand. But what about guards, my lord? Won't
the gods be guarding the bridge?"
"One of the gods of neutrality will stand guard. Zivilyn
will not interfere, as long as you or whoever you find to
serve chooses to do this deed of his own free will."
Akar smiled grimly. "I see no difficulty. I will
undertake this task, Master. Thank you for the
Nuitari rose to his feet. "I have long watched and been
impressed by you, Akar. I believe I have chosen wisely.
The blessing of the god of the black moon on you, my
Akar bowed his head in reverence. When he lifted it
again, he was alone. The chair was gone, the wall was
gone, and the door was back. He held the pen in his hand;
the newly completed scroll lay on the table before him. All
was exactly as it had been before. He might have thought
he'd dreamed it, but for the pain.
He lifted his hand to the light, saw upon it the marks of
the god's fingers. The marks formed roads that led up to the
hills of his knuckles and over and around to the
crisscrossed valley of his palm. He studied his hand,
attempting to decipher the map.
Outside his door, he heard shuffling footfalls pass,
robes brush against the stone floor. Someone coughed,
A visitor, now, of all times.
"Go away!" Akar called. "I'm not to be disturbed!"
He brought out a sheet of parchment, began to copy the
lines on his hand onto the scroll.
The person standing outside his door coughed again, a
smothered sound, as if he were trying to stifle it.
Irritated, Akar raised his head. "To the Abyss with you
and that coughing! Be off, whoever you are!"
A moment's silence, then the footfalls, the whisper of
the robes, continued past the door and down the echoing
Akar paid it no further attention.
The high cleric frowned, and the lines of his frown
extended down his mouth, creasing the numerous chins
that rolled over his breast, above the mound - enveloped in
rich cloth of gold - that was his belly.
"And this is your final word on the subject, Sir
The knight to whom these words were spoken looked
troubled, lowered his head to stare unseeing at the still-full
chalice he held in his hand. He was a young man. He
"rattled in his armor" as the saying among the knights
went, referring to the fact that the youthful body didn't
quite fill out the breadth and width of the breastplate that
had been his father's. The young man had been accepted
into the knighthood early, to take over the responsibilities
of that father, who had left this world and its many burdens
to his son.
The burdens were heavy ones, to judge by the care-
worn expression that prematurely aged the young face. But
he was not bowed down or crushed beneath them. He
raised his eyes, faced the high cleric steadfastly.
"I am sorry, Revered Son, but that is my final word.
My father donated generously to the building of the temple
in Istar, more generously than he ought, perhaps, but he
could not have foreseen the bad times to come."
A young woman, who had been standing behind the
knight's chair, suddenly stepped forward, faced the priest.
"Nor could my father have foreseen that the time
would come when the Kingpriest would go back on his
sworn word to those who placed him in power!"
The woman's features were so like those of the young
knight that many people meeting the two for first time
thought they met twin brothers. Both were of equal height
and nearly similar in build and weight, for the twins were
each other's companion in everything they did, including
The one marked difference between the two was the
woman's sheaf of long, wheat-colored hair that, when she
let it down from its tight braid around her head, fell in
shining cascades almost to her knees. Her brother's hair, the
same color, was kept short, falling to his shoulders.
The sister's beautiful hair and the beginnings of the
long moustache of a Solamnic Knight growing upon the
brother's upper lip marked the difference in their sexes, but
in all else they were alike - moved alike, spoke alike,
"Peace, Nikol," said her brother, reaching out to take
hold of his sister's hand.
But she would not be placated. " 'Give to the temple,'
you say. 'Increase the glory of Paladine!' It isn't Paladine's
glory you've increased, but your own!"
"Take care how you talk, Daughter," said the high
cleric, glaring at her. "You will bring down the wrath of the
"Daughter!" Nikol's skin flushed in anger; her hands
clenched. She took another step toward the priest. "Don't
you dare call me daughter! The two people who had the
right to speak that dear word to me are dead, my father in
the service of your lying Kingpriest, my mother of hardship
The high cleric looked rather alarmed at the sight of the
impassioned young woman advancing on him. He glanced
uneasily behind him at his two bodyguards, wearing the
military insignia of Istar, who stood stalwartly near the
door. Reassured and, perhaps reminding himself that he
was, after all, a guest in the castle of a Knight of Solamnia,
the high cleric turned back to the brother.
"I do not blame you for this unseemly outburst, Sir
Knight. If your sister has not learned to speak respectfully
to men of the cloth, it is not your fault, but, rather, the fault
of the one who has her religious training in his care."
The high cleric's narrow-eyed gaze shifted to another
man in the hall, a man clad in the humble clerical garb of a
family healer. He was young, near the same age as the
brother and sister, yet the gravity of his expression made
him seem older. His robes were not fine, as were those of
the visiting clerics of Istar. He wore no jewels on his
fingers. His only emblem was a holy symbol, shining with
a soft blue light, that hung from a leather thong around his
neck. He looked troubled by the high cleric's accusation,
but made no comment and bowed his head in silent
acknowledgment of the rebuke.
Nikol flushed, glanced at the young healer. "Do not
blame Brother Michael for my sharp tongue, Revered Son
of Paladine," she said, her voice low. "Forgive my
outspokenness, but it is hard to see those left in our care
suffer and know that there is little we can do to help them."
"There is something you can do, Sir Knight," said the
high cleric, talking to the brother, ignoring the sister. "Turn
your lands and estates over to the church. Release your
men-at-arms from their service. The time of warring is past.
Peace is at hand. All evil has been - or soon will be -
eradicated from Ansalon.
"Face reality, Sir Knight. Once the knighthood was
necessary. Once we relied upon you and those like you to
keep the peace, protect the innocent. But that age is ended.
A new age is dawning. The knighthood is outdated, its
virtues admirable but strict, rigid, old-fashioned." The high
cleric smiled, and his chins waggled. "People prefer more
"Give your lands to the church. We will take over
control, send priests well qualified" - the high cleric cast a
scathing glance at Brother Michael - "to collect the rents
and maintain order. You will, of course, be permitted to
live in your ancestral manor as caretaker - "
"Caretaker!" The knight rose to his feet. His face was
pale, and his hand trembled on the hilt of the sword he
wore at his side. "Caretaker of my father's house! Care
taker of a noble estate that has been handed down in
honor from father to son for generations! Get out! Get
out or, by Paladine, I will - " He drew the sword
halfway from its scabbard.
The high cleric's fat face mottled over with red and
white splotches; his eyes bulged. He heaved himself up out
of his chair. His guards drew their weapons, and steel rang
in the hall.
"Revered Son, allow me to escort you to your
carriage." Brother Michael strode forward, taking care to
place his body between that of the outraged knight and the
Nicholas, with an effort, restrained himself, slid his
sword back into its scabbard. His twin sister stood at his
side, her hands clasped over his arm. Brother Michael,
talking smoothly, politely, was hastily ushering the priest
from the hall. At the door, the high cleric of Istar paused,
looked back, his gaze hard and stem.
"You dare threaten a man of the cloth in the name of
Paladine? Beware, Sir Knight, lest the wrath of the gods
descend upon you!"
"This way, Your Reverence," said Brother Michael,
clamping his hand over the high cleric's fleshy arm.
The healer steered his superior out of the hall, into a
corridor that was devoid of furnishing. Only the Yule
branches, drooping in the heat, and a few relics of a bygone
era - an ancient suit of armor, faded tapestries, a torn and
blood-stained standard - decorated it. The high cleric
sniffed, glanced around in disdain.
"You see, Brother Michael, how run-down this fine
manor has become. The walls crumbling about their ears. It
is a shame, a waste. It will not be tolerated. I trust, Brother,
that you will counsel these two prideful young persons,
make them see the error of their ways."
Brother Michael folded his hands in the sleeves of his
shabby robes, did not answer. His gaze went to the
numerous sparkling rings worn on the high cleric's fat
fingers. The healer's lips tightened, keeping back words
that would have done no good, maybe much harm.
The high cleric leaned near him. "It would be a pity if
the inquisitor was forced to pay a visit to this knight and his
sister. Don't you agree, Brother Michael?"
The healer lifted his eyes. "But they are devout
followers - "
The high cleric snorted. "The church wants these
lands, Brother. If the knight truly was a worshiper of
Paladine, he would not hesitate to grant all he owns to the
Kingpriest. Therefore, since this knight and his foul-
tongued witch of a sister thwart the wishes of the church,
they must be in league with the powers of darkness. Bring
them back to the paths of righteousness, Brother Michael.
Bring them back, or I will begin to wonder about YOU."
The high cleric waddled out the door, accompanied by
his heavily armed bodyguards. He rolled to his carriage,
waving his hand in lethargic blessing to several peasants,
who humbly doffed their caps and bowed their heads.
When the priest disappeared inside the carriage, the
peasants stared after his rich equipage with grim and angry
faces in which could be seen the cruel pinch of hunger and
Brother Michael stood a long time in the doorway,
watching the cloud of dust raised by the carriage wheels.
His hand clasped the holy symbol around his neck.
"Grant me understanding, Mishakal," he prayed to the
gentle goddess. "You are the only light in this terrible
Brother and sister, within the hall, heard the carriage
wheels rattle over the flagstone of the courtyard and each
breathed a sigh. The knight drew his sword, stared at it
"What have I done? Drawn steel against a holy father!"
"He deserved it," said Nikol stoutly. "I wish I'd had
mine. I'd have relieved him of a few chins!"
Both turned at the sound of footsteps entering the hall.
The family healer paused in the doorway.
"Come in, Brother Michael. As always, you are one of
us," said Nikol, mistaking his hesitation for a reluctance to
intrude on their private conversation.
Michael was, in reality, wondering how he would tell
them, wondering whether or not to impart the terrible
threat. They were so young, already struggling with the
burdens of a manor and its poverty-stricken people. There
was little Nicholas could do for his tenants. He had trouble
enough supporting the men-at-arms, who kept marauding
goblins from plundering what meager stores the people had
Michael looked at the young knight, the healer's eyes
dimmed with tears. Nicholas should have been riding to
tourneys in his shining armor, wearing the favors of his
lady. He should have been winning renown in gallant
contest, but the only contest this knight fought was an
inglorious battle against hunger and deprivation. The only
horse he rode was a plow horse. The healer closed his eyes
and bowed his head.
He heard a rustle of skirts, felt gentle fingers on his
"Brother Michael, are you in trouble with the Revered
Son? It's all my fault. My tongue's sharper than my sword.
I'll send a note of apology if you think it will help."
Michael opened his eyes, stared at her dumbly. As always,
she took his breath away. His love for her and his longing,
his admiration, pity, and compassion, surged inside him,
tangled up his voice. Gently, he removed her hand from
his, took a step away from her. She was the daughter of a
knight; he, a cleric of the lowest standing, with no money
to pay the temple to rise higher.
"Brother Michael, what is it? What's wrong? What did
that man say to you?" Nicholas strode across the room.
Michael could not bear to look at either of them. He
lowered his gaze to the floor. "He threatens to send for the
inquisitor, my lord."
"If we don't give up the lands to the church?"
"Yes, my lord. I'm deeply sorry that one of my own
kind - "
"Your kind!" Nikol cried. "That man is not like you,
Michael, not in the slightest I You work tirelessly among
the people. You share our poverty. You take nothing, not
even what rightfully belongs to you. Oh, I've seen you,
Brother! I've seen you slip the salary we pay you for your
services back into my purse when you think I'm not
She laughed at the foolish expression on his face,
though there was a catch in her laughter, as if she might
"M-my lady," Michael stammered, face burning, "you
make too much of it. I need nothing. You feed me, house
me. I - " He could not go on.
"Come, Nikol," said her brother briskly. "You'll unman
us all if you keep this up. And we have urgent matters to
discuss. Will the high cleric make good his threat? Will he
send this inquisitor?"
"I fear so," said Michael reluctantly, though he was
thankful to Nicholas for changing the subject. "It has been
done to others in the past."
"Surely only to evil men," protested Nikol, "clerics of
the Dark Queen, wizards, and those of their ilk. What have
we to fear if they do send an inquisitor to us? We have
always worshiped Paladine faithfully."
"There used to be nothing for the faithful to fear, my
lady," said Michael. "In the beginning, the Kingpriest truly
meant to try to rid the world of darkness. He did not
realize, however, that to banish darkness he would have to
banish us all, for there is a touch of darkness in each of us.
We are none of us perfect, not even the Kingpriest. Only
by recognizing that darkness and constantly striving
against it do we keep from being overwhelmed by it."
Michael had his own darkness, or so he considered it. His
love for this young woman was not pure, not holy, as he
wanted it to be. It was tinged with burning desire. He
wanted to take her in his arms, press his lips to hers. He
wanted to undo her crown of hair and feel it cascade down
around them both.
"I understand," said Nikol softly. "I long for a beautiful
new dress. Isn't that terrible of me, when people are
starving? Yet, I'm so tired of wearing this one poor gown."
Her hands smoothed the well-worn, oft-mended fabric. She
sighed, turned to her brother. "Maybe we are wrong,
Nicholas. Maybe it is proud and sinful of us to want to keep
these lands. Maybe we should give them to the church.
After all, if it is the will of Paladine - "
"No," said Nicholas firmly. "I cannot believe it is
Paladine's will. It is the will of the Kingpriest and his
"How can you be sure?"
"Because, my lady," answered Michael steadily, "the
Kingpriest claims to know the minds of the gods. How can
any mortal claim such a thing?"
"You serve Mishakal."
"I follow the laws of the goddess. I obey her
commands. I would never presume to speak for her, my
"But is it wrong to want to rid the world of evil?"
Michael hesitated before answering. This was a
question he himself had long argued internally, and it was
not easy to utter his innermost thoughts and feelings.
"How do you define evil, my lady? Too often, we
define it as that which is different from ourselves, or that
which we do not understand. You said before that we
should rid the world of wizards, but it was a wizard, one
Magius, who fought at the side of the great Huma and who
was the knight's dearest friend.
"In the land of my birth, near Xak Tsaroth, there live a
band of nomads called the Plainsmen. They are barbarians,
according to the Kingpriest. Yet a more generous, loving
people never lived. They worship all the gods, even the
dark ones, who are supposedly banished from this world.
When one of their people falls ill, for example, the
Plainsmen pray to Mishakal for healing, but they pray also
to Morgion, evil god of disease, to withdraw his foul hand."
"What is their reasoning?" Nicholas's brow furrowed.
"Morgion, along with the Dark Queen, was driven from the
world long ago."
"Was he?" asked Michael gently. "Have plagues and
illness left the world? No. What do we say, then? We say
that it is the unworthy who suffer. Was your mother
Brother and sister were silent, absorbing this thought.
Then Nicholas frowned and stirred. "What is your counsel,
then, Brother Michael? Do we defy the Kingpriest? Think
well before you answer." The knight smiled wanly. "As the
one in charge of our spiritual guidance, you will be in as
much danger from the inquisitor as my sister and I."
Michael did not respond immediately. He rose to his
feet, paced thoughtfully about the hall, hands clasped
behind his back, as if again wondering what to say, how to
Brother and sister drew near each other, held hands. At
last, Michael turned to face them.
"Do nothing. Not yet. I ... I cannot explain, but I have
had strange dreams of late. Last night, Mishakal came to
me as I slept. I saw her clearly. Her face was grieved, her
eyes sad. She started to say something to