DRAGONLANCE TALES II

Volume One

 

THE REIGN OF ISTAR

 

1992

TSR, Inc.

All Rights Reserved.

 

OCR'ed by Alligator

croc@aha.ru

 

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

Temple of Istar."

"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

O'Donohoe.

"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.

"The Three Lives of Horgan Oxthrall," by Douglas

Niles, continues the theme of unlikely allies, forced to band

together in the face of a common enemy, as told by a clerk

to Astinus.

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

series.

 

Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman

 

Six Songs For the Temple of Istar

 

Michael Williams

 

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.

Quivalen Sath

Archivist of The Qualinesti

Poetic Records

 

I

 

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,

encircling light

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.

 

II

 

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.

 

III

 

Something there is

in the rudderless sailing,

abandoning hope

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.

 

IV

 

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,

unexplainable darkness

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.

 

V

 

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

of Thon-Thalas.

 

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

unmarked gravestones.

 

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.

 

VI

 

And last generation of Istar,

pure generation,

born of bright stones

drawn from the crown

of a mountebank's hat,

whose goodness is ordinance,

precise, mathematical,

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

through rock

through magma

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

their cooking."

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

attend!"

"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

brethren?"

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

power.

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

answered politely.

"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

crown.

A twisted smile stretched Brother Gurim's thin lips,

which only made the resemblance to a rodent even

stronger.

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

evening prayer."

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

YOU, Brother."

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

disappear.

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

the morrow.

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

was unimportant.

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

blow.

Tremaine gave him no quarter. With his left hand

balled into a fist, he struck his hapless opponent hard in the

stomach.

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

Solamnic Knight.

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

priesthood.

"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

week-dead corpse.

"Why did you not call the guardsmen?"

"They wouldn't have arrived in time. A man's life was

in danger."

"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

anyone else."

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

evening prayers."

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

city guard."

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

only proper.

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

guide.

"Enter."

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

a dais.

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

Kingpriest's city.

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.

They nodded.

"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

Paladine.

"You are Arryl Tremaine, Knight of Solamnia?" the

cleric demanded.

"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

that."

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

Knight"

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

their freedom.

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,"

Arack pursued.

"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

bare-handed, yet!"

There was a subtle movement away from the

Solamnian, as if anyone who had crossed the guard was

unclean.

"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

sword?"

"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

ancestor.

There was nothing he could do about his armor, save

hope that someone in the city guard did not take a fancy to

it.

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.

"You come."

"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

Games.

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

lives.

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

managed.

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

footing.

"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

Games."

"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

movement.

"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

breastplate."

"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

NONE!"

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.

Brother Gurim!

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

cleric.

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

afternoon.

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

called?"

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

Tremaine."

"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

food."

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

sternly.

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

power."

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

HOLINESS'S TOOL....

"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

mongrel."

"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

senior inquisitor.

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

tournament combats.

"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

fool!"

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

warned.

"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

thoughts.

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

box.

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

Sylverlin's direction.

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

died instantly.

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."

SYLVERLIN!

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

stubbornness?"

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

dirt.

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

knight.

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

the Games."

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

Sunbrother's life!"

"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

palm.

"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

already.

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

another triumph.

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

gladiators killed.

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,

anyway.

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

back.

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

Tremaine.

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

Nelk's plan.

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,

darkness.

"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

me!"

"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

goddess!"

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

harshly.

"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

his sword.

"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

it."

"I ... understand."

Nelk took a tighter hold of the reins in his hand. "May

the blessings of Kinthalas and Chislev be upon you, Arryl

Tremaine."

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

the forest.

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

Darkness.

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

found it.

"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.

 

Kender Stew

Nick O'Donohoe

 

Moran moved a swordsman forward, feinting the game

piece sideways to prevent ambush. "Your mercenary is

endangered."

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

them."

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

here."

"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

meet him?"

"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

drill.

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

man.

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

Solamnia."

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

opposite him.

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.

"Name?"

"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

this?"

"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

original."

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

it."

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

MORAN.

"HE'S BOUGHT INTO HIS OWN WARES," THE GIRL

SAID SIMPLY. "THE BUSINESS IS MINE NOW. I'M

LORAINE."

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

HALF.

MORAN SAID DULLY, "THE GREATEST

SWORDSMAN SINCE BRIGHTBLADE, KILLED BY A

THROWN AXE."

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

WITH GRIEF.

"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

STRANGE MEN."

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

DAYS AGO.

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

floor.

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 -

both fatal."

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

equipment.

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

embarrassedly.

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

humiliated Saliak.

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

TOUCH."

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

TO LORAINE?

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

riding whip.

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

mount up."

Saliak flinched. Tarli, to Moran's pleasure, did not

even blink.

"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

snickered.

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

were wings."

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

your lances."

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

own spotters.

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

wildly.

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

chest.

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

butt faster.

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

queasy still.

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

him.

"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

WATCHING HER.

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

FATHER."

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

Tarli's initiative.

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

boys."

"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

locked up."

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

night, Sire."

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

calling him?"

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

favor."

"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

window.

"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

looking.

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.

Someone giggled.

"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

deliberately.

"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

difference?"

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

difference."

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'

HISTORY.

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"

CHILDREN.

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

casual questions.

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

thrust out.

Tarli stepped back from Saliak, who all but leapt away.

Faron made a quick thrust, low enough to pierce Tarli's

heart.

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

arms pinned."

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

other way.

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

hurt yourself."

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

temper.

 

*****

 

"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,

for "armor."

"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

the ceiling.

"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

room."

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

his ..."

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

pain.

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

groin.

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

know it."

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

a knight.

 

*****

 

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

Tarli up.

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

FOLLOW."

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

TACTICS?"

"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."

Tarli beamed.

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

training, too."

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."

He waited.

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

Measure."

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

knights' fault.

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

joke."

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

me ..."

"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

loved you."

"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-

end.

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.

"Half-Kender?"

"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,

partly."

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

going."

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

DARKNESS.

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

OF IT.

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

like me?"

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

the future."

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.

"Hoop."

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

Moran's eyes.

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

honest men.

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

forever.

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

curious.

"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

hungry?"

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

raiders.

"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

stiffly.

"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

smart."

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

learned much.

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

sleep good."

"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,

too.

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

decision.

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

future day.

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

wanted?"

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

sound.

"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

nearly unconscious.

"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

slowly."

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

blond man.

 

*****

 

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

floor.

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

robes, eh?"

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

White Robes."

"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

you?"

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

now."

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

them.

The elf was silent. He looked down at his clenched

hands.

"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

robes?"

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,

eh?"

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,

and -

"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

seen him.

"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

cave mouth.

 

*****

 

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

clouds.

"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

humans, anyway?"

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

some rocks.

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

everything.

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

like this?"

"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

briars.

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

that word."

"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

fair."

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

say why.

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

elbow.

"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

words.

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

more.

The kender poked the elf gently in the side with an

elbow.

"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

tomorrow."

"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

slightly younger."

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

real spell?"

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

around.

"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

fascinated him.

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

flat.

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

without sound.

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

goblin watched.

"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

goblins, right?"

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

Reverence."

"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

shadow.

"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

them."

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

matter anymore.

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

good."

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,

almost conversationally.

"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

gone.

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

clubs.

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

work.

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

now.

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

glowed orange.

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

light.

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

supply pile.

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

more.

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.

He blinked.

It was already empty.

He checked the inside of the box again.

It was still empty.

Empty.

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

sheath.

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

much.

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

land."

The elf stared at the minotaur. "Madness," he

whispered.

"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

new world!"

"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 way.

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

to breathe.

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

brown eyes.

"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

away.

 

*****

 

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

travels."

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

went home.

Raindrops began falling all across the hilltop. Within

minutes, the land was awash in a cold, blinding torrent.

 

The Three Lives of Horgan Oxthrall

 

Douglas Niles

 

Research of Foryth Teel, scribe serving

Astinus Lorekeeper

 

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

elephantine proportion!

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

to disaster!

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-

numbed fingers.

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

lumbering charge.

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

wagons.

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

explanation.

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

creature's trail.

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

single-minded pursuit.

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.

"Gobasch fight."

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

journal.)

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 -

Gobasch KILL!"

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

understand why.

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

concentration.

"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

their heads.

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

them.

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

action.

"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

concluded.

Horgan blinked, momentarily nonplussed by the reply.

Then his anger took over. "Nothing of Istar can be holy!"

He sneered.

"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

mocked!"

"Get yourself back down the valley, and you'll hear no

words to offend your ears - or the ears of your precious

priestking!"

"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!"

Horgan shouted.

"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

behave predictably.

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

body.

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

face.

"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

Horgan Oxthrall.

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

indicated facts:

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

dwarves.

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

thereafter.)

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

to escape.

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,

disappeared.

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

again behold.

"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

prisoner.

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

work.

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

bitterly.

"Just exactly enough," he said, not even bothering to

try for shame. He said no more, and I heard him leave for

the kitchen.

"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

kender.

"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

to me.

"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

empty."

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

bounty yourselves?"

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

between us.

"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,

too.

"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

while."

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

necklace.

"I consider it an investment," she said. She cocked a

thumb at my empty purse and grinned coolly. "You should,

too."

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

cup.

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

he'd promised.

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

NEED you!"

That made some difference, caused the minotaur to

subside. "Arr, well," he growled, glaring at me. "Let's do it

then."

"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

feet).

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

stony head.

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

silently.

"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,

Hunter-Doune?"

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

you, Hunter-Doune?"

"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

Kell."

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

father's eyes?"

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

anyway, eh?"

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

her child.

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

two, Hunter-Doune?"

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

go.

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.

"Right."

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

gesture. Surprise.

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

distant.

 

*****

 

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

gesture.

"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

game."

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

was unreadable.

"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

about that."

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

couldn't.

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

me?"

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

her here.

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

ankles.

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,

she said.

 

*****

 

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.

Toukere Hammerfell.

"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."

"We?"

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

you."

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."

"Why, Touk?"

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

beside Touk.

"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-

Doune?"

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,

too.

 

*****

 

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

about fever.

"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.

 

Off Day

 

Dan Parkinson

 

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

one another.

The lead shadow paused, said, "Sh!" again, and

disappeared into the cleft. The others followed, into

darkness beyond.

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!"

"Sh!"

"Somebody bump into somebody."

"Sh!"

THUMP.

"Somebody fall down again."

"Shhh!"

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

you?"

A large person turned away and bent to peer into an

oven. "A few more minutes. I ... now where did THAT go?"

"What?"

"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

hungry."

"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."

"Sh!"

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

say."

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

disappeared.

THUMP.

"Sh!"

"Somebody fall down again," a faint whisper

explained.

Above the table a guardsman turned to the one next to

him. "What?"

"What, what?"

"Who fell down?"

"Who did WHAT?"

"Never mind. I ... owl Keep your feet to yourself,

joker!"

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."

"Sh!"

"Here somethin'. Hey, nice an' shiny." Metal clinked

against metal.

"Sh!"

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

voices.

THUMP ... CLATTER. CRASH.

The line slowed. "What now?" the lead shadow

demanded.

"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.

Come on."

Again the shadows moved, hurrying toward the light.

Again splashing ...

"Stop!" the lead one ordered. "What this stuff on

floor?"

"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

go!"

 

*****

 

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

just happened.

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

minutes.

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

great hide.

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

naps.

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,

purplish red.

"Highbulp!" the newcomer gasped, panting for breath.

"News from royal mine!"

"You from mine?" Gorge squinted at him. "What is

mine?"

"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

thoroughly tangled.

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.

"What?"

"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

main vein."

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

Serious Thought.

"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

rich."

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

within.

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 ...

anywhere.

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

nine realms.

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

one sandal?"

"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

know!"

"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

explanation."

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,

obviously."

"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

are intact."

"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

spoken.

"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

blinked.

" - 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

sorrowfully.

"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

wine?"

"The same."

"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

business appropriate?"

"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

of others.

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

them.

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!"

"Why?"

That stumped Lady Drule for a moment, then she

countered, "Highbulp say so."

Hunch sighed. "All right. When Highbulp's

birthday?"

"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

plan."

"What plan?"

"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

'way."

With his answer, the grand notioner returned to Lady

Drule. "Highbulp say for celebrate, all go 'way, do

nothing."

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?"

"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

grand council.

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

them.

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.

"Off Day."

"What?"

"Skatt supposed to say, 'Have nice Off Day.' This Off

Day, remember?"

"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

chisel.

 

*****

 

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

respect."

"Right," Gorge tried to say, but it didn't seem worth the

effort.

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

great."

"Sure," he thought about saying. "That nothin' new.

Highbulp glorious all the time."

"But SPECIAL," the voice purred. "Need to do

something special."

"Like what?" the Highbulp considered asking.

"Move," the voice suggested.

"Don't want to," Gorge might have said. "Just got

here."

"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 ...

Density."

"Destiny."

"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

rain."

"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

armor.

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

codpieces.

 

*****

 

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

whiskers.

"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

cavern.

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

land?"

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,

pointing.

"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

gusher."

Several other young gully dwarves were intently aware

of the attention being paid to the wine-logged miner by the

fetching Lotta.

"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

been borrowed.

 

*****

 

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

light.

"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

must respond."

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

being sealed.

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

their quarters.

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

rolled.

 

*****

 

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."

"Who says?"

"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

neighborhood?"

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

 

Part I

 

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

determined.

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.

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

High Sorcery.

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

lives.

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

man.

"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

death.

"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

yours."

"Nuitari!" gasped Akar. "Nuitari! God of the black

moon!"

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

him doing."

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?"

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

fail her."

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

queen?"

"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

might."

"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

opportunity."

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

servant."

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,

softly.

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

hall.

Akar paid it no further attention.

 

Part II

 

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

Knight?"

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

swordsmanship.

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,

thought 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

gods."

"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

and overwork."

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

modem ways.

"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

offended priest.

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

want.

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

darkness."

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

ruefully.

"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

remaining.

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

hand.

"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

looking."

She laughed at the foolish expression on his face,

though there was a catch in her laughter, as if she might

weep.

"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

Revered Sons."

"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

lady."

"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

unworthy?"

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

say it.

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