DRAGONLANCER TALES II

 

Volume 2

 

THE CATACLYSM

1992 TSR, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

 

Introduction

 

The world was forged upon three pillars: good, evil, neutrality. In

order to progress, a balance between the three must be maintained. But

there came a time in Krynn when the balance tilted. Believing himself

to be the equal to the gods in knowledge and in wisdom, the Kingpriest

of Istar sought the gods in arrogance and pride and demanded that they

do his bidding.

Having viewed with sorrow the tilting of the scales of

balance, resulting in hatred, prejudice, race divided against

race, the gods determined to restore the balance of the

world. They cast a fiery mountain upon Ansalon, then

withdrew their power, hoping those intelligent races who

dwelt upon Krynn would once again find their faith - in the

gods, in themselves, and in each other.

This catastrophe became known as the Cataclysm.

Michael Williams tells a tale of vengeance in his epic

poem, "The Word and the Silence." He and his wife, Teri,

continue the tale and turn it into a mystery, as the accused

murderer's son seeks to end the curse on his family in

"Mark of the Flame, Mark of the Word."

Matya, a very cunning trader, stumbles onto the

bargain of her life - literally - in Mark Anthony's "The

Bargain Driver."

In Todd Fahnestock's story, "Seekers," a young orphan

boy embarks on a perilous journey to ask the gods a

question.

For most people, the Cataclysm meant sorrow, death,

ruination. For the entrepreneurs in Nick O'Donohoe's

story, "No Gods, No Heroes," the Cataclysm means

opportunity.

Richard A. Knaak tells the tale of Rennard, known to

readers of THE LEGEND OF HUMA. Now a ghost,

doomed to torment in the Abyss, Rennard finds himself

transported back to Ansalon during the Cataclysm. Is it an

accident, or has he been brought back for a reason?

Dan Parkinson continues the adventures of the Bulp clan

of gully dwarves. Led by their valiant leader, Gorge III, the

Bulps leave Istar in search of the Promised Place. What they

find instead is certainly not what they expected, in "Ogre

Unaware."

Roger E. Moore reveals why Astinus never hires kender

to be scribes, in his story, "The Cobbler's Son."

A ship bound for Istar may be making its final voyage,

in Paul B. Thompson and Tonya R. Carter's story, "The

Voyage of the SUNCHASER."

Doug Niles continues the adventures of his scribe,

Foryth Teal, as that intrepid historian sets out to investigate

a priest's claim that he can perform miracles, in "The High

Priest of Halcyon."

In "True Knight," we continue the story of the cleric of

Mishakal, Brother Michael, and Nikol, daughter of a

Solamnic Knight. The two survive the Cataclysm, but now

they want answers. Their search leads them to an encounter

with the knight who, so rumor has it, could have prevented

the Cataclysm.

 

MARGARET WEIS AND TRACY HICKMAN

 

THE WORD AND THE SILENCE

 

I

 

On Solamnia's castles

ravens alight,

dark and unnumbered

like a year of deaths,

and dreamt on the battlements,

fixed and holy,

are the signs of the Order

Kingfisher and Rose -

Kingfisher and Rose

and a sword that is bleeding forever

over the covering mountains,

the shires perpetually damaged,

and the blade itself

is an unhealed wound,

convergence of blood and memory,

its dark rain masking

the arrangement of stars,

and below it the ravens gather.

 

Below it forever

the woman is telling the story,

telling it softly

as the past collapses

into a breathing light,

and I am repeating her story

then and now in a willful dusk

at the turn of the year

in the flickering halls of the keep.

The story ascends and spirals,

descends on itself

and circles through time

through effacing event

and continuing vengeance

down to the time

I am telling her telling you this.

 

But bent by the fire

like a doubling memory,

the woman recounts and dwells

in a dead man's story,

harsh in the ears

of his fledgling son,

who nods, and listens again, and descends

to a dodging country

of tears and remembrance,

where the memories of others

fashion his bent recollections,

assemble his father

from mirrors and smoke

and history's hearsay

twines and repeats,

and the wavering country,

Solamnia, muses and listens.

 

OUT ON THE PLAINS, ORESTES,

the woman is saying, OUT AMONG FIRES

WHICH THE BARD'S VOICE IGNITED

IN RUMOR AND CALUMNY,

THERE THEY ARE BURNING YOUR FATHER,

HIS NAME AND OUR BLOOD

FOREVER FROM CAERGOTH

TO HARBORING KALAMAN

AND OUT IN THE DYING

BAYS OF THE NORTH:

ALL FOR A WORD, MY SON,

A WORD MASKED AS HISTORY

SHIELDING A NEST OF ADDERS.

WITH WORDS ARE WE POISONED,

ORESTES, MY SON, she repeats

in the fragmenting darkness,

the firelight fixed

on her hair, on the ivory

glove of her hand

and the tilted goblet.

 

And always Orestes listened

and practiced his harp

for the journey approaching,

and the world contracted,

fierce and impermeable,

caged in the wheeling words

of his mother, caged

in a custom of deaths.

 

II

 

Three things are lost

in the long night of words:

history's edge

the heart's long appeasement

the eye of the prophet.

But the story born

of impossible fragments

is this: that Lord Pyrrhus Alecto

light of the coast

arm of Caergoth

father to dreaming

and to vengeful Orestes

fell to the peasants

in the time of the Rending

fell in the vanguard

of his glittering armies

and over his lapsing eye

wheeled constellations

the scale of Hiddukel

riding west to the garrisoned city.

It is there that the edge

of history ends:

the rest is a song

that followed on song

the story involved

in its own devising

tied in devolving circles until

truth was a word

in the bardic night

and the husk of event

was a dim mathematics

lost in the matrix of stars.

 

III

 

But this is the story

as Arion told it,

Arion Corvus, Branchala's bard

the singer of mysteries

light on the wing

string of the harp.

Unhoused by the Rending,

traveling west, his map

a memory of hearth and castle,

unhoused, he sounded forever

the hymns of comet

and fire perpetual

sounded the Time of the Rending,

betrayals and uprisings

spanning the breadth of the harper's hand,

and history rode

on the harp incanting

the implausible music of breath.

His was the song I remember,

his song and my mother's retelling.

O sing the ravens

perpetually wronged

to the ears of my children,

O sing to them, Arion Stormcrow:

 

DOWN IN THE ARM OF CAERGOTH HE RODE:

PYRRHUS ALECTO, THE KNIGHT OF THE NIGHT OF BETRAYALS

FIREBRAND OF BURNING THAT CLOUDED THE STRAITS OF HYLO,

THE OIL AND ASH ON THE WATER, IGNITED COUNTRY.

FOREVER AND EVER THE VILLAGES BURN IN HIS PASSAGE,

AND THE GRAIN OF THE PEASANTRY, LIFE OF THE RAGGED ARMIES

THAT HARRIED HIM BACK TO THE KEEP OF THE CASTLE

WHERE PYRRHUS THE FIREBRINGER CANCELED THE WORLD

BENEATH THE DENIAL OF BATTLEMENTS,

WHERE HE DIED AMID STONE WITH HIS COVERING ARMIES.

FOR SEVENTEEN YEARS THE COUNTRY OF CAERGOTH

HAS BURNED AND BURNED WITH HIS EFFACING HAND,

A BARREN OF SHIRES AND HAMLETS,

AND Firebringer HISTORY HANGS ON THE PATH OF HIS NAME.

 

IV

 

Look around you, my son

for the fire in Arion's singing:

For where in this country,

in forgotten Caergoth,

where does a single village burn?

Where does a peasant suffer

and starve by the fire of your father?

Somewhere to the east

before a white arras,

gilded with laurel

and gold adulation,

the bard sings a lie

in a listening house,

and Caergoth burns

in the world's imagining,

while the bard holds something

back from his singing,

something resembling the truth.

But let not the breath

of the fire touch your father,

Orestes, my son,

my arm in the dwindling world,

my own truth

my prophecy,

soothed the effacing mother,

and darkly and silently

Orestes listened, the deadly harp

poised in his hand circuitous.

And the word turned to deed

and the song to a journey by night,

and the listening years

to a cloak and a borrowed name,

as the boy matured

in his mother's word,

and the harp strings droned

in the facing wind

as he rode out alone, seeking Arion.

 

V

 

High on the battlements

of Vingaard Keep

as the wind plunged over

the snow-covered walls,

Orestes perched

in a dark cloak huddled,

the window below him

gabled in light,

and he muttered and listened,

his honored impatience

grown loud at the song

of the bard by the fire.

 

Melodiously, Arion sang

of the world's beginning,

the shape of us all

retrieved by the hands

of the gods from chaos,

the oceans inscribing

the dream of the plains,

the sun and the moons

appointing the country

with light and the passage

of summer to winter,

the bright land's corners

lovely with trees,

the leaves quick with life

with nations of kestrel

with immaculate navies of doves,

with the first plainsong

of the summer sparrow

and the song from the bard

sustaining it all,

breathing the phase

of the moon's awakening,

singing the births

and the deaths of the heroes,

all of it rising

to the ears of Orestes.

And rising beyond him

it peopled the winter stars

with a light that hovered

and stilled above him,

as nightly in song

the old constellations

resumed their imagined shapes,

breathing the fire

of the first creation

over the years to the time

that the song descends

in a rain of light

today on your shoulder

with a frail incandescence

of music and memory

and the last fading green

of a garden that never

and always invented itself.

For the bard's song

is a distant belief,

a belief in the shape of distance.

 

All the while as the singing

arose from the hearth and the hall,

alone in the suffering wind, Orestes

crouched and listened

slowly, reluctantly

beginning to sing,

his dreams of murder quiet

in the rapture of harp strings.

 

VI

 

HIERONYMO he called himself,

HIERONYMO when down from the battlements

he came, supplanted and nameless

entering the hall

in the wake of the wind and darkness.

Arion dreamt by the fire,

and his words were a low, shaping melody:

the tongue of the flame

inclined in the hall of his breath

and the heart of the burning

was a map in the eye of Orestes,

who crouched by the hearth

and offered his harp

to his father's slanderer,

smiling and smiling

his villainous rubric,

TEACH ME YOUR SINGING, ARION, he said,

adopting the voice and the eye

of imagined Hieronymo

deep in disguises,

and none in the court

knew Alecto's son -

TEACH ME YOUR SINGING, MEMORABLE BARD,

THE LIGHT IN THE HEART OF WINTER,

SINGER OF ORIGINS, FRAMER OF HISTORY,

DRIVE MY DEAD THOUGHTS OVER THE WINTER PLAINS

LIKE WITHERED LEAVES TO QUICKEN A NEW BIRTH!

 

Old Arion smiled

at the boy's supplication

at the fracture of coals,

at the bright hearth's flutter

at the nothing that swirled

at the heart of the fire:

for something had passed

in his distant imagining,

dark as a wing

on the snow-settled battlements,

a step on a grave

he could only imagine

there in the warmth of the keep

where the thoughts were of song

and of music and memory,

where something still darker

was enjoining the bard

to take on the lad

who knelt in the firelight.

SOME THINGS, he said,

THE POET BRINGS FORTH.

OTHERS THE POET HOLDS BACK:

FOR WORDS AND THE SILENCE

BETWEEN THEM COMMINGLE,

DEFINING EACH OTHER

IN SPACES OF HOLINESS.

Softly the old hand

rose and descended,

the harp-handling fingers

at rest on the brow

of the bold and mysterious boy.

 

The apprenticeship was sealed

in Orestes's bravado,

the name of HIERONYMO

fixed to the terms of indenture,

all in the luck of an hour,

and depth of a season,

but somewhere within it

a darker invention

that sprawled in the depths

of the heart and the dwindling earth.

 

VII

 

So masked in intention,

in a sacred name

for a year and a day

Orestes surrendered

his anger to music and wind,

apprenticeship honed

on the laddered wires

of a harp that the gods whispered over,

of a wandering in lore

and the cloudy geographies

tied to the fractured past,

and he dwelt by the poet

and traveled to Dargaard

to the heart of Solanthus,

to imperiled Thelgaard,

to nameless castles of memory

where the knights abided

in yearning for something

that moved in the channels of history,

redeeming the damaged blood of the rose,

while the story that Arion sang,

his back to the dream

and incredulous fire,

discovered the years

and the fading arm of the sword.

 

Seven songs of instruction

arose from the fire and the dreaming:

the spiral of Quen

love's first geometry

the wing of Habbakuk

brooding above the world

the circle of Solin

rash and recurrent heart

the arc of Jolith

dividing intention from deed

the white fire of Paladine

perfected song of the dragon

the prayer of Matheri

merciful grammar of thought

and the last one the high one

light of Branchala

that measures all song

in the shape of words

 

Alone in the margin

of darkness, Orestes

surrendered and listened

singing reluctantly, joyfully,

as the gods and the planets

and the cycle of years

devolved in a long dream of murder

and the cleansing of harp strings.

 

VIII

 

A year and a day the seasons encircled,

according to fable and ancient decrees of enchantment,

as the gnats' choir of autumn surrendered to ice

and the turn of the year approached like a death

and the listening castles mislaid under snow.

Orestes's apprenticeship led to a circle of fire,

where the harp he had mastered and the seven songs

and the fourteen modes of incalculable magic

circled him back to the night and the keep

and the wintry eyes of the bard singing memory

into flesh, into stone, into dreaming and wind,

and ARION, he said, and ARION, TELL ME OF TIME

OF THE RENDING OF KRYNN AND BETRAYALS.

The bard took the harp in the foreseen night:

for his memory darkened the edge of the past

when knowing devises the shape of creation,

and the Rending changed as he spoke of its birth

in the spiral of prophecy, the brush of its wing

on the glittering domes and spires of Istar

the swelling of moons and the stars' convergence

and voices and thunderings and lightnings and

earthquakes

and Arion told us that night by the hearth

that hail and fire in a downpour of blood

tumbled to earth, igniting the trees and the grass,

and the mountains were burning, and the sea became

blood

and above and below us the heavens were scattered,

and locusts and scorpions wandered the face of the

planet,

as Arion told us, and Orestes leaned closer

and ARION, he said, and ARION, TEACH ME OF

TIME

OF THE FAMINE AND PLAGUE AND PYRRHUS ALECTO.

Arion stroked the harp and began, his white hair

cascading across the gold arm of the harp

as though he were falling through song into sleep

and the winter stilled at the touch of the string,

and he sang the last verses as hidden Orestes

reclined and remembered and listened:

DOWN IN THE ARM OF CAERGOTH HE RODE:

PYRRHUS ALECTO, THE KNIGHT OF THE NIGHT OF BETRAYALS

FIREBRAND OF BURNING THAT CLOUDED THE STRAITS OF

HYLO,

THE OIL AND ASH ON THE WATER, IGNITED COUNTRY.

FOREVER AND EVER THE VILLAGES BURN IN HIS PASSAGE,

AND THE GRAIN OF THE PEASANTRY, LIFE OF THE RAGGED ARMIES

THAT HARRIED HIM BACK TO THE KEEP OF THE CASTLE

WHERE PYRRHUS THE FIREBRINGER CANCELED THE WORLD

BENEATH THE DENIAL OF BATTLEMENTS,

WHERE HE DIED AMID STONE WITH HIS COVERING ARMIES.

FOR SEVENTEEN YEARS THE COUNTRY OF CAERGOTH

HAS BURNED AND BURNED WITH HIS EFFACING HAND,

A BARREN OF SHIRES AND HAMLETS,

AND Firebringer HISTORY HANGS ON THE PATH OF HIS NAME.

Orestes listened, as honor and song,

as blood and adoption warred in the cell of his thoughts,

his father redeemed by poison, by blade

by the song of the harp string rendered a garrotte,

closing the eloquent throat of Arion

silencing song, reclaiming his father,

and transforming Caergoth from desert to garden:

yet the hand of Orestes stilled in the arc of reprisal,

and into the night he warred and remembered,

and as I tell you this, memory wars with him still.

 

IX

 

The mourning began when the doves circled Vingaard:

the poison had passed through the veins like imagined fires:

and alone in his quarters, the poet's apprentice

abided the funerals, settled accounts, awaited

the search of the Order through ravaged Solamnia

for rivals and villains, for the trails of assassins,

and late on the fifth night after the burning,

when the ashes had settled on Arion's pyre,

only then did Hieronymo bring forth the harp

(though some there were curious, who late in the night

had heard, or had thought they heard, the apprentice

weeping and playing the sonorous mode of the Rending),

and late on the fifth night after the burning

Hieronymo sang for the host at the Vingaard Keep

and the Rending changed as he spoke of its birth

in the spiral of prophecy, the brush of its wing

on the glittering domes and spires of Istar

the swelling of moons and the stars' convergence

and voices and thunderings and lightnings and

earthquakes

as Hieronymo told them that night by the hearth

that hail and fire in a downpour of blood

tumbled to earth, igniting the trees and the grass,

and the mountains were burning, and the sea became

blood

and above and below us the heavens were scattered,

and locusts and scorpions wandered the face of the

planet,

as Hieronymo told us, and then he leaned closer

and NOW, he said, NOW, I SHALL TEACH YOU

OF TIME

OF THE FAMINE AND PLAGUE AND PYRRHUS ALECTO.

 

DOWN IN THE ARM OF CAERGOTH HE RODE:

PYRRHUS ALECTO, THE KNIGHT ON THE NIGHT OF BETRAYALS.

WHEN A FIREBRAND OF BURNING HAD CLOUDED THE STRAITS OF

HYLO.

LIKE OIL ON WATER, HE SOOTHED THE IGNITED COUNTRY.

FOREVER AND EVER THE VILLAGES LEARN HIS PASSAGE

IN THE GRAIN OF THE PEASANTRY, LIFE OF THE RAGGED ARMIES.

THEY CARRIED HIM BACK TO THE KEEP OF THE CASTLE

WHERE PYRRHUS THE LIGHTBRINGER CANCELED THE WORLD

BENEATH THE DENIAL OF BATTLEMENTS,

WHERE HE DIED AMID STONE WITH HIS HOVERING ARMIES.

FOR SEVENTEEN YEARS THE COUNTRY OF CAERGOTH

HAS TURNED AND TURNED IN HIS EMBRACING HAND,

A GARDEN OF SHIRES AND HAMLETS,

AND Lightbringer HISTORY HANGS ON THE PATH OF HIS NAME.

 

X

 

His duty dispatched

and the old bard murdered,

Orestes returned

toward rescued Caergoth,

skirting the foothills,

and long were his thoughts

as he passed over Southlund,

the Garnet Mountains

red like a memory

of blood in the distance:

THERE IS NO LAW,

Orestes murmured,

his hand on the harp strings,

NO RULE UNWRITTEN

THAT YOUR FATHER'S SLANDERER

CANNOT INSTRUCT YOU,

THAT THE MAN YOU MURDER

YOUR HEART CANNOT HONOR,

EVEN AS YOUR HAND

CONCOCTS THE POISON.

The landscape ahead

was diminished and natural,

no thing unforeseen

sprang from the heavens,

the waters were channeled

and empty of miracles.

SO THIS IS HISTORY,

Orestes considered,

SO THIS IS HISTORY

NOW I CAN UNDERSTAND

as the road lay before him

uninherited, heirless

cut off from its making

and silenced by blood.

 

At the borders of Southlund

the smoke was rising,

the Arm of Caergoth

harbored incessant fire:

Orestes rode swiftly

through billows of prophecy,

the stride of his horse

confirming the dead words of Arion.

 

The cavalry plundering

the burgeoning fields,

leveling villages,

approaching invulnerable Caergoth,

heeded little the ride

of a boy in their column

cloaked in the night

and in helpless mourning.

A bard, some said,

or a bard's apprentice

returned to his homeland

burning and desolate.

The captain of cavalry

turned to the weeping boy

and addressed him as soldier

as fellow and brother:

SOONER OR LATER, SING YOU THIS,

BARD OR BARD'S APPRENTICE.

FOR THE VOICE OF THE HARPER

THE MUSICIAN, THE PIPER

SHALL NO LONGER BE HEARD

IN THE ARM OF CAERGOTH,

LONG KEPT FROM THE FIRE

BY THE SONG OF A POET

WHO SAID SHE WAS BURNING ALREADY:

FOR A FRESH FABLED COUNTRY

IS THE NEST OF INVASIONS,

THE QUARRY OF CAVALRY,

RIPE FOR THE SWORD AND THE FIRE.

Orestes rode forth

and the captain continued,

turning his pale horse

as a star tumbled down

from the fixed dream of heaven:

FOR THE BARD'S SONG, THEY TELL ME,

IS A DISTANT BELIEF

IN THE SHAPE OF DISTANCE.

FOR CAERGOTH WAS BURNING

WHEN SHE SAID IN HER HEART,

'I AM QUEEN, NOT A WIDOW

AND SORROW IS FAR FROM ME,

ELUSIVE AS THOUGHT

OR THE CHANGES OF MEMORY.'

SOONER OR LATER, SING YOU THIS.

And he vanished in histories

of rumor and smoke,

and sooner or later,

a bard will sing this,

in beleaguered castles

abandoned to night

and the cough of the raven.

Sooner or later,

someone will sing

of Orestes the bard,

for some things the poet

brings forth and fashions,

and others the poet holds back:

for words and the silence

between them commingle,

defining each other

in spaces of holiness.

and through them the story

ascends and spirals,

descends on itself

and circles through time

through effacing event

and continuing vengeance

down to the time

I am telling and telling you this.

 

MARK OF THE FLAME,

MARK OF THE WORD

 

Michael and Teri Williams

 

 

It began when I was fourteen, the burning, in the winter that the

fires resurged on the peninsula.

I awoke with a whirling outcry, my face awash in fire,

the blankets scattering from the bed. The dogs raced from

the cottage, stumbling, howling in outrage. Mother was

beside me in an instant, wrapped in her own blanket, her

pale hair disheveled, her eyes terror stricken.

The burning spread down my neck and back, the pain

brilliant and scoring, and I clutched at her hand, her

shoulders, and shrieked again. Mother winced and fumbled

silently, her thick fingers pressing hard, too hard, against

my scarred lips.

And then we were racing through the forest night.

The freezing rain lanced like needles against the hissing

scars on my neck and face. QUIET, MY DARLING, MY

DOVE, LEST THEY HEAR YOU IN THE VILLAGE, her

hands flashed.

We moved over slick and glittering snow, through

juniper and AETERNA, and my breath misted and crystalized

on the heaped furs, and the dogs in the traces grumbled and

yapped.

Then it was light, and I lay in a dry, vaulted cavern on a

hard pallet.

Above me the druidess L'Indasha Yman rustled, draped in

dried leaves and holly bobs like a pageant of late autumn.

She was young for medicine, young even for divining, and I

was struck by her dark eyes and auburn hair because I was

fourteen years old and just becoming struck by such things.

She gave me the BEATHA to help with the pain, and it

tasted of smoke and barley. The burning rushed from my

scars to my throat, and then to the emptiness of my

stomach.

"They've matured, the lad's scars," she said to my

mother. "Ripened." Expectantly, she turned to me, her dark

eyes riveting, awaiting our questions.

Mother's hands flickered and flashed.

"Mother wants to know . . . how long ..." I interpreted,

my voice dry and rasping.

"Always," said the druidess, brushing away the

question. "And you?" she asked. "Trugon. What would you

ask of me this time?"

She should have known it. Several seasons ago, the

scars had appeared overnight without cause, without

warning. For a year they had thickened slowly, hard as the

stone walls of our cottage, spreading until my entire body

was covered with a network of calluses. I could no longer

even tell my age. I was becoming more and more a

monstrosity, and no one could say why.

"Why. I would know why, my lady." It was always my

question. I had lost hope of her answering it.

Mother's gestures grew larger, wilder, and I would not

look at her. But when L'Indasha spoke again, my heart rose

and I listened fiercely.

"It's your father's doing," the lady said, a bunch of red

berries bright as blood against the corona of her hair.

"I have heard that much," I said, wincing as Mother

jostled me frantically. The pain drove into my shoulders,

and still I turned my eyes from her gestures. "I want all the

rest, Lady Yman. How it was his doing, and why."

The leaves crackled as the druidess stood and drifted to

the mouth of the cave. There was a bucket sitting there, no

doubt to catch rainwater, for it was half filled and glazed

with a thin shell of ice. With the palm of her hand, the

druidess broke the ice, lifted the container, and brought it

back to me, her long fingers ruddy and dripping with frigid

rain. She breathed and murmured over it for a moment.

I sat up, the heat flaring down my arms.

"Look into the cracked mirror, Trugon," she whispered,

kneeling beside me.

I brushed Mother's desperate, restraining hand from my

shoulder, and stared into the swirl of broken light.

There was a dead man. He was small. His shadow

swayed back and forth in a room of wood and stone,

dappling the floor below him with dark, then light, then

dark. His fine clothing fluttered and his hood lifted slightly.

I saw his face . . . his arms . . .

"The scars. Lady, they are like mine. Who is he?"

"Orestes," she replied, stirring the water. "Pyrrhus

Orestes. Your father, hanged with a harp string."

"And . . . WHO?" I asked, my sudden urge for

vengeance stabbing as hot as the BEATHA, as the burning.

"By his own hand, Dove," L'Indasha said. "When he

thought he could neither redeem nor . . . continue the line."

REDEEM NOR CONTINUE. It was quite confusing and

I was muddled from the potion and the hour.

L'Indasha's face reflected off the fractured ice in the

bucket: it was older, wounded, a map of lost lands. "You

weren't told. But Orestes got his desire and now the scars

have ripened."

Mother clutched my shoulder. The pain relented a bit.

"Continue what? Lady, 'tis a riddle."

A riddle the druidess answered, there in the vaulted

cave, as the weather outside turned colder still and colder,

on a night like those on which the fisherman claim you

could walk on ice from Caergoth across the waters to

Eastport.

She told me that my father, Orestes, had ridden

desperately westward as the peninsula burned at the hands

of the invaders. He rode with freebooters - with Nerakans

and the goblins from Throt, and they were rough customers,

but he passed through Caergoth unharmed. None of them

knew he was the son of Pyrrhus Alecto - "the Firebringer,"

as the songs called my grandfather.

"Why did he ... why DIDN'T he ..." I began to ask. I

was only fourteen.

The druidess understood and lifted her hand. "He was just

one, and young. And there is a harder reason. Orestes, NOT

YOUR GRANDFATHER, had brought the fires to the

peninsula. You see, he murdered his master. Your

grandmother had fostered his apprenticeship with Anon of

Coastlund. She taught him from childhood that he must

recover his father's honor at any cost. Your grandfather's

honor. So he killed Arion, that he should sing no longer of

your grandfather's shame."

Mother's grip tightened on my shoulder. I shrugged her

away yet again. Again the scars on my neck and face bit

and nettled.

"Go on."

"Then the goblins came, when they heard the new song

Orestes sang. ..."

When Orestes saw what his words had wrought, he ran.

It was at the last village seawards - Endaf, where the coast

tumbles into the Cape of Caergoth - that Orestes could

abide no more of the plunder and burning. Caergoth was in

flames behind him, and Ebrill, where the bandits first

camped, then Llun and Mercher, vanished forever in the

goblin's torchlight.

He was just one man, and he was young, but even so,

surely it shamed him as much as it angered him.

At Endaf he stopped and turned into the fray. He

dismounted, broke through the goblins, and joined in a

frantic attempt to rescue a woman from a burning inn.

Orestes was sent to the rooftop, or he asked to go. The

beams gave way with him, and the goblins watched and

laughed as Orestes fell into the attic, which fell around him

in turn, crashing down and up again in a rapture of fire.

But he lived. He was fire-marked, hated of men, and

they would know him by his scars henceforth. The burns

had bitten deep and his face was forever changed into a

stiffened mask of grief. A fugitive and a vagabond he was

upon Krynn, and wherever he traveled, they turned him

away. To Kaolin he went, and to Garnet, as far north as

Thelgaard Keep and south to the coast of Abanasinia. In all

places, his scars and his story arrived before him - the tale

of a bard who, with a single verse of a song, had set his

country to blaze and ruin.

He took to bride a woman from Mercher, orphaned by the

invasion and struck mute by goblin atrocity as they passed

through with their flames and long knives. Orestes spirited

her away to the woods of Lemish, where in seclusion they

lived a dozen years in narrow hope.

A dozen years, the druidess said, in which the child they

awaited never came.

That part I knew. Mother had told me when I was very

little, the soft arc of her hand assuring me how much they

had waited and planned and imagined.

That part I knew. And Mother had shared his death with

none but me. But I had never heard just how he had died.

"In despair," the Lady Yman told me, the cavern

lapsing into shadow as her brown, leafy robes blocked out

the firelight, the reflection on the ice. "Despair that his

country was burning still, and that no children of his would

extinguish the fires. He did not know about you. Your

mother had come to me, and she knew, was returning to

your cottage to tell him, joyous through the wide woods.

"She found what you've seen. Orestes could wait no

longer. Your mother brought me his note to read to her: I

HAVE KILLED ARION, AND THE BURNING WILL

NEVER STOP, it said. THE LAND IS CURSED. I AM

CURSED. MY LINE IS CURSED. I DIE."

L'Indasha reached for me as I reeled, as the room

blurred through my hot tears.

"Trugon? Trugon!"

REDEEM NOR CONTINUE. I understood now, about

his anger and guilt and the terrible, wicked thing he had

done. The BEATHA raced through me, and the torchlight

surged and quickened.

"Why did you finally tell me?" I asked.

"To save your life," the lady replied. She passed her

hand above the broken water, and I saw a future where fires

arose without cause and burned unnaturally hot, and my

scars were afire, too, devouring my skin, my face, erasing

all reason and memory until the pain vanished and my life

as well.

"This ... this is what will be, Lady?"

"Perhaps." She crouched beside me, her touch cool on

my neck, its relief coursing into my face, my limbs.

"Perhaps. But the future is changeable, as is the past."

"The past?" The pain was gone now, gone entirely.

"Oh, yes, the past is changeable, Trugon," L'Indasha

claimed, passing from firelight to shadow, "for the past is

lies, and lies can always change." She was nearing the end

of the answer and the beginning of another riddle.

"But concern yourself now with the present," she

warned, and waved her hand above the troubled water.

I saw four men wading through an ice-baffled forest,

on snowshoes, their footing unsteady, armed with sword

and crossbow.

"Bandits," L'Indasha pronounced, "bound to the service

of Finn of the Dark Hand"

I shivered. The bandit king in Endaf."

The druidess nodded. "They are looking for Pyrrhus

Orestes. Remember that only your mother and you know he

is dead. They seek him because of the renewed fires on the

peninsula. They are bent on taking your father to the beast,

for the legend now goes, and truly, I suppose, that no man

can kill a bard without dire consequence, without a curse

falling to him and to his children."

She looked at me with a sad, ironic smile.

"So the bandits are certain Orestes must die to stop the

fires."

Mother helped me to my feet.

"I ... I don't understand," I said. "It's over. He's killed

himself and brought down a curse on me."

L'Indasha waved her hand for silence. "It wasn't the

killing that cursed you. It was the words - what he said

before he died. Now you must go from here - anywhere, the

farther, the better. But not to Finn's Ear, the bandit king's

stronghold on the Caergoth shore."

"Why should I leave?" I asked. "They are after my

father, not me. I STILL don't understand."

"Your scars," she replied, emphatically, impatiently.

"The whole world will mistake you for your father, because

of the scars."

"I'll tell them who I really am!" I protested, but the

druidess only smiled.

"They won't believe you," she said. "They will see only

what they expect. Hurry now. FIND the truth about

Orestes. The finding will save your life and make the past .

. . unchangeable."

I thanked her for her healing and her oracle, and she

gave me one last gift - her knowledge.

"Although now you may regret your blood," she said,

"remember that you are the son of a bard. There is power in

all words, and in yours especially."

It was just more puzzlement.

We climbed, Mother and I, into the sled, moving

quickly over thick ice on our way back to the cottage.

Mother slept, and I guided the dogs and looked into the

cloudless skies, where Solinari and Lunitari tilted across the

heavens. Between them somewhere rode the black abscess

of Nuitari, though I could not see it.

The black moon was like the past: an absence waiting to

be filled. And looking on the skies, the four big dogs

grumbling and snorting as they drew us within sight of the

cottage, I began to understand my scars and my inheritance.

 

*****

 

Frantically, as I gathered my clothing in the cottage,

Mother told me more: that my grandfather, Pyrrhus Alecto

was no villain. He had kept the Solamnic Oath, had fallen in

the Seventh Rebellion of Caergoth, in the two hundred and

fiftieth year since the Cataclysm. She showed me the oldest

poem, the one that Arion had taken and transformed. The

old parchment was eloquent. I read it aloud:

 

"Lord Pyrrhus Alecto

light of the coast

arm of Caergoth

father to dreaming

fell to the peasants

in the time of the Rending

fell in the vanguard

of his glittering armies

and over his lapsing eye

wheeled constellations

the scale of Hiddukel

riding west to the garrisoned city.

 

"And that was all?" I asked. "All of this trouble over a

poem?" I hated poetry.

I gave voice to her answer as she held forth rapidly, as

the words slipped from her fingers into my breath and

voice. "No, Trugon, not over that, over the other one."

She did not know the words of the other poem. She had

not even seen or heard it. It was the poem of trouble, she

insisted, crouching nervously by the door of our cottage. It

was the poem that Father . . .

"Changed?"

She nodded, moving toward Father's old strongbox.

"Then Father lied as well as betrayed?"

Mother shook her head, brushed her hair back. She

opened the strongbox.

I knew what was inside. Three books, a penny whistle,

a damaged harp. I had never asked to see them. I hated

poetry.

Mother held up one of the books.

It was the story of the times since the Rending, since

the world had opened under Istar. The work of the bard

Arion, it was, but more. It was his words and the words of

others before him: remote names like Gwion and Henricus

and Naso, out of the time when Solamnia was in confusion.

The book was battered, its leather spine scratched and

cracked. As Mother held it out to me, it opened by nature to

a page near its end, as though use and care had trained it to

fall at the same spot, to the same lines.

She gestured that the lines were in Father's hand.

Indeed, the whole book was in Father's hand, for neither

Arion nor any of the bards before him had written down

their songs and tales, preferring to pass them on to a

listening apprentice, storing their songs in the long

dreaming vaults of their memories. But Father thought he

was heirless and alone, and had written them all - every

poem and song and lay, from the edicts to the first shaking

of the city, down through the dark years unto this time. A

dozen lines or so of one verse he had worried over,

scratched out, revised, and replaced, only to go back to the

first version, to his first choice of wording.

I mouthed the lines, then read them aloud:

 

"DOWN IN THE ARM OF CAERGOTH HE RODE:

PYRRHUS ALECTO, THE KNIGHT ON THE NIGHT OF BETRAYALS.

WHEN A FIREBRAND OF BURNING HAD CLOUDED THE

STRAITS OF HYLO.

LIKE OIL ON WATER, HE SOOTHED THE IGNITED COUNTRY.

FOREVER AND EVER THE VILLAGES LEARN HIS PASSAGE

IN THE GRAIN OF THE PEASANTRY, LIFE OF THE RAGGED ARMIES.

THEY CARRIED HIM BACK TO THE KEEP OF THE CASTLE

WHERE PYRRHUS THE LIGHTBRINGER CANCELED THE WORLD

BENEATH THE DENIAL OF BATTLEMENTS,

WHERE HE DIED AMID STONE WITH HIS HOVERING ARMIES.

FOR SEVENTEEN YEARS THE COUNTRY OF CAERGOTH

HAS TURNED AND TURNED IN HIS EMBRACING HAND,

A GARDEN OF SHIRES AND HAMLETS,

AND Lightbringer HISTORY HANGS ON THE PATH OF HIS NAME."

 

It was as though Father had never been satisfied.

Something had drawn him to these lines again and again, as

if changing them would . . .

Would straighten the past, make it true.

" 'Tis here, Mother," I announced, so softly that at first

she did not hear, though she was staring directly at me as I

read.

She cupped her ear, leaned forward.

" 'Tis in the poem. Or, rather, NOT in the poem."

Mother frowned. I knew she saw Orestes in me now-

poetic and full of contradictions.

I tried to be more clear about it.

"These lines Father wrote and rewrote and worked over

are... are the lie. Don't you see, Mother? The druidess said

that THE PAST IS LIES, AND LIES CAN ALWAYS

CHANGE. These are - " I thumbed through the book,

looking early and late " - these are the only lines he has

fretted over.

"It's as though ... he was trying to ..." I looked at

Mother. "... change the lies back to the truth."

I did not know whether that was so or not. I stepped

quietly to the strongbox and took out my father's harp, one

thick string missing, and held it for a long moment. It fit my

hand exactly and when I put it down, I could not shake

away its memory from my grasp. When I looked at Mother

again, her eyes had changed. We both knew what I would

say next.

"Yes, I MUST go, but not because they seek me. I will

go because I have to find the lost song," I announced.

"Father's words are still hiding something."

One of the dogs rumbled and rose from the shadows,

stretching and sniffing lazily in the dwindling firelight.

Then his ears perked and he gave a low, angry growl.

Mother scrambled to her feet and to the door, a

confusion of soundless sobs and flickering hands.

"I know. They're coming," I said. "I must hurry.

Finding the truth is saving my life. The druidess said so."

I stroked the ears of Mateo, the largest of the dogs, who

looked up at me solemnly, his thick shoulders pressing

against my legs until I staggered a little at the weight. I had

no thought of how small I was - how things far greater

would press against me when I stepped across the threshold

into the early winter morning.

Mother moved slowly aside as I passed into the pale

sunlight, her fingers brushing softly, mutely against my

hair. I gave her a smile and a long hug, and she assured me

of her own safety. In the sled lay an old hide bag, big

enough for the harp and the book, a loaf of bread, and a

wedge of cheese. I tossed everything in and moved off, as

quickly and silently as I could.

One of the dogs barked as I lost the cottage behind a

cluster of blue AETERNA branches, and the high wind

shivered faintly at their icicles like the vanished notes of a

song. Above the hillside nearest my home, four long

shadows fell across the trackless snow.

 

*****

 

There were other adventures that led me back to the

peninsula - a wide arc of years and travels across the

continent, Finn's men at first only hours behind me, then

less constant, less menacing the farther south I traveled. I

sent the dogs back to Mother soon and traveled alone,

sometimes working for a while at jobs where nobody knew

me or thought they knew me, where nobody cared that I

never removed my hood.

It was a year, six seasons perhaps, before I realized

exactly what it was about the song I was searching for.

It has long been practice that when a bard travels and

sings, his songs are attended, remembered, and copied by

those in the regions nearby. If a song is a new one, it carries

to still farther regions by word of mouth, from bard to bard,

from orator to folksinger to storyteller to bard again.

It is a tangled process, and the words change sometimes

in the telling, no matter how we try to rightly remember.

The old lines from Arion's song I heard in Solamnia as

 

THE PRAYER OF MATHERI

MERCIFUL GRAMMAR OF THOUGHT

 

I had heard in the small town of Solace as

 

THE PRAYERS OF MATHERI

MERCY, GRANDMOTHER OF THOUGHT

 

and the southern lines made me laugh, distorted like

gossip in their passage across the straits.

For I had the book with me, and within it (he truth

unchangeable. As I traveled, I knew I would come to a

place when I would hear those scratched and worried lines

of my father's - the lines about Pyrrhus Alecto, about

Lightbringer and history and glory - but I would hear them

in a different version.

And I would know at last what Pyrrhus Orestes had

altered.

 

*****

 

Across the Straits of Schallsea I once stowed away on

a ferry. The enraged ferryman discovered me under a pile

of badger hides, and he threatened to throw me overboard

for evading his fee. He relented when he pushed back my

hood and saw the scars from the burning.

"Firebringer," he snarled. "Only my fear of Branchala, of

the curse upon bard-slayers, stays my hand from your

murder." I cherished his greeting. It was the first of many

such conversations.

Over the grain fields of Abanasinia I wandered, in a

journey from summer to summer and threat to threat. Three

times I heard "Song of the Rending" - once from a minstrel

in Solace, again in the city of Haven from a seedy,

unraveled bard who had forgotten entire passages about the

collapse of Istar, whereby his singing lost its sense, and

finally from a blind juggler wandering the depths of the

plains, whose version was wild and comical, a better story

by far than Arion's.

The minstrel and the juggler repeated Father's altered

lines word for word. But the juggler recited them with a

curious look, as though he was remembering words contrary

to those he was speaking. Although I asked him and asked

him again about it, he would tell me nothing. Faced with his

silence, I began to believe I had imagined his discomfort,

that it was only my hope and dreaming that had expected to

find the missing lines.

And so, back across the straits I sailed, in the summer

of my sixteenth year, and again the ferryman called me

Fire-bringer, cursing me and spitting at me as he took my

money.

On Solamnic shores once more, I started for home, but

discovered that no village would shelter me on the journey.

"Firebringer," they called me, and "Orestes the Torch,"

meeting me on the outskirts of the hamlets with torches of

their own, with stones and rakes and long peninsular knives.

Some even pursued me, shouting that the fires would

die with the one who brought them. Like the ferryman, like

Finn, they thought I was my father.

 

*****

 

To the north lay the great Solamnic castles - Vingaard and

Dargaard, Brightblade and Thelgaard and DiCaela. Each

would take me in of a night for the sake of my grandfather.

These families would nurse me on occasion, for my scars

burned with growing intensity as the seasons turned and the

fires to the west raged and the years passed by me.

Sometimes the knights let me stay for a week, perhaps two,

but the peasants would clamor, would talk of traitors and

firebrands, and I would be asked to leave, would be

escorted from Solamnic holdings by a handful of armed

cavalry.

The knights would apologize there at the borders, and

tell me that their hearts were heavy for me ... that the

welfare of the order and the people took precedence . . .

that, had there been another way, they would have been

glad to ...

In all those high places, I asked after Arion's song.

Solamnia was, after all, the bard's sanctuary, the harp's

haven. All of the schooled poets had retreated to these

courts, and all knew the works of Arion of Coastlund.

I showed around the scratched and amended passage

near the poem's end. All the bards remembered it, and

remembered no other version. As I sat alone in the vaulted

hall of Vingaard Keep, my thickened hands strumming

Father's harp in the vast and echoing silence, it almost

seemed to me that the walls shuddered with my clumsy

music, the one string still and always missing.

 

*****

 

In my seventeenth year, the peninsula had burned clear

up to Finn's own holdings.

Out of the stronghold of his lair in the seaside caverns

at Endaf, from which his horsemen could harry the trade

routes north from Abanasinia and his notorious ships, the

NUITARI and the VIPER, could find safe harbor, Finn

terrorized the cape and covered the shore with the husks of

schooners and brigantines, off course in the smoke from the

mainland.

It was rumored by some that an ancient evil had returned,

in those brief years before the War of the Lance. Finn was

one of those who harbored them, the populace whispered.

For in the depths of his seaside cavern lay an intricate web

of still larger caverns, tunnel devolving on tunnel, the

darkness slick and echoing. This was the legendary Finn's

Ear, where it was supposed that all sounds muttered in

shelter of stone eventually and eternally circled and spoke.

At the heart of Finn's labyrinth was said to lay a monster,

his black scales glittering with cold malice and devouring

acid.

They said that the beast and the bandit had struck an

uneasy truce: Finn soothed the monster with the music of

well paid but exhausted bards, and, lulled by continual

song, the great creature received in turn the company of the

bandit king's uncooperative prisoners. And as to the fate of

those poor wretches, even the rumormongers were silent.

In the rough border country between Lemish and

Southlund, cooling myself in the high foothills of the

Garnet Mountains, I pondered the looming necessity of

actually going to Finn's Ear, where the bards were singing

and the caverns echoing. It was the only place I had not

searched for the song.

Hooded as always to hide my livid scars, I crossed that

border and stalked through the burning peninsula, keeping

the towers of Caergoth to the north as I traveled toward the

little villages in the west. My route took me within Finn's

own sight, had he cared to leave his rocky throne and look

west from the beetling cliffs.

For days I wandered through hot country and distant

rising smoke. I would stand outside the village pubs,

hooded and shrouded like a highwayman or a self-important

mage, and through open windows I heard the nervous talk,

the despair of farmer and villager alike.

Spontaneous fires arose in the dry grain fields, leaving

the countryside a wasteland of ash and cinder. In droves the

farmers were leaving, no longer able to fight the flames. All

this disaster, they claimed, had enraged Finn to the point

where, in the search for remedy, he had offered an

extravagant bounty to any bard or enchanter who could

extinguish the fires with song or incantation.

Hard words about a curse drifted through one of the

windows. I heard the name of my father. It lightened my

steps somehow, as I passed through the deserted village of

Ebrill in the early morning, then over the ruins of Llun and

Mercher, moving ever westward, believing now that my

quest would at last be done. Endaf was the last place Finn

would look for a far-flung quarry, and my father's name

rode on the smoky air.

It was midmorning when I reached Endaf. I wandered

the village for a while, weaving a path amid the deserted

cottages and charred huts and lean-tos, all looking like a

grim memory of a village. And it was odd walking there,

passing the old flame-gutted ruins of the inn and knowing

that somewhere in its vanished upper story my father had

received the scars I had mysteriously inherited.

I turned abruptly from the ashes. I was eighteen and

impatient, and had come very far for the truth. The old acrid

smell of Endaf faded as I walked from the ruins on a rocky

and shell-strewn path, and as I trudged west I caught the

sharp smell of salt air and heard the faint cries of gulls and

cormorants.

 

*****

 

About a mile from the center of the village, Finn's Ear

burrowed into a sheer limestone cliff overlooking the Cape

of Caergoth. Black gulls perched at its edge, the gray rock

white with their guano, loud with their wailing cries.

Steps had been chopped in the steep rock face, whether

by the bandits or by a more ancient hand it was hard to tell,

given the constant assault of storm and birds. I took my

place in the middle of a rag-tag group of beggars, farmers,

bards and would-be bandits, each awaiting an audience

with King Finn of the Dark Hand.

As I waited, the bards talked around and over me in

their language of rumor. The gold thread at the hems of

cape and cloak was tattered, frayed; each wooden harp was

chipped and warped, each bronze one dented and tarnished.

No famous poets these, no Quivalen Sath or Arion of

Coastlund. They were courtiers with trained voices and a

studied adequacy for the strings. Now, in single file on the

rocky steps, each encouraged the other, thereby

encouraging himself.

Being praise-singer to a bandit king was a thankless

and shabby job, they said.

Well, generally.

But Finn, they said, was different. Of course.

It was hard to keep from laughing. In the rationale of

such men, a bandit, a goblin, even a monster was

DIFFERENT when coin and a warm hearth were offered.

Finn, they claimed, had joined resolutely in the search

to lift a curse brought upon Caergoth and the surrounding

peninsula years ago by the fire-bringing Solamnics, Pyrrhus

Alecto and his son Pyrrhus Orestes. His search had entered

its fourth year, his seers and shamans telling him that the

curse would last "as long as Alecto's descendants lived," his

hirelings telling him always that they had just missed

catching Orestes. Desperate, Finn hoped that a

transforming hymn would lift the curse with its beauty and

magic.

The bards needled one another cynically, each asking

when they would write that certain song, make their

fortunes among the bandits. They all laughed the knowing

laughter of bards, then fell silent.

I leaned against the cold rock face, awaiting uncertain

audience. Pelicans and gulls wheeled over the breaking

tide, diving into the ardent waters as the sun settled over the

eastern spur of Ergoth, dark across the cape.

Carelessly, I touched the strings of the harp, felt in my

pockets for the poet's pen and ink. I had traveled hundreds

of miles to this stairwell, this audience. The pain of my

scars rose suddenly to a new and staggering level.

The song of the bards around me was skillful and

glittering and skeptical . . . and empty of the lines I sought.

I would have to brave the echoing caverns below Finn's

lair.

The druidess had told me that I could find the truth.

AND THE FINDING WOULD SAVE MY LIFE AND

MAKE THE PAST UNCHANGEABLE. The song had to be

here, or there was no song. And could the final pain of the

monster's acid be any worse than this perpetual burning?

"You'll have it, Father," I muttered into the dark of my

hood. "REDEEMED AND CONTINUED. The past will be

unchangeable. Whatever you have, it will be the truth. And

whatever I have, it will be better."

 

*****

 

Finn of the Dark Hand sat in a huge chair hewn from

the cavern wall. He looked hewn from stone himself, a

sleepless giant or a weathered monument set as a sign of

warding along the rocky peninsular coast. His right hand

was gloved in black, the reason known only to himself.

Around him milled his company of bandits, rough and

scarred like burned villages. They bared their knives as they

watched the singers, smiling wickedly one to another, as

though keeping a dreadful secret unto a fast-approaching

hour.

I hovered at the mouth of the cave, listening for an hour

to the technically brilliant and lifeless songs of the bards.

They claimed to play the music for its own sake, for the

sake of the glory of song, but they all knew otherwise, for

always music serves some master.

Even Finn knew they were liars. Finn, who had held

neither harp nor flute, whose poetry was ambush and

plunder. He leaned into the eroded throne, dismissing the

pearly singer from Kalaman, the pale lad from Palanthas

and the merchant turned poet from Dargaard. Each gathered

a heel of bread for his song and turned, grumbling, eastward

toward Solamnic cities and the possibility of castles and

shelter.

It was night. Bats rustled in the upper regions of the

cavern, and I remembered an old time, a winter time, a

cavern and a dry rustling sound. Two last supplicants stood

between me and the bandit: a beggar whose leg had been

damaged in a field accident, and another bard.

While the beggar begged and was given a loaf, and

while the bard sang and received a crust, I waited in the

shadow of the cave.

None of them had the song. None of them. Neither bard

nor minstrel nor poet nor troubadour. Their songs rang

thinly in the cave, echoing back to them and to us, throwing

the music into a doubling confusion.

I had come this far, and for me there was still more to

discover, more than thin music and mendicant rhymes.

When summoned, I stepped to the light, and when the

dulled eyes of the bandit king rested upon me, I threw back

my hood.

 

*****

 

"Firebringer," he rasped, and "Orestes the Torch."

As all the bandits hastened to be the one to slay me, to

end the line and the curse before the approving eye of their

leader, Finn raised his hand and stayed theirs.

"No," he rumbled. The blood of the line of Pyrrhus

should not stain the floors of this cavern. For remember the

curse. Remember the harm it might visit."

One shaman, seated by the stone foot of the throne,

nodded in agreement, beads rattling as he fondled his bone

necklace.

I followed the bandit guards into the throat of the cave,

to a confusing depth where all light had vanished except the

glow of candles wedged in rocks and later only the torch

that guided us. In a great rotunda hundreds of feet below

the surface they left me, the last of the guards covering their

tracks, candle by extinguished candle, and their footsteps

echoed over each other until the cavern resounded of a

passing, vanished army.

I sat in a darkness most absolute. After only a moment,

I heard a voice.

The language was quiet, insinuating, weaving with the

fabric of my thoughts until I could no longer tell, especially

in this darkness, what words lay outside me and what

within.

OH, TO A WANDERING EYE ... it began, a fragment

of song in the darkness.

I scrambled to my feet and lurched toward, I hoped, the

passageway. Bones clattered beneath my feet, rattled

against rotting wood and rusted strings, striking a hollow

music. Spinning blindly in the dark, I realized I had left

father's harp behind, and knew at once that I could not find

my way back to it.

A second voice caught me standing stupidly in the same

place, huddled in my cloak, expecting the fangs, the

monster's fatal poisons. At the new sound, I jumped,

flinging my pitiful knife away into the darkness, where it

clattered much too loudly against the rock wall.

"EST SULARIS OTH MITHAS ..."

And then, behind me, or what I thought was behind me,

another.

BUILD YE THE WESTERNMOST WALL IN THREE PARTS . . .

And, beyond that, another voice, and yet

another, until I spun about dizzily, buffeted by voices, by

echoes, by wandering sound from centuries before. For not

only did the voices of Southlund and Coastlund mingle in

the darkness with a chorus of High Solamnic, but the

ancient ritual language seemed to change as I heard it,

traveling from voice to voice, each time its pronouncements

varying slightly until I realized that the last voices I had

heard were another language entirely and that I had

followed a passage of familiar words, familiar sounds, back

to a voice that was entirely alien, speaking a tongue as

remote as the Age of Might, as the distant and unattainable

constellations.

I WOULD KNOW WHY, said a young man's tortured voice.

YOU CAN FIND THE TRUTH, another voice said - softer, more familiar.

AND THE FINDING WILL MAKE THE PAST. . . UNCHANGEABLE.

I followed the familiar voice of the

druidess L'Indasha Yman, my shoulder brushing against

stone and a cool liquid draft of air rushing into my face,

telling me I had found a passage ... to somewhere else.

The voices were ahead of me now, ahead and behind,

contained, I suppose, by the narrow corridor. Some shouted

at me, some whispered, some vexed me with accents

curious and thoughts fragmentary. . . .

. . . SE THE FOR DRYHTNES NAMAN DEATHES THOLDE . . .

. . . HERE ON THE PLAINS, WHERE THE WIND ERASES THOUGHT. . .

. . . OUR MEDSIYN IS A STON THAT IS NO STON, AND A THYNG IN

KENDE AND NOT DIVERSE THYNGES, OF WHOM ALL METALLES BETH

MADE . . .

. . . YOUR ONE TRUE LOVE'S A SAILING SHIP . . .

. . . DOWN IN THE ARM OF CAERGOTH HE RODE . . .

I stopped. In the last of the voices, somewhere behind me in

the corridor, the old words had sounded. I forgot them all -

the druidess, the erasing wind of the plains, the medicine

and bawdy songs - and turned about.

In the midst of a long recounting of herb lore I discovered

that voice again . . . the bard's intonation masking the

accents of Coastlund. I followed the northern vowels, the

rhythmic sound of the verse. . . .

And I was in another chamber, for the echo swirled

around me and over me, and I felt cold air from all quarters,

and a warmth at a great distance to my left. The voice

continued, louder and unbroken by noise and distraction,

and it finished and repeated itself as an echo resounds upon

echo.

I held my breath, fumbled for pen and ink, then

remembering the monster, sniffed the air for acid and heat.

It was indeed Arion's "Song of the Rending," echoing

over the years unto this cavern and unto my listening.

So I waited. Through the old narrations of the sins of

the Kingpriest, through the poet's account of the numerous

decrees of perfection and the Edict of Thought Control. I

waited as the song recounted the glittering domes and spires

of Istar, the swelling of moons and the stars' convergence,

and voices and thunderings and lightnings and earthquakes.

I listened as hail and fire tumbled to earth in a downpour of

blood, igniting the trees and the grass, and the mountains

were burning, and the sea became blood, and above and

below us the heavens were scattered, and locusts and

scorpions wandered the face of the planet. . . .

I waited as the voice echoed down the generations, from

one century to the next to the third since the Cataclysm,

awaiting those lines, not letting myself hope that they would

be different from the ones in the leather book in my pack, so

that when the lines came, they were like light itself.

 

DOWN IN THE ARM OF CAERGOTH HE RODE:

PYRRHUS ALECTO, THE KNIGHT OF THE NIGHT OF BETRAYALS

FIREBRAND OF BURNING THAT CLOUDED THE STRAITS OF HYLO,

THE OIL AND ASH ON THE WATER, IGNITED COUNTRY.

FOREVER AND EVER THE VILLAGES BUM IN HIS PASSAGE,

AND THE GRAIN OF THE PEASANTRY, LIFE OF THE RAGGED

ARMIES

THAT HARRIED HIM BACK TO THE KEEP OF THE CASTLE

WHERE PYRRHUS THE FIREBRINGER CANCELED THE WORLD

BENEATH THE DENIAL OF BATTLEMENTS,

WHERE HE DIED AMID STONE WITH HIS COVERING ARMIES.

FOR SEVENTEEN YEARS THE COUNTRY OF CAERGOTH

HAS BURNED AND BURNED WITH HIS EFFACING HAND,

A BARREN OF SHIRES AND HAMLETS,

AND Firebringer HISTORY HANGS ON THE PATH OF HIS

NAME.

 

I sat on the cold stone floor and laughed and cried

quietly, exultantly. I waited there an hour, perhaps two, as

the "Song of the Rending" ended and began again. I

wondered briefly if this were the echo of Arion himself, if I

was hearing not only the words but the voice of the bard

my father had killed a generation back.

I decided it did not matter. All that mattered was the

truth of the words and the truth of the telling. Arion's song

had marked my grandfather as a traitor, but it had preserved

the land, for what bandit or goblin would care to invade a

fire-blasted country? Orestes's song had rescued Alecto's

name, at the price of flame and ruin and his own life. So

when Arion's song returned again, I was ready to hear it, to

commit it to memory, to wander these caves until I

recovered the light, the fresh air, the vellum or hide on

which to write the lines that would save my father's line,

my line.

It did return, and I remembered each word, with a

memory half trained in the listening, half inherited from a

father with bardic gifts. For the first time in a long while,

perhaps the first time ever, I was thankful for who he was,

and I praised the gifts Orestes had passed on to me.

And then, with a whisper that drowned out all other

voices, at once the beast spoke. It was a dragon!

So HE HAS SENT ANOTHER FROM UP IN THE

LIGHT... O MOST WELCOME . . . THE STRUGGLE IS

OVER IS OVER . . . REST THERE REST... NO

CONTINUING ... NO ... NO ...

Oh. And it seemed not at all strange now to fall to the

monster without struggle or issue, to rid myself of the

shifting past and the curse of these scars and their burning,

and to rid all above me of the land's torture . . .

So I stood there, ridiculously clutching pen and ink,

and though it was already darker than I could imagine

darkness to be, I closed my eyes, and the alien heat

engulfed me, and with it the evil smell of rust and offal and old

blood. The jaws closed quickly around me as I heard a man's voice,

saying, I HAVE KILLED ARION, AND THE BURNING

WILL NEVER STOP. THE LAND IS CURSED. I AM

CURSED. MY LINE IS CURSED. I DIE.

And then, like a last sudden gift, a woman's whisper:

THERE IS POWER IN ALL WORDS, AND IN YOURS ESPECIALLY.

 

*****

 

It was the hot fetor that awakened me. I gasped and

coughed and closed my eyes immediately to the fierce and

caustic fumes.

I was sitting upright in very confined quarters.

Slowly I tested my surroundings, my eyes clasped

tightly against the foul biting mist. I stretched my arms, and

to each side I felt slippery leather walls.

It came to me slowly what had happened.

I sat in the dragon's stomach, like a hapless sailor at the

end of an ancient tale.

I cried out in panic and kicked against the pulsing walls,

flailing frantically, but it seemed that the great beast had

settled and fallen asleep, assured by long experience that the

dark corrosives of his stomach would do the rest.

I felt my scars hiss and bubble. The tissue was old and

thick as hide, and it would take hours for the acid to eat

through. There was a fair amount of air, though it was foul

and painful to breathe. What was left to me was the waiting.

For a while, for the space, perhaps, of a dozen

heartbeats, the absurdity of my quest rushed over me like a

harsh, seething wave. Four years of wandering across two

continents, hiding away in castles and marshes, under the

abutments of bridges and in filthy, narrowing alleys,

enduring searing pain in silence . . .

Only to come ignobly to the filthiest, narrowest end of

all, and with me the line of Pyrrhus Alecto, dissolved and

digested miles beneath our beloved peninsula. I had gone

down to the depths of the mountains, and the earth with her

bars was about me forever.

I cried out again, certain no one would hear me.

Then it seemed almost foolishly simple. For after the

weeping, the vain recollection of my hundred adventures, I

recalled the last thing I had heard:

"There is power in all words, and in yours especially."

My first purpose, many seasons past and a hundred

miles away, when I left my mother and home, had been to

discover and make known the truth about Orestes and

Grandfather.

I had discovered. Now I must make it known. I would

salvage the truth in the last dissolving hour. And though I

assumed the words would never see light or catch a willing

eye, I brought forth quill and inkhorn, and said aloud,

canceling my father's words as he had canceled Arion's,

"The fires are extinguished. The land is free. I am alive."

Dipping the quill, I began to write blindly on the

quivering stomach walls of the dragon.

DOWN IN THE ARM OF CAERGOTH HE RODE . . .

 

*****

 

Some men are saved by water, some by fire. I have

heard stories of happy rock slides releasing trapped miners,

of a ship and its crew passing safely through hurricanes

because the helmsman nestled the boat in the eye of the

storm, in sheer good fortune.

I am the rare one to be saved by nausea.

Credit it to the ink, perhaps, or the incessant, swift

scratching on the walls of the dragon's stomach. Whatever

it was, the fishermen skirting the coast of Endaf, the good

folk of Ergoth who drew me sputtering from the water, said

that they had never seen the likes of it on sea or land.

They said that the caverns of Finn of the Dark Hand had

exploded, the rubble toppling down the cliff face and

pouring into the circling waters of the cape, that they thought

for certain it was an earthquake or some dwarven enchanter

gone mad in the depths of the rock until they saw the black

wings surge from the central cavern, bunched and muscled

and webbed like the wings of a bat. And they told me how a

huge creature pivoted gracefully, high above the coastal

waters, plunged for the sea, and inelegantly disgorged above

the Cape of Caergoth.

It seemed a clear, sweet grace to me, lying on the deck of

their boat as they poured hot mulled wine down me and

wrapped me in blankets, their little boat turning west toward

the Ergoth shore and the safety of Eastport, a haven in that

ravaged and forbidding land.

The fishermen's attentions seemed strange, though - as

if, in some odd, indescribable way, I was one of their

fellows. It was not until we reached the port itself and I

looked into a barrel of still water that I noticed my scars had

vanished.

But the memory of the burning returns, dull and heavy in

my hands, especially at night, here in this lighthouse room

overlooking the bay of Eastport. Across the water I can see

the coast of my homeland, the ruins of the bandit stronghold

at Endaf. Finn, they tell me, dissolved with two dozen of his

retainers when the dragon thundered through their chambers,

shrieking and flailing and dripping the fatal acid that is the

principal weapon of his kind.

And the creature may as well have dissolved himself. He

has not been seen since that day on the Caergoth coast. But

the same fishermen who rescued me claim that, only the

other night, a dark shadow passed across the face of the red

moon. Looking up, they saw nothing but Lunitari and a

cloudless sky.

They saw an omen in this, and now carry talismans on

board, but sailors always were a superstitious lot, fashioning

monsters out of clouds and the wind on the waters.

At night I sit by the window, by lamplight, and watch the

constellations switch and wink and vanish in this uncertain

time, and I set before me a fresh page of vellum, the lines of

each day stored in my memory. For a moment I dwell on the

edges of remembrance, recalling my mother, L'Indasha

Yman, the reluctant knights, and the fortunate fishermen.

But, foremost, I recall my father, come down to me in an

inheritance of verse and conflicting stories. It is for him, and

for Grandfather before him, and for all those who have

vanished and been wronged by the lies of the past, that I dip

the quill into the inkwell, and the pain in my hand subsides

as I begin to write . . .

On SOLAMNIA'S CASTLES

RAVENS ALIGHT.

DARK AND UNNUMBERED

LIKE A YEAR OF DEATHS,

AND DREAMT ON THE BATTLEMENTS,

FIXED AND HOLY,

ARE THE SIGNS OF THE ORDER

KINGFISHER AND ROSE -

 

THE BARGAIN DRIVER

 

MARK ANTHONY

 

I'll give you the two bronze knives, the string of elven beads, and

the silver drinking horn, but that is my final offer."

"Are you mad, Matya?" the grizzled old trader said in

exasperation. He gestured to the bolt of fine cloth that lay

between them on the counter, in the center of the trading

post's one dingy, cluttered room. "Why, this was woven for

a noble lord in the city of Palanthas itself. It's worth twice

what you're offering me. Nay, thrice!"

Matya watched the trader calculatingly with her bright

brown eyes. She could always tell when she was about to

best Belek in the driving of a bargain, for his nose

invariably would begin to twitch.

"If the doth is so fine, why did the noble lord for whom

it was made not buy it?" Matya asked pointedly.

Belek mumbled some excuse, but Matya waved it away

with a ring-covered hand. "You may take my offer or leave

it, Belek. You'll not get so much as a bent nail more."

The trader sighed, a look of dismay on his haggard face.

"You're determined to drive me out of business, aren't you,

Matya?" His bulbous nose gave a violent twitch.

Matya smiled inwardly, though she did not let the trader

see her satisfaction. "It's simply business, Belek, that's all."

The trader grunted. "Aye, so it is. But I'll warn you,

Matya. One day you'll drive a bargain too cleverly for your

own good. There are some bargains that aren't worth taking,

no matter how profitable they seem."

Matya laughed at that. "You always were a sore loser,

Belek." She pushed the goods she had offered across the

counter. Belek sighed - his nose twitching furiously - and

pushed the bolt of cloth toward her. Matya spat on her palm.

Belek did likewise, and the two shook hands. The bargain

had been struck.

Matya bade Belek farewell and loaded the bolt of cloth

into her wagon outside the ramshackle trading post. The

wagon was a colorful, if somewhat road-worn, affair - a

wooden box on wheels, painted in countless bright but

peeling hues. Hitched in front was a single dun-colored

donkey with patient eyes and extraordinarily long ears.

Matya's wagon was filled nearly to overflowing with all

manner of wares, both mundane and curious: pots and pans,

cloaks and boots, arrows and axes, flints, knives, and even a

sword or two, plus countless other objects she had bought,

haggled for, or - most of the time - scavenged. Traveling

from town to town, trading and striking bargains, was how

Matya made her living. And it was not a bad one at that.

Like the wagon, Matya herself was a bit worn with the

years. Her long hair, coiled in a thick braid atop her head,

had been flaxen, but now was ash gray. Countless days of

sun and wind had tanned and toughened her ruddy cheeks.

Fine wrinkles touched the comers of her eyes and mouth,

more from smiling than frowning, and so were attractive.

And, like the wagon, Matya was clad in a motley collection

of clothes representing all colors of the rainbow, from her

ocean-blue skirt to her sunflower-yellow shirt and forest-

green vest speckled with tiny red flowers. Her willowy,

figure had plumped out, but there was still an air of beauty

about her, of the simplest and most comforting kind - when

her nut-brown eyes weren't flashing fire, that is.

"Let's be on our way, Rabbit," Matya told the donkey as

she climbed onto the wagon's wooden bench. "If we hurry,

we can reach Garnet by nightfall. There's a merchant there

who's an even worse haggler than Belek." The donkey gave

a snort that sounded uncannily like laughter.

Matya tied a bright red kerchief over her graying hair and

grasped the wagon's reins in her strong, thick fingers. She

whistled sharply, and Rabbit started off at a trot down the

dusty highway, pulling the gaudily colored wagon behind.

 

*****

 

It was midafternoon when she saw the ravens circling

lazily against the azure sky not far in the distance. Matya

knew well what the dark birds portended: Death ahead.

"Keep those ears up, Rabbit," she told the donkey as the

wagon jounced down the heavily rutted road. "There's

danger on the road these days."

Matya watched warily as the serene, rolling hills

slipped by. Autumn had touched the land with its frosty

hand, coloring the plains of southern Solamnia in a hundred

shades of russet and gold. The honey-colored sunlight was

warm and drowsy, but Matya resisted the temptation to

doze, as she might have done otherwise. The land was

beautiful, but beauty could conceal danger. She remained

wide awake and alert.

The wagon crested a low rise. Below her, the road split,

and it was here the ravens circled. The highway continued

on to the north, and a second road led east, toward the dim

purple range of mountains marching on the horizon.

Scattered about the dusty crossroads were several queer,

twisted objects. A raven dived down and pecked at one of

the objects before flapping again into the air, and only then

did Matya realize what the strange things were: corpses,

lying still in the dirt of the road.

She counted five of them as Rabbit - eyeing the dead

nervously - pulled the wagon to the crossroads. Matya

climbed down and knelt to examine one of the bodies, an

older man's, dressed in neat but threadbare attire. A crudely

made arrow with black fletching protruded from its throat.

"Goblins," Matya said in disgust. She had heard rumors

that the verminous creatures were creeping down from the

high places of the mountains of late to waylay travelers. By

her guess, these had been pilgrims, making for Caergoth, to

the south, to visit the temples of the new gods there.

"They found their gods sooner than they thought," Matya

muttered. She spoke a brief prayer to speed the dead on

their journey, then began rummaging about the bodies,

seeing if any of them carried something that might be worth

trading. After all, the dead had no use for objects of value.

Matya, on the other hand, did.

After several minutes, however, she gave up in disgust.

Like most pilgrims, these owned little more than the clothes

on their backs. She would not have scorned even these, but

they were threadbare and stained with blood. All she had

got for her trouble was a single copper coin, and a bent one

at that.

"There's nothing for us here," Matya told Rabbit as she

climbed back into the wagon. "Let's be on our way. Men

riding out from Garnet will find these folk soon enough and

lay them to rest - hopefully dead with the goblins."

Rabbit let out a low bray and started into a trot, anxious

to be away from the crossroads and the smell of blood.

Matya guided the donkey down the east road, but after a

hundred paces or so she pulled hard on the reins, bringing

the wagon again to a halt.

"Now what on the face of Krynn is that?" Matya asked

herself. Something glinted brightly among the nettles and

witchgrass to the side of the road. She started to ignore it,

flick the reins, and continue on - the hour was growing late -

but curiosity got the better of her. She slid from the wagon's

bench, pushed through the weeds, and headed toward the

glimmer she had seen. The nettles scratched at her ankles,

but in a moment Matya forgot the sting.

"Why, 'tis a knight 1" she gasped aloud, staring at the

man who lay, unmoving, in the weeds at her feet.

The man was clad in armor of beaten steel, but his

visage was more that of a shiftless vagabond than a noble

knight. His eyes were deeply set, his features thin and

careworn, and the mouse-brown moustache that drooped

over his mouth was coarse and scraggly.

Whether he was, in truth, a knight or a looter in stolen

armor, it didn't much matter now, Matya thought. His hair

was matted with blood, and his skin was ashen with the

pallor of death. She said the familiar words to appease the

spirit of the dead, then knelt beside the corpse.

The steel armor alone would be worth a fortune, but it

was terribly heavy, and Matya was not entirely certain she

would be able to remove it. However, the knight wore a

leather purse at his belt, and that boded well for Matya's

fortunes. Deftly, she undid the strings, peered inside, and

gasped in wonder.

A woman's face gazed out of the purse at her. The tiny

face was so lifelike that, for a moment, Matya almost

fancied it was real - a small, perfect maiden hidden within

the pouch.

"Why, it's a doll," she realized after a heartbeat had

passed.

The doll was exquisitely made, fashioned of delicate

bone-white porcelain. The young maiden's eyes were two

glowing sapphires, and her cheeks and lips were touched

with a blush of pink. It was a treasure fit for a lord's house,

and Matya's eyes glimmered like gems themselves as she

reached to lift it from the purse.

A hand gripped her arm, halting her. Matya froze, biting

her lip to stifle a scream. It was the dead man. His fingers,

sticky with dried blood, dug into the flesh of her arm, and

he gazed at her with pale, fey eyes.

The knight was very much alive.

 

*****

 

"Tambor . . ." the knight whispered. He lay slumped

against the wheel of Matya's wagon, his eyes shut. "She

sings . . . Tambor . . ." His mumbling faded, and he drifted

deeper into a feverish sleep.

Matya sat near the small fire, sipping a cup of rose hip

tea and watching the knight carefully. Twilight had

descended on the grove of aspen trees where she had made

camp, transforming all the colors of the world to muted

shades of gray.

Tambor, Matya thought. There's that word again. She had

heard it several times in the knight's fevered rambling, but

she did not know what it meant, or even whether it was the

name of a place or a person. Whatever it was, it was

important to him. As important as that doll, she thought.

Even now, in his sleep, the knight clutched tightly at the

purse that held the small porcelain figurine. It had to be

valuable indeed.

While Matya was not one to go out of her way to help

others when it was unclear what - if any - reward she might

gain from it, neither was she without a heart. The knight

would have died had she left him there by the road, and she

would not have wanted that weighing on her conscience to

the end of her days. Besides, she suspected there was a good

chance the knight would die regardless of her aid, in which

case the doll would be hers, free and clear. Either way, it

was worth her while to help.

Getting the knight into her wagon had been no simple

task. Fortunately, Matya was a strong woman, and the

knight had roused himself enough to stumble most of the

way with her help. She had hoped to make Garnet by

nightfall, but she had tarried too long at the crossroads.

Shadows were lengthening, and the town still lay many

leagues ahead. Knowing night was not far off, fearful of

Rabbit stumbling into a hole or missing the trail in the dark,

she had made camp in the grove of aspen by the road.

She had tended to the knight's wounds as best she

could. The cut on his scalp was shallow, but he had lost a

good deal of blood from it. More troubling had been the

wound in the knight's leg. She had found the broken shaft of

an arrow embedded in the flesh behind his knee. Goblin

arrows were wickedly barbed, Matya knew, and there was

only one way for her to remove the arrow tip. Steeling her

will, she had pushed the broken shaft completely through

the flesh of his leg. Mercifully, the knight had not

awakened. Blood flowed freely from the wound, which she

had deftly bound with a dean cloth. The bleeding soon

stopped.

The night deepened, and the stars came out, one by one,

like tiny jewels in the sky above. Matya sat by the fire to eat

a supper of dried fruit, nuts, and bread, regarding the

knight's sleeping form thoughtfully through the back of the

wagon.

If he still lived when she reached Garnet the next day, she

would leave him at one of the monasteries dedicated to the

new gods - if the brethren would accept a Solamnic Knight

into their sanctuary, she amended. There were many who

frowned upon the Knights of Solamnia these days. Matya

had heard tales that told how, long ago, the knights had

been men of greatness and honor, who had protected all

Solamnia against creatures like goblins. Matya, however,

was not certain she believed such tales.

Most Solamnic Knights she had ever heard of were

little more than fools who expected others to be impressed

simply because they wore ridiculous suits of rusting armor.

Some folk even said it was the knights themselves who

brought about the Cataclysm, the fiery destruction that had

rained down upon the face of Krynn more than half a

century ago, bringing an end to the Age of Might.

"Not that I think the Cataclysm was really such a

terrible thing," Matya said to herself. "I daresay I wouldn't

make as good a living as I do if these self-important knights

still patrolled the highways. And while times may be hard,

it only means that people will spend more dearly for the sort

of things I can bring them in my wagon. If anything, the

Cataclysm has been good for business, and that's all that

matters to me."

With a start, Matya realized that the knight had heard

her talking, was watching her. His eyes were pale, almost

colorless.

"To whom do I owe my life?" he asked her.

Matya stared at him in surprise. Despite his unlikely

looks, the knight's voice was resonant, deep and almost

musical, like the sound of a hunting horn.

"My name is Matya," she said briskly, recovering her

wits. "And as for what you owe me, we can discuss that

later."

The knight inclined his head politely. "I am Trevarre, of

the House of Navarre," he said in his noble voice. "For your

assistance, I thank you, but if it is a reward you seek, I fear

we must discuss it now, not later." He gripped the wagon's

side and tried to pull himself up, heedless of his injuries.

"What are you doing?" Matya cried.

"Leaving," Trevarre said. A crooked smile touched his

lips, and determination shone in his deep-set eyes. "You

have been more than kind, Matya, but I have traveled day

and night to reach the end of my journey. I cannot stop, not

yet."

"Why, you knights are greater fools than the tales say,"

Matya said angrily, hands on her hips. "You'll only kill

yourself"

"So be it," Trevarre said, shrugging as if this prospect

did not disturb him. He grimaced, breathing hard, as he slid

from the wagon and balanced on his good leg. "I must go

on" He took a step onto his injured leg. His face went white

with pain. He groaned and slumped to the ground.

Matya clucked her tongue, helped him sit back up

against the wagon wheel. "I don't think you're going

anywhere, except to a monastery in Garnet - or the grave, if

you try that again" She poured a cup of water from a

goatskin and handed it to him. The knight nodded in thanks

and drank it down.

"You do not understand, Matya," Trevarre said, an

intent look on his weathered face. "I must journey to

Tambor. I have received a plea for help. I cannot refuse it."

Matya scowled. "Why ever not?"

Trevarre sighed, stroking his scraggly moustache. "I do

not know if I can make you understand this, but I will try. I

am a Knight of the Sword, Matya." He rested his hand

against his steel breastplate, decorated with the symbol of

the sword. "This means I cannot live my life as other men

do. Instead, I must live by another, higher standard - by the

Oath and the Measure. It is written in the Measure that

there is honor in aiding those who cry out in need. And, by

the Oath, I swore that my honor is my life. I will fulfill my

quest, Matya." A faint light glimmered in his pale eyes. "Or

die trying."

"And what reward will you get for performing this

'honorable' task?" Matya asked with a scowl.

"My honor is reward enough."

Matya sniffed. "This 'Oath and Measure' hardly sounds

practical. It's rather difficult to eat one's honor when one

gets hungry." She paused a moment. Her real interest was in

the doll, but she couldn't think of how to ask about it

without rousing the knight's suspicion. Maybe, if she could

keep him talking about himself, he'd tell her what she

wanted to know. "And how is it you came to hear this plea

for help, Knight? How do you know it's not simply a trick

to lure you into a den of robbers?"

"I know." The crooked smile touched Trevarre's lips

once again. "By this, I know." He slipped the porcelain doll

from the leather pouch.

Matya was thrilled. She had not thought to get another

glimpse so easily. Seeing it closely now, Matya realized the

doll was even more beautiful than she had thought. She

clasped her hands behind her back so she would not be

tempted to reach out and touch its smooth surface.

"Passing fair, would you not say?" Trevarre said softly.

Matya could only nod. "It is a most remarkable thing. I

came upon it some days ago, by the banks of a stream that

flows from the mountains. It lay in a small boat woven of

rushes, caught in a snag by the shore." He slipped the

figurine back into its pouch. "By it, I learned of a maiden

who lives in a village called Tambor. She is in dire need.

The code of the Measure is most clear on this. I must go to

her."

Matya raised an eyebrow. It was a peculiar tale. She

guessed Trevarre had stolen the doll and simply was

making up the story. After all, he looked more like a thief

than a knight, despite his armor. If so, stolen goods were

fair game. Ask any trader.

"How is it you learned of this maiden?" she asked,

hoping to trip him in his lie. "Was there a message in the

boat?"

"No," the knight replied, "not as you mean, at least.

You see, the doll is magical. Each night, when Solinari

rises, the doll speaks with the maiden's voice. That is how I

heard her call for help."

Matya laughed aloud, slapping her knee. "A wondrous

tale indeed, Trevarre, but I believe you have taken up the

wrong vocation. You should be a storyteller, not a knight."

Trevarre's expression became grave, serious. "You

must know, Matya, that on his life a Knight of Solamnia

cannot speak falsehood. I can understand why you do not

trust in magic. We knights do not think much of sorcerous

powers either. But wait until Solinari is on the rise. Perhaps

you will change your mind."

Matya studied the knight attentively. His was not

exactly a trustworthy face, despite his pretty voice. Still,

there was something about the intentness of his pale eyes.

"Perhaps I won't," she said.

 

*****

 

It was nearly midnight. The knight had slipped into a

doze, less fitfully this time, and Matya rummaged through a

wooden box in the back of her wagon. The light of a single

candle illuminated scrolls and parchments. Finally, she

found what she was searching for - a bundle of yellowed

sheets of vellum.

Matya untied the bundle's silken ribbon and unrolled

the sheets, spreading them out on the lid of the box. They

were maps, rendered in fading ink. A kender had given

them to Matya some years ago in exchange for a silver

knife. It had proved to be one of the few unprofitable trades

Matya had ever made. She soon had learned that the maps

contained many mistakes. They showed land where there

were seas, mountains where there were deserts, and

populous cities in which no one lived. She should have

known better than to trust a kender. They were little

tricksters, all of them. Still, poor as the maps were, they

were the only maps she had, and she was curious about

something.

She shuffled through the maps until she found one that

had SOLAMNIA written on the top. The mountains were

missing, and the map showed Caergoth to be an inland city,

while Matya knew very well that it stood on the coast.

Some features had been added to the map in a bold,

scrawling hand, and Matya suspected these were the

kender's own additions. Among other things, the kender's

scrawls showed the highways leading to Garnet and

Caergoth, and the crossroads as well.

"Now where is it?" Matya muttered, running a finger over

the yellowed, cracking vellum. "It has to be here." Then she

found what she sought. Written in small, faded letters was

the word TAMBOR. By the markings on the map, the

village of Tambor was no more than ten miles north and

east of the crossroads. "But that would put it in the foothills

of the mountains, though this map shows southern Solamnia

to be nothing but plains," she added in disgust.

The kender had written something beside the spot

marked TAMBOR. She had to squint to make out the

scrawling words. They read, DEESTROYD IN

KATAKLISM. Matya mumbled an oath under her breath.

If this was true, then the village the knight sought had

been destroyed more than fifty years ago. So much for his

plea for help! A liar, as she'd suspected. She didn't know

why that hurt her.

Trevarre called out. Matya hastily put away the maps.

She found the knight still sitting by the wagon wheel. The

porcelain doll stood on the ground before him.

"It is almost time," he said, nodding toward the west. A

pearly glow had touched the distant horizon. Solinari, the

largest of Krynn's three moons, soon would rise.

Matya sat on a fallen log near the knight, eyes on the

doll. While she did not believe Trevarre's story, she was

curious to see what he would do when the doll failed to

speak.

"Wait," Trevarre said softly. "Just wait."

Matya sighed, resting her chin on a hand, and waited.

This was rapidly growing tedious. Finally, a thin, silvery

sliver of Solinari lifted above the far-off horizon.

The doll began to sing.

Matya stared at the porcelain statuette in shock. The

maiden's lips moved. A sweet, wordless song drifted upon

the night air. There was no doubt but that the song came

from the doll.

Matya shot a look at Trevarre. The knight's pale eyes

were triumphant. The song continued, a sad melody that

tugged at Matya's heart. Finally the sweet music ended, and

the doll spoke.

"Please, come to me, whoever finds me," it said, its

voice cool and lilting but filled with sorrow as well. "I beg

you. Come to the village of Tambor. I need help

desperately. Please"

Solinari lifted full above the horizon, and the doll fell

silent. Matya's eyes glimmered as she stared at it calculatingly.

"An enchanted doll!" she said to herself. "Why, it is worth

a king's ransom."

"Do you believe my tale now?" Trevarre asked, a slight

smile beneath his mousy moustache.

Matya nodded. "I believe you." She was glad to believe

in him, too, but she didn't tell him that.

"I have something to ask of you," the knight said. "It

appears my legs are set on betraying me. I cannot journey to

Tambor on foot, but your wagon could carry me. Take me

there, Matya. Take me to Tambor, please."

"And what would I gain for my trouble?" Matya asked

coolly.

Trevarre reached inside the collar of his woolen cloak

and undid the clasp. He held it out to her. "Will this do?"

The clasp was fashioned of finely wrought silver, inlaid

with pearl and lapis lazuli. Matya appraised it with a

practiced eye. The jewel obviously was quite valuable. By

any measure, the trade would be a good one, but it was not

enough.

"Give me the doll as well," Matya said crisply, "then I

will take you to Tambor."

Trevarre gazed at her for a long moment, but Matya did

not so much as blink. Finally he laughed. "You drive a hard

bargain, I see. It appears I have little choice but to accept.

Very well, I will give you the doll - but only after we reach

Tambor."

"Agreed," Matya said, her eyes flashing. She took the

jeweled clasp from his outstretched hand and spirited it

away to a pocket in her dress. 1 will keep this as assurance."

She knew that Trevarre likely would be distressed when he

found Tambor in ruins and his quest proved a folly.

However, if he was a man of honor, he would keep his

word. The doll would be Matya's. I'll take you to Tambor,

Knight."

She spat in her hand and held it out. Trevarre looked at

her in puzzlement for a moment, then nodded solemnly and

did the same. They shook hands firmly. The bargain had

been struck.

 

*****

 

Matya and the knight set out with the dawn, traveling

east down the road to Garnet. The mountains loomed high

before them, like great gray giants. Their summits were

already dusted with a coating of snow, bespeaking the

winter that soon would blanket the rest of Solamnia.

Matya studied the kender's map as Rabbit plodded on,

pulling the wagon along the jouncing road. The map was

terribly faded and crumbled a bit each time she touched it,

but Matya could make out the line of a faint road leading

south from the place marked Tambor. If the kender had

drawn in the highway to Garnet at all accurately, they

ought to reach the road to Tambor sometime around midmorning.

"'Two giants point the way,'" Trevarre said. Matya

looked questioningly at the knight, who was propped up on

the bench beside her. "That was the sign the doll spoke of

that would guide me to the village," he explained. "I

imagine it means two mountains, or some such thing."

"You were going to try to find the village with

directions like that?" Matya asked.

Trevarre only shrugged.

"Humph!" Matya snorted. "If this maiden of yours was

going to all this trouble to get rescued, she might have

given you dearer instructions."

Before Trevarre could reply, one of the wheels hit a

deep rut, and he winced as the wagon lurched roughly. He

was in better shape today than he'd been the night before,

but his face was still pale, and the roughness of the wagon's

ride obviously was causing him pain. He did not complain,

however.

Midmorning passed and noon approached, and still

Matya saw no sign of a road leading north from the

highway. Finally she pulled on the reins, and Rabbit came

to a halt. "It's time for a rest," she said.

She fastened a feedbag over Rabbit's muzzle, then found

food for herself and Trevarre. A jumble of massive, oddly

shaped granite boulders, warmed by the sun, lay next to the

road. The two sat on these as they ate a meal of cheese,

bread, and dried fruit. When they had finished, Matya

checked Trevarre's bandages. "Your hands are gentle,

though your tongue is sharp," said the knight, smiling at

her. Matya blushed, but ignored him and nodded in

satisfaction. The knight's wounds had closed, and none of

them showed signs of festering.

"We had best be on our way," she said, eyeing the sun,

which now shone directly overhead. She helped Trevarre

stand, offered him her shoulder to lean on. He smelled of

oiled steel and leather, not an unpleasant scent, she thought,

as the two started making their way back to the wagon.

Suddenly Matya froze.

"What is it?" Trevarre asked, looking quickly about in

alarm. "Goblins?"

"No," Matya whispered. "No, it's a face."

She pointed to the boulder Trevarre had been sitting on.

They had not noticed it earlier, because the shadows had

obscured it, but with the sun directly overhead, Matya now

saw it as plain as day. The boulder was carved in the face of

a man.

The carving was weathered and cracked - it must have

been ancient - but Matya still could make out the proud,

kingly features, the aquiline nose, and deep, moss-filled

eyes. Looking around, she saw that other overgrown

boulders were parts of a man - one shaped like a hand,

another like a shoulder, still another like a boot.

"It is a statue," Trevarre said in amazement, "a gigantic

statue. It must have fallen over years ago, by the looks of it,

probably in the Cataclysm."

"Wait, there are two of them," Matya said, pointing to

another broken boulder, which was carved in the form of a

regal-looking woman.

"The two giants," Trevarre said. "It seems the maiden's

directions were not so inadequate after all."

 

*****

 

The road beyond the ruined statues was all but hidden

by a tangle of willows and brambles. Matya doubted that

anyone had come this way in a long time. The way was

passable but overgrown and rutted. Trevarre winced each

time the wagon's wheel hit a bump, but he said nothing.

"He has courage, if not sense," Matya told herself. She

glanced at him, and for a brief moment her hard expression

softened. She found herself wondering just how. old

Trevarre was. He was not a young man, she suspected,

despite his foolhardiness.

The narrow road wound across the rolling foothills,

over grassy knolls and through groves of aspen and fir. In

places the trail was so faint Matya could hardly see it, and

several times it ended abruptly, only to be found continuing

a hundred paces to the left or right. It was almost as if the

land itself had shifted beneath the road, breaking it into

pieces.

As the hills slipped away to either side, Matya began to

feel a growing sense of unease. The land around them was

strangely silent. There are no birds here, she realized with a

start, here where the meadows should have been filled with

birds.

It was late in the afternoon, and the amber sunlight had

grown heavy and dull, when the wagon crested a low ridge.

Below lay a small, grassy dell, and in its center stood -

"Tambor," Trevarre said triumphantly.

Matya shook her head in astonishment. She had

expected to see a pile of ruins in the dell, the burned-out

husks of a few cottages perhaps, and some crumbling stone

walls. Instead she saw a prosperous village. More than a

score of well-tended cottages lined a main street, busy with

people, horses, chickens, and dogs. Smoke rose from a low

stone building - probably a smithy - and a mill's waterwheel

turned slowly in a small stream.

"You have kept your end of the bargain, Matya,"

Trevarre said solemnly. "Now it is my turn." He handed her

the leather pouch that contained the doll. Matya gripped the

purse with numb hands.

The kender had been wrong, she told herself, that was

all. Tambor had NOT been destroyed in the Cataclysm.

Matya didn't know why she was surprised. Still, there was

something about this that did not seem entirely right.

"What is such a prosperous village doing at the end of

such an overgrown road?" she asked herself, but she had no

answer. Not that it mattered. She had the doll now. That

was all she cared about.

"I can walk the rest of the way," Trevarre said, starting

to climb down from the wagon, but Matya stayed him with

a hand on his arm.

"I know it's hard, but try not to be a fool, Knight. I'll

take you into the village. I'll need to stay here anyway. It's

growing late. I'll set out again in the morning."

Matya guided the wagon to the banks of the stream. A

small stone bridge arched over the clear, flowing water. A

young woman stood on the far side of the stream. She was

clad in a gown of flowing white, and her hair was as dark

as jet. She was beautiful, as beautiful as the porcelain doll.

"My knight, you have come to me!" the woman cried

out. Her voice was the doll's sweet voice. Matya thought

this odd, disconcerting, but it didn't bother Trevarre. His

pale eyes shining, he slipped from the wagon and limped

across the stone bridge, ignoring the pain of his injury. He

knelt before the young woman and kissed her fine-boned

hand.

Matya scowled. He never kissed my hand, she thought

sourly.

"I am Ciri," said the sweet voice. "Welcome, Sir

Knight. My deliverance is at hand."

 

*****

 

Ciri led Trevarre and Matya around the edge of the

village. "Quickly," she said softly. "The fewer the folk who

see us, the better."

Matya wondered why, but it wasn't HER place to ask.

Trevarre tried to walk faster, but it was clear his wounded

leg was causing him great pain. Ciri laid a fine hand on his

elbow, and the grimace eased from the knight's face. He

walked more easily with her hand on his arm. Matya

noticed that Trevarre seemed to have taken more than a

passing interest in Ciri's lovely face. "I'll warrant he's more

interested in her looks than his honor," she muttered,

suddenly annoyed for no particular reason.

As they walked, Matya looked at the village in the ruddy

light of the setting sun. Nothing appeared out of order, but

something was not right. You're tired, Matya, that's all, she

told herself. Tomorrow you'll ride into Garnet and leave this

knight and his foolishness behind. That thought should have

made her feel better, but it didn't.

Ciri led them to a small, thatch-roofed cottage standing

slightly apart from the others. She looked about to make

certain no one was watching, then opened the door,

gesturing for Trevarre and Matya to enter.

The cottage was warm and neatly kept. A fire burned on

the fieldstone hearth, and the wooden floor had been

scrubbed clean. Ciri bade them sit down. She filled a

wooden cup with crimson wine for each of them. Matya

raised the cup of wine, then set it down without drinking it.

It had a funny smell to it. Trevarre, however, drank deeply,

thanking the woman for her hospitality - all politeness, as

his Measure called for, Matya supposed with a frown.

"And now, my lady, you must tell me why you have

called to me," Trevarre said. Ciri smiled at him, a sweet,

sorrowful smile. "And I hope your reason is a good one,"

Matya noted, crossing her arms. "It was no mean feat

getting this knight here, I'll tell you"

Ciri turned her gaze toward Matya for a moment, and

suddenly her smile was neither sweet nor sorrowful. 'Tor

that, I do thank you, my good woman," Ciri said. Matya

could not mistake the coldness in Ciri's otherwise lovely

voice. It was clear that Matya's presence had not been

expected; neither was it wanted.

Ciri's gaze turned soft again as she regarded the knight.

Matya scowled, but she said nothing. If the young woman

feared competition for the knight's attention, then she was

as much a fool as Trevarre. There was little room in a

bargain driver's life for love. Such fancies dulled the sharp

edge Matya depended on for her livelihood. Besides, there

was nothing about the knight she liked, even if his pale eyes

were strangely attractive and his voice DID remind her of a

trumpet's call.

The gloom of twilight descended outside the cottage's

window. Ciri began her tale. "I fear the fate that lies before

me is dark, my knight. A terrible wizard - my uncle - means

to force me to marry him, against all propriety and my own

wishes. He is a mage of great power, feared by all the folk

of Tambor, and even beyond. He is away now, gathering

components for his magecraft, but when he returns, he will

compel me to wed. You have arrived none too soon, my

knight."

"Well, why don't you simply run away?" Matya asked.

Ciri gave her another chill look. "I fear it is not so simple.

You see, my uncle dabbles in the BLACK ARTS, heedless

of the peril to his soul. He has cast an enchantment upon

me. I am unable to leave the village. The banks of the

stream are as far as I may tread. Should I take but one step

beyond, I would perish."

"But what of your father?" Trevarre asked. "Will he not

protect you from your barbarous uncle?"

Ciri shook her head sadly. "My father and mother both

died many years ago. There is no one here to protect me.

That was why I wove the boat of rushes and sent the doll

down the waters of the stream, hoping someone might find

it and hear my plea"

"How does the doll speak with your voice?" Matya

asked, not caring if she aroused more of Ciri's displeasure.

"It was but the echo of my voice," Ciri explained, her

eyes on the knight. "The doll is a magical thing. My rather

brought it all the way from Palanthas for me when I was a

child. If you speak to it, or sing it a song, it will echo your

words back to you with the rising moon, exactly as you

spoke them."

Matya's eyes glittered brightly. This was better and

better. The doll would be almost beyond price. ALMOST,

that is. Matya always had a price.

"And how can I break this grievous enchantment?"

Trevarre asked earnestly. He was good at this knightly

business, Matya had to admit, despite his sorry looks. Ciri

stood and walked to the window, gazed through it sadly a

moment, then turned to the knight.

"There, in the center of the village, stands a shrine. In that

shrine is an altar carved of marble. The altar is the focus of

all my uncle's dark powers. I know, for I have seen him

work his wicked spells there. From it, he draws his strength.

But the magic of the doll has the power to counter it. If one

who is strong of heart sets the doll upon the altar of his own

free will, the enchantment will be broken."

"And what will happen to the doll?" Matya asked

suspiciously.

"Its magic will be dissipated," Ciri answered. "It will

become an ordinary doll and nothing more."

She walked to Trevarre then, and he rose to meet her.

She laid a hand gently upon his breastplate. Matya could

see the pulse beating rapidly in the man's throat. It was

clear Trevarre was not immune to Ciri's bewitching beauty.

Another weakness of knights, Matya thought acidly. Not

that she cared one way or the other, she reminded herself.

"Will you do this task for me, my knight?" Ciri

pleaded. "I cannot break the enchantment with my own

hand, and there is none in the village brave enough to defy

my uncle. Will you help me?"

Trevarre sighed and glanced at Matya. "I would, with

all my heart, that I could do this thing, my lady, but I fear I

cannot. You see, I have given Matya the doll in payment

for bringing me to this place. On my honor, I cannot ask

her for it back"

Ciri's face twitched. She shot Matya a look so filled

with malice that Matya shivered. Then, aware of the

knight's eyes on her, Ciri's sweet, sorrowful look had

returned to her lovely face. She bowed her head.

"Then I am doomed, my knight."

"No," he said, with a fierce smile. "No, I cannot think

that. I am no sorcerer, but I expect there is another - albeit

cruder - way to free you." His hand moved to the hilt of the

sword at his hip. "I will stand before your uncle when he

returns, and I will demand a duel. The enchantment will be

broken when your uncle lies dead at my feet. Won't that

solve your problem, my lady?"

Ciri sighed. "My knight, you are indeed brave," she

murmured. "So very brave."

Matya noticed, however, that Ciri did not answer

Trevarre's question.

 

*****

 

Matya awoke in the gray light before dawn. Ciri had

provided her a bed. Trevarre slept soundly on a bed of furs

before the cottage's hearth. Matya looked around the

cottage, but Ciri was nowhere to be seen.

Just as well, Matya thought. This way she would not

have to bid the strange young woman good-bye.

Matya knelt beside the sleeping knight before she left.

His careworn face was peaceful in slumber, his brow

untroubled.

"I hope you find your honor truly reward enough,

Knight," she whispered softly. She hesitated a moment, then

reached out a hand, as if to smooth his mouse-brown hair

over the bandage on his head. He stirred, and she pulled her

hand back. Quietly, Matya slipped from the cottage.

"Trevarre has what he wants," she reminded herself,

"and so do I."

The ruddy orb of the sun crested the dim purple

mountains to the east as Matya made her way through the

village. A few folk already were up at this hour, but they

paid her no heed as they went about their business. Once

again, Matya had the feeling there was something peculiar

about this village, but she could not quite fathom what it

was. She hurried on toward her wagon and the restless

Rabbit.

Then it struck her.

"The shadows are all wrong!" she said aloud.

Her own shadow stretched long before her in the low

morning sunlight, but hers was the only shadow that looked

like it was supposed to look. The shadow cast by a two-

story cottage to her left was short and lumpy - much shorter

than she would have expected for a building so high. She

looked all around the village and saw more examples of the

same. Nowhere did the outline of a shadow match that of

the object that cast it. Even more disturbing were the

villagers themselves. None of them cast shadows at all!

Her sense of unease growing, Matya gathered up her

skirts and hurried onto the stone bridge. She suddenly

wanted to be away from this troubling place. She was nearly

across the bridge when something - she was unsure exactly

what - compelled her to cast one last glance over her

shoulder. Abruptly she froze, clapping a hand over her

mouth to stifle a cry.

The village had changed.

Well-tended cottages were nothing more than broken,

burned stone foundations. The smithy was a pile of rubble,

and there was no trace of the mill except for the rotted

remains of the waterwheel, slumped by the bank of the

stream, looking like the twisted web of some enormous

spider. There were no people, no horses, no dogs, no

chickens. The dell was bare. The dark ground was hard and

cracked, as if it had been baked in a furnace.

Matya's heart lurched. She ran a few, hesitant steps

back across the bridge, toward the village, and she gasped

again. Tambor looked as it had before, the villagers going

about their business. Blue smoke rose from a score of stone

chimneys.

Perhaps I imagined it, she thought, but she knew that

wasn't true. Slowly, she turned her back to the village once

more and walked across the bridge. She looked out of the

comer of her eye and again saw the jumbled ruins and

blackened earth behind her. Slowly, she began to

understand.

Tambor HAD been destroyed in the Cataclysm. The

people, the bustling village, were images of what had been

long ago. It was all illusion. Except the illusion was

imperfect, Matya realized. It appeared only when she

traveled TOWARD the village, not AWAY from it. But how

did the illusion come to exist in the first place?

Resolutely, Matya walked back across the bridge. She

found that, if she concentrated, the illusion of the bustling

village would waver and grow transparent before her eyes,

and she could see the blackened ruins beneath. She walked

to the center of the village, toward the single standing stone

of pitted black basalt. This was the shrine of which Ciri had

spoken. At the base of the standing stone was an altar, but it

was not hewn of marble, as Ciri had claimed. The altar was

built of human skulls, cemented together with mud. They

grinned at Matya, staring at her with their dark, hollow

eyes.

"Did you really think I would allow you to leave with the

doll?" Ciri spoke behind her in a voice cool and sweet.

Startled, Matya turned around. She half expected to see

that Ciri had changed like the rest of the village. The

woman was as lovely as ever, but there was a hard, deadly

light in her sapphire-blue eyes.

Ciri gazed at Matya, then understanding flickered

across her face. "Ah, you see the village for what it is, don't

you?"

Matya nodded silently, unable to speak.

Ciri shrugged. "It is just as well. It makes things easier.

I'm glad you know, in fact."

"What do you want from me?" Matya asked.

"To strike a bargain with you, Matya. Isn't that what you

like to do above all things?"

Matya's eyes narrowed, but she said nothing.

"You have something I want very much," Ciri said

softly.

"The doll," Matya said, eyeing the woman.

"You see, Matya, despite the illusions I have used to

mask the appearance of the village, much of what I told you

last night was the truth. An enchantment does prevent me

from leaving the village, and only the doll can break it."

"How is it you came to be here in the first place?"

Matya asked.

"I have always been here," Ciri said in her crystalline

voice. "I am old, Matya, far older than you. You see me

now as I was the day the Cataclysm struck the face of

Krynn, more than half a century ago."

Matya stared at her in shock and disbelief, but Ciri did

not pause.

"By my magic, I saw the coming of the Cataclysm. I

prepared an enchantment to protect myself from it." A

distant look touched her cold eyes, and her smile grew as

sharp and cruel as a knife. "Oh, the others begged at my

door for me to protect them as well. The same wretches

who had mocked my magic before wanted me to save them,

but I turned my back on them. I wove my magic about

myself, and I watched all of them perish in agony as the rain

of fire began." Ciri's face was exultant, her fine hands

clenched into fists.

Matya watched her with calculating eyes. "Something

went wrong, didn't it?"

"Yes," Ciri hissed angrily. "Yes, something went

wrong!" She paused, recovered her composure. "I could not

have foreseen it. The power of the Cataclysm twisted my

magic. The enchantment protected me, as I commanded, but

it also cursed me to remain here alone in this ruined town,

not aging, not changing, and never able to leave."

Matya shuddered. Despite herself, she could not help

but pity this evil woman.

"I want to be free of this place - I WILL be free of this

place," Ciri said, "and for that I need the doll."

Matya was no longer afraid. Magic was Ciri's element,

but bargaining was Matya's own. "And what would you

give me in exchange for the doll?" she asked. "It is worth a

lot to me."

"I made that one, and once I am free I will have the

power to make more," Ciri replied. "I will fashion you a

dozen such dolls, Matya. No one in Ansalon will be

wealthier than you. All you have to do is give the doll to

Trevarre. HE wants more than anything to rescue me, to

preserve his precious HONOR". She said this last word with

a sneer. "He will place the doll upon the altar, and I will be

free. And so will you. I swear it, by Nuitari."

"And what will happen to Trevarre?" Matya asked, as if

she didn't much care.

Ciri shrugged. "What does it matter? You and I will

have what we want."

"I'm curious, that's all," Matya said, shrugging.

"You'll find out anyway, I suppose," Ciri replied. "He

will take my place in the enchantment. He will be

imprisoned within Tambor even as I am now. He will not

suffer, however. I will see to it that HIS soul is destroyed.

The empty husk of his body will dwell here until the end of

all days." Ciri arched her eyebrow. "Are you satisfied?"

Matya nodded, her expression unchanging. "I'll need to

think this bargain over."

"Very well," Ciri said, annoyed, "but be swift about it. I

grow tired of waiting. Oh, and if you are thinking of

warning the knight, go ahead. He won't believe you." The

enchantress turned and stalked away, vanishing among the

ruins of the village.

 

*****

 

Matya retrieved the leather pouch with the doll from its

hiding place in her wagon and tied it to her belt. She sat for

a time on the wagon's bench, alone with her thoughts, then

finally made her way back to Ciri's cottage. Like all the

others, this building was in ruins. The roof was gone, and

two of the walls had fallen into a jumble of broken stone.

Trevarre had risen and was in the process of adjusting

the straps of his ornate armor. He looked up in surprise.

"Matya. I did not hear you open the door."

Matya bit her tongue to keep from telling him there

WAS no door.

"Have you seen Ciri this morning?" he asked. He ran a

hand through his lank brown hair.

"I saw her out in the village," Matya said, afraid to say

more.

"Is something wrong, Matya?" Trevarre asked her,

frowning.

Matya's hand crept to the leather purse. She could have

everything she had ever wanted, if she just gave Trevarre

the doll. He would take it. She knew he would. As unlikely

as Trevarre looked on the outside, the heart that beat in his

chest was a knight's, true and pure. He would break the

enchantment, and Ciri would be free. She had sworn her

oath by Nuitari - a vow no sorcerer could break. Matya

would be rich beyond her dreams. It would be the greatest

bargain Matya had ever struck.

Her hand reached into the pouch, brushing the smooth

porcelain. "I wanted to tell you . . ." She swallowed and

started over. "I just wanted to tell you, Trevarre . . "

"Go on," he said in his resonant voice, his pale eyes

regarding her seriously.

Matya saw kindness in his gaze, and, for one brief

moment, she almost imagined she saw something more -

admiration, affection.

Matya sighed. She could not do it. How could she live

with herself, knowing it was she who had silenced

Trevarre's noble voice forever? She could strike a bargain

for anything - anything but another's life. Belek had been

right. There were some bargains that weren't worth making.

"There IS something wrong," Matya blurted. "Something

terribly wrong." She told Trevarre of her conversation with

Ciri. "You see, we must leave - now!"

The knight shook his head.

"She is evil!" Matya protested.

"I cannot believe it, Matya."

"What?" she said in shock. Although Ciri had warned

her, Matya still was shocked. She had given up the greatest

bargain of her life, and now he claimed that he didn't

believe her? "But what reason would I have to lie to you,

Trevarre? Has her loveliness made a slave of you already?"

Her voice was bitter.

He held up a hand. "I did not say that I do not believe

you, Matya. I said that I cannot. I cannot believe evil of

another without proof." He sighed and paced about the

ruined cottage, which to his eyes still looked warm and

hospitable. "How can I explain it to you, Matya? It has to do

with the Measure I swore to uphold. Ciri sent out a plea for

help, and I have answered it. Yes, she is lovely, but that is

hardly the reason I cannot heed your warnings, Matya. She

has shown me nothing but courtesy. To leave without aiding

her would be a grave dishonor. And you know - "

"Yes, I know," Matya said harshly. " 'Your honor is

your life.' But what if she tried to harm you?"

"That would be different. Then I would know she is

evil. But she has not. Nothing has changed. I will help her

break the enchantment that keeps her here in this village if it

is at all in my power to do so."

Trevarre fastened his sword belt about his waist and

walked to the door of the ruined cottage. Before he stepped

outside, he laid a gentle hand upon Matya's arm. "I doubt

that it matters to you," he said hesitantly in his clear voice,

"but, to my eyes, you are every bit as lovely."

Before Matya could so much as open her mouth in

surprise, Trevarre was gone.

Matya stood in silence for a long moment, then muttered

angrily under her breath, "The Solamnic Knights aren't

fools. They're idiots!" She stamped out of the open doorway

after Trevarre.

Ciri was waiting for her.

"Do you have an answer for me, Matya?" Ciri asked in

her lilting voice.

Trevarre stood before the enchantress, the wind blowing

his cloak out behind him. He would not raise a hand against

her, Matya knew. What happened next was going to have to

be up to her.

"The answer is no, Ciri," Matya said calmly. "I won't

accept your bargain."

Ciri's eyes flashed, and the wind caught her dark hair,

flinging it wildly about her head. Anger touched her lovely

face. Trevarre, startled, fell back before her fury.

"That is a foolish decision, Matya," Ciri said, all pretext

of sweetness gone from her voice. "I will find another who

will break the enchantment for me. I'll have the doll back!

You both will die!"

The enchantress spread her arms wide, and the wind

whipped about. Dry dust stung Matya's face. Trevarre

looked around, shock on his face. The illusion had

vanished. The evil-looking ruins were laid bare and

undisguised.

Ciri spoke several strange, guttural words. Instantly the

swirling wind was filled with dead tree limbs and dry,

brown leaves. As Matya watched, the broken branches and

leaves began to clump together, growing denser, taking

shape.

"Trevarre, look out!" Matya cried out in terror.

The dead, brittle branches and dumps of rotting leaves

had taken the shape of a man. The tree creature was huge,

towering over the knight. It reached out a bark-covered arm

that ended in splintery claws. Its gigantic maw displayed

row upon row of jagged, thorny teeth.

Trevarre drew his sword, barely in time to block the

creature's swing. Branches and splinters flew in all

directions, but the knight stumbled beneath the blow. His

face blanched with pain; his wounded leg buckled beneath

him. He was too weak to fight such a monster, Matya

realized. One more blow and he would fall. Ciri watched

the battle with a look of cruel pleasure on her face. The tree

monster roared again, drawing back its arm for another

bone-crushing blow.

Matya drew the doll from the leather pouch and stared

at it. She hesitated for a moment, but the sight of Trevarre -

standing before the monster, his face grim and unafraid -

steeled her resolve. Regretfully, she bade her dreams of

wealth farewell. . . and hurled the doll at the altar.

Too late Ciri saw Matya's intent. The enchantress

shrieked in rage and reached out to catch the doll. Her

fingers closed on thin air.

The figurine struck the altar and shattered into a

thousand pale shards - dirty, broken bones. The wind died

as suddenly as it had started. The tree monster shuddered

and collapsed into a pile of inanimate wood and leaves.

Trevarre stumbled backward, leaning on his sword to keep

from falling. His face was ashen, his breathing hard.

"What have you done?" Ciri shrieked, her sapphire-blue

eyes wide with astonishment and horror.

"I've given you what you wanted," Matya cried.

"You're free now, Ciri. Just let Trevarre go. That's all I

ask."

Ciri shook her head, but her lips moved wordlessly

now. She took a few steps toward Matya, each one slower

than the last. Her movements had become strangely halting,

as if she were walking through water, not air. The

enchantress reached out a hand, but whether the gesture

was one of fury or supplication, Matya did not know.

Suddenly, Ciri shuddered and stood motionless. For a

moment, the figure of the enchantress stood there among

the ruins, as pale and perfect as a porcelain doll. Her eyes

glimmered like clear, soulless gems.

Then, even as Matya watched, a fine crack traced its

way across the smooth surface of Ciri's lovely face. More

cracks spread from it, snaking their way across Ciri's

cheeks, her throat, her arms. As if she had been fashioned

of porcelain herself, Ciri crumbled into a mound of

countless fragments, a heap of yellowed bones - all that

was left of the enchantress.

 

*****

 

The doves were singing their evening song when the

gaudily painted wagon bounced past the fallen remains of

the gigantic statues and turned eastward down the road,

heading toward the town of Garnet. Matya and Trevarre

had traveled in silence most of the way from the ruined

village of Tambor. The knight, still recovering from his

wounds, had slept the better part of the day. Matya was

content to occupy herself with her thoughts.

"You gave up your dreams to help me, didn't you,

Matya?" Trevarre asked.

Matya turned her head to see that the knight was

awake, stroking his mousy brown moustache thoughtfully.

"And what reward do you have to show for it?"

"Why, I have this," Matya said, gesturing to the

jeweled clasp she had pinned to her collar. "Besides, I can

always find new dreams. And I am certainly not ready to

give up bargaining. I'll make my fortune yet, you'll see."

Trevarre laughed, a sound like music. "I have no doubt

of that"

They were silent for a time, but then Matya spoke

softly. "You would do the same again, wouldn't you, if you

heard a call for help?"

Trevarre shrugged. "The Measure is not something I

can follow only when it suits me. It is my life, Matya, for

good or ill. It is what I am."

Matya nodded, as if this confirmed something for her.

"The tales are right then. The Knights of Solamnia ARE

little better than fools." She smiled mischievously. "But

there's one more bargain that must be struck."

"Which is?" Trevarre asked, raising an eyebrow.

"What are you going to give me in return for taking

you to Garnet?" Matya asked slyly.

"I'll give you five gold pieces," Trevarre said flatly.

"I'll not take less than fifty!" Matya replied, indignant.

"Fifty? Why, that's highway robbery," Trevarre

growled.

"All right," Matya said briskly. "I'm in a kindly mood,

so I'll make it twenty, but not one copper less."

Trevarre stroked his moustache

thoughtfully. "Very well. I will accept

your offer, Matya, but on one condition."

"Which is?" Matya asked, skeptical.

A smile touched Trevarre's lips. "You must allow

me this." He took Matya's hand, brought it

to his lips, and kissed it.

The bargain had been struck.

 

SEEKERS

 

TODD FAHNESTOCK

 

Gylar Radilan, of Lader's Knoll, set his mother's hand back onto her

chest, over the rumpled blanket. It was done then. Gylar wasn't sure

whether to be relieved or to crumple into the corner and cry. Finally,

though, it was done. Stepping back, he fell into the chair he'd put by

her bed, the chair he'd sat upon all night while holding her hand.

His head bowed for a moment as he thought about the

past few days. The Silent Death had swept through the

entire village, killing everyone. It had been impossible to

detect its coming. There were no early symptoms. One

minute, people were laughing and playing - like Lutha, the

girl he had known - and the next, they were in bed,

complaining weakly of the icy cold they felt, but burning to

the touch. Their skin darkened to a ghastly purple as they

coughed up thicker and thicker phlegm, and in a few hours

their bodies locked up as with rigor mortis.

Poor Lutha. Gylar swallowed and sniffed back tears.

She'd been the first one, the one who had brought about the

downfall of the village. Gylar could remember going with

her into the new marsh, the marsh that hadn't been there

before the world shook. People had told their children

repeatedly not to go in. They said it had all sorts of evils in

it, but that had never stopped Lutha. She'd never listened to

her parents much, and once she got something into her

head, there was no balking her. She'd had to know about

their tree, his and her tree.

Now she was dead. Now everyone was dead. Everyone,

of course, except Gylar. For some reason, he hadn't been

affected, or at least not yet. His parents had seemed to be

immune as well, until the day they collapsed in their beds,

shivering.

Gylar rose and crossed the room. He looked out the

window to the new day that was shining its light across the

hazy horizon and sifting down over the trees skirting the

new marsh. He clenched his teeth as a tear finally fell from

his eye. If it hadn't been for the marsh, none of this would

have happened! Lutha never would have brought the evil

back with her, and everyone would be okay. But, no, the

gods had thrown the fiery mountain. They'd cracked the

earth, and the warm water had come up from below, and

with it whatever had killed the town.

Gylar banged his small hand on the windowsill. Why

did they do it? The villagers all had been good people.

Paladine had been their patron; Gylar's mother had been

meticulously devoted to her god, teaching Gylar to be the

same. She had loved Paladine, more than anyone in the

village. Even after the Cataclysm, when everyone else

turned from the gods in scorn and hatred, Gylar's mother

continued her evening prayers with increasing earnestness.

What did she, of all people, do to deserve such punishment?

What did any of them do to deserve it? Was everyone on

Krynn going to die, then? Was that it?

Gylar was young, but he wasn't stupid. He'd heard his

parents talking about all the other awful things now

happening to people who'd survived the tremors and floods.

Didn't the gods care about mortals anymore?

Caught up in a slam of emotions, Gylar turned and ran

from the house. He ran to the edge of the new bog and

yelled up at the sky in his rage.

"Why? If you hate us so much, why'd you even make us

in the first place?"

Gylar collapsed to his knees with a sob. Why? It was

the only thing he could really think of to ask. It all hinged

on that. Why the Cataclysm? How could humans have been

evil enough to deserve this? How could anyone?

For a long moment he just slumped there, as though

some unseen chain were dragging at his neck, joining the

one already pulling at his heart. Gylar sniffled a little and

ran his forearm quickly across his nose.

Stumbling to his feet, he looked at the sky again.

Clouds were rolling in to obscure the sun, threatening a

storm. Gylar sighed. Although he had nowhere else to go,

he didn't want to stay in this place of death. His eyes swept

over Mount Phineous. The towering mountain still looked

over-poweringly out of place, like a sentinel sent by the

gods to watch over the low, hilly country. The top fourth of

it was swept by clouds. Another result of the Cataclysm, the

mountain seemed a counterpart of the new swamp. Brutal

and imposing, powerful, the towering rock was the opposite

of the silent, sneaky swamp of death.

His fatigue overcame his sadness and revulsion, at least

for the moment. Slowly, he made his way back to the house,

back to the dead house. Stopping in the doorway, Gylar

turned around to look at the land that was growing cold with

winter. It was likely going to snow today.

He turned and slammed the door shut behind him. It

didn't matter. Nothing much mattered anymore. His limbs

dragged at him heavily. Sleep, he thought, that's all. Sleep,

then, when I wake up - if I wake up - I'll figure out what to

do.

So, for the first time in three days, Gylar slept.

 

*****

 

Eyes focused on his prey, Marakion stilled his

breathing, though a haze of white drifted slowly from his

mouth. The scruffy man before him leaned heavily against

the tree, huffing frosty air as he tried to recover from the

run. Although exhausted, the man never once turned his

fearful eyes from Marakion.

"A merry chase, my friend," Marakion said in a voice

that was anything but merry. "Tell me what I wish to know.

This will end."

The man stared in disbelief. Marakion was barely winded.

The man gulped another breath and answered frantically, "I

told you! I never heard of no 'Knight-killer Marauders!'"

Marakion hovered over the thief, his eyes black and

impenetrable, his lip twitching, barely holding his rage in

check. The bare blade of his sword glimmered dully.

"Knightsbane Marauders," he rumbled in a low voice. The

scruffy man quivered under the smoldering anger. "You are

a brigand, just like them. You must know of them. Tell me

where they are."

"I told you!" The thief cringed against the tree. "I don't

know!"

In brutal silence, Marakion let loose his pent up rage.

One instant his sword, Glint, was at his side, and the next,

the flat of it smashed into the man's neck. The thief was so

surprised by the attack that he barely had time to blink. The

strike sent him reeling. Two more clubbing strokes dropped

him to the frosty earth, unconscious.

"Then you live," Marakion said, breathing a bit harder.

Leaning down, he searched the body thoroughly for the

insignia that gave his life burning purpose.

There was none to be found.

Furiously disappointed, he left the useless thug where

he lay and headed for the road.

The town that had been his destination before the small

band of ruffians had attacked him lay ahead. He had

searched all of the towns and outlying areas east of here,

only to come up empty-handed, forever empty-handed. But

this desolate area showed promise. Marakion was sure the

marauders were here. They had to be. During the last few

days, he'd come across numerous wretches like the one he'd

just felled. None of them belonged to the Knightsbane, but

their presence might be a sign that he was getting close to

their hideout.

It wasn't long before sparse trees gave way to a huge,

rolling meadow. On its edge stood a squat, dirty little town.

Marakion didn't even look twice at the ramshackle

buildings, the muddy, unkempt road, the muck-choked

stream. The sight of people living in such squalor was not

unusual to him, not unusual at all. In fact, this place was

better than some he'd seen.

The few people he saw as he followed the road to town

gave him quick, furtive glances from beneath ragged,

threadbare cowls. Marakion ignored them, made his way to

the first tavern he could spot.

He didn't even read the name as he entered. It didn't

matter to him where he was, and the names only depressed

him - new names, cynically indicative of the time, such as

"The Cataclysm's Hope," or old names, which the owners

hadn't bothered to change. Those were even worse, sporting

a cheerful concept of a world gone forever, their signs

dangling crookedly from broken chains or loose nails.

Marakion opened the door; it sagged on its hinges once

freed of the doorjamb. He pushed it shut, blocking out the

inner voice that continued to remind him how worthless life

was if everything was like this.

Marakion turned and surveyed the room, walked

forward to the bar that lined the far wall.

The innkeeper had smiled as Marakion had entered, but

now blanched nervously at sight of the hunter's stony face,

the dark, deliberate gaze.

"Uh, what can I do for you, stranger?"

"What do you have to eat this day, innkeep?"

"Fairly thick stew tonight. Mutton, if you've the

wealth."

"Bread?"

"Sure, stranger, fairly fresh, if you've the wealth."

Marakion did not return the man's feeble attempts to be

friendly. "A chunk of fresh bread and the stew." He tossed a

few coins on the bar. "I'll be at that table over there."

The innkeeper scooped the coins off the counter in one

movement. "I'm Griffort. You need anything, I'm the man to

talk to. I don't suppose you'll be staying for the night. Got a

couple of rooms open - "

"One room," Marakion interrupted, "for the night." He

left a stark pause in the air and waited.

"Uh, um, another of those coins'll do it," the unnerved

innkeeper stuttered.

Marakion paid the man and made his way to the table he'd

indicated. As he sat down, he touched his money pouch.

Not much left. A filthy inn, rotten food, a room likely

crawling with rats, and costing him as much as a night in

Palanthas - that was the type of world he was living in now.

The type of world he lived in now . . . Marakion put his

fingers to his face and massaged his eyes gently. He

couldn't make the memories go away. Even if he blocked

the images, the essence of them still came to him. He

couldn't seem to shut that out. It infected his every thought,

his every action.

He relaxed, and his muscles began to unknot from the

day's exercise. He could feel the pull of exhaustion on him.

His fingers continued to massage closed eyelids, and the

inn slowly drifted from his attention.

WHERE IS SHE, MARAKION? A familiar voice asked

the question again inside his head.

"I don't know. Nearby somewhere. I don't know," he

muttered.

THAT'S NOT GOOD ENOUGH, MARAKION.

WHERE IS SHE? WHERE?

"I'm looking, trying to find her!"

NOT GOOD ENOUGH, MARAKION. THERE CAN BE

NO EXCUSES. THEY'LL KILL HER, YOU KNOW. EVERY

DAY YOU FAIL TO FIND THEM IS ANOTHER DAY

THEY COULD KILL HER, OR USE HER.

"I know. I'll find them. If I have to rip apart this entire

continent. I will."

YOU'D BETTER.

The accusing voice drifted away, to be replaced by the

vision that haunted his nights when he slept and his waking

hours whenever he lost the concentration that kept it at bay.

 

*****

 

FIRE. FIRE AND SMOKE. THE FLAMES LICKED

THE TOP OF THE TOWER WINDOWS. THE SMOKE

SPIRALED UP FROM EVERY PART OF THE CASTLE,

BLACKENING THE SKY. DESPAIR WRENCHED AT

MARAKION'S HEART. HE HAD RETURNED HOME IN

TIME TO SEE IT FALL TO THE HANDS OF A

PILLAGING GROUP OF BRIGANDS.

HIS HORSE SLIPPED ON THE COBBLESTONES THAT

LED INTO THE CASTLE. HE YANKED BRUTALLY ON

THE REINS, PULLING THE GALLOPING ANIMAL TO A

STOP. THE HORSE ALMOST STUMBLED TO ITS

KNEES. MARAKION LEAPT FROM ITS BACK AND

RACED INTO THE CASTLE GARDENS. THEY WERE

TRAMPLED, DESTROYED, BURNED.

"MARISSA!" HE SHOUTED ABOVE THE

CRACKLING FLAMES AND TEARING, RENDING

SOUNDS OF DESTRUCTION THAT CAME FROM

WITHIN THE CASTLE PROPER. "TAGOR! BESS!" HE

WAS ACROSS THE GARDEN IN A HEARTBEAT AND

RAN THROUGH THE ENTRYWAY. THE GREAT

DOUBLE DOORS LAY BROKEN AND SCATTERED ON

THE FLOOR. THE HUGE FOYER WAS DESTROYED, A

SHAMBLES, A MOCKERY OF ITS ORIGINAL

GRANDEUR. ONE SCRUFFY-BEARDED RUFFIAN

STOOD GUARD AT THE ENTRANCE.

THE MARAUDER CHARGED. HE HAD

DETERMINATION AND PURPOSE IN HIS EYES;

MARAKION HAD MURDER. RAGE FUELED MARAKION'S

SWORD ARM, FEAR FOR HIS FAMILY

INFUSING HIS BODY WITH UNCANNY SPEED. HE

SMASHED THE INVADER'S SWORD ASIDE AND

DELIVERED A VICIOUS RETURN STROKE AT THE

HEAD.

THE MARAUDER DUCKED UNDER THE

POWERFUL ATTACK AND SLIPPED A CUT AT

MARAKION'S MIDRIFF. MARAKION PARRIED,

STEPPED INSIDE THE INVADER'S GUARD, AND RAN

HIM THROUGH.

THE INVADER FELL AND GASPED AS HIS LIFE

SEEPED AWAY. MARAKION PUT HIS FOOT ON THE

MAN'S CHEST AND KICKED VIOLENTLY, FREEING HIS

BLADE. THE DYING MAN'S SCREAMS ENDED BY THE

TIME MARAKION REACHED THE TOP OF THE LEFT-

HAND STAIRS.

"MARISSA!"

MARAKION RACED TO HIS YOUNGER SISTER'S

ROOM, THE FIRST ROOM ON THE SECOND LEVEL.

SHE WAS NOT THERE, BUT, AS WITH THE FOYER,

HER ROOM WAS CAST INTO DISARRAY - BOOKS

THROWN ON THE FLOOR, THE BED A SMOLDERING

PILE OF BURNED SHEETS, STRAW, AND WOOD. NEXT

TO THE BURNING MASS LAY A PIECE OF CLOTH. HE

RECOGNIZED IT, GRABBED IT: A SCRAP OF HER

DRESS, THE LAVENDER DRESS SHE ALWAYS WORE

FOR HIS HOMECOMING. A SPATTERING OF BLOOD

TAINTED THE REMNANT.

"MARISSA!" HE YELLED IN IMPOTENT RAGE. HIS

SIXTEEN-YEAR-OLD SISTER, HIS BEST FRIEND, SO

BRIGHT, SO ALIVE . . . MARAKION UTTERED A

STRANGLED CRY, CLUTCHED THE CLOTH IN HIS

FIST. . . .

 

*****

 

"Sir?"

Sir . . . ?

"Sir, are you asleep?"

Marakion started awake as the hand touched him. He

was disoriented, thought he was still there, still back at his

burned and devastated home. His hand reacted to the touch

with the quickness of a snake. Snatching the thin wrist, he

held it tightly. There was a gasp of pain. Marakion stared

hard, trying to focus his eyes.

Marissa?

The eyes of the woman were wide, and she was frozen

where she stood.

Marakion's harsh stare did not relent, but his grip lost

some of its steel. No, not Marissa, a barmaid, just a

barmaid.

"What?" he asked shortly, releasing the woman's wrist.

Her hair was a dirty red, and as unkempt as the plain,

rumpled brown dress she wore.

She appraised him coolly with shrewish eyes. "Griffort

wants to know if you want pepper in your stew."

"Fine," Marakion said, "that's fine."

"I'll tell him," she said curtly, and left.

Marakion slowly withdrew something from his tunic.

Unfolding it, he laid the piece of lavender cloth out in front

of him. It was worn, faded; dark brown spots stained it.

Closing his eyes, Marakion pressed the cloth against his

cheek.

"Marissa. . . ."

 

*****

 

The following morning dawned cold and unpleasant. It

was snowing. As Marakion shouldered his pack and tied on

his cloak, he stared out the window in his room and thought

that today would be the day he found the marauders. Today

would be the day he found where the scum holed up.

Griffort was wiping down the bar, looked up to see him.

"Morning, sir," he said. "Breakfast for you today? I

might be able to scrape together some eggs, if you've the

wealth for 'em."

"No. I'm leaving."

Griffort nodded. "Which way you headed?"

"West."

Griffort's face darkened, and he motioned Marakion

closer. The innkeeper spoke in a low voice, "You want a

copper's worth of free advice?"

Marakion nodded for him to continue.

"Don't go west, at least not straight west. Skirt Mount

Phineous if you can. Evil things going on up there."

Marakion was interested. "How so?"

"Lader's Knoll." The innkeeper shook his head. "We

used to have an arrangement with a farmer up there in

Lader's Knoll. Taters don't grow down here, as well as

other stuff Bartus likes for his cooking, so we'd swap bread

and the like for vegetables and such - but I can see you're

not into long stories, so I'll cut it short. One day, the farmer

stopped bringing his wagon down. I sent one of the town

boys to Lader's Knoll to see what had happened. The kid

never came back. Something bad's going on up there,

stranger - " Griffort stopped at the sight of Marakion's

smile.

"Perfect," Marakion said. "Does the name 'Knightsbane

Marauders' mean anything to you? Have you heard of

them?"

The disconcerted innkeeper shook his head slowly.

"No."

Marakion stared at him hard, then turned and left the

inn. Behind him he heard the innkeeper's comment to the

barmaid: "Must'a got his noggin cracked somewhere.

World's full of crazies nowadays."

 

*****

 

Gylar awoke the next morning in a better mood. He'd

slept all the previous day and all night. His confusion and

fear were replaced by purpose. He wanted to know why the

gods killed everyone, why they allowed people like his

mother, and like Lutha, to die needlessly. Well, he would

ask them.

The question turned over again and again in his head as he

buried his mother next to the rest of his family. The snow

fell lightly on him and the ground at which he worked. It

was almost as though the skies knew Gylar didn't want to

look at the village anymore.

When his mother was resting with his little brother and

father, Gylar went back inside the house.

He closed the door on the storm outside, went to his

father's room, and pulled down the pack he'd kept on the

wall, the pack Gylar had seen his father use countless times

when they'd gone hunting together. A brief wash of

memories splashed over Gylar. He sniffled and ran a sleeve

across his nose.

Turning his thoughts to more immediate tasks, Gylar

took the pack into the kitchen. He collected some food

suited to traveling, a good kitchen knife, a spoon, and a

small pot. Gylar looked about for anything else he might

need. A bedroll, he thought. He went to his room, stripped

the woolen blanket off the bed, and rolled it up, tied it onto

his father's already laden pack.

He put on a thick cloak and pulled the pack to the door.

The snowfall had sheathed the ground in white. Mount Phineous

was hidden in the distance, but its presence still

loomed in Gylar's mind. What better place to contact the

gods than from the top of their latest creation?

He adjusted his cloak more snugly, threw the heavy

pack over his shoulder. It unsteadied him for a moment, but

he regained his balance and thrust an arm through the

remaining strap, securing the burden. He turned and looked

one last time at what once had been his home. Gylar said

nothing, bowed his head, and began walking toward the

great mountain.

 

*****

 

Marakion watched as the young boy, bundled to the

teeth, left Lader's Knoll.

"Off on a journey, are we?" he said quietly from the

shadow of a wall. "And just where are you going, little

looter?"

Marakion had been in the small village for about half an

hour, and he hadn't seen a living being. His disappointment

was acute. He'd assumed that Lader's Knoll was the

marauders' camp. It was perfect, a desolate place; all those

within traveling distance were scared to visit.

But instead of seedy shacks full of murderers and

cutthroats, he'd found fresh graves or, sometimes, a few

bodies, sleeping the slumber of the dead. The gaunt faces

were a faint purple, and dried blood covered their lips.

Another false trail. His frustration was painful almost

beyond bearing. He wandered the town in search of some

sign, any sign that this had been the hideout of the

marauders, but it appeared that the only curse to take up

residence in this town was a plague.

"There's your evil, Griffort," he'd muttered.

He'd been about to start off from the devastated village

when he'd seen a door to one of the houses open. He slid

from view behind one of the nearby buildings.

With a quick-beating heart and silenced breathing,

Marakion watched the boy leave the village. "Well, well.

Looting the dead, eh? Where are your cohorts, Marauder?

Or did they just send you to scout the area?"

Marakion exulted in his discovery. The boy was headed

toward Mount Phineous! Marakion berated himself for not

thinking of it before. What better place for a band of

brigands than a Cataclysm-spawned, uninhabited mountain?

Marakion detached himself from the shadow of the

house and followed. He was not about to reveal himself to

his guide, at least not until the sanctuary was found.

"I'm coming, Marissa," he whispered as he fell into a

loping stride behind his prey.

 

*****

 

Occasionally during the trek up the mountain, the boy

turned to look at the sky, or at how far he'd separated

himself from the village. The ever alert Marakion moved

skillfully into a nearby copse of trees, ducked behind an

outcropping of rock or shrubbery. It wasn't difficult for

Marakion to remain hidden from the youngster's view. The

cloud cover made the terrain gloomy, and the falling snow

decreased visibility dramatically.

It was afternoon when the boy first stopped. After

extracting a few things from his pack, he dumped it on the

ground, sat on it, and began eating.

Marakion watched from just over a small hillock, built

up by a tremendous snowdrift, then settled down to a meal

of his own, consisting of some strips of dried rabbit.

The snow stopped falling sometime before noon, and

the afternoon opened up clear and bright, making

Marakion's stalking much more difficult, but not

impossible. He smiled. It wouldn't be long now.

While tearing at the rough meat with his teeth,

Marakion studied the youngling with interest. The boy was

not very large; Marakion guessed him at about eleven or

twelve years old. He looked innocent enough, sitting there,

chomping on his lunch, not much like a sneak-thief. But,

no, he was one of them - a messenger, maybe, or a

pickpocket. He had to be.

Marakion's teeth fought the dried meat for another bite.

He gauged the size of the mountain. It was not the biggest

he'd seen, but impressive in its own right.

Marakion turned his attention back to the boy. He

wasn't going anywhere for the moment. Obviously he'd

settled down for a long rest. Marakion set his excellent

hearing to guard and hunkered down comfortably.

Relaxing, he slipped into a light drowse, waiting for the

boy to make the next move. He was startled back to wake-

fulness. His ears caught a crunching sound from up the

mountain. Rolling to his feet, he peered over the drift.

The boy had heard the sound, too. He scrambled

upright. The bramble-breaking noise grew louder. Marakion

tensed his body, relaxed his mind, letting it disappear,

allowing the energy to flow. This was it. This must be some

rendezvous point. The entire band, maybe! He was ready.

But the boy did not run into the trees to welcome a gang

of murderers. He did not call a greeting to comrades.

Instead, he let out a fearful yell and, stumbling over himself,

began running down the hill. Marakion stared curiously into

the trees to see what was following.

A huge ogre burst from the foliage. Sallow and crusty-

skinned, the ogre charged forward with long, quick strides.

Wet brambles and a few straggling pine needles showered

off the creature as it ran, sending snow flying in a blinding

flurry.

Marakion cursed as he watched the ogre closing on the

boy. The damned ogre was ruining everything! Scaring off

Marakion's guide, the ogre might kill the boy before

Marakion could question him!

 

*****

 

Gylar's heart beat against his rib cage like a

woodpecker. The snow impeded every step of his short

legs, while the ogre's strides cleared the terrain as though it

were midsummer ground. It was just a matter of time.

Gylar gulped for air as he struggled onward. His mind had

gone numb, and all he could think of was escape. He'd

heard stories about what ogres did to children. . . .

Just at the height of his despair, when the ogre loomed

over him, casting a nightlike shadow that engulfed Gylar,

the strap of his pack slipped off his shoulder.

If Gylar had been thinking straight, he'd have

abandoned his pack and kept going, but he reflexively hung

onto it as it scraped the snow. Too late, he realized his

error. The momentum of his flight sent him sprawling, then

tumbling down the hill. He careened into a snowbank in a

fluff of white.

The massive arm of the ogre plunged into the snow,

groped around, then plucked out a struggling Gylar. The

ogre's craggy mouth split like a crack in a tree's bark,

revealing a fairly complete row of sharp teeth as dingy

yellow as the ogre's mottled skin.

 

*****

 

Twenty feet away, Marakion leaned against a tree,

listening. A shimmer ran the length of Glint.

The ogre chuckled at the boy as it began to walk home.

"Glad came," the ogre said, with a thick, grating accent.

"Hungry, me. We eat, I and you." The ogre chuckled again,

sounded like someone scraping rough rocks together. "Take

home you to me. Dinner, we have - "

"Not today." Marakion said clearly in the frosty air as the

two walked past the tree he stood behind. The ogre took one

look at Marakion and dropped the boy into the snow with a

snarl.

But Marakion was on the ogre before it could even

raise its arms in defense. Marakion kicked out, struck the

ogre in the knee, swung the Hat end of Glint into the side of

the ogre's head.

The creature went down in a tumble of arms and snow.

Marakion stood ready as the ogre surged onto its feet. It

was calm, imposing.

"Leave, friend. The boy is under my protection. If you

have any wits at all, you'll seek food elsewhere. Surely

catching a deer could not be as much trouble as this little

one will cost you."

The ogre growled, flexing its muscles under its rough

yellow skin, but it did not take a step forward. It was

accustomed to fearful enemies, not one facing it with

confidence. The ogre showed its teeth viciously. "Hungry.

Food mine. You leave."

"Not on your life." Marakion smiled, his stance

immobile. It felt good to fight, for whatever reason. The

despair, the frustration, the hopelessness - all disappeared

when Marakion went into combat. "You leave, or we fight.

If you insist, I must say I'm really in the mood for the

battle. Is it worth it?"

The ogre stood swaying back and forth, wondering,

perhaps, what it was that made this human brave enough to

challenge it. It showed its teeth again. "Hungry!" it

growled, clenching and unclenching its clawed fists

anxiously.

Marakion's eyes narrowed. "Times are hard for all of

us, friend. Everyone's got - "

Marakion didn't have time to finish his sentence. The

ogre - a madness in its eyes, daws extended - charged the

knight.

Having thought he was actually having some effect

with his words, Marakion was surprised by the sudden

onslaught. Quick reflexes moved him to the side of the

hulking swing that cracked a tree trunk behind him.

Marakion slid under the ogre's arm and dodged behind the

yellow giant. His sword flashed out, slashing once, twice on

the ogre's back. Blood welled from cuts, a muted crack

sounded. Broken bone, Marakion realized. The ogre roared

in pain, struck out with its huge fist. Yellow-fleshed arm

bone and steel whacked together harshly, and the ogre

howled again.

Another huge yellow hand came down. Marakion didn't

have enough leverage to sidestep. The jagged claws raked

his left side. He grabbed hold of the forearm and slammed

Glint's pommel into the ogre's left eye. A follow-up strike

cracked into the side of the bark-skinned head. The ogre

reeled backward, stunned. Marakion hit it again and again.

Snow exploded outward as the huge body fell heavily to

the ground. Jumping forward, Marakion hovered over the

ogre like a dark angel, clenching Glint tightly in his fist. His

breathing was hard and quick. He stared down at the ogre,

waiting for it to rise again, waiting for it to attack.

The ogre didn't rise, though the eyes fluttered open.

Marakion raised his finely honed arm, preparing to end the

creature's life, then he paused. The rough yellow hide was

pulled tight over the protrusion of the creature's ribs; the

bloody, bruised face was gaunt. The ogre's muscles were

thin, hunger-wasted.

Marakion lowered Glint. The ogre struggled sluggishly

to get up, only to fail and plunge back into the snow. It

raised its arms a bit in a feeble attempt to ward off another

blow - one that never descended.

This wasn't a monster, Marakion thought, just another

creature devastated by the Cataclysm, whose life had been

turned upside down, ruined, like his own. The ogre was just

trying to survive. Marakion wondered what lengths he

would go to if he were starving. Definitely he wouldn't be

above eating ogre flesh.

Marakion noticed the young boy watching his

deliberation.

"Go on," the man said harshly to the ogre. "I gave you

one chance. This is your second. You won't get a third."

The emaciated ogre finally made it to its feet. Its unswollen

eye gave one final, hungry look at Gylar, then it turned

and limped slowly into the woods from which it had come,

blood drops dotting its tracks.

Marakion's brow furrowed. Sheathing Glint, he turned

to face the boy.

"What's your name?" Marakion asked harshly.

The boy looked dazed, still recovering from shock and

fright. "Uh, Gylar, sir. I... Thanks," he tacked on lamely.

"You shouldn't be out here alone. Ogres might not be

the worst you'll find. I hear there's a dangerous band of

brigands in these hills."

Marakion watched for some reaction. Gylar's face gave

no telltale signs of anything but relief.

"I - I'm on a quest, and . . . Who are you?" Gylar

couldn't contain his curiosity any longer. "What are you

doing up on the mountain here? My village is the only one

for miles."

Marakion noted the honest innocence in the boy's face,

and he cursed again, silently.

"I do a bit of traveling. Just passing through, really." He

paused and looked at Gylar closely once more. He began to

doubt again. The boy might be a cunning liar.

"Tell you what, kid. Looks like we both need to rest a

little." He touched his raked side gingerly. "What do you

say to putting your quest on hold and setting up camp? I

saw a cave, over there a ways.... When we get a good fire

going, you can tell me all about it."

Gylar smiled and nodded.

 

*****

 

"I went with Lutha. I knew she wasn't supposed to go in

there. Mom had told me about the evil in the new marsh,

and Lutha's parents had told the same thing to her. But

Lutha wasn't afraid. You see, there was something we'd put

in an old tree before the marsh came, before the Cataclysm

and Mount Phineous. A couple of necklaces we made out of

leather and wooden disks." Gylar's mouth became a straight

line, and his brow furrowed.

The warm fire popped and crackled, illuminating

Marakion's intent face and the makeshift bandages that he

was wrapping slowly around his middle.

Gylar sighed and continued, "She was always doing

stuff like that. Anyway, the marsh wasn't really scary, just

wet and mucky. The only thing that happened was that

Lutha fell down in the water once.

"But Mom was real mad when I got back. She knew

where we'd been. I guess the smell of the marsh and my

wet boots gave us away. Anyway, I snuck out of the house

later, when Mom was down at the stream washing and Dad

was chopping wood. I went to see Lutha.

"I didn't knock at the door, because her parents were

probably just as mad at her as mine were at me. Instead, I

went around back and looked in the bedroom window.

Lutha was in there and she was shivering real bad. And her

face was real red. That was the first time I saw the sickness

on somebody. Lutha was the first. . . ."

Gylar tossed a twig into the fire. "I didn't see Lutha

again." He wiped his nose. "The day after that, it was the

talk of the village. Lutha had died of a strange sickness.

Then her parents died. No one knew how to stop the

sickness. Everybody went into their houses and didn't come

out, but it didn't matter. I'm not sure who died after that,

because Dad closed us up in our house, too. When Rahf

died, my little brother, Mom said it didn't matter anymore

that we stayed in the house."

Gylar sighed again. "It was awful. Hardly anyone was

alive in the village when we came out. We went from door

to door, looking for people. Everyone was in their beds,

shaking with the fever or already dead. I wanted to leave.

Since we hadn't caught it yet, I told Mom we should run

away from it. She shook her head and didn't answer me.

We helped those who had it. We took care of them, but it

didn't matter, just like staying in the house didn't matter

anymore. They were going to die, but Mom said we could

help them. I know now she didn't mean help them live, but

help them to die better. I guess . . .

"Then Dad died." Gylar's voice was subdued. He shook

his head; his cheeks were wet. "He went just like everyone

else, shivering but so hot. I didn't want. . ."

His eyes focused again on Marakion. "He was one of the

last ones to go, then it was my mother. When she died, I felt

so alone, so alone and numb. I could touch something, like

the blanket, or - or her hand, and I wouldn't really feel it. I

had to go. I had to get out."

Gylar looked intently at Marakion. "Why did the gods

do it, sir? I just don't understand. Why did they have to kill

so many people? It doesn't make sense. We didn't do

anything! We just lived. We worshiped Paladine. But Krynn

was still cracked, and then the new marsh rose and Lutha

caught the sickness and now everyone . . . everyone I ever

knew is dead." He bowed his head.

Then his mouth set defiantly and his brows came

together in anger. "And so I'm going to ask them. I want

them to answer just one question. Why? Why did they do it

to everyone? What did we do wrong?"

Marakion smiled. "Supposing the gods even respond,

they might drop another mountain on you."

"I don't care," Gylar said petulantly, gathering his

blanket around him and resting his head on his pack. "I

don't care if they do. If they do, they don't care about us and

it won't matter. But. . . but I will ask." He yawned. "I will

ask HIM . . . Paladine."

Gylar fell asleep. Marakion gazed at the young face.

The flame's light played off the round, boyish features that

would not fade for several years yet. Marakion sighed aloud

this time. Watching the boy tell his story, the knight had

realized Gylar was indeed no marauder's lackey. He actually

was what he claimed: a simple country boy in search of

divine answers.

Gylar's story made Marakion think of all the things he'd

lost because of the Cataclysm. If the gods had not dropped

the fiery mountain, his home would not have been attacked.

"You're right, Gylar," he said to the sleeping boy.

"Paladine should be confronted, asked . . ." Marakion's iron

doors creaked open. "So much like Tagor," he said to

himself. "A victim, like Tagor. I wonder what will happen

to you?"

Flames and smoke danced in the fire inside his head.

Very much like Tagor. WHAT WILL HAPPEN TO YOU?

 

*****

 

SCREAMS. CLANGING STEEL. THE SOUNDS OF BATTLE.

THE CRY OF HIS YOUNGER BROTHER.

"I'M COMING, TAGOR!" MARAKION SHOUTED FROM

MARISSA'S DESTROYED BEDROOM.

THE YELL HAD SOUNDED FROM DOWN THE HALL.

MARAKION PROPELLED HIMSELF TOWARD IT. THE LIBRARY!

TAGOR WAS TRAPPED IN THE LIBRARY.

MARAKION SLAMMED THROUGH THE DOOR WITH THE

FORCE OF A BATTERING RAM. HE KNOCKED ONE OF THE

INVADERS TO THE FLOOR. HIS SWORD TOOK OUT ANOTHER.

FIVE MORE WAITED. TAGOR STOOD ON TOP OF A TABLE

IN THE COMER, FIGHTING OFF THE MEN WHO WERE

HARASSING HIM. THE TEASING GRINS THEY WORE TURNED

TO SCOWLS WHEN MARAKION ENTERED.

"THE KNIGHT! KEEP HIM THERE!" A THICK-BEARDED

MAN YELLED. "I'LL FINISH THIS YOUNG ONE OFF."

MARAKION SHOVED HIS FALLEN FOE AWAY AND

SLAMMED INTO THE NEXT, TRYING DESPERATELY TO COME

TO THE AID OF HIS YOUNGER BROTHER, BUT HIS NEW

OPPONENT WAS A SKILLED SWORDSMAN, NOT A BRAWLER.

MARAKION SLASHED INSANELY AT THE MAN'S GUARD,

TRYING AT THE SAME TIME TO SEE TAGOR.

PERCHED ON THE STUDYING TABLE, WIELDING THEIR

FATHER'S SWORD, TAGOR DELIVERED A WICKED SLASH TO

THE BEARDED MAN, OPENING UP HIS FOREHEAD. HE WAS

HOLDING HIS OWN MOMENTARILY, BUT THAT WOULDN'T

LAST LONG. ALTHOUGH TAGOR WAS A FINE SWORDSMAN

FOR FIFTEEN, HE WAS NO MATCH FOR THE BRIGANDS'

STRENGTH, OR THEIR NUMBERS.

MARAKION LET OUT A ROAR. "BASTARDS! LEAVE HIM

ALONE! FIGHT ME!"

TAGOR TWISTED SIDEWAYS, SCREAMED. A SWORD

SLASHED THROUGH HIS LEG. HE STUMBLED TO THE EDGE

OF THE TABLE AND LOST HIS FOOTING, CRASHED TO THE

FLOOR BELOW.

MARAKION BASHED THROUGH THE SWORDSMAN'S

GUARD, SENT THE MAN'S HAND SPINNING FROM HIS WRIST

IN A TRAIL OF BLOOD.

MARAKION RAN FORWARD. THERE WERE THREE LEFT.

TWO CHARGED HIM AND KEPT HIM FROM HIS BROTHER.

THE THIRD . . . THE THIRD WAS CLUBBING . . . CLUBBING A

BODY ON THE FLOOR.

"TAGOR!"

 

*****

 

Marakion started, beat the vision down into the recesses

of his memory. Breathing hard, he closed his eyes. Think of

NOW, only of NOW. Forget Tagor. Forget all of it.

He sat still for long moments, trying to forget, holding

his breath with gritted teeth, but the pent up air hissed out

slowly in a shudder. Marakion crumpled and sobbed. "Tagor ..."

 

*****

 

MARAKION BEAT HIS WAY THROUGH THOSE THREE

MARAUDERS, KILLED THEM ALL. HE KNELT AT TAGOR'S SIDE.

"THEY CAME . . . FROM THE NORTH. . . . THEY TOOK

MARISSA. THEY CALLED THEMSELVES THE KNIGHTSBANE,

MARAKION. . . . THE KNIGHTS - KNIGHTSBANE. WHY,

MARAKION? . . . WHY?"

IT WAS HIS LAST WORD, THEN HE DIED.

 

*****

 

Marakion's cheeks were wet with tears. He turned and

gazed down at another brave youth.

Yes, why?

"I hope you get your answer, kid. I really do. There's

quite a few questions I'd like to ask Paladine myself."

Marakion turned his face heavenward and focused on the

constellation of the platinum dragon, high above. "At least a

few."

 

*****

 

Marakion came out of a reverie that had slipped into a

doze. The fire was dwindling. Blinking his eyes, he picked

up a couple of sticks and tossed them on, poking at the

embers to stir the flames up again. After he'd tended the fire

and stoked it for the night, he turned to adjust his bedding

for sleep when he heard Gylar give a low moan. Marakion

hurried to the young boy's side.

Gylar shuddered a little, his eyes moving under shut lids,

as he huddled deeper into his blanket. He shivered again,

turned over, pulled the covers closer about him. Marakion

pulled his cloak off and draped it over the boy.

Beneath the double cover, Gylar still quaked. Marakion

moved his hand to the boy's forehead.

It was as hot as fire to the touch.

Marakion closed his eyes. "What will happen to you?"

He repeated his thought of earlier in the evening. "Yeah,

that's what, same as everyone else. It doesn't matter what

you've already suffered. It's not enough yet, is it? It's never

enough."

Marakion lay awake, staring silently at the cave's

ceiling, for a long, long time. He could not sleep with the

anger that burned through him as hotly as the fever now

burned through Gylar's body. The brutal injustice galled

him.

"I'm going to take you to the top, kid. It's not going to

end like this, not without a fight. No, not without an answer.

By my dead brother, I swear you'll get to ask your

question."

He turned over and tried to go to sleep, but it wasn't

until morning that exhaustion closed those eyes that were

very tired of looking at the world.

 

*****

 

The morning broke, warm and sunny. A few clouds

drifted through the sky, but gave no threat of any type of

storm. Snow gathered on tree limbs, slipped heavily from

leaves, as the warmth of the day melted it. Pine needles

shrugged off sheets of snow and rustled as they adjusted to

their newfound freedom from winter's blanket.

Marakion stood at the cave's entrance. Nature was

adapting to the freak warmth of the winter's day. The snow

on the ground was glazed with a sheen of wet sparkles.

Everything was adapting - everything except Gylar.

The sickness moved fast once the fever started. Gylar

had slept late into the morning without knowing it, and

Marakion had not come to a decision about waking him

yet. As he stood there, though, he could hear the boy

coming to.

He scuffed a groove into the wet snow. Casting a scathing

glance heavenward, he turned and made his way back into

the small cave.

Marakion stopped a half-dozen paces from the boy. Gylar

knew what was happening to him. Maybe he'd realized

it in the middle of the night - the fear was on his face - but

the fear was held at bay by determination.

Gylar looked up. The boy tried to manage a smile, but

failed. Tears stood in his eyes. Marakion wanted to say

something, some word of comfort, but he knew if he tried

to talk, it would come out choked.

"I have it, Marakion."

I know, Marakion spoke in a voice with no sound.

Clearing his throat, he said again, "I know."

"I'm going to die." The boy's eyes were wide. They

blinked once, twice.

Marakion nodded and lowered his gaze, his boots again

scuffing a trench in the dirt floor. "Yeah," he said.

A different kind of fear entered Gylar's voice.

"Marakion, you have to leave me, now. You have to go."

His teeth chattered. Closing his mouth, he tried again. "You

might have it already, but. . . but maybe not. You have to

go."

Marakion knelt beside Gylar. The man smiled. "You

want to try to make me, kid?"

Gylar was puzzled. "No . . ." His brows furrowed in

confusion. "Make you? No, but, Marakion, if you don't

leave - "

"I'm staying."

"But, sir, I told you what happened to - "

Marakion shrugged. "Do you want to make it to the top

of this mountain?"

"Yes."

"Then I'm staying."

Gylar started to protest, but Marakion cut him off with

a motion of his hand. "You've got heart, I'll give you that,

but you aren't going to make the summit without me." He

smiled expansively. "Even if you try."

Gylar nodded, wanned by the smile. Marakion

suddenly reached out, held the small boy close.

"I'm afraid, Marakion," Gylar whispered, his shaking

hands clinging tenaciously.

"I know" The man patted the small back. "I know."

"But it's all right." Gylar sniffed and let go. Running a

sleeve across his nose, he smiled with effort and looked up

at Marakion. "I just want to make it to the top, before . . .

well, before . . ." He gulped. "I just want to make it there,

that's all."

"Yeah." Marakion took a deep breath. "You will, I

promise." Standing, he extended his hand. "Let's go, kid."

Gylar grabbed it, and they began again.

The cave they'd spent the night in was near a natural

groove - almost like a trail - worn in the side of the

mountain. Once the groove ended, the terrain became

exceedingly precarious. More than once, Gylar slipped, and

only Marakion's quick reflexes and strength saved the boy.

About three hours after midday, Gylar stumbled and

had a hard time getting to his feet again.

"I'm sorry, Marakion," he said, shivering as he tried to

stand up once more. "It's - It's just so cold. I can't seem to

make my legs work right."

Marakion helped him to his feet. "You sure you want to

keep going, kid?"

"Yes. I - I have to." Shakily, Gylar moved forward

again.

By evening, Marakion had to carry him.

 

*****

 

A few hours after nightfall, Marakion gently set the boy

down in the snow at the summit of Mount Phineous.

Lunitari was a thin crimson slash in the sky. Solinari was

full and bright; it bathed them in a sparkling wash. The

untouched snow looked like flawless, molten silver that had

been poured over the top of the mountain and had hardened

there. The only thing that marred the icy, detached beauty

was a straggling trail gouged up the mountainside, a trail

that led to the two solitary figures who had reached their

destination.

The stars shone brightly from all around. Marakion's

cloak, wrapped around the boy, furled and straightened

softly in the breeze. His heavy breathing plumed out white

in front of his face.

"Here . . ." Gylar said in a whisper. He nodded, with a

smile. "Yes, this is perfect, so perfect."

Marakion swallowed hard and knelt next to Gylar. He

spread a blanket and moved the boy onto it, then covered

him with his own bedroll, trying to make him as warm as

possible.

"Let me be alone now, Marakion." Gylar whispered, "I

want to call Paladine. It's time for me to call him."

Marakion nodded, slowly rose from his kneeling

position, and walked a distance away. He scuffed the snow

with his boot, wondering again about this whole thing.

For an hour, Marakion walked about in the cold. He

turned to watch Gylar from time to time. He could see the

boy's mouth move, hear him talking to the skies.

Another hour passed, this time in silence. Nothing

answered Gylar's feeble summons. Marakion tromped

about, fuming. He knew he shouldn't have expected an

answer, but suddenly he was furious that none was coming.

After a time, Marakion realized the boy was beckoning

weakly to him. The man was instantly at the boy's side.

Gylar's flesh was almost completely wasted away. The

effect of the fever over such a short time was astounding.

But there was a smile on the boy's face. "Marakion ..." He

could barely speak.

Marakion leaned forward. "Yes, Gylar."

Gylar shook his head. "Paladine's not coming. He's not

even going to - " The boy was cut off by a coughing fit.

"He's not even going to drop a mountain on me, Marakion."

Gylar set a shaky hand on Marakion's forearm.

"Remember the ogre, Marakion? I was s-so scared. It was

going to eat me. You remember?"

Marakion nodded.

"You let it go, Marakion," Gylar whispered. "You said

for it to choose something else, a deer or something. You

said it had made the wrong choice. It didn't believe you, and

you beat it up, but you let it go. You forgave it, Marakion.

You forgave it for being itself. It didn't realize what it was

doing."

Marakion swallowed a lump in this throat. Gylar closed

his eyes. His hand still gripped the warrior's arm.

"Maybe Paladine didn't either, Marakion. Maybe he still

doesn't. B - But that's okay. I forgive him. It's okay. I

forgive them all. . . ."

Gylar's grip went slack on Marakion's arm. Marakion

grappled for the hand and caught hold as it started to slip

off. Squeezing his eyes shut, he bowed his head.

"Damn!" was all he said.

 

*****

 

Hours later, Marakion stood next to a grave he'd had to

fight the cold earth and snow to dig. His hands were

blistered; Glint was caked in dirt.

Marakion did not speak a eulogy. Everything had

already been said. Who would he speak words of comfort

to, anyway? The only ones able to hear on this distant,

isolated mountaintop were the gods, and they hadn't

listened. This boy, alone, beneath the frosted, snow-swept

ground, could pardon a god for his mistake, though that one

mistake had destroyed everything Gylar had held dear.

Marakion adjusted the clasp at the neck of his cloak and

pulled the edges together. He took a last look at the sky

from the summit of Mount Phineous.

"Somebody learned something from your show of godly

power. HE forgives you."

Marakion slowly began his descent down the mountain,

continuing on his own hopeless quest.

"Revel in it, Paladine, because, by the Abyss, I don't."

 

NO GODS, NO HEROES

 

NICK O'DONOHOE

 

The road was blocked just over the crest of the hill. The ambush was

nicely planned. Graym, leading the horses, hadn't seen the warriors

until his group was headed downhill, and there was no room to turn the

cart around on the narrow, wheel-rutted path that served as a road.

Graym looked at their scarred faces, their battered, mis-

matched, scavenged armor, and their swords. He smiled at

them. "You lot are good thinkers, I can tell. You can't

protect yourselves too well these days." He gestured at the

cart and its cargo. "Would you like a drink of ale?"

The armored man looked them over carefully. Graym

said, "I'll do the honors, sir. That skinny, gawking teenager

- that's Jarek. The man behind him, in manacles and a chain,

is our prisoner, name of Darll. Behind him - those two

fierce-looking ones, are Fenris and Fanris, the Wolf

brothers. Myself, I'm Graym. I'm the leader - being the

oldest and" - he patted his middle-aged belly, chuckling -

"the heaviest." He bowed as much as his belly woud let

him.

The lead man nodded. "It's them."

His companions stepped forward, spreading out. The

right wing man, flanking Graym, swung his sword.

Darll pulled his hands apart and caught the sword on

his chain. Sparks flew, but the chain held. Clasping his

hands back together, he swung the looped chain like a club.

It thunked into an armored helmet, and the wearer dropped

straight to the ground soundlessly.

Jarek raised his fist, gave a battle cry. The Wolf

brothers, with their own battle cry - which sounded

suspiciously like yelps of panic - dived under the ale cart,

both trying unsuccessfully to wedge themselves behind the

same wheel.

The cart tipped, toppling the heavy barrels. The horses

broke their harnesses and charged through the fight. A

cascade of barrels thundered into the midst of the fray. One

attacker lay still, moaning.

That left four. Darll kicked one still-rolling barrel, sent

it smashing into two of the attackers, then leapt at a third,

who was groping for his dropped sword. Darll kicked the

sword away, lifted one of the barrel hoops over the man's

head. The attacker raised his arms to defend himself, neatly

catching them in the hoop. Darll slammed him in the face

with his fist.

Jarek yelled, "Yaaa!" and threw a rock at the leader.

The rock struck the man, knocked him into Darll's reach.

Darll whipped his chain around the man's throat,

throttling him. Hearing a noise behind him, Darll let the

man drop and spun around.

Two of the others were crawling to their knees. Darll

kicked one and faced the other, prepared to fight.

A hoarse voice cried, "No!"

The leader was gasping and massaging his throat.

"Leave them. Let Skorm Bonelover get them," he told his

men.

The attackers limped away, carrying their two

unconscious comrades.

It was suddenly very quiet. The Wolf brothers, still

under the cart, were staring at Darll in awe. Jarek - a second

rock cradled in his hand - was gazing at the fighter with

open-mouthed admiration. Graym took a step toward Darll,

glanced at the fleeing attackers, and stepped away again.

"Six men," Graym said. "Six trained men-at-arms,

beaten by a man in chains."

"It'll make one helluva song," Darll said acidly. "I

suppose I'm still your prisoner?"

After a moment's thought, Graym nodded. "Right, then.

Let's reload the barrels."

Graym and Jarek tipped the cart back upright and propped

a barrel behind the rear wheel. The first barrel was easy to

load. Too easy. Graym handled it by himself. He stared at it

in surprise, then worked to load the second.

The third barrel was on, then suddenly and

inexplicably it was rolling off.

The Wolf brothers, working on top, grabbed frantically

and missed. The barrel slid down the tilted cart. Darll fell

back. Jarek, standing in the barrel's path, stared up at it with

his mouth open.

For a fat middle-aged man, Graym could move

quickly. He slammed into Jarek, and both went sprawling.

The barrel crashed onto a rock and bounced off, spraying

foam sideways before it came to rest, punctured end up.

Graym, unfortunately, came to rest on top of Jarek.

Darll, manacles clanging, pulled Graym to his feet.

"You all right?"

"Fine, sir, fine." Graym felt his ribs and arms for

breakage.

"Pity," Darll grunted. "What about you, boy?" He bent

down and helped Jarek up. "If you only hurt your head,

we're in luck."

Jarek wheezed and gasped.

"He'll be fine," Graym said, slapping Jarek's shoulder.

Jarek collapsed again, and Graym helped him up again.

"Probably do us both good. Exercise new muscles."

"Try thinking. That should exercise a new muscle for

you." Darll looked down at their feet. Foam was seeping

quickly into the ground. The smell of ale was

overpowering.

Graym followed his glance. "Only another loss," he

said cheerfully. "Crisis of transport, sir. Part of business."

He and Jarek limped over to the broken barrel.

Jarek, still wheezing, managed to say, "I'm sorry,

Graym. You said 'Stop pushing when I say now,' and that

was when you said 'now,' so then I thought you meant

'now.' "

"Don't you feel bad at all, boy." Graym looked at the

damp rock and the damp soil below it. "This'll drive the

price up when we reach Krinneor. Supply and demand."

He added, struck by it, "Makes the other kegs worth

more."

He finished, convinced, "Best thing that could happen,

really."

Graym shook Jarek's limp hand. "Thank you for upping

profits. A bold move - not one I'd have made - but worth it

in the long run."

Jarek smiled proudly. Darll snorted.

The Wolf brothers looked down from the perch on top

of the cart. "Want us to roll another off?" Fenris asked

eagerly.

"Say when," Fanris added.

Graym shook his head. "Let's take inventory first."

The Wolf brothers slid cautiously off the wagon. They

looked (and claimed) to be several years older than Jarek,

but no one would ever know their real age until one of them

washed, which was hardly likely. From their narrow beetle-

browed eyes to their black boots, they looked wickedly

dangerous.

A songbird whistled, and the two jumped and crouched

low behind the wagon wheel.

"Don't crawl underneath," Graym pleaded. "That's how

you tipped it the last time. It's all right now. The bad men

are gone. And they weren't that bad, once we got their

weapons away from them."

"We? WE?" Darll demanded.

"I helped," Jarek said proudly. "I threw a rock at one.

You did most of it," he added honestly. "But you should

have. You're supposed to be a great mercenary."

"I'm SUPPOSED to be your prisoner" Darll said

bitingly.

Graym put a hand on Darll's shoulder. "Don't take it so

hard, sir. You're the Bailey of Sarem's prisoner. We're just

transporting you to Krinneor." He patted Darll. "Think of

us as company."

"I think of you," Darll said bitterly, "the way I'd think

of the underside of an owlbear's - "

"I'm going to be a mercenary like you someday," Jarek

broke in.

Fenris came out from behind the wagon wheel. He

looked worried. "Did you hear what that man said just

before running off?"

"You mean the part about 'Let Skorm Bonelover take

them'?" Fanris finished nervously. "I heard it. What does it

mean? Who's Skorm Bonelover?"

Graym was checking the fallen barrel. "An idle threat.

Poor man, I don't think he was happy." He examined the

sprung staves.

"You may be a cooper," Darll said, "but you can't mend

that."

Graym felt along the keg sides, skilled hands finding

the sprung barrel stave. "Not on the road," he said

reluctantly. "And it's over half full still."

The Wolf brothers edged forward hopefully. "Be a

shame to let it go to waste, Fan."

"Right again, Fen."

Jarek, rubbing his head, looked meaningfully at the

bung-puller stored inside the cart.

"Half a keg of Skull-Splitter Premium. Well . . ."

Graym sighed loudly, then smiled. "Not a bad place to

camp."

 

*****

 

They waited until nightfall to light the fire, so no one

would see the smoke. They hung a shield of blankets around

the fire to hide the light. Both were Darll's idea. Graym saw

no need for such precautions, but was willing to humor him.

The sunset was blood red, like every one had been since

the Cataclysm.

Graym sipped at the bowl of Skull-Splitter and said, to

no one in particular, "Life is attitude - good or bad." He

waved an arm at the desolate landscape. "What do you

see?"

Darll grunted. "What else? Disaster. Broken trees,

clogged streams, fallen buildings, and a godsforsaken

broken road rougher than a troll's - "

"That's your problem, sir." Graym thumped Darll's

back. "You see disaster. I see opportunity. Look here." He

traced a map in the dirt. "See this road?"

He looked up and realized that Darll - ale rolling in his

mouth, eyes shut to savor the flavor - wasn't seeing

anything. "Excuse me, sir, but do you see the road?"

"The road from Goodlund to Krinneor," Jarek breathed

reverently.

"Right. And do you know what's ahead?"

Darll opened his eyes. "Nothing. The end of the world."

Graym downed an entire bowl of Skull-Splitter, wiped

his lips on his sleeve, and smiled genially. "Maybe it is, sir,

but I say" - he waved the empty dipper for emphasis - "if

I'm going to see the end of the world, I should see it with a

positive attitude." He gazed up at the sky. "I mean, look at

the world now. No gods, no heroes." He sighed loudly and

happily. "It makes a man feel fresh."

"We were heroes this afternoon," Jarek objected, "me

and Darll. We whipped those bastards."

"Now, now," Graym said admonishingly. "You hardly

knew them, Jarek. Don't speak ill of people just because

they tried to kill you."

Darll agreed. "Other than being the usual low, sorry

sort of lowlifes you find in these parts, they weren't bad at

all. They were bounty hunters." He eyed Graym

suspiciously.

"Seems an unfriendly way to make a living," Graym

said. He scratched his head, belched, and settled back.

"Inventory," he announced.

The others suddenly looked nervous. "Will we have to

sign for things?" Jarek asked. "I hate that."

Graym shook his head. "Nah, nah. This is just counting,

and remembering" - he took another sip of ale - "and

history. We started with nine barrels. Remember the

loading? We pushed them on from all sides, and they

shifted when we started rolling."

Fenris nudged his brother. "And one rolled away and

smashed on Dog Street."

Fanris kicked him. "I couldn't hold it. It was hard to

see, it being dark and all."

Darll's eyes opened. "You loaded in the dark? For the

love of Paladine, why?"

Jarek said reasonably, "We didn't want to be seen."

Darll laughed, a short bark. "No wonder the horses ran

off. They didn't even know you, did they? You stole them!

AND the cart, I'll wager."

"Jem and Renny, poor flighty nags. They never liked

us," Graym said sadly. "Well, that's one barrel. Eight left."

"There was the barrel on the bridge," Jarek offered, "out

side of town."

"We'd picked up Darll, and he was putting up a fight - "

"That's right, blame me." Darll glared at them all. "I

only wanted to leap off at the bridge."

"And hit us," Fenris said.

"And kill us," Fanris added, hurt.

"And hit and kill you," Darll agreed. "I did fairly well,

for being hung over."

"You might have drowned, sir," Graym said. "That

wouldn't do when you're in our charge, would it?"

"He hit me," Jarek said, rubbing his head.

"And me," Fen said.

"And me," Fan added.

Darll settled back. "Stop whining. I didn't kill you." His

scowl, fierce under his salt-and-pepper beard, seemed to

add an unspoken "yet."

After a short silence, Graym continued. "One of the

barrels dropped into Mirk River, leaving seven. After that,

we didn't lose a one - not in the Black Rain, not in the Dry

Lands, not in the swamps. We can be proud of that."

Jarek squared his shoulders. The Wolf brothers grinned,

exposing teeth best left hidden.

Graym went on. "And today we beat back a better-

trained force - "

"Any force would be better trained," Darll muttered.

"That's harsh, sir. We won through strategy - "

"Luck."

"Or luck, but not," Graym said sadly, "without

casualties. We smashed two barrels, a major loss." He

stared, brooding, into the fire.

Jarek counted on his fingers twice, then said proudly. "I

know! I know! That leaves six barrels - "

"Yes. Five full barrels," Graym said. He walked

unsteadily to the wagon. "And one other" He thumped it

three times, pausing to let it echo. "One . . . empty . . .

barrel."

The others ducked their heads, avoided his eyes. "It

leaked," Darll said, shrugging.

Graym rocked the barrel back and forth and ran his

hands around it. "Bone dry. No water marks, no foam

flecks."

"Ghosts." Jarek looked solemn.

Graym snorted. "Ever seen a drunk ghost?"

Since none of them had seen a ghost of any sort, drunk

or sober, they all shook their heads reluctantly.

"Might have been magic," Fenris said.

"True enough," Fanris said quickly.

Graym wiped the mud off the barrel end to expose a

second, cleverly hidden bunghole. He felt in the comer of

the wagon and pulled out a second tap. "And which one of

you," he said firmly, "was the mage?"

He folded his arms. "Now, I know it's been a long,

hard, dusty trip. A man gets thirsty. And you've all known

me as long as you've worn dry pants. I'm not a hard man."

"You're a soft man," Darll said, but wouldn't look him

in the eye.

"I'm a forgiving man."

"Hah! If you were, you'd let me go, but no - "

"It's a matter of principle, sir," Graym said firmly.

"And the money," Jarek reminded him.

"And the money, of course."

"Tenpiece," Darll said bitterly. "Took me straight from

the Bailey of Sarem with a promise and a bag of tenpiece."

"Plus twenty when we get to Krinneor," Fen said.

"When we hand you up," Fan said.

"Thirtypiece." Darll shook his head. "The best fighter in

Goodlund, second or third best in Istar, carted off to prison

for thirtypiece."

"But enough prologuizing." Graym was swaying on his

feet. "I can't stand a fella who prologuizes all the time. Let's

say I'm forgiving and let it go at that. And, now, I'm going

to ask who's been sneaking ale while I wasn't looking. I

expect an honest answer. Who was it?"

Jarek raised one hand.

The Wolf brothers each raised a hand.

Graym looked at them in silence.

Darll raised a hand, his chains pulling the other after it.

After a long pause, Graym sighed. "Good to have it out

in the open at last. Better to be honest with each other, I

say."

" 'True thieves best rob false owners,' " Darll muttered.

"I've always thought that a fine saying, sir," Graym said.

"Witty, yet simple. But I don't see it applying here."

Darll shook his head.

"Still and all," Graym continued, "we've done well.

Three months on the road, and we've four barrels left." He

shook a finger at the others. "No sneaking drinks from here.

We'll need it all at the end of the road in Krinneor."

Jarek said eagerly, "Tell us about Krinneor, Graym."

"What? Again?"

"Please!"

Jarek wasn't alone. Fen and Fan begged to hear the

story, and even Darll settled, resignedly, to listen.

Graym picked up a bowl and took a deep swig of Skull-

Splitter. "I've told you this night after night, day after day -

in the Black Rains, when the dust clouds came through, and

in the afterquakes, and when we'd spent a long day dragging

this wagon over flood-boils, potholes, and heaved-up rock

on the road. And now you say you're not tired of it." He

looked at them fondly. "I'm not either.

"Back in Sarem, I was nobody. Every town needs a

cooper, but they don't care about him. They buy his barrels

and leave. And I'd watch them, and I'd know they were off -

to fill the barrels, travel up roads, and sell their stock."

Jarek leaned forward. "The city, tell us about the city!"

"I'm coming to that." Graym loved this part. "Every time

a stranger came down the road, I'd ask him where he'd been.

And he'd talk about Tarsis by the sea, or the temples of Xak

Tsaroth, and one even showed me a machine from Mount

Nevermind, where the gnomes live. The machine didn't

work, of course, but it was a lovely little thing, all gears and

sprockets and wires.

"But one and all, dusty from the road and tired from

travel, told me about Krinneor, and the more I heard, the

more I wanted to see it." Graym's eyes shone. "Golden

towers! Marble doors! And excellent drains." He looked at

them all earnestly. "I hear that's very important for a city."

They nodded. Graym went on. "After the Claychasm - "

"Cataclysm," Darll snapped.

"Cataclysm, thank you, sir. I keep forgetting. After that

night, when the ground shook and the western sky was all

fire, people were frightened. They quit buying barrels,

saying that trade was too risky. That's when I realized that

no one was coming down the road from Krinneor, and no

one was going there."

He tapped the bowl of Skull-Splitter, which he had

emptied again. "And that's when I realized there was no

more good Sarem ale going from Sarem to Krinneor. The

poor beggars there would be as dry as a sand pit in no time.

"So I made these." He thumped the broken barrel,

refilled the bowl from it. "Extra thick staves, double-

caulked, double-banded. Bungs four fingers deep. Heads of

the last vallenwoods in stock this far west. Harder than any

man has seen. I spent everything I had making them, then

borrowed from you all to finish them. And when the bailey

heard we were going, he asked me to take you, sir, to the

Bailey of Krinneor for safekeeping." He nodded

respectfully to Darll.

"For prison, you fat fool," Darll said. "I can't believe I

let a man like that capture me, especially after I beat the

town soldiery. A scrawny, bald-headed, weak-armed man

with no more strength in him than in a dead dwarf's left - "

"You wouldn't have if you hadn't been drunk," Jarek

pointed out. He looked at Darll admiringly. "Single-handed,

and you beat them all. If you hadn't been drunk - "

Graym interrupted. "And I hope it serves to remind you,

sir, that ale is not only a blessing, but can also be a curse,

and not to be taken lightly." He downed the bowl of Skull-

Splitter. "Back to my story. I took you, sir, and the tenpiece

from the bailey - "

"Then we got the ale," Jarek said. "And the horses," Fen

and Fan said together. "Without paying for them," Darll

finished. "And I gathered victuals and water and spare

clothes and knapsacks, and off we set" - Graym pointed to

the east - "down the long, dangerous road! Facing

hardship! Facing hunger and thirst..." He broke off. "Not as

much thirst as I thought, apparently, but some thirst. Facing

the unknown! Facing a ruined world! And for what?" He

looked around at the watching faces. "I ask you, for what?"

Jarek blinked. "For Krinneor."

"True enough. For the golden spires, the marble towers,

the excellent drains, and the fortunes that made them. Think

of it!" Graym waved an arm unsteadily. "A city with all the

gold you can dream of, and nothing to drink. And us with a

cart full." He glanced to one side. "A cart HALF full of the

best ale left in the world!"

"Our fortunes are made. We can ask what we want for

it, and they'll pay twice what we ask. One barrel of Sarem

ale will be worth the world to them, and five barrels leaves

us one apiece."

Darll looked up, startled. "You're counting me?"

"You did your share on the road, sir," Graym said.

"Each of us gets profits from one barrel of ale. And, if we're

all clever - " he looked at Jarek and amended hastily, " - or

at least if we stick together, we get exclusive Sarem trade

rights to Krinneor. We'll have all the food we want, and

houses."

"And a sword?" Jarek asked eagerly. "I've always

wanted a sword. My mother wouldn't let me have anything

sharp."

Graym smiled at him. "And a sword. And maybe a

quick parole for friend Darll, and a tavern for me to run - "

"And a woman for me," Fenris said firmly.

"And me," Fanris echoed.

Graym scratched his head, looked dubious.

"Right," Darll said. "I'm sure that somewhere in

Krinneor there's a pair of dirty, nearsighted women with no

self-respect left."

The Wolf brothers brightened considerably.

 

*****

 

By late night, the blanket screens were down and they'd

piled wood on to make a man-high flame. The Wolf

brothers were singing a duet about a bald woman who'd

broken the heart of a barber, and Darll was weeping.

"You 'member," he said, his arm around Graym,

"'member when the bounty hunters attacked, and I saved

us?"

"You did well, sir," said Graym.

Darll snuffled. "I was going to run off, but then I

remembered you had the keys to the manacles."

Graym patted his pocket. "Still do, sir."

Darll, tears running down both cheeks, wiped his nose.

"You know that when you free me, I'm going to kill you."

Graym patted Darll's shoulder. "Anybody would, sir"

Darll nodded, wept, belched, tried to say something

more, and fell asleep sitting up.

Graym lay down, rolled over on his back, and stared at

the stars. They were faint in the dusty air, but to Graym they

shone a little clearer every night. "I used to be afraid of

them," he said comfortably to himself. "They used to be

gods. Now they're just stars."

 

*****

 

When the sun came up the next morning, it rose with

what Graym heard as an ear-splitting crack.

He opened one eye as little as possible, then struggled

to his feet. "Isn't life an amazing thing?" he said shakily to

himself. "If you'd told me yesterday that every hair on my

head could hurt, I wouldn't have believed you."

Fenris stared out at the dusty field nearby and quavered,

"What's that terrible noise?"

Graym looked where Fenris was pointing and found the

source. "Butterflies."

Fenris nodded - a mistake. His eyes rolled back in his

head and he fell over with a thud. Fanris, beside him,

whimpered at the sound of the impact.

Graym, moving as silently as possible, crept over to

Darll, shook him by the shoulder. Darll's manacles rattled.

Darll flinched and opened two remarkably red eyes. "If

I live," he murmured fuzzily, "I'm going to kill you."

Graym sighed and rubbed his own head. "I thought you

already had, sir."

 

*****

 

By midmorning, they were back on the road and near the

first rank of western hills. Graym, pulling the cart along

with Darll, was almost glad they had lost so many barrels.

The wagon lurched to a stop at every rock in the road . . .

and there were many rocks.

At least the companions were feeling better. Skull-

Splitter's effect, though true to its name, wore off quickly.

Jarek was humming to himself, trying to remember the

Wolf brothers' song of the night before. Darll, after

swearing at him in strained tones for some time, was now

correcting him on the melody and humming along.

Fenris, perched on the cart, yelled, "Trouble ahead!"

Fanris gazed, quivered. "Are they dangerous?"

Darll grated his teeth. "Kender! I hate the nasty little

things. Kill 'em all. Keep 'em away. They'll rob you blind

and giggle the whole time."

Graym looked up from watching the rutted road. Before

he knew what was happening, he was surrounded by

kender: eager, energetic, and pawing through their

belongings. The kender had a sizable bundle of their own,

pulled on a travois, but the bundle changed shape

ominously.

"Ho! Ha!" Darll swung two-handed at them, trying to

make good on his threat to kill them all. They skipped and

ducked, ignoring the length of chain that whistled

murderously over their heads.

"Here now, little fellers," Graym said, holding his pack

above his head. "Stay down! Good morning!" He smiled at

them and skipped back and forth to keep his pack out of

reach, and he seemed like a giant kender himself.

One of the kender, taller than the others and dressed in

a brown robe with the hood clipped off, smiled back. "Good

morning. Where are we?"

"You're in Goodlund, halfway to Sarem if you started

from just west of Kendermore." Graym snatched a forked

stick from the hands of the tall kender - who didn't seem to

mind - and hung his pack from it, lifted it over his head.

"Where are you going?"

"Oh, around." The tall kender took a forked stick from

one of the others, who didn't seem to mind either. "East,

mostly." He spun the stick, making a loud whistle. "Do you

know, the gods told me that the world's greatest disaster

would happen in a land to the west? Only it didn't."

"What are you talking about?" Graym looked openly

astonished. 'The Catcollision?"

"Cataclysm!" Darll snarled.

"Cataclysm, thank you, sir. I keep forgetting." Graym

turned back to the kender. "All that happened in the east,

you know."

"I know," the kender said, and sighed. "The gods lied to

me. They did it to save our lives - we were going west to

see the run - but still, a lie's a lie." He fingered the torn

collar of his cleric's robe. "So we don't believe in the gods

anymore."

"Good enough," Graym said, brightening. "Smashed the

world, didn't they? We're well rid of that lot."

"But they did save our lives," Fenris pointed out.

"From horrible deaths," Fanris added, "like being

smashed."

"Or squished, Fan."

The tall kender shrugged. "You miss a lot, worrying

about things like that. Say, what's that smell?" His nose

wrinkled.

"Dirt, mostly," Jarek said.

The Wolf brothers scowled. "It's a perfectly natural

smell," Graym said. "Strong, but natural." He smiled down

at the kender. "My name's Graym."

The kender smiled back. "Tarli Half-kender. Half man,

half kender."

Graym looked startled, then shrugged. "Well, I'm

liberal-minded."

He offered his hand, taking care to keep his pack and

pockets out of reach. But at a shout from Jarek, Graym

whipped his head around.

"Here now! Off the cart. Mind the barrels." His

knapsack fell from the stick.

Tarli caught the pack nimbly, flipped it over once in his

deft fingers, and passed it to Graym, who was surprised that

a kender would return anything. "Thank you," he said to

Tarli, but his mind was on the kender falling and climbing

all over the cart. The barrels, three times their size, wobbled

dangerously. "Don't they know they could be killed?"

Tarli looked puzzled. "I don't think it would make much

difference. Like I said, you can't worry about things like

that, like Skorm Bonelover, coming from the east."

"Who?" The name sounded vaguely familiar to

Graym's still-fuddled mind.

"Skorm," Tarli said helpfully, "the Fearmaker, the

Crusher of Joy."

"Oh, THAT Skorm. You know him, do you?"

"Only by reputation. Everyone's talking about him."

Tarli looked to the east. "Well, we'd better keep going if we

want to meet up with him." He put two fingers into his

mouth and whistled.

The crowd of kender scrambled off the cart and

scampered down the road again, pulling the travois behind

them. To Graym's watchful eyes, their pockets seemed

fuller, and their bundle of supplies seemed larger, but there

was nothing he could do about it.

"Cunning little things." Graym watched the kender

running happily away. "Good attitudes, the lot of them. You

can't keep them down."

"I'll try," Darll grated, "if you'll let me go." He held out

his manacled hands.

"Ah!" Graym reached into his pack. "Can't do that, sir,

but I could give your arms a rest while we're dragging the

cart. You promise not to run off, sir?

He vaguely remembered Darll's saying something last

night that should make Graym nervous, but dragging the

cart was hard work, and Darll deserved a reward.

Darll looked sly. "Word of honor." He braced his feet

for a quick start and smiled at Graym.

The Wolf brothers ducked under the cart. Even Jarek

looked suspicious.

"Right, then." Graym fumbled in the pack, then reached

into his left pocket. . .

Then checked his right breeches pocket, his hood, and

his jacket.. .

Then stared at the departing kender. He looked back at

Darll's impatient face. "Life," he said thoughtfully, "can be

funny, sir . . ."

When Darll understood, he shook both fists at the

kender and swore until he was panting like a runner.

 

*****

 

Darll and Graym started off again. They grabbed the

crosspiece of the wagon tongue, braced their feet in the dirt,

and pulled. The wagon rolled forward quickly. Graym

dropped the crosspiece.

"That was too easy. Jarek?"

Jarek hopped into the cart and counted loudly. "One,

two, three, four - "

After a pause, Graym said, "And?"

"That's all," Jarek said.

Graym stared, disbelieving, at the distant dust cloud of

the departing kender. "They walked off with a BARREL?"

"Cunning little things," Fenris said.

"Industrious, too," Fanris said.

Jarek finished the inventory. Finally he hopped down

and announced, "They got the barrel of Throat's Ease lager,

our spare clothes - "

Graym laughed. "Picture one of those little fellows

trying to wear my canvas breeches 1"

"And most of the food."

Graym fell silent.

"So we make it to Krinneor in one night or go hungry,"

Darll said.

"We can do it," Graym said confidently. Landmarks

weren't hard to read, but he had often discussed the road -

wistfully - with merchants buying barrels and casks.

"There's this hill, and one little town, and a valley, then, and

a downhill run from there to Krinneor."

"And prison for me. and a forced march to get there,"

Darll said gruffly. "I'd be running away free, and you'd be -

" He looked at Graym sharply. "I'd be gone if it weren't for

those nasty, little, pointy-eared thieves."

Graym said gruffly, "You ought not to criticize others,

sir. Not to drag up the past, but you've done worse."

Darll glared at him. "That wasn't a fair trial. The bailey

wanted blood, and he got it."

"Of course, he wanted blood. You hurt his dignity. You

had only a sword, and you half-killed ten soldiers armed

with spears, maces, and swords."

Darll objected. "When I half-kill ten men, I leave only

five left alive. I beat them badly, but that wasn't the charge

against me, anyway, unless you count resisting arrest."

"True enough, sir," Graym said agreeably. "You

scarpered the town treasury and then nicked a hay wagon."

"Nice way to put it. A real sophisticate, you are."

"Assault, theft, intoxication, breaking and entering,

reckless endangerment, incitement to stampede, vandalism,

arson." He paused. "That's the lot, isn't it, sir?"

"Still and all," Darll said stubbornly, "it WAS a first offense."

"First offense?" Graym gaped. "From you, sir?"

"Well, for this sort of crime."

Graym shook his head. "You tell your side of it well,

sir, but I have a contract."

"It's the money, then."

"No, sir." Graym shook his head violently. "I gave a

promise. Even if I persuaded the others to agree to forfeit

the twentypiece we have coming, I'd still be unable -

outstanding warrant and all - to go back to Sarem and return

the ten - " He felt in his pocket. . . .

He sighed, didn't bother feeling in his other pockets.

Darll, watching his face, smiled. "Cunning little

things."

"Thrifty, too," Graym muttered.

 

*****

 

By midday, they had reached the top of the first large

hill - low and rocky, with a fault crack running across it.

Jarek, scouting ahead for the easiest route for the cart on the

broken road, returned, announcing, "People coming." Fen

said fearfully, "What if they're robbers?" Fan added, "Or

maybe they're the bounty hunters." The Wolf brothers

edged toward the back of the cart. Graym grabbed their

shirts, pulled them back. He then wiped his hands on his

own shirt. "Wait till we've seen them, at least."

He edged to the top of the hill and peered over the top. A

group of humans was walking toward them - townsfolk,

seemingly, coming from the small knot of cottages standing

on the road.

Graym retreated below the crest of the hill, reported

what he'd seen. "We can't run, and there's no place to hide.

Best we go forward and be friendly. Folks like that."

Jarek looked dubious. "They might rob us."

"Not of much."

"Or we might rob them. Are they rich?"

"I didn't grow up with 'em," Graym retorted. "How

should I know?"

Jarek dug in the dirt with his boot. "Well, if they are,

and we robbed them, then we'd be better off, right?"

Graym considered. "Now that's an idea. We rob from

the rich. And then . . ."

"And then what?" Jarek asked.

"Can't rob from the poor," Fenris said.

"No future in it," Fanris agreed.

Jarek objected, "There's more poor people than rich

people. Easier to find."

"Ah, but they don't have as much, do they?"

"Now that's telling him what, Fen."

"Thank you, Fan."

Darll said firmly, "You're not robbing these people."

Graym wasn't too keen on robbing, but he thought Darll

was being a bit bossy, for a prisoner, even if he was a

mercenary. "And why not, sir?"

Darll shook his head wearily. "Because they have us

surrounded."

While they had been talking, the townspeople had

encircled the hill and closed ranks. They approached

silently. There were thirty or forty of them, dressed in

ragged, ill-fitting clothes. Several wore robes.

Graym looked around at the circle of men and women.

"Good to sec so many of you here to greet us." He waved an

arm. "I'd offer a drink, but we're running short."

A robed and hooded figure came forward. The robe was

too long, clearly borrowed, and had been dyed a neutral

color. "I am Rhael," said the person. "I am the elder."

The voice was strong and dear, strangely high. Graym

said dubiously, "Are you sure? You sound kinda young for

an elder."

"Quite sure." The woman pulled back her hood and

shook her hair free of it.

Darll snorted. "Who are you all?"

"I am Rhael. These are my people. We come from the

village of Graveside."

Darll asked, "A law-abiding village?"

She nodded.

"Good." He raised his manacled hands. "Arrest these

fools and free me."

"Arrest them? Why?"

"Because they're crooks."

"What have they done?"

"What haven't they? Theft, resisting arrest, drunk and

disorderly plenty of times, drunk but not disorderly at least

once, sober and disorderly a few times - "

Rhael seemed impressed. "What are they like as

fighters?"

Terrible," Darll said truthfully. "Awful to watch. You

can't imagine."

"Brutal?"

"That man - " Darll pointed to Graym - "drove off a

band of bounty hunters, with only me in chains to help

him."

"That one . . ." He pointed to Jarek. "He nearly killed a

man with one blow." More or less true, counting a thrown

rock as a blow.

"And those two . . . ?"

Darll glanced at the Wolf brothers, who waited eagerly

to hear what he could say about them.

"Well, just look at them," Darll said.

The folk of Graveside looked them up and down. The

Wolf brothers did look dangerous, both as criminals and as

a health risk.

Darll held out his arms, waiting for his release.

Rhael walked straight up to Graym. "Would you be

willing to lead an army?"

Darll choked. Graym's mouth sagged open.

"We need brave men like you," Rhael said. "We're

facing a scourge."

One of the elders quavered, "A terrible scourge!"

"I didn't think it would be a nice scourge," Darll muttered.

"His name," Rhael lowered her voice, "is Skorm Bone-

lover."

"Not his given name, I take it, Miss?" Graym said.

"He is also called the Sorrow of Huma, the Dark Lady's

Liege Man, the Teeth of Death, the Grave of Hope - "

"I've always wanted a nickname," Fen said wistfully.

"We've had some," Fan reminded him.

"Not ones we've always wanted, Fan."

"True enough, Fen." He sighed.

Darll said, suddenly interested, "Don't you people have

any fighters, or a bailey or something?"

They all looked sorrowful. "Gone, gone," one said.

"Killed?" Graym said sympathetically.

Rhael shook her head. "The Protector came to me one

morning and warned me about the coming of Skorm. A

stranger had come in the night and told him, said that he had

already fled before Skorm's army. The Protector said the

only sensible thing to do was flee, leaving all our things

behind, so that Skorm would stay and plunder instead of

pursuing us."

Graym frowned. "This Protector wasn't much of an

optimist."

"He was terrified," Rhael said. "He said that Skorm

would drink the blood of one victim, only to spit it in the

face of another. He said Skorm once bit through the arm of

a warrior and stood chewing on it in front of him. He said -

"

"Never mind," Graym said hastily. His stomach had

been wobbly all day. "Where is this scourge?" He looked

around fearfully. "Not with you, I take it."

"He and his troops are camped in the bone yard - "

"Picturesque," Graym murmured, approving.

"In the Valley of Death, beyond Graveside. There are

more than a hundred of them now. Every dawn," Rhael said

with a voice like death, "we see more warriors standing by

Skorm's tents. Every day his troops increase."

Graym turned to his companions. "And you all told me

no one was hiring. It was nothing but a necessary market

downturn, and you call it a Catechism."

"Cataclysm," Darll hissed.

"Right you are, sir." Graym turned to Rhael. "And, now,

young elder ... I can't get used to that, by the way. Why are

you an elder, Miss?"

"Elders aren't chosen because they are old," a man next

to her, quite old himself, explained. "We are chosen because

each of us represents one of the elder virtues."

"And what," Graym asked, feeling his ears turning red,

"is Miss Rhael's virtue?"

"Elder Rhael embodies fearlessness."

"No wonder she's so young," Darll said dryly. "Fearlessness

never reaches old age. What about you?" He pointed

with both chained hands at the elder who had spoken. "Who

are you?"

The old man stepped back from Darll. "I am Werlow,"

he said. "I embody caution."

"Good for you," said Darll. "And what did you do about

Skorm?"

"I convinced the rest of the people to evacuate," Werlow

said. "We elders have stayed, to pray for the coming of

heroes."

"We're here," Jarek said happily. "We're heroes, aren't

we?" He looked to Graym for support.

Graym cleared his throat. "I don't like to boast. We're

desperate men . . . and bold warriors, but we've left our

robbing ways behind us. We have trade goods" - he didn't

want to say 'ale,' though the barrels made it obvious - "that

we're taking all the way to Krinneor, where our fortunes

will be made and our lives will be good, in the richest city

in the world." His voice went husky. "The golden towers,

the marble doors, the excellent drains."

The elders exchanged glances. They were silent.

Finally Rhael said, "The road to Krinneor winds around

the Valley of Tombs. There is no way there, except through

Skorm's army."

The Wolf brothers made most unwarlike whimpering

sounds. Darll edged over and kicked them each, hard.

Graym frowned. "Don't they ever move out of the

cemetery, Miss? Parade, or bivouac, or do any of those nice

martial things that make armies so popular with

politicians?"

Rhael shook her head. "They have no need to," she said

sadly. "They just grow strong and plan to attack us."

"How much, to fight them?" Darll asked suddenly.

The elders looked at each other.

"Nothing," a reed-slender old woman said. "We heard

of your fight with the bounty hunters. That is why we

sought you. If you refuse to fight, we'll inform every hunter

we can find, and you'll be taken or killed."

"That seems harsh, Ma'am," Graym said. "Fight or die?

For nothing?"

"And what elder virtue are you?" Darll asked.

The old woman smiled thinly. Thrift."

Graym made up his mind, turned, and addressed his

companions. "These pick-me-up armies are all bluff. Farm

boys and fishermen, not one real soldier in twenty."

Jarek was counting on his fingers. "How many real

soldiers does that make against each of us?"

"One," Fenris said flatly.

"Maybe even two," Farms added.

Graym waved his hand. "What's that to us? Nothing at

all. They're just trainees. We're road-tested. Months of

hardship, baking sun, blinding rain - "

"Great ale - " Jarek said, caught up in the enthusiasm.

Graym interrupted hurriedly. "And there you are. We'll

frighten off this lot in no time and be back on the road." He

raised a fist and shouted, "To Krinneor!"

"To Krinneor!" Jarek shouted. Darll said nothing. The

Wolf brothers looked worried.

The elders had tears in their eyes. Graym was pleased to

think he had moved them. He held out his hands. "As long

as we're fighting the good fight for you, so to speak, can

you lend us your swords?"

The elders stared at him.

"We didn't bring any," he added.

"It's not as if we needed them," Jarek said.

The elders were suitably impressed.

"The Protector fled with most of our good weapons. We

still have a few." Rhael lifted a rag-wrapped bundle and

gave it to Graym. "This is Galeanor, the Axe of the Just."

"Just what?" Jarek asked.

Graym took the axe, eyed it dubiously. "Just kidding."

Darll muttered in his ear. "Perfect. The fat man fights

and dies with the Axe of the Just Kidding."

Rhael handed the others dented weapons, the few the

Protector had left behind. Darll examined his sword with

distaste. Jarek looked at his with delight. The Wolf brothers

picked up two badly corroded maces, after touching them

gingerly to be sure they weren't dangerous. They stood

there, then, staring at one another.

"Don't you think you'd better take up positions opposite

the enemy?" Rhael suggested.

"You're absolutely right, Miss," Graym said firmly.

"Move out." With only a small twinge of guilt, he added,

"And we'll take the cart with us - for supplies . . . and . . .

strategy."

They traipsed down the hill, walked through Graveside.

It was, Graym noted, a pleasant enough place, not much

bigger than Sarem. There were cart tracks in front of the

homes and manure piles in the tilled fields. It obviously was

a farm-to-market town for a larger city. "Krinneor isn't far

now," Graym said to the others. "We're closer to the city

itself. I know it. Now, if we can just shake this lot. . ."

Graym glanced behind him. Werlow began organizing

the elders for a safe retreat down the road. Rhael had gone

into one of the cottages.

Graym smiled; they continued on.

At the crest of the hill, Darll raised his hand in silent

warning. The others obediently stopped the cart.

"Keep low!" he ordered. They dropped to the ground

and peered into the valley below.

Tombstones and open graves, white tents and a great

many ropes stippled the valley and spread up the opposite

hill. A hundred helmeted, armored warriors stood in line,

ready for inspection. Graym looked shocked.

"These scum robbed the graves," said Darll. "And

they're wearing the corpses!"

"Odd taste in armor, made out of bones. What for, d'you

think, sir?" Graym asked.

"Wolves love bones," Darll said bitterly. "Sheep shy

away from them. No use in shying, though. The wolves

always win." He smiled grimly. "I know. I'm a wolf."

He pointed downhill cautiously. "The two in front with

the swords are drillmasters, showing close-quarter thrusts.

The ones checking the lines are lower-rank officers."

A man dashed up to a soldier, who was twisting this

way and that, cuffed him, and yelled in his face. The

shouting carried all the way to the hilltop.

"That," Darll said dryly, "would be the sergeant."

"Which one is Skorm?" Graym whispered.

"My guess would be the big guy, wearing the sawed-off

skull."

They watched as Skorm paced calmly and evenly,

inspecting the troops. The warlord, stepping over a skeleton,

kicked the skull. It shattered on a tombstone.

Graym peered down at him. "Now there's a man who

knows the value of appearances."

"Don't you ever say anything bad about anybody?"

Graym shrugged. "There's more than enough of that

around, sir, if you want it."

"What if we split them down the middle?" a voice said.

They rolled and turned around, Graym snatching the

axe from his belt. Rhael, a battered spear with a mended

haft in her hands, was standing behind them. She was

dressed in leather armor that probably had been trimmed

from a butcher's apron.

"I've always heard that was how to deal with a larger

force," she said.

"Young Elder Rhael," said Graym, "why don't you go

back to town and keep bad folk from climbing the hill to

surround us?"

Rhael looked at Graym admiringly. "You have the

mind of a warrior." She stood stiffly. "I won't let you down.

I promise."

They watched her run back over the hill crest. "I wish I

could move like that," Graym said, envious.

"Wouldn't look good on you," Darll muttered.

Graym rubbed his rotund middle. "True enough, sir."

"Now," Darll said, "what's your battle plan?"

"Battle plan, sir?"

"You left Rhael to guard our rear - and an ugly rear at

that. What's your plan of attack?"

Graym shuddered. "Attack? Don't even think it, sir. My

plan is to run around Skorm and go on to Krinneor. Why do

you think we brought the cart?"

The Wolf brothers looked vastly relieved. Darll stared

at him, then began to laugh. "I like your style, fat man."

Graym hefted the axe. "Right. The chains, sir."

Darll was suspicious. "You're setting me free?"

"On good behavior." Graym glanced sideways down

the hill at the soldiers. "I can't send you running past that lot

in chains. They'd hear the rattle for sure."

Darll dropped to one knee and laid the chain on a

boulder, turning his head away and shutting his eyes tightly.

Graym swung the broadaxe overhead, brought it down.

Sparks shot in all directions. The Axe of the Just Kidding

sliced through the chain and gouged the rock. Shards Hew,

grazing Darll.

He raised his right hand to wipe his cheek. His left hand

automatically followed, a chain's length behind, then

dropped. He looked with wonder at his hands, then looked

longingly at the horizon ahead of them, beyond the army.

"Right. Ready to run for it?"

He pulled a thong from his pocket, wrapped it around

the sleeve of his right arm. Then he bent, tightened his

boots, and stood straight.

Graym stared. With only a few tucks and touches, Darll

had gone from prisoner to razor-sharp man of war. Graym

stared down the hill, where an army was blocking their way.

"Just think, sir," he said, "earlier today, the world was

sweet, and I wanted it to last forever. Isn't life amazing?"

"While you've got it," Darll said. He poked at Jarek,

who was playing mumblety-peg with his sword. "Tighten

everything, boy. You want free limbs. Loosen for marches,

tighten for fights or retreats."

Jarek tightened his belt hurriedly. Groaning with the

effort, Graym bent and tucked his breeches down into his

boot tops. He stood puffing and stared down the hill.

Jarek said eagerly, "Are we going to fight now?"

Graym shook his head. "That, my boy, would be the

worst disaster since the Cattle-Kissing."

"Cataclysm!" Darll said automatically. "I think we can run

around the end of the valley there and be safely on our way

to Krinneor before they know what happened."

"We'll be the first traders through Skorm's blockade,"

said Graym suddenly. "They'll call us heroes and pay triple

the value on every glass of ale."

He raised the Axe of the Just Kidding. "To Krinneor!"

Skormt turned around, looked in their general direction.

The Wolf brothers shrieked and dived for the cart.

"No!" Graym shouted.

It was too late. In the struggle to fit underneath the cart,

Fanris's foot dislodged the chuck block. The cart started

rolling downhill.

The ale!" Graym ran forward. Darll followed, swearing.

Jarek whooped and charged alongside him. The Wolf

brothers, terrified at being left alone, jumped up and ran

after them.

Cart and barrels hurtled down the hill, bouncing over

rocks, heading straight for Skorm and his officers.

The officers took one look and ran.

Astonishingly, none of the rank-and-file warriors

budged. "Training's training," Darll panted, "but that's not

possible."

The lead barrel, now thundering down faster than a man

could run, bounced off a dirt pile and into the first row of

warriors, who didn't even look up.

The second barrel hit the second row. The third barrel

tangled the ropes that had strung the soldiers together. The

bodies fell apart.

Darll gripped Graym's shoulder. "They're fake! Nothing

but armor on sticks and bones!"

He ran toward the "officers," apparently the only living

men on the field. Skorm shouted a command in a harsh

voice.

Two of the men sidled around Darll, keeping out of

range of his sword. One of them raised a throwing mace

and swung it with a deadly whir.

Graym, desperate, flung the axe end-over-end. It

thunked handle-first into the mace-swinger, knocked him

senseless.

Darll leapt over the fallen man, stepping on his back.

"Officer material," he grunted, and wrapped his dangling

manacle chain around the other man's sword and pulled.

The sword flew out of the man's hand.

Darll shouted back to Jarek. "Pick up his sword!"

Jarek picked it up, dropping his own sword. Graym

punched an opponent in the stomach and doubled him over,

sent him stumbling into two men behind him.

The men staggered back and raised their swords,

jumping at the Wolf brothers, who were closest.

Fanris and Fenris looked at the armored, bone-covered

sword-carrying men. Panic-stricken, the brothers both

shrieked, "We surrender!" and tossed their maces in the air.

The maces hit each man squarely in the head. Fenris

and Fanris looked at each other in relief and turned to run

away.

The remaining men, daunted by five berserkers crazed

enough to charge an entire army, fled.

Skorm turned his skull face toward Graym. The grave-

robber charged, aiming a vicious two-handed sword straight

for Graym's heart.

Darll yelled, "The axe!" picked it up, and threw it.

Graym caught the axe by the thong, just as it struck

Skorm's sword and shattered the blade. Graym grabbed the

axe handle clumsily, and smacked Skorm on the head.

Skorm Bonelover, the Sorrow of Huma, the Dark

Lady's Liege Man, the legendary Eater of Enemies, dropped

to the ground with a whimper.

The fat cooper, axe in hand, stood panting over him.

Rhael ran down the hill, spear in hand.

"We won!" she cried exultantly.

Halting, she looked down at Skorm's shattered sword

and frowned. "That looks familiar," she said. "That's the

Protector's Sword of Office!"

Graym bent and pulled the skull off Skorm's face. He

was conscious again and looked pinched and scared, but

fairly ordinary beyond that.

"Protector!" Rhael gasped.

Darll kicked the Protector's sword hilt away from him

and stood watching over him.

Rhael was staring admiringly at an embarrassed Graym. "I

heard the noise. I saw the whole thing. You charged an

army by yourselves!"

Darll opened his mouth to explain, but Jarek trod on his

foot. "We toppled our barrels on them. Then Graym was the

first one down. Not even Darll could outrun him."

Rhael sighed. "What a wonderful idea. But your trade

goods - your ale - you sacrificed them for us?"

"One barrel made it," Jarek told her. "It rolled off to

one side and didn't hit anybody." He shook his head. "But I

bet all those other soldiers are drinking it now."

"There are no other soldiers, rock-brain!" Darll

growled. "This Protector and his friends built them out of

corpses, tugged on ropes to make them move, pretended to

train them. They wanted to scare everyone out of town,

then loot it, and it nearly worked."

Jarek scratched his head. "Why didn't the town set up a

bunch of fake soldiers to fight back?" he asked.

Darll looked at Graym, at Jarek, and at the Wolf

brothers, who, seeing the fight was over, had returned. Darll

grinned.

"They did set up fake soldiers. Sort of."

Graym cleared his throat. "Well, we'd best get on the

road." He handed the Axe of Just Kidding back to Rhael.

"Business calls, Miss. Glad we could help, and all."

She brushed his cheek with her finger. "You knew," she

said wonderingly. "Even before you attacked, you knew

Skorm was a fraud."

Graym looked uncomfortable. "Well, I had an idea.

Couldn't be sure, of course."

Darll rolled his eyes.

Graym, feeling awkward, said simply, "Nice meeting

you, Miss." He turned and walked through the graves and

the shattered mock soldiers.

They collected the cart and the single surviving barrel.

Graym tried, briefly, to find the barrel taps and the rest of

their belongings, then said, "Give it up." They dragged the

cart through the scattered armor, framework, and bones of

the open graves.

The cart rolled freely. Jarek looked at the single barrel

in it and said happily, "The price of ale must be way up

now."

"Best thing that could happen, really," Graym said, but he

sounded troubled. He and the Wolf brothers drew the cart

alone. Darll and Jarek walked alongside as they moved up

the last hill before Krinneor. Darll was trying to learn the

second verse of "The Bald Maid and the Barber."

Fenris, beside Graym, said, "I hate to turn him in."

Graym nodded. "He's not a bad lot. Wanted to kill us or

jail us, but face it. Who wouldn't?"

Fanris, on his other side, said, "Can't we just let him

go?"

Graym stared at the road. "He's expected. We were paid

half in advance. We can't just two-step into Krinneor - "

"Do we need to go there so bad?" Fenris asked softly.

Graym looked back at the cart, bouncing easily with

one barrel of ale and no supplies. "It's all we've got left."

They walked in silence, watching Darll try to teach

Jarek to juggle. The mercenary, even while mocking Jarek's

efforts, had a hand affectionately on the man's shoulder.

The road cut through a pass and angled to the left.

Jarek sniffed the air. "I smell something funny."

"That's the sea, boy," said Graym.

But Darll looked troubled. "I didn't know there was an

arm of the sea here."

"A port city," Graym explained. "Not just rich, but a

trade center. We're nearly here. Beyond this curve, we'll see

the road on the shore, probably a lovely seaside view, all

the way to Krinneor - "

They rounded the comer.

The hill plunged down to a sandy beach strewn with

rocks. The road ended, half-covered with sand, sloping

down into the water and disappearing. Ahead was water, all

the way to the horizon,.a new sea, still gray with the silt

and mud of the land collapsing and the waters rushing in.

A half mile out from shore, a group of battered golden

spires stuck upright, barely a man's height above the waves.

Gulls were nesting on them.

The men rolled the cart to the beach and stood.

"The golden towers," Fenris said.

"The marble doors," Fanris said.

"And excellent drains," said Darll.

Graym, staring at the spires in shock, murmured, "I

hear that's very important for a city."

The others laughed for quite a while. Graym sat on a

rock by the shore, staring.

Jarek moved down the beach, picking up stones to skip.

The Wolf brothers, once they were over their fear of gulls,

took off their boots and went wading. Darll walked up to

Graym. "Where to from here?"

"Nowhere." Graym stared, unseeing, over the open

water. "No horses, no food, no money. No Krinneor." He

blinked his eyes rapidly. "All gone."

Darll was shocked. "There's a world out there. You can

start over."

Behind them, a voice said, "You can stay here."

Rhael came forward, holding some sort of medallion

and twisting it in her fingers. Her determination was gone;

she looked unsure of herself.

Graym stared at her a moment. "You knew the truth

about Krinneor, didn't you?"

"We all knew. No one wanted to tell you before you

helped us."

"I don't suppose you did, Miss," Graym said heavily.

"And after?"

"Afterward, Elder Werlow was afraid of you. You're

fierce warriors."

Darll had the grace not to laugh.

"So you let us go. Good joke." Graym sighed.

She twisted the medallion chain almost into a knot. "I

argued with them and said I'd follow you and apologize,

and - and give you this."

She held up the medallion, realized how twisted it was.

"Sorry." She untwisted the chain nimbly, then dropped it

over Graym's neck. "There."

The medallion was a small shield with a single piece of

black opal in the shape of an axe. Graym looked down at it.

"It was brave, your coming here when you were

embarrassed. Thank you, Miss. I'll keep this."

"Until he gets hungry," Darll said bluntly, "then he'll sell

it. He'll have to."

Rhael ignored the mercenary. "Why not stay in

Graveside?" she asked. She touched the medallion. "To fill

the office that goes with this."

"Office?" Graym said blankly, opening his eyes.

"Of Protector," Rhael said. On impulse, she kissed his

cheek. "Please take it. Your men, too. You'll have food and

lodging, and we know we can trust you."

Graym stared bemusedly at her. "Me, a law officer?"

He turned to Darll. "Would I be any good, sir?"

"Unless you rob them, you can't do worse than the last

one they had." He looked at the dangling chain. "I suppose

you'll put me in jail there?"

Graym sighed. "Can't do it, now that I'm their Protector.

Wouldn't be right, would it, sir? I mean, you're their war

hero and all."

He frowned, concentrating, then smiled and slapped

Darll on the back. "You can go, sir. It's all right. You're

pardoned."

Darll's jaw fell and he goggled at Graym. "You're

pardoning me?"

"First offense, like you said, sir. You've matured since

then. Probably be an upstanding citizen of Graveside." He

puckered his brow, thinking, and suddenly brightened. "You

could stay and be my military advisor."

"You lead? Me advise?" It was too much. Darll shook

his head and walked away, swearing, laughing, and

muttering.

"What's he upset about?" Jarek asked. "He fought all

right."

"You all fought wonderfully," Rhael said firmly.

"You're our heroes." She kissed Graym again, then walked

swiftly back through the pass toward Graveside.

"Heroes?" the Wolf brothers said at once, and laughed.

Graym said gruffly, "There've been worse."

Darll looked back up the road toward Graveside, at the

retreating Rhael. "Lucky for them they found us, in fact."

Graym grinned at the others. "Best thing that could

have happened, really."

Suddenly he was back at the cart, tugging on one of the

shafts. Darll joined him. "Right, then. Let's get back."

Graym pointed at the remaining barrel of ale. "Skull-Splitter

all around, when we get there, on the house."

It was a surprisingly fast trip.

 

INTO SHADOW, INTO LIGHT

 

RICHARD A. KNAAK

 

The knight stalked across the hellish landscape, sword in hand. The

fog failed to conceal the desolation around him. Gnarled trees and

churned dirt were sights all too familiar after so long. His world, his

cursed world, was always much the same: dry, crackling soil, no sun, no

shadows, no refuge, no life, just endless devastation . . . and

somewhere in the fog, those who ever hunted him.

The fever burned, but, as always, he forced himself to

withstand the pain. Sweat poured down his face, trickling

into his armor. The plague that coursed through him never

rested. Oddly, it had been a part of him so long that he

probably would have felt lost without it.

The rusted armor creaked as the knight stumbled up a

small hill. Beneath the rust on his breastplate there could

still be seen a ravaged insignia marking him as a knight of

the Solamnic orders. He rarely looked down at the fading

mark, for it was a mockery of his life, a reminder of why he

had been condemned to this existence.

The price of being a traitor had been heavier than he had

ever thought possible.

As he started down the other side of the ravaged hill, the

knight caught sight of something odd, something out of

place in this wasteland. It seemed to glitter, despite the lack

of sunlight, and to the weary knight it was worth more than

a mountain of gold. A stream of clear, cool water flowed no

more than a few yards from where he stood.

He smiled - a rare smile of hope. The knight staggered

forward, moving as fast as he could manage, ignoring pain,

fatigue, fear. How long since his last drink of water? The

memory escaped him.

Kneeling before the stream, he closed his eyes. "My

Lord Paladine, I beseech you! Hear this simple prayer! Let

me partake this once! A single sip of water, that is all I ask!"

The knight leaned forward, reached out toward the

stream . . . and fell back in horror as he stared into its

reflective surface.

"Paladine preserve me," he muttered. Slowly leaning

forward again, he stared at his image in the stream.

Pale as a corpse, his face was gaunt, almost skull-like.

Lank, wispy hair - what could be seen beneath his helm -

was plastered to his head. His eyes were colorless; had they

always been that way? A faint, sardonic smile briefly

touched his countenance. "I look like a ghost. How

appropriate now," he said to his reflection.

The water continued to flow past, and he recalled the

purpose for which he had paused. Again he stretched forth

his gauntleted hand. The water might rust the metal, but the

parched knight did not care. All that existed was the hope

that this once - just this once - he might be allowed a sip.

His fingertips reached the surface of the tiny river,

passed through it without even touching.

He cursed, cursed the gods who had doomed him to this

wretched life. In frustration, he thrust his hand as deep into

the water as he could. The stream flowed on. He didn't

create so much as a ripple.

Growing more desperate, the knight thrust his other

hand into the water. He tried to cup some of the liquid, but

each time his hands came free of the stream, they held

nothing. This land might have been a desert for all he could

drink.

His head lowered. The sound of mocking laughter came

to him, but he did not know if it was real or his imagination.

He had never known.

"How long must I pay?" the knight demanded of his

unseen tormentor. "What must I do to earn a sip of water?"

He pounded his fist against the ground, but even that

much comfort was denied him. His hand could not touch the

soil. There was always a small distance between the world

and him. The ground, like everything else, refused to accept

his touch, refused him peace.

"I am dead!" he roared at no one. "Let me rest!"

Dead. He was nothing more than a ghost now, a ghost

sentenced to pay in death for the darksome deeds he had

performed in life. Now and forever, the Abyss was his

home, his reward for living that life.

How long since his death? He had no idea. Time meant

nothing here. But he thought the Dragon War must be long

over. What was happening now in the world of his birth,

Krynn? Had centuries passed since his spirit had been

exiled to this phantom plain where no one existed but

himself and those who sought vengeance? Or had it been

only days?

The clink of armor warned him that he was no longer

alone. His pursuers had found him again. The knight

reached for his sword, but it was flight that was on his

mind. Combat was a last, desperate effort; it was

predestined that he would lose any battle.

Then the whispers began.

RENNARD. . . WE COME!

His name. After so long, he often forgot. They were

always there to remind him, however. They could never

forget the name of the one responsible.

RENNARD!

BETRAYER. . .

OATHBREAKER. . .

Rennard may not have remembered his name, but now

the other memories were too terrible to forget.

His pursuers could not be far behind. Despite his

danger, the cursed knight could not help but take one last

desperate glance at the cool, sparkling stream.

"One sip," he prayed, reaching his hand a last time

toward the water. "Is that so much to ask?"

And then ... it was as if the world, ALL worlds, shrieked

in agony, began to shake.

Rennard found himself cast out into an invisible

maelstrom, caught up in some new, inventive torment of

the gods.

The whispers died. He wondered if his pursuers, too,

had been caught up by this chaos. Rennard stood. The

desolate realm that was his home, his prison, began to fade

before his eyes. He caught a glimpse of shadowy forms,

swords, and bitter eyes, then they dwindled away to

nothing. He heard a sound - one so out of place that he

could not believe he heard it.

 

"The Honor of Huma survives

The Glory of Huma survives

Dragons, hear!

Solamnic breath is taken

Life; hear!

My sword is broken of Dragons"

 

It was a human voice singing. And he heard a name . . .

Huma? How could such a thing be? What did it mean? The

melody drew the knight. Without thinking, Rennard moved

toward it, followed it. ...

He found himself standing in a fogbound, desolate land.

Something is different, Rennard thought. This is not the

Abyss!

The song faded away, but Rennard barely noticed. He

stared at his surroundings. Some sort of terrible upheaval

had wrecked this land. Trees - leviathans - lay broken on

the ground. What once had been a well-traveled road was

cracked and half buried under rubble. Thick clouds filled

the heavens. A mortal might have thought this some

variation of the infernal Abyss, but Rennard knew better.

The living forest, struggling to survive, a bird fluttering

overhead, the sounds that assailed him - all spoke of LIFE.

He fell to his knees.

"Krynn!" Rennard whispered. "How have I come here?

Is this truly the real world?"

A part of him was afraid it was a dream, that any

second he would find himself once more fleeing his ever-

present enemies. "Is this Krynn? Or have I merely entered

some new phase of my punishment?" he asked bitterly.

A low laugh - or was it the wind? - teased him. The spec

tral knight twisted around, searching for the source. "Morgion,

dark Lord of Decay and Disease, master of my grief,

do I still entertain you?" he cried out.

No answer came.

Was that a tall, bronze tower he saw in the distance, a

tower perched upon the edge of a precipice? A tower

dedicated to Morgion, used by those who served him? The

knight stared, but all he saw was a lone tree leaning

precariously over the edge of a newly formed cliff. It was

not the sanctum of the malevolent deity.

Bewildered, confused, he stared at his surroundings and

made a bitter discovery. The muddy ground in which he

knelt was soft. Despite the weight of his bulky armor,

Rennard had not sunk so much as a finger's width into

Krynn's blessed soil. He made not the slightest impression.

The knight rose to his feet. He cursed the gods who had

brought him to this new fate. He was free of his prison, but

not free of his damnation. Ansalon - if this was Ansalon -

offered him nothing more than the demonic plain from

which he had been cast out. Rennard raised his fist to the

shrouded sky and wished that there had never been gods.

Dread, familiar sounds - the pounding of hooves, the

dash of armor - jolted him. His pursuers had followed him!

The knight turned at the sound, the sight strengthening

his fear.

A knight in war-scarred armor, riding a black horse,

came at him. The steed - spittle flying as it strained to keep

its mad pace - covered the distance between itself and

Rennard in great strides. The horse's master, riding low,

urged the animal on in harsh, unintelligible cries.

The horse charged straight at Rennard, but it was not a

demonic phantom. It was a flesh-and-blood horse, a flesh-

and-blood man - a man whose armor marked him as a

Knight of Solamnia.

To see a living being, even one wearing the armor of

those Rennard had betrayed, was so overwhelming that the

ghost could not readily accept the vision. Rennard stretched

a tentative hand toward the oncoming knight. The ghost

longed to touch a living, breathing person.

The horse shied, nearly throwing its rider. The other

knight cursed and turned the animal back on the path, the

path upon which Rennard stood. The horse stared fearfully

at the wraith, then galloped forward.

It took Rennard several seconds to realize the truth.

The horse, unable to swerve, had run THROUGH him. The

ghost stared after the knight and his dark steed, riding

madly down the broken road.

Rennard had to follow. Here was the first living being

he had seen since his death, and a knight! Although he had

betrayed the knighthood, Rennard felt a kinship for the

warrior. Besides, here might be a chance to discover why

the ghost had come to be once more on the face of Ansalon.

"I must catch him ... But it's too late. I'll never be able

to keep pace with the swift animal." As he started forward,

the world seemed to ripple.

The ghost found himself standing in a new location,

several yards AHEAD of the rider.

The other knight rode past. Rennard followed. Once

more, the world rippled. Once again, Rennard had

journeyed to a location ahead of the mortal.

Suddenly, the rider brought his horse to a halt, forcing

his mount to veer off the path.

Rennard joined the mortal.

A body - that of an elderly man, a peasant by his

clothes - lay in the brush, no more than a day dead.

The knight couldn't force his steed nearer. Rennard

gradually realized that he was at fault. The animal could

sense the ghost, though its master could not. Rennard

stepped back a few paces, out of sight. The skittish horse

grew calm.

The rider dismounted and approached the body.

Rennard was amused to note that the knight drew a sword,

just in case the wretched figure rose from the dead. A

moment later, Rennard realized that perhaps the knight was

not so foolish. Rennard was proof that anything was

possible.

The knight pushed back his helm, bent down to study

the remains, and carefully noted the direction the old man

had been traveling. Rennard took time to study the knight.

He was young, though still old enough to bear the symbol

of the Order of the Rose on his breastplate.

Rennard sneered. Arrogant and self-serving, that was the

Order of the Rose. Most of the high lords of the Solamnic

brotherhood came from the ranks of the Rose.

Rennard had murdered one of them, and here was the

epitome of the handsome and heroic warrior that peopled

the stories of bards and the dreams of maidens: perfect,

honed features; dark, brooding eyes and firm jaw; black hair

that curled from under his helm; a well-groomed moustache

in the style still traditional among the Knights of Solamnia.

The ghost touched his own marred features. Here was

everything that Rennard had never been. He'd rather look at

the corpse, and the young knight was studying the corpse,

too, with more than casual interest.

Although the hapless peasant evidently had suffered

from many things, disease had killed him. Rennard, who

knew of such things, could see the signs.

"Aaah, good folk of Ansalon," Rennard muttered as he

looked at the corpse, "the gods treat you so well!"

The young knight had lost interest in the corpse and

was now gazing down the road.

The peasant had not been alone. The tracks of more

than a dozen people and one or two animals spoke of a long,

arduous journey by a group of people in great haste.

Rennard saw an endless trek, much like a journey he once

had made. One by one, the members of the party had

collapsed and been left behind, like this, left behind by

those too terrified to stop to bury their dead.

The young knight began to talk, and at first Rennard

wondered if another ghost haunted this region, for there was

no one to respond.

"A day, Lucien, not much more. They're on foot. I'll

surely catch up tomorrow. Then I will avenge you!" The

young knight kicked the body with the heel of his boot,

kicked it again and again until he wearied of the sport.

Then, face twisted in bitterness and rage, the knight turned

away.

Vengeance? Not - if Rennard recalled correctly - an act

approved of by the knighthood.

Virtuous on the outside, foul within. Rennard had been a

traitor and murderer - that was true - but others in the

knighthood carried their share of dark secrets as well.

Eyeing the mortal with growing distaste, he muttered, "And

what are YOUR secrets, great Knight of the Thorny Rose?"

His living counterpart stiffened, then looked in the

ghost's direction, a trace of puzzlement on the young

knight's features. His exhaustion was evident. Rennard saw

rings under the eyes; the eyes themselves had the sunken

look of a man who had driven himself for days. After a few

moments - moments in which Rennard would have held his

breath (provided he still breathed) - the young fighter

rubbed his eyes, turned away, and resumed his inspection of

the corpse and the trail.

The young knight took a few steps, following the

direction of the dead man's footprints. Each step was less

certain than the last. He was almost too tired to go on.

Perhaps realizing this himself, the young knight returned to

his mount and used the tired beast as support.

"Tomorrow, Lucien. I'll find them tomorrow." He

clenched his fist. "cThey'll pay, the murderous carrion!

They'll pay a hundredfold for your life. As my name is Erik

Dornay, so I swear over and over it shall be!"

With some effort, Dornay mounted. He didn't give the

corpse a second look, but for a brief instant his eyes

returned to the general area where the ghost stood,

watching. Frowning, Erik finally urged his horse along the

trail. The animal needed no encouragement; it set off at a

brisk pace, fueled by its obvious desire to get as far from

Rennard as possible.

The horse's desperate efforts were useless. This young

knight interested Rennard too much to let him go. The

mortal might know where Rennard was, why he was here.

And the ghost was anxious to know the reasons behind the

vengeance that drove the young Solamnian to turn against

the Oath and Measure.

Rennard had one other reason, one that he did not like

to admit to himself. Night was fast approaching and night -

in his mind - brought the hunters. But would they close the

circle with a living person nearby?

Perhaps not.

Better the company of a Knight of the Rose than yet an

other confrontation with the bitter souls who owed their

damnation to Rennard.

Rennard gripped the hilt of his sword and vanished after

the diminishing figure of Erik Dornay.

 

*****

 

Shortly after nightfall, Dornay ended his ride and made

camp in a small copse of tangled trees. The halt was not by

choice, if Rennard was any reader of expressions, but made

out of necessity. The horse s breathing was ragged; it was

doubtful that the unfortunate animal would have lasted

much longer without rest. Dornay himself nearly collapsed

as he dismounted, but the young knight took care of his

horse, fed and tethered the animal. He built a small campfire,

over which he set a piece of meat to cooking.

The aroma of the cooking meat drifted over to Rennard.

The smell brought a terrible hunger for food. Without

thinking, he stepped toward the fire. The horse, sensing

him, neighed loudly and pulled on its reins.

Erik, just removing his helm, looked swiftly around.

Rennard paid no attention to the knight. The ghost bent

down by the fire and stared at the meat. He nearly forgot the

agony of the plague that eternally tormented him.

"Paladine, Kiri-Jolith, Morgion, Takhisis . .. Gilean . . ."

Rennard chanted in rapid succession. "If there be one who

still watches over me, let me eat! Let me taste it. . ."

The meat sizzled. The ghostly knight reached out.

His fingers went through it, just as they had passed

through the water earlier.

"Not again!" Frustrated, Rennard swung his hand at the

makeshift spit.

Dornay's meal, spit and all, collapsed into the fire.

Rennard stared at his hand. Erik leapt forward and tried

to rescue his meal. Cursing, the young knight dusted off his

food and reset it to cooking.

"Did I do that?" wondered the ghost. He reached out

again, but, to his dismay, his fingers could not touch it. He

could only watch as Dornay removed the hot flesh a minute

or two later and began to eat. Rennard envied every bite.

"This is madness!" Rennard cursed. "Better the ravages

of plague or the thrust of a thousand swords than to suffer

this hunger!" He stepped back, intent on departing but

strangely reluctant to leave.

Dornay lifted a flask of cool water to his mouth.

Rennard rushed from the encampment. He had traded

the endless running for this? Which was worse, he

wondered, the fear or the desire?

Searing pain made him stumble - the ever-present

torture of the plague. Rennard gritted his teeth and struggled

to remain standing. Fever consumed his already dead flesh.

Chills shook a body that did not exist.

Then a melody drifted to him, a melody that seemed to

ease the plague's torment. Rennard slowly recovered, and

as he did, his attention focused on the song.

 

"Dragon-Huma

temper me now

Dragon-Huma

Grant me grace and love

When the heart of the Knighthood

wavers in doubt

Grant me this, Warrior Lord"

 

"Huma . . ." he whispered. It was the same song that

had carried him through the chaos and into the plane of the

living. The singer was Erik Dornay.

Walking toward the camp, the ghost listened to the

words.

Heroes existed only in tales, not reality. They were the

products of the ignorant, who had no other hope. The

knighthood itself was proof, as far as Rennard was

concerned. No heroes there. More darkness than light.

Yet even Rennard could not deny Huma's courage, his

honor, his compassion ... for one who had betrayed him.

Step by step, Rennard moved closer to the fire. Erik

Dornay sang quietly, with a tenderness and awe that

seemed out of place after his callous treatment of the

corpse, his sworn oath of vengeance.

Rennard stared at the young knight. Dornay had thrust his

sword into the ground. He knelt before it, still singing.

Rennard realized that it was the young knight's way of

easing his mind, preparing for the evening rituals that were

an integral part of a knight's training.

 

"Honor is Huma

Glory is Huma

Solamnic Knight Huma survives

Glorified Huma survives

Life: hear!"

 

Huma. Erik began to pray, spoke of him as Huma of

the Lance, spoke about a lance that had won the Dragon

War and swept the Dark Queen from the heavens.

Seeing Erik in the dim light of the campfire, Rennard

could almost imagine his former comrade kneeling there.

Huma and Erik Dornay were similar in appearance, even

without the hypnotic influence of the song.

"So, Huma, young squire - my kinsman - you have

become a hero. A hero." The irony was not lost on the

ghost. He had betrayed the knighthood, betrayed Huma -

one of the few Rennard had ever thought worthy of the

ideals of the Oath and the Measure. "And it was I who

helped train you, not knowing you would cause my

downfall."

Was this the reason he was here? the cursed knight

wondered. A reason involving the mortal before him? Or

was it mere coincidence?

The singing and prayers had ceased. Dornay was on his

feet now, and the sword, which had stood like a monument,

was in his hands - a deadly weapon in the grip of one well-

versed in its use.

"Who's there? Who spoke? Enough of this! I've heard

you before! Show yourself!"

Rennard, alarmed, looked to see if his pursuers had

come while he had been lost in reverie. For a moment, the

shadows of night became the hunters, but the ghost soon

saw that there was no one, living or dead, other than Dor-

nay and himself.

"You hear me, then, Knight of the Prickly Rose?"

Rennard asked, not expecting an answer.

"I hear you too well, cur! Come out of hiding! Reveal

yourself to me or I will let my blade find you!"

Dornay shifted to face the location where the ghost

stood.

Rennard stared, amazed.

"You would not like me, mortal," the ghost replied,

testing. "And your blade would be sorely disappointed."

"Where are you?" Exhausted as he was, Dornay was

calm, alert. "I hear where you must be, but I see nothing

there!"

Rennard walked slowly toward his young counterpart.

"There is something here, Knight of the Rose, but nothing

you can touch, not even the smallest bone remains. The

physical shell I once wore was burned shortly after I killed

myself, so very long ago."

"Killed yourself?" Erik's eyes rounded. "So you claim

to be a ghost? You lie! More likely a spellcaster in hiding!

Yes, that's who you must be!"

Rennard shook his head. "I am no mage, Erik Dornay.

Do you recall the body you found not too far from here?

The old man? I was watching you then. You thought you

heard something . . . even saw something, didn't you?"

Dornay's countenance was nearly as pale as that of his

unholy companion. The young knight backed slowly away,

the sword stretched out before him. Rennard could guess

some of what the knight must be thinking. Exhaustion

could do things to the mind, especially one filled with grief

and a burning desire for vengeance. Dornay probably

debated which was more terrible - the thought that he had

gone insane or the prospect that he faced a spirit from

beyond.

"A trick," he muttered.

"I am real, Erik Dornay, as real as the armor you wear,

but as insubstantial as your faith in the oaths you took when

you donned the mantle of a knight." Rennard laughed.

Erik put a hand to his breastplate and touched the rose

symbol. "Why do you haunt me, specter? Why reveal

yourself to me now? Leave me! Go back to your rest!"

"Rest?" The word struck Rennard as sharply as a

wellhoned sword. "I cannot rest! I am not allowed to rest!"

He stalked forward until he was almost face-to-face with the

other knight, who continued to stare wildly around. "Gladly

would I call an end to this accursed existence of mine!

Gladly would I earn my REST!"

Erik stepped back again, aware that whatever haunted

him lurked just ahead, but not at all certain what could be

done about the situation.

Rennard found relief in venting his centuries-old anger

on someone. "Would that I could reveal myself to you,

Knight of the Rotting Rose, so that you could see the fate

I've been condemned to!"

And there and then, Erik Dornay, staring in mute

horror, nearly dropped his sword and fled, for the ghost,

without knowing it, had done just that.

"A knight!.. . You are a knight... ." Dornay stared at the

ghost's ruined face - the pale, drawn skin, the boils, and the

scarlet patches.

"Plague!" Erik's sword arm extended as straight as

possible. "Keep back!"

Rennard moved closer.

"Where is your brotherly concern?" he mocked. "I am

in need. The plague still thrives within me, gnaws at me

even after death. Surely, it is for you to aid a comrade!" He

opened his arms, as if to embrace Dornay.

"May the gods forgive me!" Erik leapt forward and

thrust his sword between Rennard's helm and breastplate.

The young knight's aim was true, so much so that the

ghost expected to feel the death blow. Then, to Rennard's

bitter amusement and Erik's disbelief, the blade passed

through without obstruction.

The young Solamnian dropped his sword and stared at

his hand, as if IT were somehow to blame for the impossible

sight he had just witnessed.

"Had it been my choice," Rennard said, "the blade

would have sheared my head from my body, once and for

all ending this accursed existence!"

"Paladine save me!" Erik cried.

"Paladine cannot save you. He did not save ME," the

ghost knight hissed. "That was for another, darker lord to

do. Morgion it was, who finally heard my plea, but he

demanded a heavy price."

"Who - " The young knight pulled himself together.

"Who are you, wraith? Why does your tragic existence

haunt me now, in my grief?"

"You should know. It was YOU who called me. You -

with your song."

"The . . . song?" Erik eyed the phantom, more

perplexed than he was anxious. He frowned. "I am no foul

necromancer, like the followers of Chemosh!"

"Nonetheless, it was your song." Rennard circled

Dornay, his eyes never leaving the mortal. "The one you

sang about ... Huma."

"Huma? Huma of the Lance?"

"Just Huma to me, a knight who believed and, because

he believed, fought as few others could. I knew him well,

you see, even aided in his training. That was before . . ."

Erik's eyes were wary and thoughtful. One did not rise

to the Order of the Rose without being able to adapt to the

unknown, even if that included the undead.

Rennard guessed what he was thinking. "If you have a

way, Mortal, to rid yourself of me, by all means try. I

would welcome rest after so long. I am tired of running, of

fighting in futility." Here, at last, Rennard could not hide

his own despair. "Tired of the pain."

"Your name, Ethereal One. You still have not said."

The flickering flames of the tiny campfire caught the

ghost's attention. He reached down and passed his hand

through the fire. "You see? Nothing, not even now." He

straightened. "My name? You probably would not know it.

I daresay that it was stricken from the rolls when the truth

of my betrayal was known. I had, after all, murdered one

grand master and attempted to kill his successor. Although

many servants of the Dark Queen fell by my sword, I

betrayed the plans of the knighthood whenever possible and

caused the deaths of many men by my actions, all in the

name of Morgion, dread Lord of Disease and Decay."

Dornay gasped. "I know YOU! I know the tales that

they whisper, even now!" His handsome face twisted.

"Rennard the Oathbreaker!"

Bowing, mocking, the ghost replied, "I thought myself

forgotten. Yes, I have the dishonor of being him."

Erik snatched his sword from the ground, held it before

him. His eyes were narrow slits, his breathing rapid. He

began muttering under his breath.

Rennard recognized the litany and was amused.

"Exorcising demons? You are not so well-versed for one of

your rank. I doubt I will be so easily dismissed, even if you

should happen upon the proper chant."

"Why does the ghost of a traitor and murderer visit me?

Do the gods think you will stop me in my chosen course?

Lucien's death demands justice! He was murdered

needlessly, and I will see that his killers pay! Now begone!"

Rennard turned his horrific face toward the mortal. "I

would very much like to be gone, Erik Dornay, but not to

where I have been since my death. Peace is what I ask . . .

peace and a sip of water." He stared into the flame, recalling

the past. "I want nothing to do with you, but something has

drawn me here. This is not the first time I have heard the

song you sang tonight, a song about him. Huma never

would have believed it. He would have shaken his head - "

"Do not speak his name!" Erik pointed the useless

sword at the ghost as if he still intended somehow to run

Rennard through. "He was everything that you were not,

traitor! He was everything that I wanted to be!"

Wanted to be? thought the ghost. "And so you no

longer desire to be like him?"

The young knight stiffened, then lowered his sword. "I

cannot, not now, not after I kill them." His gaze strayed to

the woods beyond. "So much has changed since the

Cataclysm. At first they begged for our help. Then, with a

swiftness unmatched even by the wind, the rumors began!

Some of the rumors were not without foundation, but to

blame the knighthood as a whole is unthinkable! If we were

spared the brunt of the disaster, surely it meant that we were

Paladine's chosen! We should have been their guides on the

path of recovery. Instead, the scum we tried to protect

turned on us. 'Look!' they cried. 'Ansalon shakes and

quivers, people die, and the knights are untouched!' "

The young Solamnian laughed harshly. "Some even

claimed we had conspired with the gods, for it was Ergoth,

our ancient tyrant, and Istar, our magnificent rival, who

suffered most. Lucien tried to reason with them - the

ignorant offal. And they dragged him down from his horse

and murdered him!"

None of this made much sense to Rennard. "And was

the knighthood responsible for this . . . this Cataclysm?"

Erik glowered. "How can you ask that? You were a

knight!"

"Yes," said Rennard dryly, "I was a knight."

"I swear that we were not!" Dornay's voice shook. "It

could never be!"

"I see"

After a pause, Erik asked, "Did you really know him?"

"Very well." Rennard stood silently, his mind a

whirlpool of memories. He stared at the mortal before him

and saw Huma. The similarities were more than skin deep.

Am I supposed to turn him along the proper path?

Rennard asked whoever had sent him. I was a puppet in

life. Am I to be one in death? Better he make his own

destiny, whatever the consequences! At least the choice

will be his!

Rennard saw, to his surprise, that the young Knight of

the Rose was staring at him, not in fear and loathing, but in

desperate need. "Huma . . . What would he have done?

Would he have understood? Lucien was my friend, more

than friend ... he was dearer than any brother. Please,

specter, tell me, what would Huma - ?"

"Huma would have done what Huma would have

done," Rennard interjected quickly. Thinking of Huma

stirred memories and emotions that the ghost refused to

acknowledge. "Just as you will do what you will do."

"That is no answer!" Dornay said angrily. "Would he

have understood my need for vengeance? Tell me!"

I will not do this! Rennard told those who'd sent him.

Dornay's path must be his own! What course his life takes

will be his choice, not that of some interfering deity!

The ghost thought he heard whispers then, but perhaps

they were only his own thoughts, speaking back to him:

WOULD YOU CONDEMN ANYONE, EVEN YOUR

WORST ENEMY, TO A FATE SUCH AS yours?

A fate such as mine? Erik's thirst for vengeance could

hardly be as great a crime as those I committed. But,

Rennard could not help wondering, once he's done murder,

he might sink lower still. One day, he might find himself

trapped in a futile flight from those he killed and who,

because of him, would never be able to rest either.

The "Song of Huma" ran through his mind.

"Huma," Rennard whispered. The man who was now

legend never abandoned me, he even looked up to me.

Huma - the man, not the legend - had been there in the end,

trying to save me from myself. Rather than face him, I took

the coward's way out. I slit my own throat.

Rennard turned his eyes briefly to the murky heavens. "I

will do this for you, Huma ... of the Lance. I will do it for

you, not the gods. Never them."

Pale eyes narrowing, the ghost answered the young

knight's question. "He would have understood VERY well

what you were doing, Erik Dornay. You have my oath on

that. Unlike you, however, Huma would have understood

the meaning and the consequences as well. And, therefore,

he would never have considered your dark course." Rennard

shifted so as to allow the fire to illuminate his features.

"Huma would have known that such a course can lead one

only to a fate . . . like mine. Each life I took follows me,

punishes me." Rennard shivered, the flickering shadows

caused by the fire too lifelike at that moment. "The number

still horrifies me, when they begin to gather."

"But they killed Lucien! They don't deserve to live! I

have to ... to ..." Backing away, Dornay stumbled over to his

horse. He untied the animal and wearily mounted, ignoring

the fact that his helm still lay on the ground.

"You may deny me, mortal. You may even deny Huma,

whom you claim to admire. Can you, though, deny

yourself?"

Erik Dornay did not respond. He turned his horse and

urged the animal on with a harsh kick to the ribs.

Rennard materialized in front of him. "Huma - the squire I

trained, the knight I fought beside and against, the legend

that led you to the Solamnic orders - watches us. He had a

way of affecting others, Erik Dornay, even me. For that

reason and that reason alone, I will not let this end. I will

haunt you day and night if I have to."

The Knight of the Rose kicked his protesting charger

again, forcing the horse to ride through Rennard.

The ghost disappeared, made himself reappear in front

of the startled animal. The horse tried to turn away, but Erik

once more forced the terrified beast to keep to the chosen

route. Snorting in frustration and anxiety, the mount again

raced through the apparition and galloped down the path.

Rennard followed. He'd wait until the horse could go

no farther, which couldn't be very long. What would Erik do

when he realized it was impossible to escape the ghost?

Rennard did not know. The young knight was wavering in

his desire for revenge, but it was at such an emotional

junction that the greatest danger lay. Erik might go through

with his dark plan merely to prove to himself he was not a

man of weak resolve, that he kept his promises to his

friends. The ghost was all too aware of what people had

done for lesser reasons.

Dornay's flight took them into thickening woods. A

number of the trees had been uprooted, but most had more

or less survived intact. The forest should have meant

nothing to the ghost. Yet, for some reason that made no

sense to him, he was reminded of Morgion. Rennard grew

more cautious, even drawing his sword, just in case.

Ahead of him now, the Knight of the Rose suddenly

reined to a halt. The flatter land gave way again to hills.

There was a campfire in the distance.

The refugees? Those he pursued? Dornay evidently

thought so, for he moved with more stealth now.

Rennard debated with himself. He stared at the not-so-

distant flame and decided it would be wise to take a closer

look. Erik would not reach the camp for several minutes,

whereas the ghost could flit in and out in less time than it

took to draw a breath.

It proved easy to pick out a spot near, but not too near,

the encampment. As a precaution, Rennard was careful to

hide behind a gnarled oak, on the off-chance that he was

visible to all, not merely Erik.

In the dim light of Solinari, the ghost saw the terrible mob

that had murdered the knight Lucien.

These wretched people looked little more alive than

Rennard. They hardly seemed like a dangerous lot: sick old

men, desperate young men, worn down women, crying

children. With not enough to eat or wear, they were lost,

with no knowledge of surviving off the land.

They will not survive their journey. If Erik doesn't kill

them, they will wander around in circles until they all fall

from disease and exposure and starvation.

Without raising a finger, the knight could sentence them

all to death. With Erik's help, the group could survive.

Rennard returned to Erik, materialized next to him. The

young knight had found another corpse.

In the light of the moon, the dead man's visage was

nearly as horrible as that of the ghost. Rennard shivered,

though not from fear. There was no doubting that the

peasant - a man younger and much more burly than the

previous corpse - had not died easily. He had struggled until

the end.

"Do not touch him!So" Rennard commanded.

Erik looked up, his surprise giving way quickly to

nervous annoyance. "What are you doing here, phantom?"

"Saving you. This man died of plague."

Dornay quickly backed a respectable distance away.

Rennard moved closer, noted the man's contorted features,

the red splotches on his hands and face. A dusty film that

sparkled a bit in the moonlight had already settled on the

upturned visage. It had been a cruel death.

"Did you touch him?" Rennard demanded.

"No, thank Paladine, but I was almost ready to do so."

Rennard turned from the corpse, Morgion's legacy.

Legacy? Rennard turned back.

He thought of all disease as originating from the dark

lord, but some had origins more human than godly. Rennard

leaned close and studied the film on the unfortunate man's

visage. Even in the dim moonlight, the dust shimmered with

a metallic gleam.

"So some accursed things continue," Rennard muttered.

The victim had not died of plague. To the unknowing, it

would seem so, but Rennard recognized the dust. The other

symptoms, too, made sense, now that he knew the truth.

The legacy of Morgion had indeed killed this man, but

it was human hands that had done the work - an evil

powder, a poison, whose signs mimicked the plague. The

ghost knew its uses all too well. The powder was a favorite

tool of those who served the Master of the Bronze Tower. It

was sacred to them, as if they held the very power of their

god in their hands. The poison could be created by anyone

with the knowledge. The Lord of Decay was not a trusting

god, even with his followers. Only the most devout learned

the secrets of his worship. Morgion's powers were reserved

for those who guided the cult, the Nightmaster and his

acolytes.

Any loyalty Rennard had ever owed to his dread master

had* died with his body. Morgion rewarded failure with

death. Rennard had failed to kill the Solamnic warrior who

had discovered that there was a traitor in their midst.

Rennard had failed to kill Huma.

Rennard knew then the fate of the doomed peasants.

They would die, a few at a time, in the name of the faceless

god he once had called master.

"What do you see, specter?" Erik demanded.

"I see that your sword would be a kind fate to these

folk, Erik Dornay. They are being culled and sacrificed in

the name of Morgion."

The Knight of the Rose gripped the hilt of his sword

tightly. "You are certain?"

"I think I know well enough. The poor wretches are

easy prey for the cultists. Look at what lies here. They do

not have the strength to bury their dead anymore."

The young knight was grim, pale. He sheathed his

sword. Slowly, Erik returned to his horse.

"What will you do?" Rennard asked.

Dornay would not look at him. "I am leaving. I have no

need to stay. You should be pleased. I won't kill them"

As the Knight of the Rose mounted, the wraith

appeared before him. "You haven't spared the people. You

merely have given their deaths into the hands of others."

"They are no more concern of mine." The young Solamnian

Rmounted his steed, trying to depart. "I'm finished with

the knighthood, Oathbreaker. I have sung the 'Song of

Huma' for the last time."

He sounded resolved, but he was shaking. Rennard

knew that a battle was going on inside the young knight,

one that in some ways was as painful as the one Rennard

himself constantly fought.

"Very well," the ghost knight told him. There was only

one thing he could think of to do, and he prayed that both

his memory and the spirit of Huma - who seemed to have a

hand in this - would guide him. "I will stand aside."

Erik began slowly riding away. As he passed the

wraith, however, Rennard began to sing.

 

"Huma's death calls me!

His death!

Temper me with such death!

Paladine, lord god of knights!

Huma's life is all our lives!

Dragon-Huma survives!"

 

Dornay halted. The cursed knight continued to sing,

finding that the words - or words enough - were given to

him. The melody would forever play in his mind.

Erik pulled tightly on the reins, turned the horse

around, and gazed at the phantom. Rennard continued to

sing softly, his own memories of Huma adding a vibrancy

to the saga that made it come alive, for his memories were

tinged with truth, not stretched by time and legend.

"You - " Dornay began.

A stone whistled through the darkness and struck the

young knight soundly on the side of the head.

He grunted and fell from his mount. His charger

hesitated, but when Rennard ceased singing and started

toward the fallen knight, the terrified animal shied away.

Rennard stood over Erik, wondering what had

happened, what a ghost could do to help. Even if he were

able to touch the mortal, he might do more harm than good.

He might infect Dornay with the plague he carried. Morgion

would laugh at that.

When the shadows began to move, the ghost drew his

sword, prepared to face his own enemies. Then he saw that

these were not the ones who hunted him, but mortal men,

well-versed in hiding from their victims.

"The armored one is down," said one.

Someone else spoke, but his words were too quiet for

the ghost to hear. Then there came an answer.

"Crazy or not, he is a Knight of Solamnia! No, I have

something different in mind for him. Perhaps HE will

please our lord."

Seven figures, more like ghosts than the ghost himself,

gathered around the fallen knight. They did not see Rennard,

who stood among them.

"Take him," said one whose voice was a harsh rasp. He

turned to another, who was trying to catch the reins of the

horse. "Forget the beast! If he causes trouble, a little dust

will settle him!" The hooded figure rolled Dornay over,

peering at his armor. "A Knight of the Order of the Rose!

This must be a sign, that one of the servants of the Great

Enemy should fall into our hands so easily! Our infernal

Lord Morgion MUST find this sacrifice satisfactory."

"What of the others, Nightmaster?" The newcomers

were covered from head to toe in enveloping cloaks and

hoods. Only the Nightmaster's features were visible. He had

a long, vulpine face, and his skin looked mottled.

"This one will die this eve. The rest are sheep and will

be sacrificed as needed. The knight is of utmost importance.

For him, we must plan a ceremonial death, a slow,

debilitating death, with one of the slower, more intricate

poisons."

"But, Nightmaster," pleaded another, "we've tried

before and failed. Some are saying the gods have all

abandoned Krynn - "

"Blasphemy!" The leader's shout silenced the

questioner. Under the cleric's baleful gaze, the other cultists

reached down and took hold of the knight.

"Bind and gag him . . . just in case."

The acolytes obeyed with cold efficiency.

Desperate, Rennard swung his sword at the closest, but

his weapon passed through the man without harm. Rennard

stared at his hand, thinking how useless it was despite the

heavy gauntlet. To all living things, I am less than the wind!

A wave of agony sent him to his knees. His frustration

had left him open to the curse. The plague was coursing

through his body. He fought back the pain. Through blurred

eyes, Rennard watched the cultists carry Dornay away.

"Paladine . . . great lord . . . you cannot want this! I do

not want this and neither does Huma, your most loyal

servant! Will you give another victim to the foul, faceless

Master of the Bronze Tower?"

This plea, however, went ignored as far as he could tell.

The cultist had spoken of a rumor of the gods leaving

Krynn. Was that so? Was there no one, then, who could

save the young Solamnian?

No one . . . except a ghost. . . ?

"It seems I am always too weak! To save my life, I

gave myself to Morgion. Later, I killed myself, as Huma

watched. Now, I must let Erik die."

Unbidden, the "Song of Huma" came to his mind. Try

as he might, Rennard could not drive the melody away.

"Huma," the ghost whispered, "why must you, of all

people, continue to have faith in me?"

He struggled to his feet and started to follow, each

movement sheer torture. Every dead muscle, every long-

decayed organ, every broken joint in his body burned with

pain and fever. What he hoped to accomplish, the ghost did

not know. Rennard knew only that he could not yet give in.

He could hear the acolytes whisper.

"... death of another knight . . ."

"... Morgion reigns . . ."

"... another soul to add to his collection . . ."

Rennard doubled his pain-filled efforts to keep pace

with them. Fortunately, the servants of Morgion were

hampered by Erik's armored body.

Too soon, the Nightmaster signaled his acolytes to stop.

"This will do." The leader pointed to a small, cleared

patch of ground by a stream. Morgion's servants preferred

privacy for their work. It would not do for some peasant to

stumble on them. He might escape and warn the others.

The Nightmaster began chanting a litany that brought

back to Rennard faint memories of stench-ridden ruins and

dark practices for the glory of the despotic deity who was

their lord. It would not be long before the sacrifice. The

special death of a Knight of the Rose was a great gift to the

dark god. Small wonder that the Nightmaster might think it

sufficient to at last reunite the cultists with their master.

Rennard had willed himself to be visible to the young

knight. Now the ghost sought to do the same with the

cultists, hoping that his horrific appearance would send

them fleeing. Exactly how he had accomplished the feat the

first time, the ghost didn't know. Intense need, anger,

bitterness . . .

At first, he thought he'd failed, for surely someone

should have noticed him, then one of the acolytes raised his

head. His eyes settled on where the ghost stood.

An indrawn hiss alerted the others. Hoods shifted as the

servants of Morgion turned to see what had so startled their

companion. The acolytes quickly retreated at the sight of an

armed knight, but the Nightmaster held his ground.

"Have you come for your companion, Knight of

Solamnia? Come and take him ... or join him, perhaps.

Morgion will be doubly pleased, yes." The cloaked figure

held out his hands, presumably to show he had no weapon.

Rennard stepped forward, his eyes on the Nightmaster.

A cloud of dust shot forth from the hand of the cult

leader. Rennard stopped. The assassins leaned forward in

expectation, awaiting the horrible death that soon would

come to the knight.

He did not need to look down to see that the poison had

ended up settling on the ground beneath his feet. "I am

beyond your deadly trick, mortal. The poison dust affects

only those who still draw breath. I am long past that."

He stepped closer, enabling them, even in the dim light

of Solinari, to see him clearly.

Not entirely certain whether what they saw was truly

what they saw, two of the acolytes drew daggers. If the

blades were as Rennard recalled, each was coated with one

of the cult's concoctions.

The nearest thrust his dagger into the ghost's throat.

The weapon found no substance.

The acolyte dropped his dagger, turned, and fled. An other

joined him.

"Who are you, phantom?" the Nightmaster demanded.

"One who knows your ways, servant of Morgion. One

who once went by the name Rennard."

His name meant nothing to the acolytes who dared to

remain, but the Nightmaster reacted with glee. "Rennard -

still called Oathbreaker by the knighthood! He has sent you

to me as a sign! Our work has not been in vain. Our Lord

Morgion has not abandoned us after all! The lies that the

gods left Krynn have been disproved! All our sacrifices, all

the lives we have sent to our lord, have at last won his

notice again!" He eyed Dornay's still form with pleasure.

"We must do something special for you, Sir Knight."

Rennard had visions of more and more sacrifices made

in the name of Morgion ... all deaths for which he would be

accountable.

More shadows to haunt him.

"I do not come to you . . . but FOR you!" Acting

instinctively, his anger deluding him into believing he was

flesh and blood, Rennard leapt at the unsuspecting

Nightmaster, grappling for the man's throat.

The ghost's hand touched cloth and flesh.

The discovery was so shocking that he almost lost his

grip on the Nightmaster. The man's hood fell back as the

ghost dragged his captive forward. His pale, ravaged face

was almost as horrible as the ghost's, but Rennard was well

used to such sights from when he had been one of them.

Slowly and carefully, he spoke, his voice as chill as death.

"There is no Morgion. The god of disease has indeed fled

us." The ghost felt his pain ease. "There will be no more

sacrifices."

The leader of the cultists shivered and, at first, the ghost

thought that the chills were from fright. Then he saw the

man sweat, saw the patches of inflamed skin that gave the

scarlet plague its name.

Rennard had transmitted his accursed disease to the

Nightmaster . . . and like a flame on dry kindling, it was

spreading rapidly.

"Please!" the man begged. He knew what was happening.

No one understands poison better than the poisoner. "Let

me go, before it's too late!"

A grim satisfaction filled Rennard. "You wanted Morgion.

Here is his legacy. You should be happy, Nightmaster."

He threw the infected cultist into the remaining

acolytes, who were staring, frozen in fear. They fell

together in a jumbled heap, the servants frantically trying to

separate themselves from their stricken leader. It was too

late for them, however. They were infected the moment the

Night-master touched them, for such was the intensity of

the malady the gods had granted to the traitorous knight

after his death. For the only time he could recall, Rennard

was grimly pleased at the rapid speed of the plague. He

doubted any of them would live to see morning.

During the chaos, Erik Dornay woke from the blow that

had laid him unconscious. He stared at the screaming

acolytes, then his unholy companion.

"Rennard?" he asked, still dazed from the blow.

The Nightmaster rose and took a step toward Erik. The

ghost shifted, standing in front of the assassin. The Night-

master stumbled back. His remaining followers ran away.

When the Nightmaster tried to join them, however, he found

the spirit before him. Rennard drew his sword.

"I regret I cannot leave you to the fate you deserve. I

can take no chances, mortal."

The ghost knight thrust his blade into the man's chest.

The sword proved very solid.

"Why did you kill him?" Erik asked, struggling to free

himself from his bonds. "His face ... he looked as if he was

dying already."

Rennard glanced down at the body. "The others will

run back to their temple, beg Morgion to save them. He

won't. He can't. When they die, the scarlet plague dies, for

such is its way. This one, however, would serve his master

to the end. Nightmasters are chosen from among the most

fanatical of Morgion's followers. If I had let him go, he

might have tried to spread the curse to those poor souls in

the camp."

"You . . . you have my gratitude for saving me."

"Huma saved you, not I," Rennard remarked, thinking of

the song. Sheathing his blade, he moved to Erik's side and

tried to take one of the young knight's daggers in order to

cut the ropes. His hand passed through it. Dornay managed

to free himself.

Rising, Erik stared at the body of the cleric, then back

in the direction of the refugee camp. "You were right. These

fiends were trailing them."

"Yes, Morgion's toadies were sacrificing them one at a

time in the hope of calling the Faceless One back. Come

now, there is something I want to show you."

"What?"

"Your friend's murderers."

On foot, it took several minutes to reach the outskirts

of the encampment. Someone evidently had heard the short,

fierce struggle, for the party had gathered close around the

fire. Four of the more fit were keeping watch. Women

clutched whimpering children. Men held sticks of wood for

weapons. All looked terrified.

"There they are," Rennard said. "What will you do?"

"They look . . ." Erik hesitated.

"Hopeless? Desperate? In the Dragon Wars, I saw

many who looked that way."

Erik eyed him. "You're asking me to go to them, aid

them? But the danger is past!"

"If the cultists do not get them, then bandits or

starvation will. Look at them, Erik Dornay. They need your

pity, not your hatred. Huma would have tried to help them.

He would have understood that a moment of despair turned

them into an inhuman mob. His duty would have been to

restore their humanity."

The Knight of the Rose still hesitated. "If I go to them,

they'll attack me. I'll be forced to kill them! I am not Huma!

He was a - "

"Huma was a man." Rennard saw movement and

glanced around. The shadows seemed to thicken, come to

life.

"What's wrong?" Dornay began to move closer.

Rennard kept him at bay with his sword.

"Come no closer. I have already risked you once. If I

can spread my curse to those curs, then I can spread it to

you."

Erik stepped back with great reluctance.

The shadows, Rennard saw, were taking shape and form.

"Now it is time for you to go, Erik Dornay."

"But what about you?"

Rennard heard no whispering yet, but he was certain

the eyes of the hunters burned into him. The ghost readied

his blade and moved farther from the encampment. "I must

attend to matters of my own."

"Matters . . ." Erik looked into the shadows. "Paladine

save us! What are they?"

"I told you that even ghosts may be haunted by ghosts,

Erik Dornay. These are mine - the shadows of every knight

who died by my hand or by my actions. They cannot rest,

and so I cannot."

"What will they do?" the mortal whispered in awe.

"Pursue me, fight me, and kill me. Then, when their

need for vengeance is sated, I will rise, and the entire

tragedy will happen all over again."

"That's monstrous!"

"It is justice. Even I know that."

"What can I do?" Dornay began to reach for his sword.

"Help those people."

"I mean for you!"

The ghost laughed. "So I now have two champions -

you and Huma! Both trying to save me from what I am!"

Rennard shook his head. "There is one thing you can do for

me, my ... my friend. Go to those you sought to kill. Let me

see that I have accomplished my task."

Dornay looked at the shadows of long-dead knights,

gathering to attack, then at their intended victim. At last, he

straightened and brought his sword up to his face in the

knight's salute. "I will pray for you, Sir Rennard."

The shadows still had not moved. They, too, were

waiting. "Once you depart, do not look back," Rennard said.

"I would prefer it that way."

Erik nodded and turned away. The ghost watched, his

own renewed pain and the nearing shadows forgotten. The

young Solamnian moved through the woods and, without

pause, entered the camp. The people were frightened,

staring at him uncertainly. Those who held weapons waited

for the knight to attack.

The Knight of the Rose planted his sword in the earth and

held up a hand in a sign of peace. He said something that

Rennard could not hear, but which caused the refugees to

lower their weapons.

One of them stepped forward. Erik held out his hand.

The man grasped the knight's hand thankfully.

Rennard nodded, satisfied. He turned away from the

mortals to face the shadows who waited for him, across a

stream. Fog began to envelop him, and he knew that his

brief journey to Krynn soon would be only a memory.

Had it all been coincidence? Or did the gods, who had

left Krynn, still have ways of watching over those who

interested them?

The hunters waited, even when the sounds of mortal

beings faded away in the fog. Rennard tensed. Around him,

the fog gathered thicker.

"Why do you wait?" he shouted. "Why now?" They made

no answer. Even their whispers were preferable to the

silence, he realized.

The sound of sword striking shield came from behind

him. Rennard turned and stepped into the stream. Water

splashed. His boot struck the surface and sank in. Rennard

stared at the water. He dropped his sword and fell to his

knees. Fearfully, the ghostly knight reached down.

Small ripples spread out from his fingers. The tips of

his fingers TOUCHED the stream. Rennard thrust his hands

into the water. He cupped his hands together.

His own words came back to him. WHAT MUST I DO

TO EARN EVEN A SIP OF WATER?

Rennard brought the liquid to his parched lips and

drank. For the first time since his death, the eternal fever

that burned within him cooled.

Rennard lowered his hands into the stream again.

Another sip. He needed another sip.

This time, however, all was as it had been. The stream

flowed through his fingers as if they were not there . . .

which they were not.

The shadows moved. He had been granted his drink of

water. Now, it was time to return to the Abyss.

Krynn faded completely then. The stream disappeared

before his eyes. In its place lay the familiar plain of death.

Rennard grabbed his sword and began to back away

from the oncoming knights. Oddly, he did not feel as afraid

as before, even knowing that this flight, like so many others,

would end with his downfall.

Another question came to his mind, one that he often

had asked before without hope.

"I earned the sip of water. Will I earn my rest as well?"

The shadows closed in. Rennard thought he heard the

distant strains of a song.

 

SONG OF HUMA

 

TRACY HICKMAN

 

Sularus Humah durvey The Honor of Huma survives

Karamnes Humah durvey The Glory of Huma survives

Draco! Dragons, hear!

Solamnis na fai tarus Solamnic breath is taken

Mithas! Life; hear!

Est paxum kudak draco My sword is broken of Dragons

Draco-Human Dragon-Huma

oparu sac temper me now

Draco-Humah Dragon-Huma

coni parl ai fam Grant me grace and love

Saat mas Solamnis When the heart of the Knighthood

vegri nough wavers in doubt

Coni est Lor Tarikan Grant me this, Warrior Lord

Sularus Humah Honor is Huma

Karram Humah Glory is Huma

Solamnis Humah durvey Solamnic Knight Huma survives

Karamnes Humah durvey Glorified Huma survives

Mithas! Life; hear!

Humah dix karai! Huma's death calls me!

Ex dix! His death!

Oparu est dix! Temper me with such death!

Solamnis Lor Alan Paladine! Paladine, lord god of knights!

Humah mithas est mithasah! Huma's life is all our lives!

Draco-Humah durvey! Dragon-Huma survives!

 

OGRE UNAWARE

 

DAN PARKINSON

 

Through most of a day - from when the sun was high overhead until

now, when the sun was gone behind the dagger-spire peaks of the

Khalkist Mountains and night birds heralded the first stars glimpsed

above - through those hours and those miles he had trailed the puny

ones, thinking they might lead him to others of their kind. Now they

had stopped. Now they were settling in on the slope below him, stopping

for the night, and his patience was at an end.

Crouching low, blending his huge silhouette with the

brush of the darkening hillside, he heard their voices

drifting up to him - thin, human voices as frail as the bodies

from which they issued, as fragile as the bones within those

bodies, which he could crush with a squeeze of his hand. He

heard the strike of flint, smelled the wispy smoke of their

tinder, and saw the first flickers of the fire they were

building - a fire to guard them against the night.

His chuckle was a rumble of contempt, deep within his

huge chest. It was a campfire to heat their meager foods and

to protect them from whatever might be out there, watching.

Humans! His chuckle became a deep, rumbling growl. Like

all of the lesser races, the small, frail races, they put their

trust in a handful of fire and thought they were safe.

Safe from me? His wide mouth spread in a sneering grin,

exposing teeth like sharpened chisels. Contempt burned

deep within his eyes. Safe? No human was safe from Krog.

Krog knew how to deal with humans - and with anyone else

who ventured into his territory. He found them, tracked

them down, and killed them. Sometimes they carried

something he could use, sometimes not, but it was always a

pleasure to see their torment as he crushed and mangled

them, a joy to hear their screams.

There were a dozen or more in the party below him.

Four were armed males, the rest a motley, ragged group

bound together by lengths of rope tied around their necks.

Slaves, Krog knew. The remnants of some human village

ransacked by slavers. There were many such groups

roaming the countryside in these days - slavers and their

prey. Small groups like this, usually, though sometimes the

groups came together in large camps, to trade and to export

their prizes to distant markets. Those, the big groups, he

enjoyed most, but now he was tired of waiting.

He studied them; his cunning eyes counted their

shadows in the dusk below. The slaves were grouped just

beyond the little fire, but it was their captors he watched

most closely, marking exactly where each of the armed ones

settled around their fire. Experience had taught him to deal

first with the armed ones. He carried the scars of sword and

axe cuts, from times when armed humans had managed a

slash or two before he finished them. The cuts had been

annoying. Better, he had learned, to deal with the weapon-

bearers quickly. Then he could finish off the others in any

way that amused him.

For a long time now, ever since the beginning of the

strangenesses that some called omens, humans and other

small races had been wandering into the territory that Krog

considered his - the eastern slopes of the Khalkist

Mountains. Chaotic times had fallen upon the plains

beyond, and the people of those plains were in turmoil.

Krog knew little of that, cared less. Every day, humans and

others were drifting westward toward the Khalkists, some

fleeing, some in pursuit. . . and they all were sport for Krog.

Below him on the slope, the humans' campfire blazed

brightly, and the humans gathered around it. He watched,

and repressed the urge to rush down at them, to hear their

first screams of terror. Let them have a minute or two to

stare into their precious fire. Let them night-blind

themselves so they would not see him until he was among

them. It would make his attack easier, with less likelihood

of any of them fleeing into the darkness.

Stare into the light, he thought, licking wide, scarred

lips with keen anticipation of the pleasures to come. Stare

into the fire, and . . .

He raised his head; his grin faded. He stared into

another fire, a fire that sprang from a glowing coal in the

overhead sky and grew until it seemed to fill half the sky.

Searing light far brighter than firelight, brighter than the

light of day, billowed out and out until the entire eastern sky

was ablaze with it. Sudden winds howled high above,

shrieks and bellows of anguish as though the very world

were screaming. The radiance aloft grew and intensified,

instant by instant, a blinding blaze of sky in which

something huge, something enormous and hideous,

coalesced, spinning and shrieking, and plunged downward

to meet the eastern horizon in a blinding blast of fury.

Stunned and half blinded, he stood on the slope, barely

aware of the sounds all around him - birds taking terrified

flight, small creatures scurrying past, the screams and

shouts of the terrified humans just down the slope. Panic

and fear, everywhere... then silence. A silence as complete

as the recesses of a cavern seemed to grow from the world

itself as the brilliant, distant light dimmed beyond the

horizon. A slow, agonizing dimming, like the reluctant

ebbing of a hundred sunsets, all at once descended.

Out of the silence came a sound that was not a sound

as much as a tingling in the air, a mounting of invisible

tensions. Past the eastern horizon, where the immense flare

still lingered, lightning danced and black clouds like

mountain ranges marched up the sky, one after another.

The inaudible sounds grew and grew, becoming a torrent of

vibration that strummed the winds and made rocks dance

on the slope. In the distance, gouts of brilliance spewed

upward, rising above the clouds to shower the eastern

world with marching storms of fire.

Shouting and screaming, terrified creatures rushed past

him, the largest among them less than half his size and

wide-eyed with fear. The humans from the slope below,

slavers and enslaved, fled together in panic. They ran within

arm's reach of him, and he barely noticed them as they

passed. Dazed and dazzled, he stared out across a landscape

gone insane, a landscape where distant mountains writhed

and shattered and sank from view, where serpentine

brilliance danced in a fire-lit sky gone black with climbing

smoke, where the horizon heaved upward like a tidal wave,

rushing toward him.

Winds like hammers swooped down from aloft and

struck him with a force that sent him tumbling backward,

arms and legs flailing helplessly as oven-hot gusts rolled

him uphill a dozen yards and dropped him into a heaving

pit. His club was wrenched from his fingers and flew

skyward, carried by raging winds. Struggling, fighting for

balance, he got his feet under him and climbed, drawing

himself over the edge of the chasm just as it closed with

stone jaws behind him.

In a bedlam of howling, furnace winds, shattering

stone, and deep, bone-jarring rumbles from beneath the

ground, he lay gasping for breath, then raised stricken eyes

as the nearer mountains to the west began to explode.

Huge boulders rose into the sky like grains of flung

sand, then showered back down onto the slopes, bounding

and rolling downward, bringing other debris with them as

they came.

He struggled upward, dodging and dancing, flinging

himself this way and that as monstrous rock fragments shot

past, shaking the ground with their force. A tumbling

boulder the size of an elven mansion bore down on him, and

he flung himself aside, hugging the ground as it hit,

bounced and sailed over, missing him by inches. He raised

himself and turned to watch it go, and something hit him

from behind - something massive and stone-hard that

smashed against his head, bowling him over. Chaos rang in

his ears, and he saw the hard, shaking ground rise to meet

him . . . then saw nothing more.

Where he fell, shards of stone skidded and bounced,

piling up in drifts around him. After a long time, the stonefalls

slowed and stopped, and a creeping, gurgling torrent of

mud and silt from ravaged slopes above rolled down to bury

the lesser debris. He was not aware of being buried. He

wasn't aware of anything now. The flowing soil found him,

covered him and passed on, and there was nothing there to

see.

With the winds came clouds, and with the clouds came

rain - torrents of rain washing over a ravaged land, rain and

more rain, scouring channels and gullies in the sediment

among the tumbled stones.

The rains came and went and came again, and between

storms the ravaged land lay in silence.

 

*****

 

On a caprock hillside, where scoured stone rose in

stacked layers above the climbing slopes, evening light

made a patchwork of shadows, hiding indentations in the

stone cliffs, camouflaging them from prying eyes. Here on

the south face of the cliff, low in its surface, one of those

somber shadows might have seemed slightly different from

those around it, to the practiced eye - darker and deeper,

the opening of a cavern that opened to other caverns

beyond.

Screened from view by jutting rock, the spot was just

the sort of place the combined clans of Bulp had been

seeking for weeks - a place that could be This Place until it

was time to move on to Another Place.

And, seeking it, they had found it and moved right in.

Furtively, they entered, scouted around, were satisfied, and

reported the find to their leader.

With great ceremony, then, His Royalness Gorge III,

Highbulp by Choice and Lord Protector of This Place and

Who Knew How Many Other Places, made his own brief

tour of inspection, strutting here and there, looking at this

and that, muttering under his breath and in general behaving

like a Highbulp.

Various of his subjects trailed after him, occasionally

stumbling over one another.

At a wall of rock, Gorge stopped and raised his candle.

"What this?" he demanded.

At his shoulder, his wife and consort, the Lady Drule,

peered at the wall and said, "Rock. Cave have rock walls.

Wouldn't be cave without walls."

Old Hunch, the Grand Notioner of the Bulp Clan,

padded forward, leaned on his mop-handle staff, to ask,

"What Highbulp's problem?"

"Want to know what is that." The Lady Drule pointed at

the wall.

"That wall," Hunch said. "Rock wall. So what?"

"Highbulp doin' inspec . . . explo . . . lookin' 'round,"

Gorge proclaimed. He moistened a finger, touched the wall,

then tasted his finger. "Rock wall," he decided. "Cave got

rock wall this side."

"Other sides, too," Hunch pointed out. "Caves do."

Satisfied, Gorge wandered away from the wall, raised

his eyes to look critically at the rock ceiling, and tripped

over a bump in the rock floor. He sprawled flat and lost his

candle.

"Highbulp clumsy oaf," Drule muttered, helping him to

his feet. Someone returned his candle to him, and he looked

around, found a foot-high ledge, and sat on it. "Bring Royal

Stuff," he ordered.

Several of his subjects scouted around, found the

tattered sack that was the Holder of Royal Stuff, and

brought it to him. Digging into it, throwing aside various

objects - a rabbit skull, a broken spearhead, a battered cup -

Gorge drew forth a broken antler nearly as tall as he was.

An elk antler, it once had been part of a set, attached to a

tanned elk hide. The hide and the other antler were long

gone, but he still had this one, and he raised it like a scepter.

"This place okay for This Place," Gorge III decreed, "so

this place This Place." The ceremony ended, he tossed aside

the elk antler. "Get stew goin'," he ordered. " 'Bout time to

eat."

The Lady Drule stepped aside to confer with other

ladies of the clan. There were shrugs and shaking heads.

She paused in thought, gazing into the murky reaches of the

cavern.

"Rats," she said.

Gorge glanced around. "What?"

"Rats. Need meat for stew. Time for hunt rats."

Within moments, small figures scurried all around the

cave and into the tunnels leading from it. Their shouts and

chatter, the sounds of scuffing, scrambling feet, the thuds

of people falling down and the oaths of those who

stumbled over them, all receded into the reaches of the

cavern.

Gorge looked distinctly irritated. "Where ever'body

go?"

"Huntin' rats," the Lady Drule explained.

"Rats," Gorge grumbled. No longer the center of

everyone's attention, he felt abandoned and surly. He

wanted to sulk, but sulking usually put him to sleep, and

he was too hungry to sleep.

It was a characteristic of the race called Aghar, whom

most races called gully dwarves: Once a thing was begun,

simply keep on doing it. When at rest, they tended to stay at

rest. But once in motion, they kept moving. One of the

strongest drives of any gully dwarf was simple inertia.

Thus the rat hunt, once begun, went on and on. The

cave held plenty of rats, the hunting was good, and the

gully dwarves were enjoying the sport . . . and exploring

further and further as they hunted.

Stew, however, was in progress. Seeing that her

husband was becoming more and more testy, the Lady

Drule had rounded up a squadron of other ladies when the

first rats were brought in. Now they had a good fire going,

and a stew of gathered greens, wild onions, turnips and

fresh rat meat was beginning to bubble.

Gorge didn't wait for the rest to come to supper. He dug

into one of the clan packs, found a stew bowl that once had

been the codpiece on some Tall warrior's armor, and helped

himself.

He was only halfway through his second serving when

a group of gully dwarves came racing in from the shadows

at the rear of the cave and jostled to a stop before him.

"Highbulp come look!" one said, excitedly. "We find . .

. ah ..." He turned to another. "What we find?"

"Other cave," the second one reminded him.

"Right," the first continued. "Highbulp come see other

cave. Got good stuff."

 

"What kind good stuff?" Gorge demanded, stifling a

belch.

The first turned to the second. "What kind good stuff?"

"Cave stuff," the second reminded him. "Pretty stuff."

"Cave stuff, Highbulp," the first reported.

"Better be good," Gorge snapped. "Good 'nough for

inter . . . int . . . butt in when Highbulp tryin' to eat?"

"Good stuff," several of them assured him.

"What kind stuff? Gold? Clay? Bats? Pyr . . . pyr . . .

pretty rocks? What?" Another resounding belch caught him,

this one unstifled.

The first among them turned to the second. "What?"

"Pretty rocks," the second reminded. "Highbulp come

see!"

"Rats," Gorge muttered. Those around him seemed so

excited - there were dozens of them now - that he set down

his codpiece bowl, picked up his candle, and went to see

what they had found. A parade of small figures carrying

candles headed for the rear of the cavern - the guides

leading, Gorge following them, and a horde of others

following him. Most of them - latecomers on the scene -

didn't know where they were going or why, but they

followed anyway. Far back in the cavern, a crack in the rock

led into an eroded tunnel, which wound away, curving

upward.

As he entered the crack, Gorge belched mightily. "Too

much turnips in stew," he muttered.

By ones and threes and fives, the gully dwarves entered

and disappeared from the sight of those remaining.

The Lady Drule and several other ladies were just

coming back from a side chamber, where they had been

preparing sleeping quarters. At sight of the last candles

disappearing into the tunnel, Drule asked, "Now what goin'

on? Where Highbulp?"

Hunch was inspecting the stew. He looked up and

shrugged. "Somebody find somethin'. Highbulp go see." He

tasted the stew. "Good," he said. He tasted again, then

turned away, philosophically. "Life like stew," he said.

"Fulla rats an' turnips."

The Lady Drule glanced after him, mildly bewildered,

then glanced around the cavern. Only a few of the males

were there, some asleep, some more interested in eating

than in following the Highbulp around, and two or three

who had started on the trek into the tunnel, then lost interest

and turned back.

She could see them clearly, she noticed. The cavern

suddenly was very well lighted, light flooding in from the

entrance and growing brighter by the moment. Near the fire,

a sleeping gully dwarf rolled over, sat up and blinked,

shading his eyes. "Huh!" he said. "Mornain' already?"

The light grew, its color changing from angry red to

orange, to yellow and then to brilliant white, nearly blinding

them, even in the shadows of the cavern. Other sleeping

souls awoke and gaped about them.

"What happenin'?" the Lady Drule wondered. Hunch

returned with a bowl and filled it with stew. "Get-tin'

lighter," he said, absently. Abruptly there was a howling at

the entrance, and a gust of wind like an oven blast swept

into the cave. The stew in Hunch's bowl seemed to come

alive. It spewed up and out, showering gravy halfway

across the chamber. The bowl followed, wrenched from the

Grand Notioner's grip, and Hunch followed that, rolling

and shouting, his mop-handle flailing.

Everywhere, then, gully dwarves were scurrying for

cover - stumbling, falling, rolling, fleeing from the brilliant,

howling entrance. They scurried into crevices, rolled into

holes, dodged behind erosion pillars . . . and abruptly there

was silence. The bright light still flooded in from the

entrance, but now not quite so blinding. The roaring wind

died away and the howling diminished to a low, continuing

rumble almost below hearing.

Silence . . . then the rumbling increased. The floor of

the cavern seemed to dance, vibrating to the sound. Bits of

stone and showers of dust fell from the walls, and chunks of

rock parted from the ceiling to crash downward. A rattling,

bouncing flood of gravel buried the stew pot and the fire,

and there was a new sound above the rumbling - the high,

keening wail of stone splitting.

The cavern's entrance collapsed with a roar. Tons of

broken stone slid across the opening, burying it, sealing it.

Within, the rumbling and the rattle of rockfall were a chaos

of noise, but now the noise built in darkness, for there was

no light to see.

 

*****

 

The tunnel from the back of the cavern called This

Place wound deep into the capstone of the hill, bending and

turning, always angling upward. His Royalness Gorge III,

Highbulp and leader of clans, was somewhat to the rear of

his expedition when the rest of them rounded a bend in the

rising tunnel and saw the light ahead. Somewhere along the

way, Gorge had decided that his feet were sore, and had

taken to limping whenever he thought about it.

But when he heard the shouts and exclamations ahead

of him - cries of, "Hey! This pretty!" and "Nice stuff, huh?"

and "Where that light comin' from?" - he forgot his limp

and hurried to see what was going on. Rounding a bend, he

found a traffic tie-up in a well-lighted cave, where the light

seemed to grow brighter moment by moment. The first

arrivals there had stopped in awe; others had piled into them

from behind, and several had fallen down. Wading around

and through tangles of his subjects, Gorge pushed past them

and stopped. The cavern was a wide oval, an erosion

chamber where ancient seeps had collected, and at the top

of it was a hole that opened to the sky ... a sky that suddenly

was as bright as day.

"What goin' on here?" Gorge demanded. "What light

through yonder . . . yon . . . why hole all lit up?"

"Dunno," several of his subjects explained. Then one of

them pointed aside. "See, Highbulp? Pretty rocks."

He looked, and his eyes widened. One entire wall of

the cavern glistened like brilliant gold, layer upon layer of

bright embedment shining in the dark stone. "Wow," the

Highbulp breathed . . . and belched. As though echoing him,

the whole cavern shuddered and rumbled.

"Way too much turnips," Gorge decided, as those

around him looked at him in admiration. He turned his

attention again to the wall of pyrites. He moistened a finger,

rubbed it against a glittering lode, then licked it. "Real

nice," he said. "Good pyr . . . pyr . . . pretty rocks."

Spying an exceptionally bright nodule, he reached for it.

The cavern belched again - a deep, rumbling roll of sound -

and the node fell loose in his hand. Gorge belched in

surprise, and the cavern echoed him. The light in This Place

had dimmed slightly, and suddenly became murky with

dust. Gravel fell and rattled around them as the whole cave

shook in a spasm. "Hiccups?" someone asked.

"Not me," the Highbulp declared. "What goin' on

here?" As though the mountain had given a stone belch, the

cavern vibrated and began to shake. Gully dwarves danced

around in confusion, stumbling and falling over one

another. The spasm subsided slightly, then came again, this

time far more violently. Fallen gully dwarves piled up on

the gravel-strewn floor, and the Highbulp was thrown head

over heels, to land atop them.

" 'Nough of this!" he shrieked. "Ever'body run like

crazy!"

They would have, gladly, but a rumbling like

approaching thunder growled all around them. Debris from

above pelted down on them, and the cavern's floor heaved

and rose, pitching them into the center, where they piled up

in a

writhing, struggling mass with the Highbulp buried

somewhere within.

Then, with a tremendous roar, the hole in the ceiling

split wide, the cavern's floor heaved upward, the very world

seemed to belch mightily, and the hilltop above erupted in a

gout of gravel, pyrite fragments, dust and tumbling gully

dwarves.

The Highbulp found himself airborne, and shrieked in

terror, then he was falling, and thudded onto hard ground

beneath a smoky red sky. Someone landed on top of him,

and others all around. For a time he lay dazed, then he

raised eyes that went round with wonder. He was on a hill-

top, surrounded by other stunned gully dwarves, and all

around was confusion. In the distance to the east, the

horizon and the sky above it were a cauldron of blazing,

writhing flames, where smoke and black clouds marched

across a howling sky. And in the opposite direction, to the

west, mountains were exploding.

"Wha' happen?" several voices echoed one another.

"Cave all turnippy," someone said. "Burp us out."

For long minutes, the ground beneath them shook and

danced, and they hugged its surface in panic. The sky rained

dust and cinders on them, and huge winds howled overhead.

Then there came a lull, the quaking subsided, and dark

raindrops thudded into the dust around them.

One by one, the gully dwarves got to their feet. They

crowded around the Highbulp, making it almost impossible

for him to get his feet under him.

"Back off," he growled. Those nearest backed away,

creating a ripple effect in the crowd that knocked some of

those on the outside down again. Gorge stood up, tried to

dust himself off, and a large raindrop splattered on his nose.

He looked around at his gathered followers, squinting in the

darkness that had replaced the brilliant light.

Lightning split the sky overhead, illuminating

everything, and Gorges latest belch turned to a shriek of

panic. All around them were Talls - humans - armed men

with swords and axes that glistened in the storm light -

armed, determined human slavers . . . and there was

nowhere for the gully dwarves to run.

 

*****

 

The rains came and went and came again, scouring a

savaged land that never again would be as it had been

before. Gray morning light shone on silent chaos, a land

rent and ripped and devastated, a landscape of desolation,

where huge boulders lay scattered upon silt-buried slopes, a

place of sundered silence in a land torn and rent by

cataclysm.

Mountains no longer had the dagger-spire silhouettes

of yesterday, but instead presented cratered and tumbled

faces to the dawn. Their slopes were strewn with boulders.

Jagged shards jutted like teeth from the pitted flows of

settling topsoil scoured from ravaged ranges above.

On one such slope a searching falcon circled near the

surface, drawn by scurrying rodents among the stones. The

bird spiraled downward, gliding just above the stones, then

beat its wings and darted away when something moved in a

place where nothing should be.

The falcon beat away, and behind it a grotesque, recum

bent figure stirred. Half buried in silt, it had seemed only a

fragment of thrown rock - until it moved. It stirred, shifted

a portion of itself upward, and drying mud sloughed away

to reveal a large, rounded head surmounting great, knotted

shoulders. It raised its head and opened puzzled eyes,

peered this way and that for a moment, then pushed its

huge torso upward on massive arms, and the rest of it

became visible. Legs the size of tree trunks bent and

flexed, and the creature paused on hands and knees to look

around again, then shifted to a sitting position.

Big, calloused hands went to its head, and it closed its

eyes in momentary pain. A growl like distant thunder

escaped it. Its grimace revealed teeth like yellow chisels, in

a mouth that was wide and cruel.

The jolt of pain passed, and the creature sighed,

opening its eyes again. Something had happened.

Something inconceivable that seemed at the edge of

memory but was just beyond recall. In a muttering voice as

deep as gravel in a well, it faltered with words. "Wha . . .

what? What happen? Where?" Wincing at the effort, it tried

to remember . . . and could not. Only a word came to memory, one

significant word. A name? Yes, a name.

His own name. Krog.

Sore and shaking, he stood. Small, unseen things

scurried away among the tumbled stones.

KROG. "I... am Krog," he muttered. It was true. He

knew that, but nothing more. His name was Krog, but what

had happened to him? Where was he? And WHY?

"Who am I?" he whispered. "Krog... what is Krog? WHO is

Krog?"

The battered landscape told him nothing. In the

distance, where dawning grew, were smoke and haze. In the

other direction were high mountains, but they meant

nothing to him. Everywhere he looked, he saw a bleak and

sundered landscape that was the only landscape he knew

because he remembered no others.

It was as though he had just been born, and abruptly he

felt a terrible loneliness - a need for ... something ... for

belonging. There must be someone somewhere, someone to

care for him. Someone to teach him, to help him

understand. There HAD to be someone.

He turned full circle, big hooded eyes scanning the

distance. Nothing moved. Nothing anywhere suggested that

there was another living creature other than himself.

"Not right," he muttered, the words a low growl that

came from deep within a great chest. "Not just Krog. Not all

alone. Has to be ... somebody else here."

He started walking on unsteady legs. All directions were

the same, so he went the way he had been facing, with the

mountains to his left and the gray, hazed morning to his

right. Ahead was a caprock hill, and he headed toward it.

Remembering nothing except his name, knowing nothing

except that he had awakened from nowhere and was headed

to a place, aware of nothing except his aching head and the

driving need not to be alone, Krog went looking for

someone.

 

*****

 

"Even the mountains are different," one of the men said,

pointing with a coiled whip at the distant peaks standing

against a high gray sky. "What in the names of all the gods

could have done this?"

Those nearest him shrugged and shook their heads.

Men of the tribe of Shalimin - reviled by those who knew

them as "the raiders," or "marauders," or, simply, "the

slavers" - were men who knew the ways of the wild, not the

ways of the world. The changes they saw now in that world

were abrupt and massive; the night of change had been

terrifying. Yet, whatever had done it, now it seemed to be

past. And if sawtooth crags now stood where before had

been dagger-spire peaks, if what had been meadows now

were fields of strewn stone, if entire forests that had stood

yesterday now lay fallen and desolate, it was not theirs to

worry about.

It was over. The world was still here, and they still

walked on it, and it was time to regroup.

"You!" one of them shouted, brandishing a whip. "Back in

line and stay there!" Ahead of him, a small, terrified

creature scurried back into its place in the ragged line

proceed ing northward. "Gully dwarves!" He spat. "We

won't show much profit from this haul, Daco."

"Better than nothing, though," his companion said.

"They can be sold for simple work. They're strong enough

to tote and fetch."

"They won't bring a copper a head." Daco sneered.

"Slave buyers know about gully dwarves. They're

unreliable, they're clumsy, and they can't be taught

anything useful."

"Devious, I've heard," someone added. "I wouldn't

want one for a slave of my own. Always plotting and

scheming. They'd be a danger to have around if they could

concentrate on anything for more than a minute or two.

You, there! Get on your feet and walk! Nobody said you

could stop and sleep!" He turned to the flanker opposite

him. "See? That's what I'm talking about. The one with the

curly beard there . . . just like that, he was taking time out

for a nap."

The motley assemblage made its way northward across

a strange and tumbled land, a dozen armed men driving

several dozen gully dwarves. The little creatures - barely

half the size of their captors - stumbled in an erratic double

line, each bound to those in front and behind by a length of

cord tied around his neck. The men surrounded them,

herded them like cattle.

The slavers had been two separate parties only days

before, and each party had been successful. Good slaves for

the market. Human slaves - men, women and children. Then

the Cataclysm - whatever it was - had occurred. Each party

had lost its captives in the ensuing chaos, and now they had

nothing to show for their expeditions except these pitiful

gully dwarves they had chanced across.

Little enough to show, when they arrived at the main

camp. Still, the gully dwarves were better than nothing.

The line topped a ridge, and they looked out on yet

another scene of chaos. A forest of tall conifers once had

lined the narrow valley. Now, hardly a tree was standing.

The valley was a patchwork maze of fallen timbers,

scattered this way and that as though some giant thing had

trod there and paused to scuff its feet.

The men stared at the scene in wonder, then movement

caught their eyes. "Ah," Daco breathed. "There. Look."

Among the fallen timbers were people, a ragged line of

them making their way northward. Even from the ridge top,

it was obvious that they were refugees . . . from something.

There were at least a dozen of them, maybe more, and

among them were women and children. No more than two

or three carried weapons of any sort. "Well, well." Daco

grinned. "It seems our luck has just improved. That lot will

bring a fine price at the pens."

 

*****

 

This Place was a mess. Whatever had happened was

through happening, but the entire cavern was a litter of

fallen stone, gravel dumps, and dust. Holding candles high,

the Lady Drule and the others with her poked about, seeing

what could be salvaged. There wasn't much: a few iron stew

bowls, Hunch's mop-handle staff, about half of the

Highbulp's prized elk antler, a few bits of fabric, a reaver's

maul, a battered stew pot, a stick used for stirring . . . odds

and ends. Most of what the clans had owned was either

destroyed or lost.

The Lady Drule shook her head sadly. "Gonna need to

forage soon," she said. " 'Bout outta stuff."

She wandered toward the entrance - or where the

entrance had been - and looked at a mighty wall of fallen

stone. There was no way out. The entrance was sealed.

Behind her, a whining voice said, "So much for that."

She turned to see the Grand Notioner, leaning on his

mop handle. "Guess so," she said.

"So what we do now?"

"Dunno." Lady Drule shrugged. "All go find Highbulp,

I guess. Let him decide."

"Decide what?" Hunch frowned. "Highbulp dumb as a

post. What bright idea he gonna have?"

"Highbulp our glorious leader," Drule pointed out. "He

think of somethin'."

"Hmph!"

He followed along, though, with all the rest, when the

Lady Drule set out in search of the Highbulp. The last she

had seen of him, he and most of the other males had been

disappearing into a crack in the back of the cave. The

search began there.

Beyond the crack was an erosion seep, a damp,

winding tunnel that led away into the hill, curving beyond

sight, heading generally upward. Drule started treading

along it, and there was a clamor behind her. "What

happen?" She turned to look.

"Nothin'," someone said. "Somebody fall down."

"Come on," the Lady Drule urged them. "Keep up."

 

*****

 

A smoke-hazed sun had crossed much of the sky, and

the hot, searing winds from the east had changed to cool,

whispering winds drifting down from the shattered peaks to

the west. Time and miles were behind Krog since his

awakening, but still he had found no one.

It was as though the world were an empty place, and

he the only being on it. Confusion and sheer loneliness

drove him on, though his search seemed more and more

hopeless.

Then, atop a barren caprock hill, he heard voices.

People - somewhere - talking among themselves. With a

whimper of sheer glee, Krog searched for the source of the

sounds, his eyes alight, his ears twitching. He saw no one,

but after a time he heard the voices again and found where

they came from. Amidst a pile of rubble was a hole in the

ground, and somewhere below were voices, coming nearer.

He knelt, peered into the darkness. He could see nothing.

He tried to lower himself into the hole, but only his head

would go in. The hole was far too small for his shoulders.

He backed out, sniffling in frustration, and heard the voices

again - various voices, close enough now that he could

almost make out the words.

Knowing nothing else to do, Krog lay beside the hole,

listening. The sound soothed and comforted him. He was

not alone after all. He sniffled again, and tears glistened in

his eyes as he closed them.

 

*****

 

The old seep wound upward, and upward again, and the

gully dwarves followed it, their candles casting weird

shadows on the stone walls. It was slow going. Whatever

had made the cavern shake and had sealed its entrance, had

littered the tunnel with shards and slabs of broken rock.

Footing was tricky, requiring more concentration than most

of the Lady Drule's followers could maintain in a place with

so many distractions - layers of fresh stone to be looked at

and tasted, small, furry things to be noted in case there was

time later for a rat hunt, and their own distorted shadows

bobbing here and there.

As a result, the journey was punctuated with thuds and

bumps, trips and falls, and a running commentary up and

down the line:

"Look here! Pretty shine."

"What that over there? Dragon?"

"Not dragon, dummy, just bat shadow."

"Oops!" Thud.

"Hey, floor bouncy 1"

"Not bouncy. You fall on me. Get off."

"Somethin' shiny there? Nope, just Bipp's eyes."

"Anybody bring stew?"

"Where we goin', anyway?"

"To find Highbulp."

"Find Highbulp? Why?"

"Dunno. Lady Drule say so."

Then, from the head of the line, "Sh!"

The Lady Drule had rounded a bend and saw light

ahead. She stopped, and several of her followers bumped

into her. "Sh!" she repeated.

Behind her, around the bend, someone complained,

"Hunch! Get staff off my foot!" Then, "Hunch? Hunch!

Wake up, get staff off my foot!"

There were sounds of a tussle, and the Grand Notioner's

voice, "What? What goin' on?"

The Lady Drule turned, frowning. She put a finger to

her lips. "Sh!"

This time the message was relayed back down the line,

and there was silence. She turned again, peering toward the

dim light ahead. The tunnel seemed to widen there, and

something glistened. Raising her hand to keep the rest

hushed, Drule crept forward. Another cavern was just

ahead, its floor strewn with broken rock and glitters of pyrite,

and the light came from overhead. She tiptoed into the

open, peering around. The light was daylight and came

from a hole in the ceiling. There was no sign of the

Highbulp and his explorers, but among the glitters lay two

or three candles, a forage pouch, and a shoe. The others

had been here.

The Lady Drule's ears perked at a sound that was like

faraway thunder - or someone snoring. It came from

overhead, and her eyes brightened. "Gorge?" she called

softly. "Highbulp, where you?"

"Lady Drule find Highbulp?" someone asked.

"Must be close," someone else suggested. "Sure

sounds like him snorin'."

Drule looked up at the opening in the ceiling, then

handed her candle to the one nearest her. "All wait here,"

she said. "Maybe they up there. I go see."

Clambering onto a pile of fallen stone, she found

handholds on the stone wall and climbed toward the light.

The opening above was small - about two feet across - but

it was big enough for any gully dwarf to go through.

The Lady Drule climbed, then hoisted herself into the

hole. The sound of snoring came again, very close. If that

was Gorge snoring, he was outdoing himself. She had

never heard even the Highbulp sleep so loudly.

With a final pull, she raised her head above the hole

and looked around. She was on a hilltop littered with stone.

Fragments and grotesque shapes were all around, and a

particularly ugly large boulder blocked her view on one

side. She raised herself from the hole, dusted herself off,

and started to climb over the boulder, then stopped in

confusion. It didn't FEEL like stone. As she bent to look at

it more closely, the snore came again, then cut off abruptly.

A pair of huge yellow eyes opened directly in front of her.

For an instant, Drule froze in panic, then she pivoted and

tried to run . . . and had nowhere to go. A pair of enormous

hands rose behind her, blocking her escape, and the big

head with

the yellow eyes came upright and gazed at her. Below

the eyes, a huge mouth opened, exposing great, chisellike

teeth. In horror, the Lady Drule gaped at the monster, and it

grinned back, then the big mouth moved, and it spoke one

word. "Mama?"

 

*****

 

In the cavern below, the rest of the ladies - and the few

males with them - waited with growing impatience. They

could no longer see the Lady Drule, and could no longer

hear the snoring. There were voices somewhere above - or a

voice and intermittent rumbles of thunder - but they couldn't

hear what was being said.

By threes and fives, they started wandering around the

cavern, looking at the pyrite deposits, the fallen stone,

anything of momentary interest. Several had nearly decided

to go back down the tunnel to the lower cavern and put on a

pot of stew, when the hole above darkened and Drule's

voice came down. "Ever'body come up," she called.

Hunch peered upward. "Lady Drule find others? Find

what's-'is-name . . . th' Highbulp?"

"Not here," she called back. "Tracks, though. Maybe

we follow an' find."

The first ones to the top glanced at the Lady Drule,

started to hoist themselves out of the hole, then spotted the

huge, ugly creature crouched nearby - its gaze fixed

lovingly on Drule - and retreated in panic, dislodging those

below them. Within seconds, there was a tumbling pile of

gully dwarves on the cavern floor and nobody climbing.

The Lady Drule appeared at the opening again, looked

at them curiously. "What happen? Ever'body fall down?"

"What that you got up there?" someone asked. "Big,

ugly thing."

"Oh." She glanced around, then looked down again.

"That just Krog. Stop wastin' time! Come up."

Several of them began climbing again. Heads reached

the surface and poked out, wide eyes looking past Drule at

the creature still squatting nearby.

"That Krog?" someone asked.

"Krog," Drule assured them.

"What Krog?" another demanded.

"Dunno," she shrugged. "Just Krog. That all he

remember. All come on now. Got to find Highbulp."

"Why?" several of them wondered. Then one added,

"We don' like Krog. Make him go 'way."

Drule stamped her foot impatiently, then turned and

walked to Krog. "Go 'way, Krog," she said. "Shoo!"

Obediently, the creature stood and backed away

several steps.

"More go 'way than that!" somebody called from the

hole.

"Shoo!" Drule repeated, waving her arms at Krog.

"Shoo! Shoo!"

Looking very puzzled, the creature retreated farther,

then squatted on its haunches again, a smile of contentment

on its face.

It was some time before the Lady Drule got all of her

people out of the hole. When she did, they crowded around

her, staring at the creature she had found. She was so

hemmed in that she could hardly move, and began pushing

her way out of the crowd.

" 'Nough look at Krog!" she commanded. "Come on.

We gotta look for Highbulp!"

A layer of dust had settled on the hilltop, and there

were tracks all around. Three distinct sizes of footprints -

gully dwarf prints, human prints twice their size, and Krog

prints twice the size of the human prints.

She showed the rest of them the tracks, then pointed.

"Highbulp an' rest go that way with Talls."

Hunch stared at the tracks, frowning. "Highbulp real

dimwit to go with Talls," he declared. "Why do that?"

"Dunno." The Lady Drule shrugged. "We go see."

She set out northward, the rest falling in behind her.

Behind them, Krog realized that they were leaving. He

stood up.

"Mama?" he rumbled. "Wait for me." He hurried to

catch up with the Lady Drule, and gully dwarves scattered

this way and that to avoid being stepped on.

Drule looked back at the confusion and shook her head.

"Ever'body come on!" she demanded. "No time for fool

around!"

"It not us fool around. It Krog!"

"Make Krog go 'way."

After they had gone a few miles, the Lady Drule gave

up on getting rid of Krog. She had tried everything she

could think of to make the creature "go 'way," and nothing

had worked. Faced with the inevitable, she accepted it and

just tried to ignore him. It was difficult. Every time she

turned around, the first things she saw were enormous

knees. Even worse, he insisted on calling her "mama," and

kept trying to hold her hand.

Worse yet, Krog's presence tended to discourage the

others from following closely. Sometimes, when the Lady

Drule looked back, they were barely in sight. Then, when

the smoky sun was setting beyond the mountains to the

west, she looked around and couldn't see them at all.

On the verge of exasperation, she climbed a broken

stump and peered into the brushy distance. "Now where

they go?" she muttered.

"Who?" Krog asked.

"Others," she said. "S'posed to be followin'. Can't see

'em."

"Oh," he rumbled. "Here." Great fingers circled her

waist, and he raised her high. "See, mama? There they are."

A half mile back, the others had stopped at the edge of

a fallen forest and were scurrying about. They had built a

fire.

"Oh," the Lady Drule said. "Time for eat."

"Yeah," Krog agreed, setting her on her feet. 'Time for

eat. What we eat?"

"Make stew," she explained. "What else?" With a sigh,

she started back.

"What else?" Krog rumbled, and followed.

Partway back, on a wind-scoured flat littered with

fallen stone, Drule saw furtive movement among some

rocks, and her nose twitched. "Rat?" she breathed. She

circled half around the rocks, saw movement again, and

dived at it, her fingers closing an inch behind the rodent's

fleeing tail. She stood and shook her head. "Rats," she said.

Krog watched curiously, repeated, "Rats," and squatted

beside a boulder. With a heave, he lifted it, and several rats

scurried away. The Lady Drule made a dive for one, missed

it. Her hand closed around a stick. A second rodent raced

by. Drule swatted it on the head.

She picked it up, looked at it, then looked at the stick in

her hand. It was a sturdy hardwood branch an inch thick and

about two feet long. "Pretty good bashin' tool," she decided.

"Bashin' tool," Krog rumbled.

By the time they got back to the others, Drule had three

rodents for the pot and Krog was busy fashioning a bashing

tool of his own. He had found a section of broken tree trunk

about five feet long, and was shaping it to his satisfaction

by beating it against rocks as they passed. It was a noisy

process, but the implement pleased him. It felt right and

natural in his hand. He held the forty-pound club in front of

him, studied it with satisfied eyes, tossed it in the air, caught

it, and studied it again. "Pretty good bashin' tool," he said.

By the time the stew was ready, daylight was gone.

"Better stay here for sleep," the Lady Drule told the others.

"Go on tomorrow."

"Go where,S Mama?" Krog wondered.

"Find others."

"These others?" He indicated the crowd around the fire.

"No," she said. "Other others."

"Fine," the Grand Notioner said, picking out a stew

bowl. He dipped it and sat down to eat as others made their

way to the pot. There weren't enough iron bowls to go

around - much had been lost when the cavern of This Place

had collapsed - but they made do with vessels of tree bark,

cupped shards of stone, and a leather boot that someone had

found and cut down.

Drule had just started eating when she heard a sniffle in

the gloom, a very large sniffle. She looked up. "What matter

with Krog?"

"Want some, too," the monster explained.

The Lady Drule filled a tree-bark bowl and gave it to

Krog. He sniffed it, opened his mouth, and popped it in,

bowl and all. He swallowed. "Good," he said. "More?"

Hunch, the Grand Notioner, stared up at the big creature

in disbelief. "Gonna need lots more rats an' greens," he said.

"Bark, too, if Krog keep eatin' th' bowls."

"Rats?" Krog's eyes lit up. "Krog get rats with bashin'

tool"

He stood, picked up his club, and vanished into the

darkness. He was gone for a long time, and most of the

gully dwarves were asleep when he returned.

Drule saw him approaching and held a finger to her

lips. "Sh!" she said.

Quietly, Krog came to the waning fire, found a clear

spot and dropped something on the ground, something very

big. "Rats too quick for Krog," he whispered. "Can't catch

'em. This do?"

Drule gaped at the thing. She had seen cave bears

before, but never a dead one, and never up close. It certainly

would make a lot of stew, she decided.

 

*****

 

The Highbulp Gorge III was not happy. First to be

snatched up by armed Talls and herded cross-country with

a rope around his neck, lashed with whips and insulted at

every stumble, then to be thrown into a cage with the rest

of his followers and dozens of Tall captives as well - Gorge

was almost certain that his dignity had been offended,

among other things.

"This intoler . . . outra . . . unforgiv . . . this stink!" he

grumbled, pacing back and forth in the comer of the roofed

pen where the gully dwarves were huddled. "Slave, Talls

say. Not slave. I Highbulp!"

"Not slave either," several of his subjects agreed.

A voice growled, "You gully dwarves pipe down or

you'll feel the lash."

"Hmph!" Gorge muttered, but lowered his voice.

"Maybe dig out? Skitt? Where Skitt?"

"Here," a sleepy voice said. "What Highbulp want?"

"Skitt, you dig hole."

"Tried it," Skitt said in the gloom. "Rock underneath.

Need tools, no tools. G'night."

"Might cut through bars," another suggested. "Bars are

wood."

"Cut with what?" still another pointed out. "Same thing.

Got no tools. If had anything for cut, could - "

"Shut up over there!" a human whispered from the

other side of the pen. "You'll get us all in trouble!"

"Hmph!" Gorge said, feeling helpless and hopeless.

Armed guards patrolled around the pen. Nearby, the

fires of the slavers' camp burned bright. They had been

coming in all day, groups of four to eight at a time, most of

them bringing captives, and now there were at least thirty in

the camp, and dozens of slaves in the pen.

A guard passed near the wood-barred enclosure, and a

human voice inside said, "If only I could get my hands on a

sword, I'd . . ."

The guard laughed. "You'd what, slave? Fight? By the

time we sell you, we'll have beaten all the fight out of you.

Now shut up."

Another guard strolled past on the gully dwarves' side,

and the Highbulp and his followers cringed away from the

bars. They didn't like the way these Talls talked, at all.

 

*****

 

At first dawn, the ladies packed as much bear meat as

they could carry, while the Lady Drule went looking for

tracks to follow. Krog tagged along, happy as a duckling

following its mother.

Drule searched northward, then stopped and scratched

her head. There had been tracks before, she was certain, but

now there were none. "Where they all go?" she wondered.

Krog squatted beside her, scratching his head in

imitation. "Who?" he asked.

"Highbulp an' th' rest," she reminded him. "Ones we

been tryin' to find."

He scowled - a frightening and fierce expression, on his

face. "Mama want find those ones?"

"Sure," the Lady Drule said. "Don't know where to look,

though."

"No problem," Krog said, standing and pointing

northward. "They over there."

"Where?"

"There. See smoke? That where other others go."

He seemed certain of it, so Drule said, "Fine. We go

there, too. Highbulp prob'ly need 'tendin' to 'bout now."

She called to the rest, and they set off northward - a

nine-foot creature guiding, a long line of three- to four-foot

creatures tagging after. In the distance, far across a wide,

sundered valley littered with the debris of nameless

catastrophe, was a ridge. Beyond the ridge, Krog said, were

their lost people. It would take all day to get there, Drule

guessed, but they had nowhere else to go.

It was midday when Drule and Krog rounded a spire of

rock that might once have been a mountaintop, and came

face-to-face with a stranger, a human, carrying an axe.

As any good gully dwarf would do, faced with an

armed Tall, the Lady Drule shrieked, turned and ran.

Behind her, gully dwarves scattered in all directions.

Krog looked after Drule for a second, thoroughly

puzzled, then looked again at the bug-eyed man standing

there, gawking up at him in terror. Krog shrugged

eloquently, then voiced a mighty shriek, flung up his hands

just as Drule had done, and pounded away after her. His

shriek drowned out the screams of the man, who was now

bounding away in the other direction, shouting, "Ogre!

Ogre!"

Some distance away, Krog found the Lady Drule hiding

behind a clump of grass. Krog did the same, though his

clump of grass covered no more than the lower part of his

face and maybe one shoulder. He stayed there until Drule

rose. Deciding the danger was gone, she went to regather

her followers. Krog didn't know why they had been hiding,

but whatever suited Mama was all right with him.

 

*****

 

It was late evening. Hazy dusk lay in the long shadows of

the Khalkists, and the smoke of campfires hung in the air

when a gully dwarf named Bipp crept through the brush to

the shadowed slave pen and looked inside. He squinted.

"Highbulp?"

Several faces turned toward him. "Hey," someone said.

"That Bipp."

"What you doin' out there, Bipp?" another asked.

Bipp put a finger to his lips. "Sh!"

"What?"

"Sh!"

"Oh. Okay."

"Where Highbulp?" Bipp whispered.

"Right here, somewhere. Highbulp? Highbulp, wake

up. Bipp here." A pause, then, "Highbulp! Wake up!

Highbulp sleepy oaf. Wake up, Highbulp! Bipp here."

"Who?"

"Bipp"

"Shut up over there!" a human voice shouted. "Can't

you little dimwits ever be quiet?"

At the sound, an armed guard at the far comer of the

pen looked around, and Bipp flattened himself in the

shadows. "Shut up in there, or you'll wish you had," the

guard ordered.

Then Gorge was there, peering through the lashed-post

bars. "What Bipp want?"

"Lady Drule send me. She lookin' for you. Why ever'-

body here?"

"Can't get out," the Highbulp said, peevishly. "Talls got

us incarcera ... in custo ... got us locked in for sell."

"Oh." Bipp studied the bars, shrugged, and turned away.

"Okay," he said. "Have nice evenin'. I go tell Lady Drule."

In a moment he was gone, but behind him a babble of

voices echoed, and a guard roared, "You slaves heard what I

said!"

A torch flared. A guard with a patch on one eye drew a

sword and thrust it viciously between the bars. A human

screamed, and the scream became a whimper as the guard

withdrew the sword, bloody.

The man put away his sword, grinned at another guard.

"That ought to quiet them," he said. "Slaves don't need two

ears, anyway."

 

*****

 

Atop the ridge, the Lady Drule and the others listened

wide-eyed as Bipp made his report. He told them what he

had seen and what he had heard, and there was no doubt

what it all meant. Most of the males of the Bulp clan were

prisoners of heavily armed Talls, and would be sold into

slavery.

Drule scratched her head, wondering what to do about

that, then gave up and went to find Hunch. "You Grand Notioner,"

she reminded him. "Time for Grand Notion."

The Grand Notioner was preoccupied, trying to repair

the bindings on his feet after a long day's walk. "What

about?" he grumbled.

" 'Bout how get Highbulp an' all away from Talls! Pay

attention."

"Oh." He thought about it for a while, then shrugged

and pointed at the stick in her hand. "Use bashin' tool, I

guess."

"For what?" Drule looked at the stick.

"For bash Talls," he explained.

To the Lady Drule, that didn't sound like much of an

idea, but when several long minutes of fierce concentration

didn't produce a better one, she resigned herself to it.

Bashing Talls, in her opinion, was a very good way to get

into a lot of trouble, but maybe it was worth a try.

"Anybody wanna bash Talls?" she asked around,

hoping for volunteers. There were none. She would just

have to do it herself, then.

Nearing the foot of the ridge, Drule suddenly was aware

that Krog was right behind her, mimicking her stealthy

approach. She turned and raised a hand. "Krog wait," she

whispered. "I got somethin' to do."

In a rumbling whisper, the big creature asked, "What

Mama do?"

She pointed toward the pen, where a guard was sitting

on a rock. "See Tall there? Gotta bash him. Now be quiet."

"Oh," Krog said. "Okay."

With Krog silenced, the Lady Drule crept on down the

slope toward the guard. Even sitting on a rock, the man was

taller than she was, and his ready sword glinted in the

starlight.

Trembling with dread, Drule crept up behind him,

raised her rat-bashing stick, and brought it down on the

back of the man's head as hard as she could.

"Owl" the man said. His hand went to his head. "What

th' - " He reached for his sword.

The Lady Drule tried to run, but tripped over her own

feet and fell.

The raider guard spied her, spat. "Gully dwarf!" He

grasped the hilt of his sword . . . then raised his eyes to see

the last sight of his life - a massive club descending on his

skull.

The Lady Drule got her feet under her, started to run

again, then saw the squashed body of the man sprawled

across the rock. Krog stood to one side, disinterestedly

gazing out over the fire-lit camp.

"Wow!" Drule breathed. Raising her rat-stick, she stared

at it in amazement. "Pretty good bash!"

Quietly, then, she crept toward the pen, bright eyes

looking for other Talls to bash. Somewhere nearby, a

rumbling whisper said, "Ones with weapons first,D Mama."

That, she realized, made pretty good sense. She

wondered how Krog came to know such sound strategy. At

the bottom of the slope, she began to circle the slave pen.

The gully dwarves were all crowded into one comer of the

wooden cage enclosure, spumed by the humans inside.

As Drule neared that comer, a voice whispered, "There

Lady Drule! Hi there, Lady Drule." Another voice

whispered, "Highbulp! Wake up! Lady Drule here . . .

Highbulp? Highbulp sleepy oaf. Wake up, Highbulp!"

Drule said, "Sh!" and went on. Behind her, a giant

shadow moved, but those inside were too busy watching her

to notice it.

Just beyond the comer of the stockade, a man stood

leaning on a spear staff. He yawned, and a stick smacked

him sharply across the buttocks. "Here now!" he started to

say, but only part of it was ever said. The club that smashed

into his skull put an end to it.

"Wow," the Lady Drule muttered.

Another guard stood at the next comer, and just beyond

him burned the coals of a cook-fire. Other men lay in sleep,

their weapons at hand. Quietly, Drule approached the guard,

raised her stick, and whacked him on the back. The man

said, "Ow!" and spun around, raising his spear. "Gully

dwarf," he said. "And a female one. Where did you come

from?"

"Woop," Drule shouted. She raised her stick and struck

again.

The stick whacked across the man's knuckles, and he

dropped his spear. His eyes narrowed. "Why, you little

snake," he hissed. "You'll pay for that." He drew a long

knife from his boot and lunged at the gully dwarf, who

dodged aside, tripped, and fell.

The slaver aimed another thrust, then stopped. A chorus

of shrieks sounded from inside the pen. Some of the slaves

had just noticed Krog stepping into the light of the fires.

Crashing, thudding sounds erupted. Thuds, rending snaps,

and a high-pitched scream abruptly silenced.

The guard turned, gaped, screamed, "Ogre!"

He started to run, tripped over the Lady Drule, and

sprawled facedown.

A stick whacked him on the back of his head, and a

voice said, "Take that!" Then, "Don' know what wrong with

this bashin' tool. Used to work real good."

As the man got to his knees, Drule decided she had

done enough bashing, and ducked away. The area around

the nearby campfire was a shambles - sprawled bodies

everywhere, dropped weapons lying here and there . . . and

blood, lots of blood. Krog had finished there and gone on to

the next fire, unleashing havoc. There were screams of fear,

screams of agony, the rhythmic thudding of a huge club

against flesh and bone.

Like huge death, Krog strode around and through the

sleeping-fire, a growling, implacable horror with rending

fingers, ripping teeth, and a great club as tireless and

relentless as a harvester's scythe. Wide-eyed, terrified

slavers came out of their blankets, grabbing up weapons to

confront him. Some never even got to their feet before the

heavy club flattened them and great feet trod across their

bodies. Others tried to regroup and fight, and were

splattered with their companions' blood even as their own

blood splattered others.

A man with an eye-patch rolled aside, hid for a second

in shadows, then sprang to his feet, aiming a heavy sword at

the marauder's backside. He swung - and the sword thudded

into hard wood, embedded itself, and was torn from his

grasp. A huge hand closed around his helmed head and

squeezed, and the iron helm collapsed, crushing the skull

within. Krog flung him aside and went on, growling his

pleasure.

Somewhere, deep in Krog's mind, a glimmer of memory

awakened - memory triggered by the violence and the smell

of fresh blood. Rampant and towering in the remains of the

sleeping camp, Krog raised his club toward the sky, and a

growl sounded in his throat - a growl that became a roar that

echoed from the hillsides, a roar of challenge and of

pleasure, the cry of a rampaging ogre.

Ahead of him were other fires, where men with

weapons scrambled in all directions, and his eyes lit with

pleasure.

But then, behind him somewhere, a voice called, "Krog!

'Nough foolin' 'round! Got better things to do!"

The glimmer of memory held for a moment, urging him

on, then became tenuous and faded. Feeling a

disappointment he didn't understand, Krog turned and

headed back, pausing only for a casual swat that brained a

panicked, fleeing slaver. "All right, Mama!" he thundered,

his lower lip jutting in a huge pout. "Comin'!"

The ladies of Lady Drule's retinue, and the few males

with them, had followed Drule and Krog as far as the pen.

Not finding a hole in the cage, they made one. Using the

edges of burnished iron stew tureens, they chipped away

enough sapling bars and lashings for the gully dwarves to

come tumbling out, and a flood of crouched Talls right

behind them. Pushing past and through the gully dwarves as

though they were not there, the Talls grabbed up fallen

weapons and launched a murderous attack on the stunned

and disorganized slavers.

The minute Gorge III, Highbulp of This Place and

Those Other Places Too, was free of captivity, he threw

back his shoulders, donned his most regal pose and issued

the orders of a true leader. "Everybody run like crazy!" he

commanded.

 

*****

 

It was many hours later, and broad daylight, when the

reunited Clan of Bulp paused on the devastated lower slopes

of the Khalkist Mountains to regroup. Through night and

morning they had fled, each and severally. But now Gorge

remembered that he had sore feet and decided it was a good

time to stop and reassert his authority. He proclaimed a

temporary This Place, and by threes and fives they gathered

around him.

There was one small problem. Through it all, nobody

had thought to tell Gorge about Krog, so when the Lady

Drule and her band showed up, shrieks and screams filled

the hazy air and they found a This Place with no one in

attendance except old Hunch, sitting on a rock.

Drule looked around in confusion. "Where Highbulp?

Where ever'body go?"

"All run an' hide." Hunch shrugged.

"Why?"

"Dunno. Didn' say. Ever'body just holler an' run an'

hide."

Impatiently, Drule set her fists on her hips, stamped her

foot, and shouted, "Gorge! Where you?"

Here and there, shadows moved. From brushy crevices

and piles of stone, faces peered out. The Highbulp's voice

said, "Yes, dear?"

"What goin' on?" the Lady Drule demanded. "You

playin' game?"

More of the gully dwarves peered from hiding places,

all gaping at the towering Krog. "What that you got with

you, dear?" the Highbulp called.

Drule looked up at the ogre, then turned toward the

voice. "Nothin'! Just Krog! Stop fool 'round!"

Reassurance didn't come easily, but lapse of attention

did, and soon the whole tribe was gathered.

Within an hour, they had stew on, and the Lady Drule

handed a tureen to Gorge III. He sniffed, tasted, and

proclaimed, "This superi . . . excep . . . pretty good stew!

What in it?"

"Cave bear an' skinny green plant," she said. "An'

mushroom an' tall-grass seed an' leftover bird nest."

He took another sip and nodded. "Good stuff. Best I...

CAVE BEAR? Where get cave bear?"

Offhandedly, Drule pointed at the hulking Krog, who

was waiting for the crowd around the stew pot to disperse

so that he could finish the pot. "Krog get," she said. "Krog

not much for hunt rats, but bash bears real good."

"Krog," the Highbulp said, scowling in thought as he

studied the amiable monster. He hadn't really thought much

about Krog since the first shock of encounter, but when he

did, troubling notions tumbled around in his head. He

glanced at Drule suspiciously. "Krog call you Mama," he

said. "You been up to somethin', dear?"

"Krog lost, needed mama." She shrugged. "Keeps

callin' me that."

"Oh." Gorge sipped at his stew, relieved but still

troubled. "Dear, wha' happen to Talls at slave camp? Some-

thin' squash 'em?"

"Mostly Krog," she explained. "He got th' hang of

bashin' Talls pretty quick. Had lotta fun."

"Hmph!" Gorge sat in thought for a time, then asked,

"How you an' others find us?"

Again she pointed at the huge creature nearby. "Krog

find place. Krog pretty handy have around, right?"

"Right." The Highbulp scowled. Tossing aside his

empty tureen, he stalked away, sulking.

The Lady Drule stared after him, then beckoned the

Grand Notioner. "Hunch, what wrong with Highbulp?"

"Highbulp?" Hunch shrugged. "Highbulp is Highbulp.

That his main problem."

"What that mean?"

"Highbulp gotta be Highbulp alla time," he explained,

puzzling it out as he went. "Gotta be big cheese, top turkey,

main mullet, otherwise, no good be Highbulp."

"So what?"

"So now Krog big hero. Ever'body lookin' up to Krog.

Not good for Highbulp. Steal his thunder."

The Lady Drule pondered, trying to understand. "Okay,"

she said finally. "What do about it, then?"

"Maybe Highbulp make Krog a knight," Hunch

said simply, "like Tall kings do. Heroes real nuisance to

kings, but if king make hero a knight, alla glory belong

to king again."

"Oh," Drule concurred. "Okay" With renewed

purpose, she strode to where the Highbulp was sulking

and faced him. "Highbulp better knight Krog," she told

him.

He frowned a puzzled frown. "What?"

"Knight Krog, then Highbulp be like a king, get

glorious."

"Highbulp already glorious," he pointed out, then

squinted at her. "Knight Krog good idea, huh?"

"Real good idea."

"Right," he decided. "Jus' what I was thinkin

'bout."

Gorge strode to the middle of the camp and raised

his arms. "All pay attention! Highbulp got announ...

proclam . . . somethin' to say!"

When he had their attention, he pointed at Krog.

"Highbulp gonna . . . Ever'body! Stop lookin' at Krog!

Look at Highbulp!"

When he had their attention again, he said,

"Highbulp deci . . . conclu . . . make up mind to do Krog

big honor, for - " he turned to Drule " - for what?"

"For be hero" she whispered. "For valor an'

service. For be brave an'... an' bashful."

It was a bit complicated for the Highbulp. Turning

back to his assembled subjects, he said, "For bein' a

good guy, make Krog be Sir Krog. Krog!" he ordered.

"Go over by big rock an' prost. . . recumb . . . hunker

down real low."

With a nod from Drule, the big creature did as he

was told. Kneeling before a boulder, he bent low enough

that it was almost as tall as himself. Gorge walked

around him, trying to remember what he had heard

about knighting. He glanced at the huge club in Krog's

hand and pointed at it. "What that?"

"Bashin' tool," the Lady Drule said. "Krog made

it."

"Good," Gorge said. "Krog, give bashin' tool to

Highbulp"

Hunkered low before the boulder,

Krog turned his head, saw Mama's nod of

approval and extended his club. The

Highbulp took it and, when Krog

released it, sat down hard with the club

across his lap. It weighed almost as

much as he did.

"Gonna need volunteers," the Highbulp muttered. He

pushed the club away, stood and called, "You, Chuff. An'

Bipp. An' Skitt, all come help."

Three sturdy young gully dwarves stepped forward.

Gorge climbed to the top of the boulder and beckoned.

"Bring bashin' tool up here."

Between them, the three managed to hoist the club and

themselves onto the boulder, scattering dust from its top.

Beside it, Krog wrinkled his nose, shook his head, and

began to fidget.

"Hol' still, Krog," the Lady Drule told him.

With the Highbulp supervising, the three volunteers

positioned the club above Krog's left shoulder.

Gorge drew himself up regally. "Krog, 'cause of exce . .

. unusu ... for doin' good stuff, I dub you SIR KROG." To the

volunteers, he said, "Dub Krog on shoulder now."

Falling dust tickled Krog's nose. He sneezed. A cloud

of dust blew up around the boulder, blinding the dubbers.

Bipp sneezed and lost his grip on the club, Chuff fell over

backward, and Skitt, suddenly lifting the full weight of the

thing, lost control of it. With a resounding thud, the club

descended on the back of Krog's head.

For a moment there was a stunned silence, then Krog

shook himself like an angry bear, raised his head . . . and the

Highbulp found himself staring into a huge face that was no

longer amiable. A growl like approaching thunder shook the

slopes. Krog's once-innocent eyes brightened with a flood

of returning memory - brightened and glittered with a

killing rage.

"Uh-oh!" the Highbulp gulped. He turned, leapt from

the stone, and shouted, "Ever'body run like crazy!"

Gully dwarves scattered in all directions, disappearing

into the shattered landscape. Behind them, a mighty roar

sent echoes up the mountainsides - the roar of an ogre

unleashed.

Krog stood, picked up his club, and brandished it,

roaring again. "Krog!" he thundered. "I am Krog! Not Krog

Aghar! KROG OGRE! Krog!"

Seeing movement, he sped after it, his feet pounding.

Beyond a shoulder of stone, he skidded to a stop. A female

gully dwarf lay there, staring up at him in horror. "Krog?"

she said.

Her voice - the remembered voice and the remembered

face of the little creature - made him hesitate, and his

hesitation angered him. For an instant he felt . . . soft. "Shut

up!" he thundered. "I am Krog! Krog ogre!"

She blinked, and a tear glistened in her eye. "Krog... not

want Mama anymore?"

"I am ogre!" he roared. "You . . . nothing to me!"

Furious, he raised his club high, then hesitated as another

small figure darted out of a shadowed cleft to face him, a

little gully dwarf male with curly whiskers, the one they

called Highbulp. The gully dwarf faced him with terror in

its eyes and an elk tine in its hand, and again Krog

hesitated.

The absurd little thing was challenging him! A snarl

tugged at Krog's cheek, but still he hesitated, looking from

one to the other of the puny creatures. They meant nothing

to him, nothing at all, and yet, there was something about

the pair . . .

For a moment Krog stood, his dub lifted high to strike,

then he shook his head and lowered it. Wrinkling his nose

in disgust - mostly at himself - he turned and stalked away.

Behind him, the Highbulp Gorge III lifted the Lady

Drule to her feet with trembling hands. They clung together,

staring at the monster's receding back.

"'Bye, Krog," Drule whispered.

 

THE COBBLER'S SON

 

ROGER E. MOORE

 

The Authentic Field Reports of Walnut Arskin

To Astinus of Palanthas,

As Set Down by Me, Walnut,

Foster Son of Jeraim Arskin,

Famed Amanuensis, Scribe of Astinus,

and Licensed Cobbler

(Open All Week Long)

Newshore-Near-Gwynned, North Island, Ergoth

 

Report Number One

Year 22, New Reckoning

Spring day 12 or maybe 13 (I forget), dawn

 

Hi, Astinus! It's just after dawn and I'm now your

newest field recorder, and I'm making my very first official

field report to you on official Palanthas paper with my

brand-new steel pen while wearing my once-holy symbol of

Gilean and my official gray recorder's robes and my best

walking boots. I've even put on clean underwear. I just want

you to know, Astinus, that I will be your best field recorder

ever, and someday I might even become a great amanuensis

like Ark!

It's pretty cold outside for springtime right now, so my

handwriting is sorta wiggly, but I can still read it. Can you?

I'm a little hungry, as I would have had breakfast by now

only I lost it after Ark sent me out of the shoe shop right

after he made me his official field recorder, which is an

interesting story, and I should write it down in case it's

important, and anyway there's not much else to do in this

alley at this hour of the morning.

Ark - known to you as your loyal scribe and amanuensis

Jeraim Arskin from Newshore, but known to me as Ark and

sometimes Dad, and known to everyone else in New-shore

as Arkie - woke me up early and told me to get ready for the

ceremony. I'd been begging him to let me be a scribe for

ages, and Ark said he was going deaf from hearing me beg,

but then something happened last night and he said he had

something important for me to do today, but I'd have to be

out on my own and out of his way. He was awfully nervous,

and when he got me up he looked like he hadn't slept much,

and he wanted to hurry through everything, and when I

asked him what was wrong, he just said, "Don't be a kender

right now," which I can't help, since I am one.

Ark first gave me a set of gray scribe's robes that he had

hemmed up, which I put on, and then he gave me some

official paper from Palanthas, where you live, and this new

steel pen and this once-holy symbol that used to belong to a

real cleric of Gilean until he disappeared (the cleric, that is)

when the gods lowered the boom on Istar twenty-two years

ago and left without telling anyone their next address, but I

guess you know that part, since you're a historian.

I looked over at the wall mirror then and saw all three

feet nine inches of me in the candlelight, with my dark

brown hair combed out and bound in a high tassel and my

gray robes with the nice silver borders and my writing paper

and once-holy symbol and official steel pen. It was strange,

because I didn't look like me, and that made me feel funny.

I looked like a kender I didn't quite know.

Ark stood behind me, and in the candlelight he looked

old, and that made me feel funny, too. He's about average

in size for a human and is almost bald and has a hooked

nose and a potbelly, and I knew who he was, but just then

he didn't look much like the man who had raised me and

told me funny stories when I was sick and took me fishing

and bailed me out of jail every so often. Maybe it was the

hour, but he looked old and tired, like something was both

ering him. I worry about him sometimes.

Ark sighed after a moment and said, "Well, let's get

started. I've got a lot of work to do today - and so do you,

of course." Then he put his hand on my head and used

some big words that I didn't know, but you probably do,

and when he was done, he said, "Walnut, you are now my

official field recorder. Your mission is to go out among the

people of Newshore and record all things of importance. I

know I can trust you to do a good job. Don't come back

until sundown, stay out of jail, take lots of notes, don't

upset anyone, and let me get my correspondence done. I'm

a little behind, and Astinus will use my skin for book

covers if I don't get those reports to him."

(I should say here that I certainly hope you do not

intend to skin Ark, Astinus, especially not for book covers.

You may skin me instead if you have to, as Ark is late with

his correspondence only because I made paper fishing

boats out of his last reports. I thought they were just waste

paper, like when he writes letters to you when he's mad

and tells you to jump off the roof of your library but then

never sends them. He says it makes him feel better, and he

gives the letters to me to make boats out of them. I grabbed

the wrong stack and am sorry.)

Anyway, I am now a field recorder, which Ark tells me

is the first step toward becoming a real-live scribe and

eventually an amanuensis, which is the most incredible

word, isn't it? I've wanted to be a scribe for years, ever

since Ark taught me to read and write, and I've learned

almost every word there is, except the biggest ones (except

for "amanuensis") and I've practiced and practiced at my

writing until Ark says that if I write on the walls or

furniture one more time, he will put me in jail himself, but I

think he was only kidding, except maybe once or twice.

I am determined to make Ark proud of me, and after

the ceremony, I said, "Ark, I will be the best field recorder

ever, and you are going to be so proud of me that you will

bust."

Ark smiled without looking happy and said, "Good, good.

Just stay out of jail." Then he hurried me toward the door

and gave me a pouch with some hard rolls and cheese and

dried bacon and raisins and other stuff in it, which I

dropped when I cut through the Wylmeens' garden on the

way into town and their big brown mastiff, Mud, chased me

out. Stupid dog.

I tried to get my pouch back, but Mud tore it apart and

ate it, so I went back to the shoe shop after that to get

another bag for breakfast, and when I went in, Ark was

sitting at the kitchen table, sound asleep. He had all of his

papers out and his pens and his ink bottles, and he had just

started what looked like a long report to you about the

political and religious situation in Newshore, but he must

have been pretty tired, what with staying up so late last

night, and I wondered if it was because I had been up late,

too, because I was so excited about being made a recorder,

and maybe I shouldn't have tried to make tea, because I

spilled hot water all over the dirt floor in the kitchen so that

it turned to mud. I didn't want to bother Ark, so I went

looking for food, and while I was doing that I found his

"facts machine," which is why you are getting my reports

the moment I write them down.

The facts machine was in a leather satchel by Ark's

feet, and I couldn't help but look at it, because Ark usually

throws a fit if I get near it. He says gnomes and wizards

made it and that all you have to do is put a page of paper in

the machine and it sends the page by magic to your library

so you can read all the facts right away. What will those

gnomes and wizards think of next? Ark said only the most

trusted scribes get their own facts machines, and the

machines are the most incredible secret, and I must never

tell anyone about them, and I never have, not even Widow

Muffin, who comes over to see Ark and me now and then

and is the sweetest person, so don't worry, because you can

trust me.

As I was looking through the satchel I also found the

letter you sent to Ark yesterday, telling him he had better

send in his assignment to find out how people feel about the

Cataclysm (as you call it) and how peeved you were that

Ark had not done so before now. I also read the part where

you said you understood Ark's concerns about talking to the

wrong people and being lynched, but his job required

dedication, and you seemed to imply that being lynched

wasn't half as bad as what you had in mind if Ark missed

his next deadline, which was tonight at sundown.

You said that Ark's assignment was important because

you were concerned that the purpose and lessons of the

Cataclysm were being lost in a sea of deliberate ignorance

and intolerance that could lay the foundation for future

disasters (I'm copying from your letter now), and you said

you counted on Ark and others like him to keep you

informed of the condition of the land and its peoples,

because if the peoples couldn't get off on the right foot (or is

that feet?), then maybe they never would and one day we'd

be sorry.

Well, I was amazed that anyone wouldn't know why

Istar had a flaming mountain dropped on it, since Istar was

such a poop nation and went around enslaving and torturing

and killing people, all the while saying the people were

being killed for their own good, until the gods got fed up

and turned Istar into the bottom of the Blood Sea of Istar for

everyone else's own good. Ark taught me all that, and I

always thought everyone knew that but then I never asked,

and I was surprised to read that Ark said he was afraid to

ask, and I couldn't figure out why not understanding the

Cataclysm meant we would be sorry later. Are we going to

be tested on it?

Anyway, you had told Ark to send in his report by

sundown tonight or else, and I knew Ark couldn't very well

do that while he was asleep, so I've decided to do his work

for him and surprise him when he wakes up. Isn't that great?

I'm going to find out what everyone thinks of the

Cataclysm, and I'll write it all down and send it right to you

on the facts machine, which I took with me. Ark will be so

proud! Sometimes, when he's bailing me out of jail, he says

that he should have left me by the side of the road, which is

how he became my foster father, as he found me on his way

into town when I was a baby just after the time of the

Cataclysm. He raised me and showed me how to fix shoes

and how to count and read and everything, but we do have

our moments when things don't go right, which seems to

happen more often lately, now that I'm bigger, but that's

how families work sometimes, you know.

Anyway, here I am now, down by the harbor in the

alley beside Goodwife Filster's bakery, trying to stay out of

the wind and keep warm. Ark said I should write down

important things while I'm out today, so I will do that and

send them to you, and I think I should write down

something about Newshore and its politics and religion, but

Newshore doesn't have much of either. I could also talk

about how Newshore got its name, as it used to be a farm

until Istar got mashed and the sea came up and northern

Ergoth turned into an island, and you can still see the

sunken foundation stones of an old barn just offshore, in a

place Ark shows me when we go fishing, but everybody

here knows about that. I could talk about Goodwife Filster's

sugar rolls, which I can smell baking now, and they are on

my mind a lot because I forgot to get something to eat

before I left the shop the second time, but no one would

want to read that, either. I should just get started on my

assignment.

But, first, I am going to get a sugar roll.

 

*****

 

Report Number Two

Same day, about midmorning

 

Hi, Astinus! I am writing this from the Newshore

magistrate's jail in cell number four. It is dark in here, and I

cannot see what I am writing or even if my pen is still

working. It smells like somebody drank too much ale and it

didn't agree with him, so he got rid of it in every way he

could and then didn't bother to clean it up. I can hear

someone snoring in cell number one, and cell three has

someone in it who needs to use a handkerchief.

How I got here is very interesting, so I will put it down

in case it is important. I was really hungry and was getting

cold in the alley, so I went on into the bakery, which

smelled of fresh-baked sugar rolls and breakfast pastries,

the whirly kind with the melted cheese stuff on top that Ark

says gives him gas but which I like anyway (the pastries

with cheese I mean, not the gas, which is awful).

Ark always buys pastries from Goodwife Filster by him

self. When I tell him I want to get them, he always says,

"That wouldn't be a good idea," and he buys the pastries.

Goodwife Filster always frowns at me while I wait for Ark

outside her shop. She knoFws I'll be eating the sugar rolls

Ark is buying, which I think makes her mad, but I have no

idea why. She's one of the people I want to understand by

being a recorder, but so far I haven't figured her out.

When I opened the oak door and went inside where it

was toasty warm from the baking ovens and smelled the

way I imagine Paradise does, Goodwife Filster saw me and

frowned (she never smiles) and said in a nasty voice, "I'm

not open yet, kender."

I said, "I thought you always opened about now."

And she said, "Get out of here, before I call the

magistrate. Go on!"

About then I knew I wasn't going to get a sugar roll or

even a cheese pastry, because Goodwife Filster is funny

sometimes about people who aren't human like her, only

she's not really funny as in funny ha-ha, she's funny as in

funny uh-oh. Ark calls her the Minotaur, on account of she's

strong and heavy and has such a terrible temper, but he says

it's because she's as ugly as one, too.

I was leaving when I remembered what you had asked

Ark to do, so I stopped and said, "I have just one question to

ask before I go."

Goodwife Filster's face knotted up in a way that

reminded me of the Wylmeens' dog, but she didn't say

anything, so I quickly got out my papers and pen and got

ready to write down her answer. When she looked like she

was going to yell at me, I asked my question, which was,

"Do you think the gods did the right thing when they struck

down Istar so that the balance of the world was preserved

and freedom of thought, will, and action was granted to all

once more?" I'm not sure I asked the question exactly as

you wanted Ark to, and I borrowed some of your phrases

from your letter to get it right, but I figured I was close

enough and didn't think it would hurt.

On the other hand, maybe I didn't ask the question

properly after all, since Goodwife Filster called me a name

that meant that my real parents weren't married, which for

all I know they weren't, but that wasn't any business of hers,

and then she came at me with a bread knife, so I ran outside

and down the street and was cold and hungry again before I

knew it.

As I was standing outside her shop with my arms

crossed under my robes because it was too cold to write

this down yet, a fisherman came up to go into the bakery,

and I said, "It's not open yet," because I'd never known

Goodwife Filster to lie, even if she once said that all elves

carried diseases and kidnapped children, which I don't think

they do, or at least not all of them, or at least not the ones I

know. Anyway, the fisherman said, "Oh," and left.

Then the Moviken kids came up, and I said, "It's not

open yet," so they made faces at the bakery window and

left. Then the spinster sisters Anwen and Naevistin Noff

came up, and I said, "It's not open yet," and they groaned

and left.

Then Goodwife Filster came out, wiping her hands on a

towel, and she looked around and frowned at me, and I

said, "Are you open yet?"

And she made a snorting noise through her nose and

said, "When Istar rises, you damn kender," then went back

inside to bake some more.

Then Woose, the dwarf, came by and said, "Morning,

Walnut," and I said, "Morning, Woose. The bakery's not

open yet."

Woose peered at the bakery door and scratched his

beard and said, "That's funny. She's usually open at this

hour," and then he left. Woose isn't a human, but he has lots

of steel coins from his mining business, and maybe Good-

wife Filster forgives him for not being human on account of

that.

Five more people came by whose names I've forgotten,

and they left, and then Goodwife Filster came out and

mumbled to herself and looked around and glared at me

and said, "What did you tell those last two people who

were here just now?"

And I said, "That you weren't open yet," and she got a

look on her face that reminded me of the Wylmeens' dog

when it bit me on the finger, and she called me a name that

meant I liked my mother more than normal people were

meant to, which was silly because I don't even remember

my mother, and Goodwife Filster grabbed me by my robes

and brought me here to the magistrate to be hanged.

We had to wait until Jarvis, the magistrate, could get

out of bed and find his spectacles, and he was as tall and

thin as ever, and his black hair was all messed up from

sleeping on it. He combed out his hair and big moustache,

then looked at me and said, "You again?" and looked sad,

probably on account of this being the fifth time this year he

would have to throw me in jail for being a public nuisance,

which Jarvis says is really just a way to let everyone cool

off and forget whatever I had done so they wouldn't tie me

to a rock and drop me on a kelp farm, as Jarvis puts it,

which sounds interesting but which I don't understand, since

that would mean I was underwater.

"What now?" said Jarvis to Goodwife Filster, who then

said a lot of things that weren't true, like that I was a plague

carrier and a thief and a liar, and she was about to explain

what she meant by my being responsible for the fall of Istar

when Woose, the dwarf, ran into the magistrate's office and

yelled, "Fire! Fire at Goodwife Filster's!"

Then Woose saw Goodwife Filster and yelled, "Gods,

woman, your bakery is on fire!" and Goodwife Filster went

all white and staggered like someone had hit her, then she

ran out, and Woose ran out, and Jarvis ran out, but before

Jarvis ran out he locked me in here and said he would be

back.

So here I am with my facts machine and nothing to do. I

should write down some notes on the economic situation in

Newshore after Istar blew up and the crops drowned

because of the ocean that used to be two days north of here

but now comes up to the place where the Karkhovs once

had a giant melon field and is where Ark and I fish for

moonfins, but Jarvis is back now, and he's waiting for me to

leave my cell after I finish this first.

"What are you writing?" he just now asked me, and

now he's looking and . . .

 

*****

 

Report Number Three

Same day, about an hour after noon

 

Hi, Astinus! I'm writing this from the rooftop of the

Cats & Kitties, which is really just a tavern with a sign

showing a woman's bosom with no dress on and isn't a pet

shop at all, which was what I thought all the time I was

growing up but Ark wouldn't take me there to find out. It's

warmer now, and the sun is out and the sky is clear blue,

and I can see lots of bird droppings on the roof from last

year now that the snow is gone, and I might be sitting on

some but I can't help it. Someone should clean this roof up,

but then no one is supposed to be up here and I wouldn't be

either except that Magistrate Jarvis said I was safer here

than in jail, and he's gone to try to calm down the mob

before I show up in town again.

So here I am, writing away on the roof and reading

over some letters that Ark left in the satchel with the facts

machine, and those letters are very interesting, though I

can't imagine why Ark put them in here since I doubt very

much he meant to send them to you. I think Widow Muffin

wrote these letters to Ark, and she says a lot of things that

make me think that maybe they aren't telling me the whole

truth whenever Ark asks me to go into town to buy

groceries when Widow Muffin comes over, and when I get

back they tell me they were just talking. I was quite amazed

at some of the things she said, and I don't think I will ever

be able to look at either her or Ark again and not think

about them playing "warming the weasel," which I should

probably explain but am too embarrassed to do, and you

wouldn't believe me anyway.

How I got up here on the roof is an interesting story,

and I will write it down in case it is important. After I left

off last time, Magistrate Jarvis took my satchel away while

I was sending my report through the facts machine inside,

and he took me out of jail, then gave me my satchel back

and said that I could leave now, but I shouldn't try to talk to

Good-wife Filster for a few years.

"What happened to her bakery?" I asked, and he said,

"Oh, the old windbag left a cloth sitting on an oven when

she went outside, and the cloth caught fire, and that spread

to the wall and ceiling. The place is pretty well ruined now.

She's probably going south to Gwynned to stay with her

brother until she gets things sorted out."

I felt bad for her having to leave town, but I also felt

bad for myself and everyone else, since she had the only

good bakery. Jarvis went on about there being a lot of

confusion as they were trying to put out the fire, but when

Woose tried to get people organized, no one would listen to

him, because he was rich or a dwarf or both, so the whole

place burned up and took the tailor's shop with it. Jarvis said

a lot of things about certain people that I should probably

not put down here, because I think he was just angry, and I

doubt he would really know if those people were as much in

love with their barn animals as he implied they were.

Magistrate Jarvis stopped and rubbed his face and then

looked at me and said, "By the way, where did you get

those?" and he pointed at my gray robes, so I said, "Ark

made me his official recorder this morning, and these are

my official recorder's robes, and this is my official Palanthas

paper, and this is my steel scribing pen, and this is my

once-holy symbol," and I showed him my silver necklace

that has the tiny silver open book with the tiny little

scribbles in it that you can't read no matter how close you

hold it to your eye, which I did once when I was smaller but

poked myself in the eyeball and couldn't see for two days,

so I don't do it now.

Magistrate Jarvis snorted and said, "Arkie'd be better off

sticking to his shoe business. People don't have a need to

read or write all that much. A little bit of knowledge goes a

long way."

I was going to ask what he meant by that, but he looked

at my satchel and asked about that, too, and I said it was just

to hold all my papers.

Jarvis sighed and said, "You'd better be getting on out

now. Try not to get yourself killed before nightfall," and I

promised, and he let me go.

I was almost out the door when I remembered what you

wanted, so I turned around and said, "Can I ask just one

question?"

Jarvis was heading back to bed, but he groaned and

said, "If it means I can get to sleep afterward, sure,

anything."

So I took out my papers and my pen and tried to

remember the question, and I asked him, "Do you think the

gods did right when they sank Istar to preserve the balance

of the world and to protect the freedoms of will, thought,

and action among all beings?"

Jarvis stood real still for a while, which made me a bit

uneasy, and I slowly began to roll up my papers in case I

had to run for it. His face got old and white, and his black

moustache looked droopy and dark, but he only said, "Why

would you ask me such a damned foolish question as that?

By the Abyss and its dragons, no, that wasn't good at all.

The gods ruined everything for us. Istar had evil on the run.

We had those goblins and minotaurs and other scum in our

grip, and we were smashing down the wizards' towers right

and left. We could have had a golden age here on our

world, the first true age of freedom ever, but the gods broke

Istar and turned their backs on us. I was a soldier for Istar

before the fall. I was out here in Ergoth hunting down

blood-crazed barbarians when the sky lit up to the east and

the mountain fell on my homeland. Then the earthquakes

and windstorms came, and there was suffering and

starvation for all of us who were left, every damn one. That

was twenty-two years ago, and I remember every moment

of it, every single thing, just like it was yesterday. The gods

did us wrong. The good gods turned evil and sold us out.

They sold us into a pit of serpents like the lowest goblin

whelp."

Jarvis didn't look much like the Jarvis I knew. He

looked more like someone else, and I thought maybe I'd

better be going before he threw something at me even if he

did promise not to. But Jarvis only stared at me some more

and then said, "Get out of here," so I left and didn't write

anything down at all until now.

I walked around town for a little bit after that, thinking

about what Jarvis had said and wishing I could get

something to eat, because I hadn't had anything so far, what

with being chased and thrown in jail and starting fires by

accident. I wasn't getting very far on my assignment, and I

didn't feel very good at all. I finally got a drink of water

from the town fountain, and that helped a little, so I sat on

the fountain rim and bunched myself up because if was still

a little cold, and I wondered why you were so worried about

Ark finding someone who understood why the gods had

destroyed Istar, and how you would feel if no one ever

understood but Ark and me, and how you would feel if

sometimes even Ark and me don't quite understand, either,

since the Cataclysm seems to have made everyone so rude-

minded. And I didn't understand how not understanding

would cause everyone more problems later. Nothing made

any sense then, and it still doesn't now, but I'm getting

ahead of myself, because it's boring to be here on the

rooftop, even with the nice view.

Anyway, I was sitting by the fountain when a man

riding a horse came over. He wore a little bit of armor, so I

knew he wasn't from town even if I didn't recognize him

anyway, since no one here wears any armor because goblins

never come to the coast and the barbarians aren't bothering

anybody this year, because they're all sick. The man looked

like he was very old but very strong, and he had a

moustache bigger and thicker than Jarvis's, but it was full of

gray hair. He rode his horse up to the fountain and got off

and let his horse drink while he stretched and scratched his

backside and began to rub his horse down. It was about the

time when he pulled a cloth out of his pocket and began

wiping off his armor that I thought he might be a knight,

because only a knight would do that. Nobody else cares

what his or her armor looks like.

Ark had told me a lot about the Knights of Solamnia when

I was younger, and I never knew if he liked them or didn't

like them, because the knights did both good things and bad

things, but they often did them both at the same time, so I

was pretty confused as to which side they were on. I got out

my papers and pen so I could ask my question, but I saw the

knight pull out a long steel sword with notches and scrapes

cut into the blade, so I decided I would wait a little while

and ask about the weather first instead. Ark always says I

should think first, since I'm not very good at it sometimes,

and maybe I would live longer that way, and right then I

decided that maybe he knew what he was talking about.

The knight glanced at me a few times but said nothing

as he cleaned his armor, every bit of it, then got himself a

drink from the fountain. He acted like I wasn't really there. I

forgot how hungry I was getting because I had never seen a

real knight up close, and this one smelled like old sweat and

leather and fur and steel. His eyes were like a gray winter

sky, and the more I looked at him the less I wanted to ask

my question, but I knew I'd have to do it anyway for Ark

and you. I was just clearing my throat and was trying to get

the question framed properly, so that I could run if

necessary, when I saw Kroogi walk up from the

blacksmith's shop to wash his face before lunch like he

always does, and I knew I was saved. I would ask Kroogi

the question first.

I smiled at Kroogi and sat up straight when he came

over, only he wasn't looking at me. He was looking at the

knight and the knight was looking back, and neither was

looking away, and they didn't look too happy about seeing

each other. I waved at Kroogi to get his attention, but he

didn't wave back. He slowly stripped off his shirt to wash,

and you could see the old tribal tattoos on his chest and

arms from when he was a warrior with the Red Thunder

People who lived east of here before they all died from

fighting or being sick, which was why Kroogi left them.

The knight stared at Kroogi's tattoos and Kroogi stared at

the knight's armor, and neither of them said a thing.

"Kroogi!" I said, waving my arms. "Kroogi, I have a

question. Do you have a moment?" I felt safe asking

Kroogi, because he was real quiet and never did anything

mean, even if Jarvis said Kroogi once cut two men in half

using a hand axe in a battle with Istarian army renegades

before the fall of Istar, but that wasn't anything anyone

would hold against him, as Istarian army renegades were

not very nice and they're mostly dead now anyway.

Kroogi didn't look at me, because he was still staring at

the knight, and then Kroogi began flexing his huge arm and

chest muscles so you could see the places where spears or

swords or arrows had cut him here and there. Finally, he

looked away and bent down to soak his shirt in the fountain

water, ignoring the knight.

Several more people had wandered over to the fountain

in the meantime, so I knew I'd have lots of other people to

ask if the knight or Kroogi didn't give me an answer.

"Kroogi!" I said.

Kroogi glanced at me as he began to wash himself using

his shirt, and I knew I could go ahead and ask my question.

He never said much, but he always made what he said

count.

"I just have one question," I said, and cleared my throat.

It would be easier to get a response from the knight after

asking Kroogi first. "Kroogi, do you think the gods did right

in dropping the flaming mountain on Istar so that - "

"Yes," said Kroogi. He lifted his wet shirt and ran it

across his chest, washing away the ash and dust.

"Wait," I said. "I didn't get to finish the question. Do

you think the gods did right when - "

"Yes," he said again. 'They did right in killing the

murdering mongrel dogs of Istar and their Solamnic iron-

assed lackeys. The blessed gods, praise their names, did

right in crushing out the Kingpriest's filth and purifying the

lands that Istar and Solamnia had defiled, washing them

with clean fire and water." He dabbed at his forehead. His

face never changed expression. It rarely did.

"Oh," I said in surprise. This was easier than I'd

thought. "Oh, well, would you - "

"I agree that the gods did right," interrupted the knight.

His voice was like low thunder from a distant storm. "They

killed the mad murderers of Istar, who would have chained

or slain us all, but afterward they allowed evil to roam the

lands in the form of ignorant, filthy, barbarian scum who

spread plague as they looted and burned their way across

the injured lands. The gods did right in destroying Istar, but

they didn't finish the job when they let hordes of masterless

vermin prey on innocent and law-abiding people. The gods

instead left the cleaning up to those with the wisdom to

separate the grain from the chaff, and the strength to dispose

of the chaff properly."

Well, I thought this was great! Here I had two people who

completely agreed that the gods had done right. I was going

to ask both of them to detail their answers just a little bit

more, when Kroogi's arm snapped put and he Hung his wet

shirt into the knight's face and knocked him off balance.

Then Kroogi screamed at the top of his lungs so loudly that

my ears rang, and he leapt at the knight with his big hands

going for the knight's throat.

I was so surprised that I just sat there with my papers

and pen and satchel and watched the two of them fighting

and rolling in the dirt, yelling and cursing each other and

using words that Ark would have slapped my face for

using, as he'd done once when I said a word I'd heard a

fisherman use but which I won't say ever again, or at least

not when Ark is around.

More townspeople gathered around, shouting at Kroogi

to beat the knight up, but some people came who yelled for

the knight to beat up Kroogi because they didn't like the

fact that Kroogi was once a barbarian, even if he was a nice

guy mostly and made toys at Yuletime for some families

when he had the chance.

Then someone pushed someone else, and then the

whole crowd was going at it and everyone was kicking and

punching and shoving and flailing away, and grown men

had blood coming from their noses and mouths, and their

hair was pulled out, and some had clubs and hoes, and

someone else screamed like he was dying, and about then I

felt someone grab me around the waist and drag me off,

and it was Jarvis.

"Damn you!" he shouted at me as he dragged me off.

"What in the Abyss did you do now?"

So I told him, and he put me up here on the roof of the

Cats & Kitties, where he said I couldn't cause any more

trouble while he tried to restore order in town. It's nice and

warm up here, and I have a great view of the town and sea

and farms, but I can still hear people yelling, and some lady

is wailing over and over, and I wish I had asked Jarvis for

something to eat, because now I am really hungry. I think

Jarvis is coming back up the ladder now, so I'd better close

this up. Oops! I see that it isn't Jarvis, it's Goodwife Fils -

 

*****

 

Report Number Four

Same day (Cotterpin says the 13th), late afternoon

 

Hi, Astinus. I'm a few miles outside of town now,

sitting under a tree, where no one except Cotterpin can find

me, I hope. This is probably my last official report to you,

because there doesn't seem to be much point in continuing

to try to find someone who understands why the gods got so

tired of Istar, when everyone gets so upset about the whole

issue and thinks either that Istar was wonderful or that Istar

was bad but wasn't as bad as some other places around here

that should have gotten hit with their own fiery mountains

first.

My stomach hurts but I'm not hungry, and I feel just

awful, like I'm going to have a good cry in a minute after I

finish writing this all down, even if Ark says boys shouldn't

cry, but I'm a kender and not a human so maybe it's okay if

I feel bad for just a little while.

Everyone hates me, and I hate me, and I hate being a

recorder, and I hate sitting out here on a rock in the

wilderness because I have no one to talk to except for

Cotterpin, the tinker gnome, but he's already gone to sleep

in his steam-powered lawn chair under the oak tree here.

Ark is going to be very disappointed that I got thrown in jail

and made part of the town burn up and started a riot and

everything. I'll write down how I got here, but I don't care if

it's interesting or important anymore.

After Magistrate Jarvis caught Goodwife Filster on the

tavern roof and wrestled with her and they both almost fell

off and he took her butcher's cleaver away and made her get

down the ladder again and leave me alone, he said it would

be best if I left town for a while.

"How long is 'for a while'?" I asked, and he said, "Until

Goodie Filster leaves town, that's how long. Maybe it would

be even better if you were gone for good. Permanently.

Forever."

We climbed down from the roof of the Cats & Kitties, and

he took me by the arm and ran me back to his office. I could

hear people fighting in town all the way there, and I

wondered how they could keep it up for so long and

wouldn't they be tired of it all by now, but obviously they

weren't yet.

Jarvis kept me inside his office long enough to give me

a blanket, a bag of bread rolls with no sugar, some cheese,

and a skin he said was full of water but which was really

only half full of ale, which I hate and have already poured

out. Then he said, "Just get out of here. It's for your own

good as well as everyone else's. You can't stay here any

longer until Goodie Filster's out of here."

And I said, "Where can I go?" And he said, "Gods, you

idiot, anywhere! Just get out of this town. She'll kill you if

she sees you here!" And I said, "But what about Ark? Can't

I go see Ark?" Then Jarvis called me a name that means my

head looks like my backside and told me to leave, so I left.

I walked and walked until I was past the Dormens'

farm, which was as far as I'd ever gone away from town in

my whole life, and then I went around a hill I always used

to look at when I was small but had never visited, and I

looked back one last time at the town and felt like part of

my insides had fallen out and been left behind, and I missed

Ark terribly but didn't know if I could ever go back, because

things were in such a mess.

There was smoke drifting over the town near the water-

front, but I couldn't see if it was from Goodwife Filster's

bakery or someone else's place that was burning up. I turned

around and walked on down the road, scuffing my feet in

the dust and kicking rocks and holding my blanket and

wishing I was dead.

I thought of you, Astinus, and Ark, and I was ashamed

because I had promised to do my best to find out if anyone

understood the Cataclysm, but I had done it all wrong and

now I would never get to be a real scribe, much less an

amanuensis. Even worse, I was afraid that because I

couldn't find out the answer to the question, then something

would go wrong someday and no one would know what to

do about it and it would be all my fault.

But even this was not as bad as missing Ark, because Ark

is my father, even if he isn't my real father, because he took

care of me when no one else would, and I knew he would

be upset with me, and I missed him so much that I just

couldn't feel anything at all. I was empty inside and knew I

would be empty forever. I wasn't even hungry anymore.

I walked a long time, but I didn't walk very fast. Part of

me wanted to keep on walking forever, but I got so numb

and tired that I found a rock under an oak tree by the road

and dropped my blanket and satchel and just sat down and

didn't move at all. I must have sat there a long time before I

noticed that a donkey cart had stopped in front of me and

the driver had come over and was asking me something.

The driver was shorter than I am and had wrinkled leathery

skin and a snow-white beard and eyes like the deep sky. He

wore a red and brown outfit covered with belts and pockets

and tools. It was Cotterpin, the tinker gnome.

Cotterpin has been visiting all the villages in a huge

circle around the coast of northern Ergoth for years, and

everyone knows him. When I was small, he let me play with

some of the toys he had in his cart, and he was always

careful to take most of them back from me so other kids

could play with them in other towns, but he always left

some toys behind. I think now that he did it on purpose, but

I used to think he was just forgetful.

"Obviously a newly generated social outcast," he was

saying to me as I sat under the oak tree. "Sociological

tragedy of the first magnitude. Disgraceful phenomenon."

I just looked at him, then looked at the dirt at my feet as

I had been doing for however long I'd been there. I thought

for a moment that I should ask him the question you wanted

Ark to ask, but I didn't want to ask anyone that question

ever again. I knew if I asked him, he would hate me like

everyone else hated me, and I just couldn't stand that.

Cotterpin went back to his cart and heaved something out

of the back, then began to set up something beside my rock

that looked like a box with a metal plate on it and a switch

on one end, with red gnomish lettering all over it that I

couldn't read. He fiddled with the box for a bit, then went

back to the cart and got a clay mug from it and filled it with

liquid from a tap on the side of his cart, then set it on the

box and flipped the switch. I knew I should run or hide or

shield my face when he did that, as everyone knows that

gnome-built things can make craters as big as the one Istar

now rests in, but I didn't feel like running, and I thought

maybe it would be best if I blew up with the box.

But the box didn't blow up; it just got warm after a

while and the tea in the mug got warm, too. I was trying to

figure that one out while Cotterpin went back to the cart and

brought back a steam-powered folding chair that also failed

to blow up and which he set up next to me under the tree so

he could relax in it and enjoy the same warm setting sun

that I was not enjoying.

"A pleasant respite it is to renew our long acquaintance,

Walnut Arskin," he said in his same old deep but nasal

voice, "though I suffer some concern about the

circumstances. Perhaps you would care to elaborate on your

condition."

I thought about it and finally said, "No."

"Mmm." Cotterpin took a sip of his tea, then held the

mug in his short, thick fingers and swirled the contents. "I

am not unaccustomed to seeing wayfarers as youthful as

yourself fall victim to any number of unfortunate mishaps in

the undisciplined confines of the wilderness. Being

moderately fond of our visits together in the recent past, I

was hoping to hear some motive or rationale for your

presence here before you, too, encounter any of the

aforementioned mishaps. Are you perhaps running away

from home?"

"No," I said, and then I said, "Yes," and then I said,

"No. Maybe. I don't know."

"Mmm." Cotterpin took another sip of his tea and

looked off at the sun, which was just above the hill that

hides New-shore from view. He didn't say anything more

for a long time, and before I knew it I had told him

everything, even the part about the question that you wanted

Ark to answer (but I didn't tell him about the facts

machine).

"Mmm," he said when I was done. "I see." Cotterpin

was quiet for a while, and we looked at the open fields

around us and watched deer graze and a hawk hunt for

rabbits. The wind was getting a little cooler, but it was still

okay to be out.

"It seems like an eon ago that I dwelled in Istar," said

Cotterpin at last, watching the hawk with a peaceful face.

"Yet even now I remember it far better than I would like. In

the twilight years of that sea-buried land, I labored as a

menial slave, the chattel of a priest. I had arrived there but

scant decades before as a fully accredited diplomat from my

homeland - the extinct geothermal vent called Mount Nevermind

by the knights. Unfettered I was at first, able to

commune with priest and commoner alike in that proud

city, until the Istarians manifested great annoyance with my

fellow diplomats and me over the failure of one of our gifts

of technology. We had directed the construction of a new

mode of urban transport, a steam-powered cart that traveled

over fixed rails, but on its trial run it caused considerable

damage to some important buildings in the capital. I was put

on trial and sentenced to enforced servitude for the

remainder of my life, as were my fellow diplomats, whom I

never saw again.

"My overseer, whose glacial visage I shall bear with me

to my grave, brought me along on an inspection tour of a

distant military encampment just before catastrophe

overtook Istar. In the anarchy and discord that followed, I

was able to effect my escape and leave my overseer and his

retainers to their own fate, which could not have been

pleasant given the multitude of ills that plagued the region

at that time. I journeyed westward on foot, feasting on the

meager bounty of nature like an untamed beast, until I

found a bare remnant of civilization in old Solamnia. There,

among bitter-eyed men who cursed the gods and slew one

another over trifles, I labored until I had saved enough steel

to cross the new sea to Hylo, on this island's eastern shore. I

then purchased a cart and a donkey - dear old Axle, whom

you see now - and took up my most recent and probably

final vocation as a tinker. As such, I am now content with

my lot and desire nothing more."

"Did you ever want to go home to Mount Nevermind?" I

asked. I had forgotten all about my problems and was trying

to imagine what it would be like to walk across the whole

continent, from Istar to northern Ergoth. I couldn't imagine

it. I was also thinking about Ark and wishing that I could go

home myself.

"Mmm," Cotterpin mumbled. "The thought has made

its disquieting presence known to me on occasion, but I

take thorough comfort in the realization that Mount

Nevermind will continue to exist regardless of my actual

physical location. I have determined that my best course is

to find my own footway in the world and meanwhile

examine the long-range consequences of the catastrophe

that the gods visited upon Istar. I have been content with

my work since then and have not regretted a moment of it.

My original life quest was to have something to do with

mass transit, but given the results of my development of the

prototypical urban travel system in Istar, for which I was

enslaved, I decided that another form of life-quest

expression was called for. I also fear that I've been much

contaminated socially by my contact with humans, and I

am concerned that my brethren at Mount Nevermind might

find my speech and mannerisms peculiar and would

perhaps ask me to volunteer for psychiatric research, which

at this time I am minded to avoid. No, I'd rather not voyage

to fair Mount Nevermind again. I am an itinerant vagabond,

happy at last, and wish to remain so to the end of my

vagabond days."

We sat there for a while longer, and Cotterpin sighed.

"Would that I could render some comfort to you, Walnut,"

he said, "but I wonder if perhaps your father, Jeraim, might

give you more comfort than I, and if perhaps a visit with

him might not reassure him that you have not fallen victim

to tragedy. You have taken up a dreadful and thankless

assignment. It might be time to recuperate from your

excursion and renew your personal energies."

Cotterpin yawned and set aside his mug. "Tea always

has a soporific effect on my psychomotor system," he said,

his words slurring a bit. "The local angle of solar radiation

is also inducing drowsiness, and if you would be so

generous as to excuse my lapse, I would like to take a brief

moment to relax my ... to relax my eyelids." He closed his

eyes, and, only two heartbeats later, he began to snore.

I looked at the countryside for a while more, then took out

my paper and pen and wrote all of this down. The sun is

about to sink behind the hill, and I can hear crickets chirp

ing and birds singing, and I can still see a deer across the

field, near some trees.

I stopped after I wrote the last paragraph above and

thought for a while like Ark told me to do. I don't feel as

upset as I did when I started to write down this report. I've

just put my blanket over Cotterpin and left my bag of food

with him after I ate some of it, and I've made sure that Axle

has enough grass where she is standing, off to the side of

the road. I am taking my papers and pen and facts machine,

and I am going back to see Ark. I might have something to

write to you about later, but if not, then it won't matter.

 

*****

 

Report Number Five

Same day, after midnight, I think

 

Hi, Astinus! Its really late, I know, but I had to get one

last report to you about how everything went. Ark doesn't

know that I'm up or that I found out where he hid the facts

machine after I gave it back to him and he ordered me never

to touch it again or else I'd go to jail for a year, so don't tell

him, please. He and Widow Muffin are asleep right now,

and I don't think they could wake up for anything, and I'd

rather not wake them up anyway. It's been a busy evening.

I went back into town right at sundown and went home

to the shop, though part way there I slowed down a lot and

was worried about what Ark would do when he found that I

had his facts machine and had burned down the town and

all, even if the last part was an accident. I felt bad, too,

because I had failed to find out everything I think you

wanted and Ark would be angry and disappointed in me,

and I was also rather mortified that Ark might find out that I

read Widow Muffin's letters, but I didn't read them all, just

the first twelve.

The town was quiet again, though I could smell some

smoke, and I saw candles burning in the window at the back

of the shop where I usually go in. As I got closer, I saw that

the back door was open, and I could hear voices inside the

shop. The light inside was flickering, and at first I thought it

was the stove. As I got even closer, I could tell that one of

the voices was Ark's and one was Widow Muffin's, and I

almost stopped, but I kept going anyway, even if my face

was red.

It was when I got even closer still, almost up to the

doorway, that I could hear a third voice in the shop, and

that voice was Goodwife Filster's.

I stopped right then, holding the satchel and not moving

a muscle. Goodwife Filster was saying something in a loud

voice, growling like the Wylmeens' mastiff when he

catches scent of me walking through the garden that he

thinks is his territory. After a moment, I edged up to the

door on one side, so no one could see me, and I listened to

them talk, though Ark had once told me to never spy on

anyone, and I never have, except just then and maybe two

other times.

"You have to be reasonable about this," Ark was

saying. His voice was a little too high and tight. "If you

could just listen to me for a minute and think about - "

"Shut your dung-eating trap," shouted Goodwife

Filster. "You brought that wicked little monster into this

good town, and look at me now! My bakery's burned down,

and I've got nothing left to my name except the clothes on

my back. My whole life has been a sewage pit ever since

blessed Istar died, and it's all because of vermin like that

kender and maggot-brained asses like yourself who feed

and clothe them! You're to blame for this even more than

he is. You brought him among us, and you blinded

everyone to his evil nature. You let him work his evil on us,

and now he's had his way, and good people like myself are

destroyed! I'm ruined!" And then she called Ark some

names that I'm not going to write down here, because they

were awful and I don't think I could spell them correctly

anyway. I might ask Ark about them tomorrow.

When Goodwife Filster stopped for breath, I heard

Widow Muffin say, "Goodie Filster, please, listen to us.

You need to go back to the inn and rest for a while. If you

do anything to hurt us, you'll feel terrible about it. You've

had some terrible things happen to - "

"SHUT UP!"

The wall I was leaning against vibrated when Goodwife

Filster yelled, and among other things she called Widow

Muffin a prostitute, only she didn't use that word.

"You can't talk to me!" Goodwife Filster finished. "You

have no right to say anything to me! You deserve the same

fate that the kender should have had years ago! He should

have died out there, eaten by rats and wolves. It's your fault,

Arskin, for dragging that demon child in among good folk."

"He's not a demon," Ark said, his voice shaky. "You're

just upset, now. He's a kender, and they're just like you and

me, even if they cause a little more - "

"The Abyss take you!" screamed Goodwife Filster.

"The evil gods delivered him into your hands to destroy

us!"

"Goodie, he was just a little baby, and his mother was

dead. She'd been wounded by goblins or bandits, and she'd

carried him all the way through the wilderness to get him to

safety. I couldn't leave him there after I buried her. If you

had been me, you would have done the same. You know it!"

Ark sounded like he was trying to reason with a swamp

viper he'd almost stepped on.

I was shocked to hear about my mother, because Ark

had never said a word to me about her, and for a moment I

couldn't think of anything else until Goodwife Filster

laughed.

"I would have known what to do to the little bastard,"

she said, and my insides went cold when she said it. "I

would have spared us all this torment. But because of you

and that kender, I lost everything I ever owned. It's only

right that you should suffer as I have, just exactly as I

have."

I slowly moved around the door frame. No one was by

the door, but I could look into the wall mirror nearby and

see part of Goodwife Filster's back and one of her arms. She

was holding a torch in one hand and had a meat-cutting

knife stuck in her belt. That was bad enough, but, being so

close to the door, I could also smell something like lamp oil,

only it couldn't have been - or so I thought - because Ark

doesn't own any oil lamps, because he says the local oil

burns too fast and smells awful, like burned fish, which is

what it comes from (we call them greasegills).

Of course, my next thought was that Goodwife Filster had

brought her own lamp oil, and that she meant what she said

about Ark suffering exactly as she had, and suddenly all I

could think about was my growing up in the shoe shop and

how it was the only home I had ever known and how Ark

and I, and later Widow Muffin, had always had so much fun

here. I realized I had no idea how much lamp oil Goodwife

Filster had brought in with her, but it smelled like enough to

burn up my memories and the shoe shop and maybe some

people with it.

I stopped listening then so I'd have a chance to think.

Think first, Ark always tells me, even if it's just for a

moment. At first I thought I should run for help, but I didn't

know if Goodwife Filster would behave herself long enough

for me to find Magistrate Jarvis and get back without

anyone being hurt. I carefully put down the satchel with the

facts machine and looked down at the steps and thought and

thought. Goodwife Filster was saying something about

beasts and dragons and fires from the Abyss, and she wasn't

making a lot of sense, though in a way she was, even if it

was a very awful sort of logic.

About then I remembered a trick I had once played on

Ark when I was small, something I had sworn never to do

again after I'd tried the trick, and Ark had broken two of his

fingers, for which I'd been spanked and felt bad over for

weeks. I was looking at the bottom of the door frame, where

part of the frame had fallen off but left some nails sticking

out, just enough to tie a string across the bottom of the door

above ankle height.

I felt in my robe pockets for some string, but I didn't

have any. Then I remembered my once-holy symbol of

Gilean, and I carefully slid its chain off my neck and knelt

down by the door as quietly as I could. It took a few

seconds for me to wrap the chain around the nails on either

side of the doorway. It was dark, and I didn't think

Goodwife Filster would see the chain until it was too late.

Then I grabbed the satchel.

I thought about calling for Goodwife Filster to come

outside, but I thought she might say no and burn down our

home. That left only one solution, and from the sound of

things inside, I was going to have to do it now.

"Don't set the house on fire," Ark was begging. "I don't

want any of us to get hurt. Please take the torch outside."

"I have no fear of you," cried Goodwife Filster. "I am

the arm of righteousness. I am the avenger of fallen Istar."

"Goodie, that's crazy talk!" said Widow Muffin, and

right then I knew she had said the wrong thing. I leaped up

the two back steps, stepped over the chain at the bottom of

the doorway, and stomped into the shop as loudly as I

could.

"You - !" Goodwife Filster was starting to shout a bad

word, but she stopped when I came in and turned around.

When I saw her, I wondered if I had made a very bad

mistake, because Goodwife Filster had a hatchet in the hand

that didn't have the torch. Her eyes were shining like black

stones at the bottom of a cold creek. Ark and Widow

Muffin were bunched up in a corner, and Ark was holding a

footstool with the widow back behind him. The place stank

of burned fish. Everyone froze as I came in. The only thing

I could hear was the crackling of the torch flames.

It was time to do something, so I waved my arms and

the satchel and shouted the first thing that came into my

head. "Hey!" I yelled at Goodwife Filster. "Got any sugar

buns?"

I didn't know what to expect, but I certainly didn't

expect that Goodwife Filster could move so fast for

someone built so dumpy. She didn't say a thing, at least not

that I remember, but she came at me like a wild horse, and I

knew I was going to be a very sorry kender if I didn't move.

I ran for the back door, and my plan to trip Goodwife Filster

and hit her over the head with the satchel would have been

perfect, except that I forgot about the chain at the bottom of

the door in trying to get away from her and that axe and

torch she had, and the chain snagged my foot, and I fell out

the back door and down the steps into the dirt.

I got up right away, and it was a good thing I did, too,

because Goodwife Filster hit the chain right after I did and

fell down the steps, too, but she fell right next to me, and

the torch singed my hair before it stuck in the dirt and went

out. I had no time to do anything with the facts-machine

satchel except hold it. I had to run, so I did.

I took off for the low place in the stone wall between

Ark's place and the Salberins' property, and it was hard to

see where I always came up and hoisted myself over the

wall, but I could hear Goodwife Filster behind me, her thick

feet thumping on the ground, and suddenly I had the idea of

vaulting over the wall on my hands, so I did exactly that -

the first time I ever did it - and I sailed over the wall on one

hand, holding the satchel in the other, just as something

struck the top of the wall by my hand and threw up sparks

as it went by. It looked like her hatchet, but I didn't want to

find out for sure, so I hit the ground on the other side and

almost lost my balance and the satchel, too, but I managed

to keep running. I thought I could hear Ark shouting my

name way back behind me, but it didn't make much difference

to me right then.

As I tore across the Salberins' flower beds and headed

for the rail fence between their place and the Wylmeens'

property, I heard someone scrambling over the wall behind

me, screaming something like "evil spawn" over and over.

For a moment, I wondered if Goodwife Filster had always

been strange in that way, and if she was really crazy or was

just so angry she couldn't think straight anymore, and

maybe having her bakery burn down was just the last straw.

She had always been mean but never really awful or

strange like she was now.

I reached the rail fence, slowing down just enough to

climb over it with one hand because it was too high to vault

over. I couldn't seem to get a grip on the wood for a

moment, but I heard her shout, "Evil spawn!" right behind

me, and in moments I was over the fence and on my back

in the Wylmeens' tomato bed. I scraped my leg on a tomato

post in falling over the fence and the satchel banged my

nose, but none of it hurt very much and I had a lot more to

think about right then than a scratch. I also thought that I

didn't have the faintest idea of where I was going to go, but

I just wanted to get Goodwife Filster and her torch away

from Ark and Widow Muffin and our shoe shop. That was

all that mattered.

I got up and started running across the tomato bed and

into the cucumber vines, but it was dark and my foot caught

in a bunch of vines and I fell Hat on my face and knocked

all the wind out of my lungs. I still had the satchel, so I

started to get up and run again, but I fell down right away

because my ankle felt like someone had stuck it with a red-

hot iron. I heard someone scramble over the fence and land

on the ground a dozen feet behind me, so I got up again but

couldn't run on my bad leg or even hop on my good leg, and

I fell again and said the very same bad word I'd heard the

fisherman use, the very same word Ark had told me never

to say again, and I said it real loud.

And that's when I heard Mud coming.

The Wylmeens call their dog Mud because he has the

same color coat as the mud in the road after a heavy rain.

He comes up almost to my shoulders and has eyes that glow

white when he sees something he wants to kill, and the

Wylmeens haven't been very good about teaching Mud not

to kill everything that comes into his yard. He killed a

wolverine one year in an hour-long battle, and the

Wylmeens stuck the carcass on a post by the road, where it

stayed until Mud figured out how to get it down and tore it

into little pieces. I sometimes slip through the Wylmeens'

garden because I figured out how to get to the other side

before he could get off the back porch and catch me, and I

have to confess that it was a little exciting to tease him like

that, even though I knew I shouldn't if I wanted to live a

long time.

Unfortunately, I had never expected to fall down in the

Wylmeens' garden, though I had long ago figured out from

the number of close calls that I'd had with Mud that falling

down meant I would probably not get a second chance to

get out of the garden in one piece. I heard Mud coming off

the back porch, and I looked up over the vines in front of

my face to see him hurtling across the garden right at me,

moving like a wild black shadow with white moons for

eyes. I couldn't see much of him but I saw enough, so I

wrapped my arms over my head and curled up and hoped

the Wylmeens would be able to call him off me before I

looked like that wolverine.

Mud was on me in a rush. Then he was over and past me,

and I heard a shriek that could have awakened a graveyard

full of dead people. Mud was snarling and fighting, and

someone was screaming, and I decided it was time to get

out of there no matter what had happened to my ankle. I

started to crawl away on my hands and knees as fast as I

could, but as I was trying to leave I heard Goodwife Filster

screaming "HELP ME!" at the top of her lungs, and I did

what I had never thought I would do. I crawled back to save

her.

Humans think that because I'm a kender I am not

supposed to be afraid of anything, and I guess it's true, but I

must admit that my stomach turned over when I saw how

big Mud was and what he was doing to Goodwife Filster on

the ground. Mud wasn't paying any attention to me, so I

crawled over and got up on my knees and banged him twice

on his dog butt with the satchel. It was like hitting a tree

stump for all the good it did, and the satchel handle broke

right then anyway, and the facts machine fell out in the dirt

and cucumber vines. Goodwife Filster was screaming, and

Mud was about to tear her arm off, so I picked up the facts

machine and threw it at Mud, and I hit him.

I have to admit that I didn't expect the facts machine to

light up like it did and shoot out little lightning bolts and

make Mud Hip up into the air and spin around for a moment

before he crashed back into the cucumbers and wiggled

around in really bizarre ways. I found the facts machine,

and it didn't seem to be broken, so I put it back in the

satchel and crawled over to see what I could do for Good-

wife Filster, who was groaning and holding her arms in

front of her face.

About then Ark came over the fence and all twenty of

the Wylmeens came out of their house and ran over to help,

too, which was a good thing, as I had never seen someone

with so many cuts and bites before and I wasn't sure where

to start in trying to fix them all.

They carried Goodwife Filster into the Wylmeens' house

and washed her off and wrapped up her arms and face and

legs and everything else in white bandages until she almost

looked like one of her own sugar buns. It seemed to me that

she was going to live, though she wasn't going to be chasing

people around with sharp objects and torches very much in

the foreseeable future. They also wrapped up my ankle,

which wasn't broken, only sprained, and made me sit off to

the side out of sight while they made Goodwife Filster more

comfortable. I admit that I was a little jealous of the

attention she got because, after all, she was the one who had

been chasing me with a knife and axe and torch and had

wanted to burn down Ark's shoe shop, but I decided not to

point that out. It was when I was watching everyone get

Goodwife Filster fixed up that I had a funny thought, and I

hopped over to ask her a question.

They had finished wrapping up her head and everyone

was gathering around her to talk when I came over. No one

paid any attention to me, so I went right up and stood beside

the cot where she lay, and I put down the satchel, which

Ark had forgotten to take back from me right then but did

later. Goodwife Filster looked terrible, but she was

breathing and that was good, I guess.

"Goodwife Filster?" I whispered, and when she didn't

do anything, I asked again, "Goodwife Filster?"

She groaned then and half-turned so she could look at

me through all the rags that were tied over her head. Her

eyes opened, but they looked like they were dead.

"You were pretty mad at me for asking about Istar,

weren't you?" I asked.

Goodwife Filster just stared at me and didn't make any

noise, but I assumed her answer was yes. No one else said

anything. They all just looked at me, so I kept going.

"I was supposed to ask that question for Astinus of Palanthas,

to help out Ark," I said. "I was just thinking about it

all, and I think I know the reason Astinus wanted to find out

what people thought of the Cataclysm. It goes like this:

Nobody liked Istar very much, except maybe for you and

a few other people. But, then, from what I've heard, nobody

really liked anybody at all very much back then, and things

don't seem to have gotten much better now, because

everyone down deep still hates everyone else. Asking

people about Istar brings out all the worst in them and opens

up all the old wounds, though I'm saying that as a metaphor

and not because you have so many wounds right now,

really. I think Astinus knew that would happen, and he

wanted to find out just how bad things really were now, and

maybe he wasn't so much interested in Istar after all.

Astinus is really worried that someday something bad will

happen that will need all of us to pull together and work

together and maybe fight together to set things right again,

and if we don't learn that being different is really okay, then

we aren't going to make it in the long run and we'll be just

like the Karkhovs' melons and be swept away by the ocean

or whatever it is that Astinus is afraid will come at us. What

do you think?"

Goodwife Filster kept staring at me while her lips

moved. I had to lean close to hear her. "Astinus and you?"

she asked. "You were both doing this?"

I nodded. "Yup. See, Ark made me a field recorder, and

I decided to - "

I'm afraid I didn't get much further with my

explanation, because at that point Goodwife Filster sat up

on the cot and yelled out that both you and I should get

together and do something that was remarkably disgusting

and which I'll bet is physically impossible, but which I have

to admit sounded pretty funny to me later on, though you

might not think so. Then she tried to get off the cot and

come after me, but the Wylmeens got to her first.

After things calmed down a bit, Ark and Widow Muffin

carried me back to the shop. On the way, we picked up

Woose, the dwarf, and Cotterpin, the tinker, and Magistrate

Jarvis and Kroogi and several other people who were

friends of at least one of us, and when we got back to the

shop, Ark closed the back door and everyone cleaned me up

and fed me while Ark and the widow told the story of how I

had saved them. They put fresh dirt over all the lamp oil

Goodwife Filster had spilled in the shop and swept it out,

but it still smelled almost as bad as the gas Ark gets from

eating cheese pastries, which I guess he won't eat anymore.

In the process, I heard that the Wylmeens' dog, Mud, was

still alive but he wasn't the same old Mud and was actually

pretty quiet now and wasn't chasing or biting anyone this

evening and maybe won't do it again, or so I hope.

Eventually everyone went home and Ark took his facts

machine and satchel away from me, and the machine was a

little dirty but not broken, and Ark never once asked me if

I'd seen the widow's letters, and I never once brought it up. I

never even asked why the widow happened to drop by the

shop while I was gone or where her shoes had gone. (When

I got the satchel and facts machine back just a few minutes

ago to send this to you, I noticed that Ark had taken the

letters out of the satchel and had hidden them somewhere

else, but I won't try to find out where they are, as I don't

think I could stand the shock. Widow Muffin stayed on with

us tonight, but I didn't mind. She and Ark seem the happier

for it.)

This will be my last report to you, Astinus. I told Ark

that being a recorder was very exciting, but it was maybe a

little too exciting, and I would rather be a cobbler for now

and later an amanuensis, though to tell the truth I have

given some thought to being a cave explorer or a sea pirate

(I didn't tell him that part, though).

I also asked Ark if tomorrow he would show me where

my mother is buried so I could say hi to her and maybe

visit her once in a while. Ark said yes and also said he was

sorry he had never told me about her before and said it had

hurt him to even think about it. All he could remember

about her was that she was pretty. I thought about it and

finally figured that I could forgive him, because I don't

know what I would have done had it been me finding a

baby Ark, and it was all past anyway.

I have been thinking about the question I tried to answer

for you and how much trouble that one question caused, and

for a while I was feeling bad about myself for asking it, but

now I don't so much. I feel sorry for Goodwife Filster, even

if she is so crazy and angry that she lost control of herself,

but there are a lot of people like her around who have bad

attitudes and don't want to make life better for anyone else.

If you are afraid that people haven't learned anything about

working together as a lesson of the Cataclysm, then it seems

to me you have a lot to worry about. But Ark and I (and

maybe the widow, too, though I haven't asked) have it

figured out most of the time, so there's still hope.

It was fun working for you, Astinus. Maybe I will get to

see you again someday when I sail my own pirate ship. Be

looking for me!

 

THE VOYAGE OF THE SUNCHASER

 

PAUL B. THOMPSON

AND TONYA R. CARTER

 

A dense red haze surrounded the sun in a hot, silent sky. The sea

was calm, though swirls and eddies showed on its surface. The violent

upheavals in the air and water had lasted through the long night; now

they were done. Across this desolate scene drifted the merchant ship

SUNCHASER, listing hard to port, its tangled yards and spars trailing

in the oily water.

The ship's master, Dunvane of Palanthas, slipped the

loops of rope from around his wrists. In the worst part of the

storm, he had lashed himself to the ship's wheel. His wrists

were raw and bloody from the hemp's chafing. Dunvane

took the wheel now and turned it left and right, but the

steering ropes were slack and the ship did not respond.

He drew in a deep breath and coughed. Feathers of

smoke clung to the SUNCHASER; the shredded sails were

still burning. Dunvane had never seen anything like the

blazing hot tempest that had swept down upon them. The

wind was like fire itself, and it consumed more than the

ship's sails. Those sailors who'd had the ill fortune to be

standing on the windward side of the ship had ignited like

candles. Half of Dunvane's crew of fourteen died in that

instant. He and the others who'd been on deck had burns on

their faces and hands and arms.

Then came the waves. Breakers as high and solid as cliffs

fell on them. Only Dunvane's seamanship had saved the

SUNCHASER, as he turned stern first to the crushing

waves. The ship rode out the extraordinary storm, but with

all the spinning and turning, the captain had no idea where

they'd come to be.

What crewmen remained were scattered on deck, laid

out by exhaustion. Dunvane staggered to the waist of the

ship, shaking the sailors awake. Four men, he found, were

beyond waking. Within a short time, the only three

survivors of the SUNCHASER'S crew were on their feet.

"Set the lads to clearing away those fallen shrouds,"

Dunvane said.

First Mate Norry croaked the order, then asked his

captain, "As we're short-handed, sir, will we be puttin' back

for Palanthas?"

Dunvane squinted into the billowing clouds. "Nay.

We've come more than halfway. It's better to make for

Gardenath, on the Istar coast." He shook his head and

tugged thoughtfully at his dark brown beard. "I haven't a

clue where we are, Norry."

"Surely the Solamnic coast lies south," offered the

mate, pointing over the starboard rail.

Dunvane was not sure of anything, and said so.

"Well," Norry said, "at least the cargo is safe."

Dunvane looked at the reason for their voyage. Lashed

to the deck hard by the mainmast was an enormous bowl,

carved out of serpentine stone by master artisans in

Palanthas. Dunvane and his crew were being well paid to

ferry this stone bowl from Palanthas to Istar. The sight

eased Dunvane's fear.

"I'll speak with the Revered Son," the captain said.

"He'll know what's going on. In the meantime, keep the men

busy. Don't give 'em time to think too much."

"Aye, aye, sir."

Dunvane circled the serpentine bowl, watching the

iridescent colors flare and die on its surface as he moved

around it. Although made of stone, the bowl was

remarkably light, in part because of the skillful fluting of

the underside. It was seven feet in diameter and two feet

deep in the center, yet four Palanthian stevedores had

loaded it without strain. Once the captain was satisfied that

its lashings were intact, he went aft to the sterncastle.

A gust of wind disturbed the eerie calm. Something

borne on the wind pattered on the deck and stung his face.

He stared at it - fine, black dirt. Here was a fresh wonder -

a shower of dirt this far out at sea! The wind swirled and

stole the dark dust from his sight.

Dunvane hurried aft and knocked loudly on the stern

cabin door. "May I enter?" he called.

"Yes, come."

Dunvane pulled off his knitted wool cap and raised the

latch. The cabin inside was hot and dark. The sole candle

had gone out. Dunvane's eyes adjusted to the lack of light,

and he saw a pale face emerge from the shadows near the

cabin berth.

"Are you well, Revered Son?"

"I am well, Captain." The passenger stood and stepped

into the well of faint light from the open door. A tall,

ascetic-looking man, not yet thirty years of age, his fair

skin and blond-white hair shone in the gloom. Despite the

violence of the night, he appeared remarkably composed.

His white priestly robes were neatly draped around his

narrow shoulders, and his hair was smoothed back from his

forehead. Composure came easily to Revered Son Imkhian

of Istar. He wore it as part of the costume of his office.

Seating himself at the table in the center of the cabin,

Imkhian asked in a calm, deep voice, "What has

happened?"

Dunvane opened the side shutters and let diffuse red

light fill the cabin. "A storm like no other I ever

encountered in my life, Revered Son. I shot the stars just

before eight bells, and everything was as calm as a farmer's

pond. The sky was fair. Then the lookout called, 'Fire!

Fire!' 'Whereaway?' says I. 'In the air,' says the lookout."

"Fire in the sky? Most strange," Imkhian said coolly.

"Then what?"

"A great globe of fire fell into the sea, and a burning

hot wind struck us." Dunvane went on to enumerate his

losses - sailors, sails, rigging. "But your special cargo is

safe,' Revered Son, safe and undamaged."

The priest nodded. "That is well. The Kingpriest

himself is expecting the serpentine bowl before the great

Festival of Purification."

"If I may ask - what is it for?"

Imkhian folded his hands. "It will be placed in the great

temple in the center of the city, and there an eternal flame

will be kindled. That is why it must be made of serpentine;

any other stone would eventually crack under the

continuous heat."

Cries outside interrupted the priest. "Heave away!"

yelled a voice, and there was a loud crash. The ship slowly

righted itself.

"The men have cut away the broken foremast that was

making us list," Dunvane explained. "The hull is

undamaged."

"How will we proceed without sails?"

"There is spare cloth on board. We'll patch together a

small sail, Revered Son. We are being drawn by a current.

Our progress will be slow, but we can proceed."

Imkhian frowned, his pale blue eyes narrowing. "Time

is short, Captain. The voyage was only supposed to last a

week."

The captain shifted nervously, his head still bent in a

posture of deference. "No one could have foreseen the

tempest last night, but I don't think it will delay us more

than a day. But . . . Revered Son, what could that globe of

fire have been?"

The priest looked thoughtful. "Forces of evil are

rampant, Captain, and the work of our great Kingpriest is

often threatened. Since the Proclamation of Manifest

Virtue, evil sorcerers have plotted to stop this great

cleansing work. Perhaps some wizard sought to prevent the

serpentine bowl from reaching Istar." Imkhian drew

himself up taller, his eyes glinting proudly. "But the will of

the Kingpriest is not easily thwarted."

"May his blessings continue upon us," Dunvane

murmured with feeling.

Imkhian frowned and studied the sea captain intently,

as if searching for some sign of insincerity. Dunvane

shifted uneasily.

"Ahoy! Shipwreck, ahoy!" came a cry from on deck.

Bowing, Dunvane hastily quit the cabin, jamming his hat

back on his head. The mate and the other two members of

his crew stood at the starboard rail, peering into the murk.

The first mate put his hands around his mouth and crowed

again, "Shipwreck, ahoy!"

Then the captain saw it. Lying very low in the water,

some thousand yards off, was a dark, floating object. It

resembled a fair-sized vessel, lying on its beam ends.

"Is the helm answering?" asked Dunvane.

"Aye, Captain, but without sheets, we're flowing with

the current," Norry replied.

"That will do. Bring her about, four points to

starboard."

Sluggishly, the SUNCHASER turned its bluff bow

toward the distant wreck. The smoky dust hanging in the air

parted silently as the SUNCHASER glided along.

"Two points more," called Dunvane. He climbed the

rigging and clung to the shrouds, studying the wreck as they

came steadily closer. From his loftier perch, he saw that the

sea ahead was flecked with flotsam of every kind: tree

branches, boards, straw, bottles, the carcasses of drowned

animals. Norry steered the ship until the bow was dead-on

to the half-sunken vessel.

The water was muddy, a turbid brown mixture. It was

impossible to see the usual changes in sea color that warn of

shallows. Dunvane stared hard at the water, praying they

wouldn't run aground.

"Keep us off that wreck," ordered the captain. "I don't

want to foul her."

A sailor went forward with a hefty boat hook in hand.

At the last moment, Norry spun the wheel, and the

SUNCHASER sheered left of the wreck.

A figure rose up on top of the hulk and waved both

arms.

"Bring him aboard!" shouted Dunvane, and the sailor

with the boat hook held it out to the castaway. The mud-

coated figure threw both arms around the pole. The sailor

levered him up and around.

Dunvane's attention was drawn from the rescue by a

scraping sound below him. He looked down to where the

side of the SUNCHASER was brushing against the wreck.

Tufts of hay, tied with string, broke loose and floated away

from the sunken ship. Bundled straw . . . thatch from a roof . . .

"I'll be damned!" Dunvane exclaimed. "That's no ship! It's

a house!"

The rescued castaway collapsed on deck. Dunvane slid

down a line and dropped onto the deck beside the stranger -

a woman.

"Thank you!" she gasped, brown eyes gleaming out

from under a thick mask of mud. She kissed Dunvane's

hand fervently. "Bless you, sir! I saw your ship and thought

it was a vision - !" Her voice choked off.

Embarrassed, the captain pulled away and stood up. He

ordered a sailor to push them off from the wreck, and soon

the unusual current was once more pulling them along.

Norry fetched a bucket of clean water and a rag. The

woman wiped her face, then raised the heavy bucket to her

lips, drinking deeply. The water cut rivulets in the mud

plastered on her throat.

"Who are you?" asked Dunvane. "Where do you come

from?"

"My name is Jermina. I am from Gardenath."

Dunvane stared. "WHERE?"

The woman repeated her answer.

"How in all Chaos did you get out here, in the middle

of the ocean?" he demanded.

Jermina looked forlornly at the receding bulk of the

wreck. "This was Gardenath," she said. "Right where you

stand."

"You're lying!" said Norry.

She shook her head, dazed, in shock. "That house was

Herril's Inn. It stood on the highest hill in Gardenath. The

wall of water fell upon us, covering the land in a single

night. Nothing remains. . . ."

"Bah!" Norry snorted, but the others weren't so sure.

"Can it be true, Captain?" one of the sailors asked.

"I cannot count it so. There was an upheaval, we know

that, but I cannot believe that a town of ten thousand souls

has sunk beneath the sea."

"So it happened," said Jermina softly.

The sailors frowned, exchanging glances. It was

obvious they were beginning to believe her.

"I will ask the Revered Son," said Dunvane firmly. "He

will know the truth!"

He took hold of the woman and headed for the priest's

cabin. Dunvane knocked until the door opened and Imkhian

appeared. The captain brought Jermina forward. She

told her story.

The priest's composure remained untouched, and he

spared no more than a glance at the muddy, bedraggled

woman. "It is a lie, Captain," he said flatly. "Such things do

not happen. The Kingpriest does not permit them to

happen."

Jermina blinked at him. "Why would I lie? I tell you,

the town of Gardenath lies under the water around you!"

Imkhian's impassive gaze remained on the captain.

"Resume your course, Master Dunvane. I am on an

important mission, given me by the Kingpriest himself. The

serpentine bowl must arrive in Istar for the ceremony. Don't

waste any more precious time worrying about this

ridiculous tale."

"We'll set to work on the sail at once, Revered Son,"

said Dunvane, relieved, as Imkhian slammed shut the cabin

door.

"Captain!" shouted Norry.

The SUNCHASER shuddered and heeled slowly to port.

Dunvane and his men ran to the rail. The strange current

that had been carrying them along was changing direction,

and the ship's rudder, tied straight ahead, was fighting the

pull.

"Look!" Norry pointed.

"By all the holy gods," breathed Dunvane.

Off the port side was a scene from a nightmare. A vast

shoal of floating debris covered the water. Clinging to the

mass of logs, shake roofs, and uprooted trees were

bedraggled, muddy, sunburned people. All stared hopefully

at the oncoming SUNCHASER.

The first cries from parched throats reached their ears.

"Help . . . help us ... water, water . . . help . . ."

The captain recovered from his shock. "Norry. Take the

wheel. Steer wide of them." Dunvane ran to Imkhian's door

once again. "Revered Son! Come out, please! You must see

this!"

Imkhian emerged. The captain pointed at the scene

ahead.

A flicker of surprise marred the smooth surface of the

priest's composure. His eyes moved left and right, taking in

the dreadful panorama.

The flotsam shoal was only a ship's length away. Norry

wrestled with the wheel, but, without sails, the

SUNCHASER could not resist the current. The ship's blunt

bow was pointed at the thickest concentration of rafts. The

people were making ready to climb on board.

"Do not stop," Imkhian said swiftly.

"But, Revered Son, a seaman's duty is to aid - "

"We cannot help them," answered the priest. "There is

neither food nor water enough on this ship to save twenty,

much less such a multitude. We can do nothing for them.

You must fulfill your mission, Captain. The serpentine

bowl must be delivered."

"Help us ... mercy, please . . . save my baby . . ." came

the cries.

The cutwater struck the first line of rafts with a

sickening crunch. Dunvane saw Norry's hands trembling

violently on the wheel. In a cold, anguished fury, the

captain shoved the mate away and took the wheel himself.

The SUNCHASER rode over everything in its path. The

screams and groans of the dying people were horrible to

hear. Dunvane knew he'd be haunted by the memory for the

rest of his days.

Jermina, left to herself, cast about wildly for some

succor to give to the people in the water. She found a coil

of rope and threw its free end over the side. The castaways

clung to it, trying to climb the rope onto the ship.

Dunvane saw her as she steered to starboard in an

attempt to miss a raft laden with people. "The Revered Son

is right," he said through clenched teeth. "We've not

enough food or water to share. Cut the line, Norry."

Jermina screamed. Norry pulled out his sheath knife,

casting a look of agony at his captain. Dunvane could not

speak the order again, but he nodded once. Norry cut the

rope with one stroke, just as a pair of raw, blistered hands

reached for the rail.

Dunvane would never forget that dreadful voyage. When

at last they were clear of the floating refugees, he tied off

the wheel and slumped against the sterncastle behind him.

"Captain."

Dunvane opened his eyes. Norry stood before him.

"We're with you, sir," the mate said. "Me and the men, we

don't want to die, but we're scared. What's happened,

Captain? Who were all those people?"

"Pirates," said Imkhian, looming in the doorway to his

cabin. "Thieves."

"Your pardon, Holy One, but those were ordinary

townsfolk, not even sailors, by the look of their pale skin,"

Dunvane replied.

"Could they be? Could the woman be telling the

truth?" Norry asked slowly. "Were those the people of

Gardenath?"

"You're speaking blasphemy," warned the priest.

Still sobbing, Jermina cried, "Since when is the truth a

blasphemy?"

"Enough," Dunvane barked. The sullen sky was

darkening to purple as the sun began to set. "If there is a

coast to find, it's got to be south. Norry, you and the men

work on rigging a trysail on the foremast. Once it's done,

maybe we can steer ourselves out of this current."

The sailors dispersed to their tasks. The woman,

Jermina, went forward to sleep in the shadows on the

foredeck. Imkhian began to speak of faith and trust in the

gods, and faith in the goodness and power of the

Kingpriest. After a few minutes, the priest realized no one

was heeding him. Scowling, he withdrew in offended

dignity back to his cabin.

 

*****

 

A wind sprang up before midnight. The breeze scoured

the smoke and clouds away, and stars glittered overhead.

Dunvane called for his quadrant. He shot the stars and

called out their positions to Norry, who scratched figures on

a wax tablet.

"Something's not right .about these figures, Captain,"

Norry muttered. He chewed the blunt end of his wooden

stylus. "We're nowhere near where we should be."

Dunvane sent below for a chart of the Istar coast. By

lantern light, he compared the figures he'd just taken to the

ones given on the parchment scroll. His jaw dropped in

astonishment. He shot the stars again, with the same result.

The heavens did not lie. He stabbed his knife into the map

at their position. "We're a hundred miles from the Istar

coast," said Dunvane. "A hundred miles INLAND of the

coastline!"

"The woman's right," said Norry grimly. "The land's

gone under the sea. What do we do now, sir?"

Dunvane snatched up lantern, knife, and chart. "The

Revered Son must see this." He burst into the priest's cabin

without knocking. Imkhian stirred sleepily in his berth.

"What's the meaning of this disturbance?" he asked

sternly.

"I have important news, Holy One," Dunvane replied.

"We have reached Istar?" Imkhian sat up. "The

Kingpriest will be very pleased! We're a day early - "

"We're in Istar all right, Revered Son, but Istar is not

here."

"Did you wake me to ply me with riddles?"

Dunvane spread the map on the table and set the lamp

on it. "By the stars of heaven, which I shot not five minutes

ago, I got this as our position." He pointed to the hole in the

chart made by his knife point. Imkhian bent over to study

the map.

"You've simply made an error - "

"I shot our position twice, Holy One," the captain

interrupted. 'The woman was right. What we took for a

tempest was some kind of great upheaval. There's no way of

knowing how far the destruction spreads."

Imkhian straightened. He ran his fingers through his

mussed hair and tugged his wrinkled robe into a semblance

of order. "I am certain the city of Istar is safe, Captain. The

Kingpriest's power is proof against any catastrophe or evil

magic."

Imkhian's voice was strong, positive, calm. But this

time, the captain's fears were not stilled. The two men

stared at each other for a long minute.

"I hope you're right, Revered Son," said Dunvane at last.

He rolled up his chart. "I'd best take the wheel. We're in

unknown waters now, and a captain's place is at the helm."

He turned to go, but Imkhian caught his arm. "Leave

the lantern," he said. "I wish to pray."

Dunvane pulled the cabin door shut quietly. Norry

came up behind him.

"The trysail's been rigged, sir," he reported, "and we've

spotted lightning. Looks to be a terrible storm, dead ahead."

What else could happen? Dunvane sighed and followed

his mate to the wheel. A red glow lit up the horizon, too

early and too easterly to be the dawn. "What is that?" asked

the captain, staring.

"Dunno, sir. Could be a ship on fire."

Dunvane squinted through the tangle of rigging, masts,

and the billowing trysail. "If so, it's a big one," he muttered.

"Aye."

Lightning flickered around the scarlet glow. An

uncommonly warm wind blew over them; patches of mist

rose from the cooling sea. They could hear the sound of

thunder. The previously calm sea was roughened by rising

swells. The SUNCHASER wallowed in the waves. The

motion roused Jernina, who came aft to see what was

going on.

"What's that light?" she asked, clutching at the binnacle

for support.

Before anyone could reply, Imkhian, white robe

flapping in the increasingly hot wind, appeared like a pale

ghost at the captain's elbow.

"Let the gods steer your ship, Captain," he commanded.

"We are in their hands now."

"Every sailor is in the hands of the gods," Dunvane

said, "but my hands stay on this wheel, Holy One."

A thunderclap was punctuated by a stinging hail of

dust. The wind crackled the frail trysail. The ship glided

along with the speeding current. The dust storm passed

quickly, replaced by a steady blast of furnace-hot air. The

sailors and Jermina coughed and covered their faces.

Dunvane blinked through the grit lodged in his eyes and

stared at the rapidly brightening red glow. It soon filled the

sky from port to starboard. From its midst rose a column of

smoke, reaching from the sea surface up to the sky, where it

spread into a flat-topped cloud.

"The whole world's on fire!" Norry gasped.

"The water's starting to seethe like a soup kettle," cried

the lookout.

Dunvane stared over the bow. Steam rose from the sea.

The water was the color of blood. "I'm putting about,"

Dunvane said and tried to put the helm over to starboard.

Imkhian's long white fingers gripped the wheel. "Go

forward, Captain. In my prayers I was given to know that

we must seek out the fire, not hide from it. Fire purifies all

it touches. The gods will protect us."

The priest's voice was calm, his gaze fixed upon the

crimson glow before them.

Dunvane shook his head. "We must turn away, Revered

Son. The ship would go up like a torch."

The priest made his way past the sailors and stood by

the rail. His gaze roved around the spectacle before them,

the unknown red light, the pillar of smoke, the steaming,

blood-red water. He turned abruptly, his eyes blazing.

"Keep going!"

Lightning flickered overhead as the hot, glowing

column of smoke closed out the last bit of night. The red

glow lit them like a bloody sunrise. Dunvane spun the

wheel left and right, but the SUNCHASER could not break

out of the rushing stream that propelled it.

"It doesn't look as if we've got much choice," Dunvane

said bitterly. Norry and the other two crewmen began to

fidget and cast anxious looks at the churning sea.

Something boomed against the hull. A sailor bent over

the side and sang out, "Timbers! There's timbers in the

water! Heading straight for us!"

Unable to steer, Dunvane could do nothing. Massive

building timbers rammed into the SUNCHASER. Dunvane

held grimly to the wheel. The ship rolled and pitched and

they were still being drawn toward the great shaft of smoke,

fire and lightning.

"Have no fear!" called Imkhian above the thunder and

booming waves. "We are being tested! We must not be

afraid! Istar lies beyond the wall of fire; we must penetrate

the wall!" The priest knelt by the great serpentine bowl,

clinging to its smooth surface.

Norry staggered across the canted deck. "Captain!

What can we do?"

A bolt of lightning struck the mainmast. The foot-thick

oak mast splintered down its length, and the heavy crossyard

crashed to the deck, knocking Dunvane back from the

wheel. He hit the sterncastle and slid down, stunned. The

useless wheel spun freely.

The SUNCHASER heeled sharply to port. Dunvane

shook the mist from his brain and stood, grasping Norry's

arm for support.

The rudder had been carried away. The fallen

crossyard had torn the puny trysail like a cobweb.

SUNCHASER wallowed dead in the water. The racing

current caught its blunt stern and swung the ship in a half

circle. Scalding-hot spray, whipped up from the churning