DRAGONLANCE TALES II
OF THE LANCE
All Rights Reserved.
OCR'ed by Alligator
The queen of Darkness SEEKS TO REENTER the
world. Her minions of evil once more grow strong and
powerful. Dragons return to Krynn as war sweeps
across the land. Every person is called upon to face the
evil. Some rise to the challenge. Some fall. But each is, in
his or her own way, a hero.
Michael Williams delves into the soul of the tortured
king of Silvanesti in the epic poem, "Lorac."
"Raistlin and the Knight of Solamnia" by Margaret
Weis and Tracy Hickman tells how the young mage
helped a stern knight learn a hard lesson. (Originally
published in DRAGON(R) Magazine, Issue 154, February
Roger Moore writes about the vengeful quest of a
revenant in "Dead on Target."
Mara, Queen of Thieves, sneaks into Mountain
Nevermind in search of "War Machines" by Nick
Dan Parkinson continues the misadventures of the
Bulp clan, as those intrepid gully dwarves search for
"The Promised Place."
Jeff Grubb relates (be warned!) a gnome story in
"The Night Wolf" by Nancy Varian Berberick is a tale
of three friends who share a dark and deadly secret.
Mark Anthony's "The Potion Sellers" have a bitter pill
of their own to swallow when the wrong people come to
believe in their fake cure-alls.
Richard Knaak writes the story of an evil priest of
Chemosh, trying to recover dread magical artifacts from
beneath the Blood Sea, in "The Hand That Feeds."
Foryth Teal, valiant scribe of Astinus, returns to pro-
vide us with an exciting account of "The Vingaard Campaign"
by Douglas Niles.
And finally, Tasslehoff Burrfoot tells "The Story That
Tasslehoff Promised He Would Never, Ever, Ever Tell" to
the kender's good friends, Margaret Weis and Tracy
We hope you are enjoying our return to Krynn as
much as we are. Thanks to all of you for your support.
You are the ones who have made this return journey pos-
sible. We look forward to traveling with you again in the
Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman
The country of thought
is a pathless forest,
is an intricate night
of redoubling green,
where the best and the worst
entangle and scatter
like distant light
on the face of an emerald
like a spark on the breast
of the fallen seas.
And yes, it is always like this,
for that country is haunted
with old supposition,
and no matter your stories,
no matter the rumors
of legend and magic
that illumine you through
the curtain of years,
you come to believe
in the web of yourself
that history twines
in the veins of your fingers,
that it knits all purpose,
all pardon and injury,
recovers the lapsed
and plausible blood,
until finally, in the midst of believing,
you contrive the story
out of the rumors,
the old convolution
of breath and forgetting,
and then you will say,
beyond truth and belief,
THIS IS WHAT IT MEANS,
FOR ONCE AND AT LAST
WHAT IT ALWAYS MEANT,
NO MORE THAN I KNEW
FROM THE WORLD'S BEGINNING
IS ALL THAT IT MEANS FOREVER.
Perhaps it was love
in the towers of thought,
in the haunts of High Sorcery,
in the towering doctrine
of moon and spell and convergence:
where the dragons dispersed
and the Kingpriest hovered
in the blind riots
of dogma and piety.
Perhaps it was love
in the breathing radius,
in the forest of crystal
where thought tunneled into
five vanishing countries,
forging the five stones
at Istar, at Wayreth,
in lofted Palanthas.
Perhaps it was love
but more likely thought
in the two vanished towers,
as the rioting stones
dwindled to four, then three,
three like the moons
in a fracturing orbit,
and the towers at Istar
and gabled Palanthas
echoed and shuddered
in the forgotten language,
hollow and cold
with ancient departures,
as high on their turrets
the spiders walked,
and the moth and the rust
corrupted the dream of days.
But before the towers
fell to abandonment,
before the fire,
the incense of destruction,
when the Tower at Istar
blossomed in magic
and durable light,
the parapets shone
in the lonely notions
of Lorac Caladon,
Speaker of Stars.
Restless in Silvanost,
drawn by cold light,
by the intricate forest of magic,
to the North he came,
to glittering Istar
where the tests of High Sorcery
awaited his judgment,
his ordained mathematics,
and the first test past,
and the second surmounted,
he stood as if satisfied
high on the parapets
in doubtful, striated light,
the vaunt of his intellect
over the globe of the city,
where the green luminescence
of the dangered orb
called to him out of the Tower's heart.
In the pathless forest
at the end of all centuries,
he would hear the song
as it tumbled from thought
into faceted memory,
singing, perpetually singing,
AFTER THE SECOND
THERE IS NO OTHER.
O THE TESTS ARE BEHIND YOU
SPEAKER OF SUNS
AND THE SONG OF THE ORB
IS THE SONG OF YOUR MIND
IN THIS ANCIENT TOWER
HOLLOW AND LOVELESS
WITH LONG DEPARTURES.
O THE TESTS ARE BEHIND YOU
SPEAKER OF SUNS
BUT I SHALL LIE HERE
the orb said, shimmering
AS HISTORY FOLDS
IN THESE FLOURISHING WALLS
AS THE TOWER CRUMBLES
AND WITH IT THE MIND
THE FIRST HIGH BATTLEMENTS
THE HOUSE OF THE GODS
BUT I SHALL LIE HERE
AS THE FOREST WITHERS
AS THE PLAINS DESCEND
INTO WINTER AND NOTHING
UNLESS THE SONG OF YOUR THOUGHTS
WHICH IS EVERYTHING, IS THE WORLD,
CONTROLS AND SUBDUES
AND INFORMS THE MYSTERY.
TAKE ME TO SILVANOST
SPEAKER OF SUNS,
TAKE ME TO FREEDOM
TO THE COUNTRY OF GREEN ON GREEN.
Perhaps it was love
in the crystal heart,
in the refraction of light
and beguiling light,
love meeting love in his long belief,
in dire mathematics,
in the mapped parabola
of the trining moons,
but there in the Tower
six reasons converged
the hand of the prophet
the nesting heart of his will
the hurdling thought
the summoning crystal
and always the ruinous moment,
all of them settling
in grim alignment,
the orb the sixth
like a heart in his hand,
like a fluttering light
a firebrand he carried
to ignited Silvanost
in the numbered days.
I AM BRINGING THEM FIRE,
he said to himself,
I AM BRINGING THEM LIGHT
IN THE OLD GODS' STORY.
I AM THE FIRST
I WILL SAVE THEM
IN THE RISING EARTH
I WILL SAVE THEM
AND THE OLD WORLD PIVOTS
AWAY FROM MY GUIDING HAND.
So he said to himself,
and the shapeless horizon
shaded to green
and redoubling green
as out of his last dreams
tangible, fractured in light.
And outside the forest
the world collapsed,
a mountain of fire
crashed like a comet
through jewelled Istar,
through the endless city,
and the Tower, unmanned and unhouseled,
split like a dry stalk
in the midst of the ruinous flames,
and out of the valleys
the mountains erupted,
the seas poured forever
into the graves of mountains,
the long deserts sighed
on abandoned floors of the seas,
and the highways of Krynn descended
into the paths of the dead.
As hail and fire
in a downpour of blood
tumbled to earth,
igniting the trees and the grass,
as the mountains were burning,
as the sea became blood
as above and below us
the heavens were scattered,
as locusts and scorpions
wandered the face of the planet,
Silvanost floated on islands of thought,
gabled in cloud and dreaming,
untouched by the fire,
by the shocks of the Rending,
and from tower to tower
from the Tower of Sorcery
down to the Tower of Stars,
drowsy in thinking, Lorac imagined
an impossible dream of salvation,
a country bartered in magic,
renewed in his mind
to a paradise won
in a ranging study.
And so it appeared in the orb,
in the waking hours,
in the suddenly secret
lodging of light
as the globe lay buried,
masked and unfabled
in the Tower of Stars,
the ancestral tower
of Speakers, of Silvanost,
buried for centuries.
While the continent burned
and the people of Qualinost
wandered through ash
and the outer darkness,
at the edge of their sight,
absent and glorious,
down to the edge of their dreams.
Lorac watched from the Tower of Stars,
from the heart of the crystal,
his eye on the face
of the damaged world
like a rumor of history
he was forgetting
lost in the fathomless
maze of the orb.
But often at night
when the senses faltered
and the polished country
altered and coiled,
the shape of the dream
was the Speaker's reflection:
The estranging trees
were nests of daggers,
the streams black and clotted
under a silent moon
that mourned for the day
and the fierce definition
of sunlight and knowledge
where the trees and towns
were named and numbered
and always, implacably
intended and purposed,
far from the tangle
of nightmare, the shadow
and weave of the forest
that wrangled to light
in the dreams of Lorac,
invading the day
with the glitter of flint,
subverting the pale
and anonymous sun.
Then to the North
an evil arose
in the cloud-wracked skies,
for the Dragon Highlords
sent sword and messenger,
firebrand and word
to the Tower of Stars,
to rapt Silvanesti,
to the dwindling porches
of the elf king's ear,
and the forest's asylum
in the discord of armies,
promising Silvanost free
in exchange for the promise
of silence, inaction,
for a nodding head
on the Green Throne.
And Lorac agreed,
his eye on the hooded orb,
where miraculous silence
promised a blessing of spears,
an end to all promise,
the dragons by summer.
And so Silvanesti
was emptied of silver,
emptied of lives
and the long dreaming blood
of its last inhabitants
as they took to the boats,
to the skiffs, to the coracles,
aimless on water
as cloudy as oracles
and the Wildrunners fought
in the wake of the water,
where their last breath billowed
in the spreading sails.
Alhana Starbreeze, the Speaker's daughter,
stood at the helm
in the silver passage
as they sailed to the South
on the Paths of Astralas,
on the bard's memory,
on history's spindrift,
and Lorac behind them
ordered his soldiers
to leave the unraveling land
in the last of the ships,
for there in the dark
called the forest, called Silvanost,
the elm and aeterna
choiring like nightingales,
singing this song
to his turning ear,
AFTER THE LAST TEST
THERE IS NO OTHER.
O THE TESTS ARE BEHIND YOU
SPEAKER OF SUNS
AND THE SONG OF THE ORB
IS THE SONG OF YOUR MIND
IN THIS ANCIENT TOWER
HOLLOW AND LOVELESS
WITH LONG DEPARTURES.
O THE TESTS ARE BEHIND YOU
SPEAKER OF SUNS
BUT I SHALL LIE HERE
AS HISTORY FOLDS
IN THESE FLOURISHING WALLS
AS THE TOWER CRUMBLES
AND WITH IT THE MIND
THE FIRST HIGH BATTLEMENTS
THE HOUSE OF THE GODS
BUT I SHALL LIE HERE
AS THE FOREST WITHERS
AS THE PLAINS DESCEND
INTO WINTER AND NOTHING
UNLESS THE SONG OF YOUR THOUGHTS
WHICH IS EVERYTHING, IS THE WORLD,
CONTROLS AND SUBDUES
AND INFORMS THE MYSTERY.
KEEP ME IN SILVANOST
SPEAKER OF SUNS,
KEEP ME IN FREEDOM
IN THE COUNTRY OF GREEN ON GREEN.
It lay in the chambers
secret in stars,
above it the Tower
and a labyrinth of legends,
and the freedom it promised
at its crystalline heart
was green ice beckoning,
flame of the distant voice.
And drawn by its music,
by the unearthly chiming
of crystal and shifting thought
the Speaker of Suns descended alone
to the heart of the Tower
where time and the forest
and a shaft of moonlight
collapsed on the orb,
and he reached for the crystal
as a thousand voices
rose from its brimming fire,
all of them singing
the lure of the possible,
all of them singing
the song he imagined,
and his thoughts were a fortress,
of maple and ash and belief,
in his daylit dreams
the armies were breaking,
the edge of the forest
bristled with leaf and invention,
and summoned, he reached
for the crystal
as the globe and the world
dissolved in his terrible grasp.
He knew when the bones
of his fingers ignited,
when green fire danced
on the back of his hands,
in the damage of arteries,
and he knew at once
that the fire was the heart of his error,
that neither the strength
nor the words nor the mind
could govern the magic.
But the shadows of Silvanost
faded from green into red,
into brown and untenable gold,
the orb was a prison
and above Thon-Thalas
the long wingbeat
of the dragon approached,
and the trees bent and bowed
in a sinister wind
as Lorac beheld this
all through the light of the orb,
and the dragon, the Bloodbane,
came with its whispers,
and under its words
the old stones tilted,
and the Tower of Stars,
as white as a sepulchre,
twisted and torted
as the trees rained blood
and the animals shrieked
their cries like torn metal
in a charmed and perpetual midnight.
So it was as the centuries
gathered and telescoped
into the passage
of a dozen years,
as the bristling heart
festered and doubled
and hardened like crystal.
And always the promise
of Cyan Bloodbane,
of the dragon coiled
on the crystal globe,
always the promise
was nothing and nothing
and the forest the map
of a strangled country,
land of stillbirth, of fever,
of warped and gangrenous age
and of long unendurable dying,
until from the North
came another invasion
of hard light and lances
as the Heroes, the Fellowship,
the fashioned alliance
of elf and dwarf,
of human and gnome and kender
came to the forest
through the nest of nightmare,
through the growing entanglement,
through bone, through crystal,
through all the forgotten
banes and allures
of the damaged heart,
to Silvanost and the disfigured Tower,
to Lorac, to the imprisoning Orb,
and they freed the Speaker
the Tower and town,
the forest, the people,
the bright orb they freed
and like a survivor
tumbled the globe through the years
through the centuries lodged
in the pale hands of others
and its old polished carapace
bright and reflecting
the hourglassed eyes
of its ultimate wielder.
But the sands were draining
over the Speaker of Suns,
and the knowledge of Lorac,
vaulted and various,
numbered and faceted,
descended and simplified
into a knowledge of evil,
as the forest unfolded,
stripped of the long light,
bare of bedazzlement
and at last Silvanesti
was free of his mind,
torn from the labyrinth
bearing forever the scars of belief
to the last syllable of eventual time,
and Lorac died in his daughter's arms,
his thoughts in the Tower
entombed and surrendered,
his last wish a burial
driving the green
from the body's decay,
resolving to forest,
resolving to Silvanost
forever and ever, his enabling ghost
to ascribe and deliver
the land that he dreamt of,
as thought was translated to dream.
And yes, it is always like this,
for the country is haunted
with old supposition,
and no matter the stories,
no matter the rumors
of legend and magic
that illumine you through
the curtain of years,
you come to believe
in the web of yourself
that history twines
in the veins of your fingers,
that it knits all purpose,
all pardon and injury,
recovers the lapsed
and plausible blood,
until finally, in the midst of believing,
you contrive among rumors
the story, the old convolution
of breath and forgetting,
in which you will say,
beyond truth and belief,
THIS IS WHAT IT MEANS,
FOR ONCE AND AT LAST
WHAT IT ALWAYS MEANT,
NO MORE THAN I KNEW
FROM THE WORLD'S BEGINNING
IS ALL THAT IT MEANS FOREVER.
Raistlin and the Knight of Solamnia
Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman
It was a chill night for spring, undoubtedly
the reason there were so many people in the inn. The inn
wasn't accustomed to such crowds. In fact, it wasn't
accustomed to any crowds, for the inn was new, so new
that it still smelled of fresh-hewn wood and paint instead
of stale ale and yesterday's stew. Called "Three Sheets,"
after a popular drinking song of the time, the inn was
located in - . But where it was located doesn't matter. The
inn was destroyed five years later in the Dragon Wars and
never rebuilt. Small wonder, for it was on a road little
traveled then and less traveled after the dragons leveled
It would be some time yet before the Queen of
Darkness plunged the world into what she hoped would be
eternal night, but already, in these years just prior to the
war, her evil shadow was spreading. Goblins had always
been a problem in this realm, but suddenly what had been
small bands of raiders who struck isolated farms had
grown into armies attacking villages.
"What's His Lordship offering?" queried a mage clad
in red robes who occupied a booth - the one nearest the
fire and the most comfortable in the crowded inn - with
just one companion. No one thought of joining them.
Though the mage was sickly in appearance, with a
hacking cough that nearly bent him double, those who had
served with him in previous campaigns whispered that he
was quick to anger and quicker with his spells.
"Standard rate - two pieces of steel a week and a
bounty on goblin ears. I signed us up." The man
responding was a large, burly warrior who sat down
opposite his questioner. Shedding his plain, undecorated
cloak in the heat of the room, the warrior revealed hard-
muscled arms the size of tree trunks and a chest like a
bull's. He unbuckled from around his waist a sword belt,
laying on the table near at hand a sword with every
appearance of having been well and skillfully used.
"When do we get our pay?"
"After we drive out the goblins. He'll make us earn
"Of course," said the mage, "and he won't be out any
cash to those who die. What took you so long?"
"The town is packed! Every mercenary this side of
Ansalon is here, not to mention horse traders, camp
followers, swordmakers, and every kender not currently
behind bars. We'll be lucky to find a place in a field to
spread our blankets this night."
"Hullo, Caramon!" called out a leather-armor-clad
man, coming over to the table and clapping the warrior on
the back. "Mind if I share your booth?" he asked, starting
to sit down. "It's standing room only in this place. This
your twin I've heard so much about? Introduce us."
The mage lifted his head, fixed his gaze upon the
Golden eyes with pupils the shape of an hourglass
glittered in the shadows of the red hood. The light in the
inn glinted off golden skin. Near at hand stood a wooden
staff - obviously and ominously magical - topped by a
multifaceted crystal clutched in a dragon's claw. Gulping,
the man rose quickly to his feet and, with a hasty farewell
to Caramon, took his ale to a distant comer of the room.
"He looked at me as if he saw me on my deathbed!"
muttered the man to more congenial companions.
"It's going to be a cold night tonight, Raist," said the
warrior to his brother in a low voice when the two were
again alone. "It smells like snow in the air. You shouldn't
"And where would you have me sleep, Caramon?" asked
the mage in a soft, sneering voice. "In a hole in the
ground, like a rabbit, for that is all we can aff - ." He broke
off in a fit of coughing that left him breathless.
His twin gazed at him anxiously. Pulling a coin from
a shabby purse he wore at his belt, Caramon held it up.
"We have this, Raist. You could sleep here tonight and the
"And what would we do for food in the interim, my
brother? We won't get paid for a fortnight, at least."
Caramon lowered his voice and, leaning across the
table, grasped hold of his brother's arm to draw him near.
"I could snare us something, if need be."
"You'd be the one to end up in a snare, you fool!" The
mage jerked away from his brother's touch. "The lord's
men are all over the woods, hunting for poachers with
only slightly less enthusiasm than they're hunting for
goblins. No, we'll return to camp tonight. Don't fuss over
me. You know how I hate it. I'll be fine. I've slept in worse
Raistlin began to cough again, the spasms shaking his
frail body until it seemed he must split apart. Pulling out a
cloth, he pressed it over his mouth. Those who glanced at
him in concern saw that, when the mage withdrew the
cloth, it was covered with blood.
"Fix me my drink!" he ordered Caramon, his lips
forming the words for he had momentarily lost the power
of speech. Collapsing in a comer, he closed his eyes and
concentrated on drawing breath. Those near could hear the
air whistle in his lungs.
Caramon peered through the crowd, attempting to find
the barmaid, and shouted for boiling hot water. Raistlin
slid a pouch across the table toward his brother, who
picked it up and carefully measured out some of its
contents into a mug. The inn's proprietor himself came
bustling over with the hot water in a steaming kettle. He
was just about to pour when a sudden shouting rose up
around the door.
"Hey, there! Get out you little vermin! No kender
allowed!" cried several of the guests.
"Kender!" Kettle in hand, the proprietor ran off in
"Hey!" shouted Caramon after the flurried innkeeper
in exasperation, "you forgot our water!"
"But I tell you I have friends here!" A shrill voice rose
up from the doorway. "Where? Why," - there was a
moment's pause - "there! Hi, Caramon! Remember me?"
"Name of the Abyss!" muttered Caramon, hunching
up his big shoulders and ducking his head.
A short figure, about the stature of a twelve-year old
human, with the face of a man of twenty and the wide-
eyed innocent expression of a babe of three, was pointing
gleefully at the booth of the warrior and his brother. The
figure was clad in a bright green tunic and orange striped
hose. A long tassel of hair was twisted round his head and
hung down his back. Numerous pouches containing the
possessions of everyone who had been unfortunate enough
to cross his path hung from his belt.
"You're answerable for him, then," said the proprietor
grimly, marching the kender across the room, one hand
gripping the slight shoulders firmly. There was a wild
scramble as men stuffed their purses inside their shirts,
down their pants, or wherever else they thought their
valuables might be safe from a kender's light and nimble
"Hey! Our water!" Caramon made a grab for the
innkeeper but got a handful of kender instead.
"Earwig Lockpicker," said the kender, holding out his
hand politely. "Friend of Tasslehoff Burrfoot's. We met at
the Inn of the Last Home. I couldn't stay long. There was
that misunderstanding over the horse. I told them I didn't
steal it. I can't think how it came to follow me."
"Maybe because you were holding firmly onto the
reins?" suggested Caramon.
"Do you think so? Because I - Ouch!"
"Drop it!" said Raistlin, his thin hand closing tightly
over the kender's wrist.
"Oh," said Earwig meekly, releasing the pouch that
had been lying on the table and was now making its way
into the kender's pocket. "Is that yours?"
The mage cast a piercing, infuriated glare at his
brother, who flushed and shrugged uncomfortably. "I'll get
that water for you, Raist. Right now. Uh, Innkeeper!"
"Well, look over there!" said the kender, squirming
around in his seat to face the front door as it dosed behind
a small group of travelers. "I followed those people into
town. You can't imagine," he said in an indignant whisper
that carried clearly across the room, "how rude that man
is! He should have thanked me for finding his dagger,
instead of - "
"Greetings, sir. Greetings, my lady." The proprietor
bobbed and bowed officiously. The heavily cloaked man
and woman were, to all appearances, well dressed. "You'll
be wanting a room, no doubt, and then dinner. There's hay
in the stable for your horses."
"We'll be wanting nothing," said the man in a harsh
voice. He was carrying a young boy in his arms and, as he
spoke, he eased the child to the floor, then flexed his arms
as though they ached. "Nothing except a seat by your fire.
We wouldn't have come in except that my lady-wife is not
"Not well?" The innkeeper, backing up, held out a
dish cloth in front of him as a sort of shield and eyed them
askance. "Not the plague?"
"No, no!" said the woman in a low, cultivated voice.
"I am not ill. I am just tired and chilled to the bone, that is
all." Reaching out her hand, she drew her son near. "We
have walked a great distance."
"Walked!" muttered the innkeeper, not liking the
sound of that. He looked more closely at the family's
Several of the men standing around the fire moved to
one side. Others hurried to draw up a bench, and the
overworked barmaid, ignoring her waiting customers, put
her arm around the woman and helped her to a seat. The
woman sank down limply.
"You're white as a ghost, milady," said the barmaid.
"Let me bring you a posset of honey and brandywine."
"No," said the man, moving to stand by his wife, the
child clinging to his father. "We have no money to pay for
"Tut, tut. Talk of money later," said the barmaid
briskly. "Call it my treat."
"We'll not take charity!" The man's voice rose to a
The boy shrank close to his mother, who glanced at
her husband, then lowered her eyes. "Thank you for your
kind offer," she said to the barmaid, "but I need nothing.
I'm feeling much better already."
The proprietor, stalking his guests, noted that by
firelight their clothes were not nearly so fine as they had
first seemed. The man's cloak was frayed at the hem and
travel worn and stained with mud. The woman's dress was
clean and neat but many times mended. The boy, who
appeared to be about five or six, was clad in shirt and
trousers that had probably once been his father's, cut down
to fit the boy's small, thin frame. The proprietor was about
to hint broadly that only those who spent money in his inn
had a right to his fire when he was distracted by a scream
from inside the kitchen.
"Where's that kender?" the innkeeper cried out in
"Right here!" shouted Earwig eagerly, raising his
hand and waving. "Do you want me?"
The proprietor cast him a baleful glance, then fled.
"Humpf," said Caramon in an undertone, his eyes on
the woman. She had shoved the hood of her cloak back
with a weary hand, revealing a pale, thin face once
beautiful, now anxious and worn with care and fatigue.
Her arm stole around her son, who was gazing up at her in
concern, and she hugged the boy close. "I wonder when
the last time was those two had anything to eat," Caramon
"I can ask them," offered Earwig helpfully. "Hey,
lady, when - Ulp!"
Caramon clamped his hand over the kender's mouth.
"It's no concern of yours, my brother," snapped
Raistlin irritably. "Get that imbecile innkeeper back here
with the hot water!" He began to cough again.
Caramon released the wriggling kender (who had
actually been silent for as long as three minutes on
account of having no breath left with which to talk) and
heaved his great bulk to his feet, peering over the heads of
the crowd for the proprietor. Smoke was rolling out from
under the kitchen door.
"I think he's going to be a while, Raist," said Caramon
solemnly. "I'll get the barmaid."
He tried to catch the barmaid's eye, but she was
hovering over the woman.
"I'll go and fix you a nice cup of tarbean tea, milady. No,
no. It's all right. There's no charge for tarbean tea in this
inn. Is there?" she said, flashing a threatening look at the
"No, no. No charge. None," chorused the men in
The cloaked and booted man frowned, but swallowed
whatever words he might have wanted to say.
"Hey, over here!" Caramon shouted, but the barmaid
was still standing in front of the woman, twisting her
apron in her hands.
"Milady," she began hesitantly, in a low voice, "I've
been speaking to cook. We're that busy tonight we're
short-handed. It would be a gift of charity, milady, if you
could help us out. It'd be worth a night's lodging and a
The woman cast a swift and pleading glance up at her
His face was livid. "No wife of a Knight of Solamnia
will work in an inn! We'll all three starve and go to our
"Uh, oh," muttered Caramon and eased himself back
into his seat.
Talking and bantering and laughter ceased, the silence
falling gradually as word circulated. All eyes went to the
man. Hot blood flooded his cheeks. He had obviously not
meant to reveal such a thing about himself. His hand went
to his smooth-shaven upper lip, and it seemed to those
watching that they could almost see the long, flowing
mustaches that marked a Knight of Solamnia. It was not
unusual that he had shaved it off. For long centuries the
Order had stood for justice and law on Krynn. Now the
knights were hated and reviled, blamed for bringing down
the wrath of the gods. What calamity had forced this
knight and his family to flee their homeland without
money and barely the clothes on their backs? The crowd
didn't know and most of them didn't care. The proprietor
now wasn't the only one who wanted the knight and his
"Come along, Aileen," said the knight gruffly. He put
his hand on his wife's shoulder. "We'll not stay in this
place. Not when they cater to the likes of that!" His
narrowed eyes went to Raistlin, to the red robes that
proclaimed him a wizard and the magical staff that stood
by his side. The knight turned stiffly to the barmaid. "I
understand the lord of this realm seeks men to fight the
goblins. If you could tell me where to find him - "
"He's seeking fighters," sang out a man in a far comer
of the common room. "Not pretty boys dressed up in
fancy iron suits."
"Ho, you're wrong, Nathan," called out another. "I
hear His Lordship's lookin' for someone to lead a
regiment - a regiment of gully dwarves!"
There was appreciative laughter. The knight choked
with fury, his hand went to the hilt of his sword. His wife
laid a gentle hand restrainingly on his arm. "No, Gawain,"
she murmured, starting to rise to her feet. "We will go.
"Stay put, milady. And as for you . . ." The barmaid
glared at the boisterous crowd. "Shut your mouths or
that'll be the last cold beer I draw for anyone in this inn
Quelled by this awful threat, the men quieted. Putting
her arm around the woman, the barmaid looked up at the
knight. "You'll find His Lordship in the sheriff's hall,
about a mile down the street. Go tend to your business,
Sir Knight, and let your lady-wife and the boy rest.
There's a lot of rough men down there," she added, seeing
the knight about to refuse. "It's no fit place for your
The proprietor came hurrying up. He would have
liked dearly to throw all three out of his inn, but he could
see the crowd was siding with his barmaid in favor of the
woman. Having just put out a grease fire in the kitchen,
the last thing he needed was a riot.
"Go, Sir Knight, will you, please?" pleaded the
innkeeper in a low voice. "We'll take good care of your
The knight seemingly had no choice. Gnawing his lip,
he gave an ungracious assent. "Galeth, watch over your
mother. And speak no word to anyone." Glancing
meaningfully at the mage, the knight drew his cloak
around his shoulders, cast his hood over his face, and
stalked out of the inn.
"His Lordship'll have nothing to do with a Knight of
Solamnia," prophesied Caramon. "Half the army would
quit if he hired him. What did he look at you like that for,
Raist? You didn't say anything."
"The knights have no love for magic. It's something
they can neither control nor understand. And now, my
brother, the hot water! Or are you going to watch me die
here in this wretched inn?"
"Oh, uh, sure, Raist." Caramon stood up and began
searching the crowd for the barmaid.
"I'll go!" Earwig leaped to his feet and skipped out of
reach to disappear into the crowd.
Talk and laughter resumed. The proprietor was
arguing over the tab with a couple of his patrons. The
barmaid had disappeared back into the kitchen. The
knight's wife, overcome by weariness, lay down upon the
bench. The boy stood protectively near her, his hand on
her arm. But his gaze strayed to the red-robed magic-user.
Raistlin cast a swift glance at his brother. Seeing
Caramon preoccupied in attempting to capture the
barmaid's attention, the mage made a slight, beckoning
gesture with his hand.
Nothing appears as sweet as fruit we are forbidden to
eat. The boy's eyes widened. He looked around to see if
the mage meant someone else, then looked back at
Raistlin, who repeated the gesture. The boy tugged gently
at his mother's sleeve.
"Here, now. Let your ma sleep," scolded the barmaid,
hustling past, a tray of mugs in her hands. "Be good for a
few moments, and when I come back I'll bring you a
treat." She vanished into the crowd.
"Hey, there! Barmaid!" Caramon was waving his arms
and bellowing like a bull.
Raistlin cast him an irritated glance, then turned back
to the boy.
Slowly, drawn by irresistible curiosity and fascination,
the child left his mother's side and crept over to stand near
"Can you really do magic?" he asked, round-eyed with
"Here, there!" Caramon, seeing the kid apparently
bothering his brother, tried to shoo him away. "Go on back
to your ma."
"Caramon, shut up," said Raistlin softly. He turned his
golden-eyed gaze on the boy. "Is your name Galeth?"
"Yes, sir. I was named after my grandfather. He was a
knight. I'm going to be a knight, too."
Caramon grinned at his brother. "Reminds you of
Sturm, doesn't he? These knights, they're all daft," he
added, making the mistake that most adults make in
thinking that children - because they are small - have no
The boy flared up like dry tinder cast in the fire. "My
father's not daft I He's a great man!" Galeth flushed,
realizing perhaps that his father hadn't seemed all that
great. "It's just that he's worried about my mother. He and
I can do without food, we're men. But my mother ..." His
lower lip began to tremble, his eyes filled with tears.
"Galeth," said Raistlin, casting Caramon a glance that
sent the big man back to shouting for the barmaid, "would
you like to see some magic?"
The boy, too awed to speak, nodded.
"Then bring me your mother's purse."
"Her purse is empty, sir," said the boy. Even though
young, he was old enough to understand that this was a
shameful thing, and his cheeks flushed.
"Bring it to me," said Raistlin in his soft, whispering
Galeth stood a moment, undecided, torn between what
he knew he should be doing and what he longed to do.
Temptation proved too strong for his six years. Turning,
he ran back to his mother and gently, without disturbing
her rest, slipped her purse from the pocket of her gown.
He brought it back and handed it to Raistlin, who took it
in his long-fingered, delicate hands and studied it
carefully. It was a small leather bag embroidered with
golden thread, such as fine ladies use to carry their jewels.
If this one had ever had jewels in it, they had long since
been sold to buy food and clothing.
The mage turned the purse inside out and shook it. It
was lined with silk and was, as the boy said, pitifully
empty. Then, shrugging, Raistlin handed it back to the
boy. Galeth accepted it hesitantly. Where was the magic?
He began to droop a little in disappointment.
"And so you are going to be a knight like your father,"
"Yes!" The boy blinked back his tears. "Since when,
then, does a future knight tell a lie?" "I didn't lie, sir!"
Galeth flushed. "That's a wicked thing!" "But you said the
purse was empty. Look inside." Startled, the boy opened
the leather bag. Whistling in astonishment, he pulled out a
coin, then gazed at Raistlin in delight.
"Go put the purse back, quietly now," said the mage.
"And not a word to anyone about where the coin came
from, or the spell will be broken!"
"Yes, sir!" said Galeth solemnly. Scurrying back, he
slipped his mother's purse into her pocket with the stealthy
skill of a kender. Squatting down next to her on the floor,
he began to chew on a piece of candied ginger the barmaid
tossed to him, pausing every now and then to share a
conspiratorial grin with the mage.
"That's all well and good," grunted Caramon, leaning
his elbows on the table, "but what do WE do now for food
for the next week?"
"Something will turn up," said Raistlin calmly.
Raising his frail hand, he made a weak gesture and the
barmaid hurried to his side.
The soft glow of twilight darkened to night. The inn
became even more crowded, hot, and noisy. The knight's
wife slept through the turmoil, her exhaustion so apparent
that many looked upon her with pitying eyes and muttered
that she deserved a better fate. The boy fell asleep, too,
curled up on the floor at his mother's feet. He never stirred
when Caramon lifted him in his strong arms and tucked
him near his mother. Earwig returned and sat down next to
Caramon. Flushed and happy, he emptied out his bulging
pouches onto the table and began to sort their contents,
keeping up a nonstop, one-sided conversation at the same
After two hours, Sir Gawain returned. Each man in the
inn who saw him enter nudged a neighbor into silence so
that all were quiet and watching him attentively as he
stepped into the common room.
"Where's my son?" he demanded, staring around
"Right here, safe and warm and sound asleep,"
answered the barmaid, pointing out the slumbering child.
"We haven't made off with him, if that's what you're
The knight had grace enough to look ashamed. "I'm
sorry," Gawain said gruffly. "I thank you for your
"Knight or barmaid, death takes us all alike. At least
we can help one another through life. I'll wake your lady."
"No," said Gawain and put out his hand to stop her.
"Let her sleep. I want to ask you" - he turned to the
proprietor - "if she and my son can stay the night. I will
have money to pay you in the morning," he added stiffly.
"You will?" The proprietor stared at him suspiciously.
"His Lordship hired you?"
"No," answered the knight. "It seems he has all the
fighters he needs to handle the goblins."
An audible sigh whispered through the room. "Told
you so," said Caramon to his brother.
"Shut up, you fool!" Raistlin returned sharply. "I'm
interested to know where he's planning to find money this
"His Lordship says that there is a woodland not far
from here, and in that woodland is a fortress that is of no
use to him or to anyone because there is a curse laid upon
it. Only - "
"A cursed fortress? Where? What kind of curse?"
demanded an excited Earwig, scrambling up onto the
table to get a better view.
"The Maiden's Curse," called out several in answer.
"The fortress is called Death's Keep. No one who has
entered it has ever returned."
"Death's Keep!" breathed the kender, misty-eyed with
rapture. "What a wonderful-sounding place!"
"A true Knight of Solamnia may enter and return.
According to His Lordship, it takes a true knight to lift the
curse. I plan to go there and, with the help of Paladine,
perform this deed."
"I'll come wi - " Earwig was offering magnanimously,
when Caramon yanked the kender's feet out from
underneath him, sending the green-clad figure sprawling
face-first on the floor.
"His Lordship has promised to reward me well,"
concluded Gawain, ignoring the crash and the kender's
"Uh, huh," sneered the proprietor, "And who's going
to pay your family's bill if you don't return, Sir True
Knight? You're not the first of your kind to go up there,
and I've never seen a one come back!"
Nods and low voices in the crowd affirmed this.
"His Lordship has promised to provide for them if I
fall," answered Gawain in a calm and steady voice.
"His Lordship? Oh, that's quite all right then," said the
proprietor, happy once more. "And my best wishes to you,
Sir Knight. I'll personally escort the lady and your boy - a
fine child, if I may say so - to their room."
"Wait just a minute," said the barmaid, ducking
beneath the proprietor's elbow and coming to stand in
front of the knight. "Where's the mage who'll be going
with you to Death's Keep?"
"No mage accompanies me," answered Gawain,
frowning. "Now, if there is nothing further you want of
me, I must leave." He looked down at his sleeping wife
and, with a gentle hand, started to reach out to touch her
hair. Fearing it would waken her, however, he drew back.
"Good-bye, Aileen. I hope you can understand." Turning
swiftly, he started to leave, but the proprietor grabbed his
"No mage! But didn't His Lordship tell you? It takes a
knight AND a mage to lift the Maiden's Curse! For it was
because of a knight and a mage that the curse was placed
on the keep."
"And a kender!" Earwig shouted, scrambling to his
feet. "I'm positive I heard that it takes a knight and a mage
and a kender!
"His Lordship mentioned some legend about a knight
and a mage," said Gawain scornfully. "But a true knight
with faith in his god needs the help of no other being on
Freeing himself of the proprietor's plucking hand, the
knight started toward the door.
"Are you truly so eager to throw away your life, Sir
Knight?" The sibilant whisper cut through the hubbub in
the inn, bringing with it a deathlike silence. "Do you truly
believe that your wife and son will be better off when you
The knight stopped. His shoulders stiffened, his body
trembled. He did not turn, but glanced back at the mage
over his shoulder. "His Lordship promised. They will have
food and a roof over their heads. I can buy them that, at
"And so, with a cry of 'My Honor is My Life' you
rush off to certain defeat when, by bending that proud
neck and allowing me to accompany you, you have a
chance to achieve victory. How typical of you all," said
Raistlin with an unpleasant smile. "No wonder your Order
has fallen into ruin."
Gawain's face flushed in anger at this insult. His hand
went to his sword. Caramon, growling, reached for his
"Put away your weapons," snapped Raistlin. "You are
a young man, Sir Knight. Fortune has not been kind to
you. It is obvious that you value your life, but, being
desperate, you know no other way to escape your
misfortune with honor." His lip twisted as he said the last
word. "I have offered to help. Will you kill me for that?"
Gawain's hand tightened around the sword's hilt.
"Is it true that a knight and a mage are needed to lift
the curse?" he asked of those in the inn. ("And a kender!"
piped up a shrill voice indignantly.)
"Oh, yes. Truly," averred everyone around him.
"Have there been any who have tried it?"
At this the men in the inn glanced at each other and
then looked at the ceiling or the floor or the walls or stared
into their mugs.
"A few," said someone.
"How few?" asked Caramon, seeing that his brother
was in earnest about accompanying the knight.
"Twenty, thirty maybe."
"Twenty or thirty! And none of them ever came back?
Did you hear that, Raist? Twenty or thirty and none of
them ever came back!" Caramon said emphatically.
"I heard." Using his staff to support him, Raistlin rose
from the booth.
"So did I!" said Earwig, dancing with excitement.
"And we're still going, aren't we," Caramon said
gloomily, buckling his sword belt around his waist. "Some
of us, that is. Not you, Nosepicker."
"Nosepicker!" Hearing this foul corruption of a name
long honored among kender, Earwig was momentarily
paralyzed with shock and forgot to dodge Caramon's large
hand. Catching hold of the kender by the long ponytail,
the big warrior skillfully tied him by the hair to one of the
inn's support posts. "The name's Lockpicker!" he shrieked
"Why is it you're doing this, mage?" asked Gawain
suspiciously as Raistlin walked slowly across the room.
"Yeah, Raist, why is it we're doing this?" Caramon
shot out of the comer of his mouth.
"For the money, of course," said Raistlin coolly.
"What other reason would there be?"
The crowd in the inn was on its feet, clamoring in
excitement, calling out directions and advice and laying
wagers on whether or not the adventurers would return.
Earwig, tied fast, screamed and pleaded and begged and
nearly yanked his hair out by the roots trying to free
It was only the barmaid who saw Raistlin's frail hand
very gently ruffle the sleeping child's hair in passing.
Half the patrons of the inn accompanied them down an
old, disused path to the fringes of a thick forest. Here,
beneath ancient trees that seemed ill-disposed to have their
rest disturbed, the crowd bid them good fortune.
"Do you need torches?" one of the men shouted.
"No," answered Raistlin. "SHIRAK," he said softly,
and the crystal ball on top of his staff burst into bright,
The crowd gasped in appreciative awe. The knight
glanced at the glowing staff askance.
"I will take a torch. I will not walk in any light that
has darkness as its source."
The crowd bid them farewell, then turned back to the
inn to await the outcome. Odds were running high in favor
of Death's Keep living up to its name. The wager seemed
such a sure thing, in fact, that Raistlin had some difficulty
in persuading Caramon not to bet against themselves.
Torch in hand, the knight started down the path.
Raistlin and his brother walked some paces behind, for the
young knight walked so swiftly, the frail mage could not
"So much," said Raistlin, leaning on his staff, "for the
courtesy of the knights."
Gawain instantly halted and waited, stony-faced, for
them to catch up.
"Not only courtesy but just plain good sense to keep
together in a forest as dark and gloomy as this one," stated
Caramon. "Did you hear something?"
The three listened, holding their breaths. Tree leaves
rustled, a twig snapped. Knight and warrior put hand to
weapon. Raistlin slid his hand inside his pouch, grasping a
handful of sand and calling to mind words of a sleep spell.
"Here I am!" said a shrill voice cheerfully. A small,
green and orange figure burst into the light. "Sorry I'm
late," said Earwig. "My hair got caught in the booth." He
exhibited half of what had once been a long tassel. "I had
to cut myself loose!"
"With MY dagger!" said Caramon, snatching it away.
"Is that one yours? Isn't that odd? I could have sworn
I had one just like it!"
Sir Gawain came to a halt, scowling. "It is bad
enough I must travel in the company of a magic-user - "
"I know," said Earwig, nodding sympathetically.
"We'll just have to make the best of it, won't we?"
"Ah, let the little fellow come along," said Caramon,
feeling remorseful when he looked at what had once been
the kender's jaunty top-knot. "He might come in handy if
Gawain hesitated, but it was obvious that the only way
to get rid of the kender would be to slice him in two, and
though the Oath and the Measure didn't specifically ban a
knight from murdering kender, it didn't exactly encourage
"Attack!" he snorted. The knight resumed his pace,
Earwig skipping along beside him. "We are in no danger
until we reach the keep. At least so His Lordship told me."
"And what else did His Lordship tell you?" Raistlin
Gawain glared at him dourly, obviously wondering of
what use this sickly mage would be to him.
"He told me the tale of the Maiden's Curse. A long
time ago, before the Cataclysm, a wizard of the red robes -
such as yourself - stole away a young woman from her
father's castle and carried her to this keep. A knight, the
young woman's betrothed, discovered the abduction and
followed after to rescue her. He caught up with the mage
and his victim in the keep in this forest.
"The wizard, furious at having his evil plans thwarted,
called upon the Queen of Darkness to destroy the knight.
The knight, in his turn, called for Paladine to come to his
aid. The forces unleashed in the ensuing battle were so
powerful that they not only destroyed the wizard and the
knight, but they have, even after death, continued to drag
others into their conflict."
"And you wouldn't let me make that bet!" said
Caramon reproachfully to his brother.
Raistlin did not appear to hear him. He was,
seemingly, lost in thought.
"Well," said Gawain abruptly, "and what do you think
of that tale?"
"I think that, like most legends, it has outgrown the
truth," answered Raistlin. "A wizard of the red robes, for
example, would not call upon the Queen of Darkness for
aid. That is something only wizards of the black robes do."
"It seems to me," said Gawain grimly, "that your kind
dabbles in darkness no matter what color robes they wear -
the fox cloaking himself in sheep's wool, so the saying
"Yeah," retorted Caramon angrily. "And I've heard a
few sayings myself about YOUR kind, Sir Kettle-head.
One goes - "
"That will do, my brother," remonstrated Raistlin, his
thin fingers closing firmly over Caramon's arm. "Save
your breath for what lies ahead."
The group continued on in a silence that was tense
"What happened to the maiden?" Earwig asked
suddenly. All three started, having forgotten, in their
preoccupation, the kender's presence.
"What?" growled Gawain.
"The maiden. What happened to her? After all, it's
called the Maiden's Curse."
"Yes, it is," said Raistlin. "An interesting point."
"Is it?" Earwig jumped up and down gleefully,
scattering the contents of his pouches across the path and
nearly tripping Caramon. "I came up with an interesting
"I don't see why it's called the Maiden's Curse, except
that she was the innocent victim," answered the knight as
"Ah," said Earwig with a gusty sigh. "An innocent
victim. I know what THAT feels like!"
The three continued on their way. The walking was
easy, the path through the forest was smooth and straight.
Too smooth and too straight, according to Caramon, who
maintained that it seemed bound and determined to
deliver them to their doom as swiftly as possible. Several
hours after midnight, they arrived at the fortress known as
Dark and empty, its stone facade glimmered grayish
white in the lambent light of the stars and a pale, thin
silver moon. Massive and stalwart, the keep had been
designed for function, not beauty. It was square, with a
tower at each comer for the lookouts. A wall connecting
the towers surrounded a structure whose main purpose
had probably been to house troops. Large wooden doors,
banded with steel, permitted entrance and egress.
But no soldiers had come here in a long, long time. The
battlements were crumbling and in some places had
completely fallen down. The walls were split by gigantic
cracks, perhaps caused by the Cataclysm, perhaps by the
supposedly magical battle that had been fought within.
One of the towers had collapsed in upon itself, as had the
roof of the central building, for they could see the skeletal
outline of broken beams show up black against the myriad
"The keep is deserted," said Caramon, staring at it in
disgust. "There's no one here, magical or otherwise. I'm
surprised those jokers back at the inn didn't send us out
here with a bag and tell us to stand in the middle of the
path yelling, 'here, snipe!'"
"That will be the task I set for you, my bumbling
brother!" Raistlin began to cough, but stifled the sound in
his sleeve. "Death's Keep is NOT deserted! I hear voices
plainly - or I could if you would silence yours!"
"I, too, hear someone calling out," said Gawain, awed.
"A knight of my order is trapped in there, and he shouts
for help!" The knight, sword in hand, bolted forward. "I'm
coming!" he shouted.
"Me, too!" cried Earwig, leaping in a circle around
Raistlin. "I hear voices! I'm positive I hear voices! What
are they saying to you? Do you want to know what they're
saying to me? 'Another round of ale!' That's what I hear
them calling out."
"Wait!" Raistlin reached to grasp the knight, but
Gawain was running swiftly toward huge double wooden
doors. Once this gate would have been closed, locked fast
against any foe. Now it stood ominously open. "He's an
imbecile! Go after him, Caramon! Don't let him do
anything until I get there!"
"Another round of ale?" Caramon gazed blankly at his
"You blithering dunderhead!" Raistlin hissed through
clenched teeth. He pointed a trembling finger at the keep.
"I hear a voice calling to ME, and I recognize it as coming
from one of my own kind! It is the voice of a mage! I
think I am beginning to understand what is going on. Go
after him, Caramon! Knock him down, sit on him if that is
all you can do to hold him, but you must prevent Gawain
from offering his sword to the knight!"
"Knight? What? Oh, all right, Raist! I'm going. No
need to look at me like that. C'mon, Nosepicker."
Earwig's topknot bobbed indignantly. "That's Lock - .
Oh, never mind! Hey, wait up!"
Caramon, followed by the jubilant kender, dashed off
after the knight, but he was late in starting and Gawain
had already rushed headlong into the keep. Reaching the
wooden doors, Caramon hesitated before entering and
cast an uneasy glance back at his brother.
Raistlin, leaning on his staff, was walking as fast as he
could, coughing with nearly every step until it seemed he
must drop. Still, he kept going, and he even managed to
lift his staff and angrily gesture with it to Caramon,
commanding him to enter the keep without delay.
Earwig had already darted inside. Discovering he was
alone, he turned around and dashed back. "Aren't you
coming? It's wonderfully dark and spooky in here. And
you know what?" The kender sighed in ecstasy. "I really
am beginning to hear voices. They want me to come and
help them fight! Just think of that. Can I borrow your
"No!" Caramon snarled. He, too, could hear the voices
now. Ghostly voices.
"My cause is just! All know wizards are foul
creatures, spawned of darkness. For the pride and honor
of our Order of the Sword, join with me!"
"My cause is just! All know the knights hide behind
their armor, using their might to bully and threaten those
weaker than themselves. For the pride and honor of our
Order of the Red Robes, join with me!"
Caramon was beginning to get the uncomfortable
feeling that the keep wasn't as deserted as he'd first
thought. Reluctantly, wishing his brother were at his side,
he entered the keep. The big warrior wasn't afraid of
anything in this world that was made of flesh and blood.
These eerie voices had a cold, hollow sound that unnerved
him. It was as if they were shouting to him from the
bottom of a grave.
He and the kender stood in a long passage leading from
the outer wall to the inner hall. The corridor was adorned
with various defensive mechanisms for dealing with an
invading enemy. He could see starlight through arrow slits
lining the cracked stone walls. Bereft of his brother's
lighted staff and the knight's torch, Caramon was forced to
grope his way through the darkness, following the
flickering flame shining ahead of him, and he nearly
bashed his head on an iron portcullis that had been
partially lowered from the ceiling.
"Which side do you want to be on?" Earwig asked
eagerly, tugging at Caramon's hand to drag him forward.
"I think I'd like to be a knight, but then I've wanted to be a
mage, too. I don't suppose your brother would let me
borrow his staff - "
"Hush!" ordered Caramon harshly, his voice cracking
in his dry throat.
The corridor was coming to an end, opened into a
great, wide hall. Sir Gawain was standing right in front of
him, holding the torch high and shouting out words in a
language the big warrior didn't understand but guessed to
The clamoring of the voices was louder. Caramon felt
them tugging him in both directions. But another voice, a
voice within him, was stronger. This voice was his
brother's, a voice he loved and trusted, and he
remembered what it had said.
YOU MUST PREVENT GAWAIN FROM OFFERING
HIS SWORD TO THE KNIGHT!
"Stay here," he told Earwig firmly, placing his hand
on the kender's shoulder. "You promise?"
"I promise," said Earwig, impressed by Caramon's
pale and solemn face.
"Good." Turning, Caramon continued down the
corridor and came up in back of the knight.
"What's happening?" Earwig writhed with frustration.
"I can't see a thing from here. But I promised. I know! He
didn't mean me to say HERE, in this one spot. He just
meant me to stay here - in the keep!" Happily, the kender
crept forward, Caramon's dagger (which he had
appropriated) in his hand.
"Oh, my!" breathed Earwig. "Caramon, can you see
what I see?"
Caramon could. On one side of the hall, their bodies
encased in shining armor, their hands grasping swords,
stood a troop of knights. On the other side stood an army
of wizards, their robes fluttering around them as if stirred
by a hot wind. The knights and the wizards had turned
their faces toward the strangers who had entered, and
Caramon saw in horror that each one of them was a rotting
A knight materialized in front of his troops. This
knight, too, was dead. The marks of his numerous wounds
could be seen plainly on his body. Fear swept over
Caramon, and he shrank back against the wall, but the
knight paid no attention either to him or the transfixed
kender standing by his side. The fixed and staring eyes of
the corpse looked straight at Gawain.
"Fellow knight, I call upon you, by the Oath and the
Measure, to come to my aid against my enemy."
The dead knight gestured and there appeared, standing
some distance from him, a wizard clad in red robes that
were torn and stained black with blood. The wizard, too,
was dead and had, it seemed from his wounds, died most
Earwig started forward. "I'll fight on your side if
you'll teach me how to cast spells!"
Caramon, catching hold of the kender by the scruff of
his neck, lifted him off his feet and tossed him backward.
Slamming into the wall, the kender slid down to the floor
where he spent an entertaining few moments attempting to
breathe. Caramon reached out a shaking hand.
"Gawain, let's get out of - "
The knight thrust Caramon's hand aside and, kneeling
on one knee, started to lay his sword at the knight's feet. "I
will come to your aid, Sir Knight!"
"Caramon, stop him!" The hissing whisper slid over
stone and through shadow. "Stop him or we ourselves are
"No!" said the dead knight, his fiery eyes seeming to
see Caramon for the first time. "Join my fight! Or are you
"Coward!" Caramon glowered. "No man dares call me
"Listen to me, my brother!" Raistlin commanded.
"For my sake, if for no other or I will be lost, too!"
Caramon cast a fearful look at the dead wizard, saw
the mage's empty eyes fixed on Raistlin. The dead knight
was leaning down to lift Gawain's sword. Lurching
forward on stiff legs, Caramon kicked the weapon with
his foot and sent it spinning across the stone floor.
The dead knight howled in rage. Gawain jumped up
and ran to retrieve his weapon. Caramon, with a desperate
lunge, managed to grab hold of the knight by the
shoulders. Gawain whirled around and struck at him with
his bare hands. The legion of dead knights clattered their
swords against their shields, the wizards raised their
hollow voices in a cheer that grew louder when Raistlin
entered the room.
"What an interesting experience," said Earwig, feeling
to see if any ribs were cracked. Finding himself in one
piece, he rose to his feet and looked to see what was
going on. "My goodness, someone's lost a sword. I'll just
go pick it up."
"Wizard of the Red Robes!" The dead were shouting
at Raistlin. "Join us in our fight!"
Caramon caught a glimpse of his brother's face from
the comer of his eye. Tense and excited, Raistlin was
staring at the wizards, a fierce, eager light in his golden
"Raist! No!" Caramon lost his hold on Gawain.
The knight clouted him on the jaw, sending the big
warrior to the floor, and bounded after the sword, only to
find Earwig clutching it tightly, a look of radiant joy on
his face that began to fade as the knight approached.
"Oh, no," said the kender firmly, clutching the sword
to his bosom. "Finders keepers. You obviously didn't
want this anymore."
"Raist! Don't listen to them!" Caramon staggered to
his feet. TOO LATE, he thought. His brother was walking
toward the dead wizard, who was extending a bony hand
for the glowing staff.
The chill fingers were nearly touching it when Raistlin
suddenly turned the staff horizontally and held it out
before him. The crystal's light flared, the dead wizard
sprang back from the frail barrier as though it had scalded
"I will not join your fight, for it is an eternal fight!"
Raistlin raised his voice above the clamoring. "A fight that
can never be won."
At this, the dead ceased their calling. A brooding
silence descended in the hall. Gawain ceased to threaten
the kender and turned around. Earwig, suddenly losing
interest in the sword, let it fall to the floor and hopped
forward to see what was going on. Caramon rubbed his
aching jaw and watched warily, ready to leap to his
Leaning on his staff, whose crystal seemed to shine
more brightly in the chill darkness, Raistlin walked
forward until he stood in the center of the hall. He looked
first at the knight - the rotting, decaying face beneath a
battered helm, a bony hand clutching a rusting sword. The
young mage turned his golden-eyed gaze to the wizard -
red robes, torn and slashed by sword thrusts, covering a
body that had for centuries been denied the peace of
Then Raistlin, lifting his head, stared up into the
darkness. "I would talk with the maiden," he called.
The figure of a young woman materialized out of the
night and came to stand before the mage. She was fair-
haired and pretty, with an oval face, rich brown hair, and
blue eyes that were bright and spirited. So lovely was she,
and so warm and seemingly alive, that it took some
moments before Caramon realized she was long-since
"YOU are the one who called down the curse, are you
not?" asked Raistlin.
"Yes," the maiden answered in a voice cold as the
end of the world. "Which side do you choose, mage? Here
stands pride" - she gestured toward the knight - "and here
stands pride" - she gestured toward the mage. "Which will
you choose? Not that it much matters."
"I fight for neither," said Raistlin. "I do not choose
pride. I choose," he paused, then said gently, "I choose
Darkness crashed down upon them with the weight
and force of an avalanche, quenching even the magical
light of the staff.
"Wow!" came the awed voice of the kender.
Caramon blinked and peered around, trying to see
through the blackness, which was thick and impenetrable
as solid stone. The ghostly armies were gone.
"Raistlin?" he called, panicked.
"I am here, my brother. Hush. Keep silent."
Feeling a hand grasp his shoulder, Caramon reached
out and touched a warm human arm.
"Gawain?" he whispered.
"Yes," said the knight in strained tones. "What is
happening? I don't trust that mage! He'll get us killed."
"So far it seems to me he's done a good job of
keeping us alive," said Caramon grimly. "Look!"
"SHIRAK," said Raistlin and the crystal's light
beamed brightly. Standing in front of Raistlin, illuminated
by his staff, was the young woman.
"You have broken the curse, young mage," said the
spirit. "Is there anything you would ask of me before I go
to my long-awaited rest?"
"Tell us your story," said Raistlin. "According to the
legend, the mage carried you off by force."
"Of course, that is what they have said, who never
bothered to seek the truth!" said the spirit scornfully.
"And their words were fuel to the fire of my curse. The
truth is that the mage and I loved each other. My father, a
Knight of Solamnia, forbade me to marry a wizard. He
betrothed me to another knight, one whom I did not love.
The mage and I ran off together. I left of my own free will
to be with the man I loved. The knight followed us and
we fled to this place, knowing that it had long been
abandoned. The mage and I could have escaped, but he
said that, for his honor, he must turn and fight. For his
honor," she repeated bitterly. Her blue eyes stared into the
shadows of the hall as though she could still see what had
transpired there so long before. "Within these walls, he
challenged the knight to battle and they fought - one with
his sword, the other with his magic. They fought, for their
"And I came to realize as I watched, helpless to
prevent their quarrel, that neither loved me nearly so
much as each loved his own misbegotten pride.
"When they were dead, I stood over their bodies and
prayed to the gods that all men bound up in their own
pride should come here and be held enthralled. Then I left
this place and went forth into the world. I found a man
who loved me truly enough to live for me, not die for me.
I was blessed with a rich, full life, surrounded by love.
After my death, my spirit returned to this place and has
been here since, waiting for one who loved enough to
ignore the voices" - her gaze went to Caramon - "and for
one wise enough to break the spell.
"And now, young mage, you have freed them and you
have freed me. I will go to my rest at the side of my
husband who has waited patiently for me throughout the
years. But first I would ask one thing of you. How was it
that you saw and understood the truth?"
"I could say that I had a shining example of false pride
before my eyes," said Raistlin, with a sidelong glance at
the knight. Sir Gawain flushed and bowed his head. The
mage, smiling slightly, added, "But it would be more
truthful to say that it was mostly due to the curiosity of a
"Me!" gasped Earwig, struck by this revelation.
"That's me he's talking about! I did it! I lifted the curse! I
TOLD you it had to be a knight, a mage, AND a kender!"
The young woman's image began to fade. "Farewell," said
Raistlin. "May your rest be undisturbed." "Fare you well,
young mage. I leave you with a warning. Very nearly you
succumbed. Your wits and your will saved you. But unless
you change, I foresee a time when this doom you have
now avoided will drag you down at last." The blue eyes
closed, and were seen no more. "Don't go!" wailed
Earwig, rushing around and grabbing at the empty air with
his hands. "I've got so many questions! Have you been to
the Abyss? What's it like being dead? Oh, please . . ."
Caramon came forward cautiously, his eyes on the
place where the spirit had been, fearful that she might
suddenly burst back to life. His big hand rested on his
"Raist," he said worriedly, "what did she mean by that?"
"How should I know?" Raistlin snapped, pulling himself
free of his brother's touch. He began to cough violently.
"Go find wood to build a fire! Can't you see I'm freezing
"Sure, Raist," said Caramon gently. "C'mon, Earmite."
"Earwig," said the kender automatically, trudging after
the big warrior. "Wait until Cousin Tas hears about this!
Not even Uncle Trapspringer - the most famous kender of
all time - ever ended a curse!"
Gawain remained standing in silence until Caramon
and the kender had left the keep. Then, slowly, sword in
hand, he approached the mage.
"I owe you my life," he said grudgingly, awkwardly.
"By the Oath and the Measure, I owe you my allegiance."
He held the sword - hilt first - out to the mage. "What
would you have me do?"
Raistlin drew a shuddering breath. He glanced at the
sword and his thin lip twisted. "What would I have you
do? Break your Oath. Burn your Measure. As the maiden
said, live for those you love. A time of darkness is coming
to the world, Sir Knight, and love could well be the only
thing that will save us."
The knight's lips tightened, his face flushed. Raistlin
stared at him, unmoving, and the expression on Gawain's
face altered from anger to one of thoughtful consideration.
Abruptly, he slid his sword back into its sheath.
"Oh, and Sir Knight," said Raistlin coolly, "don't
forget to give us our share of the reward."
Gawain unbuckled his sword belt and removed it from
around his waist. "Take it all," he said, tossing sword and
belt at the mage's feet. "I've found something of far greater
value." Bowing stiffly, he turned and walked from the
The red moon rose in the sky. Its eerie glow filtered
through the crumbling walls of the ancient fortress,
lighting the path. The mage remained standing in the
empty hall. He could still feel, soft and silky beneath his
fingers, the child's hair.
"Yes, Sir Knight, you have," said Raistlin. He stood a
moment, thinking of the spirit's words. Then, shrugging,
he tightened his grip on the magical staff. "DULAK", he
said, and the light went out, leaving him to stand in
darkness lit only by the rays of the red moon.
Dead on Target
Roger E. Moore
"There'd goes!" called a hobgoblin drunkenly in
the last red light of evening. "There'd goes! S'goin' away!"
No cloud remained in the darkening sky. The wind
picked up around me, the low roar almost drowning out
the laughter of the hobgoblin sentries forty feet up the
steep hillside at my back. From the sound of things, the
two of them had long ago broken into one of the wine
casks they'd taken from a farm near the outskirts of
Twisting Creek, basking in the natural satisfaction
hobgoblins get from killing unarmed farmers - like my
cousins, Garayn and Klart.
I licked my lips and felt for the leather waterskin on
my belt, preparing to untie it, but found the water was
already low. I released it and leaned back against the rock
face, keeping my arm close to my side so that the
hobgoblins above wouldn't notice the movement in the
dim light. My fingers closed over my sword hilt but stayed
relaxed. The glow above the plain to the west was almost
gone; Lunitari was a low, red crescent on the horizon, the
only moon visible. Far overhead, the pantheon of gods
was played out in the brightening stars. It was beautiful,
but I could tell there'd be rain by tomorrow night. Scouts
know these things.
"S'all gone!" called the hobgoblin again. "N'more
Several distant shouts came back, all curses in the coarse
hobgoblins' tongue. "You basdards wanned me d'be a
lookoud, and I'm looking oud!" the hobgoblin roared back
hotly, then laughed again. He sounded as if he had a
broken nose. "Bedder look oud for th' sdars! They're
coming da ged ya!"
I'd gotten here only an hour ago but had already heard
enough. About a dozen hobgoblins were camped out on
this hilltop, near Solanthus's eastern border. Twisting
Creek was two days to the southwest. On the other side of
the low hills to the east, beyond the Garetmar River, was
unclaimed territory populated by bandits, deserters, and
A hobgoblin snickered, then drunkenly mumbled a
phrase that the wind carried away. Soon, both sentries
would be dead to the world. They had nothing to fear that
they knew of. They had been clever enough to raid light
and avoid attracting too much unfavorable attention from
Twisting Creek's militia. Hit fast, grab loot, and run - the
same old formula. The hobgoblins had burned a few barns,
killed some horses, and stolen some odds and ends before
scurrying off. They didn't want a fight. They just wanted
to rub it in that they were around.
I was Evredd Kaan: dark hair, dark eyes, good
physique, ex-scout. I'd been out of the army since Neraka
fell and my unit was disbanded. After that, I'd gone home
to the city of Solanthus to find it mostly in ruins. I worked
for a year on labor crews, shoveling ashes, rubble, and
bones, sometimes taking night shift as a militiaman in a
city overrun with beggars who stole to survive. Finally, I
just quit and headed east for Twisting Creek, where my
parents had lived years ago before fever took them. I
worked on my uncle's farm and maintained the wagons for
his trading business, which suffered more than a bit with
the obnoxious hobgoblins around.
Three nights ago, the hobgoblins killed their first
humans. Laughing Garayn and brooding Klart had been
walking back from an evening in town when they were
shot dead with crossbows. A hobgoblin dagger was found
in one of the bodies. I watched as my neighbors wrapped
my cousins for burial, then I went to my uncle and said I
would be leaving for a few days.
"Family business," I said.
"Don't do anything foolish, my boy," my uncle urged.
He was a big man with a pouchy face, hook nose, and
receding hairline. Twisting Creek had been lucky enough
not to be sacked and burned during the War of the Lance,
ended just two years ago, and my uncle's business had
survived. But now his two sons had been taken away from
him, his life permanently scarred by the bad elements still
roaming the land. "You're all I got left, Evredd."
"What I do," I said tersely, "won't be foolish." His eyes
glazed over. His hands moved around the valuables on
his desk, touching them reassuringly. Tears squeezed
from his eyes.
"There's been killing enough," my uncle pleaded.
"Let it go."
Needless to say, I didn't listen to him. My uncle had
been absorbed in his business lately, locking himself in
his study with his ledgers and cursing the hobgoblins'
effect on trade, and now this. He seemed like a destroyed
I left town at dawn, taking food, my sword, and little
else. I knew where part of the hobgoblins' old trails
usually went, so I followed that course until a regular path
appeared, six miles outside of town. The tracks stood out
as if they had been laid down by a small army instead of a
few raiders loaded down with loot. Two days later, I was
One of the hobgoblins above me belched like a giant
frog croaking, then dropped a metallic cup and cursed.
"S'my damn drink!" he moaned. "S'all spilled!"
The other sentry cleared his throat and spat. "There's
yer drink," he said, sniggering. "Put it in yer cup."
"I'll give ya somethin' for YER cup," muttered the
first, and a rock sailed off the top of the hill, over my head
and about sixty feet past me. I kept quiet in case one went
to look off the cliff. Hobgoblins are a fun-loving race
when it comes to humans. They would have lots of fun
with me, good hobgoblin fun, with whips, knives, hot
irons - the works.
Another rock flew overhead, landing in the grass
"Throw one more, and ol' Garith'll set yer dumb ass on
fire," said a hobgoblin testily.
"Ya godda find 'im, firs'," retorted the other. "S'nod
comin' back. Gonna live like a huuu-man now. Thinks 'e's
"He's comin' back," snapped the first. "Didn't I tell
him we wouldn't wait long 'fore we began to tear things
up? He knows we'll cause trouble. Little toad-belly knows
we want action. We got to keep movin', not sittin' on ass-
bruises. And you put that rock down or I'll give you a face
that would scare a blind dwarf."
After several more minutes of arguing, the hobgoblins
settled down in wine-sodden silence. I decided to move
out again in a bit when the sentries were either dozing or
too groggy from drink and lack of sleep to notice. Then
I'd take them, one by one, the way I'd learned to during
the war. Only the crickets could be heard in the darkness.
I sighed, waiting, fingers on my sword hilt.
Something punched my chest. Pain shot through my
left lung, hurting far worse than anything that had ever
happened to me at Neraka. I looked down, my hands
involuntarily going for the source of the pain, and saw a
short, feathered shaft sticking out of my leather surcoat,
next to my heart. I could tell the arrow had gone right
through me. I was never more surprised to see anything in
Son of a bitch, I thought, desperately trying not to
breathe or scream. They'd found me; the hobgoblins had
found me. But how in the Abyss did they do that? I never
heard them coming. I stood there like an idiot, looking
down at the arrow shaft and wondering why the
hobgoblins weren't now calling out in alarm. The shock
and pain of being hit was too much to take. I couldn't
Something prickly and cold spread through my
bloodstream from the wound. The pain ceased and
became a cloud of nothingness, as if my chest had
disappeared. My will broke then and I tried to scream, but
I couldn't inhale. It seemed like a huge weight pressed
against my rib cage, keeping out the air. I slumped back
against the rock face, my vision swimming, my hands
clutching the wound.
It came to me then that I was going to die. There was
nothing I could do. I didn't want to die, not then, not ever.
I wanted to go home. I wanted to breathe. I wanted to live.
For a moment I thought of Garayn and Klart. I could al
most see their faces before me.
The numbness reached my head. Everything became
very light and airy. I felt a rushing sensation, as if I were
This wasn't right, came a mad thought. The
hobgoblins killed me. They'd killed my cousins, and now
they'd killed me. It wasn't right, and I wanted them to pay
for it in the worst way.
That was my last mortal thought.
I was having the worst of all nightmares, worse than
the red dreams I'd once had of Neraka. I dreamed I was
dead and buried. Ice-cold rain fell without end on me,
trickling down on lifeless flesh. My body was dead-numb,
my limbs chained down. I was hollow, a shell of nothing
in the earth. I fought to wake up or even move a muscle. I
begged the great gods of Krynn to let me wake up.
No one heard me.
I begged them for mercy. I pleaded for justice.
No voice spoke in the darkness.
Then I cursed them, I cursed the gods, and I cried for
I became aware of a colorless light. Without thinking,
I opened my eyes, my lips still moving.
Gray clouds rolled swiftly above me, ragged-edged.
Cold droplets slapped my face and fell into my unblinking
eyes. I couldn't move my limbs. I felt nothing, nothing at
all but the cold, and I listened to the drumming of the rain
against and around me.
The gray clouds rolled on for ages. The rain fell. Then
a weight seemed to fall away, and I knew I could sit up.
Very slowly, I rolled onto my side and pushed myself
upright. Every movement was unbalanced, and I swayed
dizzily until I braced myself with my arms. The tilting
scenery settled in my vision, and I looked around.
The landscape appeared odd in the rain-washed light,
but I was still at the foot of the rocky cliff. It was late in
the evening now. I didn't know the day. The long grass of
the plain had been beaten down by rain some time ago. A
light wind blew across the field, rippling the bent and
I sat there stupidly for a long time, then looked down
The butt of an arrow was projecting from my chest.
After a few moments, I remembered how it got there, and
thought I was lucky that it hadn't killed me.
Then, of course, I knew the truth.
I stared at the arrow for a long time. The rain
eventually slowed. All was quiet except for the cawing of
distant crows. I wasn't afraid, only dully surprised. No
heartbeat sounded within me, no blood ran from my
wound. I felt surprised, but nothing more.
I hated looking at the arrow in me. It wasn't right. It
ought to come out. Carefully, I reached up and touched it,
then tapped it hard. There was no pain, only a sense of its
presence. I reached up and carefully tugged on the shaft. It
didn't budge. Then I took it in both hands and broke off
the arrow at the point where it entered my chest, having it
in mind not to open the wound any further. I felt a need to
keep my body looking as good as possible. Self-respect,
That done, I reached behind me with one hand to find
that the arrow point stuck out of my back by an inch or
two, between two ribs. After some difficulty in getting a
proper grip, I slowly pulled the arrow out, then held both
pieces of it before me.
The arrow was shorter than I'd expected; the
arrowhead was small and grooved. It was actually a
crossbow bolt, not a longbow arrow - a well-made bolt,
too; dwarven-make. Doubtless the hobgoblins had been
picking up good weaponry on their raids.
I rolled to my knees, then staggered to my feet and
looked myself over. I was filthy with mud. My sword
scabbard was empty, my boots were gone, my food pouch
was untied, and my waterskin had been cut loose. I knew
that my pouch had been tied before I had been killed. My
murderer must have checked me for loot. I had done it
myself at Neraka, searching dead hobgoblins after the
battles. I hadn't brought anything with me but a few odds
and ends. I opened the pouch flap and found it was empty
now. I looked down at my feet and saw my food in the
mud and water. None of the food had been eaten; all was
ruined. The boots and waterskin lay further away, slashed
open. The sword was nowhere around, but the killer had
undoubtedly taken it, probably discarded it later. It was
cheaply made. My murderer was thorough.
I tossed the pieces of the bolt to the ground. I looked
at my arms as I did so and realized that, for a dead person,
I didn't look half bad. My skin was very pale, almost dull
white. My hands and arms looked thinner than I'd
remembered, more bony and less puffy and full. My
trousers, boots, and surcoat were muddy and soaking wet,
and my surcoat was also badly stained with what had to be
blood. I must not have been dead for very long, maybe
only a day or two.
I couldn't see my own face, of course. For that small
blessing I felt curiously grateful. I touched my short beard
and mustache, wiped them as free of dirt as I could, then
adjusted my leather surcoat and brushed at the small hole
in the front as if I had just spilled food there. My long, thin
fingers were like icicles, but the cold was almost
A stick snapped, the sound coming from somewhere
beyond the edge of the cliff above me. I looked up, saw no
faces, only clouds and rain.
Damn hobgoblins had probably forgotten about me,
left me here for animals to feed on. Maybe they were still
Maybe I should find out.
I examined the cliff face. It was weathered and old,
full of cracks and plant roots. It was worth a try. Wedging
my bone-thin fingers into a vertical split in the rock, I
found a foothold and began the ascent.
It took time to go up the cliff, but I didn't mind the
climb. I felt no pain at all. I wondered what the hobgoblins
would do when they saw me. I couldn't wait to find out. I
had no sword, but I had my bare hands, and I was already
Just below the top, I hesitated listening. Someone was
moving around up there; metal clinked, maybe chain
armor. I had no fear of their weapons now, but I wanted
surprise. I rocked slightly, then pulled myself up swiftly
and quietly over the ledge.
At my feet in the tall wet grass lay a heavy-bodied
figure, his misshapen head buried face-down in mud and
brown water. A thick wolf pelt covered his shoulders and
back. One gray-green hand was thrust forward, fingers
digging into the wet ground. The hobgoblin looked as if
he'd tripped over something while walking toward the
cliff but had never gotten up. He wasn't going to get up,
either. The crossbow bolt projecting from the back of his
thick neck tipped me off. So did the hungry aura of black
flies whirling around him.
He certainly hadn't been the one who snapped that
stick I'd heard. Then, I saw who did. About twenty-five
feet from me was a dwarf in an oilskin cloak. His back
was to me. He bent over another fallen hobgoblin, his
chain mail links clinked under the cloak. The dwarf
straightened. He carried a bright, spike-backed war axe
clutched in a leather-gloved fist. Then, looking around
warily, he turned in my direction, revealing a wet and
tangled brown beard, thick dark eyebrows, and small
black eyes that widened violently when he saw me.
"Reorx!" the dwarf gasped. He swung the spike-
backed axe in his right hand, his left arm coming up to
block me if I rushed him. He took a half-crouch, feet set
in a stance that could shift him in any direction. Another
veteran of the war.
I raised my hands - palms out, fingers spread - and
shook my head slowly. The dwarf didn't take the hint, still
readied for an attack. The sight of him clutching that
polished axe struck me as amusing, but I didn't smile.
I moved sideways to get away from the ledge, having
none of the unsteadiness I'd felt earlier. The dwarf rotated
to keep facing me.
I moved my lips to say something to him, but nothing
came out. It took a moment to figure out why; then I drew
a breath to fill my lungs. Part of my rib cage expanded,
but there was an unpleasant sucking sound from my
sternum and the sensation that the left side of my chest
was not filling. I quickly reached up and placed my right
hand inside the neckline of my surcoat to cover the bolt
wound. I tried again.
"Don't worry," I said - and was startled to hear my
own voice. It was burned hoarse, as if I had swallowed
acid. I forced another breath in. "I won't hurt you," I
finished with a gasp.
The dwarf gulped, never taking his eyes off me. A
muscle twitched in his left cheek. "'Preciate the thought,"
he muttered. "I'll keep it in mind."
I was curious about the dead hobgoblins. I gave the
dwarf an unconcerned shrug before kneeling to examine
one of the fly-covered bodies. As I'd suspected, the bolt
head projecting from the hobgoblin's neck was exactly the
same type as the one that had hit me. I let my right hand
drop from inside my shirt and reached out to examine the
I quickly pulled my hand back. A strand of black tar
clung to the bolt head, worked into some of the grooves. I
had seen that stuff before, at Neraka. Black wax, my
commander had called it. Deadly poison. A handful of the
Nerakan humans had used it on their weapons, their idea
of a special welcome for us. The gods only knew where
they had gotten it; the Nerakans themselves hadn't known
how to handle it. We would regularly find their bodies,
snuggled into ambush points, with little spots of black wax
on their careless lips or fingers.
I remembered the sensation of nothingness spreading
inside me as I died, the bolt through my chest. I'd been the
first that night to feel the poison's kiss. I figured my
cousins must have felt it earlier still. Too bad I hadn't
thought to examine their bodies.
I leaned over to continue checking the hobgoblin, who
had probably outweighed me by a hundred pounds in life.
He was a thick-necked brute; his clothes and armor were
as dirty as his skin. Knife slashes had opened up his belt
pouch, now empty, and the sides of his armor and boots.
He was also missing his left ear. It appeared to have been
cut cleanly away, below his helmet line.
I looked up at the dwarf, who hadn't moved,
remembering to put my hand inside my shirt before I
spoke. "What about him?" I asked hoarsely, pointing a
clawlike finger at the dead hobgoblin behind him. I
sounded like an animal learning to talk.
The dwarf eased up, but only by a hair. He stepped
away from the body behind him, clearing my view. This
hobgoblin lay face up, an arm flopped down beside an
empty wine cask in the grass beside him. He'd been
stabbed through the darkened leather armor over his
abdomen. A second stab wound, blue-black now, was
visible in his throat. His left ear was missing, too, cleanly
cut away. He had not even gotten up; he had died sitting,
then had fallen back.
I reached up and felt my own ears. Both were still
"Maybe you could tell me a bit about what you want."
The dwarf's voice was steady and low, his axe arm still
raised for a strike or a throw.
I looked beyond the dwarf at the half-forested hilltop.
No one else was around. "Looking for someone," I said
This didn't answer everything, but the dwarf let it go
for now. "Got a name?" he asked.
"Evredd," I said, the word sounding like a mumble. I
covered the wound and said it again, more clearly.
The dwarf's flint-black gaze went to my chest. "You a
dead boy, ain't you?" he said.
I found it hard to answer that. It wasn't something I
wanted to face.
"You a rev'nant, I bet," the dwarf went on, knowingly.
"Been dead a bit, I can tell. I seen dead boys before, but
not walkin' ones like you. You a rev'nant, come back to
get your killer man. That right?"
He was talkative for a dwarf. "Who did this?" I asked
him, indicating the bodies.
The dwarf looked at me a while longer, then glanced
around, one eye still on me. The sky was darkening with
the coming sunset, but the rain had stopped. Behind the
dwarf by a couple hundred feet, in a tree line, was an
irregular outcropping of rock, overgrown with vines. A
wide gully or eroded road ran out of the woods and
undergrowth, then off along the top of the cliff toward the
"Can't say," said the dwarf, looking back at me, then
down at the bodies. "Just got here myself." Rainwater
dripped from the axe blade.
I stood up. The dwarf fell back, his face tight, and
raised his axe arm.
"No," I said, but it came out as a gasp. I put my hand
inside my shirt. "No," I repeated. "How long . . . What
day is this?"
"Sixteenth," he said, his eyes narrowing again.
I'd been dead for a day, then. The hobgoblins had hit
on the twelfth, and I'd left on the next day. "Are more . . .
people with you?" It was hard to get the words out in one
breath. I'd need lots of practice at this.
The dwarf hesitated. "Just me," he said. The dwarf
grinned nervously and adjusted the grip on his axe. "I
didn't make you a dead boy, and if you a rev'nant, you
ain't gonna attack me, I reckon. You save that for your
I had no urge to bother the dwarf if he didn't bother
me, so I guess he had a point. I scanned the ground for
any clues to the identity of my murderer. The dwarf
stayed back, but soon got up the nerve to examine the
stabbed hobgoblin again, checking for valuables with one
eye locked tight on me.
The heavy rain had destroyed virtually all the clues
there were - tracks, crushed grass, everything. For all that,
I could still put together a few things about my killer. He
had used a crossbow, probably a dwarven one. He knew
about weapon poison. He could probably climb cliffs; he
must have gone right up this one after killing me, then hit
the hobgoblins. They'd been drunk and tired, but the lack
of other bodies indicated that he'd moved with
considerable speed, killing them before they could shout
warnings, even to each other.
But if he'd killed hobgoblins, why had he also killed me?
He must have known I was after them, myself. And if he
could see well enough to shoot me this accurately, he
couldn't have mistaken me for hobgoblin scum. I pondered
for a minute, then looked off the cliff. I could still see a
man-shaped impression in the muddy ground below,
where I had fallen. I scanned the field out to the horizon.
About fifty feet to the west, away from the cliff base
where I'd been shot, was a small dead tree with a briar
bush cloaking the base of its trunk. I'd had my back to the
cliff, facing west. The killer could well have been hiding
out there somewhere in the darkness when he caught sight
Yes, my killer was a damn good shot.
Maybe he could see in the dark, too.
"You know," said the dwarf casually, "hobs don't go
in twos. Must be more dead 'uns somewhere here.
Otherwise, we'd be covered in arrow stings 'bout now.
Maybe we better look around."
The dwarf got to his feet. I'd almost forgotten he was
there. Dwarves, I remembered, could see heat sources in
the dark. So could elves and maybe wizards. Wizards
couldn't use crossbows, though, and the elves I'd known in
the war had universally despised them. Dwarves liked
"Hey," said the dwarf, waving his free hand, the other
clenching the thick axe handle. "You deaf as well as
I shook my head, not wanting to talk much. "More of
them?" I asked with one breath, indicating the nearest
The dwarf glanced back at the tree line. "Fort's back
there," he said. "Old one. Bet we find 'em there."
I nodded, seeing now that the "outcropping" was
really a half-collapsed wall. The distant shouts I'd heard
the other hobgoblins give last night must have come from
The dwarf gave me a final look over. "Name's Orun,"
he said. He didn't put out his hand to clench my arm, as
was the custom of most dwarves I'd known from these
I nodded in return, then pointed in the direction of the
fort. We left the bodies and started off. Orun made sure to
keep a good two dozen feet between us. He was cautious,
but he seemed to take to my presence. Either he had
nothing against a walking corpse or else he was crazy.
But then I was dead, so I was no one to talk.
The fort in the trees was probably a relic from the times
of the Cataclysm. Rough stone walls, the wooden double
gate, a short stone-based tower to the left - all fallen into
rot and ruin.
This place came with a third hobgoblin, lying
facedown in the open gateway. The butt and fletching of
yet another crossbow bolt was visible just under his
leather armor; he'd fallen on it and broken the shaft after it
had struck him. Humming flies circled over him, many
feeding where his left ear had been. His arms were caught
under him. He'd grabbed at the shaft, just as I had done.
His sword was still nestled in its scabbard at his side.
Another surprised customer.
Through the open gateway, we could see the fort's
overgrown main yard, small when it was new but more so
now with the bushes and trees thick in it. On the other side
of the roughly square yard was the barracks building, its
stone walls and part of its roof still standing. To the right,
against a wall, was a low building that had probably been
the stables. The tower to the left was mostly rubble. All
was quiet except for the flies.
Orun glanced at me, then carefully leaned over the
fallen hobgoblin and took hold of its rigid face with his
free hand. Thick fingers poked at a gray cheek, then
tugged down an eyelid to reveal a white eyeball.
"Dead 'bout a day," he muttered. He squinted up at
me, then glanced around the fort's yard. "Think we're
alone here," he added, matter-of-factly.
I nodded and went on through the gateway, the dwarf
coming behind me.
The yard was largely covered with tall grass and thorn
bushes. Trees stretched skyward by the stone walls.
Someone, probably the hobgoblins, had partially covered
the damaged barracks roof with animal hides. Pathways
had been recently beaten through the tall grass, linking the
barracks with the main gate. The stables to the right had
their original roof and appeared more habitable than the
other structures. The hobgoblins could stay safe and dry
within the stables, firing through arrow slits at all
Intruders like us.
A squirrel ran lightly over the stable roof, stopped when
it saw us, and watched with curiosity. It fled when I stared
at it for too long.
"Bet you a steel," Orun said, pointing his axe at the
barracks, "the rest of 'em's in there. Maybe your killer
whatever's in there, too. Better go look."
We moved closer, Orun generously letting me lead.
Dark shapes lay on the floor beyond the open barracks
doorway. The dwarf stopped about thirty feet back from
the single stone step, axe ready, watching both me and the
doorway. He was no fool.
I hesitated only a moment before I mounted the step
and went inside. The buzzing of insects filled my ears in
the darkness. Weak light filtered in from the doorway and
through holes in the makeshift roof. Water dripped
constantly from above, splashing across the room.
As I looked around, I was glad to be dead. Not that the
sight of bloated bodies affected me any longer as it once
had on the bloody plains of Neraka. It was mere scenery
now, shadows that held no terror. No one screamed, no
one cried, nothing hurt. Everywhere I looked inside were
bodies, and everywhere were black flies and crawling
things at a morbid feast, carpeting the discolored, twisted
bodies of the hobgoblin dead.
I counted eight bodies. Five clutched at their throats or
faces. The rest gaped at the ceiling with bulging eyes and
open, soundless mouths, their rigid arms grabbing at their
chests or locked open in grasping gestures. It was hard to
tell what they had been doing, but not one had made a
move for his weapon. All swords were sheathed or leaning
against the walls.
I looked around the room. There was a door to the
right, apparently leading to the stables. The wood was
gray with age and appeared ready to fall apart. It opened
Beyond the doorway it was very dark. I walked
carefully to avoid stumbling over bodies that might be in
the way. I didn't find any until I got into the stables
The hobgoblins had apparently cleaned up the stables
and made them into a tidy home. Gray light leaked in from
small holes in the ceiling and outer walls. The interior
walls had long ago rotted away, but the hobgoblins had
shoveled the debris with great efficiency. An ash-filled
circle of stones served as a seat by a fire pit. A large mass
of rotting cloth, half covering a pile of dry leaves,
appeared to make up a bed. It was sufficient, if not cozy.
The body near the fire pit was the room's only
occupant. I knelt down by it and took a long look. In life,
it would have been the biggest hobgoblin I could have
ever imagined - a head and a half taller than me. Even in
the near darkness, I could still see a massive burned spot
across the front of his hide armor. I'd seen its like only
once before, when storm lightning had killed one of my
uncle's horses in its pasture.
I looked up. The stables' roof was solid.
On impulse, I got up and walked over to the bed,
searching the rags until I found a suitably long strip of
cloth. This I wrapped around my chest with a bunched-up
rag covering the bolt wound, then tied it off. I tried a few
words and discovered that I could speak almost normally
now, though I still sounded as if I had rocks in my throat
instead of vocal cords.
"Thought I heard you talkin' to yourself," Orun
muttered when I came outside. He'd moved closer to the
barracks doorway, but the stench was obviously getting to
him. He held his nose until he was away from it. "Any
ideas what happened to our hob buddies?" He indicated
the doorway with the axe.
I shook my head. The dwarf frowned and looked
around. "What did for 'em?" he asked absently, then
turned back to me. "There anyone else in there 'sides
I shook my head no.
"No sign o' another dwarf, maybe? Kinda white-
lookin' one, real ugly?"
Again, I shook my head, but more slowly. "Why?"
Orun looked away at the fort and mumbled something
that I didn't catch.
"Sewer?" I repeated.
"No," he said in disgust, setting his axe down to rub
his hands together. "Damn that runt. Theiwar."
The name was familiar. It had to do with a race of
dwarves, I recalled. "Theiwar?"
"Jackals," he said thickly. "All of 'em are. Call 'emselves
true dwarves, but no relation I ever heard of. Some of 'em
throw spells, the tougher ones do. Never let a Theiwar get
behind you 'less he's already dead, and then you'd still
better think about it. Born for evil, all of 'em."
A dwarf that threw spells? I'd never heard of such a
thing, but I was beyond the point of disbelieving almost
anything now that I was dead. "What kind of spells?" I
"Oh," he said, "all sorts. Some of 'em's killer-type
spells. Poison-gas spell's one of 'em. Could be what did for
our hob buddies in there." He indicated the barracks.
"Don't know what all they can do."
"You're hunting a Theiwar?"
Orun grinned self-consciously. "Funny you ask. Am
at that." He looked up at me. "Bounty hunter. Come from
Kaolyn. You know Kaolyn? Nice place."
Kaolyn was a respectable dwarven mountain
kingdom, about eighty miles southwest of Twisting Creek.
"Why hunt a Theiwar?"
He stroked his damp beard. "Traitor to Kaolyn.
Supposed to've been spyin' on the draconians and hobs for
us, chiselin' out a few when he could. Some Theiwar'll
help you for the love of steel in their hands; some'll help
you for the love of killin'. We put 'em to use." He sighed.
"Gotta be done. War is war."
Orun snorted. "Loved the killin' part too much, that
one. Wanted more for 'imself. Sold out to the Blue
Dragonarmy, east of here, and got to spyin' on us instead.
We caught on and went after 'im. Got away with a band of
hobs, and I bet these are them. Same armor, same tribal
markin's." He reached up and rubbed his eyes with his
broad fingers. "Don't know if he was the one who did for
his own band, or why. Been the Dark Queen's own spawn
to catch, that's for sure. Got real good with them 'lusions,
changing his looks and all." He glanced down at his spike-
backed axe, lying against his leg, then picked it up and
hefted it, feeling its weight. "Sure was lookin' forward to
"What was his name?"
"The Theiwar? Garith. No last name."
My curiosity was aflame. Could it have been the same
Garith I'd heard the hobgoblins talking about? I was on the
verge of asking more when everything inside my head
The sun had just set. The darkness had diminished
perceptibly within the last few moments, but I knew on an
even deeper level that the sun had gone. Something inside
me woke up. It was like seeing and hearing after being
born without eyes or ears. It was as if I knew everything
now, everything that really mattered.
"Evredd?" Orun called as I left the fort. "Evredd!" I
heard him swear loudly, then hurry after me with a hard-
I went to the edge of the cliff overlooking the place
where I had been killed. There, past the bodies of the two
hobgoblins, I stopped and gazed out to the southwest.
Strength gathered in my limbs. My hands began to itch,
and my fingers curled and uncurled uncontrollably.
All of a sudden I knew: I needed to head southwest as
quickly as I could.
"Damn, you move fast for a dead boy," huffed Orun
as he stopped behind me about twenty feet back. "You on
to somethin', ain't you? I hear if you a rev'nant, you can
smell your killer in the dark. You smell your boy out
I turned and looked back at the dwarf. Another hand
or two might be useful for what was coming.
"Follow me," I said, and started for the trail. I kept my
stride slow so that Orun could keep up, but even then he
had to jog. He followed and peppered me with questions
that I ignored, then swore outrageously in frustration.
Ahead of me, miles away in the falling darkness, I
sensed a presence moving. It wasn't really smell, and my
night-awakened senses couldn't tell me who my killer was,
but I knew WHERE he was, exactly where.
If I hurried, maybe he and I could chat.
We walked for the entire night over lightly forested
plains and across shallow streams. Orun kept up the pace
beside me until he puffed like a horse, his chain-mail
armor jingling rapidly as he moved. "Tired yet?" he asked
once, but I never responded. The killer was ahead of us by
a long distance.
"Doing okay myself," Orun said, sometime later. "Did
this durin' the war. Marched two days once and never
stopped." His words were almost lost as his breath gave
out for a moment. "Fought an army o' hobs with my
brothers right after that. Whipped 'em in one hour. Ran
'em right off into a canyon. Good day, you bet."
I said nothing. I was straining to see what else I could
detect about my killer. I let my mind be open to
"Like I said, I'm from Kaolyn," Orun went on,
between his panting. "You know Kaolyn - up in the
Garnets, nice place. I tell you that? Came out to see the
world and fight in the war, been here and there ever since.
You been to Kaolyn? Gotta see it sometime." I heard Orun
pull free of a briar that caught his cloak. His armor clinked
like a background song. "Real pretty in the spring."
The dwarf was silent before he asked, in a different
tone, "Smell your killer man?"
I said nothing.
"Too damn nosy, that's me," he said with a sigh as he
trotted along. "That's what they always said back at
Kaolyn. Too damn nosy. I - "
"Yes," I told him, watching the dark fields ahead.
"Oh," Orun said, now haughty. "Well, now, I'm hardly
as nosy as some people."
"Yes," I repeated, louder and more distinctly, "I can
SEE my killer."
"Oh," Orun grunted, then said, "was told you smelled
'im." We traveled in silence for hours after that.
As the horizon in the east grew brighter, something
began to slip out of my head. The clarity of mind I'd felt
before ebbed away, and my sense of my killer's
whereabouts grew elusive, foggy.
"Gettin' tired?" Orun asked, shortly before dawn. The
sky was still overcast, and no rain had fallen.
"Tired?" Orun repeated a little later. I turned and saw
rivers of sweat dripping from his face and beard.
"No," I said, not stopping. I could continue at this
pace forever, but I'd noticed that my prey was slowing
down. Was he tired already? He'd soon regret every pause
for breath. "You?" I asked, wondering if Orun would
"Haven't died yet," he said, then coughed and grew
quiet for several minutes in embarrassment. He had eased
the distance between us down to six feet during the night;
he didn't increase it again. He seemed to be getting quite
used to me.
The killer I was tracking continued to slow down as
the cloud-hidden dawn approached. When the sun arose
behind the thick morning clouds, my inner sense of the
killer's location faded within moments. Some of my
supernatural energy seemed to dissipate as well, but I was
able to keep moving at a steady walking pace. Maybe the
energy loss at dawn was part of being a revenant. Maybe I
drew some of my sustenance from darkness. Since this
was my first mom-ing as a dead man, perhaps my
ignorance could be forgiven.
By now I knew where the killer was headed. I knew
the way to Twisting Creek blindfolded, having hunted
across these plains only months before. It was nearly noon
when we crossed an abandoned cart road and entered a
small forest, beyond which lay the ruins of a pre-
Cataclysm farmhouse. Only the stone foundation remained
of the structure, and young trees lifted their branches
where ground-floor rooms had once been. A brook ran
through the trees nearby.
"Whoa," Orun huffed. "Hold there. Stop for a bit." He
slowed down, dropping behind me. "Lemme rest."
I stopped, though I felt a powerful urge to continue on
and catch up with my killer. I raised a thin hand and
waved at the forest and ruins. "Rest," I croaked.
Orun grunted his thanks and wandered down to some
trees for privacy, then went to the stream bank and placed
his polished axe with care on a fallen log. Dust covered
his face and clothing, and he was streaked and splattered
with his own sweat. He set his helmet aside as he knelt at
the stream, then bent over and splashed water on his head.
After taking a long drink and rinsing off, he settled back
on the bank, rubbing his knees.
Only the brook spoke for a long time. I thought about
the dead hobgoblins, my cousins, and myself. I wondered
who had killed us all, and why.
I studied Orun then. He had leaned back against the
fallen log on which his precious axe rested, his stumpy
legs stretched out. His dark wet beard was as tangled and
chaotic as a mop.
"Tell me about Theiwar," I said.
Orun glanced over in surprise. "Like what?"
"Everything," I said.
Orun shrugged. "Know anything at all 'bout 'em?"
"Mmm," he said. He looked down, chewing his lips.
"Theiwar. They're sorta like dwarves, but not normal. Not
at all like true dwarves. They're uglier, o' course. You
heard me say they throw spells, and they do that. But
they're weaker. Sunlight makes 'em puke; can't stand it at
all. Have to hide in the day or else wrap 'emselves up in
black. Inbreedin' does it."
He paused for thought. "Not ugly only on the outside,
either. They're cowards, thieves, murderers. Those're their
good points." He smiled only briefly. "They're like a bad
relative. You got a distant cousin you hate. He cheats, lies,
steals, thinks he owns the world. He's still family, 'long as
he obeys the rules o' the house. Follow me so far?"
I nodded and thought about the hobgoblins. "They
"Sure do. Ears they like - easier to cut off than fingers.
Save 'em up, show 'em to their friends. Use 'em to prove
their kills. Eat 'em later, maybe. Don't know, don't want to
know." He stroked his shaggy beard.
"Theiwar use crossbows?" It was a long-overdue
"Sure," he said. He got to his feet, dusting off his
trousers and cloak. "Got all sorts o' funny weapons, but
they do like them crossbows."
It made sense that a Theiwar might have been my
murderer. I knew a dwarf could see enough well in
darkness. The Theiwar could have gone right up the cliff
after killing me to do in the hobgoblin lookouts, then the
rest of them. But why would a Theiwar kill me? Did he or
the hobgoblins kill my cousins? Why would he kill his
own allies? It made no sense.
Orun stomped his feet, then looked at the forest and
ruins. He glanced back at his axe, still on the log, then
shrugged and spat.
"Never thought I'd see a rev'nant, or talk to one," he
stated, adjusting his cloak. "One of my old kin, great
uncle, he was one. Lemishite killed 'im out in a field, took
his steel. Broan came back, blood still on 'im, and called
for aid. Two of my kin went with 'im. Found the Lemishite
halfway back to his home. My kin came back, but not
Broan. Kin never spoke of it much. Hundred, hundred ten
He rubbed at his throat. "Seen others who came back,
but not like you. Walkin' dead, mindless. Black Robe
wizards like 'em. Had one pass through Kaolyn once.
Didn't let 'im stop. Had a bunch of dead helpers." Orun's
face twisted with disgust at the memory. "Wizards," he
"Did you know this Garith?" I asked.
A muscle twitched in Orun's left cheek, pulling on the
side of his mouth. He looked toward the road,
remembering. "Was his contact with Kaolyn, kind o' to
keep an eye on 'im. Supposed to have known what he was
doing when he was killin' our people off, but he got by
me." The dwarf grunted, pulling the cloak tightly around
his shoulders. "Almost did for me, too, but I was lucky.
I eyed him for a few moments. "You want him."
Orun was silent for a moment more, then slowly
turned around and grinned at me in a dark way, almost
shyly. "Sure do," he said, eyes like arrow slits in a fortress.
"Want 'im bad. He killed some good friends o' mine. My
fault, really. I know how y'feel. You want to get your
claws 'round his scrawny neck and squeeze his life out,
make 'im feel what you felt. That right?"
I said nothing.
He grinned more broadly. "Well, you miss 'im, and I'll
finish it for you. Lookin' forward to it. Our boy's been a
busy little runt, killin' everything he can find. Got it in for
everyone, like the rest o' 'is folk. Thinks he's a bad boy.
But he won't like seein' you and me together."
"Why aren't you afraid of me?" I asked.
The dwarf looked me over in silence, then snorted as if
he'd heard a bad joke. "You want me to be afraid there,
dead boy? I'll tell you somethin'. In the war, my
commander got 'imself killed by a draconian, sivak type.
They're the big silver ones what change their shapes when
they kill someone, so they look like what they just killed.
You heard 'bout 'em?"
I remembered sivaks very well from the war. "Yes."
"I saw the killin', but I wasn't in a way to do anythin'
'bout it right then and there. Had to travel with 'im for two
days, pretendin' he was my friend, all the time knowin' he
was gonna turn on me and my buddies and kill us off or
take us to an ambush. Got some help in time, though, and
we cut that reptile boy down to gully dwarf meat. You
may be a dead boy, but after that sivak, nothin' much ever
gets to me."
The dwarf clapped his hands together, then went to get
his axe. "'Sides, like I said, you probably leadin' me right
to Garith. Gonna be like a family reunion." He lifted the
axe to gaze down the blade. "I been dyin' to see the boy.
Like as not, he'll be dyin' too - after he sees me."
Evening came at last. We stopped once more for Orun
to rest, then moved on as the sun went down. I told Orun
about my "cousins, my uncle, my life, and my death. He
walked silently as he listened, asking few questions. I
talked until I knew of nothing more to say.
At dusk, my awareness of my murderer's location
arose in my consciousness as comfortably as if it had
never left. He was still heading for Twisting Creek, but
we were much closer to him now. He'd make it to town
before morning, but we'd not be far behind him. His speed
picked up as the evening deepened, and so did mine - and
I was faster, even with Orun.
By noon the next day, we were just two hours outside of
Twisting Creek. There we stopped at an abandoned
farmhouse, one I knew had belonged to a couple who had
moved away during the war. The log-and-stone home was
overgrown with vines and had been boarded up, but it still
appeared to be in good shape. It took only moments to
break inside. There Orun slept until early evening. I knew
we could afford the break. I wanted Orun in good shape
when we found the Theiwar. Orun awoke "ready to do
"Wish I knew what spells he's been collectin'," Orun
said for the third time later that evening. The whetstone in
his hand made a soft grinding sound as he touched up the
blade of his axe. "Garith could turn invisible, hypnotize
folks with colors, and make light shine. And make poison
gas, which he probably used on them hobs. But he knew
lots more than that." He held up his axe and examined it in
the dim light coming through the cracks in the shuttered
windows. "Damn, I'm lookin' forward to seein' him."
Orun ransacked the house while I waited for my
supernatural senses to focus. He found a moth-eaten gray
cloak and dropped it on my lap, as well as a stained pair of
trousers and a shirt. I needed something besides my old
clothes to wear in town. It wouldn't do to have everyone
know who I was - including the Theiwar, right at first. By
the way his big nose wrinkled up, I knew the clothes had
to stink of mold and mildew. I probably stank worse, but I
couldn't tell, since I never breathed.
It grew darker outside. Energy poured into me like a
cold river. When I faced in the direction of town, I could
tell that my murderer was just a short walk away.
"I see him," I said.
Orun nodded, wrapping up his feet with a dry cloth
strip. "Like I said," he replied, tugging on his boots next,
"Theiwar hate sunlight. Probably stayed at an inn or in a
cellar, hidin' from that sun and heavin' 'is guts out, waitin'
for the night. Reorx Almighty, they hate that sun."
We left at nightfall. Orun had wrapped an extra layer of
moldy cloth under his armor to add a little protection from
the daggers he said Garith was fond of using. He knew it
wouldn't stop a crossbow bolt, though, and I'd earlier told
him about the poison I'd seen. Black wax was difficult to
use, so it wasn't likely that Garith would have his bolts
already poisoned. Still, we couldn't count on anything.
He'd slain a dozen hobgoblins in one evening, probably
without breaking into a sweat.
It was a clear night. The stars were out early. A warm
wind rolled through town ahead of us. I remembered the
last night I had known like that, how peaceful it had been,
how everything had gone along fine right up to the end.
"Gonna miss you in a way," said Orun. His axe was
tied to his belt. He walked with a broad, quick stride,
matching my pace.
The comment caught me off guard. "How is that?"
"Well, you know all you are here for is for findin'
your killer man. When it's over, you go, too."
I had suspected as much, but it didn't bother me.
Dying a second time seemed like such a small trade for
seeing my killer go first.
"Just lemme know when you see 'im," Orun added.
I wanted to laugh, but it wasn't in me. "You'll know."
As we entered the broad dirt streets of Twisting
Creek, several people walked by us, giving me looks of
disgust at the condition of my clothing and probably my
smell. None of them even glanced at Orun. Dwarven
merchants came here all the time from Kaolyn.
We passed rows of families sitting on the sides of the
road, children chasing each other or fighting. Almost as
many people in town had no home as those who did,
thanks to the war. I recognized many of them, but none of
them seemed to know me in the darkness.
"You followin' your man?" Orun asked quietly.
"He's not far."
Orun sniffed and smiled.
My senses led me on through town toward the other
side. I had a strange feeling of dread when I realized I was
walking in the direction of my uncle's farm.
We rounded the blacksmith's shop and stable. I looked
up and saw a small manor house on a low hill, only a few
hundred yards away. It was lit by yellow globes of glass
set along the sides of the house and up the front walkway.
The long rail fence I remembered repairing in life
surrounded it and the farm buildings behind.
There," I said, stopping. "He's in there."
Orun stopped, too, and squinted. "Nice place."
I nodded slowly as I started off again. "My uncle's."
Orun glanced at me, face hard. "He's in there with
I said nothing. My uncle was a good man. He had his
flaws, but if he was hurt, it would be one more thing I
would owe the Theiwar when we met.
We turned at the half-circle wagon path that led up to
the doors of the manor. Balls of yellow crystal set on posts
lit the way. My uncle had imported them from the city of
Solanthus - glass spheres with magical light in them that
never went out. Always the best, he liked to say. Always
get the best.
No one was outdoors as we approached. The place
hadn't changed a bit since I was here last.
Orun pushed back his oilskin cloak and undid the strap
on his axe.
I needed nothing but my hands.
We mounted the steps, slowing down, and reached the
door. I hesitated, sensing my prey so strongly I felt I could
He was inside on the right. That would be my uncle's
private study, to the side of the entry hall. Maybe he was
holding everyone hostage, or he'd broken in and was
borrowing a few things for his own use.
I wondered if, when I met him, I'd ask him why he'd
killed me before I killed him.
I raised my hand and knocked hard, three times, and
listened to the echo. Then we waited.
The lock clicked. The front door heaved, then pulled
open. It was our elderly manservant, Roggis. His face
went white when he saw me, his eyes growing big and
"Evredd!" he gasped. "Blessed gods, what happened?"
"I'm home," I said softly as I pushed past the old man
and went in, Orun at my heels. The entry hall was brightly
lit. The great curved stairs to the second-floor bedrooms
ascended from either side of the room.
Something inside me tore free. I wanted to see my
killer's face, NOW. The study door was closed, but I was
there in a moment, with the door handle in my hand,
pulling it open.
The cabinet- and bookshelf-lined study was before me. Yellow light
fell from the globes hanging from the ceiling. Only one person was in
the room, sitting at the center table's far end with a pile of ledgers in
front of him. He was big, fleshy-faced, with a hooked nose and a
receding hairline. He looked up with irritation as the door swung open.
My MURDERER, sang the cold in my blood.
My uncle, said my eyes.
"Can't you - " he began, before he actually saw me. He leaped back
from his chair, knocking it over. His face went slack with terror. He
grabbed for something on a stool beside him.
"Uncle," I said. I couldn't believe it, but I knew it. HE had killed
me. "What - "
My uncle swung around. He held a heavy wooden device in his
hands. He pulled the trigger. A dwarven-made crossbow. The bowstring
The crossbow bolt slammed into my chest with the force of a mule's
kick, tearing through my right lung and breaking a rib. The impact
knocked me back several steps, almost into Orun, before I caught
The bolt didn't hurt a bit.
I ran and lunged across the table for my uncle, my fingers out like
He flung the crossbow at me, missing, and dodged back. My fingers
locked on his clothes, ripping them. I tried to get to his throat.
There was faint popping noise in the air, a flash of light. My uncle
In his place stood a waist-high dwarf, clad in filthy black clothing. I
held his torn shirt in my hands. His mushroom-white face showed only a
dirty blond beard, watery blue eyes that bulged out like goose eggs, and
a black-toothed mouth that was open like a wound. He was the ugliest
dwarf I'd ever seen, and he gave out a shriek that would have sent me to
my grave if I hadn't already been there. My uncle ... a destroyed man . . .
The Theiwar had used an illusion spell to disguise himself. I knew then
what must have happened to my uncle, and why he had seemed to have
changed lately. And who had really killed my cousins. Likely, they'd
begun to suspect something.
GARITH'S GONNA LIVE LIKE A HUUU-MAN NOW, the hobgoblin had said.
"Garith!" shouted Orun from the door. The dwarf shut it behind
him, cutting off Roggis's cries in the hall outside.
Panicked, the Theiwar ran under the table to escape me. I shoved
myself off the table and snatched at a heavy wooden chair, swinging it up
and over and down into the tabletop. The chair shattered; the table split in
half and collapsed. Books and papers poured across the floor - and a bag
full of rotting gray ears spilled with them. Some of the ears were gnawed.
I stepped back. The Theiwar had vanished.
"Garith!" roared Orun, his axe high. "You a dead boy, too, now!
You a dead little white rat, you hear me!"
I caught something from the comer of my eye. The Theiwar had
reappeared in a comer of the room, far from Orun and me. His hands
leaped out of hidden pockets in his black clothing.
"ORKISKA SHAKATAN SEKIS!" he called out in a hoarse, high
voice, holding something like a cloth and a glass rod and rubbing them
together. He was aiming them at me.
"Reorx damn us!" shouted Orun, as I leaped for the Theiwar.
"Evredd, he's - "
There was more light then than I'd ever seen in my life or
afterwards. My body was suspended in the air, buoyed up by a writhing
white ribbon of power that poured from the Theiwar's hands. For the first
time since I'd died, I felt true pain. It was unearthly, burning into every
muscle, every nerve, every inch of skin, and I couldn't even scream.
Then it was gone. I crashed to the floor. Smoke billowed from the
smoldering rags I wore. My soot-stained limbs jerked madly as if I were
the marionette of a bad puppeteer.
I flopped over on my stomach. The Theiwar was climbing a free-
standing wall cabinet like a spider. Orun threw his axe. The weapon
struck something in the air just before it reached the Theiwar and
bounced away with a clanging noise, falling next to my head.
"Damn you, Garith!" Orun cried, snatching his axe up. "Damn you
and your magic! You a DEAD boy!"
My limbs began to move the way I wanted them to
go, and I staggered to my feet. The Theiwar was on top of
the cabinet. He pointed a short white finger down at us.
"N'ZKOOL AKREK GRAFKUN - MIWARSH!" he shrieked, in triumph.
Greenish yellow fog blasted from his finger. A
windstorm filled the room. The overhead lights were
dimmed by the thick mist.
Orun started to shout, but his voice ended abruptly
with a shocked gasp, then a loud, hacking cough. I could
barely see him through the green fog. He clutched at his
throat with both hands, the axe thumping into the floor.
He gave a strangled cry, teeth clenched shut, his lungs
filling with poisoned air.
I went for the cabinet. My hands gripped a shelf at the
height of my head, and I pulled back hard. The dish-filled
cabinet rocked; plates clattered flat. The Theiwar cursed
and dropped to his knees, fingers grabbing for purchase
on the top. I heaved against the shelf again and saw the
cabinet lean toward me, then continue coming. I shoved it
aside. It slammed into the floor away from the choking
As suddenly as it had appeared, the greenish fog blew
away as if caught by a high wind. Orun's hacking cough
and hoarse cries echoed in the now silent room.
The Theiwar fell to the floor across the room. Rolling,
he came up on his feet. He saw me coming around the
fallen cabinet, and he tried to flee for the closed door. He
jerked a long crystal vial from his belt. His bulging eyes
were as big as moons when I tackled him.
My dead hands locked around his little body. You
could hear him for miles, screaming like a spitted rodent
with a giant's lung power. He punched and kicked in
hysteria. I jabbed one hand through the hail of blows and
got my long, cold fingers into the flesh at his throat,
sinking in the grip. Gasping, he stabbed at my arm with
the vial, shattering it with the first blow and opening up
bloodless gashes that went down to the dull white bone.
Abruptly, he stiffened. I grabbed his arm with my free
one and held it steady for an instant. I had seen it coming.
A red stream, mixed with strands of oozing black, was
running down his arm. His huge, watery eyes focused on
his hand with an expression of complete terror such as I
had never seen on a living face before. His eyes rolled up
then, and his body shuddered and went still.
Garith had just learned what the Nerakans had learned
about black wax, with the same results.
I released his body and fell to the floor. I tried to keep
myself up on my hands and knees, but my strength poured
out of me now like water through a collapsed dam. In the
background, I could hear Roggis wailing and Orun
coughing. The door to the study burst open, and everyone
in the manor surged in to shout and point. But they all kept
away from me. They knew.
"The boys warned me that he wasn't the same!"
Roggis was saying, in tears. "I didn't believe them. When
they were killed, he acted as if he didn't care a whit. I
thought he was mad, but I didn't dare speak to him about
it. I was afraid he'd become violent. He hardly seemed
The racket was fading away, far away. I struggled to
get up. It was no use. I'd done what I'd come back to do. I
was more tired than I'd ever been before in my life.
"Evredd," wheezed a hoarse voice near my ear. "You
I managed to nod, but that was all.
"Good work for a dead boy," Orun said. "Right on
High praise. I wondered if I'd see Garayn and Klart
soon, and my uncle, and what they would say about it.
I fell forward into the darkness. Everything was right
again, and there would be no coming back.
There was a great blast of steam in the passage
through the mountain. Gnomes came sliding down the
rock sides, a few dropping from above and caught, heart-
stoppingly, by nets; two popped out of compressed-air
tubes in the ground and tumbled in the air before
plummeting toward a landing-pad near the steam source.
One landed on the pad, the other in a bush. The assembled
gnomes pulled levers, rang bells, turned cranks, and
shouted directions at each other without listening to the
directions shouted back.
Mara dashed from rock to rock like a child playing
hide-and-seek, each sprint taking her closer to her
objective. In her whole life in Arnisson she had never
heard this much whistling, clanking, and general noise.
She resisted putting both hands over her ears and edged
quietly and quickly through the assembled gnomes until
she arrived at a narrow ledge at the point where the
passageway met the inner crater wall of the mountain. She
slid onto it, staring down in fascination at the array of
gantries and cranes and at the almost continual rain of
equipment and gnomes. Far below, she could see a trap
A loose cable drifted toward her.
Mara leapt nimbly out of the shadows, catching a
hanging cable with her cloth-wrapped hand. She slid
down, touching the mountainside lightly with her feet,
then sailing back into open air. She vanished into a pit in
She saw above her, in a brief flash, layer on layer of
gnome houses and workshops, cranes, nets, and the
occasional flying (or falling) gnome. She congratulated
herself on passing unseen and unheard, but part of her
grudgingly admitted that any gnome who saw her would
have assumed she was just testing a new invention, unless
the gnome was also close enough to notice that she was
human. And no one could have heard her over the
clanking, whirring, grinding, and intermittent steam
The cable swung against the edge of the pit, which
was now a skylight, above her. She climbed up with the
rope, pumped with her legs to accelerate its swinging,
tucked, sprang, rolled over in midair and landed
noiselessly on the stone floor next to a gnomeflinger.
"Perfect, of course," she said with satisfaction. Mara
unwrapped her hand from the rope, took three swaggering
steps forward, and accidentally knocked down a gnome
who was looking the other way. Mara sprawled backward,
legs in the air and arms flailing.
The gnome scrambled up and offered her a hand.
"Awfully sorry; it was my fault, after all I was busy
thinking, there must be a defect in the - "
"It was my fault really," she began. "I'm sorry - "
Then she realized that he hadn't stopped talking.
" - a little borrowed hydraulic gear would make it
more efficient yet, if it didn't make it top-heavy - and a
spring with a trigger-catch might store the energy - "
"Now," Mara said, "what are you talking about?"
"I was just telling you," the gnome said impatiently,
"about the idea I had when I watched you trying to sneak
down here - "
"You saw me coming?" She sagged slightly.
" - and I thought, if people are going to jump through the
air, which I hadn't considered - until I saw you; you were
obvious - we need precautions because of the
gnomeflingers." His eyes, a light violet, all but glowed.
"We all need bumpers. Yes. Being-bumpers, employing
my sensors. Large, high-tension fenders suspended from
our shoulders to absorb the shock. They'd have metal
frames, cloth padding on the outside - "
"They sound awfully heavy," Mara objected. She was
quite young, and slightly built, compared to the gnome.
"Then we'd add wheels to it," he continued without
pausing, "And a spring-loaded axle for each wheel, and a
governor to keep the axles balanced - "
"Who could move with all that on?"
" - and a motor to move the whole thing," the gnome
finished firmly. "How do you expect to walk anywhere, if
you don't use a motor? Youngsters these days." He rolled
his eyes, but smiled at her. "Excuse me." Pulling a bulky
pen from a loop on his belt, he tucked his chin and began
drawing frantic, jagged lines across his shirt - a shirt that
was already covered with sketches of wooden frames,
toothed and worm gears, and interlocking systems of
pulleys. One design started on his belly and moved
through conduits and guy ropes all down his left sleeve.
The gnome looked up and saw Mara staring at him.
"Well, I can't always find a sheet of paper when a thought
strikes," he said with some asperity.
"Is each shirt a different project?"
"Of course not. In fact, some designs are on five or six
different shirts. I keep hoping," he said wistfully, "that
some day I'll be able to cross-index them, but every time I
even get close, I need to do laundry. And here you are."
He peered at her. "Speaking of you, are you someone I
"Everyone should," Mara said proudly, standing very
"Everyone doesn't," the gnome said thoughtfully,
"because I don't. Who are you?"
"I am known," she said with a bow and flourish, "as
Mara the Wild." She did a standing flip. "Also Mara the
Clever." She tapped the gnome's pockets significantly.
"Also," she said in a loud whisper, "Mara the Queen of
The gnome blinked. "Goodness," he said
disapprovingly, "have you stolen much?"
"Not - much," the Queen of Thieves admitted. She
scuffed her toe on the tunnel floor. "Not anything, in fact."
This was why, after announcing her current planned heist
to her family, she was also known as Mara the
She looked defiantly at the gnome. "But I'm sure that
I could steal something if it was really important. I am
also," she said demurely, "a woman of dazzling beauty,
whom all men worship and crave." She coyly brushed at
her short-cropped dark hair.
The gnome only looked at her.
"Okay," Mara said grudgingly, "so I won't be a
woman of dazzling beauty for a couple of years. It's going
to happen, I promise."
"I hope," he said seriously, "that you can accept all
that worship and craving without becoming overly vain."
Mara smiled and, in the absence of a mirror, admired
her slender shadow against the rock wall. "I'm sure I'll
manage perfectly. Anyway, what's your name?"
The gnome immediately went on at some length,
pausing for breath in what were clearly accustomed
"I only asked your name," Mara broke in finally.
The gnome looked disconcerted. "I'm not even
halfway through it."
"Maybe I asked the wrong question. What does your
name mean to humans?"
He nodded. "It's very descriptive, even for my people,
and surprisingly apropos. I'm known among humans as
He Who Will Not Stand Upon Accepted Science, But
Will Research Back Into Dangerous and Even
Unworkable Ideas, Nor Will He Stand on Conventional
Testing, But Will Fall Back on Hazardous and Injurious
Techniques, and Will Stand up for Belief in Technology,
Which, Back Before the Great Cataclysm - "
"What," Mara said desperately, "do humans call you
The gnome said simply, "Standback."
Mara leaped back.
"No, no," said the gnome. "That's my name.
"Are you an inventor? Where's your workshop? Do
you do all your work down here? You're not going to tell
anyone you've seen me, are you?"
Poor Standback had no idea how to answer four
questions thoroughly without taking a month off. "Would
it upset you terribly if I answered in brief?" he said
Mara, realizing with a shudder how narrowly she had
avoided dying of old age during a participial phrase, put a
hand on the gnome's arm. "Please, take as little of your
research time as possible."
Standback was flattered and grateful. He
concentrated. "Yes, I'm an inventor. These tunnels are my
work area; I know they don't look like much, but they're
roomy. I do all my work here. And no, I won't tell anyone
I've seen you," he finished with slight melancholy,
"because there's no one else to tell. I'm the only one -
down here. It's nice to talk to somebody. Where are you
Mara assumed an heroic stance, arms folded across
her thin chest. "I am from Arnisson, a village under siege,
desperate to keep itself free from the cruel talons of the
draconian army. We are under the command of a lone
Knight of Solamnia, a former townsman named Kalend.
He's a friend of my older brother's," she sighed and her
voice softened. "Kalend's nice, and he thinks I'M
wonderful, but that's really not that surprising, because I'm
ravishingly beautiful." She sighed again, this time in
dejection. "Though I do wish he'd stop calling me 'little
girl' all the time. Anyway, when I met him on the rampart
walls a few nights ago, I asked him if we were likely to
survive, and he said not really, but if the draconians
attacked too early or while they thought we were
unprepared, we still might win. And he said that if he had
even one working gnome weapon, we'd stand a chance.
And I think he meant it," she added sincerely.
She went on and on - some about the draconians,
some about how dire the situation was, but mostly about
Kalend, who grew taller and better looking as her story
progressed. Standback nodded frequently.
"And so," she said, resuming the heroic stance, "I left
Arnisson that very night. I left unseen," she added,
pausing and staring at Standback earnestly.
"Unseen," he echoed dutifully.
"Exactly." She stared into space. "Stealthily creeping out
under the cover of darkness, I, alone, crawling through the
enemy camp . . .
She went on again for quite some time, not bothering
much about the truth, which was actually pretty boring
and she was sure no one wanted to hear anyway.
Standback listened patiently, feeling only a little put
out that she had been going on like that after making him
be brief. When she finished, he said, "But why did you
"What?" Mara brought herself back to being Queen of
Thieves. "I came here," she began boldly, then faltered as
she realized how it would sound, "to - borrow, or - get, or
somehow - take - okay, STEAL some gnome weaponry for
the war with the draconians." She was blushing.
Standback decided that he liked her, but he wasn't
sure how sensible she was.
"Gnome technology is famous throughout Krynn,"
Mara added wheedlingly, with some truth. FAMOUS and
INFAMOUS were fairly close. "There are legends of past
great weapons. The Knights of Solamnia still speak of
your poison gas - "
"Yes, well," Standback said uncomfortably, "it was
supposed to make us invisible, you know. Still, not a total
it does wonders for pest control down here. Mostly." He
glanced from side to side.
"Mostly?" Mara jumped as a loud chittering sound
flew by her ear. She whirled, but saw nothing.
"We ran out of the original batch lately, so we made a
new one. It doesn't seem to kill them any more."
Standback ducked as a flapping sound passed near his
head. "Lately it just makes them invisible."
Mara looked around nervously. The tunnel, at the
bottom of the crater that formed Mount Nevermind, was
rough-hewn rock scored by some huge excavating blade
and riddled with drill holes and iron bolts. Ropes and
cables hung every which way, with pulleys, blocks and
tackles, and crane tracks running the length of the ceiling.
Though there were no torches, the tunnel was quite
bright. Mara gingerly felt the walls; they were warm to the
touch, but nowhere near hot enough to give off light.
"How are these tunnels lit?"
Standback pointed to the glowing fungi on the wall. "We
cultivated them for food. Fortunately, the ones we
cultivated for light are quite tasty." He mused, "You know,
we'd like to do more with biological engineering. It's the
technology of the future."
"Or the end of the world," Mara muttered. She was
beginning to worry, marginally, about the wisdom of
stealing gnome inventions. However, if the wise and
wonderful Kalend. Knight of Solamnia, believed in gnome
technology... "Could you show me some of your
"I would love to," Standback said unhesitatingly and
formally. "This way, please."
They moved down the junk-strewn tunnel. "You seem
awfully at ease with women, even startlingly beautiful
ones," Mara told him.
Standback was silent - a rare condition for a gnome.
Finally he said, "Perhaps that is because I love someone."
"Really?" Mara was fascinated. "What's she like?"
Standback Went on at length about the exquisite curve
of her left little finger.
"Okay, we'll take it that she's pretty. What's her name?
Her human name," Mara added hastily.
"It's very beautiful." Standback stared upward
dreamily. "She's called Watch As Her Machines Move In
and Out, Like a Night Watchman Blowing Out A Candle
to Light a Lamp of Such Incredible - "
"The short form."
"Watchout." He sighed.
Mara nodded. "Standback and Watchout. You were
made for each other."
"I think so," he said sadly, "and she thinks so. But
unless things change, it can never be."
"Why?" Mara asked sympathetically.
Standback glowered and said suddenly, gnome-to-
gnome, "Thatisabsolutelytheworstpart - "
He took a shuddering breath and said in slower human
fashion, "That is absolutely the worst part of this whole
business. I have not as yet received approval for my Life
"My Life Quest. My one achievement, my one goal. It
is to be the sensors that go into the burglar alarms. I've
already designed them and put them in place throughout
Mara, remembering how she had slipped in without
setting any off, murmured, "Still in the development
stage, I guess."
"Oh, no; they're highly functional. By the way, how
did you pass them?"
"I made an elaborate and clever plan to drop from the
top of the crater by rope on a winch . . ." Mara hesitated.
Standback shook his head. "Impossible. I have every
passage, every window, every cranny and cut of the outer
mountain covered by a sensor. How did your plan work?"
Mara fidgeted. "I didn't use it," she said finally. "I was
standing at the steel entrance doors, trying to figure out
how to climb up the mountain, while the doors were
sliding shut. But the triple-lock fell off and jammed them
open so I was able to slip through - "
"The doors." Standback slapped his forehead, leaving
a pen mark. "Of course. I knew I'd forgotten something.
Sensors on the doors. Still," he said quickly, "it was very
clever, making a plan with a lot of rope and a winch.
You're almost thinking like a gnome."
Mara chose to take that as a compliment. "Have you
shown the committee the evidence of your research?"
"I can't." Standback looked uncomfortable. "I was
cleaning them - with a perfectly fine solvent invented by a
friend of mine - when they dissolved. Also, the table under
them. Wonderful stain remover, though." Standback's
shaggy eyebrows dropped low as he brooded. "I can't re-
apply until I've proven that I have a semi-working
prototype." He added sadly, "If only you had been caught
Mara sighed in her turn. "If only YOU were the
master of the Weapons Guild."
Standback shook his head. "If I were, Watchout and I
would be married by now. And I would be far above." He
looked upward wistfully, as though he could see through
the ceiling. "Up where there is honor, glory, and matching
funding. Where draftsmen constantly draft bigger drafting
boards for bigger projects with larger cost overruns . . ."
Mara, disheartened, listened as he described the
Schedule Rescheduling Department, the Management
Oversight Overseers, and the apparently all-powerful
Expanding Contractors. "Tell me," she broke in finally,
"have any of these projects ever been finished?"
Standback, shocked to the depth of his stubby little
being, stared at her. "Young woman, any project worthy of
state funding should be perfected, never finished."
"Well, if you're not the master of the Weapons Guild,
then what ARE you?" she asked.
He lowered his eyes. "I'm a lower-level inventor
whose future life work must be scrounged from the debris
left by the failures of others - "
"Have you invented ANYTHING?"
"I've done more varied work than most gnomes you
Since Mara had met no other gnomes, she simply
"My Life Quest - " Standback stopped, looked pained,
and said with careful stress, "my primary work just now is
still sensor-related, since that was my Life Quest. I invent
security and safety equipment for home or fort, for the
detection and prevention of unwanted forcible spies,
intruders, or weapons - "
"Paladine's panties," Mara said irreverently. "You
make burglar alarms and traps."
Standback said happily, "That's why I was so happy
when you appeared. What luck, really - a burglar, coming
straight through the burglar alarms and lockouts. It will be
a boon to my data."
"Not luck." Mara was having trouble understanding.
"I mean, Kalend ordered that I take this dangerous
Standback looked dubious. "No offense and don't take
this the wrong way, but you ARE rather young and did he
really order you?"
Mara nodded emphatically. "It was when I was walking
with him on the ramparts, which I try to do a lot - not that
he minds or anything, even though I'm younger than he is,
since I'm remarkably mature, responsible, and
exceptionally good-looking for my age - and we were
talking about the war. He said, 'If only there were one
working gnome weapon, and we had it. . .'" Mara stopped
and chewed her lip thoughtfully. "Or maybe he said, 'If
there was only one gnome weapon that worked and we
had it. . .'
"Anyway," Mara went on, "I remember thinking that
he'd better not talk like that where the draconians could
hear him, or they'd go get a weapon first, and then I
thought about how happy he'd be if I went first instead and
found him a weapon and saved the village, and - well, I
left." She folded her arms over her chest. "Under cover of
darkness, like I said. Through the draconian camps - "
The gnome raised a bushy eyebrow. He was coming
to know Mara. "THROUGH their camps?"
"Well, around. Under their very scaly noses."
"So you saw them?"
"Not actually saw them," she admitted, but added
quickly, "BUT I knew they were there, and was too clever
to be caught by them. Alone and courageous, I came - "
'To find weapons." Standback frowned, thinking. "To
fight these draconians, whom you haven't really seen.
He reached a conclusion and rubbed his stained and
callused hands together. "Well, as long as you're here, I
don't see why we shouldn't strike a deal. Do you still want
some gnome weapons?"
"What?" It took Mara, caught up in dreams of her own
heroism, a moment to remember what she was doing here.
Her thin young mouth set firmly. "More than ever."
"I'll let you take one," he said. "Any one you want. If
you'll test my security device."
She swallowed. Anti-burglar devices? "Do I have a
Standback was ecstatic. "And right afterward," Stand-
back burbled happily, "I'll write up my test results and
submit them to the Committee. And then if they approve
my work - and I have no doubt they will - I'll marry
They strode down the tunnel together, their footsteps
setting off an uneasy rustling and flapping in the invisible
colony clinging to the walls and roof above them.
"They're only bats," Standback said reassuringly. "I
hope," he added, less so.
They walked past a number of side tunnels, their
entrances half hidden by debris and hanging ropes and
cables. Mara, like a good thief, took note of the turns and
the fork back to the exit. "Where does the money come
from for weapons research?"
"I use only junk, spare parts. The main projects were
started on a grant from the Knights of Solamnia."
"The knights?" Mara looked serious. "I hope you're
not counting on them for support. They aren't as rich as
they used to be, you know - "
"This was a while back. They aren't as frequent
visitors as they used to be, either," Standback pointed out.
He screwed up his forehead. "In fact," he said
thoughtfully, "I haven't seen them since the last In-House
Weapons Test, several years ago. No, make that several
"And you kept the project going?"
"It never lapsed, even before I took it over. A project,"
Standback said stiffly, "is a commitment. It's as important
as a vow."
"They paid in advance, didn't they?" Mara asked
"Well, yes. Quite a lot, in fact. Here we are."
He pulled an elaborate key (four notches and a
combination lock) from a ring at his waist. He inserted the
key with some difficulty in a lock attached to a thick beam
door in the tunnel wall. After three tries, it opened easily.
"After you," he said. "This room has my first anti-spy
Mara stepped in cautiously. "Shouldn't your alarms
have sensed me?"
"It's a proximity alarm," the gnome said. "Once
testing is complete, I'll put hundreds of them in any place
that needs monitoring. You can't have too much
redundancy, you know." He was scribbling another note
on his shirt. "Would you mind standing on that large black
X on the floor?" The X had a small bump at the cross-
A gnome-size test dummy on wheels stood next to the
X. Mara rolled it almost onto the X and stood well off to
one side. "Let's try it this way first."
"I've done this many times," Standback objected, "with
that very dummy."
Mara said firmly, "Well, I haven't seen it work yet."
She noted that the dummy hadn't a mark on it, though the
walls and floor of the room were dented and scraped.
Standback complained, with some justification, "You
promised. Is there no honor among thieves?"
"There was once," Mara said. "Someone stole it."
Then she sighed and moved the dummy off the X. "I warn
you, I'm leaving at the first sign of danger. What is it
"It's called the Room Security Spybanger," Standback
said impatiently. "Now will you step on the X?"
Mara tapped the X with her toe, leapt, tucked, and
rolled easily away, preparing to watch from a safe
She heard a TWANG. A stone mallet - its head the size
of her own - whistled above her close enough to ruffle her
hair. Mara ducked, heard a second TWANG and felt a
sudden sharp sting on her cheek as an elastic cord
attached to the mallet handle snapped taut against her
The mallet struck the far wall. A trap door popped
open beside it. The mallet whizzed back. Mara's back flip
carried her just out of range. She dropped flat as a second
mallet spun out of the trap door and careened past her,
setting off a third mallet.
Soon six stone hammers were ricocheting and
thudding around the room. Mara rolled, leapt, ducked,
twisted, and at one point slid down a thrumming elastic
cord to keep out of the way.
Eventually, in desperation, she crawled back to a
section of floor that every last mallet had failed to pass
over. She glanced in all directions, poised to spring, until
the mallets gradually lost momentum and dangled limply
from the tangled elastics.
In the far comer, Standback applauded. "A perfect
test." He wrote furiously on his stomach. "Absolutely
perfect, with the exception of a few trajectory defects."
Mara looked down. She was crouched over the X.
"You tried to kill me."
Standback shook his head violently. "Never. The
Spybanger is designed only for self-protection; killing is
purely accidental. Can you help me rig these back up?"
From a comer cabinet, Standback produced a large
wooden crank. He inserted the crank into a spring and
ratchet arrangement in the first trap and turned it until the
mechanism was tight enough to leave room for the
hammer in front of it. He lifted the mallet laboriously,
then stood back, panting.
"And so amazingly easy to reload," he said, struggling
to shut the trap before the hammer flew out.
Mara helped crank and lift the other five. "What else
have you been working on?"
In answer, he led her through a second door - which
led through a short tunnel to another room.
"This isn't for spies, and it's not an offensive weapon.
It's a shock-lessening device, a preventive measure for
high-impact disasters. A pneumatically seismosensitive
counter-measure for offsetting combat-related upheavals."
"What does it do?"
"I just told you," Standback snapped. "When we get
there, would you stand in the center of the room, right on
Mara started to agree readily, then stopped. "Is it
supposed to be the safest place?"
"In that case," Mara said politely, "why don't YOU
stand on it, and I'll observe?"
The gnome's shaggy eyebrows shot up. "That's kind of
you." He stepped onto the X. "You don't mind taking the
"Never." Mara folded her arms. "Danger and I are
"All right. Watch, then. The Thudbagger is designed
to protect against impact." He paused. "You've seen the
gnomeflingers in use, above?"
Mara shuddered. She. had flitted down from level to
level in the shadows, watching as gnomes sailed from
level to level (and, usually, down again) from the bulky
catapults that were equipped with everything except
accuracy and control.
"Well," Standback continued, "this may surprise you,
but several visiting knights thought that the gnomeflingers
might also be dangerous."
"Truly. They thought - now, to my mind, it takes a
twisted mind to think this in the first place - that someone
could use the gnomeflingers to throw dead weight
projectiles instead of passengers. Well, we performed
some experiments, but we never got reliable enough
results to suggest that this would work."
"Why not?" Mara asked.
Standback sighed. "Mostly because the note-takers
kept getting crushed by thrown rocks. At any rate, the
knights asked us to come up with a defense to protect
getting hurt by flying rocks. They talked about shields,
and barriers, but our Hazard Analysis Committee
interviewed the gnomeflinger Impact Test Survivors and
concluded that the problem went beyond shields and
walls. I brought their results down here with me." He led
her into the next room.
The furniture, Mara noted with relief, did not look
banged up at all. How dangerous could this room be?
A closer look revealed the furniture to be brand new.
The comers of the room contained large piles of splinters.
"Are you sure you want ME to stand on the X?"
Stand-back asked. "After all, I guarantee it to be the safest
place in the room."
Mara bowed to him. "All the more reason to give it to
He was flattered. "How kind you are, and how
"I am also called Mara the Courageous," she said.
Standback was not surprised.
He stepped onto the X and folded his arms
confidently. "This room has a broad-band sensor." He
pointed to a small round bump in the floor. "Stamp
anywhere. You don't need to do it very hard."
The floor looked to be some kind of parquet, broken
at regular intervals with circular lids each the size of a
Mara eyed Standback narrowly and slammed her foot
against the bare floor. Nothing happened. She stamped
again, harder. Still nothing. She took a running start and
stamped with both feet, hard enough to hurt her ankles.
Nothing. She gave up and leaned on the wall.
Huge leather balloons popped out of the floor. Filling
instantly with compressed air, the balloons smashed the
new furniture to kindling.
Mara sidled around the edge of the room, squeezing
between the wall and the balloons. "That's pretty
impressive, Standback - hello?" She squeaked a balloon
with her thumb. "Standback?"
Mara heard an answering squeak. She leapt onto one
of the balloons, poised there like a cat, and saw a hand
struggling upward in the crack where all the balloons met.
Mara rolled down to the hand and planted her feet
against balloon, her right shoulder against another.
Gradually, the two moved apart. She heard a gasping
inhale below her, then a thump as something hit the floor.
"Thank you so very much," Standback said feebly.
"The Thudbaggers are nearly perfect - I don't have a bruise
on me - but I couldn't really breathe in there."
"You could make a snorkel," Mara said sarcastically.
She had grown up near the sea, " - a short breathing tube."
There was a hiss, then another. The balloons were
deflating. Standback appeared among them, stuffing them
back below floor level. He said dubiously, "That's an
awfully simplistic answer. You should leave design
questions to the specialists. On the other hand," he added
thoughtfully, "if it had reserve tanks - and an air pump -
and free-swinging gimbals to keep it upright. . ." He
sketched it all out on the only clear portion of his shirt.
Mara, who needed a rest, sat beside him, her chin in
her hand. "I see why you're having problems getting
promoted. Do you have to get these all working to win
"Oh, my goodness, no." Standback caught himself and
added, almost defensively, "Besides, they all work
wonderfully!" He stared out at the smashed furniture
wistfully. "No, it's simply a matter of getting the
Committee's stamp of approval. Unfortunately, I can't
even get their attention. They completely ignore me."
"Do you do everything by committee?"
"Some humans think we invented the committee."
"And until you get their approval, poor Watchout can't
be betrothed to you?"
"Nor should she be," Standback said glumly. "After
all, would you agree to marry a gnome with no
Mara didn't think she would marry a gnome at all, but
decided it wouldn't be polite to point that out. "You're very
nice just for yourself, credentials or no. And now," she
said firmly, "what about the weapons?"
"A bargain's a bargain." Standback, making a final
note on his shirt, opened the rear door of the Thudbagger
room, and Mara found herself in a branch of the main
tunnel again. They walked back toward the place where
the tunnel split in two. Mara looked interestedly at the
piles of debris and the bulky inventions half hidden under
canvas or in shadow. Several of them were labeled, but
life's too short to spend reading gnome labels.
"Wait." Mara had noticed a device carelessly tossed to
one side on the tunnel floor.
It had a shiny black hand-grip butt and stock that
supported a shining tube-and-yoke arrangement of blue
steel and black wire, which was topped by a small sighting
tube and a tiny ring with crossed hairs in it. The whole
effect was remarkably menacing.
"What is it?" she asked, staring at it in awe.
"What? Oh, that." Standback nudged it with his foot
disdainfully. "A co-worker made it."
"You disapprove of him?" Mara hazarded.
Standback nodded, his beard whipping up and down
rapidly. "It was to be his Life Quest, and he abandoned it.
Can you imagine, abandoning your Life Quest? He's
always sworn that he'd fix it some day, but I doubt if he
can; it has too few parts, it's far too small, and it can't even
carry itself." He finished indignantly, "It doesn't even have
a place for the operator to sit!"
Mara bent over it. "It fits in your hand."
"You see what I mean?"
She didn't, but only asked, "What's it for?"
The gnome snorted. "It's supposed to dowse for water,
but it's hopeless. I can tolerate a few false starts, or a near
miss, or the occasional explosion or dismemberment, but
this - "
"It doesn't find any water, then?"
Standback said disgustedly, "Just diamonds, emeralds,
rubies, other rocks . . ." He shoved it aside with a kick.
Mara looked back at it longingly, but kept walking.
Leaning alongside a hanging drop cloth on the tunnel
wall was a human-size mannequin with some sort of
backpack on it.
"This," Standback said as impressively as a gnome
can be, in brief, "is the Mighty Thunderpack."
Mara examined the three nozzles connected to two
tanks and what looked like a fire-starting flint. Near the
top of the unit was also the now-familiar bulge of one of
Standback's sensors. She gingerly touched the directional
fin, like a fish's, on the Thunderpack. "How do you aim
Standback laughed tolerantly. "It's not a weapon; it's
personal troop transport."
Mara put it on her shoulders. For metal work,
particularly for gnome metalwork, it was surprisingly
light. "Very impressive," she said. She pictured an army
(led by herself, naturally) swooping through squadrons of
draconians and cutting them into small, non-combative
strips. "How does it start up?"
"From the mere touch of an iron weapon," Standback
said proudly. "I used a special kind of rock in it. Do you
have a dagger?"
"Come, come," the gnome said impatiently. "All
thieves have daggers."
Embarrassed, Mara handed him the paring knife she
had brought with her from her mother's kitchen.
Standback took it and said, "When I wave this near the
sensor, the Mighty Thunderpack will burst into action."
He tensed his arms and said in a melancholy voice, "Well,
Mara, seeing the knife wave and noticing belatedly
Standback's emphasis on "burst," lurched forward out of
the way as Standback's arm moved near. To her relief, the
Thunderpack did not activate. "What do you mean,
'goodbye?' Has this thing been tested before?" she
"Of course, extensively. Just look in the side room." The
gnome gestured to the left, behind the drop cloth that Mara
had assumed was hanging against the tunnel wall.
Mara lifted the cloth. Stacked floor to ceiling were the
charred arms and legs of test dummies. Not one torso
remained. "Has it ever been tested by a living person?"
"Of course not; why do you think - Oh, you mean, 'by
someone living at the time he tested it.' Yes, once." Stand-
back looked solemn. "Poor fellow. And so young."
Mara took off the Thunderpack, and, to her credit, she
was barely shaking. "What else do you have?"
"I have other transport devices." He escorted her to
what he called, "a variation on the gnomeflinger. I named
it the Portapult."
IT looked more like THEM. The Portapult consisted
of two gnomeflingers, ingeniously and intricately linked
by cable, chain, and several pieces of fine wire, for which
Mara could imagine no purpose.
Each gnomeflinger rested on six wheels on three
axles. The front axle had a built-in pivot and the pivot
axle of each gnomeflinger was connected to the other by
Standback followed Mara's confused glance. "Oh,
they're inseparable," he said proudly. "Linked in frame,
function, and trigger. The Portapult breaks apart for
transport" - it looked as though it might break apart as he
spoke - "but it re-assembles for synchronized action. The
Portapult can deliver six soldiers simultaneously, send
them hundreds of feet through the air. . . .
"Isn't it wonderful?" he finished huskily, and patted
one of the delivery platforms affectionately. The platform
shot upward and the Portapult spun sideways. An
identical platform on the second gnomeflinger shot
upward and that unit turned sideways as well - sideways
toward the first - and the two platforms met with a
SMACK that blew Standback's hair straight behind him
and made Mara's ears pop.
"I should check that trigger again," he said
thoughtfully. "Also, perhaps, the targeting ratchets."
He sat in a narrow seat beyond one of the platforms and
pedaled strenuously. A chain on a toothed gear cranked
down one platform; the other inched down in time with it.
Mara heard the faintest of clicks as the minuscule triggers
hooked over the platforms to hold the bent, straining
beams and cablework in place.
She helped the gnome as, very gently, he put the two
units side by side again. "They look dangerous," she said.
Standback misunderstood. "Oh, yes," he said happily.
"Someday they'll have great strategic importance."
"But not yet." Mara sighed. "Is there anything useful
The gnome considered. "There is," he said slowly for
a gnome, "a powerful defensive weapon, designed to
break through any surrounding force. I'm not sure that I
should let you see it - "
"Please." Mara had little faith left in gnome
technology, but she wanted very badly to leave with
"Very well." Standback walked her down several
bends in the corridor to a side tunnel. In the middle of it
was a tarpaulin covering something the size of a crouching
"Why isn't this one in a room?" Mara asked.
Standback shuddered. "In a room, with this? That
would be far too dangerous." He pointed to the long
horizontal gashes in the tunnel walls, and parallel marks
on the floor, chiseled into the rock. Some of them were
bright and new.
Mara perked up. "Is it really so dangerous as all that?"
"Absolutely," the gnome replied. "You can parry a
sword. You can beat back a spear." Standback paused for
effect, not an easy thing for a gnome. "But there is no way
for your adversary to fight off the astonishing Floating
He pulled a cloth off the axe.
In spite of her disappointment, Mara felt like laughing
at the sight of a pendulum-shaped axe, swinging from a
framework of three strange oar-shaped wooden fans. The
fans were attached to a gear arrangement of spools of
thongs and elastics.
"Good design," she said finally. "If it's deadly, it hides
its function well."
"You think so?" Standback peered at it. "It looks like
any other weapon's design to me."
"How does it work? No offense, but it looks as though
it is designed to mix bread in some demented kitchen.
What do these little oars do?"
The gnome reached a stubby finger out and spun them
fondly. "They're called propellers. When they're in
balance, they propel it."
Mara stared confusedly at the propellers, which
weren't attached to any wheels or rollers. "How?"
"In a straight line, if it's properly adjusted."
"No, I mean, how can they move it?"
Now Mara did laugh. "And what makes it fly?" She
saw a pull-cord hanging from one of the spindles. "This?"
"Yes, but only after it's properly adjusted. If you - "
"Oh, leave it alone," Mara said tiredly.
Standback looked crushed.
"I'm sorry." Mara sighed. "I didn't mean that. It's just -
I was going to bring back such wonderful things, and save
my people and make Kalend notice me - " She choked
back her tears. Queens of Thieves don't cry.
Standback patted her sympathetically and they walked
together in silence, two people with little in common but
the fact that life was not going well for either of them.
They returned to the skylight where Mara had first
entered. She stood in the smoke and steam-filtered
daylight of the square hole above them and slumped
against the rock wall, looking at the hall of useless
From somewhere far overhead came a muffled
BOOM. The entire tunnel shook, dropping dust and
cobwebs. A huge bell carillon somewhere far above them
clanged frantically, followed by some kind of trumpet,
several clappers, a siren, and numerous whistles.
Invisible creatures shook themselves free of the
ceiling and flapped to and fro in panic. Mara clapped her
hands over her ears. Standback shouted in delight, "It
"What?" Mara could read his lips, though that was
hard because of the gnome's beard.
"The perimeter alarm. I set it up around the top of the
mountain." Standback was actually dancing. "It notifies
bystanders - "
" - locates the point of entry, and even seals off rooms
and levels." He pointed to the stone trap door sliding
slowly over the skylight to the crater floor.
Then he looked concerned. "They'll need me up there
to shut it off. They're probably completely deaf right
"NOTHING." Standback dashed over to the
Gnomeflinger, leapt on the payload pad several times and
(amazingly enough) sailed easily through the half-shut
skylight. "Illbebacktheleverletsyouout - "
The trap door slid shut and fell in place with a thud.
The bells, whistles, clappers and sirens above grew
Mara stared upward, her mouth hanging open. A
gnome device had actually worked as it was supposed to.
But now how was she going to get out?
She examined the lever on the wall and tried to trace
its relationship to the trap door. She could see a slack rope
that disappeared into a hole in the tunnel ceiling, and she
noted a rod leading from the lever up to a cantilever, but
she couldn't understand how it would work.
The alarm noises stopped abruptly. Standback or
someone else had found a way to shut them off or, more
likely, had accidentally silenced them. Mara had seen
enough of the gnomes to hope that there were no
Her ears adjusted to the sudden near-silence; she heard
the soft hum (and drip) of ventilation devices somewhere,
and the restless motion of invisible flying pests, and
something else: a rustling, back in the side tunnels.
Feet moving - a scraping sound, not quite boots and
not quite barefoot. The clink of metal on metal. It sounded
definitely ungnomelike. At that point, it occurred to Mara
that SOMETHING had set off Standback's alarms. A
REAL thief . . . Mara hid in a niche in the wall.
A shadowy figure came into view, wearing a helmet
with a dragon crest.
"These must be the weapons the knights spoke of.
Quick!" he hissed, "While the gnome is gone. Take what
looks useful and leave."
It was a draconian! Two draconians! "What about the
girl we followed here?" The other draconian asked.
Mara's heart sank. She heard again in her mind Kalend
saying, THEY'LL CAMP AROUND US AND WAIT FOR
SOMETHING TO BREAK - REINFORCEMENTS, OR
BETTER WEAPONS . . .
The captain shrugged. "She's served her purpose. If
you see her, kill her, and don't waste time."
Mara pressed against the tunnel wall, hidden by the
shadows of cable and hanging hardware.
Four other draconians marched out of the narrow side
tunnel into the hall. They were all carrying huge, cruel
weapons. Their wings filled the tunnel. They had clawed
hands and horrid sharp fangs. One of them started right for
her. Mara the Brave couldn't help herself. She whimpered.
The draconians heard her. One lashed forward with a
spear. Panicked, Mara dropped flat. The spear nearly
parted her hair. Another draconian hissed and slashed
sideways with his sword. She leapt up, dodged the sword,
backing farther away. A mace raked her shoulder.
She began running, heading for escape out the
skylight. I should stop them! she thought frantically, but a
cold voice in her mind said, "Face it. You're not a warrior,
not even a thief. You're only a very stupid little girl."
She bounced from wall to wall randomly to dodge
more thrown weapons, stumbling over a pile of canisters.
She paused. The top one had a label; in the middle of the
polysyllables, Mara recognized the common word for
PEST. She picked the canister up and tucked it under her
arm. If it was the new batch of pesticide, she could dump
it over herself and it would make her invisible. She began
opening it, then stopped.
If it was the old batch, it might kill her.
But then, she could throw it back at the approaching
draconians and kill them. She tugged at the top again.
Or she might make them invisible. She had a brief
vision of herself surrounded by invisible draconians. She
tossed the canister aside and kept running.
The draconians were close behind her when she
reached the skylight. She leapt for the opening lever,
pulling it down with her full weight. It groaned as it
moved ... and lowered a cantilevered weight, which
tugged a guy rope, which spun a flywheel, which rotated
an axis, which turned a worm gear, which wound up the
pull rope . . .
Which broke. The whole system coasted to a stop, the
end of the rope flapping uselessly.
"It would be nice," Mara muttered between clenched
teeth, "if just once, a gnome invention worked reliably."
And that gave Mara the idea.
She grabbed the dangling rope, swung up on it,
pumping her legs vigorously. Kicking off the ceiling, she
spun around and swung back over the heads of the
astonished draconians. One of them raised a spear, but not
quickly enough; it barely scratched her.
Mara let go of the rope, landing well behind the
confused draconians, and dashed back the way she had
come. But she had to make certain they followed her. At
the bend in the tunnel, she scooped up a handful of
decaying spare parts from old mechanisms and skimmed
them off the tunnel walls and ceiling into the draconians.
A rusted bolt caught the captain on his reptilian snout.
The captain howled. "After her! Kill her!"
"Quickly, or slowly?" A subordinate asked.
"Quickly," he hissed. A hex nut clanged off his
helmet. "But not too quickly."
They dashed after her again, weapons ready, their
terrible jaws open. Mara fled, but made sure that they saw
which way she turned. They chased her confidently; after
all, what did they have to fear from a single unarmed
The draconians came on her suddenly, around a
comer. She was apparently helpless with fear.
The draconian captain leered at her and barked
unnecessarily, "Now you die."
"If you must!" she said more coolly than she felt. "But
The draconian eyed her with resentment, tinged with
admiration. "Don't we frighten you?"
"You? Never." Mara pointed to the floor. "That thing
frightens me. I can bear anything," she said earnestly, "but
the Flying Deathaxe."
At a gesture from his captain, the lead draconian
picked it up. "This thing?" he said, laughing,
Mara shrank away. "Don't pull that cord. Please. Put it
down - "
The captain smiled at her, revealing an amazing
quantity of pointed teeth. "Of course, I'll put it down." He
set it on the ground in front of her with a low bow. As he
straightened up, with one swift motion he pulled the
starting cord, setting the propellers in motion. He watched,
The propellers spun and, unbelievably, the Deathaxe
rose into the air. As it cleared the floor, the razor-sharp
axe blade swung back and forth with a loud shearing
noise. It hovered, hesitated, then began slowly spinning in
a circle. Mara watched, open-mouthed, as the axe blade
sliced through a boom extending from the tunnel wall.
Now the axe was moving faster, and the circle was
widening as well. Mara took a nervous step backward.
The Deathaxe hit the roof and bounced off. The blade
sliced through the helmet and head of a draconian soldier
without slowing down. The soldier turned to stone and
The captain uttered a command, succinct even for
draconian field orders: "Run!"
Mara obeyed. So did the other draconians. The axe
gashed the wall where she had been standing a moment
before, spun back on itself, and cut one of the draconian
soldiers in the chest before careening upward to strike the
ceiling and spin back down.
The wounded draconian, shouting in panic, crashed
head-on into one of his companions. Both sank to the
tunnel floor, unconscious but not dead. The remaining two
sprinted after Mara, just ahead of the whining, humming
Mara wouldn't have thought that the heavy draconians
could run that fast, but then she surprised herself with her
own speed. Once, in a crazy rebound off a hanging pulley,
the Deathaxe spun into the floor in front of her and shot
straight up at her. She fell backward, rolled between the
legs of the startled draconian soldier behind her, and leapt
to one side. The Deathaxe cut off his head. Turning to
stone, it thudded to the floor where she had been. The
draconian captain behind her screeched with frustration.
The Deathaxe, now behind him, spun back toward both of
them, and they were off again.
Perversely, the axe continued after them, instead of
backtracking or taking wrong tunnels. Mara wondered if
that was a side-function of Standback's sensors. She also
wondered how long she and the draconian captain could
keep up their pace; she was naturally faster, but he had
more endurance. If she should tire or fall. . . She grit her
teeth and kept dodging and running.
After what seemed like days, Mara thought that the
axe might be slowing down. A minute more and she was
positive; it was losing forward momentum and spinning
more slowly. Finally, with a creak from its handle and a
flutter of propellers, the Deathaxe crashed to the tunnel
floor. Mara and the draconian, wheezing, collapsed - a
spear's length apart - just beyond it.
The draconian recovered first. He rose unsteadily and
searched for the sword. He had dropped it when he fell.
The weapon was now lying within Mara's reach.
Mara staggered to her feet, picked up the heavy sword
and nearly overbalanced. The draconian laughed at her
and moved forward to recover it and kill her.
Mara heard an uneasy rustling on the tunnel ceiling
above her, though she could see nothing. She swung the
sword against the tunnel wall and banged it, shouting.
The air was suddenly filled with a terrible chittering
and the sound of hundreds of wings. The draconian,
disconcerted, waved his arms in the air. Mara steadied the
sword, gathering her strength.
The draconian opened his mouth and snapped at the
noises in the empty air; there was a tiny shriek, which cut
off abruptly. Mara, feeling sick, took a deep breath and
lunged with the sword.
It was far too heavy for her, but she managed to catch
the draconian captain just below the kneecap. He roared,
driving away all the flyers. Mara let go of the sword and
Grimacing, he looked down at his leg. Green blood
oozed from the wound. He opened his mouth to shout at
her; nothing but snarling and flecks of foam came out.
Mara dashed away, thinking to herself, "I'll need a new
name. Mara the Warlike . . . Mara, Queen of Battle ..." A
thrown dagger flashed between her arm and her side.
Mara, Queen of Battle, legged it like Mara the Rabbit
down the left fork of the tunnel. The draconian lumbered
after her, limping painfully.
Mara dashed into a room. The draconian found her,
crouched against the far wall. She stood holding the leg of
a splintered chair as a weapon. As the captain came
forward, she dropped it and shrank against the wall, her
face a mask of terror.
"I have you," he said slowly, with satisfaction. He
limped into the center of the room, smiling -
Mara tapped the wall lightly with one finger.
The Thudbaggers activated. The draconian lost his
footing. Both his arms were pinned in place by the bags;
he couldn't reach the sword he had dropped when the first
bag inflated in his face. He poked his head up out of the
balloons, and glared helplessly at Mara, who had
clambered onto the bags. "You!" he said bitterly, beside
himself with rage. "You - "
"Shut up," said Mara and, pulling off his helmet,
knocked him cold.
She heard the sound of running feet, and then
Standback appeared in the door.
"Are you all right?" He was panting.
Mara slid off the balloon. "Mara the Bold is always all
"That's good. When I arrived at the top level, I
thought that it was a false alarm, and I came back down,
and then I saw the dead and knocked-out draconians - "
He paused. "You're bleeding."
She looked at her shoulder in surprise. "Not too
badly." She grinned. "I gave better than I got."
Standback looked at the unconscious captain. "I see
that," he said, impressed. "Were they after my weapons?"
Mara nodded. Standback, looking again at the pinned
and unconscious captain, said thoughtfully, "Mount
Nevermind isn't at war with draconians. We don't dare kill
them, and they're too dangerous to take prisoner. What are
we going to do with them?"
"I've thought about that." Mara paused for effect. "Let
Standback goggled at her. "But if they escape, they'll
take our weapons or plans for our weapons away with
them - "
"You want them to," she said simply.
Standback was now a complete rarity in Mount
Nevermind or anywhere else: a speechless gnome.
"Think about it," she went on. "The draconians want
the weapons. You need the weapons tested. They're
soldiers. Who could better test them?"
As he still hesitated, she added, "And isn't the theft by
real warriors a kind of validation that your weapons are
worth testing? You'll be able to tell that to the committee
and then ask for the hand of Watchout."
Standback blinked. "But you're not afraid to let them
use these . . . terrible weapons against your people?"
Mara thought about draconian troops setting off the
Portapults in the field. "They are indeed terrible weapons,"
she said, "but letting the draconians have them will only
make it a more even battle. It's a matter of honor -
something the knights are big on."
Standback took her hand, pumping it up and down.
"Never have I met a warrior of so much integrity - "
"Oh, I wouldn't say that."
" - and modest too." He looked back at the
unconscious draconian captain. "I'll let them escape with
the Portapult, the Flying Deathaxe - "
"Um, I don't know that they'll want the Deathaxe.
Why don't you let them have the Thunderpack, instead?"
Standback protested. "This is too much. Won't you
take anything for yourself?"
"Sometimes," Mara said nobly, "there's a greater joy
in giving." She had a sudden thought. "If you don't mind,
I'll just take the little failed dowser." She picked it up.
"The one that can't even find water? You want it?"
"Just as a souvenir."
Standback, tears in his eyes, said, "You're amazing.
Nothing but a trinket for yourself, while you give full-
scale gnome weapons to your worst enemies."
Mara, pocketing the jewel-finder, beamed. "Well,"
she said modestly, "I'm like that."
The Promised Place
Once, very recently, this had been a city. Only
days before, there had been a tiered castle on the highest
point of the hill. Studded battlements overlooked the lands
for miles around. In a walled courtyard, throngs gathered.
Below the battlements, spreading down toward the
fields, had been a raucous, bustling city - inns and
dwellings, shops and markets, public houses, smithies,
barns and lofts, weavers' stalls and tanneries, music and
noise and life.
Chaldis had been a city. But the dragonarmies of the
Dark Queen had come and the city was a city no more.
Where battlements had stood was smashed and blackened
rubble, and all beneath was scorched, twisted ruin. Of
Chaldis, nothing was left. Only the road it had defended
was yet intact, and its surface showed the tracks and treads
of armies just passed. The people who had been here were
gone now - some fleeing, some dead, some led off as
slaves. Where there had been herds now were only
scorched pastures, and where crops had grown now were
Stillness lived here now. A somber stillness - shadows
and silence, broken only by the weeping of the wind.
Yet in the stillness, something lurked. And in the
shadows, small shadows moved.
Muffled voices, among the rubble: "What kind place
this? Ever'thing a real mess." 'Talls been here. Somebody
clobber 'em, I guess." "This all fresh scorch." "Forget
scorch! Look for somethin' to eat."
And another sound, from somewhere in the lead,
"Sh!" A thump and a clatter.
"Sh!" "Somebody fall down."
"Somebody say, 'Sh.' Better hush up."
Another thump and several clatters.
"Somebody bump into somebody else. All fall down."
"SHUT UP AN' KEEP QUIET!"
Abruptly hushed, the shadows moved on, small
figures in a ragged line, wending among fallen stone and
burned timbers, making their cautious way through the
rubble that once had been a city. For several minutes, they
proceeded in silence, then the whispers and muted chatter
began again as the effect of exercised authority wore off.
"Wanna stop an' dig? Might be nice stuff under these
"Forget dig. Need food first. Look for somethin' make
"Who knows. Mos' anything make stew."
"Hey! Here somethin'. . . nope, never mind. Just a
"Oughtta be rats here. Rats okay for stew."
"Ow! Get off a my foot!"
"Somebody fall down again."
They were travelers. They had been travelers since long
before any of them could remember, which was not very
long unless the thing to remember was truly worth
remembering: traveling generally was not. It was just
something they did, something they had always done,
something their parents and their ancestors had done. Few
of them had any idea why they traveled, or why their
travels - more often than not - tended to be westward.
For the few among them who might occasionally
wonder about such things, the answer was simple and
extremely vague. They traveled because they were in
search of the Promised Place.
Where was the Promised Place? Nobody had the
Why did they seek the Promised Place? No one really
knew that, either. Someone, a long time ago - some
Highbulp, probably, since it was usually the Highbulp
who initiated unfathomable ventures - had gotten the
notion that there was a Promised Place, to the west, and it
was their destiny to find it. That had been generations
back - an unthinkable time to people who usually
recognized only two days other than today: yesterday and
tomorrow. But once the pilgrimage was begun, it just kept
That was the nature of the Aghar - the people most
others called gully dwarves. One of their strongest driving
forces was simple inertia.
The size and shape of the group changed constantly as
they made their way through the ruins of the city, tending
upward toward its center. Here and there, now and then,
by ones and threes and fives, various among them lost
interest in following along and took off on side
expeditions, searching and gawking, usually rejoining the
main group somewhere farther along.
There was no way to know whether all of them came
back. None among them had any real idea of how many of
them there were, except that there were more than two - a
lot more than two. Maybe fifty times two, though such
concepts were beyond even the wisest of them. Numbers
greater than two were seldom considered worth worrying
Gradually, the stragglers converged upon the higher
levels of the ruined city. Here the fallen building stones
were more massive - huge, smoke-darkened blocks that
lay aslant against one another, creating tunnels and gullies
roofed by shattered rubble. Here they found more dead
things - humans and animals, corpses mutilated, stripped
and burned, the brutal residue of battle. They crept around
these at a distance, their eyes wide with dread. Something
fearful had happened here, and the pall of it hung in the
silent air of the place like a tangible fear.
At a place where a flanking wall had fallen, some of
them paused to stare at a tumble of great, iron-bound
timbers that might once have been some piece of giant
furniture but now was a shattered ruin. The thing lay as
though it had fallen from high above, its members and
parts in disarray. Having not the faintest idea of what it
might be, most of them crept past and went on. One,
though, remained, walking around the huge thing,
frowning in thought.
His name was Tagg, and an odd bit of memory
tugged at him as his eyes traced the dimensions of the
fallen thing. He had seen something like it before . . .
somewhere. Tugging at his lip, Tagg circled entirely
around the thing. A few others were with him now. They
had seen his curiosity and returned, curious themselves.
"Got a arm," he muttered, squatting to reason out the
placement of a great timber jutting outward from the
device. Within the twisted structure itself, the timber was
bound to a sort of big, wooden drum, with heavy rope
wrapped around it and a set of massive gears at its hub.
"Fling-thing," he said, beginning to remember. It was
like something he had seen from a distance, atop some
human structure his people had skirted long ago in their
travels. He remembered it because he had seen the Talls
operate it, and had been impressed. It was a wooden tower
atop a tower, and a lot of the humans - the Talls - had
gathered around it and slowly cranked the extended arm
around and back, then abruptly had released it. It had
made a noise like distant thunder, and the thing that flew
from it had been very large and had knocked down a tree.
"That it," he decided. "One a' them. Fling-thing."
Several other gully dwarves were gathered around
him now. One asked, "What Tagg talkin' 'bout?"
"This thing," Tagg pointed. "This a fling-thing. Throws
"Why?" another wanted to know.
"Dunno. Does, though. Throws big thing, knock a tree
"I know. Cat'pult."
"Nope. That some other kind. This called a . . . uh . . .
dis . . . disca . . . somethin'."
"Okay." Losing interest, some of them wandered away
again, though Tagg and two others lingered, creeping
through the wreckage in wonder. One was a white-bearded
ancient named Gandy, who was given to occasional bursts
of lucid thought and served as Grand Notioner to the
combined clans of Bulp. The other was a young female
Tagg was vaguely glad that Minna was interested in
the same thing that interested him. He found her presence
pleasant. His eyes lighting on a glistening bauble among
the rubble, he picked it up and held it out to her. "Here,"
he said, shyly. "Pretty thing for Minna."
Climbing among the twisted members of the fallen
discobel, Tagg helped Minna across a shattered timber,
then turned and stumbled over old Gandy. The Grand
Notioner was on his knees, staring at something, and Tagg
tripped over him and thudded facedown in the sooty dust.
Barely noticing him, Gandy brushed his hand over a
vague shape on the floor and said, "Here somethin'. What
Tagg crawled over to look, and Minna peered over his
shoulder. The object was a big, iron disk with sharpened
serrations all around its edge, except for one area where it
had been blunted and bent.
"That disk," Tagg said. "It what th' fling-thing fling.
Knock down trees with these."
"Knock down somethin'," Gandy decided, looking at
the blunted edge. The disk had hit something very solid,
very hard. He rubbed it again and looked at the dark stains
on its surface. There were other stains on the cracked floor
nearby, as though blood had congealed there. He scraped
the stain with his finger, then tasted his finger. He frowned
and spat. It was not any kind of blood he knew about.
It reminded him, though, of the primary goal of the
moment. He stood, tapping the ground with the battered
old mop handle he always carried. "'Nough look at stuff,"
he proclaimed. "Look for food first. Come 'long."
Obediently, they followed him out of the wreckage of
the war engine, then paused and looked around.
"Where ever'body go?" Tagg wondered.
Gandy shrugged. "Aroun' someplace. Can't get far,
followin' Highbulp. Glitch don' move that fast."
From where they were, a dozen tunnels and breaks in
the rubble led away. Choosing one at random, old Gandy
led off, with Tagg and Minna following. "Now watch
good," he ordered.
"You gonna do trick or somethin'?"
"No! Watch for food. Need to find stuff for make
The tunnel they were in was a long, winding way
created by the spaces between building stones that had
fallen on one another. After a few minutes, Tagg asked,
"What kind food Grand Notioner expect find here?"
"He didn' say," Minna said.
Just ahead of them, Gandy turned, frowning in the
shadows. "Any kind food," he snapped. "Keep lookin'. If it
moves, it prob'ly good for stew."
"Okay." Moving on, Tagg stepped into the lead.
They had gone only a few steps when Tagg, his alert
young eyes scanning everywhere, saw something move.
It was something that protruded, curving downward,
from a crack between fallen stones. It was a tapered thing,
about as long as his arm. Dark and greenish, it was almost
invisible against the muted, mottled colors of the rubble
around it. But as his eyes passed over it, it twitched.
Tagg stopped, and the others bumped into him from
behind. Old Gandy tottered for a moment, then regained
his balance. Minna clung to Tagg, her pressure against
him totally distracting him. He decided at that moment
that any time Minna wanted to bump into him, it was all
right as far as he was concerned.
"Why Tagg stop?" Gandy snapped. "I nearly fall
"Okay," Tagg murmured, paying no attention at all to
the elder. "That fine."
"Not fine!" Gandy pointed out. "S'posed to be lookin'
for food, not foolin' aroun'. You!" He nudged Minna with
his mop handle. "Leggo Tagg. Stop th' foolishness!"
"Oh." Minna backed away, shrugging. "Okay."
With a sigh, Tagg turned to go on, then saw the thing
he had seen before. The thing that twitched. He pointed at
it. "What that? Maybe food?"
They gathered close, and Gandy bent for a better look.
The thing was sticking out of a small crevice in the rubble.
It was hard to tell in the subdued light, but it seemed to be
round and tapered, with a sort of sharp ridge running along
the top of it. Its color was dark green. And as they stared
at it, it twitched again.
They stumbled back, wary.
"What it is?" Tagg asked.
Gandy peered again. "Dunno. Maybe half a snake?"
"Might be." Tagg approached it carefully, thrust out
his arm and prodded the thing with his finger, then jerked
away. When he touched it, it writhed with a motion that
was more than a twitch. Like the tail of a huge rat, it
swayed this way and that. But it seemed otherwise
harmless. Whatever might be at the other end of it, this
end had no teeth or claws.
"This food?" Tagg asked the Grand Notioner.
"Might be," Gandy decided. "Snake okay for stew
sometimes, if not bitter. Check it out."
"TASTE it. See if it bitter."
Reluctantly, Tagg approached the thing again,
grasping it with both hands. It writhed and struggled in his
grip. Whatever it was, it was very strong. But he held on,
and when it seemed a bit subdued, he lowered his head,
opened his mouth and bit it as hard as he could.
Abruptly, the thing flicked and surged, flipping Tagg
across the jagged tunnel into the far wall. And all around
them, seeming to come from the stone itself, a huge roar
of outrage rang through the air.
Tagg got his feet under him just as the Grand Notioner
surged toward him, running for his life, with Minna right
behind. Both of them collided with Tagg, and all three
went down, rolling along the cracked floor, a tumble of
arms, legs and muffled curses.
They had barely come to a halt when others - a lot of
others - piled into them, over them, and onto them. The
main party, led by the Highbulp Glitch I himself, had
been emerging from a connecting way when they heard
the roar and panicked. In an instant, there were gully
dwarves tumbling all along the tunnel, and a great pile of
gully dwarves at the convergence where Glitch I - and
everyone behind him - had stumbled over the flailing trio.
It took several minutes to get everyone untangled
from everyone else, and Tagg - at the bottom of the heap -
was thoroughly enjoying being tangled up with Minna
again until he looked up and gazed into the thunderous
face of his lord and leader, Glitch I, Highbulp by
Persuasion and Lord Protector of This Place and
Anyplace Else He Could Think Of.
Glitch glared at the three just getting to their feet.
"Gandy! What goin' on here?"
"Dunno," Gandy grumbled. "Ever'body pile up on
me. How I know what goin' on? Couldn' see a thing."
"Heard big noise," the Highbulp pressed. "You do
"Not me," Gandy shook his head. He pointed an
accusing mop handle at Tagg. "His fault. He do it."
Feeling that he should explain, Tagg pointed up the
corridor. "Somethin' stickin' out over there. Like half a
snake. Tasted it to see if it bitter."
The Highbulp squinted at the twitching thing. "Is it?"
The earlier roar had faded into echoes, leaving an
angry, hissing sound that seemed to come from nowhere
"Is now, sounds like." Tagg nodded.
Cautiously, the clans of Bulp gathered around the
green thing protruding from the rubble. Glitch scrutinized
it carefully, first from one side, then from the other, then
beckoned. "Clout, come here. Bring bashin' tool."
A squat, broad-shouldered gully dwarf stepped
forward uncertainly. On his shoulder he carried a heavy
stick about three feet long.
Glitch pointed at the twitching thing. "Clout, bash
Clout looked doubtful, but he did as he was told.
Raising his stick over his head, he brought it down against
the twitching thing with all his might. This time the roar
that erupted, somewhere beyond the rockfall, was a shriek
of sheer indignation. Stones trembled and grated, dust
spewed from crevices, and the entire wall of fallen rock
began to shift. The twitching green thing disappeared,
withdrawn into the rubble, and massive movements
beyond sent fragments flying from the rocks there. All
around, the debris shifted and settled, closing crevices and
As gully dwarves scampered back, falling and
sprawling over one another, the entire wall of rubble
parted, and in the settling dust a huge, scaled face glared
out. Slitted green eyes as bright as emeralds shone with
anger, and a mouth the size of a salt mine opened to reveal
rows of dripping, glistening fangs. The scale crest atop the
head flared forward, and the head was raised to strike.
Then the emerald eyes widened slightly and the mouth
closed to a grimace.
"Gully dwarves," Verden Leafglow hissed, her voice
laced with pain and contempt. "Nothing but gully
For a time, she simply ignored them. Their pleas for
mercy, the smell of their fear, the cowering huddles of
them here and there in the shadows, were dimly pleasant
to her, an undertone like music, soothing in its way.
A gaggle of gully dwarves. They could do her - a
powerful green dragon - no harm. They could not get
away - all the exits they might reach were sealed by
rockfall - and at the moment, she decided, they were not
worth the effort it would take to crush them. So she
ignored them, concentrating instead on her wounds. The
indignities of a bitten and thumped tail rankled her, but
she could deal with the perpetrators later, when she was
stronger. They were trapped here in the rubble with her.
They had nowhere to go.
The saw-edged disk had ripped into her body,
bringing her down in the rubble. In the darkness of the
fallen castle, almost buried by debris, she had lain
bleeding as the armies of the Dragon Queen passed by -
passing, she thought bitterly, and leaving her behind. For
that, she would not forgive Flame Searclaw. The huge,
arrogant red dragon with his preoccupied human rider, had
known she was there. In her mind, clearly, had been his
dragon-voice, chiding and taunting her.
Her left wing hung useless beside her, her left
foreclaw was terribly maimed and it had been all she
could do - through spells and sheer concentration - to
close the gaping slash at the base of her neck. That wound
alone could have killed her, had her powers been less.
Still, the healing was slow, painful, and incomplete. In
ripping through the armored scales at her breast, the disk
had cut her potion flask - hidden beneath the scales - and
carried away the precious self-stone concealed there. It
was gone, somewhere among the rubble, and without it the
powerful green dragon lacked the magic to reshape her
maimed parts. The ultimate healing power was beyond
her, without her self-stone.
Focusing all of her concentration upon the damaged
parts of her, she drew what strength she had and applied it
to healing. And when the effort tired her, she slept.
When their initial blind panic began to fade, replaced
by simple dread and awe, the subjects of Glitch I -
Highbulp by Persuasion and Lord Protector of This Place,
Etc. - turned to their leader for advice. They had to find
him first, though. At first sight of the apparition that had
appeared in the shifting rubble, Glitch had darted through
the first several ranks of his subjects, crawled over, around
and under several more layers of panicked personnel, and
finally wedged himself into a crack behind all of them.
Getting him out was a task made more difficult by the fact
that he did not want to come out.
Finally, though, he stood among them, gawking at the
huge, green, sleeping head of the thing in the hole only a
few feet away. "Wha . . ." He choked, coughed and tried
again. "Wha . . . what that thing?"
Most of them looked at him blankly. Some shrugged
and some shook their heads.
"That not snake," Tagg informed his leader. "Not stew
Emboldened by the Highbulp's restored presence, old
Gandy, the Grand Notioner, crept a step or two closer to
the sleeping thing and raised his mop handle as though to
prod it. He changed his mind, lowered his stick and leaned
on it, squinting. "Dragon?" he wondered. "Might be.
Anybody here ever see dragons?"
No one recalled ever seeing a dragon, and most were
sure that they would remember, if they had.
Then Tagg had a bright idea. "Dragons got wings," he
said, adding, doubtfully, "don't they?"
"Right," Gandy agreed. "Dragons got wings. This
thing got wings?"
Some of them crept about, trying to see around the
huge head in the hole, to see what was beyond it. But the
dim light filtering in from above did not reach into the
hole. There was only darkness there. They couldn't see
whether the creature had wings or not.
"Somebody bring candle," Glitch I ordered. "Highbulp
With glances of surprise and admiration at such
unexpected courage, several of them produced stubby and
broken candles, and someone managed to light one. He
handed it to Glitch. The Highbulp held it high, stood on
tiptoes and peered into the darkness of the hole. Then he
shook his head and handed the candle to Tagg, who
happened to be nearby. "Can't see," he said. "Tagg go
Taken by surprise, Tagg looked from the candle thrust
into his hand to the fierce, sleeping features of the thing in
the hole. He turned pale, gulped and started to shake his
head, then saw Minna in the crowd. She was gazing at him
with something in her eyes that might have been more
than the candle's reflection.
Tagg gulped a shuddering breath, steeling himself.
"Rats," he said. "Okay."
The huge, green head almost filled the hole in the wall
of rubble. As Tagg eased alongside it, his back to the
stones at one side, he could have reached out and touched
the nearest nostril, the exposed dagger-points of the great
fangs, the glistening eyelid. The spiked fan of the
creature's graceful crest stood above him as he crept
deeper, edging alongside a long, tapered neck that was
nearly as wide as he was tall and seemed to go on and on,
into the darkness.
"Tagg pretty brave," Minna whispered as they
watched him go. Instinctively, her hand went into her belt
pouch and clutched the pretty bauble Tagg had found for
her. Her fingers caressed it, and the great, sleeping
creature stirred slightly, then relaxed again in sleep.
"Not brave," Gandy corrected. "Just dumb. Highbulp
gonna get Tagg killed, sure."
Tagg crept through sundered rubble, just inches away
from the big green neck that almost filled the tunnel. Then
he was past the rubble, and raised the candle. The place
where he found himself was some kind of cavern, beneath
a rise in the sundered hill above. It was dim and smelled
musty, and was nearly filled by the huge body of the
Where the thing's neck joined an enormous, rising
body, Tagg spotted ugly, gaping wounds in the scales. He
stared at them in awe, then beyond them, and his eyes
widened even more. The green thing was huge. Arms like
scaly pillars rested below massive shoulders, and ended in
taloned "hands" as big as he was - or bigger. The nearest
shoulder had another ugly wound, and the hand below it
was mangled as though it had been sliced apart.
He raised his eyes, squinting in the dim candlelight.
Above the thing, on its far side, stood a great, folded
wing. Nearer, a second wing sprawled back at an angle,
exposing yet another gaping wound.
"This thing in bad shape," Tagg whispered to himself.
"Pretty beat up."
The huge body towered over him and its crest was lost
in shadows above. Farther along, the body widened
abruptly, and he realized that what he was seeing was a
leg - a huge leg, folded in rest. Beneath it was a toed foot
with claws as long as his arms. Beyond, curled around
from behind, was the tip of a long tail. He recognized that
appendage now. It was what he had bitten, when he
thought it might be half a snake. The recollection set his
knees aquiver and he almost fell down.
Tagg's nerves had taken all they could stand. He had
seen enough. He headed back.
Just as he was edging past it, the nearest eye opened an
inch, and its slitted pupil looked at him. With a howl,
Tagg erupted from the hole, bowling over a half-dozen
curious gully dwarves in the process. Behind him, the
great eyelid flickered contemptuously, and closed again.
As Tagg got to his feet, Glitch stepped forward.
"Well . . ." Glitch hesitated in confusion, trying to
recall what he had sent Tagg to do.
"That thing got wings?" Gandy rasped.
"It got wings, all right. Got claws an' tail an' gashes,
too." Recovering his candle, Tagg handed it back to
Glitch. "Highbulp want any more look, Highbulp go look.
I"ve seen enough."
"Gashes?" Gandy blinked. "What kind gashes?"
"That dragon all sliced up," Tagg told him.
"Somebody hurt it pretty bad."
Minna eased up beside him, gazing with sympathy at
the hideous face of the green dragon asleep a few feet
away. "Poor thing," she said.
As she spoke, the dragon's eyes opened to slits, then
closed again. It shifted slightly, sighed, and seemed to
relax, as though the pain of its wounds had somehow
eased a bit.
For an hour, then, they searched for a way out of the
rubble trap. They found nothing - at least, nothing they
could reach without going past the dragon. The shifting of
the beast in its lair had resettled the fallen stone, blocking
every exit. One after another, the searchers gave up,
shrugging and gathering into a tight little group as far
from the dragon as they could get.
When it was obvious that they were truly trapped, Clout
asked - of no one in particular - "So, now what?"
Gandy scratched his head and leaned on his mop
handle. "Dunno," he said. "Better ask what's-'is- name."
"WHAT'S-'is-name. Th' Highbulp " He turned.
"Highbulp, what we do now?" He peered around in the
dimness. "Highbulp? Where th' Highbulp?"
It took a few minutes to find him. With nothing better
to do. Glitch I had curled up beside a rock. He was sound
They were all asleep when Verden Leafglow
awakened - gully dwarves everywhere, scattered in
clumps and clusters about the dim recess, most of them
snoring. At a glance, she counted more than sixty of the
little creatures in plain sight, and knew there were more of
them behind rocks, in the shadows, and beneath or
beyond the sleeping heaps. One of them, she knew, had
even crept past her into her lair, thinking that in sleep she
might not notice. But it had only looked around and
returned to the others.
Her first inclination was to simply exterminate them.
But she had a better idea. They might be useful to her, if
she kept them alive for a time - and if she could make
them serve her.
Gully dwarves. Her contempt for them was even
greater than the contempt most other races felt for the
Aghar. As a dragon, she loathed ALL other races, and
these were certainly the most contemptible of the
contemptible. Even compared to the intelligence of
humans, full dwarves, and others of the kind, the
mentality of gully dwarves was so incredibly simple that
it bordered on imbecility. And compared to dragon
intelligence, it was nothing at all.
Still, the pathetic creatures had certain instincts that
might be useful. They were excellent foragers, adept at
getting into and searching out places that others might not
even know existed. And they were good at finding things,
provided they managed to concentrate their attention on
the effort for any length of time.
Somewhere here, among the rubble of the destroyed
city of Chaldis, was her self-stone. In her sleep she had
sensed its presence. With her self-stone, she could heal
herself completely. Properly motivated, the gully dwarves
might find and deliver the self-stone.
Closing her eyes, she thought a spell, and her dragon-
senses heard the beginnings of tiny movements among the
rubble beyond the rock-fall cavern where the gully
dwarves were trapped. Tiny, scurrying sounds, hints of
movement carried more by vibration in the stones than by
any real noise. She concentrated on the spell, and the hints
of movement increased in number and volume. She added
a dimension of difference to the spell, and other
movements could be sensed; slithering, scuffing
movements seeming to come from the soil above her lair.
The vibrations became true sound, and things scuttled
in the deepest shadows within the chamber. From cracks
and crevices everywhere, small things emerged, coming
toward her. Rats and mice, here and there a squirrel, a
rabbit or a hare - they emerged by the dozens, answering
the call of her spell.
For a moment it seemed the place was filled with
rodents, darting around and over the tumbles of sleeping
gully dwarves, then they were all directly in front of her.
Moving carefully, ignoring the pain of her injuries, she
thrust out her right paw, and its talons sliced downward,
slaughtering great numbers of the rodents. Using her tail,
she scraped the ceiling of her lair, and brought forth the
herbs and roots that hung there, drawn downward from
above by her magic. These she pushed from tail to foot to
forepaw, and deposited them in front of her hole, beside
the dead rodents there. A final twist to the spell, and rocks
moved, somewhere above. Seconds later, water began to
drip from the roof of rubble, a small spring diverted to
flow through the chamber. And a small, crackling fire
appeared in mid-chamber.
"Wake up, you detestable creatures," Verden Leafglow
rumbled. "Wake up and make stew. You are no good to
me if you starve."
"Sure. We find thing for you. No problem. What thing
is?" Glitch I stifled a belch and grinned a reassuring grin at
the monstrous face looking at him from its hole.
After the first shock of sharing a closed cave of
rubble with a dragon had worn off, and when it became
obvious that the dragon didn't intend to kill them and eat
them - at least not right away - the Clans of Bulp had
gotten down to business. First things first. They were
hungry, and there was food.
Within minutes, savory stew was bubbling in their
best pot over what - to some of the ladies especially - was
the most remarkable cooking fire they had ever
encountered. The fire seemed to have no fuel, nor to need
any, and none of them had ever seen stew become stew so
Then, when their bellies were full, the dragon
explained to them what she needed. She seemed, despite
her great size and horrendous appearance, to be a pleasant
enough dragon. Her voice was low and comforting, her
words simple enough for most of them to understand and
she even managed to seem to smile now and then. Quite a
few of them discovered - without ever considering that
there might be a touch of magic involved here - that they
were really quite fond of the unfortunate Verden Leaf
"The thing I need is a small thing," she told the
Highbulp. "It is a sort of stone, about this big. ..." A huge,
three-fingered "hand" with needle-sharp talons a foot long
appeared beside the green face, two talons indicating a
size. About an inch and a half.
"Lotta stones 'round here," Glitch said dubiously,
looking around the cavern. "Whole lot more outside,
though. Oughtta look outside of here."
"By all means," Verden agreed. "Outside, of course.
And I am sure that, once you are outside, you wouldn't for
a minute consider just going off and leaving me, would
"Nope," Glitch shook his head, speaking just a bit too
loudly. "Nope, wouldn' do that. Sure wouldn'."
"Of course you wouldn't," Verden said softly.
"Because that would be very unwise."
"Sure would," Glitch agreed emphatically. Then his
face twisted in confusion. "How come not wise?"
"Because only a few of you will go out to search," the
dragon hissed. Suddenly, as subtly as the narrowing of her
eyes, all hints of the "friendly" dragon were gone and the
gully dwarves saw Verden Leaf glow as she really was.
"All the rest will remain here," she said, "with me."
As they cowered away from her, she pointed with a
huge talon. "You," she said, pointing at old Gandy. "You
will search. And you." This time she pointed at Tagg.
"You two, and three more. The rest stay. The way out is
here" - a talon turned, pointing - "just behind my head."
Some of them crept closer to look. Just behind the
"hole," on her right side, was a crevice in the rubble. Tagg
grabbed Minna's hand and headed for the opening.
Abruptly, the dragon moved her head, blocking the way.
"Not the female," Verden hissed. "She stays."
Verden knew her choices were right. The old gully
dwarf with the mop handle staff was, within the limits of
Aghar intelligence, the smartest of them all. He would
search well, and he was the least likely to wander off. The
young male was the same one who had slid past her to
look into her lair. For his kind, he had a certain courage
and a degree of curiosity. And it was unlikely that he
would flee, as long as the dragon had the female he
She would also keep the one they called Highbulp.
The rest had a certain dim loyalty to him, she sensed -
probably more than he had to any of them.
She moved her head again. "Go. Now! Find the disk
that cut me. The stone should be nearby."
Tagg and Gandy darted past the dragon's jaws and
through the opening, Tagg glancing back at Minna with
frightened eyes. As soon as they were out, others hurried
to follow them. Verden let three others pass, then blocked
the way again.
Verden relaxed. There was a chance the gully dwarves
would find the self-stone. It was somewhere nearby. She
could sense its presence, dimly. There was a chance they
would recover it for her. If not . . . well, then she would
just have to kill them and try to find it, herself.
As her eyes closed, the hostages began to chatter
among themselves. She ignored them, then opened one
eye in mild curiosity. "Promised place?" she murmured.
"What promised place?"
From his refuge behind a rank of his subjects, Glitch
peeked out at her. "P . . . Promised Place," he said. "Where
we s'posed to go. Our de . . . density."
"Density? You mean, destiny?"
"And where is the Promised Place?"
"Dunno," Glitch admitted. "Nobody know."
She closed her eye again, bored with the "density" of
gully dwarves. Within seconds she was asleep.
With Clout and two others - Gogy and Plit -
following them, Gandy and Tagg made their way back to
where they had found the dented disk. The dragon had
said to look there, and they were in no mood to argue with
More than a day had passed. Maybe two or three
days, for all they knew. The smoke that had lingered
above the ruined city was gone now, blown away, and
only bleak rubble remained. But otherwise, things were as
they had been . . . almost. Rounding a turn in a ravine
among rubble, the five heard voices ahead. Clinging to
shadow, they crept forward to see who was there. Tagg
was the first to see, and he almost bowled the others over,
backpedaling. Talls," he whispered. "Sh!"
From the shadowed mouth of a "tunnel" where great
stones had fallen across the gaps between other stones,
they peered out.
The humans ahead of them were ragged and scarred.
There were two of them, and they were working
frantically at the great, tumbled skeleton of the fallen
discobel, turning its huge crank inch by inch as the long
throwing arm rose above them. Lying on its side, the
sidearm thing became a slanted pole, its outward end
creeping toward the sky above the sheer walls of rubble
"No business . . . comin' this way ... in the first place,"
one of them grunted, heaving at the windlass of the crank.
"Nothin' here . . . just ruins."
"Shut up!" the other hissed. "Your fault we ... fell in
this - canyon . . . now pull. . . harder . . . only way to ... get
out of here."
In the shadows. Clout whispered, "What Talls doin'?"
"Dunno," Gandy shrugged. "Tall stuff don' make
Slowly, out in the little clear area (which was, indeed,
like a deep canyon among sheer walls, if one looked at it
as a human would, not seeing the many avenues of exit
that were like highways to gully dwarves), the two men
labored at the discobel's windlass and the sling arm rose
inch by inch. Several times they had to stop and rest, but
finally the arm stood straight up, its tip only a few feet
from the nearest wall of stone.
The men looked up. "That'll do," one of them panted.
"Let's tie it off. I'd hate to have that thing trigger itself
while we're climbing up there."
The other paled at the thought, and trembled. "Gods,"
he muttered. "Splat!"
"Shut up and tie this thing off with something. Here,
what's this? The set-pin?" He picked up a sturdy cylinder
of worked hardwood, about three feet long, and glanced
from it to the barrel of the discobel. "Yeah, there's its slot.
Hold that windlass 'til I get this in place."
With the other bracing the windlass, he set the pin in
its slot and tapped it with a rock to firm it. The other eased
off on the crank, eased a bit more, then stood back,
sighing in relief. The pin held. The machine remained
"Let's get out of here," one of them said. Gingerly, he
stepped to the base of the cranked-up arm and grasped it.
Using its guy-bars as hand- and foot-holds, he began to
climb. The other followed. From below, they looked like a
pair of squirrels climbing a huge tree trunk, except that
instead of branches, the trunk had triangles of cable
bracings, held outward by heavy wooden guy-bars. They
climbed higher and higher. At the top they hesitated, then
swung from the tip of the arm to the top of the jagged
wall, and disappeared from sight. Their voices faded, and
"Wonder what that all about," Tagg muttered. He
scratched his head and looked around, puzzled. There was
something he was supposed to do, but he had become so
engrossed in watching the Talls that he had forgotten
what it was. The others had, too, but after a moment old
Gandy snapped his fingers. "Find stone for dragon," he
reminded them. "Stone 'bout this big."
They stepped out from the "tunnel" and peered
around. "Lotta stones 'bout that big, all over," Tagg
pointed out. "Which one?"
"Dunno," Gandy admitted. "Better take 'em all."
They set to work gathering small stones - all except
Clout, who had lost his bashing tool somewhere and felt
uncomfortable without it. He set about finding a new
With Gandy selecting rocks, and Tagg, Plit, and
Gogy collecting them, they had a nice pile of stones going
by the time Clout found what he was looking for. It was a
sturdy cylinder of polished hardwood, resting among the
inexplicable vagaries of the great wooden device lying in
It was exactly what he wanted, but it seemed to be
stuck. He pulled at it, heaved at it, and it budged slightly
but would not come free. Frowning with determination,
he clambered out of the maze of timbers, found a good,
heavy stone, and went back in.
Clout had a philosophy of life - only one, but it had
always served him well. His philosophy was: if a thing
won't move when you want it to move, bash it.
From outside, they heard him hammering in there -
among the maze of timbers - and looked up. "What Clout
doin'?" Plit asked.
"Dunno," Gandy shrugged, frowning. "Not gettin'
The hammering went on, and then its ringing took on
a new sound. After each thud, something creaked, and far
above - though those below didn't notice it - the great
braced arm began to tremble.
"Almos' got it," Clout's voice came from the timbers.
He banged again, and again, and abruptly the whole
world went crazy. The entire maze of timbers groaned,
crackled and heaved upward, seeming to dance. And the
tall, heavy arm above shot downward, with such force that
the air sang around it. It arched toward the ground,
impelled by the released windlass, and smashed into the
soil only yards from where the other gully dwarves were
stacking their rocks.
The impact was enormous. Gully dwarves, rocks and
surrounding rubble flew upward. Partial walls that still
stood among the rubble teetered and fell, and a cloud of
dust rose to blank out everything from sight. Below the
dancing rubble, a deep, cavernous rumble sounded, and in
its echoes came a muted roar of surprise and outrage. The
very ground seemed to fall, resettling several feet lower
than it had been.
For a time there was silence, then the dust blanketing
the ground shifted and a small head came up. "Wha'
happen?" Tagg asked.
Around him, others arose from the dust, wide-eyed
and shaken. Plit and Gogy appeared first, then old Gandy,
coughing and spitting dust.
"Wha' happen?" someone echoed Tagg's question.
Gandy looked around, bewildered. Then he looked up
and blinked. "Fling-thing fall down," he said.
Not far away, the maze of timbers that had been a
discobel was now an entirely different maze. It had rolled
over, its timbers realigning in the process. At first the
gully dwarves could see no movement there, then there
were scuffing sounds and Clout appeared, crawling from a
gap between broken spars. He got out, dusted himself off
and blinked at the rest of them.
"Where Clout been?" Gandy demanded.
Clout held up a sturdy cylinder of polished wood. "Got
new bashin' tool," he explained. "Wha' happen out here?"
The carefully-collected pile of rocks was gone -
scattered all over the clearing. Gandy sighed and began
again to pick up stones. The others watched for a moment,
then joined him. And as other gully dwarves appeared,
chattering, Gandy silenced them with a glare. "No talk,"
he snapped. "Get rocks."
Soon there were dozens of them there, all busily
picking up stones. And then more, and then still more.
Suddenly, Tagg glanced around and saw Minna
beside him, gathering rocks. He blinked, frowned and
remembered. "What Minna doin' out here?" he asked.
"Gettin' little rocks," she explained. "Somebody say
"Where dragon? Let everybody go?"
"Hole fall down," she said. "Dragon can't move. Foun'
new gully, though, for come out."
"Oh." He looked around. There were gully dwarves
everywhere, all collecting stones. But to Tagg, that didn't
seem quite as important as it had before. He went and
found Gandy, and explained the situation to him. "Dragon
don' got everybody anymore." he said. "Look."
It took a lot longer for Gandy to get everyone to stop
collecting rocks than it had taken to get them to start.
Inertia is a powerful force among gully dwarves. But
finally they were all gathered around Gandy and someone
asked, "What we do now?"
"Dunno," he said. "Ask Highbulp." He turned full
circle, searching. "Where what's-'is-name?"
"Th' Highbulp! Ol' Glitch. Where th' Highbulp?"
None of them knew, so they went looking for Glitch I.
They found him, eventually, right where they had left
Glitch had slept through the "earthquake," only to
wake up and find everyone gone. He sat up, rubbed his
eyes and noticed that the stones had shifted and a new
tunnel had opened. So he headed that way, grumbling. It
was just like his subjects to wander off and leave their
leader to catch up when he got around to it.
He was just ducking to step through the opening when
a voice behind him said, "Oh, all right! Let's make a
At first he couldn't see who had spoken. Sometime
during his nap, a whole new rockfall seemed to have
filled about half of the cavern. Huge slabs of stone had
crashed down from above, and torrents of gravel with
them. He peered here and there, then found the speaker: a
big, angry green eye stared back at him from the depths of
a crevice among the stone.
"Who that?" Glitch asked, backing hastily away.
"Verden Leafglow, you little imbecile!" The crackling
voice subsided into a rasp of resignation. "I'm ready to
make a deal."
"What kin' deal?" He hugged the cavern wall, ready to
flee at an instant.
"I'm trapped here," the dragon voice admitted. "The
hill fell in on me, and I can't move." The statement wasn't
entirely true. She knew she could fight free if she had to,
but the effort it would take to get loose - in her condition -
might kill her. "I need help," she said.
The Highbulp relaxed slightly. "What kin' help?"
"The same thing I needed before!" the answer was
almost a roar of aggravation. Then the dragon sighed and
lowered her voice. "My self-stone. I told you about my
It took a bit of head-scratching, but then the Highbulp
remembered. "Little stone? 'Bout this big? Special stone?"
"That's the one. I need it, and I need you and your . . .
your people to find it for me."
The Highbulp scowled in deep thought, scuffing the
ground with his toe. Then his eyes lighted with a shrewd
look. "What in it for me?" he asked.
The deep growl that seeped through the fallen stone
mixed irritation and controlled rage, but Verden held
herself in check. She was trapped, but not helpless. It
would be the work of a moment to free a claw and rend
the arrogant little nuisance to shreds. But that wouldn't
solve her problem. "What do you want?" she asked.
When the rest of his tribe found him - right where they
had left him - Glitch I, Highbulp Etc., was sitting on a
rock in the rockfall cavern, his chin resting on his
knuckles. At first, he seemed to be deep in thought; then
the other dwarves noticed that he was asleep.
They gathered around him, curious. Old Gandy
walked around him, then prodded him with his mop
handle staff to get his attention. "What Highbulp doin'?"
Glitch blinked, raised his head and looked around.
"Why Highbulp sittin' here?"
"Thinkin'," Glitch said, irritated at being awakened.
"Highbulp doin' big think."
"Soun' 'sleep, thinkin'? Think 'bout what?"
Glitch scratched his head, trying to remember what he
had been thinking about. From the shadowed rockfall
beyond, a voice thin with exasperation said, "He's trying
to decide what he wants from me."
The voice so startled the gully dwarves that several of
them tripped over others, and for a moment the place was
a tumble of confusion. Then Gandy stooped to look under
the rocks. "Dragon? That still you?"
"It's still me," Verden Leaf glow assured him. "I can't
believe that little oaf went to sleep. I thought he was
"Highbulp always go to sleep, when try to think,"
Gandy explained. "Think about what?"
"I am prepared to offer you stinking little . . . you
people . . . something that you want, in return for delivery
of my self-stone. SO WHAT IN THE NAME OF THE
GODS IS IT THAT YOU WANT?"
Gully dwarves tumbled about again, some diving for
cover, some running for the exit. With a hiss, Verden
exhaled a jet of noxious vapor - just a small stream, but
aimed directly at the exit tunnel. Gully dwarves darting
into the mist recoiled, gasping and coughing, tumbling
backward as the green fumes assailed them. "No running
away!" Verden commanded. "We are going to settle this,
here and now! Tell me what you idiots want."
The Grand Notioner looked around him, puzzled.
"Want? Dunno. Anybody know what we want?"
"Stew," several offered. "Out," a few others said.
"Rats?" someone wondered.
"Make up your minds," the dragon hissed.
"We find self-stone, give to you, you give us
somethin'?" Gandy pressed, trying to get it clear.
"What you give us?"
"I DON'T KNOW! I'M TRYING TO GET YOU TO . . .
Gully dwarves were diving, tumbling and rolling
everywhere. The Highbulp tried to hide behind the stew
pot, then sniffed at its aroma and realized that he was
With an effort, Verden lowered her voice again,
speaking very slowly.
"I... am . . . trying ... to ... find . . . out . . . what . . .
you . . . want," she said.
Gandy peeped out from behind a rock. "Oh," he said.
"Okay. Highbulp, what we want?"
Glitch didn't respond. He was busy eating stew.
Something akin to inspiration tugged at Tagg's mind,
possibly stirred up by realizing that Minna was beside
him, holding his hand. "Maybe what we always lookin'
for is what we want," he suggested.
Gandy glanced around. "What that?"
"Promised Place. Seem like we always lookin' for
"Mebbe so," Gandy nodded. To the dragon, he said,
"We get you stone, you lead us to Promised Place?"
"Yes," she agreed, sighing. "Where is it?"
"Dunno," he said. "Hopin' you'd know."
"Rats," the dragon muttered.
"Rats, too," Gandy pressed. "Throw in some rats."
"All right! It's a deal."
Gandy crept nearer to the rockfall and leaned down to
peer into the depths. A big, green eye looked back at him.
"You say true?" Gandy asked.
The dragon glared at him, then sighed. "I say true.
Have I ever lied to you?"
"Okay," Gandy decided. "When Highbulp finish
eatin', somebody tell him he decided what we want. We
get little rock for this dragon, we go to Promised Place."
Within moments, there were gully dwarves filing
through the exit, all telling one another, "Find little rock,
'bout this big."
Tagg started to follow them, but Minna pulled him
back. Still holding his hand, she crept toward the rockfall
and looked beneath. "How come dragon make deal with
us?" she asked.
"My lair collapsed," Verden said.
"Oh," Minna breathed. Again she looked into the
depths of the fallen rock, at the great, green eye looking
back at her. "Oh. Poor thing." Sympathetic and truly
concerned, she reached into her belt pouch and brought
out her finest treasure, the little bauble given to her by
Tagg. "Poor dragon," she said. "Here. Here a pretty thing
She reached the bauble toward the hole, and the green
eye brightened. The dragon voice hissed, "That's it! It's
mine!" A talon shot upward, spraying rock fragments into
Tagg tumbled back, pulling Minna with him. She lost
her hold on the self-stone, and it arced upward, then down.
There was a splash, and Glitch snapped, "Watch it!
Highbulp eatin'!" Glaring, he swigged another mouthful of
stew, gulped it down and grumped, "How come stew got
rocks in it?"
"My self-stone!" Verden Leafglow shrieked. "You . . .
you SWALLOWED my self-stone!" Rocks erupted again,
and a gigantic clawed arm emerged. For a second, huge
talons flexed above the horrified Highbulp, then Verden
hissed with frustration and pulled back her claws. The
little nuisance might be nothing but a gully dwarf, but he
was a living thing. And her self-stone was inside him. The
self-stone, with its affinity for life.
If he died with the self-stone inside him, the crystal
would be destroyed.
Under smoky skies, across a war-ravaged land, the
combined clans of Bulp made their way out from Chaldis
and into the vast reaches of the Kharolis Mountains, ever
onward and ever upward, led by a thirty-six-foot-long
green dragon who carried a Highbulp at her breast.
Verden Leafglow was not happy about the situation. As
a guide for the puny creatures she so despised, she felt
humiliated and degraded. She longed to simply splash
their blood all over the nearest mountainside. She dreamed
of doing that, but she did not do it. She was stuck with
them. By holding Glitch I - and the self-stone within him -
close to her breast, she had managed a temporary healing
of her wounds. But it was only temporary, until she had
her self-stone back, intact and uningested.
She needed the detestable little imbecile, and he knew
it. At first, the sheer terror of being gripped in dragon
claws and pressed against a dragon's breast had almost
killed him. A more complex individual probably would
have died from compounded fright and shock. Glitch had
only screamed and passed out.
Since then, though, he had decided that he enjoyed
being carried around by a dragon, and seemed to be doing
everything in his power to maintain the status quo.
Whether by his own doing or by simple luck, Glitch had
kept Verden's self-stone lodged somewhere inside him for
nearly a week. Through sheer stubborn perversity, it
seemed, Glitch I had become constipated, and seemed
determined to remain that way until Verden delivered him
and his subjects to their Promised Place. She couldn't kill
him, she couldn't dispose of him - each time she let go of
him for more than an hour, her wounds began to open
again - and she couldn't separate him from the rest without
chancing that he would somehow disgorge the stone and
The self-stone in his belly was the Highbulp's
guarantee, and the arrogant little pest knew it. Somehow,
through all the days and all the stews, the self-stone
remained inside Glitch as though it were glued there.
Their Promised Place. They didn't know where it was,
or even what it was, but Glitch I was basking in his new-
found glory as a dragon owner, and would settle for
nothing less than the perfect spot. He had become
downright obnoxious about it. Into the region of Itzan Nul
she led them, and there - as the Aghar slept under bright
moons - a familiar dragon-voice came again to Verden,
speaking within her mind. "You have survived," it said. "I
wondered if you would."
"No thanks to you, Flame Searclaw," she responded
in kind, hatred riding on the thoughts. "You left me back
there. You knew I was there, and you left me to die."
"You were injured and useless." The red dragon's mind-
voice seemed almost to yawn with disinterest. "There are
uses for you, now, though. The armies are . . ."
"Don't speak to me of uses," Verden shot, hot rage
edging the thoughts. "You and I have much to settle ... as
soon as I am free to come for you."
"You have a duty.. .." Searclaw's thoughts were
"Begone!" Verden thought, blanking out the mind-
She would not forget her "duty." But first she must
retrieve her self-stone. She must deliver these useless
gully dwarves to their Promised Place. Visions of
slaughter danced in her mind as she thought of the
moment when her precious talisman was safe once more.
The Highbulp and all the rest . . . how she would make
them suffer when they were no longer needed. But first . .
Where might it be - the place they would accept as
their Promised Place? There were many places -
abandoned places, devastated places, places where no one
now lived or might ever want to live again. Such, logic
said, was a fair definition of a Promised Place for gully
dwarves. So Verden led them, on and on, as the days
passed. Past the fortress realm of Thorbardin, through
wilderness and uncharted lands, beyond Pax Tharkas they
journeyed, skirting the beleaguered realms of elf and man.
As she scouted aloft, carrying Glitch I at her breast,
the voice of Flame Searclaw again sought her out. Cruel
and impatient, its tones as fiery as the ruby scales that
flashed when he flew, the red dragon penetrated her mind
with his distant voice. "What are you doing?" he
demanded. "You were told to come, but you are not here.
"You should be glad I have not come to you, Flame
Sear-claw," she shot back, fiercely. "We have a score to
settle, you and I."
"Any time you like, green snake," his voice was
contemptuous. "But first, you have a duty. Why are you
"I can't come," she admitted. "Not just yet. There are
these . . . these creatures. They have a hold on me, and
insist that I lead them . . . somewhere."
In her mind she felt the red dragon's presence, sensing
beyond what she had said. Then it recoiled in disbelief.
"GULLY DWARVES? You, the great Verden Leafglow, a
hostage to ... to gully dwarves?" Cruel laughter echoed in
the mind-talk. "What is it they want of you?"
"To take them to their Promised Place. But they don't
know where that is!"
"Gully dwarves." Again the cruel, shadowy laughter.
"Hurry and deal with your . . . with your new masters,
Verden Leafglow. Your presence here is commanded."
The mind-voice faded and Verden trembled with rage.
She glanced down at the struggling Highbulp. "What?"
"You squishin' me! Don' squeeze so hard!"
You little twit, she thought. I could squeeze the very
life out of you with no effort at all. Still, she sensed the
self-stone lodged inside the little creature, responding to
his discomfort. HER self-stone. It must be protected.
Reluctantly, she eased her grip.
Everywhere, the dragonarmies were on the move, and
Verden Leafglow ached to join them - to join in the death
and destruction they brought. She itched for the sport of it.
A dozen times, holding the smelly, irritating little
Highbulp to her breast, she led them to dismal, deserted,
unwanted places - splendid places for gully dwarves. But
each time, Glitch I, the Highbulp, took a slow, arrogant
look around and said, "Nope, this not it. Try again."
Verden thought longingly of how pleasant it would be
to slice the strutting little twit into a thousand bloody
chunks and scatter him all over Ansalon. But for the self-
stone lodged within him . . .
"Not Promised Place," he insisted, time and again.
"Nope, this place okay for This Place, but not Promised
Place. Dragon promise Promised Place. Try again."
Beyond the Kharolis', while her unwanted charges
slept beneath the visible moons, a thoroughly exasperated
Verden Leafglow took Glitch and went scouting. On great
wings, fully healed if only temporarily, she soared high in
the night sky. All her senses at full pitch, she searched,
and where ancient scars creased the shattered land, the
mind-talk came again.
Like a taunting, contemptuous message, hanging in the
air, waiting for her to hear it, it was there. Flame
Searclaw's voice, from far away. A chuckle of evil mirth,
"So they still possess you," it said. "The least among
the least, they search for their heritage. And Verden
Leafglow is their slave. How marvelous. There is an
answer to your riddle, though."
"Continue." Verden Leafglow sneered mentally. "You
have my attention."
"Destiny," the non-voice snickered. "A Highbulp of
destiny. And one such as you to guide him. How
Verden growled in fury, but listened.
"Xak Tsaroth," the dragon voice said. "Xak Tsaroth is
a suitable Promised Place. Xak Tsaroth. The Pitt. They
belong there. Let the Pitt be their destiny. And delivering
them to such a place, at such a time, is your reward."
With a final chuckle of deep, taunting amusement, the
voice of Flame Searclaw repeated, "Xak Tsaroth . . . the
Pitt . . ." and faded.
Xak Tsaroth. Soaring on wide wings, Verden looked
down at the Highbulp Glitch I, pressed to her breast. The
little twit had, of course, heard none of it. He was sound
asleep. Xak Tsaroth. Despite her hatred of Flame Searclaw
and the murderous rage she felt toward him, an evil
delight grew in Verden. Her reward, indeed. She knew
what was in Xak Tsaroth. There could be no finer revenge
on the gully dwarves than to deliver them there. Others of
their kind were there . . . enslaved, abused and at the
mercy of draconians. These should join them.
The idea was very sweet to her.
Verden Leafglow had returned to the combined clans
by the time they awakened. Like a great, serpentine pillar
of brilliant emerald, she towered above them. Her vast
wings were radiant in the morning sun and her formidable
fangs alight in her dragon mouth. Little Highbulp seemed
a ragged doll clenched at her breast. Huge and malevolent,
Verden Leafglow loomed over the puny creatures - and
shuddered with revulsion when one of them tripped
sleepily over her toe.
Without ceremony, she rousted them out and told
them, "I have found your Promised Place. Get a move on,
and I'll take you there."
"No hurry," Glitch squirmed in her grasp. "This place
not bad This Place. Maybe stay here a while, then go."
"We go now," she hissed.
Gandy squinted up at her. "Where is Promised Place?"
"Bless dragon," Minna said.
"I did not sneeze! I never sneeze. I said, 'Xak
"Bless dragon," Minna repeated. "Where Promised
Verden shook her head as though insects were
tormenting her. "The Pitt," she said.
All around her, gully dwarves glanced at one another
with real interest. "That sound pretty good," several
"Sound all right," Glitch conceded. "Maybe think 'bout
that, day or so, then . . ."
"SHUT UP!" Verden roared. "WE GO NOW!"
Never before - as far as anyone who might have cared
knew - had gully dwarves traveled as fast or as
purposefully as the combined clans of Bulp traveled
during the following two days. It was a nearly exhausted
band that gathered by evening's light to gaze on Xak
Tsaroth. They stood at the top of a high, sheared slope
above shadowed depths, and looked out at distant crags
beyond which were the waters of Newsea.
"The Promised Place," Verden Leafglow told them. "I
have brought you here, as I promised. I have kept my
"Promised Place?" The Highbulp squinted around.
"Down there," Verden pointed downward with a
deadly, eloquent talon. "The Pitt." Not gently, she set
Glitch down and said, "This is it. Now cough up my
Tagg crept to the edge and looked down. It was a slope
of sheer rock, a vertiginous incline that dropped away into
shadows far below. "Wow," he said.
The Highbulp only glanced into the depths, then turned
away, an arrogant, scheming grin on his face. "Prob'ly not
it," he decided. "Nope, prob'ly not Promised Place. Better
try again." With a casual wave of his hand, he added,
"Dragon dis - dismiss for now. Highbulp send for you
when need you."
It was just too much for Verden Leaf glow. She had
taken more than she could stand. "Dismissed? You
imbecilic little twit, you dismiss we? Rats!"
Gully dwarves backpedaled all around her, tumbling
over one another. Some went over the edge, sliding and
rolling away toward the shadowed depths. Others turned
to watch them go. "They really movin'," someone said.
"That steep." "Smooth, though," another noted. "Good
"RATS!" Verden roared again, exasperated beyond
reason and reverting to the vernacular of her charges.
"RATS!" Annoyed beyond control, she aimed a swat at
Glitch. The Highbulp dodged aside, ducked . . . and
belched. Something shot from his mouth, to bounce to a
stop at Verden's foot. She scooped it up. It was her self-
stone. She had it back, intact.
"Rats," Gandy said, realizing that the good times were
"That right," the Highbulp remembered, snapping his
fingers. "Rats, too. Dragon promise us rats."
"You . . . want. . . RATS?" The huge, dragon face
lowered itself, nose to nose with the little Highbulp. "You
want rats? Very well. You shall have rats."
Closing her eyes, she murmured a spell, and her
dragon-senses heard the scurrying of tiny things in the
distance - sounds below sound that grew in volume as
they came closer.
The gully dwarves heard it then, too, and stared about
in wonder. The sounds grew, seeming to come from
everywhere. Then there were little, dark shadows arrowing
toward them, emerging from crevices, coming over rises
and up gullies - dozens, then hundreds, then thousands of
small, scurrying things, homing in on them. Rats. A
leaping, bounding, flowing tide of rats.
"Wow," Tagg murmured.
"Lotta rats," Minna concurred. "Gonna make lotta stew,
Clout, never one to be concerned with details,
brandished his bashing tool and prepared to deal with
Gandy, though, took a different view of the matter,
"Too much rats," he started. "Way too much rats for . . ."
The tidal wave of rats swept around them, under
them, over them - and carried them with it. A second later,
Verden Leafglow stood alone on the ledge, looking down
at a slope awash with rats and gully dwarves, all gathering
momentum on their way to Xak Tsaroth, buried city
within the Pitt.
As they disappeared into shadows, her dragon eyes
picked out details: Tagg and Minna hand in hand, their
hair blowing around them; old Gandy flailing his mop
handle as he tried to maintain his balance at great speed;
Clout busily swatting rats and gathering up their corpses;
and the Highbulp - Glitch I was rolling, tumbling
downward, a flailing tangle of arms, legs and whipping
beard, and his panicked voice rose above the others.
"Make way!" he shouted. "Get outta way! Highbulp
on a roll!"
Somehow, even disappearing into the depths and the
shadows - and the unsuspected horrors - of the ancient,
lost city that was his destination and his destiny, Glitch I,
Highbulp by Persuasion and Lord Protector of Lots of
Places - including, now, the Promised Place - still
managed to sound arrogant.
This is a Gnome Story. Such stories turn up now and
again, around hearths and over cups of mulled wine. The
talespinner of a proper Gnome Story should always state
at the outset that his is a story of the gnomish type, so that
the listeners are not surprised by that which follows. The
Lower Planes hold no fury compared to that of an intent
and dutiful audience that suddenly discovers they are
trapped in a Gnome Story, with no escape other than the
bodily expulsion of the talespinner. Heads have been
broken, families split asunder, empires uprooted, and all
because of an unannounced Gnome Story.
This is a Gnome Story then, and that in itself is
considered fair and proper warning. And it is a Gnome
Story because it deals with, to a great degree, gnomes.
Gnomes, you see, have the boundless curiosity of men,
but lack the limitation of sense, the directness of thought,
or the wisdom to control this curiosity. This disposition
makes gnomes a vital part of talespinning, as much as the
country fool who proves to be the wisest person of the
party, or the holy man who arrives at the last minute to
resolve all the characters' problems. In a similar fashion,
gnomes - with their insatiable curiosity, their gleeful
cleverness, and their perseverance through frequent (and
dramatic) failure - serve as a guiding light, a beacon for
other races. In holding up their failings, their ramshackle
inventions and plots, we see more than a little of
ourselves, and consider ourselves cautioned against their
excesses. So gnomes have an important place in the
universe (at least fictionally), such that if gnomes did not
exist, they would demand to be invented, and nothing
short of another gnome could invent such a concept.
Fortunately for all, they do exist.
This, then, is a Gnome Story, with all of its vantages,
AD and DIS. It is an odd tale, in that it tells the story of a
gnome who succeeds, a gnome who creates a most
wondrous thing. But that is getting ahead of the tale.
Gnome Stories usually begin with the talespinner
speaking of some outsider stumbling onto the hidden land
of the gnomes. The idea of a hidden land of the gnomes is
usually an artistic "cheat," a stretching of the imagination,
since there are very few places more noisy, smoky,
smelly, and downright noticeable than a gnome
community. Incontinent volcanos or a week-long reunion
of gully dwarves would run a close second or third, and,
like a cluster of volcanoes or gaggle of gully dwarves, a
gnome community is generally well-noted by its neighbors
and left alone. It is, therefore, remote from the rest of
civilization, but at civilization's behest.
This particular gnome community - this talespinner
must assure you - was an extremely noisy place,
resounding with the clang of hammers, the hiss of
escaping steam, and the occasional explosion. The louder
the gnomes, the more remote their home, and this was a
most remote location indeed. So remote that the events of
the outside world - the return of dragons, the coming of
the Highlords and heroes, the war and all manner of
destruction - passed this place by. In short, it was the
perfect place to be an outsider, since there was much more
outside than inside.
The outsider in question was not the standard singular
found in most Gnome Stories, but rather two, a doubleton
of strangers, a windfall in terms of Gnome Stories. These
strangers had two things in common: they were from
outside this village of gnomes - yes, that's true - but more
important, they were first found sprawled in awkward but
comfortable-looking positions on the ground, next to a
large, formerly leather-winged form. Said form had earlier
been a dragon, but was now little more than an open buffet
for the local scavengers.
The outsiders were both alive, however. One was a
warrior wrapped head to toe in dark armor, while the other
was softer, plumper, unarmored, dressed in tattered finery
and bound firmly at the wrists and ankles. The warrior was
a woman, though this was not immediately apparent from
her armor; the one in ragged finery was a man. For
gnomes, gender is as unimportant as eye color or taste in
music, but since these are HUMAN outsiders, it will
become important. More on that later, because the gnome
had finally arrived on the scene to survey the damage. And
this is a Gnome Story.
It was a gnome named Kalifirkinshibirin who
discovered the comfortably sprawled outsiders outside (of
course) his village. Kalifirkinshibirin (or Kali, shortening
further a name already truncated due to space) was a
smallish gnome, whose hobbies included spoon-collecting
and putting dried flowers under glass. He also had what
passed for healing skill, being versed in some natural
poultices and potions that had the unique advantage
(among gnomes) of not killing his patients outright.
Kali was gathering ingredients for said potions and
poultices in that particular field on that particular morning,
and so, it fell to him to discover those particular remains
of that particular dragon, and the outsiders resting
comfortably nearby. He was definitely not in the field
because he was looking for new discoveries to be made,
new revelations to be revealed, or new objects to muck
about with. Kali was, to put it delicately, different from his
No, better to strip away the kindness of language and
face this straight out. Kali was a queer duck among his
people. Most gnomes live to invent. They have fives, even
tens of projects in the works at the same time, one often
spilling into another at random. Gnomes see the world as
inherently wrong (not an unpopular sentiment), but
gnomes differ from the rest of the universe in that they
believe it is their job to set matters right. That's why they
invent - continually, relentlessly, and explosively - all
manner of gimcracks and snapperdoodles and
thingamabobs. It's the thing that gnomes just naturally do,
like breathing or taking tea.
But Kali didn't have that same sort of drive as his
fellows. He was pretty content in doing what he was doing
with potions and plants and poultices to relieve the
occasional outbreak of flu or bad colds. He had his
inscribed with wildflowers, legendary heroes, and
mythical animals (which was how he recognized the
dragon, by the by), but none of them were mechanical in
the least. He kept plans for a solar-powered lighthouse
about his parlor - for appearances - but he hadn't added to
them in years.
In short, Kali was an underachiever. (This was not a
criminal offense to Kali's fellow gnomes - they tended to
be understanding about it. Indeed, the fact that Kali's
healing methods would not vary from week to week did
something for his reputation as a healer).
In any event, it was Kali who found the outsiders. He
determined they were within the bounds of "still
breathing," and dragged the armored and unarmored forms
back to his house in the village. (This is important, for it
would make these outsiders - by custom - Kali's salvage
and Kali's responsibility.) By the time he brought the
second one (the unarmored, plumper, male one) back, a
small crowd of his fellow gnomes had gathered about his
front porch. They were armed with all manner of fearful-
looking devices, and a sharp gleam shone in each and
To an outsider (particularly a human outsider), these
gnomes would appear to be a horde of evil torturers
prepared to initiate a cruel inquisition, but Kali recognized
that these were merely his fellow inventors. The devices
were hastily-assembled inventions that would straighten a
leg, lance an infection, or immobilize a thrashing patient
(the last invention was a necessity for experimental
surgery). The gleam that seemed so evil was only the
heartfelt and honest lust that every gnome feels when one
of his inventions might prove useful.
To an outsider, though, the gleam would look
undoubtedly and understandably malicious, and the size
and number of sharp edges on the devices would tend to
intensify said doubt. Were the two outsiders healthy, they
would not walk into this apparently dangerous realm
without at least a dozen more of their kind, and with a
healthy reward promised on the other side.
Kali was dragging the large, plumper figure onto his
porch when he found his way blocked. The first outsider,
the armored one, had awakened and now stood tottering in
the doorway. She looked dangerous and tall, and while the
last word could be attributed to all humans by all gnomes,
this one looked taller still, swaying in her blood-colored
leather boots like an improperly planted pine in the first
windstorm of spring. The impressive nature of this
outsider was further enhanced by the mass of her armor,
and the great horns that rose from her helm like the
misplaced pincers of some irate beetle.
The gathered gnomes set up a sigh of disappointment.
Apparently, her injuries were not serious.
The woman unlatched the toggles on her helmet and
removed it, revealing a sharp, angry face cradled in a scarf
of blood-red hair. Swaying as though the ground were on
unsteady terms with her, she scowled, then bellowed in a
wavering voice, "You are all to surrender or - "
She did not provide another option, for the weight of
her words unbalanced her and she crumbled neatly in the
doorway. It was obvious to all that she had suffered
greater damage than initially thought. She needed help.
The gathered gnomes were ecstatic.
The pair of humans - armored and unarmored, female
and male, soldier and well . . . the male was dressed like a
merchant, mage, or alchemist - rested in Kali's house for
five feverish days. Neither was strong enough to wake,
take food, or make demands. The man-merchant slept the
dreamless sleep of the dead, while the woman-warrior
shuddered with fits that brought her half-waking into the
pain of this world. During this time, Kali was forced to
convince more than one of his gnomish compatriots that a
newly invented device - such as the one to bore a small
hole in the forehead to witness their dreams - was
unnecessary, and proceeded to work his own craft upon
them. Kali's craft was healing, and he was quite good at
it... as gnomes go.
On the morning of the sixth day, Kali awoke to find
the tip of a sword at his throat. This was a surprise
because he normally kept such things as swords in a large
glass case marked "SWORDS" in the other room. Not
surprisingly, given the location of the sword, the woman-
warrior was at the opposite end. Kali had restrained the
pair in their sleep, so they would not hurt themselves in a
violent dream, but he had made their shackles of loose
"Surrender or die," she hissed.
Kali gave careful (and rapid) thought to his options,
and asked her what she wanted for breakfast.
The news of Kali's surrender to the awakened outsider
moved through the village like the fiery results of a failed
(In Gnome Stories the outsider always declares [him-
or] herself master of the land, and the gnomes always
agree. Some uncharitable souls say this is because the
gnomes are stalling while they gleefully plan their
revenge. In reality, gnome tribes are truly interested in
learning as much as possible from newcomers, and will
try to make them happy. If surrendering is what the
outsider wants, it is a small price to pay as long as the
outsider remains. So it was in this case.)
Soon, a horde of short but passionate individuals
queued up outside Kali's house, each seeking to surrender
to the awakened woman-warrior, who was breakfasting
within on blueberry muffins and sausage. Some gnomes
wrote long poems, others recited longer declarations of
allegiance, while still others attempted to surrender by
mime, juggling sparklers so they would not be ignored in
favor of those declaring and rhyming. Some few brought
swords to beat into plowshares, though these arrived last,
since they had to beat the plowshares into swords in the
first place (and indeed, many of the swords had a distinct
plowsharish look to them).
Rather than being pleased, the woman-warrior (the
gnomes were already calling her Outsider A and her
companion Outsider B in their journals) seemed
threatened by this outpouring of mass poetry, oratory, and
mime. Indeed, a huge collection of small people shouting
and waving, with others coming up behind bearing large
plowsharish-looking swords would unnerve any stern
general unschooled in gnomecraft. Unfortunately the
woman-warrior reacted like a typical human, and charged
into a disaster of her own making.
She strode out onto the porch to order the gnomes to
scatter. The sight of her was enough to inspire a mass
shout from the crowd. She, in turn - thinking that an attack
was imminent - brandished her sword. The gnomes surged
forward, each intent on surrendering first. The startled
outsider backed into the doorway, feinted at the crowd
with her sword, then rapidly backed up again . . .
. . . And toppled backward over a cast iron boot-holder
Kali kept by the door (for cast iron boots). Woman and
sword went boots over boots with a resounding crash. She
was soon resting comfortably on the floor again, with a
small bruise on the top of her head.
Kali shooed his friends, family, and fellow inventors
out of the entranceway and, with a sigh, returned to his
healing craft (which he was quite good at ... as gnomes
go). Her weapons and armor he hid in a back room, since
twice now the warrior had become most unwell after using
The warrior-woman would awake two days later, but
in the meantime the other outsider, Outsider B, awoke,
though with less spectacular effects. He merely wondered
what was for breakfast, and, though it was noon, Kali set
his clock back six hours in order to be accommodating.
Outsider B, who astounded the surrendering gnomes
by informing them his name was Oster, seemed a bit
befuddled, but less violent, when the herd of half-sized
humans humbugged and mimed their absolute fealty to
him. Then the assembled gnomes ran home to cross out
"Outsider B" and write "Oster" in their journals. Oster
went inside to have breakfast and dined pleasantly as the
sound of erasers ripping through thin paper resounded
through the village.
After breakfast, Kali shooed away the last few neighbors
who had stopped by to surrender (and to see if any blue-
berry muffins were left). He returned to ask Oster about
his travels and how he and the woman came to this place,
but found his ambulatory charge missing from the main
room. A sudden panic gripped Kali. He feared that this
stranger had wandered off and, knowing humans, gotten
himself into trouble.
A quick search revealed Oster in the second spare
guest room, at the foot of the bed where the warrior-
woman was resting. The human had an odd look on his
face, that look that gnomes get when they realize an
invention requires no more modification. Rapture would
be a good word for it. So would golly-woggled-knocked-
off-the-pins-in-love, but rapture is shorter and as such will
be used henceforth.
Kali moved quietly into the room and stood there for
several heartbeats, shifting his weight from foot to foot
and not knowing if he should leave.
Finally the man sighed. A deep, room-filling sigh that
would have driven the atmospheric pressure indicator in
the bedroom up a few notches, had Kali thought well
enough to install such a device. It was a human, rapture-
"She is beautiful," he said. "Healer, who is she?"
Kali was thunderstruck. He had assumed the two
outsiders knew each other, since they were found near the
same wreckage. Kali wondered if the man's mind had been
damaged by the fall, as the woman's apparently had.
"She, ah . . ." began the gnome, "she was not with
Oster snorted like he had inhaled a fish. "With me?
Nay, Healer. I am a simple merchant, too bull-headed to
live quietly under tyranny, but too old and fat to fight it
well. My wagons were confiscated and I joined a small
party that raided and ambushed the invaders, burning their
supplies and freeing their slaves. For that crime we were
hunted through hills and valleys by a greater force than we
could have imagined. My comrades were soon dead and
scattered, and I was left to face the fury of the Dragon
Highlord on my own."
The human shook his head, but his eyes never left the
slumbering form of the woman. "Damned fool that I was, I
did not run, nor beg for mercy, nor even think to draw my
weapon. By the time I had even conceived of such things,
the hell-spawn commander of that force - the Dragon
Highlord himself - was upon me, and knocked me out.
Why the Highlord did not kill me there I do not know,
Morgion rot his bones. Instead he trussed me and slung me
dragonback like a sack of flour. When I awakened to my
fate, we were in the air. Then a massive blow struck the
beast in its flight, and we crashed. I awoke to find myself
in your parlor, with all these odd, pleasant little people,
and with this" - he leaned toward the woman - "vision of
The woman-warrior was lean and stringy, her battle-
hardened muscles honed by war. But she was fair of face
and, with her auburn hair spread out on the down pillows,
looked almost angelic. It was easy for a human to think of
her as beautiful when she was unconscious.
Kali, being a gnome, was thinking along other lines.
"This Highlord," he asked, "did you know him?"
"No," answered Oster, staring rapturously at the
woman. "I never saw him without his mask."
It was then apparent to Kali that the "foul hell-spawn"
and the radiant creature with whom the man was smitten
(for even gnomes can recognize someone who is smitten)
were one and the same. But more important at the time
was the news that a massive blow hit the dragon they
were riding and forced it to crash. Weapons that could
deliver massive blows out of the sky and force dragons to
crash sounded suspiciously gnomish to the gnome.
Of course, the outsider Oster would be disappointed
to find out that his vision of loveliness and his Morgion-
cursed captor were one and the same. Were Kali a less
honorable and more honest individual, he would have
burst Oster's bubble at once. But Kali was a gentlegnome,
and there were some things you just don't do in polite
society: disappointing someone to whom you have
surrendered was one of them.
Oster broke in on the gnome's reverie with another
room-filling sigh. "Does she have a name?"
"Er . . . ummm," stuttered the gnome, thinking on his
feet. "Did she give me a name when ... ah ... she brought
you in? Something about fighting a dragon. Yes, that's it,
something about a fight with a dragon. She hit it with
some great magic, that must have ... ah ... been the
massive blow you felt. And you fell off of it and ... ah ..."
He scanned the room for inspiration, his eyes settling on
his collection of ornamental spoons painted with
wildflowers. He tried to think of a flower name. "She
brought you here, but was . . . drained by the battle, and
took ill herself soon after . . . something about the battle
that wore her out. Columbine. Yes, THAT was the name.
"Columbine," said Oster, sighing again, a deep sigh
that made Kali think of a bellows in need of repair. "I owe
my life to her. I feared that I would be held prisoner or
slain by the Highlord, but now I have made good an
escape to a magical land. Rescued by a beautiful and
He turned to the gnome, transfixing Kali in an intense
gaze. "I must help her recover, little healer. What can I do
Kali stammered and stuttered, but at last instructed the
man Oster in some simple methods of healing, little more
than the applying of cold compresses and the like. Then he
left his two charges alone and fled the house. He needed to
think about what had just transpired and, more
importantly, to confirm his immediate fears concerning
the dragon's demise.
Kali went from house to house, a long, tedious
business that took most of the rest of the day. This is not
because the gnomish community was large - it was not -
but at every house, a visiting gnome must make pleasant
conversation, have tea, report on any recent findings, have
some more tea, look at the host's latest researches, make
more pleasant conversations, and so forth, before pressing
on. Kali hoped he was not offending others by refusing a
third helping of tea, but after the sixth house he was
beginning to slosh as he walked.
At the seventh house, the one belonging to
Archimedorastimor the Lesser, son of Archimedorastimor
the Greater (and the Later), Kali found the answer he
feared. The Archimedorastimors (father and son) had both
been involved with astronomy and had long been
wondering what to do with their time when it was overcast
or daylight. While most gnomes in the field simply
attempted to build large towers to get above the clouds
and beyond the sun, the Archimedorastimors (Archies for
short) instead came up with the novel idea of firing their
telescopes from large catapults to get above the clouds and
the sun. Other gnomes scoffed at the foolishness of the
theory and went back to building towers. But Archie
father and son went on experimenting until the time, three
years ago, when Archie father built an explosive catapult
and launched his entire laboratory into the air, from
whence it never came down. Archie, son of Archie, had
since continued his father's research, but (save for creating
a combination parachute and pillow) had added little to the
science. Occasionally, however, he managed to launch a
large rock that would fall down on a building or three.
In any event, it was at the seventh house that Kali
found the answer he was dreading. Yes, five days back
Archie had been out in the field experimenting with a new
astronomical catapult, and from that testing he had just
returned. The experiment had been a failure because
something large and lumbering had gotten in the way at
the last moment. The large and lumbering something
sounded to Kali suspiciously dragonlike. When he
proposed this theory, Archie did admit that the lumbering
something was more than a little reptilian in appearance.
Further, it made a sudden and steep dive after it flew into
his rock. Kali took tea and made small conversation for
the rest of the afternoon, adjuring Archie not to mention
the details of this experiment to the new outsiders - Oster
and the warrior-woman. Archie promised and also said he
would be by later to surrender when he had finished his
Kali, having resolved the first problem, now turned to
the second. The warrior-woman was a Dragon Highlord
(whatever that was), and had taken Oster as a prisoner - in
a mean fashion at that. The Highlord's armor, which Kali
had hidden in a back room, apparently had concealed the
fact that she was a woman. Oster was now smitten (as
only humans can be smitten) with her in her true
appearance. When the woman awakened again, Kali
figured, she would probably be mean to Oster again.
Oster would be hurt that this radiant creature was not only
not named Columbine, but was also the individual that
was so mean to him before.
That would make TWO people that the gnomes had
surrendered to unhappy.
That would not do at all.
When Kali returned to his house, he found that the
man Oster had gathered some wildflowers and placed
them in a vase by the woman's sickbed. Kali decided the
man had not been addled by the fall after all. From the
Human Stories he'd heard beside hearths and over cups of
mulled wine, Kali knew such behavior was typical.
Humans were always engaging in activity that seemed
fruitless, pointless, and overly emotional, making use of
grand gestures and mighty oaths.
The first step, thought Kali, is to make sure the man
Oster is not around when the warrior-woman comes to.
Her last two outings among the living had proved to be
less than peaceful, and based on that sort of previous
behavior, the next occasion boded no better. At least he
should get the man away and talk to the woman, explain
the situation, and calm her down. If she were half as
reasonable as Oster, all would work out for the best.
Perhaps she had imprisoned him because she liked his
appearance as well as he liked hers, Kali reasoned. Human
Stories made much of the fact that humans were very poor
at expressing themselves, particularly to those they liked.
When Kali walked into the room, he noticed Oster
holding the woman's wrist, as though that would indicate
anything more than that the body in question had a pulse.
Steeling himself for deception, the gnome walked up to
the foot of the bed and grabbed the woman's exposed big
toe. Scowling as he imagined wise humans would scowl,
Kali gave a grumbling sigh.
Oster looked up at the gnome at the foot of the bed.
"Not good," said Kali.
"Not good?" said Oster.
"Complications," said Kali. "Straining of the
impervious maximus. Omar's syndrome. Liberal
contusions. It may be a while."
Oster rose to his full height and stamped his foot.
"Then I shall remain and help!"
Kali was prepared for the human to issue a mighty oath
on the matter, but when none was forthcoming, he
scowled deeper and thought quickly. "I'm ... ah ... going to
need some supplies. You may help best - if you are up to it
- by going to fetch them."
"Anything to aid, little healer."
Kali went to his desk and drew out a parchment and
pen. He listed five things at random: hen's teeth, black
roses, rubbing alcohol, toad eyes, and feldspar chips. He
gave the list to Oster. "These will aid," said the gnome.
"You can gather some gear from the storage area and set
off. You may need several days to gather the items, but
take your time."
"Can I have a guide to help?"
Kali thought of Archie. "I can arrange something.
Now come. The woman . . . er, Columbine . . . needs
peace and quiet as well as those items."
The man went back to rummage in the storage area
and Kali wrote a note to Archie, explaining the situation
and the need to take the man on the longest possible
course to get these items. He was going to post it
normally, but checked himself, noting that the gnomish
postal service would just as likely deliver it to Oster or
back to himself, since their names were mentioned. He
ended up delivering it himself.
Archie and Oster left the next morning, and the
woman-warrior awoke that evening, feverish and angry.
Kali was entertaining another colleague, Etonamemdosari
(Eton), a weaponsmith, who was working on a sword that
could be used directly as a plowshare, when the woman
stumbled into the room. The pair of gnomes looked up
from their mulled wine. (They were trading Human
Awake, the woman was less lovely than asleep, for her
waking thoughts and memories pinched her face into a
tightly-muscled scowl that would scare the cat, had Kali
had any cats. (He did not, for they made him sneeze, but
HAD he a cat, said cat would be considering changing his
lodgings after looking at the woman).
"My weapons," she said in a voice that would frighten
a watchdog. (See the above note on cats, for they apply in
this case to dogs as well).
"Er . . . Have some wine?" asked Kali.
"Roast the wine!" bellowed the woman, crossing the
room in a single stride and thumping the table with both
fists. "Where are my weapons? Where is my armor?
Where is my dragon?"
"Dragon?" said Kali, hoping to sound much more
innocent than he felt.
The woman made a noise like a machine caught
between gears and pitched the table over, mulled wine and
all. Kali could see this was not going to work out as well
as he had hoped.
"Try again," she said, an evil glint in her eye, "or I'll
twist your head off."
"Ahem . . . Well. Ah.. ." Kali's mind raced for a
moment, trying to remember how much of the tale he told
Oster applied here. "We, ah, I, ah ... that is ... You were
brought here by a hero who slew the beast you were
riding. He thought it a wild creature, but, when he found
you and realized it was yours, he... ah ... brought you here
to recover and, ah ... left to gather some healing herbs to
aid you. He says he's terribly sorry."
Kali's words struck the angry woman like a blow. She
visibly sagged for a moment, her shoulders drooping. Kali
could see that the deceased dragon meant as much to her
as a cat or dog would to him, except it would probably not
make her sneeze. She slumped into a chair, and after
taking a few breaths to steady herself, said in a wavering
voice. "The prisoner?"
"He, ammm" - Kali's mind jumped its track for a
moment - "didn't make it, I'm afraid." Perhaps she would
show sympathy, and that would let him comfort her by
revealing that Oster was alive and well. Or maybe even
returned to life by a passing holy man.
"And his body?" she continued. Something in her tone,
her tight smile, the way her fingers dug into the wood of
the table told Kali that sympathy was riot a current priority
for the woman.
"Well," Kali said, "We ah, tend to burn such things.
Had we known you wanted it, we would have kept it for
you. I didn't know he meant that much to you."
The woman laughed - a throaty, deep-seated laugh that
started in orbit around her stony heart and, by the time it
escaped her lips, held the cruelty of a creature who would
throttle birds before breakfast. (See above notes on cats
and dogs. Kali's case: no birds were endangered by the
"Meant much? I wanted to take him apart in pieces,
cracking each bone, and hang him by his living entrails on
a hook in the village to show how I deal with traitors and
rebels. His kind cost me a treasure train, and now he has
cost me my dragon as well. May Morgion rot his body and
Chemosh stir his bones!"
Kali was struck by the coldness of her oaths, which
carried none of the nobility and passion of Oster's oaths,
though they invoked the same beings. This human did not
seem to have much difficulty in expressing herself at all. It
now dawned on him that if he brought her together with
Oster, she would be irate - not only at Oster, but at Kali as
well. Best to backtrack, he thought, and try to make the
situation turn out right.
"Well, he seemed a nice sort before he, ah ... well. . ."
Kali looked at Eton for support in the conversation. His
fellow gnome had backed up next to the hearth and was
trying to blend in with the fireplace furnishings.
"Did he suffer?" asked the woman. "Were his bones
Kali said yes and answered in the affirmative to a long
list of horrible things that she described, just about filling
the dance card with all the things that can happen to an
individual who has fallen from a high place to a low one.
Snapped bones, shattered skull, inner workings scattered
over sharp rocks, just enough breath left in the crushed
body to plead for mercy and deliver a parting rattle. Kali
wondered if this passed for polite conversation where the
woman came from. His answers seemed to get the woman
more agitated and excited, until he would swear her eyes
became like twin pilot lights, glowing and sparking in a
Having exhausted that interesting subject, the woman
demanded, "My weapons? My helm? My armor?"
"The hero, ah, the one who brought you in ... ah ... hid
them," said the gnome.
"Hid them?" she shrieked, rising from the table.
"Ah, yes. To keep away burglars, you know. He said he
would return them when he got back . . ."
Kali intended to say that the hero would not return for
more than a few days and why didn't the woman rest, but
things started to happen very quickly then. Making that
gear-grinding noise again, the warrior pushed both hands
up under the gnome's beard and, taking a firm hold of his
neck, lifted him off the ground. Kali found that the grip
closed off his breathing pipes. Small sparks danced
between the woman's face and his. She enlivened this by
screaming at him that he and his rat-faced friends would
find her weapons if they had to eat their way through the
mountains with their teeth, punctuating her remarks by
banging Kali's head and shoulders against the back wall.
The impact with the wall caused Kali to miss some of her
words, but he caught the gist.
How long this fit went on Kali did not know. He was
aware, finally, that he could breathe again, and save for a
sore neck and a ringing headache, was still alive. He saw
before him the form of the warrior-woman, resting less
than comfortably in a heap of broken furniture, facedown.
Across from him, Eton was holding a wide-mouthed
shovel used to clean the hearth.
Kali gave a breathy, hoarse thanks, but he could see
how Eton was already trying to figure out how to turn the
hearth shovel into a combination sword/plowshare.
Kali put the woman back to bed and arranged for the
delivery of new furniture by the time Oster and Archie
returned with the material the next day. In that time, Kali
had a long time to rub his sore head and think things
Now, despite a lot of stories, gnomes are not by nature
violent. Nor, despite similar stories, are they stupid. Kali
could see that this warrior was going to become enraged
every time she awoke, and that telling her the truth would
result in a rampage that would end up destroying a goodly
amount of gnomish property and perhaps gnomish bodies.
This would not be a good occurrence, given the fact that
gnomes had surrendered to the woman and everything.
Further, she would likely harm Oster if she knew he was
alive. In the brief time Kali had known Oster, the gnome
had decided that the man was one of the good humans,
even given his terrible choice in creatures to fall smitten
with. It would crush his heart if he found out she so cruel
and mean. It would also likely crush his windpipe if the
two were left in the same room together.
The problem was, Kali decided, that he was trying to
work in an area he was unfamiliar with. He knew humans
only from stories and wild tales, and his current personal
encounters indicated something was lacking from his store
of knowledge. Human emotions were even farther
removed. Like most gnomes, Kali was most familiar with
things he could touch, grip, twist, break, and repair. If only
this situation had such "a simple, physical solution.
Looking at the blanket-covered woman, peaceful as
the dead and lovely as the morning, Kali realized that
perhaps there WAS a simple, physical solution.
By the time Oster and Archie had returned, Kali had
not only laid out a plan, but he had made a list of
materials: a closed wagon with oxen, two hundred pounds
of plaster, a similar amount of wax, a stone mausoleum
with an iron fence around it, seven tins of pastels and
other shades of paint, the aid of Organathoran the painter,
and sufficient medication to keep a horse in slumberland
for a week.
He was just drawing up the last of it and was about to
check on the woman (to make sure she had not woken up
again), when Oster and Archie returned. A crowd of other
gnomes clustered around them as Archie described
something in glowing detail, making swing-of-a-sword
gestures with his hands.
Kali met the pair at the door and Oster presented the
gnome with a small package containing the herbs and
other items they had gathered from the wild. At his side he
had another, larger bundle. The human gave Kali a small,
almost embarrassed smile, but all eyes were on Archie,
who was gesticulating wildly.
"It was wonderful," cried Archie, noticing Kali for the
first time. "The lad, er, the human Oster was magnificent 1
We were in the Smoking Vale two miles from here when
suddenly we startled a wyrm of some type. A true
monster, straight from the pits, with the legs of a pill-bug
and the hunger of a bear and fangs twice as long as my
"It was a behir," Oster said softly, his ears tinged with
red, "and a small one at that."
Archie hurtled on without stopping to note the
interruption. "I would have been dinner on a plate, but
Oster - Oster the Brave - mind you, threw me out of the
way of certain death."
"I, ah, knocked him over when I turned to run," Oster
corrected, the glow spreading to his cheeks and increasing
in intensity with each moment.
"Then brave Oster, armed with only with a sharpened
rock, caught the beast's attention. It lunged at him" And
here Archie did his best imitation of a serpent lunging
forward, such that some of the gathered gnomes backed up
a few paces. "And he pulled the side of the mountain
down on the beast, killing it!"
"I tried to scramble up the cliff out of its path, and
brought down an avalanche. Nearly buried us all." Oster's
voice had grown quiet now as he saw that most of the
gnomes liked Archie's recollection of events better than
Archie rolled on like a perpetual motion machine.
"The beast was mortally wounded, and tried to turn on us.
Oster took a mighty boulder and smashed it until it was no
"Well, I... It wasn't that big of a ... well ... I guess ..."
Oster shrugged his shoulders. Had he known that in
gnomish discussions silence meant agreement, he would
probably have protested his innocence of heroism a while
longer. But he did not know, so he did not protest - which
was as good as admitting it.
Archie motioned for the sack. "And we found all
manner of gems and magic in the creature's lair."
The gnomes naturally demanded to see the treasure,
and so Oster pulled from the larger bag one item after
another. Fistfuls of gems, long strings of pearls, and a set
of plate mail of a golden hue, topped by a wondrous helm
of similar color, ringed with gems. Finally he drew forth a
scabbard and a copper-colored blade from the bag.
News of Oster's prowess (and his treasure) spread about
the community quickly, and a number of gnomes came to
surrender all over again to Oster (or rather, the Hero Oster,
as he was now known). Archie had to tell his tale a second
and a third time, and the hero's mighty attacks became
mightier with every telling. Oster soon gave up trying to
correct all the minor differences between Archie's version
and his, and seemed to enjoy the attention.
Oster gave the bulk of the jewels to Archie, and the
gem-stones to Kali. The mail, copper sword, and helm he
kept for himself, as they were all man-size, and Oster was
the only being currently awake in the community who
matched the description.
At the insistence of the gnomes, he put on the armor,
though he had to let out the chains on the side plates to
their maximum length. With the helm down over his face,
he looked like a clockwork figure or automaton, and the
name Oster the Clockwork Hero went down in many
journals that night.
It was only when Oster had finished displaying and
giving away his booty and Archie had finished describing
(for the fifth time) the masterful strokes that the
Clockwork Hero has delivered against the hordes of
serpent creatures that the trio went back into the house.
Oster let out a gasp of shock when he saw the drawing
room in shambles.
"What happened?" he demanded, looking at the
broken table, the shattered chairs, and the crushed
"Well, that is . . ." Kali stammered, thinking that he
had best use this time to tell Oster the truth - that his lady
fair had woken and destroyed the room, all the while
gleefully describing the tortures she would heap upon
"It looks like a fiend hit this place," continued Oster.
"Ah ... yes. A fiend." Kali shoved the truth to the
back of his mind. Oster had been a hero only moments
before, and the truth would only hurt him.
Kali had no fiends illustrated on his spoon collection
and wondered what one truly looked like, but taking a
deep breath he plunged on. "Ah ... A fiend was here. Tall
he was, so that his horns scraped the ceiling, and with
plates of red, hardened chitin jutting from his shoulders,
and a weave of black wires where his mouth was."
"Was he large? Did he carry a sword in a mailed
glove? And armor?" asked Oster, his brow furrowed.
"Yes, yes, he was, and armored all over." Suddenly Kali
clamped a hand over his own mouth. In seeking to
describe the "fiend" who had leveled the place, he had
described the Highlord's dragonarmor.
"So," said Oster sternly, drawing himself up to his full
height. "He lived through the death of his dragon. Why
would he come here . . . unless . . . the Lady Columbine?
Is she safe?"
"She ... ah ... rests comfortably in her room. The fiend
made no attempt to get to her." Kali hoped that when
Oster checked on her condition, he was not knowledgeable
enough to spot an additional bump where Eton had
clobbered her with a shovel.
"He was looking for me, wasn't he?" asked Oster
"No. I mean yes. I mean . . ." Kali said, trying to avoid
tripping over his own tongue. Other gnomes, such as
Archie, could spin tall tales until morning, but Kali always
feared that one word would fall against another and leave
him revealed as a liar. "He was here, and looking for you,
and was most angry when I told him you were dead. He
wanted your body, but I said we had burned it. I didn't
mean to lie, but it seemed to be a good idea at the time."
And I mean that in all possible ways, he added to himself.
"You did well, little healer," said Oster. "But you
risked much to deceive one such as that. He will probably
be back. When he does return, we must be ready for him.
Tell me, what is the condition of the lady?"
"She . . . rests," said Kali, still choosing his words
carefully. "I have given much thought to her injuries, and
fear she might not recover." He was going to add that it
would be in everyone's best interest if she NOT recover,
but he made the error of looking into Oster's face, and saw
the pain in his eyes. The human had stopped being a hero
and became once more a middle-aged merchant. So Kali
said instead, "I have a list of further medications that may
cure her illness. But it will take time."
Oster immediately volunteered to go fetch them, and
Archie chimed in his aid as well. Only Eton and Kali
would know that the lady was no lady, and the ingredients
the Clockwork Hero gathered were mixed to form a
smoky concoction, the fumes of which would keep the
woman in her blissful sleep until Kali could work his own
The next few weeks - the time through high summer -
passed with as few incidents as could be expected for a
community of gnomes. Oster the Clockwork Hero's
prestige in the community increased as he slew a few of
the creatures that had plagued the area, including a large
hydra that ruled the Steaming Stream and a beholder that
had set up shop in an ancient dwarven mine.
The fact that in the former case he was accompanied
by a party of gnomes armed with Eton's automatic lasso-
projectors and in the latter the sword he found had been
forged specifically to slay beholders did nothing to
diminish his prestige. Oster was well-loved by the
gnomes, never more so than when he rescued the
Kastonopolintar sisters when their alchemy shop decided
to blow up on Solstice Eve.
Yet most of the time when he was not out adventuring
or attending this dinner or that test in his honor, Oster sat
by the bedside of the lady, now known in the community
as Oster's Lady, waiting for her to recover, watching her
passive, quiet face in the moonlight as her coverlets rose
and fell with each breath. The gnomes respected Oster,
and in turn respected his sleeping lady, so none of them
mentioned her erratic behavior when she had first arrived,
or that Kali seemed less effective than normal in working
a cure. They did not want to worry the human needlessly.
Kali was miserable, of course. He knew the truth,
more than any of his comrades, and it hurt him to see that
he himself was responsible for Oster's heartache. It was
clear that the human had built up an imagined image for
his lady, a lady who, once awake, would undoubtedly
shred Oster limb from limb. On more than one occasion,
Kali screwed up his courage to the point where he decided
to confront Oster with the truth. The gnome mentally
rehearsed his lines and thought of every reason or
argument why he should tell the human the truth. And
each time he attempted the truth, the following would
Kali would say, "Oster, we must talk."
Oster would sigh, clutching the hand of his beloved, and
say, "Yes, I know I spend all my time here when I am not
elsewhere. You think it unhealthy."
Kali would say, "Well yes, but ..."
And Oster would break in with, "I just worry that
some time when I am not here, the thrice-damned
Highlord will return and hurt you and my friends and my
lady." And here would be another room-filling sigh as he
would add, "Is she not beautiful?"
At this point, Kali, hating himself every step of the
way, would always remember a project that was half
finished and leave the sighing Oster with his lady. The
plate mail of the Clockwork Hero fit better as he got more
exercise, and old skills he thought long-forgotten returned
to him. He gathered many weapons and strange items in
his travels around the valley, keeping for himself a clutch
of silver daggers worn at the belt and a magical cape, but
giving the rest to friends. Kali sent the hero out on none-
such missions for unneeded materials, while he and
Organathoran the painter - whom Kali had bonded to
silence - set about their craft.
Each day, when Oster was gone, they would mix
plaster and make a mold of some part of the lady - her
hand or her arm or foot. The molds would then be filled
with hot wax. It took several weeks of work to finally get
adequate casts of the hands, and longer for the legs, torso,
and face. The poor castings were melted in the hearth, as
were a few good molds that had to be jettisoned when
Oster returned in triumph too early.
Once, when taking the mold of the woman's head,
Kali thought for a moment of covering her fully with
plaster, of letting her perish. It would solve the problem,
and make everything so much easier. Even if it did break
But as the thoughts crossed his mind, Kali's hands
began to shake, and he had to step outside to compose
himself. They were unworthy thoughts, for both a healer
and a gnome. Humans may take the easy route, but a little
complexity never stopped a gnome. He would proceed as
he had planned.
When the model was finished, Kali stored it in a hidden
back room next to the Highlord armor. Using the hair of a
long-haired fox, Kali fashioned a suitable wig, and Or
ganathoran worked on duplicating the looks of a sick but
living human being.
As the work completed, Kali placed an order with his
fellow gnomes for a stonework mausoleum and a
sepulchre. In true gnome fashion, the work took several
tries, and resulted in a building whose design would drive
mad the best human architects, complete with a long span
of glossy black stone leading up to its foot-thick doors.
The sepulchre itself was carved of crystal.
Kali's final plan was simple (for a gnome). The
mannequin would be placed beneath the crystal in the
tomb. Oster would be told that the crystal sepulchre would
keep his lady alive in sleep for the rest of her days, for
there was no way even Kali could cure her. Oster would
be hurt, but it would be a hurt with hope for the future, a
lesser hurt than losing one you love (at least, this was
Kali's reasoning). The hell-spawn who wanted to throttle
him would, at the same time, be placed in the ox-cart,
unconscious, and set out without a driver on the road. By
the time she awoke, she would be miles from the gnomes'
remote home, with a few months missing from her life,
and Kali would not be a murderer.
That was the plan, at least, and the leaves were just
being to rum their fall colors when all was ready. Kali and
Eton lugged the finished mannequin from its secret hiding
place one day when Oster had been sent on some quest for
Archie. They laid the figure to rest in the tomb and closed
the fasteners. Beneath its glass now lay a beautiful
princess suitable for use in a Human Story. Her lips were
cold and red, and her eyes coated with bluish-tinged blush,
never to open.
The entire task took them about two hours. When they
returned, they were shocked to discover Oster there
waiting for them.
Oster the Clockwork Hero was still in his plate armor,
helmet tucked under his arm, pacing in the drawing room.
He warmly welcomed Kali and Eton with a broad grin.
Kali coughed and launched into what he hoped was to be
his last lie. "Oster, I must tell you terrible news. The
condition of Lady Columbine has not remained constant
while you were gone. Rather, it has worsened, such that
we found it necessary to place her in a magical bier in a
stone building on the hill. I'm sorry, but I'd . . ." His voice
trailed off as he looked into Oster's puzzled eyes.
"What are you talking about?" asked Oster. "She is
still resting within." He motioned toward the bedroom
door and Kali, for the first time, realized they left the
secret closet open in that room. "I have glorious news.
While traveling through the hill looking for ingredients, I
chanced to rescue a priest - a true priest - one with the
skills to heal the sick and cure the diseased. I brought him
here to cure Lady Columbine. No slur on your abilities,
Kali, my dear friend, but all your potions have been for
nought. He's been in there for half an hour, ever since - "
Oster's words were cut short. The door to the bedroom
snapped off its gnome-built, reinforced hinges. Through it
came hurtling the broken body of the priest. The Dragon
Highlord, dressed in full armor, strode into the room. Even
with her features masked, Kali could sense that she was
smiling. A dog-frightening, bird-throttling, cat-killing
Kali's heart sank. The figurative jig was up, and Kali
realized for the first time that he had built his invention of
fiction without tightening the smallest bolt, building one
lie upon another until he created an edifice of falsehoods,
a structure that now swayed in the harsh wind of truth. He
thought of the old Human Stories, and wished fervently
for an easy fix - a wise old holy man to wander onto the
scene and provide the solution to all problems.
And with another start, he realized that this was
precisely what HAD almost happened. The holy man lay
in a pool of his own blood, paying the price for wandering
into the wrong tale.
But, while Kali's mind was stopping and starting,
rushing from one revelation to another like a frightened
child in an old house, the humans thundered on in the
manner that all humans do. The Highlord laughed and
leapt forward, lunging with a straight sword blow toward
Oster's chest. The Clockwork Hero brought his own blade
up quickly and parried the lunge, tossing his helmet at the
Highlord. She dodged, but the bronze helm grazed her
head, disorienting her for a moment. Oster used the
moment to draw back into the room, waving to Kali and
Eton to move away.
Kali and Eton scurried to the fireplace, which was
graced by a number of Eton's new plow-share-shovels.
These fireplace tools had a graceful sweep of metal
welded to the base, making them useless for scooping
ashes, but excellent for small gardening tasks and fair for
bashing. The pair edged around the perimeter of the battle.
Kali had heard that kender could merge into the stone
itself and move without leaving a shadow. He desperately
wished for that ability now.
Oster's attention was riveted on the dark-armored
form before him. Kali expected the Highlord to taunt,
laugh, snarl, and behave in the way of all good bad people
when confronted with virtue, but the Highlord kept her
input to a few growls of the mid-gear type. She lunged
forward in a flurry of blows, lunges, and backswings.
Oster parried them easily, and drove her back with a swing
to the mid-section, a swipe to the head. What he lacked in
form, he made up in force, and the Highlord was staggered
when one of Oster's strong lunges caught her in the left
They fought for a minute, two minutes, an eternity of
three. The Highlord never lost track of the two gnomes
(learning from her experience), and avoided all their
attempts to get behind her. The two main combatants
made quick work of most of Kali's living room furniture -
every breakable was introduced to the dangers of being
inadvertently close to clashing steel. The Highlord would
charge, locking steel with Oster. The pair would stagger
against each other in a few deadly dance steps, then one or
the other would be flung backward, usually just far
enough to reduce some other furnishing to its component
parts. Lunge, the clash of locked blades, the stagger, the
destruction of a chair. Lunge, lock, stagger, writing desk.
Lunge, lock, stagger, spoon collection.
Sweat was now running down Oster's face in rivulets,
but his eyes burned with fury. The battle had run long
now, and Kali knew that all their deaths were long
overdue. A bud of insight blossomed within his skull, and
he suddenly understood why the Highlord had not made
quick work of all of them. While Oster had been in
training as the local hero of the gnomes, the Highlord had
been under an enforced and extended rest for six months.
While the Highlord was sufficiently powerful to make
short work of a pair of gnomes, or a surprised cleric
expecting a demure young lady, she was having more
trouble with someone trained for combat.
The length of the battle was telling on the Highlord.
Blood leaked between the epaulets of her wounded upper
arm, forming a deadly calligraphy on her armor. Even Kali
could see she was favoring that arm, and Oster pressed his
advantage, driving her back, step by step, to the bedroom
Kali's eyes took in the battle, but his mind whirled
with options, all of them bad. At first it seemed to him that
Oster would surely perish under the attack, which was
good in that at least he would die without finding out his
ladylove was his murderer, but bad considering that said
murderer would probably avenge herself on the rest of the
community. Now it looked like Oster would be victorious,
which would be equally disastrous, for once he discovered
the Highlord was his Columbine, he would perish just as
surely of a broken heart, if not busted ribs.
Kali chewed on his beard, fidgeted, raised his
weapon, fidgeted again. Eton was a statue next to him,
working out his own thoughts, or perhaps preparing
himself for the afterlife. The pair were enraptured by the
deadly ballet played out before them.
Oster was now beating the Highlord's attacks easily,
reducing her to weak parries and dodges. The two locked
blades again (Kali made a mental check to see if there was
any surviving furniture). This time, when they broke, the
Highlord's sword separated from its owner, burying its
point in the china cabinet (shattering the last of the
unbroken teapots). Oster brought his sword around in a
mighty blow, aimed at his opponents' throat, as smooth
and as level as carpenter's beam.
Kali stepped forward and, in a loud voice, shouted,
"Oster, don't do it! It's your Columbine!" Or rather, he
fully intended to. A great, soft explosion blossomed at the
base of his own skull and he toppled forward. The room
pitched and the floor rose up to meet the gnome. He was
dimly aware of two other forms striking the floor before
he reached it, one the shape of a full human helmet, the
other resembling a human sans both helmet and head. A
part of Kali's mind paused to calculate how long it would
take a plummeting gnome, a falling severed head, and a
crumbled body to all hit the ground at the same time. Then
the void closed up over him.
Kali awoke to find himself in his own bed, looking up
at a grim Oster and a worried-looking Eton. The
expression on his fellow gnome's face told the story - that
shamed-dog look of gnomish responsibility when an
invention goes slightly awry, combined with a mild sense
of pride that the idea proved feasible. He still had his
combination plowshare-shovel in his hands.
Oster's face was human and therefore unreadable.
Gray. It looked like that of a gnome who has realized his
invention is unworkable, and nothing could change that
fact. A look of defeat, tinged with worry.
"She's dead," Kali croaked. Not a question, but a
notation, a footnote.
"They both are," said Oster, putting a hand on the
reclining gnome's shoulder. "And the priest, too, I'm
"Both?" Kali's brow clouded.
"The Highlord, and . . . and . . ." Oster shook his head.
"Eton showed me the tomb you made for her. It is very
sweet. Almost as if she were alive. When I pointed the
priest toward the bedroom, the Highlord was waiting. If
you hadn't come home, he would have caught us both."
Kali looked hard at Eton, hoping to elicit from his
fellow gnome an explanation that would at least bring him
up to date.
Eton avoided his eyes, and instead grabbed Kali's big
toe and looked at his wrist. "Hmmm, confused from a
lateral conclusion. He'll need his rest. If you don't mind,
The human nodded and saw himself out. The
bedroom door had been replaced with a roughly-hung
carpet, and Kali could hear the human busying himself
Eton leaned over to check the dressing wrapped at the
base of Kali's skull. The small healer grabbed his
caretaker's beard and pulled him close, hissing so Oster
could not hear.
"How did you keep him from finding out?"
"Quick presence of mind," whispered Eton. "Before
he could examine the body, I told him that if the Highlord
was near, other enemies may be around as well. Oster
scouted. I gathered up the pieces. By the time he had
returned, I had placed the body, still in its armor, on the
"Still in her crypt. The Clockwork Hero made up his
own story, and did a better job than we did. He's broken
up about it, but he'll get over it. I think. Humans are so
difficult-to figure out."
"Why the . . .?" Kali glowered at the destructive
weapon Eton held.
The other gnome sighed and said, "Because you
created something that worked, and I did not want you to
throw it away."
Kali's head hurt, perhaps just from the shovel blow,
but he wasn't sure. He frowned, but remained silent. And
silence for gnomes means agreement.
"You created a hero, Kali," Eton said quietly, gently.
"Oster arrived as a prisoner, a failure as a merchant and a
rebel. But because of all the lies you spun - the tale of
Columbine, the errands to fetch useless items - he found a
purpose in life. I knew you had decided to tell him the
truth, and I had to stop you. If you had told him, he might
have pulled his blow, and she would have killed us all."
"But he believes a lie!" groaned Kali, still keeping his
Eton shrugged. "From what I know of humans, that is
a standard state of affairs. They excel at self-deception.
Sometimes the lie is the unity of a nation, or the
perfection of a cause. Or the love of a good woman - "
" - who doesn't really exist," muttered Kali.
"Exactly." Eton nodded. "It might even be preferred
that way. Less fuss and bother. I might create one for
myself. . ."
Kali hrumphed weakly and drifted off to sleep. After a
few days he came around to seeing things as Eton did.
And Oster did heal over time and come to conquer the
wound in his heart made by Columbine's death at the
hands of the Highlord. And after a time it became less and
less important for Kali to tell Oster the truth of the matter.
Even so, he himself pledged to tell no more lies. No more
dangerous ones, at least.
And so it has been from that day to this. There still is a
gnome village so remote that other gnomes refer to it
when talking about remote villages, a noisy place of
clanging hammers and the occasional explosion. And it
has as its protector a champion in bronze armor, a human
in clock-work attire. And its healer is a gnome who has an
air of satisfaction because he made something that works,
though, even if pressed, he won't reveal the nature of his
Now, if you ever encounter this Clockwork Hero, you
can ask him the tale, and he will tell, as best he is able
with his human tongue and direct manner, of the story of
his reluctant heroism, of finding himself entrusted to
protect a group of small, foolish gnomes. He will speak of
encountering a beauty wrapped in slumber, a fair maiden
who never spoke to him, yet captured his heart. And he
will tell of the fell creature who killed her and threatened
his newfound people, such that they called upon him for
salvation. And he will speak of sacrifices made and
mighty oaths sworn and horrible battles fought and how
justice and valor prevailed at the end, though at terrible
But that, of course, is a Human Story, and as such we
shall not worry about it.
THE NIGHT WOLF
Nancy Varian Berberick
The village of Dimmin lay snugly in a fold of the
Kharolis Mountains, tucked between the elves' Qualinesti
and Thorbardin of the dwarves. On the outskirts of that
little village, beyond the bend of the brook where willows
overhung the water on both sides, stood a small stone
house. It was the mage's house, and Thorne had lived there
for twenty years. To the eye, he was a man just come into
his prime, but he'd been looking like that for all these
twenty years past, never a hair turned gray, and so folk
reckoned that he had an elf lurking in his ancestry
Mages enjoyed no good reputation in those days just
after the Cataclysm, but the villagers liked Thorne. From
the headman to the lowliest dairy maid, they knew him as
"our mage." Even Guarinn Hammerfell - the dwarf who
did the blacksmithing - couldn't hide a grudging fondness
for Thorne, and that was saying something. Until the
mage's arrival, Guarinn could name only one friend - Tam
the potter. But for Tam the potter, Guarinn had always
kept to himself, a grim fellow, without much warmth of
feeling. Yet, when Thorne arrived, Guarinn made room in
his lean heart for another friend. Long-lived dwarf and
long-lived mage . . . the villagers joked that Guarinn must
have reckoned Thorne would be around for a while, so he
might as well get used to him.
The people in Dimmin didn't know the half of what was
to be known about Guarinn and Tam and Thorne, though
they did consider it natural that Roulant Potter, grown to
manhood tagging at the heels of Tam and his friends,
stepped into his father's place after the potter's death - and
became just as friendly with Guarinn and Thorne.
Likely, they predicted, when young Roulant married
Una the miller's girl they'd get themselves a son who'd
inherit his grand-da's friends. No one thought it would be
a bad inheritance, mage and all. People had gotten used to
Guarinn the blacksmith. And Thorne was helpful in the
way mages can be, for he was able to charm a fretful child
to sleep or bring water springing up from a dry well -
always willing to turn his mysterious skills to good use.
No one blamed Thorne that he was never able to do
anything about the Night of the Wolf.
Anyone with eyes in Dimmin could see that it was a
great source of frustration and sorrow to their mage that
he could offer them no protection against the wolf that
terrorized the countryside one night each year. For thirty
years it had avoided traps and hunters, and that was
enough to make people understand that this was no
ordinary wolf. What natural beast could live so long?
Yet Thorne could offer no better wisdom than that
everyone keep within-doors; for life's sake, never venture
out into the dark when the two moons rose full on the first
night of autumn. And so, on this one day each year, all
around Dimmin, small children were shooed early into
cottages, cached behind bolted doors. And if a child's bed
should be near a window, this night the little one would
sleep in the loft with his parents.
Most often a stray sheep or roaming dog, sometimes a
luckless traveler benighted in the forest, satisfied the
hunger of the great beast. But only three years ago on the
Night of the Wolf, a farmer who lived but a morning's
walk from Dimmin had wakened at moonset to hear one
of his children wailing. Fast as he ran to the youngster's
bed, he'd found only an empty pallet, and the broad, deep
tracks of a large wolf outside the window. No one
questioned Thorne's advice to keep close to home on the
It must be a curse, they muttered as they bolted their
doors. What else could it be?
It was exactly that. Thorne had always known how to
end the curse, and no one wanted that ending more than
On the first day of autumn, Thorne sat before a banked
hearth-fire. Outside the stone house, cold wind hissed
around the eaves, but he didn't hear it. Eyes wide, he
dreamed as though he were deep asleep. In his dreams the
two moons, the red and the silver, filled up the sky,
showered their light upon the jagged back teeth of a ruin's
broken walls while cold, hungry howling ran down the
sky. In his dreams Thorne cried out for mercy, and got
He sat so all morning, sat unmoving all afternoon.
When the light deepened toward the day's end, he heard
his name urgently whispered, and he came away from his
dreaming slowly, like a man swimming up from dark,
deep waters. Guarinn Hammerfell stood at his shoulder,
waiting. The dwarf's face was white, drawn in haggard
lines; his dark, blue-flecked eyes were sunk into deep
hollows carved by weariness. Thorne hadn't stirred even
once during the long day, but he knew that Guarinn had
kept watch beside him and never took a step away.
"It's time, my friend," Thorne said.
Guarinn nodded, wordlessly agreeing that it was. He
said nothing as he and the mage dressed warmly in thick
woolen cloaks and stout climbing boots, spoke no word as
he slung a coil of heavy rope over his shoulder and thrust
a short-hafted throwing axe into his belt.
They crossed the brook by the old footbridge and
entered the darkening forest. At the top of the first low
hill, Thorne stopped to look down upon Dimmin as lights
sprang up in the windows of the cottages, little gleams of
gold to console in the coming night. He watched the last
cottage, the one that stood alone at the far end of the
village where the street became a narrow footpath winding
down toward the potter's kiln at the edge of the brook.
When that light sighed to life he knew that Roulant Potter
was taking up his bow and quiver, making ready to leave.
"And so the Night comes," Thorne whispered. "And
we'll try again to kill the wolf, to end the curse."
His words fell heavily into silence. Guarinn turned his
back on the lights of Dimmin and began the climb to the
tall hill in the forest, the bald place where the ruin lay.
Thorne followed, and didn't trespass into the dwarf's
Their friendship was older than people in Dimmin
realized. Guarinn knew that the mage was once called
Thorne Shape-shifter. And he knew that Thorne Shape-
shifter was the wolf. With Tam Potter, Guarinn had been
present twenty years ago when Thorne had bared his
wrists and taken up a keen-edged dagger, blindly seeking
to end the curse by killing himself.
"There IS no hope but this blade," Thorne had cried
that day, sickened by the taste of what the wolf had killed.
"I will change every year, unless one of you kills the wolf.
Neither of you has been able to do that."
He'd meant no reproof, for he knew why his friends
had failed each year. That, too, was part of the curse. Still,
they reproached themselves, and he knew that, as well.
He found no hope anywhere, not even among the wise
at the Tower of Wayreth. He'd fled there, after the curse
had been spoken, but he'd been driven from that haven by
the dark magic of the curse itself, compelled to return to
the broken ruin in the mountains at the rising of the full
autumn moons. Ten years he'd hidden there. The efforts of
the most skillful mages at Wayreth had not been able to
blunt that compulsion. The wisest had sadly counselled
Thorne that he must accept that there was only one way to
end the curse. The wolf must die, and only Guarinn or
Tam Potter could kill it. So said the curse. But they had
It was twenty years ago that Thorne decided there
might be another way to end the curse. And so, with
careful precision, he'd set a dagger's glinting edge against
the blue veins in his wrist. In the end, whether by some
agency of the curse itself, or an innate will to survive that
was stronger than he'd guessed, he'd not been able to draw
the steel across his wrist.
Guarinn had wept for both joy and rue over his friend's
inability to end his life. And Tam Potter, taking the dagger
gently from the mage's hand, said: "Thorne, come back
and live in Dimmin with Guarinn and me. We'll find a
way to kill the wolf. We'll keep trying."
In the summer when Tam died, Roulant Potter
learned that he'd inherited his father's part in a curse that
was older than he. Thorne had told Roulant just what he
knew his father had believed - what Guarinn yet believed:
when the wolf was dead, the curse would end. "What will
happen to you?" young Roulant had asked. "I will not be
hurt," Thorne had replied. "I will be free."
Some of that was true, and some of it wasn't. Thorne
never told his friends all he'd learned during the time at
Shrouded in shadow, hidden beneath a stone
outcropping at the forest's edge, Una wrapped her arms
around her drawn-up knees, hugged herself to muffle the
drumming of her heart. She was outside after sunset on
the Night of the Wolf. Una had not lived in Dimmin but
five years, come to stay with her cousin, the miller's wife,
after her parents died. She'd been thirteen then, and it
hadn't taken her very long to learn that no one in the
village ventured outdoors on the first night of autumn.
No one, that is, except - lately - Roulant Potter. He
would stealthily enter the forest here soon. Una had seen
him do this each year on the Night for two years, and
there had never been a question in her mind that she'd
keep Roulant's secret faithfully. She'd loved him as long
as she'd known him, and he'd never been shy about letting
her know that he felt the same way. They would marry
And maybe not. Una's faithful silence on the subject of Roulant's
Night-walk extended to Roulant himself, for she didn't know how to ask
the question that would sound like an accusation: WHAT DO YOU KNOW
ABOUT THE NIGHT OF THE WOLF THAT EVEN OUR MAGE DOESN'T?
And so the secret cast a shadow between them. Day by
day, a little at a time, the shadow was changing them, as if
by a malicious magic, into uneasy strangers.
As darkness gathered beneath the forest's thin eaves,
old dead leaves ran scrabbling before the wind. In the
luminous sky, one early, eager star shone out. A dark
shape stood atop the hill, a young man with a great
breadth of shoulder and a long, loping stride. Roulant
stopped at the crest and stood silhouetted against the sky,
the last light shining on his brown-gold hair. Still as stone,
he hung there, between the village and the wildwood -
stood a long time before he at last vanished into the
twilight beneath the trees.
The wind moaned round the rocks, and Una shivered
as she checked the draw of the dagger at her belt. She was
afraid: of the Night, and of what she might discover, and
of what she might lose. But she hugged her courage close.
She would follow Roulant tonight, and she wouldn't turn
back. She had to know what part he played in this yearly
night of dread.
Soft on the cold air, Roulant heard a whisper, the dry
rattling of brush behind him. He turned quickly, saw a
flash of red in the tangled thickets on the slope below:
some padding fox or vixen on the trail of prey. Roulant
went on climbing. He must reach the ruin before
The tumbled stone walls atop the bald hill in the
forest had been his destination each Night for the past
two, as it had been his father's every year since Roulant
could remember. When he was a boy, after his mother's
death, Roulant used to think he knew why his father went
out into the forest on the Night of the Wolf. He believed
that Tam was a brave champion upon a secret quest to
help save the people of Dimmin. Roulant'd never told
anyone what he believed, nor did he mention it to his
father. A secret is a secret, and Tam need not carry the
burden of knowing his had been discovered.
The year the wolf had killed the farmer's child was
the last Tam went up to the ruin. The summer after, he
died. Roulant was seventeen then, and that was when he
learned that Thorne was the wolf.
It was a hard thing to learn. Roulant had known
Thorne since childhood, had felt for him the magical awe
and affection that is hero-worship. Even knowing that the
mage became the wolf, once every annum, could not
break their bond. From that year to this, enmeshed in the
web of an old curse, Roulant had been drawn out into the
forest on the Night to stand with Guarinn Hammerfell and
promise Thorne they would kill the wolf, swear they
would free their friend from the curse.
This, on the face of it, was a difficult promise to keep,
for wolves are hard to hunt and kill. But Roulant, in
youthful zeal, had never truly thought it would be
impossible. He was a good hunter. His father had taught
him to be a faultless shot with bow and arrow. Guarinn
had taught him to track, and made the lessons easy,
companionable rambles in the forest. As he'd stood
faithfully with Tam, Guarinn was always with Roulant.
Yet, just as Tam had failed his own promise, Roulant had,
too - so far.
There were reasons for that, the kind Roulant dared
not think about here and alone in the dark forest.
Wind soughed low, herding fallen leaves. All around,
the night drew in close, dark and sighing. Roulant stopped
for breath before he began to climb the last stony path, the
barely seen trace that would lead him to the ruin.
Watching his breath plume in the frosty air, he thought
that the pale mist was just like the promises he'd made to
Thorne - easily blown away.
And Roulant knew that if he failed again tonight, he'd
be forced to break a different promise, one that had
nothing to do with wolves and curses. If he didn't kill the
wolf tonight, in the morning he would go to Una and tell
her that he couldn't marry her. He would do that, though
both their hearts would break.
A dear and pretty girl, his Una, with her earnest green
eyes and her red-gold hair. He was no poet, but late at
night Roulant liked to watch the fire in the hearth and
think that the rosy flames, so lovely and generous with
their warmth, reminded him of Una. Whatever joy would
come on their wedding day would be swiftly
overshadowed by his terrible obligation to go up to the
ruin year after year, trying, as his father had tried, to bring
an end to the Night of the Wolf. How could Roulant come
back to Una every year, with blood on his hands as surely
as it was on Thorne's?
And yet ... how could he bear to look down the long
years of a life without her?
Roulant put his back into the last climb and soon left
the dark fastness of the forest to see Thorne and Guarinn
waiting in the paler light of the clearing. The moons were
rising, mere suggestions of light above the mountain. Soon
they would spill red and silver light on the bald hill
crowned by frost-whitened, shattered walls. Roulant left
the forest, trying to shut out the grim sense that the events
of this Night were fated.
From the obscuring dark at the forest's edge, Una
watched him join his friends. Once Roulant and Thorne
and Guarinn climbed the hill to the ruin, Una went
noiselessly around the base, up the slope as silently as a
shadow, and entered at the opposite side to hide in the
small shelter of blackened beams and piled stone that once
had shaped a bridal chamber.
Thorne stood in the center of the ruin, surrounded by
the broken stone, his back to the rising moons. He lifted
his head, sniffed the air. Guarinn tied a slipknot around
one end of the rope he'd carried. Roulant strung his bow
and placed three arrows in easy reach on the flat of a
"Time, my friend," the dwarf said, his forge-scarred
hands shaking a little, though he gripped the rope hard.
They'd tried to hold Thorne with rope before, five years
ago. It was Tam who had stood readying bow and bolt
then, not Roulant. Guarinn thought it might be different
this time with a younger eye, a steadier hand to take a
well-timed shot at the instant of changing. Thorne closed
his eyes, shut out the sight of the rope that would hold
him, of Roulant readying a long, steel-headed shaft for
flight, and nodded to Guarinn.
"Do it, and hurry."
When the noose passed over his head and settled on
his neck, Thorne heard himself panting hoarsely, like an
anxious beast mindlessly straining for release. The rope
stank of hemp and tar and the dark scent of smoke, fire's
ghost. In moments, like the return of an unhealed malady,
he'd feel the bonds of humanity fall away from him:
compassion replaced by hunger, an imperative that knew
no mercy. Reason and skill changed by fast, fevered
degrees to instinct, which existed only to serve the needs
of survival. Even now, his senses filled with the complex
richness of scent only an animal knows. Even now the
scents aroused hunger.
The man knew the fear he smelled on Guarinn as well-
justified, not to be scorned. The wolf would only smell the
fear and know instinctively that this was a victim to feed
hunger. Thorne wished that Guarinn would hurry, for very
soon Thorne Shape-shifter, once known for his mastery of
this most difficult of the magic arts, would not be able to
hold back the changing.
Crouched in her cold dark shelter, Una stared in
amazed alarm to see Guarinn place the noose round
Thorne's neck. Like most people in Dimmin, she felt like
an intruder in Guarinn's company, his glum silences made
her a stranger to be kept at arm's length, mistrusted. But
she knew that Roulant loved Guarinn as truly as he loved
Thorne and had loved his own father. Though she'd heard
Thorne invite the binding, saw Roulant standing by in
silence, Una watched the dwarf with narrowed eyes.
Each knot he tied was strong, and as he worked,
Guarinn's face was like a stark, bleak landscape, scoured
by sorrow, forsaken of all but the thinnest hope. Yet he did
the rough work carefully and, were it anyone else, Una
would have said tenderly. He took great care to cause no
hurt, and watching, unable to find any reason for what she
was seeing, Una swallowed hard against an ache of tears.
Tears for Thorne, bound; for Roulant, who stood as still as
the mage, watching. And for Guarinn Hammerfell who, of
them all, looked as if he alone hated what was being done.
And she wondered, what WAS being done? And
why? From the forest Una heard the clap of an owl's
wings; hard on that, the faint, dying scream of a small
creature caught in dagger-sharp talons. The wind stirred,
cold from behind her as a long, low moaning slid across
the night. An uncanny sound, a grievous pleading.
Trembling, with cold fear, she saw Roulant pick up an
arrow, nock it to the bowstring, his stance the broad one of
a man preparing to put an arrow right through a straw-butt
at the bull's-eye. Guarinn moved to the side, moonlight
running on the bitter edge of the throwing axe in his hand.
The mage, alone, wearing the light of the moons like a
shimmering cloak of red and silver, sank to his knees.
Guarinn took two more quick paces to the side, careful not
to get between the mage and the wall. Roulant stood
where he was, and, after he'd marked Guarinn's position,
he never looked away from Thorne.
The night began to shimmer around Thorne, waver
like the air above a banked fire. Una, who'd been still as
stock, made a sound then, a whisper of boot-heel against
stone as she crept closer to the opening of her small shelter
Faint though the sound had been, it was heard.
Thorne jerked his head up, looked directly at her.
Cold fear skittered along Una's skin, cramped her belly
painfully. She wanted to reach for her dagger, but she
could only sit motionless, caught and stilled by Thorne's
eyes - the eyes of an animal lurking beyond the campfire's
pale. And the shape of him, she thought, the shape of him
is somehow WRONG. Something about his face, the
length of his arms. But surely that was a trick of
moonlight and shimmering air? And crouching there, he
didn't hold himself like a man, on his knees. He had hands
and feet flat to the ground, as an animal would.
Una pressed her hands hard to her mouth, trying to
muffle her cry of horror and pity when she saw Thorne
look away, turn all his attention to a feverish gnawing at
the rope that bound him.
The rope wasn't doing a good job of holding him now,
for his shape was changing rapidly, and in some places the
coil was slipping away from what had once been a man's
wrist or ankle . . . and were now the smaller joints of an
animal, a broad-chested wolf, its gray pelt silver in the
light of two moons, its dripping fangs glistening.
Guarinn cried "Now, Roulant! DO IT!" and
instinctively Una shoved herself far back against the
broken wall behind her, flinching as rubble slithered down
the hill, the clatter of stone loud in the night.
The sound did not distract Guarinn, his axe hit the
wolf in the shoulder, biting hard, though not lodging in
either muscle or bone. But Roulant hesitated, if only the
space of a heart's beat, and so when the wolf leaped at
him, it was well beneath the arrow's flight. Roaring, the
wolf hit him hard, sent him crashing to the stony ground,
pinned him there with its weight.
And then Una bolted out of her shelter, ran across the
moon-lighted ruin, her own dagger in hand, before she
knew exactly what she meant to do.
They were upon him, the smaller male and the young
female, with daggers that would bite deeper than his fangs
could. The wolf, who knew nothing about rage or
vengeance or any purpose other than survival, heaved up
from the one sprawled helpless beneath him, abandoned
the enticing scent of blood and meat for immediate
On the wings of pain, like wings of fire, the wolf won
its freedom at the price of another agonizing bound over
the broken wall. It left blood on the stones of the hillside,
all along the path into the forest, and it carried away with
it the noose still clinging round its neck.
Guarinn had made a bright, high campfire in the center
of the ruin, but Roulant didn't think it was doing much to
warm or comfort Una. Nor did it seem to help Una that
Roulant held her tightly in his arms - he wondered if she
would ever stop weeping. Somewhere to the north the
wolf howled, a long and lonely cry. Una shuddered, and
Roulant held her closer.
"Una," he said, turning away from the reminder of
failure. "Why did you follow me here?"
She sat straighter, her fists clenched on her knees, her
eyes still wet but no longer pouring tears. "I've known for
two years that you went out into the forest on the Night.
And I've known . . ."
She looked at Guarinn sitting hunched over the fire.
The dwarf turned a little away, seemingly disinterested in
whatever they discussed. Roulant, who knew him,
understood that he was offering privacy.
"You've known what?" he asked, gently.
"That something's come between us. Something - a
secret. Roulant, I've been afraid, and I had to know why
you went into the forest on the Night, when no one else -
"Someone else," Guarinn amended. "Thorne and me.
And now that you're here, I suppose you think you should
know the secret you've spied out?"
Una bristled, and Roulant shook his head. "Guarinn,
she's here and that gives her a right to know what she
"Not as far as I'm concerned."
"Maybe not," Roulant said. "But she has rights where
I'm concerned. I should have honored them before now."
Guarinn eyed them both, quietly judging. "All right,
then. Listen well, Una, and I'll give you the answer you've
come looking for.
"This ruin you see around us used to be Thorne's
house," he said. "A quiet place and peaceful. No more
though. It's only a pile of stone now, a cairn to mark the
place where three dooms were doled out this night thirty
years ago. Three dooms, twined one round the other to
make a single fate."
The wind blew, tangling the smoke and flame of the
small campfire. Roulant wrapped his arms around Una
again and held her close for warmth.
"Girl," the dwarf said. "Your hiding place tonight was
once a bridal chamber. It never saw the joy it was fitted
out for . . ."
"Thorne asked but two guests to come witness and
celebrate his marriage. One of them was me, and I was
glad to stand with him as he pledged his wedding vows.
The other was Tam Potter, and his was a double joy that
night, for he was Thorne's friend and the bride's cousin.
She was from away south, and I don't think her closest kin
liked the idea of her wedding a mage. But Tam was fair
pleased, and so he was the kinsman who bestowed her
"Mariel, the girl's name; and she was pretty enough,
but no rare beauty. Yet that night she glowed brightly, put
the stars to shame; for so girls will do when they are soon
to have what they want and need. She needed Thorne
Shape-shifter and had flouted most of her kin to have him.
No less did Thorne need her.
"The first night of autumn, it was, and the bright stars
shone down on us as we stood outside the cottage. Old
legends have it that wedding vows taken in the twined
light of the red moon and the silver will make a marriage
strong in love and faith. Perhaps those legends would have
been proven that night. Perhaps. We did never learn that,
for another guest came to the wedding - uninvited,
unwelcome, and the first we knew of his coming was
when he stood in our midst, dark and cold as death.
"A mage, that uninvited guest, black-robed and with a
heart like hoar-frost - and you must remember that this is
no tale of rival suitors, one come in the very nick of time
to rapt away the maiden he loves. This is a tale of two
young men, one so poisonously jealous of the other that he
must - for hate - spoil whatever his rival in power had.
"The name of the Spoiler? I will not speak it. Let it
never be remembered. This is how dwarves reward
murderers, and I know no other way as good.
"He laid hands on the girl, that dark mage, in a way no
man should touch another's wife; magicked her from sight
before any one of us could move to prevent. Aye, but he
didn't take her far, in hatred and arrogance took her only
within the cottage. In the very instant we knew her gone,
we heard her voice raised in terror and rage. Close as she
was, the evil mage's wizard ways kept us from coming to
her aid until it was too late. The spell lifted. Thorne found
her quickly in the bridal chamber. And he saw the mage
defile her . . . and worse.
"Mariel lay cold and still on the ground, like a fragile
pretty doll flung aside and broken, Thorne's dear love
stricken for spite by the Spoiler.
"Seeing her dead, Thorne Shape-shifter showed the
Spoiler how he'd earned his name.
"You have seen the wolf, and so you know what the
Spoiler saw in the moments before his death. But you have
never heard such screaming as I heard that night: never
heard such piteous pleading, nor heard anyone wail for
mercy as the Spoiler did, him torn by the fangs of the great
"Tam Potter and I could have tried to stop Thorne, but
we did not. We stood by, watched the wolf at his ravening
work. We should have granted mercy."
Despite the hot, high fire, Una sat shivering, her hand
a small fist in Roulant's.
"Tam died wishing we'd granted that mercy," Guarinn
said softly. "And I sit here now wishing no less, for the
Spoiler died with a curse on his lips. It was a hard one, as
the curses of dying mages tend to be, and it marked us all
with the fate of hunter and hunted."
Stiff and cold from sitting, Una got to her feet; she did
not answer when Roulant called to her. She needed a place
to be private with what she'd learned. The night was crisp
and bright, as lovely as it must have been this time thirty
years ago. As she walked, Una discovered the shape of the
ruin, saw that it was very like the little stone house near
the bend of the brook in Dimmin. It lacked only one room
to be exactly the same. In the Dimmin house, Thorne kept
only a stark sleeping loft under the eaves.
Una stood for a long time before the dark mouth of
the little cave of fire-blacked beam and broken stone that
had sheltered her tonight; all that was left of a fouled
She returned to stand by the fire. "Tell me," she said.
"Thorne must surrender his very self one night each
year and hope that Roulant or I will end the curse by
killing the wolf. This," Guarinn said, "is an inherited
Una stood quietly, her eyes on the fire, the flames and
the embers. "If you kill the wolf, what will happen to
It was Roulant - silent till then - who answered.
"The curse will be over. He'll begin to age, grow old
again, like the rest of us. Thorne hasn't got any elven
blood, Una, though everyone thinks so. It's the curse that's
held him in time."
"Guarinn," she said softly. "Why haven't you killed the
wolf in all these thirty years?"
"You'd think it would be easy, aye? Take the first shot
as he was changing and end the matter. It isn't so easy.
Once before, binding him slowed the change, and we tried
that again tonight. But sometimes ..." The dwarf
shuddered. "Sometimes he's changed between one breath
and the next. Sometimes faster than that, and the wolf is
gone before either one of us can pick up a weapon. He
doesn't just LOOK like a wolf. He IS one! He'll tear at you,
running, and he's too canny to stay around fighting losing
"So," she said. "You have to go out and hunt the
Neither answered. A glance passed between them and
Roulant got to his feet. He took her hand, his own very
cold as he led her into the shadow of a low broken wall.
"Una," he said. "We can kill the wolf if we can find it -
"That won't be hard tonight. You could track him by
"We could. Except ..." His face shone white in the
moonlight, his eyes dark with dread. "Except that we dare
not set foot out there!"
She frowned, leaned on the wall to look out. All she
saw was night and stars and the moons hanging over the
clearing. She heard night noise, owls wondering and hares
scampering, a stream laughing over stones.
"I know," Roulant said. "I see everything that you see,
just as you see it. When I'm standing here." He turned his
back on the forest. "When I set foot outside the ruin - even
hold my hand out beyond the wall . . . It's terrible out
there. The Spoiler laid a curse on us too, one we've never
found a way past. In here, we're safe. Out there . . . they'll kill us."
Una heard this, but she was staring out at the forest and the night,
thinking about what he'd said about things being very different beyond
the wall. She looked down and saw her loosely clasped hands just
beyond the wall. Unlike the others, she neither saw nor felt any curse in
the forest or the night.
Una turned away from the wall and walked past Roulant and
Guarinn without a word. She picked up Roulant's bow and quiver on the
way. She'd not gotten but a few yards when she heard Roulant shout
something, heard Guarinn scrambling to his feet, echoing the warning
cry. Una ran, heeding no warning. She vaulted the wall where the wolf
As she bounded down the hill, Una hoped that whatever kept
Roulant and Guarinn helpless in the ruin would not affect her. It was
frightening enough to go hunting a wounded wolf in the night, and her
only a middling shot with a bow. Still, the beast was wounded, and if she
could once get a good aim, she'd be able to kill it.
Roulant jumped the wall, chased heedlessly after Una. And he
thought: Idiot girl! Guarinn was a long reach behind. He prayed that
Roulant would be able to snatch her back to safety in time, that he
wouldn't have to follow.
Una was too fast. She vanished into the shadows at the foot of the
hill. Roulant stood where he'd landed.
Guarinn eyed the darkness, and Roulant standing outside the wall,
straining like a leashed hound. The night would spring alive at any
moment, suddenly boiling with horror. The wall would be on them.
Guarinn nervously fingered the haft of his axe. "Roulant, what do
"I'm going to fetch Una back, that's what I think!"
Guarinn heard Roulant's answer only faintly, for the young man was
already at the foot of the hill. Alone in the ruin, Guarinn shifted from foot
to foot, indecisively. "This is insane," he muttered. "I KNOW what's
going to happen to me if I leave here ..."
He took a breath, fueling courage and a suddenly rising hope.
Maybe nothing would happen.
Roulant can chase after his girl if that's what he wants to do,
Guarinn thought. But I still have my axe and good strong arm, and I'm
going for the wolf.
Guarinn hopped the wall. But when his feet hit the ground he found
himself on the wrong side of the border between reason and nightmare,
caught in the trap the Spoiler had laid for any wolfhunter who ventured
out of the ruin.
The wall walked. And the dead with him.
They crawled, and shambled, and dragged themselves staggering
through a foul and freezing fog, each trying desperately to reach
Guarinn as the damned would grasp at one last hope. He could not move,
stood rooted like an oak in the ice-toothed mist, helpless as decaying
hands plucked at him, clung to him, shoulder and wrist and arm. And
this was no silent place, this nightmare-realm. It was filled up with
the mad shrieking and frenzied grieving of people he'd known in life,
and some he'd never seen until they were dead.
A hunter who'd died to feed the wolf's hunger.
An old peddler night-caught in the forest, hardly recognizable as
human when he'd been found.
A child, a little boy screaming now as it had when, three years ago,
the wolf had torn him from his bed. Or was that Guarinn's own voice
screaming, his own throat torn with the violence of terror as the child's
had been by the wolf's fangs?
Then came a howling, a long, aching sound of abandonment. The
wolf. Or a friend forsaken. Or an innocent dying.
GUARINN, YOU'VE FAILED ME, FAILED THEM ALL! Hands clawed at his
face, dug and tore at his throat, leaving bits of their own flesh and
grave-mold behind to foul his beard and hair.
FAITHLESS FRIEND! YOU STINK OF THEIR BLOOD, GUARINN HAMMERFELL!
Guarinn cried out in terror, couldn't tell his own voice
from theirs, no longer knew who accused - they or him.
The ice-mist filled up his lungs, stopped his breath,
MURDERER! GUARINN CHILD-KILLER! GUARINN -
"Guarinn! Breathe! Come on, breathe!"
Roulant shook his friend till his teeth rattled, shook
him harder still, but to no effect. Roulant'd heard but one
choking gasp of terror, just as he was entering the forest,
and he'd known that whatever chance-found charm was
keeping him safe and sane outside the ruin wasn't working
for Guarinn. The dwarf was trapped, unable to move, even
to breathe, while mind and soul were adrift in the cold
country of nightmare.
"Guarinn," Roulant shouted, fearful. Perhaps Una was
safe because the Spoiler's trap was meant to harm no one
but those who bound by the curse. Perhaps Roulant was
safe because he left the ruin to find Una, not to end the
curse. But Guarinn must have left the ruin with plans to
kill the wolf. That's what sprung the Spoiler's trap,
"Guarinn!" he cried again, gathering his friend close,
holding him. "We've got to find Una! I need you to help
me. Please, Guarinn! Come back and help me . . ."
A breath, just a small one.
"Guarinn - help me find Una. We must find Una!"
The dwarf drew another breath, no steadier, but
deeper. Roulant held him hard, forced him to look
nowhere but into his eyes. "Listen - LISTEN! Don't think
about anything else but this: We have to find Una. Don't
even think about why. We're here for no reason but to find
Una. Do you understand?"
Guarinn swallowed hard.
"DO YOU UNDERSTAND?"
"Yes," Guarinn said hoarsely. "What next?"
Roulant thought as he helped his friend to his feet.
The wolf woke to pain and hunger. He was not
frightened by the pain, knowing he could transcend it. He
was afraid of hunger. Wolves worship only one god, and
the god's name is Hunger.
He'd found shelter quickly after he'd fled his attackers,
a soft nest of old leaves beneath a rock outcropping.
There, downwind of his enemies so he could smell them if
they pursued, he'd licked clean the shallow cuts on his
belly and legs, the deeper one on his shoulder. He'd
gnawed off the trailing end of the rope, for that frightened
him nearly as much as hunger. It had more than once
snagged in bushes to choke him as he'd fled. He'd gotten
most of it, wearing only the noose now, a foul-smelling
collar. Free and safe, he'd curled tight against the cold -
sleeping lightly, dreaming of thirst and hunger as a thin
veil of clouds came from the east to hide the stars.
Now the shadows had softer edges and the darkness
was deeper. The wind told him that water was no great
distance away - clean and cold by the smell; by the sound,
no more than a streamlet. It would be enough to provide
thirst's ease. And there was another scent, not close yet,
only faintly woven into night, but the wolf knew it -
human-scent, burnt meat and smoke and old skins; sweat
and the light, sweet odor of flesh; running beneath that,
the warm smell of blood; over it all, the tang of fear, sharp
and enticing on the cold night air. He'd seen this young
female not long ago, and he had the mark of her steel fang
on him. Hers was the least of his wounds, for she'd been
distracted by fear and not very strong.
With his lean god for company, the wolf rose stiffly
from his warm nest.
Una knelt to examine the dark blot marking the faded
earth of the deer trail, and by the thin light of the moons
saw that it was no more than shadow. Cold wind blew
steadily from the east, carried the smell of a morning
snow. Una shivered and got to her feet. She'd not seen a
blood-mark or the imprints of the wolf's limping passage
for some time now, but the last real sign had been along
this game-trail, a path no more than a faint, wandering line
to show where deer passed between high-reaching trees in
their foraging. Lacking a better choice, Una continued
along the path.
The wolf had not proven as easy to track as she'd
thought, and now she wondered whether she'd ever find
him. She wondered, too, whether it would turn out that the
beast found her, or was even now stalking behind. She
tried not to think about that. All she needed was a clear
shot. She'd put plenty of arrows through the straw-butt,
she could put an arrow through a wolf. She could free
Thorne. She could free them all. But she had little
confidence ruling her thoughts, and so, her attention was
focused behind her rather than in front when the deer trail
ended abruptly at the muddy verge of a shallow stream.
Una and the wolf saw each other at the same moment,
and she knew - as prey knows in its bones - that she might
have time to nock an arrow to string, but she wasn't going
to have time to let the bolt fly.
Guarinn tried to maintain a narrow focus, to shut
down all thinking and track like an animal, using only
sight and scent and hearing. He measured his success by
the nearness of dead voices. At best, the haunting dead
were never wholly gone, only banished to a distance he
could endure. The protection Roulant had shown him was
working, but only just. How fast would the Spoiler's trap
catch them if they came upon the wolf?
Soft - a whisper shivering across the night - Guarinn
heard the rattle of brush. He stopped, keeping his hands
fisted and well away from the axe in his belt while he
waited to hear the sound again.
"The wind," Roulant said, low.
Guarinn didn't think so. That one soft rattle had been a
discordant note. When the sound came again, Guarinn
knew it wasn't wind-crafted. Nor was it soft now.
Something was running through the brush.
"It's Una!" Roulant cried and bolted past Guarinn.
She wasn't alone. Like a dark echo, something else
came crashing through the brush behind her.
Fleet, eyes huge as a hunted doe's, Una burst through
the brush, frantically trying to nock arrow to bow as she
ran. She was having little luck, and even at a distance
Guarinn saw her hands shaking, fumbling uselessly at
shaft and string.
"Una," Roulant shouted. "Here!"
Seeing them for the first time, she redoubled her
speed. Relief and joy and - last - panic marked her face
when her foot turned on a stone and she fell hard to the
ground, the breath blasted from her, and the bow flung
from her hand.
Guarinn saw the wolf first. The sight of it - eyes redly
blazing, fangs gleaming - triggered instinct. In the very
moment the wolf leaped, the dwarf snatched his throwing
axe from his belt - and tumbled over the edge of
The wolf smelled fear and loved it - the scent of easy
prey. He sensed no threat in the smaller male, standing
motionless; nor was the young female - struggling for
breath, fighting to rise from the ground - any danger.
These he could ignore for now. But the third, the bigger
male . . . from him came the fiery scent of a pack-
defender. He was the danger and the threat.
The wolf hurtled past Una. Choking on the sudden,
cold rush of air, she heard the impact of bodies - the wolf
snarling and Roulant's grunt of shock and pain.
And she saw Guarinn standing still as stone, his
throwing axe gripped in a nerveless hand.
"Guarinn!" she cried, clawing at the ground in desperate
search of the bow. "Help him!"
Guarinn never moved . . . and she found the bow,
string-broken, useless. Roulant screamed, a raging curse
turned to pain as the wolf's fangs tore at his shoulder. The
cry of pain became a chant - her name, gasped over and
over in the staggering rhythm of his ragged breathing as
he struggled with the beast.
Una gained her feet, running. She flung herself at the
wolf's back, dagger in hand. Clinging to the writhing
beast's neck, choking on the smell of blood, she struck
wildly. Poorly. Hurting, but not killing.
The wolf heaved up.
"Guarinn! Help me! The wolf is killing him!"
The beast twisted sharply, and threw her off. Its fangs
dripped frothy red, and behind it, Roulant lurched to his
feet, gasping his terrible chant. The wolf turned, leaped at
him. Una didn't know which of them screamed, man or
wolf. The sound of it tore through the night, a wild
Guarinn Hammerfell stood at the center of a
maelstrom of wild moaning and screaming. GUARINN!
HELP HIM! Hands clawed at him, shreds of livid flesh
falling away to expose bones as white and brittle as ice.
THE WOLF IS KILLING HIM! Hollow voices accused
him, and the foul names - child-killer! murderer! faithless
friend! - turned the ice-mist filling his lungs to poison.
A wind rose to pound at him, tear at him, with such
violence that even the dead hands, shedding tattered flesh,
rattling bones, fell away before it. Howling, screaming,
ROULANT! Familiar with everyone who haunted this
nightmare realm, Guarinn knew that name had no
business being spoken here. He snatched at it, clutched it
tight for a lifeline. He was choking, fighting for air,
falling . . . and staggering on the deer trail, his axe
clenched tight in his fist.
The wolf lunged again at Roulant, leaping for his throat.
In the only instant of sanity he might get before the dead
snatched him back into the Spoiler's trap, Guarinn sighted,
threw, and didn't miss.
The wolf fell to the ground, its spine severed. Hard
and dark, the beast's eyes held Guarinn for a long moment.
Then they softened, and the night filled up with silence.
The dying wolf became man. A moment, the man had,
and he used it to speak. Only whispered words, barely
"Roulant... are you hurt?"
Roulant ignored the question. "Thorne! You're . ..
dying! No, Thorne. This isn't how it's supposed to be!
Thorne smiled, shifting his gaze to Guarinn.
"You," Thorne said. "Old friend, you knew I wouldn't
survive, didn't you?"
Guarinn heard grieving, Una and Roulant, one
sobbing softly in shock and the aftermath of terror, the
other offering comfort in the face of his own astonished
"And you killed the wolf. Knowing." Thorne closed
his eyes. "Thank you."
Guarinn lifted his friend's hand and held it, very
gently, close against his heart until he felt the last pulse,
and some time longer after that.
Limping, leaning on Una for support, Roulant knelt
beside his friends, the living and the dead.
He and Guarinn and Una knelt together as snow began
to fall, listened to dawn-wind singing. It held no echo of
wolfish howling. The Night of the Wolf was over, and
Roulant saw the peace of it in Guarinn's smile.
The Potion Sellers
It was just after MIDSUMMER'S, ON a fine, golden
morning, when the seller of potions came to the town of
Perched precariously upon the high bench of a
peculiar-looking wagon, he drove through the borough's
narrow, twisting streets. The wagon, pulled by a pair of
perfectly matched dappled ponies, was a tall, boxlike craft
all varnished in black and richly decorated with carved
scrollwork of gilded wood. On the wagon's side panel,
painted in a fantastically brilliant hue of purple, was the
picture of a bottle above which was scribed, in flowing
letters of serpentine green, three strange words:
MOSSWINE'S MIRACULOUS ELIXIRS. It was a
mysterious message indeed, and startled the townsfolk
who looked up from their morning tasks and chores in
curiosity as the wagon rattled by.
The seller of potions himself was a young-looking
man, with hair the color of new straw and eyes as blue as
the summer sky. He was clad in finery fit for a noble -
albeit in hues a bit brighter than most nobles would choose
- and his dark, crimson-lined cape billowed out behind
him in the morning breeze. He waved to the townsfolk as
he passed by, his broad grin rivalling the sun for sheer
On the hard wooden bench next to the seller of potions
bounced a short, swarthy-looking fellow. His look was not
nearly so cheerful as his companion's, but then this was
only typical. He was a dwarf, and it has often been said
that dwarvenkind is every bit as hard and unyielding as the
metals dwarves are so fond of forging deep in their dim
mountain smithies. This particular dwarf wore a dour
expression, his heavy eyebrows drawn down over his iron-
gray eyes in a scowl. His coarse black beard was so long
he wore it tucked into his broad leather belt, and his
shaggy hair was bound with a leather thong into a braid
behind his neck.
"You know, you're going to scare the townsfolk out of
what little wits they have with that sour look you're
wearing," the seller of potions said quietly to the dwarf
through clenched teeth, all the while grinning and waving.
"It won't do us a great deal of good if they all take one
look at you and go scurrying inside to bolt their doors. At
least, not until after we have their money. I don't suppose
you could smile for a change, could you?"
"I am smiling," the dwarf answered in a gruff voice.
His craggy visage was not quite as warm and friendly as a
chunk of wind-hewn granite, but almost.
The seller of potions eyed the dwarf critically. "Maybe
you shouldn't try so hard," he suggested lightly, but the
joke was completely lost on the dour-faced dwarf. The
seller of potions sighed and shook his head. His name was
Jastom, and he had traveled with this particular dwarf long
enough to know when argument and teasing were
pointless. The dwarf's name was Algrimmbeldebar, but
over the years Jastom had taken to simply calling him
Grimm. Not only did the name slip more readily from the
tongue, it also suited the dwarf's disposition far better.
Rumors sped faster than sparrows through the towns
narrow streets, and by the time the wagon rolled into Fax-
fail's central square, a sizeable crowd of curious townsfolk
had gathered expectantly. It wouldn't be the largest
audience Jastom had ever hawked potions to, but it
wouldn't be the smallest either. Faxfail was a town deep in
the Garnet mountains of southern Solamnia. The nearest
city of consequence - that would be Kaolyn - was a good
three day's journey to the north and west. These were
country folk. And country folk tended to be far more
trusting than city folk. Or gullible, depending upon one's
choice of words.
"I suppose this means I'll have to mix more elixirs,"
Grimm grumbled, eyeing the growing throng. The dwarf
opened a small panel behind the bench and nimbly
disappeared inside the wagon.
Concocting potions was Grimm's task; selling them
was Jastom's. It was an arrangement that had proven quite
profitable on their journeys from one end of Ansalon to
the other. The two had first met some years before, in the
markets of Kalaman. At the time, neither had been making
a terribly good living for himself. Even Jastom's brilliant
smile and ingenuous visage had not been enough to
interest folk in the crude baubles he was attempting to
foist off as good luck charms. And as for the dwarf, his
gloomy, glowering looks tended to keep potential
customers well away from the booth where he was trying
to sell his elixirs. One night, the two had found themselves
sharing a table in a tavern, each lamenting his particular
misfortune over a mug of ale. Both had realized that each
had what the other lacked, and so their unlikely but
lucrative partnership was born.
The wagon rolled to a halt in the center of the town's
square, and Jastom leapt acrobatically to the cobbles. He
bowed deeply, flourishing his heavy cape as grandly as a
court magician, and then spread his arms wide.
"Gather 'round, good folk of Faxfail, gather 'round!"
he called out. His voice was clear as a trumpet, honed by
years of hawking wares until it was as precise as the finest
musical instrument. "Wonders await you this day, so
gather 'round and behold!"
From out of nowhere (or, in fact, from out of his
sleeve) a small purple bottle appeared in Jastom's upturned
palm. A gasp of amazement passed through the crowd as
folk young and old alike leaned forward to peer at the odd
little bottle. The morning sunlight sparkled through the
purple glass, illuminating a thick, mysterious-looking
"Wonders indeed," Jastom went on, lowering his voice
to a theatrical whisper that was nonetheless audible to
even the most distant onlookers. "After just one sip of this
precious potion, all your aches and ailments, all your
malingering maladies and ponderous pains, will vanish as
though they had never been. For a mere ten coins of steel"
- a dismissing gesture of his hand made this particular
detail seem of the barest significance - "this bottle of
Mosswine's Miraculous Elixir will heal all!"
This last, of course, was not precisely true, and
Jastom knew it. He and Grimm were charlatans. Fakes.
Swindlers. The potion in the purple bottle couldn't so
much as heal a rabbit of the sniffles let alone any of the
dire ills he was claiming. Mosswine wasn't even Jastom's
real name. It was Jastom Mosswallow. However, by the
time folk in any one place realized the truth of things,
Jastom and Grimm would always be long gone, headed
for the next town or city to ply their trade.
It wasn't at all a bad business as Jastom reckoned
things. He and Grimm got a purse full of coins for their
efforts, and in return the folk they duped got something to
believe in, at least for a little while. And these days even a
brief hope was a rare thing of worth.
It was just six short months ago, in the dead of
winter, that all of Krynn had suffered under the cold, hard
claws of the dragonarmies. The War of the Lance had
ended with the coming of spring, but the scars it had left
upon the land - and the people - had not faded so easily
as the winter snows. The folk of Ansalon were desperate
for anything that might help them believe they could
leave the dark days of the war behind, that they could heal
themselves and make their lives whole once again. That
was exactly what Jastom and Grimm gave them.
Of course, there were true clerics in the land now,
since the War. Some were disciples of the goddess
Mishakal - called Light Bringer - and they could heal
with the touch of a hand. Or at least so Jastom had heard,
for true clerics were still a rarity. However, he and Grimm
did their best to avoid towns and cities where there were
rumored to be clerics. Folk wouldn't be so willing to buy
false healing potions when there was one among them
with the power of true healing.
Abruptly, there was a loud, surprising clunk! as the
wagon's side panel flipped downward, revealing a
polished wooden counter and, behind it, a row of shelves
lined with glimmering purple bottles. Grimm's glowering
eyes barely managed to peer over the countertop, but the
crowd hardly noticed the taciturn dwarf. All were gazing
at the display of sparkling elixirs.
Jastom gestured expansively to the wagon. "Indeed,
my good gentlefolk, just one of these elixirs, and all that
troubles you will be cured. And all it costs is a mere ten
coins of steel. A small price to pay for a miracle, wouldn't
There was a single moment of silence, and then as one
the crowd gave a cry of excitement as they rushed
forward, jingling purses in hand.
All morning and all afternoon the townsfolk crowded
about the black varnished wagon, listening to Jastom extol
the wondrous properties of the potions and then setting
down their cold steel on the counter in trade for the small
There was only one minor crisis, this around midday,
when the supply of potions ran out. Grimm was busily
scurrying about inside the cramped wagon, measuring this
and pouring that as he hurriedly tried to mix a new batch
of elixirs. However, a few burly, red-necked farmers grew
impatient and began shaking the wagon. Jars and bottles
and pots went flying wildly inside, spilling their contents
and covering Grimm with a sticky, medicinal-smelling
mess. Luckily, the dwarf had managed to finish a handful
of potions by then, and Jastom used these to placate the
belligerent farmers, selling them the bottles for half price.
Losing steel was not something Jastom much cared for,
but losing the wagon - and Grimm - would have been
After that interruption, Grimm was able to finish
filling empty bottles with the thick, pungent elixir, and
business proceeded more smoothly. However, the dwarf's
eyes were still smoldering like hot iron.
"Fine way to make a living," he grumbled to himself as
he tried to pick sticky clumps of herbs from his thick black
beard. "I suppose we'll swindle ourselves right out of our
own necks one of these days."
"What did that glum-looking little fellow say?" a
blacksmith demanded, hesitating as he started to lay down
his ten coins of steel on the wooden counter. "Something
Jastom shot a murderous look at Grimm and then
turned his most radiant smile to the smith. "You'll have to
forgive my friend's mumblings," he said in a conspiratorial
whisper. "He hasn't been quite the same ever since one of
the ponies kicked him in the head."
The blacksmith nodded in sympathetic understanding.
He left the wagon, small purple bottle in hand. Jastom's
bulging purse was ten coins heavier. And Grimm kept his
It was midafternoon when Jastom sold the last of the
potions. The corpulent merchant who bought it gripped
the purple bottle tightly in his chubby fingers and scurried
off through the streets, a gleam in his eye. The fellow
hadn't seemed to want to discuss the exact nature of his
malady, but Jastom suspected it had something to do with
the equally corpulent young maiden who was waiting for
him in the door of a nearby inn, smiling and batting her
eyelids in a dreadful imitation of demureness. Jastom
shook his head, chuckling.
Abruptly there was a loud WHOOP! Jastom turned to
see an old woman throw down her crooked cane and
begin dancing a spry jig to a piper's merry tune. Other
folk quickly joined the dance, heedless of the aches and
cares that had burdened them only a short while ago. One
shabbily-dressed fellow, finding himself without a
partner, settled for a spotted pig that had the misfortune to
be wandering through the town square. The pig squealed
in surprise as the man whirled it about, and Jastom
couldn't help but laugh aloud at the spectacle.
This was the work of the elixirs, of course. Jastom
wasn't altogether certain what Grimm put in the small
purple bottles, but he knew the important ingredient was
something called dwarf spirits. And while dwarf spirits
were not known to possess any curative powers, they did
have certain potent and intoxicating effects.
Jastom had no idea how the dwarves brewed the stuff.
From what little he had managed to get out of Grimm, it
was all terribly secret, the recipe passed down from
generation to generation with ancient ceremony and
solemn oaths to guard the formula. But whatever was in it,
it certainly worked. Laborers threw down their shovels,
goodwives their brooms, and all joined what was rapidly
becoming an impromptu festival. Respected city elders
turned cartwheels about the square, and parents leapt into
piles of straw hand-in-hand with their laughing children.
For now, all thoughts of the war, of worry and of sickness,
were altogether missing from the town of Faxfail.
But it couldn't last.
"They won't feel so terribly well tomorrow, once the
dwarf spirits wear off," Grimm observed dourly.
"But today they do, and by tomorrow we'll be
somewhere else," Jastom said, patting the nearly-bursting
purse at his belt.
He slammed shut the wagon's side panel and leapt up
onto the high bench. Grimm clambered up after him. At a
flick of the reins, the ponies started forward, and the
wagon rattled slowly out of the rollicking town square.
Jastom did not notice as three men - one with a sword
at his hip and the other two clad in heavy black robes
despite the day's warmth - stepped from a dim alleyway
and began to thread their way through the spontaneous
celebration, following in the wagon's wake.
Jastom whistled a cheerful, tuneless melody as the
wagon jounced down the red dirt road, leaving the town of
Faxfail far behind.
The road wound its way across a broad vale. To the
north and south hulked two slate-gray peaks that looked
like ancient fortresses built by long-vanished giants. The
sky above was clear as a sapphire, and a fair wind, clean
with the hint of mountain heights, hissed through the
rippling fields of green-gold grass. Sunflowers nodded like old good-
wives to each other, and larks darted by upon the air, trilling their glad
"You seem to be in an awfully fine mood, considering," Grimm
noted in his rumbling voice.
"Considering what, Grimm?" Jastom asked gaily, resuming his
"Considering that cloud of dust that's following on the road behind
us," the dwarf replied.
Jastom's whistling died.
He cast a hurried look over his shoulder. Sure enough, a thick plume
of ruddy dust was rising from the road perhaps a half mile back. Even as
Jastom watched, he saw the shapes of three dark horsemen appear amidst
the blood-colored cloud. No . . . one horseman and two figures running
along on either side. The sound of pounding hoofbeats rumbled faintly on
the air like the sound of a distant storm.
Jastom swore loudly. "This is impossible," he said incredulously.
"The townsfolk couldn't have sobered up this soon. They can't have
figured out that we've swindled them. Not yet."
"Is that so?" Grimm grunted. "Well, they're riding mighty fast and
hard for drunken men."
"Maybe they're not after us," Jastom snapped. But an uncomfortable
image of a noose slipping over his neck went through his mind. Swearing
again, he slapped the reins, urging the ponies into a canter. The box-
shaped wagon was heavy, and they had just begun to ascend a low hill.
The ponies couldn't go much faster. Jastom glanced wildly over his
shoulder again. The horseman had closed the gap to half of what it had
been only a few moments before. He saw now that two of them - the ones
running - wore heavy black robes. Sunlight glinted dully from the sword
that the third rider had drawn.
Jastom considered jumping from the wagon but promptly discarded the
idea. If the fall didn't kill them, the strangers would simply cut him and
the dwarf down like a mismatched pair of weeds. Besides, everything
Jastom and Grimm owned was in the wagon. Their entire livelihood de
pended upon it. Jastom couldn't abandon it, no matter the consequences.
He flicked the reins harder. The ponies strained valiantly against their
harnesses, their nostrils flaring with effort.
It wasn't enough.
With a sound like a breaking storm, the horseman rode up alongside
the wagon. One of the dark-robed men dashed up close to the ponies.
With incredible strength, he grabbed the bridle of the nearest and then
pulled back hard, his feet digging into the gravel of the road. The
dapples reared, whinnying in fear as the wagon shuddered to a sudden
"Away with you, dogs!" Grimm growled fiercely, reaching under
the seat for the heavy axe he kept there. The dwarf never managed to get
a hand on the weapon. With almost comic ease, the second dark-robed
man grabbed the dwarf by the collar of his tunic and lifted him from the
bench. The dwarf kicked his feet and waved his arms futilely, suspended
in midair, his face red with rage and lack of air.
Jastom could pay scant attention to the spluttering dwarf. He had
worries of his own. A glittering steel sword was leveled directly at his
Whoever these three were, Jastom was quite certain that they
weren't townsfolk from Faxfail, but this did little to comfort him. The
man before him looked to be a soldier of some sort. He was clad in black
leather armor sewn with plates of bronze, and a cloak of lightning blue
was thrown back over his stiff, square shoulders.
Suddenly, Jastom was painfully aware of the fat leather purse at his
belt. He cursed himself inwardly. He should have known better than to
go riding off, boldly flaunting his newly-gained wealth. The roads were
thick with bandits and brigands these days, now that the war was over.
Most likely these men were deserters from the Solamnic army, desperate
and looking for foolish travelers like himself to waylay.
Jastom forced his best grin across his face. "Good day, friend," he
said to the man who held the sword at his chest.
The man was tall and stern-faced, his blond, close-cropped hair and
hawklike nose enhancing the granite severity of his visage. Most
disturbing about him, however, were his eyes. They were
pale and colorless, like his hair, but as hard as stones.
They were eyes that had watched men die and not cared a
whit one way or another.
The man inclined his head politely, as though he
wasn't also holding a sword in his hand. "I am Lieutenant
Durm, of the Blue Dragonarmy," he said in a voice that
was steel-made - polished and smooth, yet cold and so
very hard. "My master, the Lord Commander Shaahzak, is
in need of one with healing skills." He gestured with the
sword to the picture of the bottle painted on the side of the
wagon. "I see that you are a healer." The sword point
swung once again in Jastom's direction. "You will
accompany me to attend my commander."
THE BLUE DRAGONARMY? Jastom thought in
disbelief. But the war was over! The dragonarmies had
been defeated by the Whitestone forces. At least, that was
what the stories said. Jastom shot a quick look at Grimm,
but the dwarf was still dangling in midair from the dark-
robed man's fist, cursing in a tight, squeaky voice. Jastom
turned his attention back to the man who called himself
"I fear that I have an appointment elsewhere," Jastom
said pleasantly, his grin growing broader yet. He reached
for his heavy leather purse. "I am certain, lieutenant, that
you can easily find another who is not so pressed for - " -
time, Jastom was going to finish, but before he could,
Durm reached out in a fluid, almost casual gesture and
Jastom's head erupted into a burst of white-hot fire.
He tumbled from the wagon's bench to the hard ground, a
rushing noise filling his ears. For a dizzying moment he
thought he was going to be sick. After a few seconds the
flashing pain subsided to a low throbbing. He blinked his
eyes and looked up. Durm had dismounted and stood over
him now, his visage as emotionless as before.
"I recommend that you not speak falsehood to me
again," Durm said in a polite, chilling voice, his tone that
of a host admonishing a guest for spilling wine on an
expensive carpet. "Do you understand, healer?"
Jastom nodded jerkily. THIS MAN COULD KILL ME
WITH HIS BARE HANDS AND NOT EVEN BLINK,
Jastom thought with a shudder.
"Excellent," Durm said. He reached down and helped
Jastom to his feet - the same hand that had struck him a
moment before. Durm gestured sharply, and the dark-
robed man who had been holding Grimm let the dwarf fall
heavily back to the wagon's bench, gasping for air.
"If you lie to me again, healer," Durm went on
smoothly, "I will instruct my servants to deal with you.
And I fear you will not find them so lenient as myself."
Durm's dark-robed followers pushed back the heavy
cowls of their robes.
They were not human.
The two looked more akin to lizards than men, but
they were not truly either. The two of them gazed at
Jastom and Grimm with unblinking yellow eyes. Dull,
green-black scales - not skin or fur - covered the monsters'
faces. They had doglike snouts. Short, jagged spikes
sprouted from their low, flat brows, and where each
should have had ears there were only small indentations in
their scaly hides. The monster nearest Jastom grinned
evilly, revealing row upon row of jagged, yellow teeth, as
if it enjoyed the idea of having Jastom to do with as it
wished. A thin forked tongue flickered in and out of the
Draconian. Jastom had never seen such a beast in his
life, but he had heard enough tales of the War of the Lance
to put a name to it. The draconians were the servants of
the Dragon Highlords, and they had marched across the
land to lay scourge to the face of Krynn even as the evil
dragons themselves had descended from the skies.
"You might as well save everyone the trouble and let
the lizards have us now," Grimm shouted hotly. "We're
only - "
Jastom elbowed the dwarf hard in the ribs.
"Apprentice healers. New at this. Very new." Grimm
mumbled, saying something about "necks," but fortunately
only Jastom heard him.
Jastom drew upon all his theatrical skills to pull his
facade back together. "Very well, my good lieutenant, we
shall journey with you," he said, tipping his cap. As if we
had a choice in the matter, he added inwardly.
"That is well," Durm said simply.
The lieutenant mounted and spurred his horse viciously
into a canter. Jastom realized there was nothing to do but
follow. He climbed back onto the wagon and flicked the
ponies' reins. The craft lurched into motion. The two
draconians ran along either side, hands on the hilts of their
wicked-looking sabres. Jastom cast a quick look at
Grimm. The dwarf eyed his friend, then shook his head
For the first time he could ever remember, Jastom
found himself wishing his elixirs could truly work the
wonders he claimed.
Dawn was blossoming on the horizon, like a pale rose
unfurling its petals, when the wagon rattled into the
They had traveled all through the night, making their
way down treacherous mountain roads guided only by the
dim light of the crimson moon, Lunitari. More than once
Jastom had thought that wagon, ponies, and all were
going to plummet off the side of a precipice into the deep
shadows far below. Yet he had not dared to slow the
wagon's hurtling pace as they careened down the twisting
passes. Jastom feared tumbling over a cliff a good bit less
than he did facing Durm's displeasure.
Now, in the pale silvery light of dawn, they had left
the mountains behind them somewhere in the gloom of
night. The dragonarmy encampment sat in a hollow at the
edge of the rolling foothills. Stretching into the distance
eastward was a vast gray-green plain, its flowing lines
broken only here and there by the silhouette of a
cottonwood tree, sinking its roots deep for water.
The encampment was not large - perhaps fifty tents in
all, clustered on the banks of a small river. But Jastom
had not realized that there were still any dragonanny
forces at all so close to Solamnia, or anywhere for that
matter. From the stories, he thought they had all been
driven clean off the face of Krynn. Obviously that was not
Most of the soldiers in the encampment were human,
with deep-set eyes and cruel mouths. There were a number
of draconians as well, dressed in leather armor similar to
that of the human soldiers. Short, stubby wings sprouted
from the draconians' backs, as leathery as a bat's, but they
seemed to flutter uselessly as the draconians stalked across
the ground on clawed, unbooted feet.
"This doesn't look like one of the friendlier audiences
you've ever had to hawk potions to," Grimm noted as the
wagon rolled into the center of the encampment.
Jastom had played to dangerous audiences before,
unruly crowds of ruffians who were more interested in
breaking bones than in buying magical potions. But he had
won even these over in the end.
A gleam touched Jastom's blue eyes. "No, but they
ARE an audience all the same, aren't they?" he said softly,
glad for the dwarf's reminder. "Let's not forget that,
Grimm. They think we're healers. And as long as they
keep thinking that, we'll keep our heads attached to our
necks." There was only one rule to remember when
hawking to a nasty crowd:
never show fear.
Jastom shook the wrinkles out of his cape and cocked
his feathered cap at an outrageous angle. "You there," he
called out to a man in the crowd, donning a charming
smile as easily as another man might don a hat. "Might I
ask you a question? How did - "
The lieutenant whirled his jet black mount sharply and
rode beside the wagon. "If you have questions, healer,
address them to me." Durm's voice was a sword's edge
draped with a silken cloth.
"You - You have so many soldiers in this camp,"
Jastom gulped, doing his best to sound as if he were
simply making casual conversation. "How did they come
to be here?"
A faint smile touched Durm's lips, but it was not an
expression of mirth. Jastom fought the urge to shiver.
"What tales do the knights tell in Solamnia?" Durm asked.
"That they swept the dragonarmies from the face of
Krynn? Well, as you can see, they have not. I will grant
the Whitestone armies this - they have won an important
battle. But if the Knights of Solamnia believe this war is
truly over, then they are as foolish as the tales tell them to
be." Durm gestured to the camp about them as he rode. A
line of soldiers, holding their swords at ready, marched by
in formation, saluting Durm as they passed.
"In truth, this is but a small outpost," Durm went on.
"Far more of our forces lie to the east. All the lands
between this place and the Khalkist Mountains belong to
the Highlord of the Blue Dragonarmy. And the other
dragonarmies hold still more lands, to the north and east.
Already the Dark Lady - my Highlord and master - draws
her plans for a counterstrike against the knights. It will be
a glorious battle." For the first time Jastom thought he saw
a flash of color in Durm's pale eyes.
"So do not despair, Jastom Mosswine, that the Dragon
Highlord now owns you," Durm went on in his polite,
chilling tone. "Soon she will own all of Ansalon."
Jastom started to ask another question, but Durm held
up a hand, silencing him. They came to halt before a tent
so large it might more properly be called a pavilion. A
banner flew from its highest pole, a blue dragon rampant
across a field of black. Two soldiers stood at the tent's
entrance, hands on the hilts of their swords.
An ancient-looking cottonwood tree spread its heavy,
gnarled limbs above the tent. A half-dozen queer-looking
objects dangled from several of the branches. Some
seemed to be no more than large, tattered backpacks, but a
few of them had a shape that seemed vaguely familiar to
Jastom. Suddenly a faint breeze ruffled through the tree's
green leaves, and the dangling bundles began to spin on
their ropes. Several pale, bloated circles came into view.
Jastom quickly averted his eyes, slapping a hand to
his mouth to keep from spilling his guts. Those weren't
bundles hanging in the tree. They were people. Each
seemed to stare mockingly down at Jastom with dark
sockets left empty by the crows.
"Reorx!" muttered Grimm. "What've you gotten us
"Those are the healers that have been here before
you," the lieutenant said flatly. "The first among them was
our cleric, Umbreck. It seemed his faith in the Dark Queen
was not great enough. She closed her ears to his prayers.
All of them failed to heal Commander Skaahzak."
Jastom swallowed hard, the sour taste of fear in his
throat. But he forced his lips into a smile. "Fear not,
lieutenant," he said boldly. "We will not fail. Remember,
Mosswine's Miraculous Elixirs heal all."
Grimm choked at that but, thankfully, said nothing.
Jastom and the dwarf climbed down from the wagon's
bench, and Durm led them into the dimness of the tent. A
rotten, sickly-sweet odor hung thickly upon the air, almost
making Jastom gag. Herbs burning on a sputtering bronze
brazier did little to counter the foul reek.
The tent was sparsely furnished. There was a table
scattered with maps and scrolls of parchment and a rack
bearing weapons of various kinds - sabres, maces, spears -
all dark and cruel-looking. A narrow cot stood in one
comer of the tent, and upon it lay - not a man - but a
draconian. Commander Skaahzak.
Jastom did not need to be a true healer to see that the
commander was dying. His scaly flesh was gray and
withered, clinging tightly to the bones of his skull. His
yellow eyes flickered with a hazy, feverish light, and his
clawed hands clutched feebly at the twisted bed covers.
His left shoulder had been bound with a thick bandage, but
the cloth was soaked with a black, oozing ichor.
"Commander Skaahzak was wounded a fortnight ago,
in a skirmish with a roving patrol of Solamnic Knights,"
Durm explained. "At first the wound did not seem dire,
but it has festered. You will work your craft upon him,
healer. Or you will join the rest outside."
"We ... uh ... we have to prepare an elixir," Jastom
said, doing his best to keep his voice from trembling.
Durm nodded stiffly. "Very well. If you require
anything in your task, you have only to request it." With
another faint smile, devoid of warmth, the lieutenant left
them to their task.
When Jastom and Grimm were alone in the cluttered
space inside their wagon, the dwarf shook his head.
"Have you gone completely mad, then, Jastom?" he
whispered. "You know very well we sold our last potion in Fax-fail, and
yet you go offering one up like we can conjure them out of thin air."
"Well, I couldn't think of anything else to say," Jastom returned
defensively. After Faxfail, they had planned to head for Kaolyn to buy
ingredients so Grimm could brew another batch of dwarf spirits.
"Besides," Jastom went on, "there must be something we can do. If
we don't come out of here with an elixir, and soon, Durm's going to feed
the crows with us." He began rummaging around the boxes, pots, and jars
strewn about the inside of the wagon. "Wait a minute," he said excitedly,
"there's still something left in the bottom of this cask." He tipped the cask
over an empty purple bottle. A thick, brown, gritty-looking fluid oozed
"You can't give the commander that!" Grimm cried hoarsely, trying
to snatch the purple bottle away.
"Why not?" Jastom asked, holding the bottle up out of the dwarf's
Grimm glowered, stubby hands on his hips. "That's pure mash -
goblin's gruel, my grandpappy always called it. The dregs left over after
distilling the dwarf spirits. That stuff makes the rest of the batch seem
like water. Oh, it'll make him happy - might say QUITE happy for a
while - but in the end . . ." Grimm shook his head.
"A WHILE! That's all the time we need to get away," Jastom said
desperately, stoppering the bottle.
Grimm shook his head dubiously. "We're going to make a fine feast
for the crows."
The draconian Commander Skaahzak moaned as he thrashed in his
fevered sleep. Jastom held the small bottle filled with the goblin's gruel.
Grimm stood beside him. Durm watched the two from across the
commander's bed, his expression stony. With a flourish of his cape,
Jastom lifted the purple bottle and unstoppered it. No sense in sparing
Jastom nodded to Grimm. The dwarf grabbed the draconian's twisting
head and held it steady, forcing the monster's jaws open with strong
fingers. Jastom tipped the bottle and poured the thick contents past the
draconian's lolling forked tongue and down his gullet. Grimm let
Skaahzak's jaws snap back shut. Jastom waved his hand, and the empty
bottle seemed to vanish into thin air. Durm never even blinked an eye.
Jastom took a deep breath, searching for something suitably
dramatic to say. But before he could, the fetid air of the tent was
shattered by a blood-curdling shriek.
The draconian shrieked again, writhing upon the bed. Jastom and
Grimm gaped at the creature. In a flash, Durm drew his sword and
levelled it at Jastom's heart.
"It seems you have failed," Durm spoke softly, almost as a father
might chide an erring son, except that his voice was so deathly cold.
Abruptly, the draconian commander leapt from the bed and knocked
Durm's sword aside. The goblin's gruel was coursing through the
creature's blood, lighting him aflame. The gray tinge had left Skaahzak's
flesh, and if his wound was causing him any pain he did not show it. His
yellow eyes glowed brightly now.
"Stop this foolishness, Durm," Skaahzak hissed. "I will have your
head if you dare strike either of these most skillful healers."
Jastom's head was spinning. But he was not about to let this
opportunity go to waste. He doffed his cap and bowed deeply. "It
gladdens my heart to see milord in such excellent health," he proclaimed
in a deeply-felt tone. He surreptitiously kicked Grimm's knee, and the
dwarf toppled forward in clumsy imitation of Jastom's graceful bow.
"You have done me a great service, healer," Skaahzak said in his
dry, reptilian voice, donning a crimson robe that an attendant soldier
"I am overjoyed that I could restore such a brilliant commander to
health," Jastom said. Grimm muttered something inaudible under his
"That you have," Skaahzak hissed. Suddenly he spun about wildly, a
ferocious, toothy grin on his face. "I've never felt better in my
life!" He lurched dizzily and would have fallen but for
Durm's strong hands steadying him.
There was no doubt about it. The draconian was rip-
"Take your filthy paws from me!" Skaahzak spat,
shrugging off the lieutenant's grip. "You, who have
brought me healer after healer, cleric after cleric, all who
poked, prodded, and prayed to their foul gods over me,
and all who failed. I should have you flailed for letting me
suffer so long." Skaahzak's expression flickered between
intoxicated ecstasy and livid rage. Little seemed to
separate the two emotions in this creature.
Durm watched silently, impassively.
"However, you DID bring these most excellent
healers to me," Skaahzak said, his voice crooning now.
"Thus I will be merciful. I will even grant you a reward to
show you the depths of my kindness." He held out his left
hand. "You may kiss the ring of your master, Lieutenant
On the draconian's clawed middle finger was a ring
set with a ruby as big as a thumbnail. Jastom guessed that
Skaahzak hadn't removed the ring in years. In fact, he
doubted the draconian would be able to take it off at all.
The monster's scaly flesh was puffy and swollen to either
side of the ring. Durm did not hesitate. He knelt before
Skaahzak's proffered hand.
Leaning forward, he pressed his lips to the
glimmering ruby. As he did so, Skaahzak struck the
lieutenant. Durm did not even flinch. Slowly, he rose to
his feet. The ruby had cut his cheek, and a thin trickle of
blood, as crimson as the gem, ran down his jaw. The
"There, lieutenant," Skaahzak said, his reptilian voice
slurred and indistinct. "Your reward is complete."
Durm bowed stiffly, giving Jastom a brief,
Jastom tried to swallow his heart, but it kept clawing
its way up into his throat. He cast a meaningful look at
Grimm. It was time to get out of this place. The dwarf
nodded emphatic agreement.
"Well, I am delighted to see that all things appear to
have been set aright," Jastom said pleasantly, placing his
cap back on his head. "Thus I believe that we will be - "
Skaahzak interrupted him.
"I have a proclamation to make!" the draconian
shouted. He sloshed some wine into a silver goblet -
spilling the better portion of it on his robe - and began to
weave drunkenly about the tent, stumbling over chests and
pieces of furniture. One of his attendants followed behind
him with a quill and parchment, taking down each word.
"Be it known that, for their most excellent service, these
two healers shall hereby become my personal physicians,
from now until the end of all days!" He spread his arms
wide in a gesture of triumph. The silver goblet he clutched
struck the head of his attendant with a loud CLUNK! The
soldier dropped to the floor like a stone, the parchment
and quill slipping from his fingers. Skaahzak did not
Jastom and Grimm exchanged glances of alarm. "Er,
begging your pardon, milord," Jastom said hesitantly, "but
what exactly do you mean by that?"
Skaahzak whirled about to face Jastom, his eyes
burning with the consuming fire of the goblin's gruel. "I
mean that Lieutenant Durm here will show you to your
new quarters," the draconian said, displaying his countless
jagged teeth in a terrible smile. "You will be remaining
here in this camp with me. Permanently. You are my
Jastom could only nod dumbly, feeling suddenly ill.
Impossible as it seemed, it looked as if this time his elixir
had worked too well for his own good.
"How many soldiers are standing guard out there?"
"Two," Grimm whispered back, peering through a
narrow opening beside the canvas flap that covered the
tent's entrance. "Both are draconians."
Jastom tugged at his hair as he paced the length of the
cramped, stuffy tent. The air was musty with the smell of
the sour, rotten hay strewn across the floor. The only light
came from a wan, golden beam of sun spilling through a
small hole in the tent's canvas roof.
"There must be a way to get past them," Jastom said in agitation,
clenching his hands into fists.
"Too bad we can't get them drunk," Grimm noted dryly.
Jastom shot the dwarf an exasperated look. "There's always a way
out, Grimm. We've been in enough dungeons before to know that. All
we need is time to come up with the answer."
Grimm shook his head, his shaggy eyebrows drawn down in a
scowl. "Even now, the goblin's gruel will be burning Skaahzak from the
inside out, as sure as if it was liquid fire he'd drunk. He'll be dead by
morning." The dwarf paused ominously. "And I suppose we will be, too,
for that matter."
Jastom groaned, barely resisting the urge to throttle the glum-faced
dwarf. His energy would be better directed toward finding a way to
escape, he reminded himself. Once they were free, THEN he would have
all the time he wanted to throttle the dwarf.
With a sigh of frustration, Jastom sat down hard on the musty straw,
resting his chin in his hands. Grimm's doom-and-gloom was catching.
The tent's entrance flap was thrown back. The two draconian guards
stood against the brilliant square of afternoon sunlight, their forked
tongues flickering through their jagged yellow teeth.
"It's mealtime," one of the draconians hissed, glaring at Jastom with
its disturbing yellow eyes.
For a startled moment Jastom didn't know whose mealtime the
draconian meant: Jastom's or its own. With a rush of relief, he saw the
bowls that the creature carried in its clawed hands. The draconian set the
two clay bowls down, their foul-smelling contents slopping over the
sides. The other draconian threw a greasy-looking wineskin down with
"The commander ordered that you be given the finest fare in the
camp," the other draconian croaked, a note of envy in its voice.
"Skaahzak must hold you in high esteem, indeed. Consider yourselves
After the two draconians left them alone, Jastom eyed the bowls of
food warily. The lumpy, colorless liquid in one of them began to stir. A
big black beetle crawled out of the gray ooze and over the rim of the
bowl. Jastom let out a strangled yelp. The insect scuttled away through
"Paugh!" Grimm spat, tossing down the rancid-smelling wineskin.
"What do these beasts brew their wine out of? Stale onions?"
Jastom felt his gorge rising in his throat and barely managed to
choke it back down. "If this is the finest fare the camp has to offer, I
really don't want to think about what the common soldiers are eating." He
began to push the clay bowls carefully away with the toe of his boot, but
then he paused. A thought had suddenly struck him.
Quickly he rummaged about his cape until he found the secret
pocket where he had slipped the empty potion bottle after pouring its
contents down Skaahzak's gullet. He pulled out the cork and then knelt
beside the bowl. Carefully, so as not to spill any of the putrid substance
on himself, he tipped the bowl and filled the bottle partway with the slop.
Then he took the wineskin and added a good measure of the acrid-
smelling wine to the bottle. On an afterthought he scraped up a handful
of dirt from the tent's floor and added that as well. He stoppered the
bottle tightly and then shook it vigorously to mix the strange concoction
"What in the name of Reorx do you think you're doing, Jastom?"
Grimm demanded, his gray eyes flashing. "Have you gone utterly mad? I
suppose I should have known the strain of all this would be too much for
"No, Grimm, I haven't gone mad," Jastom said annoyediy, and then
he grinned despite himself, tossing the bottle and deftly snatching it again
from the air. "Get 'em drunk, you said."
"But you never listen to me," Grimm protested. "And I don't think
now is a good time to start!"
"Just go along," said Jastom.
It was sunset when the two draconians threw back the tent's flap
again and stepped inside to retrieve the dishes.
"Thank you, friends," Jastom said cheerily as the
draconians picked up the empty bowls and wineskin. "It
was truly a remarkable repast." In truth, he and Grimm
had buried the revolting food in a shallow hole in the
comer of the tent, but the draconians need not know that.
The two creatures glared at Jastom, the envy glowing
wickedly in their reptilian eyes.
"You're right, Jastom," the dwarf said thoughtfully,
gazing at the two draconians. "They DO look a little
The first draconian's eyes narrowed suspiciously.
"What does the nasty little dwarf mean?"
Jastom nodded, a serious look crossing his honest
face. "I see it, too, Grimm," he said gravely. "There's only
one thing it can be. Scale rot."
" 'Scale rot?'" The second draconian spat. "What is
this foolishness you babble about?"
Jastom sighed, as if he were reluctant to speak. "I've
seen it before," he said, shaking his head sadly. "It's a
scourge that's wiped out whole legions of draconians to
the far south, in Abanasinia. I didn't think it had traveled
across the Newsea, but it seems I was wrong."
"Aye, I saw a draconian who had the scale rot once,"
Grimm said gloomily. "All we buried was a pile of black,
spongy mold. He didn't die until the very end. I didn't
think a creature could scream as loud as that."
"I've never heard of this!" the first draconian hissed.
Jastom donned his most utterly believable face. The
gods themselves wouldn't know he was lying. "You don't
have to believe me," he said with a shrug. "Judge for
yourself. The first symptoms are so small you'd hardly
notice them if you didn't know what to look for: a pouchy
grayness around the eyes, a faint ache in the teeth and
claws, and then . . " Jastom let his last words fade into an
"What did you say?" the second draconian barked.
"I said, 'and then the hearing begins to fade in and
out,'" Jastom said blithely. The draconians' eyes widened.
They exchanged fearful glances.
"What can we do?" the first demanded.
"You are a healer, you must help us!" the second
Jastom smiled reassuringly. "Of course, of course. Fear
not, friends. I have a potion right here." He waved a hand,
and the small purple bottle filled with the noxious
concoction appeared in his hand. The draconians stared at
it greedily. "Mosswine's Miraculous Elixir cures all. Even
scale rot." "Aren't you forgetting something?" Grimm
grumbled. Jastom's face fell. "Oh, dear," he said
worriedly. "What is it?" The first draconian positively
shrieked, clenching its talon-tipped fingers and beating its
leathery wings in agitation.
"I'm afraid this is our very last potion," Jastom said,
the picture of despair. "There isn't enough for both of
you." He set the potion down on the floor, backing away.
He spread his hands wide in a gesture of deep regret. "I'm
terribly sorry, but you'll have to decide which of you gets
The two draconians glared at each other, tongues
hissing and yellow eyes flashing.
They lunged for the bottle.
"Well, they seemed to have hit upon the only really
fair solution to their dilemma," Jastom observed dryly.
The two draconians lay upon the floor of the tent,
frozen in a fatal embrace. The remnants of the purple
bottle lay next to them, crushed into tiny shards. The fight
had been swift and violent. The two draconians had
grappled over the elixir and in the process each had driven
a cruelly barbed dagger into the other's heart. Instantly the
pair of them had turned a dull gray and toppled heavily to
the floor. Such was the magical nature of the creatures
that, once dead, they changed to stone.
"Reorx's Beard, will you look at that!" Grimm
whispered. Even as the two watched, the bodies of the
draconians began to crumble. In moments nothing
remained but their armor, the daggers, and a pile of dust.
Jastom reached down and brushed the gray powder
from one of the barbed daggers. He grinned nervously. "I
think we've just found our way out of here, Grimm."
Moments later, Jastom crawled through a slit in the back
wall of the tent and peered into the deepening purple
shadows of twilight. He motioned for Grimm to follow.
The dwarf stumbled clumsily through the opening, falling
on his face with a curse. Jastom hauled the dwarf to his
feet by the belt and shot him a warning look to be quiet.
The two made their way through the darkened camp.
Jastom froze each time he heard the approach of booted
feet, but they faded before a soldier came within sight. A
silvery glow was beginning to touch the eastern horizon.
The moon Solinari would be rising soon, casting its bright,
gauzy light over the land. They had to hurry. They
couldn't hope to avoid the eyes of the soldiers once the
moon lifted into the sky.
They rounded the comer of a long tent and then
quickly ducked back behind cover. Carefully, Jastom
peered around the comer. Beyond was a wide circle lit by
the ruddy light of a dozen flickering torches thrust into the
ground. Jastom's eyes widened at the spectacle he saw
"I can fly! I can fly!" a slurred, rasping voice shrieked
excitedly. It was Commander Skaahzak.
He careened wildly through midair, suspended from a
tree branch by a rope looped under his arms. Two
draconians grunted as they pulled on the rope, heaving the
commander higher yet. Skaahzak whooped with glee, his
small, useless wings flapping feebly. His eyes burned
hotly with the fire of madness.
"It's the goblin's gruel," Grimm muttered softly. "It's
addled his brains. But he'll stop laughing soon, when it
catches his blood on fire."
A score of soldiers watched Skaahzak spin wildly on
the end of the rope, none of them daring to laugh at the
peculiar sight. Suddenly Jastom saw Lieutenant Durm
standing at the edge of the torchlight, apart from the
others, his eyes glittering like hard, colorless gems. Once
again, his lips wore a faint, mirthless smile, but what
exactly it portended was beyond Jastom's ken.
Quickly Jastom ducked behind the tent. "Durm is
there," he whispered hoarsely. "I don't think he saw me."
"Then let's not give him another chance," Grimm
growled. Jastom nodded in hearty agreement. The two
slipped off in the other direction, deep into the night.
The tall wagon clattered along the narrow mountain
road in the morning sunlight. Groves of graceful aspens
and soaring fir slipped by to either side as the dappled
ponies trotted briskly on.
Jastom and Grimm had ridden hard all night, making
their way up the treacherous passes deep into the Garnet
Mountains, guided only by the pale, gossamer light of
Solinari. But now dawn had broken over the distant, mist-
green peaks, and Jastom slowed the ponies to a walk. The
dragonarmy camp lay a good ten leagues behind them.
"Ah, it's good to be alive and free, Grimm," Jastom
said, taking a deep breath of the clean mountain air.
"Well, I wouldn't get too used to it," the dwarf said
with a scowl. "Look behind us."
Jastom did as the dwarf instructed, and then his heart
nearly leapt from his chest. A cloud of dust rose from the
dirt road less than a mile behind them.
"Lieutenant Durm," he murmured, his mouth dry. "I
KNEW this was too easy!"
Grimm nodded. Jastom let out a sharp whistle and
slapped the reins fiercely. The ponies leapt into a canter.
The narrow, rocky road began to wind its way down a
steep descent. The wind whipped Jastom's cape wildly out
behind him. Grimm hung on for dear life. Jastom barely
managed to steer around a sharp turn in the road. They
were going too fast. He leaned hard on the wagon's brake.
Sparks flew. Suddenly there was a sharp cracking sound -
the brake lever came off in Jastom's hand.
"The wagon's out of control!" Jastom shouted.
"I can see that for myself," Grimm shouted back.
The wagon hit a deep rut and lurched wildly. The
ponies shouted in terror and lunged forward. With a
rending sound, their harnesses tore free, and the horses
scrambled wildly up the mountain slope to one side. The
wagon careened in the other direction, directly for the
edge of the precipice.
All Jastom had time to do was scream, "Jump!"
He and the dwarf dived wildly from the wagon as it
sailed over the edge. Jastom hit the dirt hard. He
scrambled to his feet just in time to see the wagon
disappear over the edge. After a long moment of pure and
perfect silence came a thunderous crashing sound, and
then silence again. The wagon - and everything Jastom
and Grimm owned - was gone. In despair, he turned away
from the cliff . . .
. . . and saw Durm, mounted on horseback, before
him. A half-dozen soldiers sat astride their mounts behind
the lieutenant, the sunlight glittering off the hilts of their
swords. Jastom shook his head in disbelief. He was too
stunned to do anything but stand there, motionless in
defeat. Grimm, unhurt, came to stand beside him.
"Commander Skaahzak is dead," Durm said in his
chilling voice. "This morning there was nothing left of
him save a heap of ashes." A strange light flickered in the
lieutenant's pale eyes. "Unfortunately you, his personal
healers, were not by his side to give him any comfort in
his final moments. I had to ride hard in order to catch up
with you. I couldn't let you go without giving you your
due for this failure, Mosswine."
Jastom fell to his knees. When all else failed, he knew
there was but one option: grovel. He jerked the dwarf
down beside him. "Please, milord, have mercy on us,"
Jastom said pleadingly, making his expression as pitiful as
possible. Given their circumstances, this wasn't a difficult
task. "There wasn't anything we could have done. Please, I
beg you. Spare us. You see, milord, we aren't heal - "
"Shut up!" Durm ordered sharply. Jastom's babbling
trailed off feebly. His heart froze in his chest. Durm's
visage was as impassive as the mountain granite he stood
"The punishment for failure to heal Skaahzak is death,"
Durm continued. He paused for what seemed an
interminable moment. "But then, it is the commander's
right to choose what punishments will be dealt out." Durm
held out his hand, conspicuously displaying the ring -
Shaahzak's ring - he now wore on his left hand. The ring's
thumbnail-sized ruby glimmered in the sunlight like
blood. "Because of you and your elixir, Mosswine, I am
commander now." Absently Durm brushed a finger across
the cheek where Skaahzak had struck him. "I will be the
one, then, who will choose your punishment."
Durm's black-gloved hand drifted down to his belt,
toward the hilt of his sword. Jastom made a small choking
sound, but for the first - and last - time in his life, he found
himself utterly at a loss for words.
Durm pulled something from his belt and tossed it
toward Jastom. Jastom flinched as it struck him in the
chest. But it was simply a leather purse.
"I believe ten coins of steel is what you charge for one
of your elixirs," Durm said.
Jastom stared at the lieutenant in shock. For once
Jastom thought he recognized the odd note in Durm's
voice. Could it possibly be amusement?
"Job well done, HEALER," Durm said, that barely
perceptible smile touching his lips once again. Then,
without another word, the new commander whirled his
dark mount about and galloped down the road, his soldiers
following close behind. In moments all of them
disappeared around a bend. Jastom and Grimm were
"He knew all along," Jastom said in wonderment. "He
knew we were charlatans."
"And that's why he wanted us," Grimm said, his beard
wagging in amazement. "Letting his commander die
outright would have been traitorous. But this way it looks
like he did everything he could to save Skaahzak. No one
could fault him for his actions."
"And I thought WE were such skillful swindlers,"
Jastom said wryly. He looked wistfully over the edge of
the cliff where the wagon had disappeared.
"Well, at least we have this," Grimm said gruffly,
picking up the leather purse.
Jastom stared at the dwarf for a long moment, and then
slowly a grin spread across his face. He took the purse
from Grimm and hefted it thoughtfully in his hands.
"Grimm, how much dwarf spirits do you suppose you
could brew with ten pieces of steel?"
A wicked gleam touched the dwarf's iron-gray eyes.
"Oh, ten steel will buy enough," Grimm said as the two
started down the twisting mountain road, back toward
inhabited lands. "Enough to get us started, that is . . ."
The Hand That Feeds
Richard A. Knaak
Vandor Grizt used to think that the worst smell in
the world was wet dog. Now, however, he knew that there
was a worse one.
Wet, DEAD dog.
Helplessly bound to the ship's mast, Vandor could
only stare into the baleful, pupil-less eyes of the undead
monstrosity that guarded him. The combination of rot and
damp mist made the pale, hairless beast so offensive to
smell that even the two draconians did their best to stay
upwind of the creature. Vandor, however, had no such
Vandor was forced to admit that he probably didn't
smell much better. Bound head and foot, he'd been
dragged over rough roads for four days to the shores of the
Blood Sea, then taken aboard ship. He was not his usual,
immaculate self. He hoped none of his customers had seen
him; the degrading spectacle would be bad for business . . .
providing he survived to DO business.
Tall and lean, Vandor Grizt was usually either quick
enough or slippery enough to evade capture - be it by local
authorities or the occasional, unsatisfied customer. When
speed failed him, his patrician, almost regal features,
coupled with his silver tongue, enabled him to talk his way
out. Vandor never truly got rich selling his "used" wares,
but neither did he ever go hungry. No, he'd never regretted
the course his life had taken.
Not until now.
Vandor shifted. The undead wolf-thing bared its rotted
fangs - a warning.
"Nice puppy," Vandor snarled back. "Go bury a bone,
preferably one of your own."
"Be silent, human," hissed one of the two draconians,
a sivak. The draconians appeared to be a pair of scaly,
near-identical twins, but Vandor had learned from painful
experience that they were quite different. The sivak had a
special talent - having killed a person, the sivak could
alter its features and shape to resemble those of its
victims. In the guise of one of Vandor's trustworthy
friends, the sivak draconian had led Vandor into an alley.
There, he had been ambushed. He realized his mistake
when he watched the sivak change back to its scaly self . . .
and inform him that his friend was dead.
Given a chance, Vandor Grizt would cut the lizard's
throat. He had few enough friends to let them get
murdered. Why the draconians had gone to the trouble,
Vandor still did not know. Perhaps, the black-robed cleric
who led the party would tell him. It would at least be nice
to know why he was going to die.
"We give thanks to you, Zeboim, mistress of the seal"
intoned the cleric.
Vandor - self-styled procurer of "lost" artifacts and
"mislaid" merchandise - could not identify what god or
goddess the cleric worshipped on a regular basis, but
doubted that it was the tempestuous sea siren who called
Takhisis, Queen of Darkness, her mother. Zeboim did not
seem the type who would favor the hideous, white, skull
mask that covered the front half of the cleric's face. Some
other deity fancied skulls and dead things, but the name
escaped Vandor. Gods were not his forte. He himself gave
some slight service to Shinare, who watched over
merchants, including (he liked to think) enterprising ones
such as himself. Since Shinare was one of the neutral
gods, Vandor had always concluded she did not mind that
he prayed only when in dire need. Now, however, he
wondered if this were his reward for taking her for
granted. Gods were peculiar about that sometimes.
The ship rocked as another wild wave struck it. The
Blood Sea was a terror to sail at the best of times, but
sailing it in the dark of night, during a storm, was suicidal
folly as far as Grizt was concerned.
His opinion had been ignored by both crew and
Skullface turned around and summoned his two
draconian companions. Magical torches, which never went
out despite the constant spray, gave the cleric's mask a
ghoulish look. Only the mouth and a thin, pointed chin
were visible beneath the mask.
"You two draconians - set up the altar for the
summoning!" the cleric commanded.
Vandor shivered, guessing that the summoning could
only mean dire things for him.
A kapak draconian looked at its master questioningly.
"So soon, Prefect Stel?" Saliva dripped as the creature
talked. The minotaur crew was not enamored of the
venomous kapak. Every time it spoke, it burned holes in
Prefect Stel pulled sleek, black gloves over his bony
hands. He dresses very well, Vandor Grizt thought. Not
my style of clothes, of course, but beautiful fabric. Under
other circumstances, Stel would have been a client of
potential. Vandor heaved a sigh.
Stel was talking. "I want the altar to be ready to be put
to use the moment we are over the site." The dark cleric
pulled out a tiny skull on a chain from around his neck.
Vandor studied the jewel closely, first for possible value
and then because he realized it was glowing.
"What about this human, prefect?" the sivak asked.
"The dreadwolf will guard him. He does not appear to
be a stupid man." The cleric turned to Vandor. "Are you?"
"I would have to say I am still debating that issue, my
good master," the independent merchandiser responded.
"My current prospects do not bode well for hopes of
Stel was amused. "I can see that." He leaned closer
and, for the first time, his prisoner caught a glimpse of the
dark pits that were his eyes. Vandor wondered if Stel
EVER removed the mask. In the days since falling into the
trap, Vandor had yet to see the face hidden behind.
"If I were a priest of greasy Hiddukel rather than of
my lord Chemosh, I would be tempted to offer you a place
at my side," said Stel. "You are truly dedicated to the fine
art of enriching yourself at the cost of others, aren't you?"
"NEVER at the expense of my good customers,
Master Stel!" Vandor protested, insulted. But the protest
Chemosh - lord of the undead. The mask should have
been sufficient evidence, and the undead dog the ultimate
proof, but the confused and frightened Vandor had not
made the connection. Vandor was in the hands of a
necromancer, a priest who raised the dead for vile
purposes, vile purposes that usually required a
SACRIFICE. But why specifically Vandor Grizt? The
shape-shifting sivak had come for him and no one else.
The sailing ship rocked again in the turbulent waters.
A wave splashed over the rail, soaking everything but the
magical torches and - oddly enough - the cleric. Stel's tiny
skull gleamed brighter now. His clothes were perfectly
Thunder crashed. A series of heavy thuds continued
on after; the noise caused Vandor to look up to the
heavens to see what could create such a phenomenon. A
massive form came up beside him and Vandor
immediately realized that what he had taken for part of the
storm had actually been footfalls.
"Prefect," the newcomer rumbled, his voice louder
than the thunder.
"Yes, Captain Kruug?"
Kruug appeared ill-at-ease before the cleric. Odd,
since the minotaur was over seven feet tall and likely
weighed three times more than Prefect Stel. Vandor had
no idea how long the beastman lived, but Captain Kruug
looked to have been sailing the seas for all of Vandor's
thirty years and more. Such experience made Vandor's
chances of surviving the rough waters and threatening
storm much better, but that didn't hearten the captive. It
only meant that he would live long enough to confront
whatever fate the cleric of Chemosh had in mind for him.
"Prefect," Kruug repeated. The minotaur's very stance
expressed his dislike for the necromancer. "My ship is
here only because you and your Highlord ordered my
Vandor's hopes rose. Perhaps the minotaurs would
refuse to sail on, destroy whatever dread plan the
necromancer had in mind.
"My crew is growing anxious, cleric," the captain
said. Minotaurs did not like to admit anxiety. To them, it
was a sign of weakness. "The storm is bad enough and
sailing through it at night is only that much worse. Those
two things, though, I could handle at any other time,
PREFECT." Kruug hesitated, unable to stare directly at
the mask for more than a few moments.
"And so?" Stel prompted irritably.
"It's time you tell us why we are sailing to this
location in the middle of the deepest part of the Blood Sea.
There are rumors circulating among the crew and as each
rumor grows, they, in turn, become more uneasy." Kruug
snorted, wiping sea spray from his massive jaw. "We find
it most interesting that a priest of Chemosh has spent so
much time paying homage to the Sea Queen that it seems
he has forgotten his own god!"
The dreadwolf snarled, its pupil-less eyes narrowed.
Stel petted it.
"You are being paid well, captain. Too well for you to
ask questions. And I would think that you would approve
of my efforts to appease the Sea Queen. Is she not
deserving of respect, especially now? We are in her
domain. I give her tribute as she deserves."
Vandor Grizt's heart sank. MY LUCK HAS BECOME
LIKE A POUCH FILLED WITH COIN . . . ALL LEAD!
Kruug apparently did not trust Stel's smooth words.
He snorted his disdain, but glanced around uneasily. A
creature of the sea, the captain had to be more careful than
most in maintaining a respectful relationship with the
tempestuous Sea Queen.
The storm worsened. The sea mist that drenched all
save the cleric was accompanied by a light sprinkle, a
harbinger of the torrential downpour to come. Lightning
and thunder broke overhead.
"You had better pray that Zeboim has listened to you,
prefect," the minotaur retorted. "Else I shall appease her
by throwing you and your stinking mutt over the side. My
ship and my crew come first." He grumbled at no one in
particular. "It's easy for the Highlord to agree to mad plots
when he's safe in his chambers back on shore! He isn't the
one who'll suffer, just the one who'll reap the benefits!"
Stel smiled unpleasantly. "You were given a choice,
Kruug. Sail with me or surrender the TAURON to a
BRAVER captain who would."
Kruug growled, but he backed down.
For one of Kruug's race, the choice was no choice at
all. No minotaur dared let himself be thought a coward.
Stel looked past the captain, who turned to see what
had the cleric's attention. Vandor - tied to one of the masts
- was unable to turn around, but he knew from the
clanking sounds that the draconians must be returning
from their excursion below deck. The two draconians
dragged forward a peculiar metal bowl on three legs.
Captain Kruug glared at the kapak.
"And I'll throw those lizards over, too, especially the
one who can't keep his mouth shut!" Kruug added. "If he
burns one more hole through the deck . . ." But the
minotaur was being ignored. Seeking a target on which to
vent his frustration, Kruug glanced down at Vandor, who
suddenly sought a way to shrink into the mast. The
minotaur's smile vied with that of the dreadwolf for
number of huge, sharp teeth. "And maybe I'll throw this
piece of offal over right now!"
"Touch him, my homed friend, and your first mate
finds himself promoted." Stel was deadly, coldly serious.
Kruug was taken aback. "What's so special about this
thieving little fox?"
"Him?" Stel glanced at Vandor. "By himself, he is
Despite his predicament, Vandor was offended.
"It is his blood I find invaluable," Stel continued.
Vandor was no longer offended ... he was too busy
trying to recall the proper prayers for Shinare. If he'd had
any doubt before as to his fate, that doubt was gone now.
"I do not understand," replied the captain.
Stel looked down at the skull on the chain. "In a few
minutes, Captain Kruug, you AND Vandor Grizt will
understand. We are nearing our destination. Please have
your crew prepare to stop this vessel."
"In this deep water, our anchor won't hold!" Kruug
"We do not need to be completely still. Just make
certain we stay within the region. I think you can manage
that, captain. I was TOLD that you are an expert at your
Kruug bridled. "I've been sailing these waters - "
A crackle of thunder drowned out whatever the
minotaur said after that, but the fury on his face and the
speed with which he departed the vicinity of Prefect Stel
spoke plainly. Vandor Grizt was sorry to see the captain
leave. Of all Vandor's unsavory companions, the minotaur
captain was the only one who seemed to share his fear.
Kruug was merely carrying out orders and with a lack of
enthusiasm that Vandor dismally appreciated.
The draconians set up the altar quickly despite the
constant rocking of the ship. They lashed the legs of the
metal monstrosity to various areas of the deck, assuring
that the huge bowl would remain in place regardless of
how rough the sea. When the draconians were finished,
the two stumbled back to Stel, who seemed to have no
trouble moving about, unlike everyone else.
"The sea grows no calmer, prefect!" hissed the sivak.
"Despite your prayers to the Sea Queen, the ropes may not
"She will listen!" Stel declared. "I have sought her
good will for three days now. We dare not attempt this
without the Sea Queen's favor. We dare not steal from her
domain!" Stel paused, considering. He glanced at Vandor
Grizt, then again at the draconians. "I will have to give an
offering of greater value than I had supposed. Something
that will prove to Zeboim my respect for her majesty!
Something that will acknowledge her precedence over all
else in this endeavor! It will have to be now!"
"Now?" snarled the kapak, surprised. "But now is the
time for your evening devotions to Chemosh, prefect!"
"Chemosh will understand." Stel turned again to
Vandor and pointed. "Unbind him!"
As the draconians undid his bonds, Vandor tried to
slip free of them. For a brief moment, he escaped, but then
the dreadwolf was in front of him, ready to spring.
Vandor's terrified moment of hesitation was sufficient
time to permit the draconians to reestablish their hold on
"Bring him to the altar!" Stel commanded.
The draconians dragged Vandor Grizt across the wet
deck to the odd-looking bowl that Stel had identified as an
"Master Stel, surely I am not a proper sacrifice!"
Vandor protested. "Have you considered that I am hardly a
worthwhile present to be given to one so illustrious as
beautiful, wondrous Zeboim!"
"Silence the buffoon," the cleric muttered in a voice
much less commanding than normal. Stel's dark eyes
turned on the dreadwolf that had been guarding Vandor.
At the silent command, the undead animal joined its
master. Prefect Stel returned his attention to the prisoner.
"Hold out his arm. The left one."
Vandor struggled, but his strength was nothing
compared to that of the draconians.
The servant of Chemosh removed a twisted,
bejewelled dagger from within his robe. Vandor Grizt
recognized it - a sacrificial knife. He had even sold a few.
None had ever been so intricate in detail ... or looked so
deadly in purpose.
Stel brought the dagger down lightly on Grizt's
outstretched arm. The tip of the blade pricked his skin and
drew blood. Muttering under his breath, Stel cut a tiny slit
in his captive's forearm. It was painful, to be sure, but
Vandor had suffered far more pain at the hands of city
guards. A tiny trail of blood dripped slowly down the side
of his arm and into the round interior of the altar bowl.
The blood struck the bottom and sizzled away with a hiss.
The metal began to radiate heat. Vandor swallowed,
fearing what would happen if his flesh touched the hot
Removing the blood-covered blade, Stel looked down
at the dreadwolf, which stared back with sightless, dead
The cleric turned to face the sea. "Zeboim, you who are
also known as the Sea Queen, hear me! I give you some
thing of great value, something that will prove my humble
respect for your power! I give you a part of me!" The
black cleric drove the dagger into the skull of his pet, not
ceasing until the hilt was touching the bone.
The wolf howled in fierce pain and anger. Several of
the minotaur crewmen looked their way. Vandor Grizt
pulled his arm back from the hot metal. The two
draconians had loosened their hold on him in their shock
over the cleric's act.
The servant of Chemosh removed the dagger from
the head of his dreadwolf. The monstrosity collapsed the
moment the blade was no longer touching it. The dead
creature crumbled, becoming ash in the space of a few
breaths. Vandor Grizt, looking up at his captor, saw the
cleric's hands shake. Prefect Stel gave all the appearances
of a man who has just cut off his own hand.
A muttering rose among the minotaurs. The stomping
of heavy feet warned Vandor and his captors that Captain
Kruug was returning.
"Prefect Stel! What in the name of Sargonnas have
you done now? I will not risk my ship in this venture any
more, threats or no - "
Stel raised his free hand and silenced the captain. He
looked out at the sea in expectation.
For a short time, Vandor Grizt, like the rest, saw
nothing out of the ordinary. The sea was calm and the
storm clouds near motionless. The Blood Sea was as calm
as a sleeping child.
Then it struck Vandor that THIS was out of ordinary.
The sea had calmed, the storm had ceased . . . with a
suddenness that could only be called DIVINE in nature.
"Shinare . . ." Vandor whispered, once more wishing
he had been just a little more consistent with his praying.
Moving a bit unsteadily, Prefect Stel turned on the sea
captain. "You were about to say, Kruug?"
It is not often that a minotaur can be taken aback by
events, but Kruug was. The beastman swallowed hard and
stared at the cleric with awe and not a little fear.
"I thought as much." Stel said, evilly smiling. "We are
almost over the exact location, captain. I suggest you and
your crew bring us to as dead a stop as you can."
"Aye," Kruug replied, nodding all the while. He
whirled about and started shouting at the other minotaurs,
taking out his fear and shame on his crew.
Stel turned to Vandor. The cleric smiled. "It is as I
hoped. Your blood is the key. She has heard us. She has
given us her favor."
"My blood? Key?" Vandor babbled.
"Oh, YES, Vandor Grizt, petty thief and purveyor of
purloined properties, your blood! Can't you hear the
voices?" The deep, black eyes behind the mask widened in
anticipation. "Can't you hear them calling you?"
"Who?" Vandor gasped.
"Your ancestors," Stel said, looking at the sea.
"Prefect 1" The kapak was spluttering with fear. A
tiny bit of acidic saliva splattered Vandor on the cheek. He
flinched in pain, but there was nothing he could do with
his arms pinned. "Prefect, you sacrificed the
"It was necessary. Chemosh will understand. Zeboim
has to be placated. This venture is too important."
"But the dreadwolf ... it was bound to you by your
Stel's destruction of his ungodly pet had evidently
taken much out of him and the kapak's reminder was only
stirring the pain. If what the draconian said was true, then
the prefect had wantonly destroyed a gift from his god in
order to gain the favor of the Sea Queen.
A COSTLY VENTURE THIS, Vandor thought
The skull mask made its wearer look like the
embodiment of death itself. Stel's voice was so steady, so
toneless, that both Vandor and the draconians shrank back
"We are in the Sea Queen's domain. Even my lord
Chemosh must be respectful of that. It is by his power that
this task will be done, but it is by HER sufferance that we
The skull necklace flared brighter, so bright that the
two draconians and Vandor were forced to look away.
Stel shouted, "Captain Kruug! This is the position! No
The minotaur dropped anchor; the vessel slowed, but
continued to drift, giving Vandor a brief hope. But, the
minotaurs turned the vessel about and slowly brought it
"Still a short time left," Stel whispered. In a louder,
more confident voice, he asked, "Do you hear them,
Vandor Grizt? Do you hear your ancestors calling you?"
Vandor, who could not trace his ancestors past his
barely-remembered parents, heard nothing except
bellowing minotaurs and the lightest breeze in the
rigging. He refrained from responding however. The
answer might mean life ... or death. He needed to know a
bit more to make the correct choice.
"You don't, do you?" Stel frowned. "But you will.
Your blood is the true blood, child of KINGPRIESTS."
"KINGPRIESTS? Me?" Vandor stared blankly at his
"Yes, Kingpriests." Stel toyed with the dagger and
stared off at the becalmed sea. "It took me quite some time
to find you, thanks to your nomadic lifestyle. I knew that I
would not fail at what I undertook. I was the one who
found the ancient temple, who understood what OTHERS
of my order did not."
"You have me completely at a loss, Master Stel,"
Vandor quavered. "You say I am a descendent of the
Kingpriests?" As he asked, Vandor shivered
uncontrollably. He remembered suddenly what legend said
lay at the bottom of the Blood Sea.
Istar . . . the holy city brought down by the conceit of
its lord, the Kingpriest. In the blackest depths of the Blood
Sea lay the ruins of the holy city . . . and the rest of the
ancient country for that matter.
"Of direct descent." Stel touched the blazing skull.
"This charm marks you as such, as it marks where the
great temples . . . and storehouses ... of Istar sank. The
spells I cast upon it make it drawn to all things - including
people - that possess a strong affinity with Istar. The
charm was carved out of a stone from the very temple
where I found the records, duplicates preserved by the
magic of the zealous acolytes of the Kingpriest. Preserved
but forgotten, for those who had stored them there either
perished with the city or abandoned the place after their
homeland was no more."
"Please, Master Stel." Vandor hoped for more
information, though he had no idea what good it could do
him. "What great wonder did these records hold that
would make you search for one as unworthy as myself?"
Stel chuckled - a raspy, grating sound. "During the
last days of Istar, the Kingpriest persecuted and murdered
many such as myself. The clerics of good stole many
objects of evil from the bodies of clerics of Takhisis,
Sargonnas, Morgion, Chemosh. The fools who followed
the Kingpriest either could not destroy these powerful
artifacts ... or found them too tempting to destroy, just in
case they could find uses for them."
Vandor Grizt almost laughed aloud. It was too absurd.
He knew how easily such rumors got started. He'd created
a few himself in order to sell his wares. The Knights of
Solamnia were rumored to have once stored such evil
clerical items, but no one had ever actually SEEN one. A
REAL one, that is. Still, the cleric did not seem a man who
would be chasing after . . . ghosts.
A thought occurred to Vandor Grizt. "I am certain,
Master Stel, that you must have been pleased to find
records of your stolen property. But if that property is at
the bottom of the sea ..."
The cleric looked knowingly at Vandor. "Of course, I
knew that the treasures I sought - the talismans of my
predecessors - were out of my reach. Even a necromancer
such as myself could not summon the ancients of Istar.
Their tomb lies buried deep beneath the sea; they do not
dwell in my lord's domain. But, if I use the blood of kin -
however many generations distant - I might be able to
summon these dead."
Vandor Grizt was skeptical. "If I am related to the . . .
um . . . Kingpriests, how did you find me?"
"I told you I will permit NOTHING to remain beyond
my grasp. I followed the pull of the skull talisman,
traveling through land after land until it led me to you in
Takar. You are as great a charlatan - in your own way - as
your ancestors. It was simple to trap you."
The sivak draconian laughed.
"Now," Stel continued, "we are almost at the end of my
quest. There is one item in particular - relic of Chemosh -
that I have sought ever since I discovered its existence. A
pendant on a chain, it may be the most powerful talisman
ever created, an artifact that can raise a legion of the
undying to serve the wearer!"
The image of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of undead
warriors marching over the countryside was enough to
sink even Vandor's jaded heart.
Stel grimaced. "Do not think that I will neglect the
other treasures, though. I will be able to pick and choose!
I will wield power like no other!"
The familiar stomping that marked Captain Kruug's
coming sent a shiver through Vandor.
"We're as steady as we can be, Prefect Stel! If you're
going to do anything, do it now!"
Stel looked up into the eerie night sky. "Yes, the time
is close enough, I think." To the draconians, he barked,
"Stretch the fool's arm over the altar!"
SHINARE! Vandor tried praying again, but he kept
forgetting the proper words and losing his place in the
"Blood calls blood, Vandor Grizt," murmured Stel.
"Surely, my blood is so tainted by lesser lines that it
would hardly be worth anything to you!" Vandor
The draconians seemed to find this statement
amusing. Stel shook his masked head, touched the
"Your blood has already proven itself. For you, that
means a reward. When the time comes, I will kill you in as
swift and painless a fashion as I can."
Vandor did not thank him for his kindness.
Stel raised his dagger high and intoned, "Great Sea
Queen, you who guide us now, without whom this deed
could not be done, I humbly ask in the name of my lord
Chemosh for this boon . . ."
Vandor Grizt heard nothing else. His eyes could not
leave the dagger.
The blade came down.
Vandor flinched and cried out in pain, but in what
seemed a reenactment of the first ritual, the cleric of
Chemosh pricked the skin of Vandor's arm and reopened
the long wound. Vandor gasped in relief.
Blood dripped into the altar. Stel muttered something.
At first, Vandor neither felt nor heard anything out of
the ordinary. Then, slowly, every hair on his head came to
life. A deep, inexplicable sense of horror gripped him.
Someone was speaking his name from beyond the
"Come!" Stel hissed. "Blood calls!"
Vandor trembled. The draconians dug their claws into
his arms. The minotaurs, who generally grumbled at
everything, paused at what they were doing and watched
and waited silently.
The waters around the TAURON stirred. Something
was rising to the surface.
SHINARE? Vandor Grizt prayed frantically.
"Answer them!" Prefect Stel hissed again, beckoning.
"You cannot resist the blood!"
To Vandor's dismay, he saw a ghostly, helmed head
rising above the rail. "B-blessed Shinare! I implore you! I
will honor you twice ... no! ... four times a day!"
"Stop babbling, human!" snarled the nervous sivak.
Then, it, too, saw the monstrosity trying to climb aboard.
"Prefect Stel! Look to your right!"
Turning, Stel sighted the walking corpse. "Aaah! At
last! At last!"
Much of the visage was hidden by the rusting helm,
but two empty eye sockets glared out. The armor that it
wore was loose and clanked together. The undead being
floated onto the deck. From the waist down, its legs were
obscured by a chill mist.
Stel eyed the breastplate. "The insignia of the house
guard of the Kingpriest!" He looked up into the ungodly
countenance. "A royal cousin, perhaps?"
Vandor Grizt's ANCESTOR did not respond.
"Prefect Stel!" hissed the draconian again.
Another form, clad in what had probably been a
shroud, rose almost next to Vandor Grizt. He thought he
saw a crown beneath the shroud, but he could not be
certain. He had no desire to take a closer look.
"Better and better . . ."
A third spectral figure joined the other two. The cleric
fairly rubbed his hands in glee. "I had hoped for one,
perhaps TWO after so long, but thr - four!"
Four it was - for the space of a single breath. Then,
two more rose from the water. They seemed less
substantial than the others; Vandor wondered if that meant
they had been dead longer.
Stel glanced heavenward, then at his captive. "There
is the answer to your protests, Vandor Grizt. Your blood
runs truer than you - than I - thought."
The dark cleric looked at the night sky. The clouds
were thickening and the winds were rising. "Time is
limited! We must not try the Sea Queen's admirable
Holding the dagger before him, Stel summoned forth
the undead that had been first to appear. With his other
hand, the cleric removed the tiny skull on the chain and
handed it to Vandor's ancestor. "You are mine. You know
what I desire, do you not?"
The helm rattled as the ghost slowly nodded.
Vandor Grizt found himself sympathetic to his
ancestors. It was not right that they be used as menial
servants. Perhaps, he thought desperately, if blood truly
called to blood, he could send them back to their rest.
"Don't listen to him!" Vandor shouted. "Go! Go
back." His cries were cut off as one draconian put a scaly
hand over his mouth and the other twisted his arm
It all proved to be for nothing. His shambling
ancestors paid no attention to him, but listened obediently
to the masked cleric who had summoned them.
"Make haste, then," Stel continued, ignoring his
prisoner's outburst. "The talisman will guide you. Bring
what you can, but most important, bring the Pendant of
Chemosh! Its image is burned into the device I gave you.
You cannot help but be drawn to it, no matter how deep it
The six spectral figures floated from the ship ... and
sank into the murky depths.
I'M FINISHED! Vandor thought. There was nothing he
could do but wait until Prefect Stel sacrificed him. He
morbidly wondered which god was going to get him,
Chemosh or the Sea Queen. Chemosh, surely, for Stel had
already given up a great deal to the Sea Queen.
"Great Chemosh, magnificent Zeboim," Vandor
muttered, "do either of you really want someone as
insignificant and unworthy as I? Surely a nice draconian
would do better!"
Captain Kruug had finally regained enough nerve to
rejoin the priest. The minotaur even dared peer over the
rail after the undead. "By the Mistress's Eyes! I've never
seen such before!"
Stel smiled. "Yes, the spell worked quite well."
"As you say. How long will . . . will it be before they
return?" The minotaur was clearly unnerved.
"YOU mean how long will it be until we can depart?"
Kruug glared at him, but finally nodded. "Yes . . . how
long? The skies grow darker. The clouds are gathering
and the sea is beginning to stir. It never pays to overtax
the good nature of the Sea Queen. She's known to change
her mind, prefect."
"It will not be long, captain. My servants do not face
the barriers that stop the living. No matter how deeply
sunken are the artifacts I seek, the undead will find them
in short order. The talisman I gave them will further
shorten their search. I, too, am trying to expedite things,
"Good." Kruug straightened to his full height. "I never
thought I'd be saying it, but I look forward to dry land this
night." He thrust a thumb at Vandor Grizt. "And what
about that one?"
Stel's hand stroked the dagger. "He is the last order of
business. When we are about to depart, I will sacrifice
him to Zeboim as a final gift."
The draconians looked at each other and muttered.
Vandor took his cue from them. He did some fast
calculating. The nearest Temple of Chemosh had to be at
least twenty days' journey from here . . .
"You give me to Zeboim, Master Stel? Not Chemosh?
You should really give this some lengthy consideration 1
If I were the wondrous Chemosh, I would be offended at
such shabby treatment!"
"Chemosh will understand. Chemosh is wise. Now cease
your prattle; I know what I do." But Stel looked uncertain.
"We invade her domain. We must make restitution." Was
he trying to convince himself?
The minotaur growled. "It would not be good to retract
a promise to the Sea Queen. She would be offended."
"I had no intention of doing so," Stel snapped. He
pointed into the dark waters. "There! You see?"
The draconians, curious, dragged their captive to the
side with them, enabling Vandor to see much more than he
First one helmed head, then another appeared from the
murky water. Slowly, as if constrained to obey the one
who wielded power over them against their wishes, the
ragged shapes rose. Each carried within its skeletal arms
encrusted artifacts. Stel's reluctant servants bowed before
the cleric of Chemosh and piled the various jewels, scroll
cases, staves, and weapons on the deck at his feet.
Everyone else backed away from the ghastly minions,
but Stel stepped forward eagerly to inspect his treasure.
He picked up first one object, then another. His excitement
swiftly changed to frustration.
"These are useless! They are dead! There is little or no
magic in most of them! Nothing!" The cleric froze. "The
Pendant of Chemosh is not here!"
Vandor noticed then that there were only five undead.
The last of his unfortunate ancestors had not returned; the
one, in fact, who held the skull talisman. Had he somehow
Clouds were beginning to gather. The wind blew
stronger. The TAURON rocked. Prefect Stel glared at his
prisoner. "I see that I shall need more than a little blood. I
think it is time for you to join your ancestors in my quest,
"I assure you that I would make a useless corpse,
Master Stel!" Vandor blurted, struggling. The draconians
dragged him to stand before the cleric. Vandor glanced
briefly at his sea-soaked forebears, who remained
steadfastly oblivious to all around them. He wondered
what it would be like to exist so, figured he didn't have
long before he found out.
"Your blood will strengthen my hold, Vandor Grizt, and
you shall be my messenger to the Sea Queen. You should
consider yourself honored; this will probably be the only
thing of significance you've ever done in your paltry life!"
"Hurry! The storm is strengthening," Captain Kruug
The draconians held Vandor over the altar. Recalling
how his blood had sizzled upon touching the hot metal, he
twisted and turned, trying desperately to avoid it. One of
the guards finally used its claw to shove him down.
Vandor yelped, then realized that he was not being
scalded. His relief was momentary, though; a fate worse
than being scalded awaited him.
One of the draconians leaned close and hissed, "If you
say one more word, thief, I'll bite off your tongue and eat
it! I'm sick of your chatter!"
Vandor clamped his mouth tight. Trapped, he
searched frantically for some way out. His gaze lighted
upon the eyeless visage of an armored ghost, rising above
In its brown, skeletal hands it held two chains. One
was the skull talisman Stel had given it for the search. The
other, much heavier, chain held a black crystal encased in
an ivory clasp.
"Master Stel, look!" Vandor cried. "You don't need
me. He has returned!"
Thanks to Shinare! Grizt added silently.
The cleric beckoned the ghost to him. His ungodly
servant raised the pendants high. Stel snatched his
talisman back, but seemed hesitant to touch the darkly
glimmering creation in the undead's other hand.
"Magnificent! Perfection!" Stel danced back and
forth. Then, recalling where he was and who was
watching, the prefect quieted and carefully reached for his
prize. All sound silenced, save for the wind and the waves
beating against the sides of the minotaur ship.
Vandor Grizt's ancestor did not at first seem inclined
to relinquish the prize, but a muttered word of power from
the cleric forced it to release its hold. Skull mask eyed
skull face for a breath or two, then Prefect Stel forgot the
impudence of his unliving slave as he looked down at the
"The power has leeched away from most of the other
prizes, but this still glows with life! It is all I hoped for
and more! At last it shall serve its purpose! At last I will
take my own rightful place as the greatest of my Lord
Chemosh's loyal servants!"
Stel raised the thick chain over his head and lowered
the pendant onto his chest. No crack of thunder or blare of
horns marked the cleric's triumph, but a horrible,
breathless stillness momentarily passed over the region.
Captain Kruug was the first who dared interrupt the
cleric's worship. "Is that all, then? Are we soon to leave
"Leave?" Stel was surprised by the suggestion. "We
can't leave now! If this artifact still survives, there MUST
be others! I will send them down again! And, with this
pendant, I can summon hundreds of blindly obedient
"You push our luck, human! There are limits - "
"There are no limits! I will show you!" Raising his
hands high, Prefect Stel cried strange words. The black
crystal began to shine with an eerie, grayish light.
Now, thunder rolled and lightning crashed. An
enormous swell of water shook the TAURON. Rain and
hail poured down.
"Come to me!" roared the ghastly priest.
The water began to froth around them, as if the entire
sea were coming to life. Captain Kruug was either
swearing or praying beneath his breath. He began
bellowing orders. The two draconians, absurdly obedient,
fought to keep Vandor over the altar.
A huge wave broke over the deck, drenching Vandor
and his guards. It became clear to Vandor that he might
DROWN before he could be sacrificed.
Stel ignored the tempest, ignored the maddened sea.
He stared at the water in expectation.
Up and down the TAURON rocked, tossed about like
a toy in a rushing stream. Another wave knocked both
Vandor and the draconians away from the altar. His two
guards maintained their hold on him and saved him from
being washed overboard. One of the draconians grabbed
ahold of the rail and pulled Vandor and the other
draconian closer. All three held on for their lives.
And then ...
"Shinare!" Vandor gasped, spitting sea water from his
mouth. "Has he raised ISTAR?"
It seemed so, at first. In the darkness, all Vandor
could see was an enormous, irregular landmass rising
from the depths. The only feature he could make out for
certain was a peculiar ridge of high hills lined up neatly
by twos and running the length of the land. Then, as the
mass rose still higher, two eyes gleamed bright in the
This was not an island.
"Shinare!" Vandor Grizt whispered. Beside him, the
sivak hissed in fear.
"It's going to crush us!" a minotaur roared.
But as the head - a head resembling that of an
enormous turtle - cleared the water, the leviathan paused.
It might have been some huge stone colossus carved by
the ancients of Istar, so still was it.
Stel shouted triumphantly. He was facing the
monster, the pendant of Chemosh held tight in one hand.
Stel's ancient pendant might not have summoned up
the legions of undead that the cleric had sought, but it had
summoned up something far more impressive. The
draconians left the rail, dragging Vandor back to the altar.
"Surely this is no longer necessary!" he protested.
"Master Stel has no time for this now! We should not
bother such a busy man!"
In response, the draconians threw Vandor over the
blood-spattered bowl and waited for orders.
"See what I have done!" Stel cried. "I have the power
to raise monsters from the depths!"
"DEAD ONES, YES . . ." muttered Vandor.
"Yet, this is not what I expected," Stel quieted, then
gazed down at his prize. "I meant to summon the dead of
Istar, not this . . . this beast. This is not how the spell is
supposed to work. Time has wreaked havoc with the
pendant. I shall have to do something about that."
Stel removed his gloves and began probing at the
crystal. There was a SNAP and a tiny burst of light. Stel
cried out in pain. The crystal fell from the ivory casing.
With a wordless cry, Stel tried to catch the magical gem
in midair, but he missed. Vandor shut his eyes - prayed
that the explosion of sorcery unleashed by the shattering
crystal would make his end swift.
The ebony gem struck the deck with a disappointing
clatter. It rolled a moment, then slid toward Vandor Grizt.
He reacted without thinking, seeing only a valuable
jewel heading toward the sea. Vandor put his foot out,
caught the crystal between the sole of his boot and the
deck. Grizt, the draconians, and Prefect Stel exhaled in
relief. Only then did Stel realize what Vandor was doing.
"Stop him, you fools!"
Vandor Grizt stomped his foot down as hard as he
could, trying desperately to crush the damnable artifact.
Something gave way and at first Vandor believed he had
succeeded. But try as he might, he could not reduce the
thing to powder.
One of the draconians hit Vandor, dragging him back,
away from the pendant.
Quickly Stel bent over and snatched up his prize. He
inspected it for damage, then, satisfied, tried to replace it
in the clasp. The crystal would not stay. Stel studied the
clasp closer and cursed.
Vandor smiled ruefully, though he could not help but
sigh over the precious loss. The pendant had survived the
sinking of Istar and centuries of burial in the depths of the
Blood Sea, only to come to such an ignominious end.
Stel shook his fist at Vandor.
"You did this! You could not crush the jewel, but you
cracked the framework around it." He thrust the gem
close, so that Vandor could see the tiny, intricate workings
that wrapped around the ebony jewel, like skeletal fingers
clutching a prized possession. One of them had clearly
Whatever his fate now - and it certainly could get no
worse - Vandor Grizt could die in peace, knowing the
monstrous pendant was destroyed.
"I see your look!" Stel hissed. "But I will build the
pendant anew, thief! The framework is nothing! It can
readily be replaced! As long as I have the jewel I will... I
will. . ."
He stared at it. The jewel - Grizt realized - had ceased
The two draconians exchanged worried glances.
"Prefect," asked the sivak, "is there something amiss?"
Stel did not answer. The dark cleric shook the gem,
muttered some words under his breath, and touched the
crystal with his index finger.
Grizt dared a fleeting, hopeful smile.
One of the draconians, glancing at him, snarled,
"What do YOU find so funny, human?"
He did not get the opportunity to reply.
"It's . . . it's dead . . ." Stel gasped. He shook the jewel
again for good measure. "I do not understand! It worked
perfectly until it fell out of the clasp, but the lack of a
frame should only make the power a little less focused,
unless . . . of course!" He fumbled with the casing. "This is
bone ivory! Part of the spell's matrix! The pendant must be
whole to function or it loses all power!"
Stel tried pressing the gem back into the casing, but it
would not hold.
A massive wave shook the TAURON. Stel almost lost
his footing. Captain Kruug shouted a warning, but his
words were overwhelmed by the violent surging of the
Blood Sea and a crash of thunder.
"NOW what?" Stel snapped.
"Prefect! The monster!" shouted the draconians.
Stel turned around and stared at the leviathan the
pendant had helped him summon.
It was moving . . . and the TAURON lay directly in its
"Sargonnas take you, priest!" Kruug roared. "Listen to
me! Send that thing away or it will kill us all!"
"Preposterous! It will do no such thing! I am the one
who summoned it!"
The minotaur snorted.
Vandor Grizt, who was measuring the direction and
speed of the undead leviathan, turned to his draconian
guards. "Listen to him! The captain is right! Do
"Be silent or I'll tear you in half!" the sivak hissed.
Undaunted, Vandor screamed at them. "Just look!
Your master no longer controls it! It comes for us!"
Tentacles as thick as a man's body rose above the
water, reaching for the ship as the creature neared.
"First rank! Axes!" Kruug roared. Several massive
minotaurs abandoned what they were doing and rushed
toward the steps leading into the vessel's interior.
Through all of this, Stel had remained standing still
staring at the oncoming behemoth. He shook his head.
"With the pendant, I could easily regain total control . . .
but the pendant... is broken and I don't ..." He eyed
Vandor, who now regretted his attempts to pulverize the
jewel. Death appeared to be his fate no matter WHAT
happened. "But I might be able to use it to enhance my
OWN power ... if I have a sufficient blood sacrifice to
Chemosh to feed the spell."
SHINARE! WHY DOES EVERYTHING INVOLVE MY
BLOOD? "But I am promised to the Sea Queen!" Grizt
protested. "If you use me for this, she might grow angry . .
"There will be enough blood to keep you alive . . .
barely. She will understand."
Stel, it seemed, believed in very understanding gods.
Vandor Grizt thought that if he were either Chemosh or
the Sea Queen, he would be insulted by all of these shabby
half-measures and broken vows.
The TAURON had begun to list. The minotaurs had
apparently lost control of the ship. Of all those on board,
only Vandor's ancestors - still in thrall to Stel - remained
unaffected by the terror. They stared blindly in the
direction of Stel and, it seemed, at their descendant who
would soon be joining them in death.
Dagger in one hand and gem in the other, the cleric of
Chemosh faced the undead leviathan surging toward them.
Stel appeared to have confidence in himself, if no one else
did. Raising the gem high, the black-robed cleric began to
shout words of power. The hand with the dagger rose over
the chest of Vandor Grizt.
It was then that the world turned about. Vandor Grizt
was not certain of the order of events, but suddenly the
storm burst into full fury, sending the ship keeling over in
the opposite direction. At least one minotaur was washed
overboard by a massive wave. A bolt of lightning struck
one of the masts, cracking it in two. The burning wreckage
crashed down on the hapless crew.
More than a dozen tentacles wrapped around the
TAURON and began to drag it under.
Stel stood frozen, disbelief registered in every bone
of his body. He dropped the dagger, much to the captive's
relief, and clawed at the tiny skull pendant. As he pulled it
free, it CRUMBLED.
The TAURON was beginning to break up, as the
tentacles threatened to crunch it. Captain Kruug and
several minotaurs rushed forward, attacking the creature
with heavy axes. The rotting skin of the behemoth gave
way. It took the minotaurs only a few blows to sever the
one tentacle and only a couple more to cut a second in
Unfortunately, as Kruug and his men finished the
second, a dozen more ensnared their ship.
"All hands to battle!" roared the captain. Minotaurs
all over the TAURON abandoned their stations and joined
the fight against the beast.
Another wave washed over the front of the ship. Van-
dor's left arm was nearly torn from its socket and
something like an army of blades tore at his flesh. He was
being flayed. In desperation, he lifted one foot and kicked.
His boot struck something solid. He kicked again.
The blades pulled free of his flesh. Only when the
first shock subsided did he realize that the sivak draconian
- the cursed shapechanger - was no longer holding him.
He looked around but saw no sign of the foul reptile. The
draconian had been washed overboard. At least he had
succeeded in avenging himself on the creature that had
killed his friend and captured him.
A brief satisfaction was all he was allowed. Then, it
was a matter of struggling for his own life. Another wave
washed over the ship. The other draconian released
Vandor and fled, slipping and sliding, for the TAURON'S
interior, choosing self-survival over the orders of the
Stel had moved to one side and was holding onto the
rail, eyes wild. He was shouting something at the
leviathan but his words were having no effect. Desperate,
the gaunt priest whirled on the silent figures of the
merchant's ancestors and made a sign.
The undead shuffled forward, forming a half-circle
around the cleric.
Struggling to maintain his own hold on the rail,
Vandor Grizt sought some sort of escape. To stay aboard
the ship was folly in his opinion, but the Blood Sea
offered the only other option.
"Shinare," he whispered, "is there ANYTHING I can
Kruug, axe covered in a brown, thick muck, was trying
to get his crew's attention.
"Prepare to abandon ship!" Kruug glanced around and
spotted Vandor. Grimacing, the minotaur called, "I'll not
leave even you to this, manling! Get over to the - "
A tentacle struck the captain. Kruug flew over the
other side of the ship and, as Vandor watched helplessly,
the beastman dropped into the water and vanished
The TAURON began to shudder and crack.
THIS IS THE END FOR ALL OF US! Vandor thought.
His undead ancestors had formed a tighter ring around
the cleric. No longer were they the blindly obedient slaves
that Stel had summoned. They had the prefect pinned
against the rail and were closing the circle around him.
CHEMOSH WILL UNDERSTAND. . . Stel had said
that over and over. Chemosh - Lord of the Undead - had
not been as understanding as his servant imagined.
One of the wraiths, the skeleton in armor, reached out
and tore the mask from the cleric's face. The skeletal hand
closed over Stel's throat. Stel screamed horribly. The other
undead closed around him.
A gigantic wave swamped the TAURON.
Vandor Grizt lost his hold, falling overboard. The sea
took him. He could no longer see the TAURON and for all
he knew it had been pulled under after the last wave.
Water was all there was in the world. It surrounded him; it
Then he saw a woman, a beautiful but fiery creature of
the depths. She was reaching for him, but something ... no
SOMEONE - another woman . . . was pulling him away
Vandor Grizt smiled vaguely at the first woman,
regretting that their liaison was not possible.
Then, he was no more.
Vandor Grizt discovered he did not like the taste of
Raising his head, an act that strained to the limit what
few resources he had left, he spat out a grainy mouthful.
Vandor kept his eyes closed. He was not at all certain
he wanted to know where he was. After all, if he were
dead, he might be in the domain of Zeboim ... or worse.
Curiosity got the better of him.
All he saw was a beach. Daytime. Brilliant light
nearly blinded him. Closing his eyes, he restarted the
process, allowing himself only a narrow gap of vision at
He allowed that gap to widen when he saw the feet in
front of him. They were not human feet.
"So you survived," rumbled a horribly familiar voice.
"Some god truly watches over you, human . . ."
Vandor Grizt rolled over, the best he could do at the
moment, and stared at the looming bestial countenance of
Captain Kruug. After a moment, Vandor became aware of
the presence of three other minotaurs, one of whom leaned
heavily on another.
Vandor tried to speak, coughed and spit up sea water.
Kruug snorted. He looked tired. Very tired. "Save
your words, human. I've no interest in you. Anyone who
survived that folly . . . and I'm amazed there are any of us
... deserves some peace." The minotaurs started to turn
away, but the captain held back long enough to add, "If
you'll take my advice, you'll go inland. DEEP inland. If I
see your ugly face again, I might remember how I lost my
ship because of you."
Although he had a somewhat different perspective on
the recent events, Grizt did not think it wise to argue. He
watched in silence as the battered foursome stumbled off.
"You're lucky, Vandor Grizt," he said as he lay there
trying to regain enough strength to move on. "The bull-
man must be right: some god does smile on me!" The
thought comforted him. If that was true - and it certainly
seemed so - then it might be a wise time to begin a new
Grizt started to rise, but felt something under his left
hand. He dug the object out of the sand and stared long at
It was the upper portion of Stel's skull mask - an
eyehole and part of the cheek. Vandor smiled. His
ancestor had bequeathed him a present.
Vandor dropped the battered mask and, finding new
strength, rose to his feet. He looked around and saw that
the minotaurs were still within sight, their pace slowed by
the injured member.
Vandor Grizt ran after them, calling out in order to get
their attention. Kruug turned around, his fists balled tight.
When he saw who it was, his anger was replaced by
"What do you want? I thought I told you - "
"Please!" Vandor Grizt put up both hands in placation.
"Just a question of directions. That is all I ask. You know
this region much better than I."
"All right. Where is it you want to go?"
Trying not to sound too anxious, Vandor asked,
"Would you happen to know the way to the nearest temple
The Vingaard Campaign
FROM the Research of Foryth Teel, Senior Scribe
in the service of Astinus, Master Lorekeeper of Krynn.
Most Gracious Historian, you do me too much honor!
To think of this task - the study of the greatest military
campaign in the post-Cataclysm history of Krynn - and to
realize that you have selected ME to prepare the
documents! I am honored, humbled. But, as always, I shall
endeavor to do my best, so that the truth can be recorded
Thank you too, Excellency, for your concern about my
health following my previous mission. My nerves have
settled and the tremors have almost disappeared from my
hands. Also, I am able to sleep for several hours at a time
without suffering the recurrence of nightmares.
As always, a return to my work seems to promise the
most complete cure - and in this assignment, Your Grace,
you could not have provided a more perfect medicine. The
tale of the Vingaard Campaign! The very phrase strikes a
martial note in my soul! I hear the clash of steel, the
thunder of hooves and the strident call of the battle
trumpet! I imagine the wings of dragons, good and evil,
blotting out the sky. I picture the blasts of powerful
magicks, the gallant charge of the knights!
But forgive me. I have not forgotten that the historian is
a dispassionate reporter of the truth. Such flights of fancy
are for poets, not scholars such as I. I shall try to control
my emotions. Nevertheless, as I relate the exciting story of
a young elven princess who changed the face of Krynn in
a few short weeks - the sharp, dangerous attacks that
baffled her foes, the fast marches across the plains placing
her miles from her supposed location, and of course, her
epic victory at Margaard Ford - I trust that Your
Excellency will forgive an occasional exclamatory aside.
In studies, I will examine the topic primarily from
the viewpoint of the Army of Solamnia. The records of the
dragonarmies were relatively well kept, and have been
researched by many scribes. The campaigns from the
Golden General's side, on the other hand, have only been
discussed in the histories of the Knights of Solamnia. To
read them, one might think that the contributions of the
good dragons to these battles was merely to fan the
battlefield with their wings, cooling the sweat from the
brows of the hard-riding knights to whom the laurels
really belonged! In my own reports, I shall strive for a
greater degree of objectivity - as befits a proper historian.
I now commence my task in the musty library of the
High Clerist's Tower at Westgate Pass. Extensive records
from a variety of sources have yielded themselves to my
diligence. Gunthar Uth Wistan's account, formulated on
the distant island of Ergoth from reports received by that
venerable captain from his knights in the field, proves
surprisingly complete - and accurate. (He does a
remarkable job, Excellency, of separating the wheat from
the chaff as regards the reports received from his
enthusiastic warriors!) The records of the interviews
conducted with the captured dragonarmy general Bakaris
also shed a good light on the campaign. Also, I have been
afforded the aid of a hitherto unknown source: a young
human female named Mellison (no surname, apparently),
self-appointed servant of the general. I have found the
tattered remnants of a diary she kept during the short
period of the campaign (it is amazing in the extreme to
think that this sweeping series of battles lasted a mere
Mellison had been born and raised in a small village
on the Plains of Solamnia. When the dragons came, her
community was scorched, and her parents slain (or,
perhaps, taken as slaves). Mellison, alone from the
village, managed to escape to the shelter of the High
Clerist's Tower and, eventually, Palanthas.
I do not know how she met the elf woman who would
become the Golden General - those pages, at the start of
Mellison's diary, have been destroyed. However, by the
time Laurana had been appointed by Gunthar Uth Wistan,
Grand Master of Solamnia, to command the knights and
the army of Palanthas, the human girl had attached herself
to the elf woman.
Mellison proved very useful to the general, preparing
Laurana's tent for those nights when the general was able
to steal a few hours' sleep; and Mellison always fanned a
blaze into light for her mistress's predawn awakenings.
Though the young woman participated in none of the
battles, her observations of Laurana's campfire councils
have provided us with key insights into the development
of the campaign.
The first of these discussions occurred on the field
below this very tower, and it is here that Mellison gives us
a picture of Laurana's council of war. Present were the elf
woman, the two Knights of the Crown - Sirs Patrick and
Markham - who served as her chief lieutenants, and two
unnamed knights of the other orders. Mellison refers to
them, in her childlike hand, as "Lord Sword" and "Sir
Rose." Gilthanas - Laurana's brother and proud prince of
the Qualinesti elves - also attended.
(Incidentally, Your Grace, the letters sent by Gilthanas
to his brother Porthios provide us an additional primary
source on this campaign, especially as it was seen from an
elven point of view.)
Of course, the context of the meeting is well known:
the dragonarmy known as the Blue Wing had been blunted
(but not destroyed) in the Battle of the High Clerist's
Tower. These troops, under the command of the Dark
Lady - the Highlord Kitiara - and her general, Bakaris, had
fallen back upon Dargaard Keep, where they represented a
significant threat. The good dragons had arrived here
following that battle, on the day preceding Laurana's
council of war. These mighty serpents, of gold and silver,
brass, copper and bronze, had at last ended their exile
from the war. Brought to Palanthas by Gilthanas and the
great silver dragon called Silvara, they were anxious to
exact vengeance against their evil cousins.
Though the numbers of dragons and troops in
Laurana's force equaled a mere fraction of the total evil
forces, she had the advantage of concentration - all of her
forces were here, in the pass, while those of the enemy -
the Red Wing, portions of the Green and White Wings,
and the remnants of the Blue Wing - were scattered over
Solamnia from Vingaard and Caergoth to Kalaman and
Neraka. Also, a huge reserve army under the command of
Emperor Ariakus himself had spent the winter encamped
in Sanction. Recent rumors placed the dragonarmy on the
march, however, though Laurana and her captains had no
idea of its location or destination.
The time was night, a council fire flared high. Mellison
reports that its light was reflected in gold and silver
gleams from the massive dragons crouched just beyond
the human commanders.
"We can hold them here forever!" stated Sir Rose,
opening the council. "With the dragons and the men of
Palanthas to back us up, the knights will form an
"Hold them, indeed," agreed Sir Patrick. "If they dare
to attack again, we'll butcher them to the last scale-faced
draconian! Don't you agree, general?" Grudgingly he
turned to Laurana for confirmation. Of the Crown
Knights, he had been most reluctant to accept her
leadership - yet the orders of Gunthar Uth Wistan had thus
far proven sufficient to steel him to his duty.
"I have no intention of holding them here, or
anywhere!" declared Laurana, with that shake of her head
that set her golden hair flowing about her shoulders.
"What is your plan?" inquired Markham, with his
easy grin that somewhat lightened the tension.
"We attack." Laurana spoke the two words, and then
paused to fix her eyes on each of her listeners. She seemed
to grow in stature as the firelight flared across her fair
skin, her almond-shaped eyes. "The Army of Solamnia
will advance under the wings of the good dragons, seek
out the dragonarmies, and destroy them!"
"Leave the pass unguarded?" sputtered Sir Rose.
"After this great victory, you risk throwing everything ...
the lives, the - "
Laurana's reply was sharp and bitter. "I know very
well the cost in lives!" she snapped with enough force to
shut the mouth of the grizzled veteran. For a moment she
closed her eyes. Mellison saw the sharp pain of memory
etched across Laurana's face. Gilthanas placed a
comforting hand on his sister's arm, but she shrugged it
away. She took a breath and continued.
"Nothing could be more wasteful of those lives than
for us to cower here, behind these walls, and give the
dragonarmies time to concentrate their scattered forces.
No, my captains, we won't wait for them to act. It is time
this war came back against those who began it!"
"Where do we go, then?" inquired Sir Rose. "Do we
advance south, toward Solanthus? Or eastward, to threaten
the occupation forces at Vingaard? Both of these courses
allow us this fortress as a base. Too, they keep the
Vingaard River as a strong barrier between us and the bulk
of the enemy - the option to fall back in the event of . . ."
He did not complete his speculation; something in the
general's eyes silenced him.
"Vingaard," Laurana announced. "But not as a threat -
1 mean to liberate it. As to the river, I want this entire
army across it within a week."
"BEYOND the Vingaard?" Patrick was shocked, but
his eyes measured the elf woman with surprise and new
appraisal. "Into the heart of the dragonrealms?"
"The dragonarmies will meet us there, in force,"
Markham said cautiously. "Do you intend to draw them
into a battle? Destroy them on the field?"
"That will be an historic moment!" Lord Sword
declared, his face flushing and his long mustaches bobbing
at the prospect. A fierce light entered his eyes. "To drive
our lances into the faces of those beasts, for once - instead
of merely standing our ground!"
Laurana smiled, too, but it was a grim expression to
Mellison. She thought it made the elf woman look much
older. "Yes - I will draw them into battle. The first of
many. Once we've crossed the river, I don't intend to rest
until we reach the gates of Kalaman!"
"Kalaman!" Sir Rose sputtered so much that his
mustaches floated out from his mouth. They all knew that
the distant city was in desperate straits, following a long
winter of isolation and siege. Still, hundreds of miles of
enemy territory lay between themselves and Kalaman.
"You're mad!" barked Patrick.
Laurana allowed the insult to pass, but this time her
brother stepped forward. "The good dragons give us a
striking force that you knights can't begin to imagine!"
countered the tall elf. "We cannot waste them!"
"What about Dargaard?" asked Markham, turning to
Laurana. "That's a powerful bastion across your path - the
Dark Lady is there in force, together with the dragons of
her Blue Wing. The ogres of Throtl are supported by green
dragons, and they're certain to mass against your south
"I intend to ignore Dargaard, for the time being. The
ogres we'll meet, and defeat."
"They'll have the Green Wing to support them. And
Emperor Ariakus has sent the Red Wing from Neraka as a
reinforcement. Too, we don't have any idea where the
reserve army has gone," argued Sir Rose.
"We have dragonlances," cried Gilthanas. "We can
meet these serpents in the skies, finally, and defeat them!"
"The weapon, so far, has only proven itself in the
closed confines of the tower!" Patrick growled back.
"That is true," Laurana agreed. "But I don't intend to
fight all the dragons at once. That's why it's so important
that we MOVE!"
"But a major river crossing!" objected Patrick. "You
can't imagine the difficulties! And if we're caught with the
army divided - "
"Our dragons will screen the crossing. And I intend to
reach the Vingaard too quickly for anything but a token
force to stand in our way."
"But there's the fortress itself - Vingaard Keep has a
massive garrison!" persisted Patrick. "Anywhere we cross
puts us in easy reach of a counterattack!"
"That brings me to the next part of the plan," Laurana
announced, pausing to make sure she had the attention of
all the men. "Vingaard will be liberated - TOMORROW."
The knights, to a man, stared at the general in
amazement. All knew that Vingaard Keep was three days'
ride by horse.
At this point, the Council's voices grew hushed and
confidential, so the rest of the conversation is lost to
Mellison's diary - and to history. The results of this
historic and clandestine conversation are known.
The following dawn, the skies over the High Clerist's
Tower were filled with dragons - their metallic colors
dappling the ground with moving reflections of the
brilliant sunrise. Laurana, astride the huge gold dragon
Quallathon, led the way. A wing of griffon cavalry,
mounted with elven bowmen and lancers - lately arrived
from Southern Ergoth - flew beside the great serpents.
Altogether, two hundred of the half-hawk, half-lion beasts
accompanied an equal number of dragons soaring
southeast toward Vingaard - eighty miles away across the
flat plain. Their bodies blackened the sky.
At the same time, the army moved out. Led by the
knights on horseback, accompanied by the blue-garbed
troops of Palanthas and a large and growing force of
irregulars recruited from Solamnia and Ergoth, the
soldiers of Laurana's command marched to the northeast.
The diverging paths were obvious to all. The flying army
was on its own, the battle would be won or lost long
before the troops on the ground could arrive.
Gilthanas, in an extensive letter to Porthios, gives us a
vivid picture of this assault - the first time the good
dragons took the offensive in the war.
"Within four hours our dragons drew within sight of
mighty Vingaard Keep, standing on the near bank of the
river that bears the same name.
"For more than a year, the dragonarmies had held the
fortress, and their presence formed a bleak shroud around
the once-grand castle. Layers of soot clouded the walls,
and rubble-strewn fields surrounded the high towers,
where once thrived lush crops of grain.
"I never knew such exhilaration and excitement.
Silvara tucked in her wings and plunged toward the city.
Wind lashed my hair and stung my face. The ground
approached with dizzying speed, and I felt a fierce joy.
"At last the dragonarmies would get a taste of the
terror they had spread so wantonly across Ansalon.
Silvara's challenging bellow thundered through the air,
echoed by scores of silver and golden throats.
"The draconians lining the walls quivered and shook