THE WAR OF SOULS

 

VOLUME TWO

 

DRAGONS OF A

LOST STAR

 

Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Scanned & Proofed by flipinelk 24-10-03


 

1

An Accounting Nightmare

 

Morham Targonne was having a bad day. His accounts would not balance. The difference in the totals was paltry, a matter of a few steel. He could have made it up with the spare change from his purse. But Targonne liked things to be neat, orderly. His rows of figures should add up. There should be no discrepancies. Yet here he was. He had the various accounts of moneys coming into the knights’ coffers. He had the various accounts of moneys going out of the knights’ coffers, and there was a difference of twenty-seven steel, fourteen silver, and five coppers. Had it been a major sum, he might have suspected embezzlement. As it was, he was certain that some minor functionary had made a simple miscalculation. Targonne would have to go back through all the accounts, redo the calculations, track down the error.

An uninformed observer, seeing Morham Targonne seated at his desk, his fingers black with ink, his head bent over his accounts, would have said that he was looking on a loyal and dedicated clerk. The uninformed observer would have been wrong. Morham Targonne was the leader of the Dark Knights of Neraka and thereby, since the Dark Knights were in control of several major nations on the continent of Ansalon, Morham Tar-gonne held the power of life and death over millions of people. Yet here he was, working into the night, looking with the diligence of the stodgiest clerk for twenty-seven steel, fourteen silver, and five coppers.

But although he was concentrating on his work to the extent that he had skipped supper to continue his perusal of the accounts, Lord Targonne was not absorbed in his work to the exclusion of all else. He had the ability to focus a part of his mental powers on a task and, at the same time, to be keenly alert, aware of what was going on around him. His mind was a desk constructed of innumerable compartments into which he sorted and slotted every occurrence, no matter how minor, placed it in its proper hole, available for his use at some later time.

Targonne knew, for example, when his aide left to go to his own supper, knew precisely how long the man was away from his desk, knew when he returned. Knowing approximately how long it would take a man to eat his supper, Targonne was able to say that his aide had not lingered over his tarbean tea but had returned to his work with alacrity. Targonne would remember this in the aide’s favor someday, setting that against the opposite column in which he posted minor infractions of duty.

The aide was staying at work late this night. He would stay until Targonne discovered the twenty-seven steel, fourteen silver, and five coppers, even if they were both awake until the sun’s rays crept through Targonne’s freshly cleaned window. The aide had his own work to keep him occupied—Targonne saw to that. If there was one thing he hated, it was to see a man idling. The two worked late into the night, the aide sitting at a desk outside the office, trying to see by lamplight as he stifled his yawns, and Targonne sitting inside his sparsely furnished office, head bent over his bookkeeping, whispering the numbers to himself as he wrote them, a habit of his of which he was completely unconscious.

The aide was himself slipping toward unconsciousness when, fortunately for him, a loud commotion in the courtyard outside the fortress of the Dark Knights startled him from a brief nap.

A blast of wind set the window panes rattling. Voices shouted out harshly in irritation or warning. Booted feet came running. The aide left his desk and went to see what was happening at the same time as Targonne’s voice called from his office, demanding to know what was going on and who in the Abyss was making all this blasted racket.

The aide returned almost immediately.

“My lord, a dragonrider has arrived from—”

“What does the fool mean, landing in the courtyard?”

Hearing the noise, Targonne had actually left his accounting long enough to turn to look out his window. He was infuriated to see the large blue dragon flapping about his courtyard. The large blue looked infuriated herself, for she had been forced to alight in an area that was much too small and cramped for her bulk. She had just missed a guard tower with her wing. Her tail had taken out a small portion of the battlements. Other than that, she had managed to land safely and now squatted in the courtyard, her wings folded tight at her sides, her tail twitching. She was hungry and thirsty. There were no dragon stables close by nor any sign that she was going to have anything to eat or drink anytime soon. She glared balefully at Targonne through the window, as though she blamed him for her troubles.

“My lord,” said the aide, “the rider comes from Silvanesti—”

“My lord!” The dragonrider, a tall man, stood behind the aide, loomed over him. “Forgive the disruption, but I bring news of such dire urgency and importance that I felt I had to inform you immediately.”

“Silvanesti.” Targonne snorted. Returning to his desk, he continued writing. “Has the shield fallen?” he asked sarcastically.

“Yes, my lord!” The dragonrider gasped, out of breath.

Targonne dropped his pen. Lifting his head, he stared at the messenger in astonishment. “What? How?”

“The young officer named Mina—” The dragonrider was forced to interrupt himself with a fit of coughing. “Might I have something to drink, my lord? I have swallowed a vast quantity of dust between here and Silvanesti.”

Targonne made a motion with his hand, and his aide left to fetch ale. While they waited, Targonne invited the rider to be seated and rest himself.

“Order your thoughts,” Targonne instructed, and as the Knight did just that, Targonne used his powers as a mentalist to Probe the Knight’s mind, to eavesdrop on those thoughts, see what the Knight had seen, hear what the Knight had heard.

The images bombarded Targonne. For the first time in his career, he found himself at a loss to know what to think. Too much was happening too fast for him to comprehend. What was overwhelmingly clear to Morham Targonne was that too much of it was happening without his knowledge and outside his control. He was so disturbed by this that he actually for the moment forgot the twenty-seven steel, fourteen silver, and five coppers, although he wasn’t so rattled but that he made a note to himself when he closed his books as to where he left off in his calculations.

The aide returned with a mug of cold ale. The Knight drank deeply and, by that time, Targonne had managed to compose himself to listen with every appearance of outward calm. Inside, he was seething.

“Tell me everything,” Targonne instructed.

The Knight complied.

“My lord, the young Knight officer known as Mina was able, as we reported to you earlier, to penetrate the magical shield that had been raised around Silvanesti—”

“But not lower the shield,” Targonne interrupted, seeking clarification.

“No, my lord. In fact, she used the shield to fend off pursuing ogres, who were unable to break the enchantment. Mina led her small force of Knights and foot soldiers into Silvanesti with the apparent design of attacking the capital, Silvanost.”

Targonne sniffed in derision.

“They were intercepted by a large force of elves and were handily defeated. Mina was captured during the battle and made prisoner. The elves planned to execute her the following morning. However, just prior to her execution, Mina attacked the green dragon Cyan Bloodbane, who had, as you were no doubt aware, my lord, been masquerading as an elf.”

Targonne had not known that, nor did he see how he should have known it, since not even he could have seen through the cursed magical shield the elves had raised over their land. He made no comment, however. He never minded appearing omniscient.

“Her attack forced Cyan to reveal to the elves the fact that he was a dragon. The elves were terrified. Cyan would have slaughtered thousands of them, but this Mina roused the elven army and ordered them to attack the green dragon.”

“Help me understand the situation,” said Targonne, who was starting to feel an aching behind his right temple. “One of our own officers rallied the army of our most bitter enemy, who in turn slew one of the mightiest of our green dragons?”

“Yes, my lord,” said the Knight. “You see, my lord, as it turned out, it was the dragon Cyan Bloodbane who had raised the magical shield that had been keeping our armies out of Silvanesti. The shield, as it turns out, was killing the elves.”

“Ah.” said Targonne and rubbed his temple with a forefinger. He hadn’t known that either. But he might have been able to deduce it, had he given it much thought. The green dragon Cyan Bloodbane, terrified of Malystryx, vengeful toward the elves, built a shield that protected him from one enemy and helped destroy another. Ingenious. Flawed, but ingenious. “Proceed.”

The Knight hesitated. “What happened after that is rather confused, my lord. General Dogah had received your orders to halt his march to Sanction and proceed instead to Silvanesti.”

Targonne had given no such orders, but he had already observed Dogah’s march from the Knight’s mental processes and let this comment pass unremarked. He would deal with that later.

“General Dogah arrived to find the shield prohibited him from entering. He was furious, thinking he’d been sent on a kender’s errand. The land around the shield is a terrible place, my lord, filled with dead trees and animal corpses. The air is fetid and foul to breathe. The men were upset, claiming the place was haunted and that we ourselves would die from being so near it, when, suddenly, with the rising of the sun, the shield shattered. I was with General Dogah, and I saw it with my own eyes.”

“Describe it,” Targonne ordered, eyeing the man intently.

“I have been thinking about how to do so, my lord. Once when I was a child, I stepped on an ice-covered pond. The ice beneath my feet began to crack. The cracks spread across the ice with a snapping sound, then the ice gave way, and I plunged into the black water. This was much the same. I saw the shield shimmering like ice in the sunshine, and then it seemed to me that I saw a million, million infinitesimal cracks, as thin as the strands °f a cobweb, spread across the shield with lightning speed. There was a shivering, tinkling sound as of a thousand glass goblets crashing onto a stone floor, and the shield was gone.

“We could not believe our senses. At first, General Dogah dared not enter the shield, fearing a cunning elven trap. Perhaps, he said, we shall march across and the shield will crash down behind us, and we will end up facing an army of ten thousand elves, yet have nowhere to go. Suddenly there appeared among us, as if by magic, one of Mina’s Knights. Through the power of the One God, he came to tell us that the shield had indeed fallen, brought down by the elven king himself, Silvanoshei, son of Alhana—”

“Yes, yes,” said Targonne impatiently. “I know the whelp’s pedigree. Dogah believed this chit, and he and his troops crossed the border.”

“Yes, my lord. General Dogah ordered me to take my blue dragon and fly back to report to you that he is now marching on Silvanost, the capital.”

“What of the ten-thousand-man elven army?” Targonne asked dryly.

“As to the army, my lord, they have not attacked us. According to Mina, the king, Silvanoshei, has told them that Mina has come to save the Silvanesti nation in the name of the One God. I must say, my lord, that the elves are in pitiable condition. When our advance troops entered an elven fishing village near the shield, we observed that most of the elves were sick or dying from the cursed magic of the shield. We thought to slay the wretches, but Mina forbade it. She performed miracles of healing on the dying elves and restored them to life. When we left, the elves were singing her praises and blessing the One God and vowing to worship this god in Mina’s name.

“Yet not all elves trust her. Mina warned us that we might be attacked by those who call themselves ‘the kirath.’ But, according to her, their numbers are few, and they are disorganized. Alhana Starbreeze has forces on the border, but Mina does not fear them. She does not appear to fear anything,” the Knight added with an admiration he could not conceal.

The One God! Ha! Targonne thought to himself, seeing far more in the messenger’s mind than he was saying. Sorcery. This Mina is a witch. She has everyone ensorcelled—the elves, Dogah, and my Knights included. They are as smitten with this upstart chippy as the elves. What is she after?

The answer was obvious to Targonne.

She is after my position, of course. She is subverting the loyalty of my officers and winning the admiration of my troops. She plots against me. A dangerous game for such a little girl. ‘ He mused, forgetting the weary messenger. Outside the room came the thud of booted feet and a loud voice demanding to see the Lord of the Night.

“My lord!” His aide hastened into the room, interrupting Targone’s dark thoughts. “Another messenger has arrived.”

A second messenger entered the room, glanced askance at the first.

“Yes, what is your news?” Targonne demanded of the second.

“I have been contacted by Feur the Red, our agent in the service of the great green dragon overlord Beryl. The red reports that she and a host of dragons bearing draconian soldiers have been ordered to undertake an assault on the Citadel of Light.”

“The citadel?” Targonne struck his fist on the desk, causing a neatly stacked pile of steel coins to topple. “Is that green bitch of a dragon insane? What does she mean, attacking the citadel?”

“According to the red, Beryl has sent a messenger to tell you and her cousin Malystryx that this is a private quarrel and that there is no need for Malys to get involved. Beryl seeks a sorcerer who sneaked into her lands and stole a valuable magical artifact. She learned that the sorcerer fled for safety to the citadel, and she has gone to fetch him. Once she has him and the artifact, she will withdraw.”

“Magic!” Targonne swore viciously. “Beryl is obsessed with magic. She thinks of nothing else. I have gray-robed wizards who spend all their time hunting for some blamed magical Tower just to placate that bloated lizard. Assaulting the citadel! What of the pact of the dragons? ‘Cousin Malystryx’ will most certainly see this as a threat from Beryl. This could mean all-out war, and that would wreck the economy.”

Targonne rose to his feet. He was about to give an order to have messengers standing by, ready to carry this news to Malys, who must certainly hear of this from him, when he heard more shouting in the hallway.

“Urgent message for the Lord of the Night.”

Targonne’s aide, looking slightly frazzled, entered the room.

“What is it now?” Targonne growled.

“A messenger brings word from Marshal Medan in Qualinost that Beryl’s forces have crossed the border into Qualinesti, pillaging and looting as they march. Medan urgently requests orders. He believes that Beryl intends to destroy Qualinesti, burn the forests to the ground, tear down the cities, and exterminate the elves.”

“Dead elves pay me no tribute!” Targonne exclaimed, cursing Beryl with all his heart and soul. He began to pace behind his desk. “I cannot cut timber in a burned-out forest. Beryl attacks Qualinesti and the citadel. She is lying to me and to Malys. Beryl intends to break the pact. She plans war against Malys and against the Knighthood. I must find some way to stop her. Leave me! All of you,” he ordered peremptorily. “I have work to do.”

The first messenger bowed and left to eat and take what rest he could before the return flight. The second left to await orders. The aide departed to dispatch runners to wake other messengers and alert the blue dragons who would carry them.

After the aide and the messengers had gone, Targonne continued to pace the room. He was angry, infuriated, frustrated. Only a few moments before, he had been working on his accounts, content in the knowledge that the world was going as it should, that he had everything under control. True, the dragon overlords imagined that they were the ones in charge, but Targonne knew better. Bloated, enormous, they were—or had been—content to slumber in their lairs, allowing the Dark Knights of Neraka to rule in their names. The Dark Knights controlled Palanthas and Qualinost, two of the wealthiest cities on the continent. They would soon break the siege of Sanction and seize that seaport city, giving them access to New Sea. They had taken Haven, and he was even now drawing up plans to attack the prosperous crossroads town of Solace.

Now, he watched his plans topple in a heap like the stack of steel coins. Returning to his desk, Targonne laid out several sheets of foolscap. He dipped his pen into the ink and, after several more moments of profound thought, began to write.

 

General Dogah

Congratulations on your victory over the Silvanesti elves. These people have defied us for many years. However, I must warn you, do not trust them. I have no need to tell you that we do not have the manpower to hold Silvanesti if the elves decide to rise up in a body and rebel against us. I understand that they are sick and weakened, their population decimated, but they are tricky. Especially this king of theirs—Silvanoshei.

He is the son of a cunning, treacherous mother and an outlawed father. He is undoubtedly in league with them. I want you to bring to me for interrogation any elves you believe might be able to provide me with information regarding any subversive plots of the elves. Be discreet in this, Dogah. I do not want to rouse the elves’ suspicions.

Lord of the Night,

Targonne

 

He read over this letter, dusted the wet ink with sand to hasten the drying process, and set it aside. After a moment’s thought, he set about composing the next.

 

To Dragon Overlord Malystryx, Your Most Exalted Majesty etc., etc.

It is with great pleasure that I make known to Your Most Illustrious Majesty that the elven people of Silvanesti, who have long defied us, have been utterly vanquished by the armies of the Dark Knights of Neraka. Tribute from these rich lands will soon be flowing into your coffers. The Knights of Neraka will, as usual, handle all the financial dealings to relieve you of such a mundane burden.

During the battle, the green dragon, Cyan Bloodbane, was discovered to have been hiding in Silvanesti. Fearing your wrath, he sided with the elves. Indeed, it was he who raised the magical shield that has so long kept us out of that land. He was slain during the battle. If possible, I will have his head found and delivered to Your Grace.

You may hear certain wild rumors that your cousin, Beryllinthra-nox, has broken the pact of the dragons by attacking the Citadel of Light and marching her armies into Qualinesti. I hasten to assure Your Grace that such is not the case. Beryllinthranox is acting under my orders. We have evidence that the Mystics of the Citadel of Light have been causing our own Mystics to fail in their magic. I deemed these Mystics a threat, and Beryllinthranox graciously offered to destroy them for me. As to Qualinesti, Beryllinthranox’s armies are marching in order to join up with the forces of Marshal Medan. His orders are to destroy the rebels under the leadership of an elf known as the Lioness, who has harassed our troops and disrupted the flow of tribute.

As you see, I have everything under control. You need have no cause for alarm.

Lord of the Night,

Morham Targonne

 

He dusted sand on that letter and immediately launched into the next, which was easier to write due to the fact that there was some truth to this one.

 

To Khellendros the Blue Dragon, Most Esteemed, etc., etc.

You have undoubtedly heard that the great green dragon Beryllinthranox has launched an attack against the Citadel of Light. Fearing that you may misunderstand this incursion into lands so close to your territory, I hasten to reassure your lordship that Beryllinthranox is acting under my orders in this. The Mystics of the Citadel of Light have been discovered to be the cause of the failure of our Mystics in their magic. I would have made the request of you, Magnificent Khellendros, but I know that you must be keeping a close eye on the gathering of accursed Solamnic Knights in the city of Solanthus. Not wanting to call you away at this critical time, I requested that Beryllinthranox deal with the problem.

Lord of the Night,

Morham Targonne

Postscript: You are aware of the gathering of Solamnic Knights at Solanthus, are you not, Exalted One?

 

His last letter was easier still and took him very little thought.

 

Marshal Medan,

You are hereby ordered to hand over the capital city of Qualinost intact and undamaged to Her Grace, Beryllinthranox. You will arrest all members of the elven royal family, including King Gilthas and the Queen Mother, Laurana. They are to be given alive to Beryllinthranox, who may do with them what she pleases. In return for this, you will make clear to Beryllinthranox that her forces are to immediately cease their wanton destruction of forests, farms, buildings, etc. You will impress upon Beryllinthranox that although she, in her magnificence, does not need money, we poor unfortunate worms of mortals do. You have leave to make the following offer: Every human soldier in her army will be granted a gift of elven land, including all buildings and structures on the land. All high-ranking human officers in her armies will be given fine homes in Qualinost. This should curb the looting and destruction. Once matters have returned to normal, I will see to it that human settlers are moved in to take over the remainder of elven lands.

lord of the Night,

Morham Targonne

Postscript 1: This offer of land does not apply to goblins, hobgoblins, minotaurs, or draconians. Promise them the equivalent value in steel, to be paid at a later date. I trust you will see to it that these creatures are in the vanguard of the army and that they will take the heaviest casualties.

Postscript 2: As to the elven residents of Qualinesti, it is probable that they will refuse to give up their ownership of their lands and property. Since by so doing they defy a direct order of the Knights ofNeraka, they have broken the law and are hereby sentenced to death. Your soldiers are ordered to carry out the sentence on the spot.

 

Once the ink had dried, Targonne affixed his seal to each letter and, summoning his aide, dispatched them. As dawn broke, four blue dragonriders took to the skies.

This done, Targonne considered going to his bed. He knew, however, that he would not be able to rest with the specter of that accounting mistake haunting his otherwise pleasant dreams of neat charts and columns. He sat down doggedly to work, and as often happens when one has left a task upon which one has concentrated, he found the error almost immediately. The twenty-seven steel, fourteen silver, and five coppers were accounted for at last. Targonne made the correction with a precise pen stroke.

Pleased, he closed the book, tidied his desk, and left for a brief nap, confident that all was once more well with the world.


 

2

Attack On The Citidel Of Light

 

Beryl and her dragon minions flew over the Citadel of Light. The dragonfear they generated crashed down upon I the inhabitants, a tidal wave that drowned courage in despair and terror. Four large red dragons flew overhead. The black shadows cast by their wings were darker than the deepest night, and every person the shadow touched felt his heart wither and his blood chill.

Beryllinthranox was an enormous green dragon who had appeared on Krynn shortly after the Chaos War; no one knew how or from where. Upon arrival, she and other dragons of her kind— most notably her cousin Malystryx—had attacked the dragons inhabiting Krynn, metallic and chromatic alike, waging war upon their own kind. Her body bloated from feeding off the dragons she had killed, Beryl circled high in the sky, far above the reds, who were her minions and her subjects, observing, watching. She was pleased with what she saw, pleased with the progress of the battle.

The citadel was defenseless against her. Had the great silver dragon, Mirror, been present, he might have dared defy her, but he was gone, mysteriously vanished. The Solamnic Knights, who had a fortress on Sancrist Isle, would make an heroic stand, but their numbers were few, and they could not hope to survive a concentrated attack from Beryl and her followers. The great green dragon would never have to fly within range of their arrows. She had only to breathe on them. A single poisonous blast from Beryl would kill every defender in the fort.

The Solamnic Knights were not going lie down and die. She could count on them to give her servants a lively battle. Their archers lined the battlements as their commanders strove to keep up their courage, even as the dragonfear unmanned many and left them weak and trembling. Knights rode with haste through island villages and towns, trying to quell the panic of the inhabitants and help them flee inland to the caves that were stocked and provisioned against just such an attack.

In the citadel itself, the Citadel Guards had always planned to use their mystical powers to defend themselves against a dragon attack. These powers had mysteriously waned over the past year, and thus the Mystics were forced to flee their beautiful crystal buildings and leave them to the ravages of the dragons. The first to be evacuated were the orphans. The children were frightened and cried for Goldmoon, for she was much loved by the children, but she did not come to them. Students and masters lifted the smallest children in their arms and soothed them, as they hastened to carry them to safety, telling them that Goldmoon would certainly come to them, but that she was now busy and that they must be brave and make her proud of them. As they spoke, the Mystics glanced at each other in sorrow and dismay. Goldmoon had fled the citadel with the dawning. She had fled like one mad or possessed. None of the Mystics knew where she had gone.

The residents of Sancrist Isle left their homes and streamed inland, those debilitated by dragonfear urged and guided by those who had managed to overcome it. In the hills in the center of the island were large caves. The people had fondly believed that they would be safe from the ravages of the dragons inside these caves, but now that the attack had come, many were starting to realize how foolish such plans had been. The flames of the red dragons would destroy the forests and the buildings. As flames ravaged the surface, the noxious breath of the huge green would poison the air and the water. Nothing could survive. Sancrist would be an isle of corpses.

The people waited in terror for the attack to begin, waited for the flames to melt the crystal domes and the rock walls of the fortress, waited for the cloud of poison to choke the life from them. But the dragons did not attack. The reds circled overhead, watching the panic on the ground with gleeful satisfaction but making no move to kill. The people wondered what they were waiting for. Some of the foolish took hope, thinking that this might be nothing more than intimidation and that the dragons, having terrified everyone, would depart. The wise knew better.

In his room located high in the Lyceum, the main building of the crystal-domed Citadel of Light, Palin Majere watched through the enormous window—actually a wall of crystal—the coming of the dragons. He kept watch on the dragons while he desperately attempted to put back together the broken pieces of the magical artifact that was to have transported himself and Tasslehoff to the safety of Solace.

“Look at it this way,” said Tas, with maddening kender cheerfulness, “at least the dragon won’t get her claws on the artifact.”

“No,” said Palin shortly, “she’ll get her claws on us.”

“Maybe not,” Tas argued, ferreting out a piece of the device that had rolled under the bed. “With the Device of Time Journeying being broken and its magic all gone—” He paused and sat up. “I guess its magic is all gone, isn’t it, Palin?”

Palin didn’t answer. He barely heard the kender’s voice. He could see no way out of this. Fear shook him, despair gnawed at him until he was weak and limp. He was too exhausted to fight to stay alive, and why should he bother? It was the dead who were stealing the magic, siphoning it off for some unknown reason. He shivered, reminded of the feeling of those cold lips pressed against his flesh, of the voices crying, begging, pleading for the magic. They had taken it. . . and the Device of Time Journeying was now a hodgepodge of wheels, gears, rods, and sparkling jewels, lying scattered on the rug.

“As I was saying, with the magic gone”—Tas was still prattling—”Beryl won’t be able to find us because she won’t have the magic to guide her to us.”

Palin lifted his head, looked at the kender.

“What did you say?”

“I said a lot of things. About the dragon not having the artifact and maybe not having us because if the magic is gone—”

“You may be right,” Palin said.

“I am?” Tas was no end astonished.

“Hand me that,” Palin instructed, pointing.

Appropriating one of the kender’s pouches, Palin dumped out its contents and began to hastily gather up the bits and pieces of the artifact, stuffing them into the pouch.

“The guards will be evacuating people into the hills. We’ll lose ourselves in the crowd. No, don’t touch that!” he ordered sharply, slapping the kender’s small hand that was reaching for the jeweled faceplate. “I must keep all the pieces together.”

“I just wanted a memento,” Tas explained, sucking on his red knuckles. “Something to remember Caramon by. Especially since I won’t be using the artifact to go back in time now.”

Palin grunted. His hands shook, and it was difficult for his twisted fingers to grasp some of the smaller pieces.

“I don’t know why you want that old thing anyhow,” Tas observed. “I doubt you can fix it. I doubt anyone can fix it. It looks to be extremely broken.”

Palin shot the kender a baleful glance. “You said you had decided to use it to return to the past.”

“That was then,” said Tas. “Before things got really interesting here. What with Goldmoon sailing off in the gnome’s submersible and now being attacked by dragons. Not to mention the dead people,” he added, as an afterthought.

Palin didn’t like the reminder. “Make yourself useful at least. Go out in the hallway and find out what’s going on.”

Tas did as he was told, heading for the door, although he continued to talk over his shoulder. “I told you about seeing the dead people. Right when the artifact busted. Didn’t I? They were all over you, like leeches.”

“Do you see any of them now?” Palin asked.

Tas glanced around. “No, not a one. But then,” he pointed out helpfully, “the magic’s gone, isn’t it?”

“Yes.” Palin snapped tight the strings on the bag that held the broken pieces. “The magic is gone.”

Tas was reaching for the handle when a thundering knock nearly staved in the door.

“Master Majere!” a voice called. “Are you inside?”

“We’re here!” Tasslehoff called.

“The citadel is under attack from Beryl and a host of red dragons,” the voice said. “Master, you must make haste!”

Palin knew very well they were under attack. He expected death at any moment. He wanted nothing more than to run, and yet he remained on his knees, sweeping his broken hands over the rug, anxious to ascertain that he had not overlooked a single tiny jewel or small mechanism of the broken Device of Time Journeying.

Finding nothing, he rose to his feet as Lady Camilla, leader of the Solamnic Knights on Sancrist, strode into the room. She was a veteran with a veteran’s calmness, thinking clearly and matter-of-factly. Her business was not to fight dragons. She could rely on her soldiers at the fortress to undertake that charge. Her business in the citadel was to safely evacuate as many people as possible. Like most Solamnics, Lady Camilla was highly suspicious of magic-users, and she regarded Palin with a grim look, as if she did not put it past him to be in league with the dragons.

“Master Majere, someone said they thought you were still here. Do you know what is happening outside?”

Palin looked out the window to see the dragons circling above them, the shadows of their wings floating over the surface of the flat, oily sea.

“I could not very well miss it,” he answered coolly. He, for his part, did not much like Lady Camilla.

“What have you been doing?” Lady Camilla demanded angrily. “We need your help! I expected to find you working your magic to fight against these monsters, but one of the guards said he thought you were still in your room. I could not believe it, yet here you are, playing with a . . . a gewgaw!”

Palin wondered what Lady Camilla would say if she knew that the reason the dragons were attacking in the first place was to try to steal the “gewgaw.”

“We were just leaving,” Palin said, reaching out to grab the excited kender. “Come along, Tas.”

“He’s telling the truth, Lady Camilla,” said Tasslehoff, noting the Knight’s skepticism. “We were just leaving. We were heading for Solace but the magical device we were going to use for our escape broke—”

“That’s enough, Tas.” Palin shoved the kender out the door.

“Escape!” Lady Camilla repeated, her voice shaking in fury.

“You planned to escape and leave the rest of us to die? I don’t believe such cowardice. Not even of a wizard.”

Palin kept firm hold of Tasslehoff’s shoulder, pushed him roughly down the hallway toward the stairs.

“The kender is right, Lady Camilla.” he said in caustic tones. “We were planning to escape. Something any sensible person would do in this situation, be he wizard or knight. As it turns out, we can’t. We are stuck here with the rest of you. We will be heading for the hills with the rest of you. Or heading to our deaths, whichever the dragons decide. Move along, Tas! This is no time for your chatter!”

“But your magic—” Lady Camilla persisted.

Palin rounded on her. “I have no magic!” he said savagely. “I have no more power to fight these monsters than this kender! Less, perhaps, for his body is whole, whereas mine is broken.”

He glared at her. She glared at him, her face pale and chill. They had reached the stairs that wound through the various levels of the Lyceum, stairs that had been crowded with people but were now empty. The residents of the Lyceum had joined the throngs fleeing the dragons, hoping to find shelter in the hills. Palin could see them streaming toward the island’s interior. If the dragons attacked now and the reds breathed their flames upon these terrified masses, the slaughter would be horrific. Yet still the dragons circled above them, watching, waiting.

He knew very well why they were waiting. Beryl was trying to sense the artifact’s magic. She was trying to determine which of these puny creatures fleeing from her carried the precious artifact. That is why she had not ordered her minions to kill. Not yet. He’d be damned if he was going to tell this to the Knight. She’d probably hand him over to the dragon.

“I assume you have duties elsewhere, Lady Camilla,” Palin said, turning his back on her. “Do not concern yourself with us.”

“Trust me,” she retorted, “I will not!”

Shoving past him, she ran down the stairs, her sword clanking at her side, her armor rattling.

“Hurry up,” Palin ordered Tas. “We’ll lose ourselves in the crowd.”

Kilting the skirts of his robes, Palin “ran down the stairs. Tasslehoff followed, enjoying the excitement as only a kender can. The two exited the building, the last to do so. Just as Palin paused near the entryway to catch his breath and to determine which was the best way to go, one of the red dragons swooped low. People flung themselves screaming onto the ground. Palin shrank back against the crystal wall of the Lyceum, dragging Tas with him. The dragon flew by with a rush of wings, doing nothing except sending many running mad with terror.

Thinking the dragon might have seen him, Palin looked up into the sky, fearing the dragon might be planning to make another pass. What he saw perplexed and astonished him.

Large objects like enormous birds, filled the skies. At first Palin thought they were birds and then he saw glints of sunlight off metal.

“What in the Abyss is that?” he wondered.

Tasslehoff turned his face skyward, squinting against the sun. Another red dragon made a low swoop over the citadel.

“Draconian soldiers,” said Tasslehoff calmly. “They’re dropping off the backs of the dragons. I saw them do that in the War of the Lance.” He gave an envious sigh. “I really do wish I’d been born a draconian sometimes.”

“What did you say?” Palin gasped. “Draconians?”

“Oh, yes,” said Tas. “Doesn’t it look like fun? They ride on the backs of the dragons and then they jump off and—there, you can see them—see how they spread their wings to break their fall. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, Palin? To be able to sail through the air like—”

“That’s why Beryl hasn’t let the dragons burn the place down!” Palin exclaimed in a rush of dismayed understanding. “She plans to use the draconians to find the magical artifact. . . to find us!”

Intelligent, strong, born to battle and bred to fight, draconians were the most feared of all the troops of the dragon overlords. Created during the War of the Lance by evil magicks from the eggs of metallic dragons, draconians are enormous lizardlike creatures who walk upright on two legs like humans. Draconians have wings, but these wings are short and will not lift their large and well-muscled bodies in sustained flight. The wings are suitable for allowing the creatures to float through the air, as they were doing now, enabling them to make a safe and gentle landing.

The moment the draconians hit the ground, they began to form into ranks in response to the shouted commands of their officers.

The ranks of draconian soldiers spread out, seizing any person they could catch.

One group of draconians surrounded the Citadel Guards, ordered them to surrender. Outnumbered, the guards threw down their weapons. The draconians forced them to kneel on the ground, then cast magic spells on them, spells that entangled them in webs or sent them to sleep. Palin made a mental note to himself that the draconians were able to cast spells without apparent difficulty when every other mage on Ansalon could barely find enough magic to boil water. He found this fact ominous and would have liked to have had time to think about it further, but that didn’t seem probable.

The draconians were not killing their prisoners. Not yet. Not until the prisoners had been questioned. They were left to lie where they had fallen, bound neatly in magic cobwebs. The draconian soldiers moved on, while other draconians began hauling the web-bound prisoners into the abandoned Lyceum.

Again, a red dragon flew overhead, slicing the air with its massive wings. Draconian troops leaped off the dragon’s back. Their objective was now clear to Palin. The draconians were going to take and hold the Citadel of Light, use it as their base of operations. Once established, they would spread throughout the island, rounding up all civilians. Another force was probably attacking the Solamnic Knights, keeping them penned up in their fortress.

Do they have a description of Tas and me? Palin asked himself. Or have they been told to bring to Beryl any magic-user and kender they come across? Not that it matters, he realized bitterly. Either way, I’ll soon be a prisoner again. Tormented and tortured. Chained up in the darkness, to rot in my own filth. I am helpless to save myself. I have no way to fight them. If I try to use my magic, the dead will siphon it off, take it for themselves, whatever good it does them.

He stood in the shadows of the crystal wall, his mind in turmoil, fear roiling inside him so that he was sick with it, thought he might die of it. He was not afraid of death. Dying was the easy part. Living as a prisoner . . . he could not face that. Not again.

“Palin,” said Tas urgently. “I think they’ve seen us.”

A draconian officer had indeed seen them. He pointed in their direction and issued orders. His troops started toward them, palin wondered where Lady Camilla was and had a panicked notion to call for help. He discarded that immediately. Wherever she was, she had enough to do to help herself.

“Are we going to fight them?” Tas asked eagerly. “I have my special knife, Rabbit Slayer.” He began to rummage inside his pouches, dumping out pieces of cutlery, bootladngs, an old sock. “Caramon named it that, because he said it would be good only for killing dangerous rabbits. I never met a dangerous rabbit, but it works pretty well against draconians. I just have to remember where I put it—”

I’ll dash back inside the building, Palin thought, panic taking hold of him. I’ll find a place to hide, any place to hide. He had an image of the draconians discovering him huddled, whimpering, in a closet. Dragging him forth . . .

Bitter gall filled Palin’s mouth. If he ran away this time he would run away the next time and he would keep on running, leaving others to die for him. He was finished running. He would make his stand here.

I do not matter, Palin said to himself. I am expendable. Tassle-hoff is the one who matters. The kender must not come to harm. Not in this time, not in this world. For if the kender dies, if he dies in a place and a time he is not meant to, the world and all of us on it—dragons, draconians, myself alike—will cease to exist.

“Tas,” said Palin quietly, his voice steady, “I’m going to draw off these draconians, and while I’m doing that, you run into the hills. You’ll be safe there. When the dragons leave—and I think they will, once they have captured me—I want you to go to Palanthas, find Jenna, and have her take you to Dalamar. When I say the word, you must run, Tas. Run as fast as ever you can.”

The draconians were coming nearer. They were able to see him clearly now, and they had begun to talk loudly among themselves, pointing at him and jabbering. Judging by their excitement, one of his questions was answered. They had a description of him.

“I can’t leave you, Palin!” Tas was protesting. “I admit that I was mad at you because you were trying to kill me by making me go back to be stepped on by a giant, but I’m mostly over that now and—”

“Run, Tas!” Palin ordered, angry with desperation. Opening the bag containing the pieces of the magical device, he took the faceplate of the device in his hand. “Run! My father was right. You must get to Dalamar! You must tell him—”

“I know!” Tas cried. He hadn’t been listening. “We’ll hide in the Hedge Maze. They’ll never find us there. C’mon, Palin! Quickly!”

The draconians were shouting and calling out. Other draconi-ans, hearing their yells, turned to look.

“Tas!” Palin rounded on him furiously. “Do as I tell you! Go!”

“Not without you,” Tas said stubbornly. “What would Caramon say if he found out I left you here to die all by yourself? They’re moving awfully fast, Palin,” he added. “If we’re going to try to make it to the Hedge Maze, I think we better go now.”

Palin brought out the faceplate. With the Device of Time Journeying, his father had traveled back to the time of the First Cataclysm to try to save Lady Crysania and prevent his twin brother Raistlin from entering the Abyss. With this device, Tasslehoff had traveled here, bringing with him a mystery and a hope. With this device, Palin had gone back in time to find that time before the Second Cataclysm did not exist. The device was one of the most powerful and wondrous ever created by the wizards of Krynn. He was about to destroy it, and by destroying it, perhaps he was destroying them all. Yet, it was the only way.

He grasped the faceplate in his hand, gripped it so hard that the metal edges cut into his flesh. Crying out words of magic that he had not spoken since the gods had departed with the end of the Fourth Age, Palin hurled the faceplate at the advancing draconians. He had no idea what he hoped to accomplish. His was an act of despair.

Seeing the mage throwing something at them, the draconians skidded warily to a halt.

The faceplate struck the ground at their feet.

The draconians scrambled back, arms raised to protect their faces, expecting the device to explode.

The faceplate rolled on the ground, wobbled, and fell over. Some of the draconians started to laugh.

The faceplate began to glow. A jet of brilliant, blinding blue light streaked out, struck Palin in the chest.

The jolt shocked him, nearly stopping his heart. He feared for a horrible moment that the device was punishing him, exacting revenge upon him. Then he felt his body suffused with power. Magic, the old magic, burned inside him. The magic bubbled in his blood, intoxicating, exhilarating. The magic sang in his soul and thrilled his flesh. He cried out words to a spell, the first spell that came to mind, and marveled that he still remembered the words.

Not such a marvel, after all. Hadn’t he recited them in a litany of grief, over and over to himself for all these many years?

Balls of fire flashed from his fingertips and struck the advancing draconians. The magic fire burned with such ferocity that the lizard-men burst into flame, became living torches. The blazing flames almost immediately consumed them, leaving them a mass of charred flesh, melted armor, piles of smoldering bones and teeth.

“You did it!” Tasslehoff shouted gleefully. “It worked.”

Daunted by the horrific fate of their comrades, the other draconians were regarding Palin with hatred but also new and wary respect.

“Now will you run?” Palin shouted in exasperation.

“Are you coming?” Tas asked, balancing on his toes.

“Yes, damn it! Yes!” Palin assured him, and Tas dashed off.

Palin ran after him. He was a gray-headed, middle-aged man, who had once been in shape, but had not performed strenuous physical exertion like this in a long time. Casting the magic spell had drained him. He could already feel himself starting to weaken. He could not keep up this pace for long.

Behind him, an officer shouted furious orders. Palin glanced back to see the draconians once more in pursuit, their clawed feet tearing up the grassy lawns, sending divots of mud into the air. Draconians use their wings to help them run, and they were taking to the air, skimming over the ground at a rate that neither the middle-aged Palin nor the short-legged kender could ever hope to match.

The Hedge Maze was still some distance away. Palin’s breath was coming in painful gasps. He had a sharp pain in his side, and his leg muscles burned. Tas ran gamely, but he was no longer a young kender. He stumbled and panted for air. The draconians were steadily gaining on them.

Halting, Palin turned to once again face his enemy. He sought the magic, felt it as a cold trickle in his blood, not a raging torrent. Reaching into the bag, he took hold of another piece of the Device of Time Journeying—the chain that was supposed to wind up inside the artifact. Shouting words that were more defiance than magic, Palin hurled the chain at the flapping-winged draconians.

The chain transformed, growing, lengthening, expanding until the links were as thick and strong as those of a chain attached to a ship’s heavy anchor. The enormous chain struck the draconians in their midriffs. Writhing like an iron snake, it wrapped itself around and around the pursuing draconians. The links contracted, holding the monsters fast.

Palin could not take time to marvel. Catching hold of Tassle-hoff’s hand, he turned to run again, both of them racing frantically to reach the Hedge Maze ahead of their pursuers. For the moment the chase had ended. Wrapped in the chain, the draconians howled in pain and struggled desperately to escape its coils. No other draconians dared come after him.

Palin was exalted, thinking he had defeated his foes, then he caught movement out of the corner of his eyes. His elation evaporated. Now he knew why those draconians were not coming after him. They did not fear him. They were merely leaving the task of his capture to reinforcements, who were running to cut him off from the front.

An armed squadron of fifteen draconian soldiers took up positions between Palin, Tas, and the Hedge Maze.

“I hope . . . there’s more of that device . . . left. . . .” Tas gasped with what breath he had available for talking.

Palin reached into the bag. His hand closed over a fistful of jewels that had once adorned the device. He saw the artifact again, saw its beauty and felt its power. His heart almost refused, but the hesitation lasted only a moment. He tossed the jewels at the draconians.

Sapphires, rubies, emeralds, and diamonds sparkled in the air as they rained down over the heads of the astonished draconians, falling around them like sand scattered by children playing at magic. The jewels shone in the sunlight. A few of the draconians, chortling in glee, bent to pick them up.

The jewels exploded, forming a thick cloud of glittering jewel dust that surrounded the draconians. Shouts of glee changed to curses and cries of pain as the gritty jewel dust clogged the eyes of those who had bent to grab them. Some had their mouths open, and the dust flew up their snouts, choking them. The fine dust penetrated beneath their scales, causing them to itch and scratch at themselves, yelping and howling.

While the draconians staggered around blindly bumping into each other, or rolled on the ground, or gasped for air, Palin and Tasslehoff circled around them. Another sprint and they both plunged into the green haven of the Hedge Maze.

The Hedge Maze had been constructed by Qualinesti Wood-shapers, a gift from Laurana. The maze was designed to offer a place of beauty and solitude to all who entered, a place where people could walk, rest, meditate, study. A leafy embodiment of the maze that is man’s heart, the Hedge Maze could never be mapped, as the gnome, Conundrum, had discovered to his immense frustration. Those who successfully walked the maze of their own hearts came at last to the Silver Stair located at the heart of the Hedge Maze, the culmination of the spiritual journey.

Palin did not have much hope that the draconians would lose him in the maze, but he did hope that the maze’s own powerful magic would protect him and Tas, perhaps hide them from the eyes of the monsters. His hope was going to be put to the test. More draconians had joined in the pursuit, driven now by anger and the desire for revenge.

“Stop a moment,” Palin said to Tas, who had no breath left to answer. He nodded and gulped air.

The two had reached the first bend in the Hedge Maze. No point in going farther unless Palin knew whether or not the draconians were going to be able to come after them. He turned to watch.

The first several draconians dashed inside the Hedge Maze and almost immediately came to a stop. Branches spread across the path, stems shot up from the ground. Foliage grew at an astonishing rate. Within moments, the path on which Palin and Tas had walked was overgrown with shrubbery so thick the mage could no longer see the draconians.

Palin breathed a sigh of relief. He had been right. The magic of the Hedge Maze would keep out those who entered with evil intent. He had a momentary fear that the draconians might use their wings to lift themselves over the maze, but, as he looked up, flowering vines twined overhead to form a canopy that would hide him from sight. For the moment, he and Tas were safe.

“Whew! That was close!” said Tasslehoff happily. “I thought we were goners there for a moment. You are a really good wizard, Palin. I saw Raistlin cast lots of spells, but I don’t believe he ever caused draconians to sizzle up like bacon before, though I once saw him summon the Great Worm Catyrpelius. Did you ever hear about that one? Raistlin—”

A roar and a blast of flame interrupted Tasslehoff’s tale. The bushes that had so recently grown to block the draconians burst into bright orange flame.

“The dragons!” Palin said with a bitter curse, coughing as the intense heat seared his lungs. “They’re going to try to smoke us out.”

In his elation at defeating the draconians, he had forgotten the dragons. The Hedge Maze could withstand almost all other attacks, but apparently it was not impervious to dragon fire. Another red breathed its fiery breath on the maze. Flames crackled, smoke rilled the air. The way out was blocked off by a wall of flame. They had no choice but to run deeper into the maze.

Palin led the way down the aisle of green, made a right turn, and came to a halt when the hedgerow at the end of the path erupted up in a blaze of flame and smoke. Choking, Palin covered his mouth with his sleeve and searched for a way out. Another pathway opened in front of him, the bushes parting to let him and Tas through. They had only made it a short distance when, again, flames blocked their path. Still another path opened. Though the Hedge Maze itself was dying, it sought a way to save them. He had the impression that they were being led somewhere specific, but he had no idea where. The smoke made him dizzy and disoriented. His strength was starting to ebb. He staggered, more than ran. Tasslehoff, too, was falling prey to fatigue. His shoulders slumped, his breathing was ragged. His very topknot seemed to droop.

The red dragon that was attacking the maze did not want to kill them. The dragon could have done that long ago. The red was driving them like sheep, using fire to dog their footsteps, nip at their heels, try to force them out in the open. Still, the maze itself urged them on, revealing yet another path when their way was blocked.

Smoke swirled around them. Palin could barely see the kender right beside him. He coughed until his throat was raw, coughed until he retched. Whenever one of the hedge ways opened up, a flow of air would refresh him, but almost immediately the air became tainted with smoke and the smell of brimstone. They stumbled on.

A wall of flame burst in front of them. Palin fell back, looked frantically to the left to see another wall of flame. He turned to the right, and the maze crackled with fire. Heat seared his lungs. He could not breathe. Smoke swirled, stinging his eyes.

“Palin!” Tas pointed. “The stair!”

Palin wiped away the tears to see silver steps spiraling upward, vanishing in the smoke.

“Let’s climb it!” Tas urged.

Palin shook his head. “It won’t help. The stair doesn’t lead anywhere, Tas,” he croaked, his throat raw and bleeding, as a fit of coughing seized him.

“Yes, it does,” Tas argued. “I’m not sure where, but I climbed it the last time I was here, when I decided that I should really go back and be stepped on by the giant. A decision I have since rethought,” he added hastily. “Anyway I saw— Oh, look! There’s Caramon! Hullo, Caramon!”

Palin raised his head, peered through the smoke. He was sick and faint, and when he saw his father, standing at the top of the Silver Stair, he did not wonder at the sight. Caramon had come to his son once before, in the Citadel of Light, come to him to urge him not to send Tasslehoff back to die. Caramon looked now as he had looked to his son before his death, old but still hearty and hale. His father’s face was different, though. Caramon’s face had always been quick to laughter, quick to smile. The eyes that had seen much sorrow and known much pain had always been light with hope. Caramon had changed. Now the eyes were different, lost, searching.

Tasslehoff was already clambering up the stairs, jabbering excitedly to Caramon, who said no word. There had been only a few stairs, when Tasslehoff began to climb. He was quite close to the top already. But when Palin placed his foot upon the first shining silver step, he looked up and saw the stairs appeared to be without number, never ending. He did not have the strength to climb all those stairs, and he feared he would be left behind. As his foot touched the stair, a breath of fresh air wafted over him. He gulped it eagerly. Lifting his face, he saw blue sky above him.

He drew in another deep breath of fresh air and began to climb. The distance seemed short now.

Caramon stood at the top, waiting patiently. Lifting a ghostly hand, he beckoned to them.

Tasslehoff reached the top, only to find, as Palin had said, that the Silver Stair led nowhere. The staircase came to an abrupt end, his next step would carry him over the edge. Far below, the ugly black smoke of the dying hedge swirled like the waters of a maelstrom.

“What do I do now, Caramon?” Tas yelled.

Palin heard no reply, but apparently the kender did.

“How wonderful,” Tas cried. “I’ll fly just like the draconians!”

Palin shouted out in horror. He lunged, tried to grasp hold of the kender’s shirttail, and missed.

With a cry of glee, Tasslehoff spread his arms like a bird and leaped straight off the final stair. He plunged downward and disappeared into the smoke.

Palin clung to the stair. In his desperate attempt to grab hold of Tas, he had almost toppled off. He waited, his heart in his throat, to hear the kender’s death cry, but all he heard was the crackling of flame and the roaring of the dragons.

Palin looked into the swirling smoke and shuddered. He looked back at his father, but Caramon was not there. In his place flew the red dragon. Wings blotted out the patch of blue sky. The dragon reached out a talon, intending to pluck Palin from his stair and carry him back to his cell. He was tired, tired of being afraid. He wanted only to rest and to be rid of fear forever.

He knew now where the Silver Stair led.

Death.

Caramon was dead. His son would soon join him.

“At least,” Palin said calmly, grimly, “I will nevermore be a prisoner.”

He leaped off the stair—and fell heavily on his side on a hard stone floor.

The landing being completely unexpected, Palin made no attempt to break his fall. He rolled and tumbled, came up hard against a stone wall. Jolted by the impact, shocked and confused, he lay blinking at the ceiling and wondered that he was alive.

Tasslehoff bent over him.

“Are you all right?” he asked, but didn’t wait for an answer.

“Look, Palin! Isn’t it wonderful? You told me to find Dalamar and I have! He’s right here! But I can’t find Caramon anymore. He’s nowhere.”

Palin eased himself carefully to a sitting position. He was bruised and battered, his throat hurt, and his lungs wheezed as though they were still filled with smoke, but he felt no stabbing pains, heard no bones crunch together. His astonishment and shock at the sight of the elf caused him to forget his minor injuries. Palin was shocked not only to see Dalamar—who had not been seen in this world for thirty years—he was shocked to see how Dalamar changed.

The long-lived elves do not appear to humans to age. Dalamar was an elf in the prime of manhood. He should have looked the same now as he had looked when Palin last saw him more than thirty years ago. He did not. So drastic was the change that Palin was not completely convinced that this apparition was Dalamar and not another ghost.

The elf’s long hair that had once been as black as the wing of a raven was streaked with gray. His face, though still elegantly carved and beautifully proportioned, was wasted. The elf’s pale skin was stretched tight over the bones of the skull, making it look as if his face were carved of ivory. The aquiline nose was beakish, the chin sharp. His robes hung loosely on an emaciated frame. His long-fingered, elegant hands were bony and chafed, the knuckles red and prominent. The veins on the backs of his hands traced a blue road map of illness and despair.

Palin had always liked and admired Dalamar, though he could not say why. Their philosophies were not remotely the same. Dalamar had been the servant of Nuitari, god of the Dark Moon and darker magicks. Palin had served Solinari, god of the Silver Moon, god of the magic of light. Both men had been devastated when the gods of magic had departed, taking the magic with them. Palin had gone into the world to seek out the magic they called “wild” magic. Dalamar had withdrawn from other magi, withdrawn from the world. He had gone seeking magic in dark places.

“Are you injured?” Dalamar asked. He sounded annoyed, not concerned for Palin’s well-being, but only that Palin might require some sort of attention, an exertion of power on the part of the elf.

Palin struggled to stand. Speaking was painful. His throat hurt abominably.

“I am all right,” he rasped, watching Dalamar as the elf watched him, wary, suspicious. “Thank you for helping us—”

Dalamar cut him off with a sharp, emphatic gesture of a pallid hand. The skin of the hand was so pale against the black robes that it seemed disembodied.

“I did what I had to do, considering the mess you had made of things.” The pale hand snaked out, seized hold of Tas by the collar. “Come with me, kender.”

“I’d be glad to come with you, Dalamar,” Tas answered. “And, by the way, it really is me, Tasslehoff Burrfoot, so you needn’t keep calling me ‘kender’ in that nasty tone. I’m very glad to see you again, except, you’re pinching me. Actually you’re hurting me quite a bit—”

“In silence,” Dalamar said and gave the kender’s collar an expert twist that effectively caused Tas to obey the order by half-choking him. Dragging the squirming kender with him, Dalamar crossed the small, narrow room to a heavy wooden door. He beckoned with a pale hand, and the door swung silently open.

Keeping a tight grasp on Tas, Dalamar paused in the doorway and turned to face Palin.

“You have much to answer for, Majere.”

“Wait!” Palin croaked, wincing at the pain in his throat. “Where is my father? I saw him.”

“Where?” Dalamar demanded, frowning.

“At the top of the Silver Stair,” Tasslehoff volunteered. “We both saw him.”

“I have no idea. I did not send him, if that is what you are thinking,” said Dalamar. “Although, I appreciate his help.”

He walked out, and the door slammed shut behind him. Alarmed, panicked, feeling himself start to suffocate, Palin hurled himself at the door.

“Dalamar!” he shouted, beating on the wood. “Don’t leave me in here!”

Dalamar spoke, but it was only to chant words of magic.

Palin recognized the spell—a wizard lock.

His strength gone, he slid down the door and slumped to the cold, stone floor.

A prisoner.


 

3

Sun Arise

 

In the dark hour before the dawn, Gilthas, the king of the Qualinesti stood on the balcony of his palace. Rather, his I body stood on the balcony. His soul walked the streets of the silent city. His soul walked every street, paused at every doorway, looked in every window. His soul saw a newlywed couple asleep, clasped in each other arms. His soul saw a mother sitting in a rocking chair, nursing her babe, the babe sleeping, the mother dozing, gently rocking. His soul saw young elf brothers sharing the same bed with a large hound. The two boys slept with their arms flung around the neck of the dog, all three dreaming of playing catch in sunlit meadows. His soul saw an elderly elf sleeping in the same house that his father had slept in and his father before him. Above his bed, a portrait of the wife who had passed on. In the next room, the son who would inherit the house, his wife by his side.

“Sleep long this night,” Gilthas’s soul said softly to each one he touched. “Do not wake too early in the morning, for when you wake, it will not be the beginning of a new day but the end of all days. The sun you see in the sky is not the rising sun, but the setting sun. The daylight will be night and night the darkness of despair. Yet, for now, sleep in peace. Let me guard that peace while I can.”

“Your Majesty,” said a voice.

Gilthas was loath to pay heed. He knew that when he turned to listen, to answer, to respond, the spell would be shattered. His soul would return to his body. The people of Qualinesti would find their sleep disturbed by dreams of smoke and fire, blood and shining steel. He tried to pretend he had not heard, but even as he watched, he saw the bright silver of the stars start to fade, saw a faint, pale light in the sky.

“Your Majesty,” said a voice, another voice.

Dawn. And with the dawn, death.

Gilthas turned around. “Marshal Medan,” he said, a hint of coolness in his tone. He shifted his gaze from the leader of the Dark Knights of Neraka to the person standing next to him, his trusted servant. “Planchet. You both have news, by the looks of it. Marshal Medan, I’ll hear yours first.”

Alexius Medan was a human male in his fifties, and although he bowed deferentially to the king, the Marshal was the true ruler of Qualinesti and had been for more than thirty years, ever since the Dark Knights of Neraka seized Qualinesti during the Chaos War. Gilthas was known to all the world as the “Puppet King.” The Dark Knights had left the young and apparently weak and sickly youth on the throne in order to placate the elven people and give them the illusion of elven control. In reality, it was Marshal Medan who held the strings that caused the arms of the puppet Gilthas to move, and Senator Palthainon, a powerful member of the Thalas-Enthia, who played the tune to which the puppet danced.

But as Marshal Medan had learned only yesterday, he had been deceived. Gilthas had not been a puppet but a most gifted actor. He had played the weak and vacillating king in order to mask his real persona, that of leader of the elven resistance movement. Gilthas had fooled Medan completely. The Puppet King had cut the strings, and the dances he performed were done to music of His Majesty’s own choosing.

“You left us after dark and have been gone all night, Marshal,” Gilthas stated, eyeing the man suspiciously. “Where have you been?”

“I have been at my headquarters, Your Majesty, as I told you before I left,” Medan replied.

He was tall and well-built. Despite his fifty-five years—or perhaps because of them—he worked at keeping himself fighting fit. His gray eyes contrasted with his dark hair and dark brows and gave him an expression of perpetual gravity that did not lighten, even when he smiled. His face was deeply tan, weathered. He had been a dragonrider in his early days.

Gilthas cast a very slight glance at Planchet, who gave a discreet nod of his head. Both glance and nod were seen by the observant Medan, who looked more than usually grave.

“Your Majesty, I do not blame you for not trusting me. It has been said that kings cannot afford the luxury of trusting anyone—” the Marshal began.

“Especially the conqueror of our people, who has held us in his iron grasp for over thirty years,” Gilthas interjected. Both elven and human blood ran in the young king’s veins, though the elven dominated. “You release the grip on our throats to offer the same hand in friendship. You will understand me, sir, when I say that I still feel the bite of your fingers around my windpipe.”

“Well put, Your Majesty,” replied the Marshal with a hint of smile. “As I said, I approve your caution. I wish I had a year to prove my loyalty—”

“To me?” Gilthas said with a slight sneer. “To the ‘puppet’?”

“No, Your Majesty,” Marshal Medan said. “My loyalty to the land I have come to consider my home. My loyalty to a people I have come to respect. My loyalty to your mother.” He did not add the words, “whom I have come to love,” though he might have said them in his heart.

The Marshal had been awake all night the night before, removing the Queen Mother to a place of safety, out of reach of the hands of Beryl’s approaching assassins. He had been awake all day yesterday, having taken Laurana in secret to the palace where they had both met with Gilthas. It had been Medan’s unhappy task to inform Gilthas that Beryl’s armies were marching on Qualinesti with the intent of destroying the land and its people. Medan had not slept this night, either. The only outward signs of weariness were on the Marshal’s haggard face, however, not in his clear, alert eyes.

Gilthas’s tension relaxed, his suspicions eased. “You are wise, Marshal. Your answer is the only answer I would ever accept from you. Had you sought to flatter me, I would have known you lied.

As it is, my mother has told me of your garden, that you have worked to make it beautiful, that you take pleasure not only in the flowers themselves but in planting them and caring for them. However, I must say that I find it difficult to believe that such a man could have once sworn loyalty to the likes of Lord Ariakan.”

“I find it difficult to understand how a young man could have been tricked into running away from parents who doted on him to fly into a web spun by a certain senator,” said Marshal Medan coolly, “a web that nearly led to the young man’s destruction, as well as that of his people.”

Gilthas flushed, hearing his own story repeated back to him. “What I did was wrong. I was young.”

“As was I, Your Majesty,” said the Marshal. “Young enough to believe the lies of Queen Takhisis. I do not flatter you when I say, Gilthas, that I have come to respect you. The role you played of the indolent dreamer, who cared more for his poetry than his people, fooled me completely. Although,” the Marshal added dryly, “I must say that you and your rebels have caused me no end of trouble.”

“And I have come to respect you, Marshal, and even to trust you somewhat,” said Gilthas. “Though not completely. Is that good enough?”

Medan extended his hand. “Good enough, Your Majesty.”

Gilthas accepted the Marshal’s hand. Their handshake was firm and brief, on both sides.

“Now,” said Medan, “perhaps your servant will tell his spies to cease following me about. We need everyone focused on the task ahead.”

“What is your news, Marshal?” said Gilthas, neither agreeing nor disagreeing.

“It is relatively good news, Your Majesty,” Medan stated. “All things considered. The reports we heard yesterday are true. Beryl’s forces have crossed the border into Qualinesti.”

“What good news can there be in this?” Gilthas demanded.

“Beryl is not with them, Your Majesty,” said the Marshal. “Nor are any of her minions. Where they are and why they are not with the army, I cannot imagine. Perhaps she is holding them back for some reason.”

“To be in on the final kill,” said Gilthas bitterly. “The attack on Qualinost.”

“Perhaps, Your Majesty. At any rate, they are not with the army, and that has bought us time. Her army is large, burdened with supply wagons and siege towers, and they are finding it difficult going through the forest. From the reports coming from our garrisons on the border, not only are they being harassed by bands of elves operating under the Lioness, but the very trees and plants and even the animals themselves are battling the enemy.”

“Yes, they would,” said Gilthas quietly, “but all these forces are mortal, as are we, and can only withstand so much.”

“Indeed, Your Majesty. They could not withstand dragon fire, that is certain. Until the dragons arrive, however, we have a breathing space. Even if the dragons were to set the forests aflame, I calculate that it will take ten days for the army to reach Qualinost. That should give you time to institute the plan you outlined for us last night.”

Gilthas sighed deeply and turned his gaze from the Marshal to the brightening sky. He made no response, but silently watched the sun rise.

“Preparations for evacuation should have begun last night,” Medan stated in stern tones.

“Please, Marshal,” said Planchet in a low voice. “You do not understand.”

“He speaks truly. You do not understand, Marshal Medan,” Gilthas said, turning around. “You could not possibly understand. You love this land, you say, but you cannot love it as we do. Our blood runs in every leaf and flower. The blood of every aspen tree flows through our veins. You hear the song of the sparrow, but we understand the words of that song. The axes and flames that fell the trees cut us and scorch us. The poison that kills the birds causes a part of us to die. This morning I must tell my people that they have to leave their homes, homes that trembled in the Cataclysm and yet stood firm. They must leave their bowers and their gardens and their waterfalls and grottos. They must flee, and where will they go?”

“Your Majesty,” said Planchet, “on that score I, too, have good news for you. I received word in the night from the messenger of Alhana Starbreeze. The shield has fallen. The borders of Sil-vanesti are once more open.”

Gilthas stared in disbelief, not daring to hope. “Can this be possible? Are you certain? How? What happened?”

“The messenger had no details, my lord. He started on his glad journey to bring us the good tidings the moment the elves knew it to be true. The shield is indeed fallen. Alhana Starbreeze walked across the border herself. I am expecting another messenger with more information soon.”

“This is wonderful news,” Gilthas exclaimed, ecstatic. “Our people will go to Silvanesti. Our cousins cannot deny us entry. Once there, we will combine our forces and launch an attack to retake our homeland.”

Seeing Planchet regard him gravely, Gilthas sighed.

“I know, I know. You needn’t remind me. I am leaping ahead of myself. But this joyful news gives me the first hope I have known in weeks. Come,” Gilthas added, leaving the balcony and walking inside his chambers, “we must tell Mother—”

“She sleeps still, Your Majesty,” said Planchet in a low voice.

“No, I do not,” said Laurana. “Or, if I was, I will gladly wake to hear good news. What is this you say? The shield has fallen?”

Exhausted after the flight from her home in the night and a day of hearing nothing but dire news, Laurana had at last been persuaded to sleep. She had her own room in the royal palace, but Medan, fearful of Beryl’s assassins, had given orders that the palace be cleared of all servants, ladies-in-waiting, elven nobility, clerks, and cooks. He had posted elven guards around the palace with orders to allow no one to enter except for himself and his aide. Medan might not have even trusted his aide, except that he knew him to be a Solamnic Knight and loyal to Laurana. Medan had then insisted that Laurana sleep on a couch in Gilthas’s sitting room where her slumbers could be guarded. When Medan had departed for his headquarters, he had left behind the Solamnic, Gerard, as well as her son to watch over her during the night.

“The news is true, Mother,” said Gilthas, coming to stand beside her. “The shield has fallen.”

“It sounds wonderful,” said Laurana cautiously. “Hand me my dressing gown, Planchet, so that I do not further disturb the Marshal’s sensibilities. I don’t trust the news, however. I find the timing disquieting.”

Laurana’s gown was a soft lilac color with lace at the throat. Her hair poured over her shoulders like warm honey. Her almond-shaped eyes were luminous, as blue as forget-me-nots.

She was older than Medan by many, many years and looked far younger than he did, for the elven summer of youth and beauty diminishes into the winter of old age far more slowly than it does with humans.

Watching the Marshal, Gilthas saw in the man’s face not the cool reserve of chivalry, but the pain of love, a hopeless love that could never be returned, could never even be spoken. Gilthas still did not like the Marshal, but this look softened his feelings for the man and even led him to pity him. The Marshal remained staring out the window until he could regain his stern composure.

“Say that the timing is fortuitous, Mother,” urged Gilthas. “The shield falls when we most need it to fall. If there were gods, I would suppose they watch over us.”

“Yet there are no gods,” Laurana replied, wrapping her dressing gown around her. “The gods have left us. So I do not know what to say to this news except be cautious and do not build your hopes upon it.”

“I must tell the people something, Mother,” Gilthas returned impatiently. “I have called a meeting of the Senate this very morning.” He cast a glance at Medan. “You see, my lord, I have not been idle this night. We must begin the evacuation today if we are to have a hope of emptying the city of its thousands. What I must say to our people will be devastating, Mother. I need hope to offer them.”

“‘Hope is the carrot they hang in front of the horse’s nose to keep him plodding on,’“ Laurana murmured.

“What did you say, Mother?” Gilthas asked. “You spoke so softly, I could not hear you.”

“I was thinking of something someone said to me long ago. At the time I thought the person was embittered and cynical. Now I think perhaps he was wise.” Laurana sighed, shook off her memories. “I am sorry, my son. I know this isn’t helping.”

A Knight, Medan’s aide, entered the room. He stood respectfully silent, but it was clear from the tenseness of his posture that he was attempting to gain their attention. Medan was the first to notice him.

“Yes, Gerard, what is it?” Medan asked.

“A trivial matter. I do not want to disturb the Queen Mother,” said Gerard with a bow. “Might we speak in private, my lord? If His Majesty will permit?”

“You have leave,” said Gilthas, and turned back to try to persuade his mother.

Medan, with a bow, withdrew with Gerard, walking out on the balcony of the king’s chamber, overlooking the garden.

Gerard wore the armor of a Dark Knight of Neraka, although he had removed the heavy breastplate for comfort’s sake. He had washed away the blood and other traces of his recent battle with a draconian, but he still looked considerably the worse for wear. No one would have ever called the young Solamnic handsome. His hair was as yellow as corn, his face was scarred with pock-marks, and the addition of numerous fresh bruises, blue and green and purple, rising to the surface, did nothing to enhance his appearance. His eyes were his best feature, an intense, arresting blue. The blue eyes were serious, shadowed, and belied his words about the trivial nature of the interruption.

“One of the guards sent word that two people wait below, both demanding to enter the palace. One is a senator. . . .” He paused, frowning. “I can’t recall the name—elven names are a muddle to me—but he is tall and had a way of looking down his nose at me as if I were an ant perched on the tip.”

Medan’s mouth twitched in amusement. “And has he the expression of someone who has just bitten into a bad fig?”

“Correct, my lord.”

“Palthainon,” said Medan. “The Puppet Master. I was wondering when he would turn up.” Medan glanced through the glass-paned door at the king. “As the story goes in the old child’s tale, Palthainon will find his puppet king has turned into a real one. Unlike the child’s tale, I don’t think this puppeteer will be pleased to lose his puppet.”

“Should he be permitted to come up, my lord?”

“No,” said Medan coolly. “The king is otherwise engaged. Let Palthainon await His Majesty’s pleasure. Who else wants admittance?”

Gerard’s expression darkened. He lowered his voice. “The elf Kalindas, my lord. He requests admittance. He has heard, he says, that the Queen Mother is here. He refuses to leave.”

Medan frowned. “How did he find out the Queen Mother was in the palace?”

“I don’t know, my lord,” said Gerard. “He did not hear it from his brother. As you ordered, we did not permit Kelevandros to leave. When I was so weary I could not keep my eyes open anymore, Planchet kept watch to see that he did not try to slip out.”

Medan cast a glance at Kelevandros. The elf, wrapped in his cloak, was still apparently sound asleep in a far corner of the room.

“My lord,” said Gerard, “may I speak plainly?”

Medan gave a wry smile. “You’ve done nothing else since you entered my service, young man.”

“I wouldn’t exactly call it ‘entering’ your service, my lord,” returned Gerard. “I am here because, as you must know or could have guessed, I deemed my remaining with you to be the best way to protect the Queen Mother. I know that one of those two elves is a traitor. I know that one of them has betrayed Laurana, the mistress who trusted them. That was how you knew to be waiting for Palin Majere that morning in the woods. One of those two told you. They were the only ones who knew. Am I right?” His voice was harsh, accusing.

Medan eyed him. “Yes, you are right. Believe me when I say, Sir Solamnic, that you do not look at me with more disgust than I look at myself. Yes, I used Kalindas. I had no choice. If the scum did not report to me, he would have reported directly to Beryl, and I would not have known what was going on. I did what I could to protect the Queen Mother. I knew well that she aided and abetted the rebels. Beryl would have killed Laurana long ago, if it hadn’t been for me. So do not presume to judge me, young man.”

“I am sorry, my lord,” Gerard said, contrite. “I did not understand. What do we do? Should I send Kalindas away?”

“No, said Medan, rubbing his jaw that was gray and grizzled with a day’s growth of stubble. “Better to have him here where I can keep an eye on him. There is no telling what mischief he might cause if he were wandering around loose.”

“He could be . . . removed,” Gerard suggested uncomfortably.

Medan shook his head. “Laurana might believe that one of her servants was a spy, but I doubt very much if her son would. Kelevandros would certainly not, and if we killed his brother he would raise such an outcry that we would have to kill him, as well. How will it look to the elven people, whose trust I must win, if they hear that I have started butchering elves on His Majesty’s very doorstep? Besides, I need to ascertain if Kalindas has been in communication with Beryl’s forces and what he told them.”

“Very good, my lord,” said Gerard. “I will keep close watch on him.”

“I will keep watch on him, Gerard,” the Marshal amended. “Kalindas knows you, or have you forgotten? He betrayed you, as well. If he finds you here with me, my trusted confidant, he will be immediately suspicious. He might do something desperate.”

“You are right, my lord,” Gerard said, frowning. “I had forgotten. Perhaps I could return to headquarters.”

“You will return to headquarters, Sir Knight,” Medan said. “Your own headquarters. I am sending you back to Solamnia.”

“No, my lord,” Gerard said stubbornly. “I refuse to go.”

“Listen to me, Gerard,” the Marshal said, resting his hand on the young man’s shoulder, “I have not said this to His Majesty or the Queen Mother—although I think she already knows. The battle we are about to fight is the last desperate struggle of a drowning man going under for the third time. Qualinost cannot hope to stand against the might of Beryl’s army. This fight is at best a delaying action to buy time for the refugees to flee.”

“Then I will most certainly stay, my lord,” Gerard said steadily, his tone defiant. “I could not in honor do otherwise.”

“If I make this an order?” Medan asked.

“I would say you are not my commander and that I owe no allegiance to you,” Gerard returned, his expression grim.

“And I would say you are a very selfish young man who has no concept of true honor,” Medan replied.

“Selfish, my lord?” Gerard repeated, stung by the accusation. “How can it be selfish to offer my life for this cause?”

“You will be of more value to the cause alive than dead,” Medan stated. “You did not hear me out. When I suggested that you return to Solamnia, I was not sending you to some safe haven. I had in mind that you will take word of our plight to the Knights’ Council in Solanthus and ask for their aid.”

Gerard regarded the Marshal skeptically. “You are asking for the aid of the Solamnics, my lord?”

“No,” said Medan. “The Queen Mother is asking for the aid of the Solamnic Knights. You will be her representative.”

Gerard was clearly still distrustful.

“I have calculated that we have ten days, Gerard,” the Marshal continued. “Ten days until the army reaches Qualinost. If you leave immediately on dragonback, you could reach Solan-thus the day after tomorrow at the latest. The Knights could not send an army, but mounted dragonriders could at least help guard the civilians.” He smiled grimly. “Do not believe that I am sending you out of harm’s way, sir. I expect you to come back with them, and then you and I will not fight each other, but side by side.”

Gerard’s face cleared. “I am sorry I questioned you, my lord. I will leave at once. I will need a swift mount.”

“You will have one. My own Razor. You will ride him.”

“I could not take your horse, sir,” Gerard protested.

“Razor is not a horse,” said Medan. “He is my dragon. A blue. He has been in my service since the Chaos War. What is the matter now?”

Gerard had gone extremely pale. “Sir,” he said, clearing his throat, “I feel it only right that you know . . . I have never ridden a dragon. . . .” He swallowed, burning with shame. “I have never even seen one.”

“It is high time you did,” Medan said, clapping Gerard on the back. “A most exhilarating experience. I have always regretted that my duties as Marshal kept me from riding as much as I would have liked. Razor is stabled in a secret location outside Qualinost. I will give you directions and send written orders with my seal so that the stable master will know you come by my command. I will also send a message to Razor. Do not worry. He will bear you swiftly and in safety. You are not fearful of heights, are you?”

“No, my lord,” Gerard said, gulping. What else could he say?

“Excellent. I will draw up the orders at once,” Medan said.

Returning to the main chamber, motioning for Gerard to accompany him, Medan sat down at Planchet’s desk and began to write.

“What of Kalindas, my lord?” Gerard asked in a low undertone.

Medan glanced at Laurana and Gilthas, who were together on the opposite side of the room, still conferring.

“It will not hurt him to cool his heels for awhile.”

Gerard stood in silence, watching the Marshal’s hand flow over the paper. Medan wrote swiftly and concisely. The orders did not take long, not nearly long enough as far as Gerard was concerned. He had no doubt that he was going to die, and he would much rather die with a sword in his hand than by toppling off the back of a dragon, falling with sickening terror to a bone-shattering end. Deeming himself a coward, he reminded himself of the importance and urgency of his mission, and thus he was able to take Medan’s sealed orders with a hand that did not shake.

“Farewell, Sir Gerard,” Medan said, clasping the young man by the hand.

“Only for a time, my lord,” said Gerard. “I will not fail you. I will return and bring aid.”

“You should leave immediately. Beryl and her followers would think twice about attacking a blue dragon, especially one belonging to the Dark Knights, but it would be best for you to take advantage of the fact that for the moment Beryl’s dragons are not around. Planchet will show you the way out the back, through the garden, so that Kalindas does not catch sight of you.”

“Yes, my lord.”

Gerard lifted his hand in a salute, the salute a Solamnic Knight gives his enemy.

“Very well, my son, I agree,” Laurana’s voice reached them from across the chamber. She stood near a window. The first rays of the morning sunshine touched her hair like the hand of the alchemist, changed the honey to gold. “You convince me. You have your father’s own way about you, Gilthas. How proud he would have been of you. I wish he could be here to see you.”

“I wish he were here to offer his wise counsel,” said Gilthas, leaning forward to kiss his mother gently on the cheek. “Now, if you will excuse me, Mother, I must write down the words that I will shortly be called upon to speak. This is so important, I do not want to make a mistake.”

“Your Majesty,” said Gerard, stepping forward. “If I might have a moment of your time. I want to pay my respects before I go-”

“Are you leaving us, Sir Gerard?” Laurana asked.

“Yes, Madam,” said Gerard. “The Marshal has orders for me. He dispatches me to Solamnia, there to plead your cause before the Council of Knights and ask for their aid. If I might have a letter from you, Your Majesty, in your hand with your seal, vouching for my credentials as your messenger and also stating the dire nature of the situation—”

“The Solamnics have never cared for Qualinesti before,” Gilthas interrupted, frowning. “I see no reason why they should start now.”

“They did care, once,” said Laurana gently, looking search-ingly at Gerard. “There was a Knight called Sturm Brightblade who cared very much.” She held out her hand to Gerard, who bent low to touch her soft skin with his lips. “Go safely in the memory of that brave and gentle knight, Sir Gerard.”

The story of Sturm Brightblade had never meant two coppers to Gerard before now. He had heard the tale of his death at the High Clerist’s Tower so many times that it had grown stale in the telling. Indeed, he had even expressed his doubts that the episode had truly happened. Yet now he recalled that here was the comrade who had stood over the body of the dead Knight, the comrade who had wept for him even as she lifted the fabled dragonlance to defy his killer. Receiving her blessing in Sturm Brightblade’s name, Gerard was humbled and chastened. He bent his knee before her, accepted the blessing with bowed head.

“I will, Madam,” he said. “Thank you.”

He rose to his feet, exalted. His fears over riding the dragon seemed paltry and ignoble now, and he was ashamed of them.

The young king looked chastened as well and gave Gerard his hand to shake. “Ignore my words, Sir Knight. I spoke without thought. If the Solamnics have been careless of Qualinesti, then it might be truly said that the Qualinesti have been careless of the Solamnics. For one to help the other would be the beginning of a new and better relationship for both. You shall have your letter.”

The king dipped his pen in ink, wrote a few paragraphs on a sheet of fine vellum, and signed his name. Beneath his name, he affixed his seal, pressing into soft wax a ring he wore on his index finger. The ring left behind the image of an aspen leaf. He waited for the wax to harden, then folded the letter and handed it to Gerard.

“So I will convey to them, Your Majesty,” said Gerard, accepting the letter. He looked once more at Laurana, to take with him in his mind her beautiful image for inspiration. He was disquieted to see sorrow darken her eyes as she gazed at her son, to hear her sigh softly.

Planchet told him how to find his way out of the garden. Gerard departed, scrambling awkwardly over the balcony, dropping heavily to the garden below. He looked up for one final wave, one final glimpse, but Planchet had closed the doors behind him.

Gerard recalled Laurana’s look, her sadness, and he had a sudden terrible fear that this would be the last time he ever saw her, the last time he ever saw Qualinost. The fear was overwhelming, and his earlier resolve to stay and help them fight resurfaced. But he could not very well return now, not without looking foolish, or—worse—a coward. Gripping the Marshal’s orders in his hand, Gerard departed, running through the garden that was starting to come alive with the warm rays of the sun.

The sooner he reached the council, the sooner he would be back.


 

4

The Traitor

 

The room was quiet. Gilthas sat at his desk, writing his speech, the pen moving swiftly across the page. He had spent the night thinking of what to say. The words came rapidly, so that the ink seemed to flow from the heart and not his pen. Planchet was laying out a light breakfast of fruit, bread, and honey, although it seemed unlikely anyone would have much appetite. Marshal Medan stood at the window, watched Gerard depart through the garden. The Marshal saw the young Knight pause, perhaps he even guessed what Gerard was thinking. When Gerard turned and left, Medan smiled to himself and nodded.

“That was good of you, Marshal Medan,” said Laurana, coming to stand at his side. She kept her voice low so as not to interrupt Gilthas in his work. “To send the young man safely away. For you do not truly believe the Solamnic Knights will come to our aid, do you?”

“No, I do not,” said the Marshal, equally quiet. “Not because they will not, but because they cannot.” He looked out the window, across the garden to the distant hills to the north. “They have their own problems. Beryl’s attack means that the so-called Pact of the Dragons is broken. Oh, I am certain that Lord Targonne is doing his best to try to placate Malys and the others, but his efforts will be for naught. Many believe that Khellendros the Blue plays a game of cat and mouse. He pretends to be oblivious to all that is going on around him, but that is only to lull Malys and the others into complacency. In fact, it is my belief that he has long had his eye on Solanthus. He held off attacking only for fear that Beryl would consider such an attack a threat to her own territory to the south. But now he will feel that he can seize Solanthus with impunity. And so it will go from there. We may be the first, but we will not be the last.

“As to Gerard,” Medan continued, “I returned to the Solam-nic Knighthood a good soldier. I hope his commanders have sense enough to realize that.”

He paused a moment, watching Gilthas. When the king had reached the end of a sentence, Medan spoke. “I am sorry to interrupt Your Majesty’s work, but a matter has arisen that must be dealt with swiftly. A matter of some unpleasantness, I fear.”

Medan shifted his gaze to Laurana. “Gerard reported to me that your servant, Kalindas, waits downstairs. It seems that he heard you were in the palace and was worried for you.”

Medan watched Laurana carefully as he spoke. He saw her color wane, saw her troubled gaze flash across the room to Kele-vandros, who was still sleeping.

She knows, Medan said to himself. If she does not know which of them is the traitor, yet she knows that one of them is. Good. That will make this easier.

“I will send Kelevandros to fetch him,” Laurana said through pallid lips.

“I do not believe that would be wise,” Medan replied. “I suggest that you ask Planchet to take Kalindas to my headquarters. My second-in-command, Dumat, will look after him. Kalindas will not be harmed, I assure you, Madam, but he must be kept safe, where he cannot communicate with anyone.”

Laurana looked at the Marshal with sorrow. “My lord, I don’t think . . . Is this necessary?”

“It is, Madam,” he said firmly.

“I don’t understand,” Gilthas said, his voice tinged with anger. He rose to his feet. “My mother’s servant is to be thrown in prison! Why? What is his crime?”

Medan was about to answer, but Laurana forestalled him.

“Kalindas is a spy, my son.”

“A spy?” Gilthas was astonished. “For whom?”

“The Dark Knights,” Laurana replied. “He reports directly to Marshal Medan, unless I am much mistaken.”

Gilthas cast the Marshal a look of unutterable disgust.

“I make no apology, Your Majesty,” Medan said calmly. “Nor, do I expect you to make any apology for the spies you have planted in my household.”

Gilthas flushed. “A dirty business,” he muttered.

“Indeed, Your Majesty. This makes an end of it. I, for one, will be glad to wash my hands. Planchet, you will find Kalindas waiting downstairs. Remove him to—”

“No, Planchet,” said Gilthas peremptorily. “Bring him here to me. Kalindas has the right to answer his accusor.”

“Do not do this, Your Majesty,” Medan said earnestly. “Once Kalindas sees me here with you, he will know he has been unmasked. He is a dangerous man, cornered and desperate. He has no care for anyone. He will stop at nothing. I cannot guarantee Your Majesty’s safety.”

“Nevertheless,” said Gilthas steadily, “elven law provides that Kalindas have the chance to defend himself against these charges. For too long, we have lived under your law, Marshal Medan. The law of the tyrant is no law at all. If I am to be king, then I make this my first act.”

“Madam?” Medan turned to Laurana.

“His Majesty is right,” said Laurana. “You have made your accusations, and we have listened. Kalindas must have his turn to tell his story.”

“You will not find it a pretty one. Very well,” Medan said, shrugging. “But we must be prepared. If I might suggest a plan of action . . .”

 

“Kelevandros,” Laurana said, shaking the slumbering elf by the shoulder. “Your brother waits downstairs.”

“Kalindas is here?” Kelevandros jumped to his feet.

“The guards refuse to allow him to enter,” Laurana continued. “Go down and tell the guards they have my permission to bring him here.”

“Yes, Madam.”

Kelevandros hastened out the door. Laurana looked back at Medan. Her face was very pale, but she was calm, composed.

“Was that satisfactory?”

“Perfect, Madam,” said Medan. “He was not the least suspicious. Take your seat at the table. Your Majesty, you should return to your work.”

Laurana sighed deeply and sat down at the dining table. Planchet selected the very best fruit for her repast and poured her a glass of wine.

Marshal Medan had never admired Laurana’s courage more than now, as he watched her take bites of fruit, chew and swallow, though the food must have tasted like ashes in her mouth. Opening one of the doors that led to the balcony, Medan moved outside, leaving the door ajar, so that he could hear and see what took place in the room without being seen himself.

Kalindas entered at his brother’s heels.

“Madam, I have been frantic with concern for your safety. When that loathsome Marshal took you away, I feared he meant your death!”

“Did you, Kalindas?” Laurana said gently. “I am sorry to have caused you so much concern. As you see, I am safe here. Safe for the time being, at least. We have reports that Beryl’s armies are marching on Qualinesti.”

“Indeed, Madam, I heard that terrible rumor,” said Kalindas, advancing until he stood close to the table at which she sat. “You are not safe here, Madam. You must take flight immediately.”

“Yes, Madam,” said Kelevandros. “My brother has told me that you are in danger. You and the king.”

Gilthas had completed his writing. The parchment in his hand, the king rose from his desk, preparing to leave.

“Planchet,” he said, “bring me my cloak.”

“You are right to act swiftly, Your Majesty,” said Kalindas, mistaking Gilthas’s intent. “Madam, I will take the liberty of fetching your cloak, as well—”

“No, Kalindas,” said Gilthas. “That is not what I meant.”

Planchet returned with the king’s cloak. Holding the garment over his right hand and arm, he moved to stand next to Gilthas.

“I have no intention of fleeing,” Gilthas was saying. “I go now to make a speech to the people. We begin immediately to evacuate the population of Qualinost and make plans for the defense of the city.”

Kalindas bowed to the king. “I understand. Your Majesty will make his speech, and then I will take you and your honored mother to a place of safety. I have friends waiting.”

“I’ll wager you do, Kalindas,” said Marshal Medan, stepping through the door. “Friends of Beryl’s waiting to assassinate both His Majesty and the Queen Mother. Where would these friends of yours happen to be?”

Kalindas’s eyes darted warily from the Marshal to Gilthas and back to the Marshal. The elf licked dry lips. His gaze slid to Lau-rana. “I don’t know what has been said about me, Madam—”

Gilthas intervened. “I will tell you what has been said, Kalindas. The Marshal has made the accusation that you are a spy in his employ. We have evidence that appears to indicate that this is true. By elven law, you are granted the right to speak in your defense.”

“You don’t believe him, do you, Madam?” Kelevandros cried. Shocked and outraged, he came to stand stolidly beside his brother. “Whatever this human has told you about Kalindas is a lie! The Marshal is a Dark Knight, and he is human!”

“Indeed, I am both those,” said Medan. “I am also the one who paid your brother to spy upon the Queen Mother. I’ll wager that if you search his person, you will find on him a stash of steel coins with the head of Lord Targonne stamped upon them.”

“I knew someone in my household had betrayed me,” Lau-rana said. Her voice ached with sorrow. “I received a letter from Palin Majere, warning me. That was how the dragon knew to wait for him and for Tasslehoff. The only person who could have warned the dragon was someone in my house. No one else knew.”

“You are mistaken, Madam,” Kelevandros insisted desperately. “The Dark Knights were spying on us. That is how they came to know. Kalindas would never betray you, Madam. Never! He loves you too well.”

“Does he?” Medan asked quietly. “Look at his face.”

Kalindas was livid, his skin whiter than the fine linen of the bed sheets. His lips curled back from his teeth in a sneer. His blue eyes were pale and glittering.

“Yes, I have a bag of steel coins,” he said, spittle flecking his lips. “Coins paid to me by this human pig who thinks that by betraying me he may win the chance to crawl into your bed. Perhaps he already has. You are known to enjoy rutting with humans. Love you, Madam? This is how much I love you!”

Kalindas’s hand darted inside his tunic. The blade of a dagger flashed in the sunlight.

Gilthas cried out. Medan drew his sword, but he had placed himself to guard the king. Medan was too far across the room to save Laurana.

She snatched up a wine glass and flung the contents into Kalindas’s face. Half-blinded by the wine stinging his eyes, he stabbed wildly. The blow aimed for Laurana’s heart struck her shoulder.

Cursing, Kalindas lifted the knife to strike again.

He gave a terrible cry. The knife fell from his hand. The blade of a sword protruded from his stomach. Blood soaked his shirt front.

Kelevandros, tears streaming down his cheeks, jerked his sword out of his brother’s body. Dropping the weapon, Kelevandros caught hold of Kalindas, lowered him to the ground, cradled his dying brother in his arms.

“Forgive me, Kalindas!” Kelevandros said softly. He looked up, pleading. “Forgive him, Queen Mother—”

“Forgive!” Kalindas’s lips, flecked with blood, twisted. “No!” He choked. His last words were squeezed out. “I curse them! I curse them both!”

He stiffened in his brother’s arms. His face contorted. He tried again to speak, but blood gushed from his mouth, and with it went his life. Even in death, his eyes continued to stare at Laurana. The eyes were dark, and when the light of life faded in them, the shadows were lit with the cold glitter of his hate.

“Mother!” Gilthas sprang to her side. “Mother, you are hurt! Come, lie down.”

“I am all right,” Laurana said, though her voice shook. “Don’t fuss”

“That was quick thinking on your part, Madam. Throwing the wine at him. He caught the rest of us flat-footed. Let me see.” Medan peeled back the fabric of the sleeve that was soaked with blood. His touch was as gentle as he could make it. “The wound does not appear to be serious,” he reported, after a cursory examination. “The dagger glanced off the bone. You will have a scar there, I am afraid, Madam, but the wound is clean and should heal well.”

“It would not be the first scar I’ve borne,” Laurana said with a wan smile. She clasped her hands together, to try to stop the trembling. Her gaze went involuntarily to the corpse.

“Throw something over that!” Medan commanded harshly. “Cover it up.”

Planchet grabbed hold of the cloak he had been holding, spread it over Kalindas. Kelevandros knelt beside his brother, one hand holding the dead hand, the other holding the sword that had slain him.

“Planchet, summon a healer—” Gilthas began.

“No,” Laurana countermanded his order. “No one must know of this. You heard the Marshal. The wound is not serious. It has already stopped bleeding.”

“Your Majesty,” said Planchet. “The meeting of the Thalas-Enthia . . . it is past time.”

As if to emphasize this statement, a voice came from below, querulous and demanding. “I tell you I will wait no longer! A servant is permitted to see His Majesty, and I am kept waiting? You do not intimidate me. You dare not lay a hand on me, a member of the Thalas-Enthia. I will see His Majesty, do you hear? I will not be kept out!”

“Palthainon,” said Medan. “After the last act of the tragedy, they send in the clowns.” The Marshal started toward the door. “I will stall him as long as possible. Get this mess cleaned up!”

Laurana rose hurriedly to her feet. “He should not see me wounded like this. He must not know anything is wrong. I will wait in my own chambers, my son.”

Gilthas was obviously reluctant to leave, but he knew as well as she did the importance of his talk before the Senate. “I will go to the Thalas-Enthia,” he said. “First, Mother, I have a question to ask Kelevandros, and I want you to be here to hear it. Kelevandros, did you know of your brother’s foul scheming? Were you part of it?”

Kelevandros was deathly pale and covered with his brother’s blood, yet he faced the king with dignity. “I knew he was ambitious, yet I never thought. . . I never . . .” He paused, swallowed, and said quietly, “No, Your Majesty. I did not.”

“Then I grieve for you, Kelevandros,” said Gilthas, his harsh tone softening. “For what you had to do.”

“I loved him,” said Kelevandros in a low voice. “He was all the family I had left. Yet I could not let him harm our mistress.”

Blood was starting to seep through the cloak. Kelevandros knelt over his brother’s body, wrapped the cloak around it more tightly.

“With your permission, Your Majesty,” he said with quiet dignity, “I will take my brother away.”

Planchet made as if to help, but Kelevandros refused his assistance.

“No, he is my brother. My responsibility.”

Kelevandros lifted Kalindas’s body in his arms and, after a brief struggle, managed to stand upright. “Madam,” he said, not raising his eyes to meet hers, “your home was the only home we ever knew, but I fear it would be unseemly—”

“I understand, Kelevandros,” she said. “Take him there.”

“Thank you, Madam.”

“Planchet,” Gilthas said, “go with Kelevandros. Give him what help he needs. Explain matters to the guard.”

Planchet hesitated. “Your Honored Mother is wise. We should keep this secret, Your Majesty. If the people were to discover that his brother had made an attempt on the Queen Mother’s life, I fear they might do Kelevandros some harm. And if they heard that Marshal Medan had been using elves to spy . . .”

“You are right, Planchet,” Gilthas said. “See to it. Kelevandros, you should use the servant’s—”

Realizing what he had been about to say, he stopped the words.

“The servant’s entrance around back,” said Kelevandros finished. “Yes, Your Majesty. I understand.”

Turning, he bore his heavy burden out the door.

Laurana looked after them. “The curses of the dead always come true, they say.”

“Who says?” Gilthas demanded. “Toothless old grannies? Kalindas had no high and noble goals. He did what he did out of greed alone. He cared only for the money.”

Laurana shook her head. Her hair was gummed with her own blood, stuck to the wound. Gilthas started to add comforting words, but they were interrupted by a commotion outside the door. Marshal Medan could be heard tromping heavily up the stairs. He had raised his voice, to let them know he was coming and that he had company.

Laurana kissed her son with lips that were as pale as her cheeks. “You must leave now. My blessings go with you—and those of your father.”

She left hurriedly, hastening down the hall.

“Planchet, the blood—” Gilthas began, but Planchet had already whisked a small ornamental table over the stain and planted himself in front of it.

Senator Palthainon entered the room with fuss and bustle. Fire smoldered in his eyes, and he began talking the instant his foot crossed the threshold.

“Your Majesty, I was told that you convened the Thalas-Enthia without first asking my approval—”

The senator halted in midword, the speech he had been rehearsing all the way up the stairs driven clean from his head. He had expected to find his puppet lying limp on the floor, tangled in his own strings. Instead, the puppet was walking out the door.

“I convened the Senate because I am king,” said Gilthas, brushing past the senator. “I did not consult you, Senator, for the same reason. I am king.”

Palthainon stared, began to burble and sputter. “What— What— Your Majesty! Where are you going? We must discuss this.”

Gilthas paid no attention. He continued out the door, slammed it shut behind him. The speech he had written so carefully lay on the desk. After all, he would speak the words from his heart.

Palthainon stared after him, confounded. Needing someone to blame, he rounded on Marshal Medan. “This is your doing, Marshal. You put the fool boy up to this. What are you plotting, Medan? What is going on?”

The Marshal was amused. “This is none of my doing, Senator. Gilthas is king, as he says, and he has been king for many years. Longer than you realize apparently. As for what is going on”— Medan shrugged—”I suggest you ask His Majesty. He may deign to tell you.”

“Ask His Majesty, indeed!” returned the senator with a blustering sneer. “I do not ask His Majesty anything. I tell His Majesty what to think and what to say, just as I always have. You are blathering, Marshal. I do not understand you.”

“No, but you will,” Medan advised the senator’s retreating back, as the elf picked up what shreds of dignity remained him and swept out of the chamber.

“Planchet,” said Medan, after king and senator were gone and the palace was again quiet. “Bring water and bandages. I will attend to the Queen Mother. You should pull up the carpet. Take it out and burn it.”

Armed with a wash basin and a roll of linen, Medan knocked at the door to Laurana’s chambers. She bade him enter. He frowned to see her on her feet, looking out the window.

“You should lie down, Madam. Take this time to rest.”

She turned to face him. “Palthainon will cause trouble in the Senate. You may be assured of that.”

“Your son will skewer him, Madam,” said the Marshal. “With words, not steel. He will let so much air out of that windbag I would not be surprised to see him come whizzing past the window. There,” he added, “I made you smile.”

Laurana did smile, but the next moment she swayed on her feet and reached to steady herself on the arm of a chair. Medan was at her side, helping her to sit down.

“Madam, you have lost a vast quantity of blood, and the wound continues to bleed. If I would not offend . . .” He paused, embarrassed. Coughing, he continued. “I could clean and dress the wound for you.”

“We are both old soldiers, Marshal,” said Laurana, sliding her arm out of the sleeve of her dressing gown. “I have lived and fought with men under circumstances where I could not afford to indulge in modesty. It is most kind of you to offer.”

The Marshal reached to touch the warm skin and saw his hand—coarse, large, thick-fingered, and clumsy—in sharp contrast to the slender white shoulder of the elven woman, her own skin as smooth as the silken coverlet, the blood crimson and warm from the jagged cut. He snatched his hand back, the fingers clenched.

“I fear I hurt you, Madam,” he said, feeling her flinch at his touch. “I am sorry. I am rough and clumsy. I know no other way.”

Laurana clasped her hair with her hand, drew it over her shoulder, so that it was out of his way. “Marshal Medan, my son explained his plan for the defense of Qualinost to you. Do you think it will work?”

“The plan is a good one, Madam,” said the Marshal, wrapping the bandage around her shoulder. “If the dwarves agree to it and do their part, it even has a chance of succeeding. I do not trust dwarves, however, as I warned His Majesty.”

“A great many lives will be lost,” said Laurana sadly.

“Yes, Madam. Those who remain to fight the rearguard action may not be able to escape in time. The battle will be a glorious one,” he added, tying off the bandage with a knot. “Like the old days. I, for one, would not miss it.”

“You would give your life for us, Marshal?” Laurana asked, turning to look him full in the face. “You, a human and our enemy, will die defending elves?”

He pretended to be preoccupied with the wound, in order not to meet her penetrating gaze. He did not answer the question immediately but thought about it for a long time.

“I do not regret my past, Madam,” he said at last. “I do not regret past decisions. I was born of common stock, a serf’s son. I would have been a serf myself, illiterate, unschooled, but then Lord Ariakan found me. He gave me knowledge, he gave me training. Most important, he gave me faith in a power greater than myself. Perhaps you cannot understand this, Madam, but I worshipped Her Dark Majesty with all my soul. The Vision she gave me comes to me still in my dreams, although I cannot understand why, since she is gone.”

“I understand, Marshal,” said Laurana softly. “I stood in the presence of Takhisis, Queen of Darkness. I still feel the awe and reverence I experienced then. Although I knew her power to be evil, it was awful to behold. Perhaps that was because when I dared try to look into her eyes, I saw myself. I saw her darkness inside me.”

“You, Madam?” Medan shook his head.

“I was the Golden General, Marshal,” Laurana said earnestly. “A fine title. People cheered me in the streets. Children gave me bouquets of flowers. Yet I ordered those same people into battle. I orphaned many of those children. Because of me thousands died, when they might have lived to lead happy and productive lives. Their blood is on my hands.”

“Do not regret your actions, Madam. To do so is selfish. Your regret robs the dead of the honor that is theirs. You fought for a cause you knew to be just and right. They followed you into battle—into death, if you will—because they saw that cause shining in you. That is why you were called the Golden General,” he added. “Not for your hair.”

“Still,” she said, “I would like to give something back to them.”

She fell silent, absorbed in her own thoughts. He started to leave, thinking that she would like to rest, but she detained him.

“We were speaking of you, Marshal,” she said, resting her hand light upon his arm. “Why you are prepared to give your life for elves.”

Looking into her eyes, he could have said he was prepared to lay down his life for one elf, but he did not. His love would not be welcome to her, whereas his friendship was. Counting himself blessed, he did not seek for more.

“I fight for my homeland, Madam,” he replied simply.

“One’s homeland is where one is born, Marshal.”

“Precisely, Madam. My homeland is here.”

His response gave her pleasure. Her blue eyes were soft with sympathy, glimmered with sudden tears. She was warmth and sweetness and perfume, and she was low in her spirits, shaken and hurt. He rose to his feet quickly, so quickly that he clumsily overturned the bowl of water he had used to wash the wound.

“I am sorry, Madam.” He bent to wipe up the spill, glad to have the chance to hide his face. He rose again, did not look at her. “The bandage is not too tight, is it, Madam?” he asked gruffly.

“No, not too tight,” said Laurana.

“Good. Then if you will excuse me, Madam, I must return to headquarters, to see if there have been any further reports of the army’s progress.”

With a bow, he turned on his heel and departed in haste, leaving her to her thoughts.

Laurana drew the sleeve of her gown over her shoulder. She flexed her fingers, rubbed her fingers over old calluses on her palm.

“I will give something back,” she said.


 

5

Dragon Flight

 

The stables of the Dark Knights were located a considerable distance from Qualinesti. Not surprising, Gerard consid-I ered, since the stables housed a blue dragon. He had never been there, never had occasion to go, and had only a vague idea where the stables were. Medan’s directions were easy to follow, however, and guided Gerard unerringly.

Mindful of the necessity for haste, he advanced at a jogging run. Gerard was soon winded, however. His wounds from his battle with the draconian throbbed. He’d had very little sleep, and he was weighted down with his armor. The thought that at the end of all this toil he would confront a blue dragon did not bring ease to his sore muscles or lighten the weight of his armor. Just the reverse.

He smelled the stables before he could see them. They were surrounded by a stockade with guards at the entrance. Alert and wary, they hailed him the moment they heard his footsteps. He replied with the proper code word and handed over Medan’s orders. The guards peered at these intently, looked closely at Gerard, whom they did not recognize. There was no mistaking Medan’s seal, however, and they let him pass.

The stables housed horses, griffons, and dragons, although not in the same location. Low, sprawling wooden buildings housed the horses. The griffons had their nests atop a cliff. Griffons prefer the heights, and they had to be kept far from the horses so that the horses were not made nervous by the smell of the beasts. The blue dragon, Gerard learned, was stabled in a cave beneath the cliff.

One of the stable hands offered to take Gerard to the dragon, and, his heart sinking so low that he seemed to walk on it with every reluctant step, Gerard agreed. They were forced to wait, however, due to the arrival of another blue dragon bearing a rider. The blue landed in a clearing near the horse stables, sending the horses into a panic. Gerard’s guide left him, ran to calm the horses. Other stable hands shouted imprecations at the dragonrider, telling him he’d landed in the wrong spot and shaking their fists at him.

The dragonrider ignored them. Sliding from his saddle, brushed away their jeers.

“I am from Lord Targonne,” he said brusquely. “I have urgent orders for Marshal Medan. Fetch down one of the griffons to take me to headquarters and then see to my dragon. I want him properly housed and fed for the return flight. I leave tomorrow.”

At the mention of the name Targonne, the stable hands shut their mouths and scattered to obey the Knight’s commands. Several led the blue dragon to the caves beneath the mountains, whilej others began the long process of trying to whistle down one of thegriffons. The proceeding took some time, for griffons are notoriously ill-tempered and will pretend to be deaf to a command in the hope that their master will eventually give up and go away.

Gerard was interested to hear what news the Dark Knight was taking with such speed to Medan. Seeing the Knight wipe his mouth, Gerard removed the flask from his belt.

“You appear to thirst, sir,” he said, holding out the flask.

“I don’t suppose you have any brandy in there?” asked the Knight, eyeing the flask eagerly.

“Water, I’m sorry to say,” said Gerard.

The Knight shrugged, seized the flask and drank. His thirst slaked, he handed the flask back to Gerard. “I’ll drink the Marshal’s brandy when I meet with him.” He eyed Gerard curiously. “Are you coming or going?”

“Going,” said Gerard. “A mission for Marshal Medan. I heard you say you’ve come from Lord Targonne. How has his lordship reacted to the news that Beryl is attacking Qualinesti?”

The Knight shrugged, looked around with disdain. “Marshal Medan is the ruler of a backwater province. Hardly surprising that he was caught off-guard by the dragon’s actions. I assure you, sir, Lord Targonne was not.”

Gerard sighed deeply. “You have no idea how hard this duty is. Stuck here among these filthy elves who think that just because they live for centuries that makes them better than us. Can’t get a mug of good ale to save your soul. As to the women, they’re all so blasted snooty and proud.

“I’ll tell you the truth, though.” Gerard edged closer, lowered his voice. “They really want us, you know. Elf women like us human men. They just pretend they don’t. They lead a fellow on and then scream when he tries to take what’s been offered.”

“I hear the Marshal sides with the vermin.” The Knight’s lip curled.

Gerard snorted. “The Marshal—he’s more elf than human, if you ask me. Won’t let us have any fun. My guess is that’s about to change.”

The Knight gave Gerard a knowing look. “Let’s just say that wherever you’re going, you’d best hurry back, or you’re going to miss out.”

Gerard regarded the Knight with admiration and envy. “I’d give anything to be posted at headquarters. Must be really exciting, being around his lordship. I’ll bet you know everything that’s happening in the whole world.”

“I know my share,” the Knight stated, rocking back on his heels and regarding the very stars in the sky with proprietory interest. “Actually I’m considering moving here. There’ll be land for the asking soon. Elf land and fancy elf houses. And elf women, if that’s what you like.” He gave Gerard a disparaging glance. “Personally I wouldn’t want to touch one of the cold, clammy hags. Turns my stomach to think of it. You had best have your fun with one of them fast, though, or she might not be around for the taking.”

Gerard was able now to guess the import of Targonne’s orders to Medan. He saw quite clearly the plan the Lord of the Night had in mind, and he was sickened by it. Seize elven property and elven homes, murder the owners, and hand the wealth out as gifts to loyal members of the Knighthood. Gerard’s hand tightened around his sword. He would have liked to turn this Knight’s proud stomach—turn it inside out. He would have to forego the pleasure. Leave that to Marshal Medan.

The Knight slapped his gloves against his thigh and glanced over at the stable hands, who were yelling at the griffons, who were continuing to ignore them.

“Louts!” he said impatiently. “I suppose I must do this myself. Well, a good journey to you, sir.”

“And to you, sir,” said Gerard. He watched the Knight stalk off to bully the stable hands, striking them with his fist when they did not give him the answers he thought he deserved. The stable hands slunk away, leaving the Knight to yell for the griffons himself.

“Bastard,” said one of the men, nursing a bruised cheek. “Now we’ll be up all night tending to his blasted dragon.”

“I wouldn’t work too hard at it,” said Gerard. “I think the Knight’s errand will take longer than he anticipates. Far longer.”

The stable hand cast Gerard a sulky glance and, rubbing his cheek, led Gerard to the cave of the Marshal’s blue dragon.

Gerard prepared nervously to meet the blue by recalling every bit of information he’d ever heard about dragons. Of primary importance would be controlling the dragonfear, which he had heard could be extremely debilitating. He took a firm grip on his courage and hoped he would do nothing to disgrace himself.

The stable hands brought the dragon forth from his lair. Razor was a magnificent sight. The sunlight gleamed on his blue scales. His head was elegantly shaped, eyes keen, nostrils flared. He moved with sinuous grace. Gerard had never been this close to a dragon, any dragon. The dragonfear touched Gerard, but the dragon was not exerting his power to panic the human, and Gerard felt the fear as awe and wonder.

The dragon, aware that he was being admired, shook his crest and flexed his wings, lashed his tail about.

An elderly man left the dragon’s side, walked over to Gerard. The old man was short and bowlegged and scrawny. Squinty eyes were almost lost in a web of wrinkles, and he peered at Gerarc with intense curiosity and suspicion.

“I am Razor’s trainer, sir,” said the old man. “I’ve never known the Marshal to allow another person on his dragon’s back. What’s going on?”

Gerard handed over Medan’s orders. The old man stared at them with equal intensity, held the seal close to his nose to see it with what was probably his single good eye. Gerard thought for a moment that the old man was going to keep him from leaving, and he didn’t know whether to be glad or disappointed.

“Well, there’s a first time for everything,” the old man muttered and handed back the orders. He looked at Gerard’s armor, raised an eyebrow. “You’re not thinking of taking to the air in that, are you, sir?”

“I. . . I suppose . . .” Gerard stammered.

The old man was scandalized. “You’d freeze your privates off!” He shook his head. “Now if you was going into battle on dragonback, yes, you’d want all that there metal, but you’re not. You’re flying far and you’re flying fast. I have some old leathers of the Marshal’s that’ll fit you. Might be a trifle big, but they’ll do. Is there any special way you would like us to place the saddle, sir? The Marshal prefers it set just back of the shoulder blades, but I’ve known other riders who want it between the wings. They claim the flight is smoother.”

“I. . . I don’t really know. . . .” Gerard looked at the dragon, and the knowledge struck home that he was really going to have go through with this.

“By Our Queen,” stated the old man, amazed. “You’ve never sat a dragon afore, have you?”

Gerard confessed, red-faced, that he had not. “I hope it is not difficult,” he added, remembering vividly learning to ride a horse. If he fell off the dragon as many times as he fell off the horse . . .

“Razor is a veteran, Sir Knight,” stated the old man proudly. “He is a thorough soldier. Disciplined, obeys orders. Not temperamental like some of these blues can be. He and the general fought together as a team during the Chaos War and after. But when those freakish, bloated dragons came and began killing their own kind, the Marshal kept Razor hidden away. Razor wasn’t happy about that, mind you. The rows they had.”

The old man shook his head. He squinted up at Gerard. “I think I’m beginning to understand after all.” He nodded his wizened head. “I’ve heard the rumors that the Green Bitch was heading this way.”

He leaned close to Gerard, spoke in a loud whisper. “Don’t let on to Razor, though, sir. If he thought he’d have a chance at that green beast what killed his mate, he’d stay and fight, Marshal or no Marshal. You just take him safe away from here, Sir Knight. Good luck to the both of you.”

Gerard opened his mouth to say that he and Razor would be returning to fight just as soon as he had delivered his message, but he shut it again, fearing to say too much. Let the old man think what he wanted.

“Will. . . Razor mind that I am not Marshal Medan?” Gerard asked hesitantly. “I wouldn’t want to upset the dragon. He might refuse to carry me.”

“Razor is dedicated to the Marshal, sir, but once he understands that Medan has sent you, he will serve you well. This way, sir. I’ll introduce you.”

Razor listened attentively as a nearly tongue-tied Gerard haltingly explained his mission and exhibited Medan’s orders.

“Where is our destination?” Razor demanded.

“I am not permitted to reveal that, yet,” Gerard said apologetically. “I am to tell you once we are airborne. The fewer who know, the better.”

The dragon gave a shake of his head to indicate his readiness to obey. He was not the talkative sort, apparently, and after that single question, he lapsed into disciplined silence.

Saddling the dragon took some time, not because Razor in any way hindered the operation, but the act of positioning the saddle and the harness with its innumerable buckles and straps was a complex and time-consuming procedure. Gerard put on the “leathers,” consisting of a padded leather tunic with long sleeves that he pulled on over a pair of thick leather breeches. Leather j gloves protected the hands. A leather cap that resembled an exe-cutioner’s hood fit over his head, protected both head and neck. ! The leather tunic was overlarge, the leather pants were stiff, the leather helm stifling. Gerard found it almost impossible to see out of the eye-slits and wondered why they even bothered. The insignia of the Dark Knights—the death lily and the skull—had been incorporated into the stitching of the padding.

Other than that and his sword, nothing else marked Gerard as a Dark Knight. He placed the precious letter safely in a leather pack, tied the pack tightly to the dragon’s saddle.

The sun was high in the sky by the time both dragon and rider were ready to leave. Gerard mounted the dragon awkwardly, requiring assistance from the stable hands and the dragon, who bore his incompetence with exemplary patience. Red-faced and embarrassed, Gerard had barely grasped the reins in his hand when Razor gave a galvanized leap straight into the air, powering himself upward with the strong muscles of his hind legs.

The jolt drove Gerard’s stomach down somewhere around his boots, and he held on so tightly his fingers lost all feeling and went numb. But when the dragon spread his wings and soared into the morning, Gerard’s spirit soared with him.

He had never before understood why anyone would want to be a part of a dragon-wing. He understood then. The experience of flight was exhilarating as well as terrifying. Memories came to him of childish dreams of flying like the eagles. He had even attempted to do so himself by jumping off the barn roof with arms extended, only to crash into a hayrick, nearly breaking his neck. A thrill of excitement warmed his blood and diluted the fear in his belly.

Watching the ground fall away beneath him, he marveled at the strange feeling that it was the world that was leaving him, not the other way around. He was entranced by the silence, a silence that was whole and complete, not what is termed silence by the land-bound. That silence is made up of various small sounds that are so constant we no longer hear them: the chirping of birds, the rustling of the wind in the leaves, the sound of distant voices, the murmur of brook and stream.

Gerard could hear nothing except the creak of the tendons of the dragon’s wings, and when the dragon floated on the ther-mals, he could not hear even that. The silence filled him with a sensation of peace, euphoria. He was no longer a part of the world. He floated above its cares, its woes, its problems. He felt weightless, as if he had shed his bulky flesh and bone. The thought of going back down, of gaining back the weight, of resuming the burden, was suddenly abhorrent. He could have flown forever, flown to the place the sun went when it set, flown to places where the moon hid.

The dragon cleared the treetops.

“What direction?” Razor shouted, his voice booming, shaking Gerard out of his reverie.

“North,” Gerard shouted. The wind rushing past his head whipped the words from his mouth. The dragon turned his head to hear better. “Solanthus.”

Razor’s eye regarded him askance, and Gerard was afraid the dragon might refuse. Solanthus was in nominally free territory. The Solamnic Knights had transformed Solanthus into a heavily fortified city, probably the most heavily fortified in all of Ansalon. Razor might very well wonder why he was being ordered to fly into an enemy stronghold, and if he didn’t like the answer he might decide to dump Gerard from the saddle.

Gerard was ready with an explanation, but the dragon explained the situation to himself.

“Ah, a reconnaissance mission,” he said and adjusted his course.

Razor maintained silence during the flight. This suited Gerard, who was preoccupied with his own thoughts, dark thoughts that cast a shadow over the beautiful panorama of the landscape sliding away far beneath him. He had spoken hopefully, positively of being able to persuade the Solamnic Knights to come to Qualinesti’s aid, but now that he was on his way, he began to doubt that he would be able to persuade them.

“Sir,” said Razor, “look below.”

Gerard looked, and his heart seemed to plummet to the ground.

“Drop down,” he ordered the dragon. He didn’t know if he could be heard, and he accompanied his words with a gesture of his gloved hand. “I want a better view.”

The dragon swooped out of the clouds, circled slowly in a descending spiral.

“That’s close enough,” said Gerard, indicating with a gesture that the dragon was to remain stationary.

Gerard bent over the saddle, grasping it with his gloved hands, and looked out over the dragon’s left wing.

A vast army swarmed across the land, its numbers so large that it stretched like a great black snake for as far as he could see. A ribbon of blue that wound through the green forests was surely the White-rage River that formed the border of Qualinesti. The head of the black snake had already crawled over the border, was well inland.

Gerard leaned forward. “Would it be possible for you to increase your speed?” he shouted and illustrated his question with a jabbing finger, pointing north.

Razor grunted. “I can fly faster,” he shouted, “but you will not find it comfortable.”

Gerard looked down, estimating numbers, counting companies, supply wagons, gaining all the information he could. He gritted his teeth, bent in the saddle and gave the nod to proceed.

The dragon’s enormous wings began to beat. Razor lifted his head to the clouds, soared up to reach them.

The sudden acceleration pressed Gerard into the saddle. He blessed the designer of the leather helm, understood the need for the eye-slits. Even then, the rushing wind half-blinded him, brought tears to his eyes. The motion of the dragon’s wings caused the saddle to rock back and forth. Gerard’s stomach heaved. Grimly he hung on and prayed that somewhere there were gods to pray to.


 

6

The March On Silvanost

 

No one quite knew how word came to spread throughout the capital city of Silvanost that the hands of the human girl named Mina were the hands of a healer. The elves might have heard news of her from the outside world, except that they had been long cut off from the outside world, covered by the shield that had been presumably protecting them but had been, in reality, slowly killing them. No elf could say where he had first heard this rumor, but he credited it to neighbor, cousin, or passerby.

The rumor started with the fall of darkness. It spread through the night, whispered on the flower-scented night breeze, sung by the nightingale, mentioned by the owl. The rumor spread with excitement and joy among the young, yet there were those among the older elves who frowned to hear it and who cautioned against it.

Strong among these were the kirath, the elves who had long patrolled and guarded the borders of Silvanesti. These elves had watched with grief as the shield killed every living thing along the border. They had fought the cruel dream cast by the dragon Cyan Bloodbane many years ago during the War of the Lance.

The kirath knew from their bitter experience with the dream that evil can come in lovely forms, only to grow hideous and murderous when confronted. The kirath warned against this human girl. They tried to halt the rumors that were spreading through the city, as fast and bright and slippery as quicksilver. But every time the rumor came to a house where a young elven mother held to her breast her dying child, the rumor was believed. The warnings of the kirath went unheeded.

That night, when the moon lifted high in the heavens, the single moon, the moon that the elves had never grown accustomed to seeing in a sky where once the silver and the red moons had swung among the stars, the guards on the gates of Silvanost looked out along the highway leading into their city, a highway of moondust, to see a force of humans marching on Silvanost. The force was small, twenty Knights clad in the black armor of the Knights of Neraka and several hundred foot soldiers marching behind. The army was a shabby one. The foot soldiers stumbled, they limped, footsore and weary. Even the Knights were afoot, their horses having died in battle or been eaten by their starving riders. Only one Knight rode, and that was their leader, a slender figure mounted on a horse the color of blood.

A thousand elven archers, armed with the storied elven longbow, legendary for its accuracy, looked down upon this advancing army, and each picked out his or her target. There were so many archers that had the order been given to fire, each one of those advancing soldiers would have been stuck full with as many arrows as there are quills on the porcupine.

The elven archers looked uncertainly to their commanders. The archers had heard the rumors, as had their commanders. The archers had sick at home: wives, husbands, mothers, fathers, children, all dying of the wasting disease. Many of the archers themselves were in the first stages of the illness and remained at their posts only through sheer effort of will. So too with their commanders. The kirath, who were not members of the elven army, stood among the archers, wrapped in their cloaks that could blend in with the leaves and trees of the forests they loved, and watched grimly.

Mina rode unerringly straight toward the silver gates, rode into arrow range unflinching, her horse carrying its head proudly, neck arched, tail flicking. At her side walked a giant minotaur.

Her Knights came behind her, the foot soldiers followed after. Now within sight of the elves, the soldiers took some pains to dress their lines, straighten their backs, march upright and tall with the appearance of being unafraid, although many must have quaked and shivered at the sight of the arrow tips shining in the moonlight.

Mina halted her horse before the gate. She raised her voice, and it carried as clear and ringing as the notes of a silver bell.

“I am called Mina. I come to Silvanost in the name of the One God. I come to Silvanost to teach my elven brothers and sisters of the One God and to accept them into the service of the One God. I call upon you, the people of Silvanost, to open the gates, that I may enter in peace.”

“Do not trust her,” urged the kirath. “Do not believe her!”

No one listened, and when one of the kirath, a man named Rolan, lifted his bow and would have fired a shaft at the human girl, those standing around him struck him down so that he fell bloody and dazed to the pavement. Finding that no one paid them any heed, the kirath picked up their fallen comrade and left the city of Silvanost, retreated back to their woodlands.

A herald advanced and read aloud a proclamation.

“His Majesty the king orders that the gates of Silvanost be opened to Mina, whom His Majesty names Dragonslayer, Savior of the Silvanesti.”

The elven archers flung down their bows and gave a ragged cheer. The elven gatekeepers hastened to the gates that were made of steel and silver and magic. Though these gates looked as frail and fragile as spun cobweb, they were so bound by ancient magicks that no force on Krynn could break them, unless it was the breath of a dragon. But Mina, it seemed, had only to set her hand to the gates, and they opened.

Mina rode slowly into Silvanost. The minotaur walked at her stirrup, glowering distrustfully at the elves, his hand on his sword. Her soldiers came after, nervous, watchful, wary. The elves, after their initial cheer, fell silent. Crowds of elves lined the highway that was chalk-white in the moonlight. No one spoke, and all that could be heard was the jingle of chain mail and the rattle of armor and sword, the steady shuffling march of booted feet.

Mina had gone only a short distance, and some of the army still remained outside the gate, when she drew her horse to a halt. She heard a sound, and now she looked out into the crowd.

Dismounting, she left the highway and walked straight into the crowd of elves. The huge minotaur drew his sword and would have followed to guard her back, but she raised her hand in a wordless command, and he halted as though she had struck him. Mina came to a young elven woman trying vainly to stifle the whimperings of fretful child of about three years. It was the child’s wail that had caught Mina’s ears.

The elves drew aside to let Mina pass, flinching from her as though her touch pained them. Yet, after she had passed, some of the younger reached out hesitatingly to touch her again. She paid them no heed.

Approaching the elven woman, Mina said, speaking in elven, “Your baby cries. She burns with fever. What is wrong with her?”

The mother held the child protectively in her arms, bowed her head over the little girl. Her tears fell on the child’s hot forehead.

“She has the wasting sickness. She has been ill for days now. She grows worse all the time. I fear that. . . she is dying.”

“Give me the child,” said Mina, holding out her hands.

“No!” The elven woman clasped the child to her. “No, do not harm her!”

“Give me the child,” said Mina gently.

The mother lifted fearful eyes and looked into Mina’s. The warm liquid amber flowed around the mother and the child. The mother handed the baby to Mina.

The little girl weighed almost nothing. She was as light as a will-o’-the-wisp in Mina’s arms.

“I bless you in the name of the One God,” said Mina, “and I call you back to this life.”

The child’s whimpering ceased. She went limp in Mina’s arms, and the elder elves drew in hissing breaths.

“She is well now,” Mina said, handing back the child to the mother. “The fever has broken. Take her home and keep her warm. She will live.”

The mother looked fearfully into the face of her child and gave a cry of joy. The child’s whimpering had ceased, and she had gone limp because she now slept peacefully. Her forehead was cool to the touch, her breathing easy.

“Mina!” the elf woman cried, falling to her knees. “Bless you, Mina!”

“Not me,” said Mina. “The One God.”

“The One God,” the mother cried. “I thank the One God.”

“Lies!” cried an elf man, thrusting his way forward through the crowd. “Lies and blasphemy. The only true god is Paladine.”

“Paladine forsook you,” Mina said. “Paladine left you. The One God is with you. The One God cares for you.”

The elf opened his mouth to make an angry rejoinder. Before he could speak, Mina said to him, “Your beloved wife is not with you here this night.”

The elf shut his mouth. Muttering, he started to turn away.

“She is sick at home,” Mina told him. “She has not been well for a long, long time. Every day, you watch her sink closer to death. She lies in bed, unable to walk. This morning, she could not lift her head from the pillow.”

“She is dying!” the elf said harshly, keeping his head turned away. “Many have died. We bear our suffering and go on.”

“When you return home,” said Mina, “your wife will meet you at the door. She will take you by the hands, and you will dance in the garden as you once used to.”

The elf turned to face her. His face was streaked with tears, his expression was wary, disbelieving. “This is some trick.”

“No, it is not,” Mina returned, smiling. “I speak the truth, and you know it. Go to her. Go and see.”

The elf stared at Mina, then, with a hollow cry, pushed his way through those who surrounded him and vanished into the crowd.

Mina extended her hand toward an elven couple. Father and mother each held a young boy by the hand. The boys were twins, thin and listless, their young faces so pinched with pain they looked like wizened old men.

Mina beckoned to the boys. “Come to me.”

The boys shrank away from her. “You are human,” said one. “You hate us.”

“You will kill us,” said his brother. “My father says so.”

“To be human, elf, or minotaur makes no difference to the One God. We are all children of the One God, but we must be obedient children. Come to me. Come to the One God.”

The boys looked up at their parents. The elves stared at Mina, saying nothing, making no sign. The crowd around them was hushed and still, watching the drama. Finally, one boy let loose his mother’s hand and came forward, walking weakly and unsteadily. He took hold of Mina’s hand.

“The One God has the power to heal one of you,” said Mina. “Which will it be? You or your brother.”

“My brother,” the child said immediately.

Mina rested her hand on the boy’s head. “The One God admires sacrifice. The One God is pleased. The One God heals you both.”

Healthful color flooded the pallid cheeks. The listless eyes blazed with life and vigor. The weak legs no longer trembled, the bent spines straightened. The other boy left his father and ran to join his twin, both flinging their arms around Mina.

“Bless you! Bless you, Mina!” some of the younger Silvanesti elves began to chant, and they gathered close to Mina, reaching out to seize hold of her, begging her to heal them, their wives, their husbands, their children. The crowd surged and heaved around her so that she was in danger of being adored to death.

The minotaur, Galdar, Mina’s second-in-command and self-appointed guardian, waded into the mass. Catching hold of Mina, he bore her out of the press, thrusting aside the desperate elves with his strong arms.

Mounting her horse, Mina rose up in the stirrups and lifted her hand for silence. The elves hushed immediately, strained to hear her words.

“It has been given to me to tell you that all those who ask of the One God in humility and reverence will be healed of the sickness brought upon you by the dragon Cyan Bloodbane. The One God has freed you from this peril. Pray to the One God upon your knees, acknowledge the One God as the true God of the elves and you will be cured.”

Some of the younger elves fell to their knees at once and began to pray. Others, the elder elves, refused. Never before had the elves prayed to any god except Paladine. Some began to mutter that the kirath had been right, but then those who had prayed lifted their heads to the moonlight and cried out in joy that the pain had left their bodies. At the sight of the miraculous healing, more elves dropped to their knees, raised their voices in praise. The elder elves, watching in dismay and disbelief, shook their heads. One in particular, who was dressed in the magical camouflaging cloak of the kirath, stared hard at Mina for long moments before vanishing among the shadows.

The blood-red horse proceeded forward at a walk. Mina’s soldiers cleared her way through the press of bodies. The Tower of the Stars glimmered softly in the moonlight, pointing the way to heaven. Walking at her side, Galdar tried to breathe as little as possible. The stench of elf was overpowering, cloying, sickeningly sweet to the minotaur, like the scent of something long dead.

“Mina,” said Galdar in a harsh growl, “these are elves!” He made no effort to conceal his disgust. “What does the One God want with elves?”

“The souls of all mortals are valuable to the One God, Galdar,” Mina responded.

Galdar mulled this over but could not understand. Looking back at her, he saw, in the moonlight, the images of countless elves held prisoner in the warm golden amber of her eyes.

Mina continued through Silvanost as prayers to the One God, spoken in the Elvish language, rustled and whispered through the night.

Silvanoshei, son of Alhana Starbreeze and Porthios of the House of Solostaran, the heir to both kingdoms of the elves, the Qualinesti and the Silvanesti, stood with his face and hands pressed against the crystal windowpane, peering into the night.

“Where is she?” he demanded impatiently. “No, wait! I think I see her!” He stared long and then fell back with a sigh. “No, it is not her. I was mistaken. Why doesn’t she come?” He turned around to demand in sudden fear, “You don’t think anything has happened to her, Cousin?”

Kiryn opened his mouth to reply, but before he could say a word, Silvanoshei had spoken to a servant. “Find out what is happening at the gate. Return to me at once.”

The servant bowed and departed, leaving the two alone in the room.

“Cousin,” said Kiryn, keeping his voice carefully modulated, “that is the sixth servant you have sent this past half hour. He will return with the same message that they have all brought. The progress of the procession is slow, due to the fact that so many of our people want to see her.”

Mivanoshei went back to the window, stared out again with an impatience he did not bother to hide. “It was a mistake. I should have been there to greet her.” He cast a cold glance at his cousin. “I should not have listened to you.”

“Your Majesty,” said Kiryn with a sigh, “it would not have looked good. You, the king, welcoming in person the leader of our enemies. Bad enough that we have admitted her into the city in the first place,” he added to himself, but Silvanoshei had sharp ears.

“Need I remind you, Cousin,” said the king tersely, “that it was this same leader of our enemies who saved us from the machinations of the foul dragon Cyan Bloodbane. Because of her, I was brought back to life and given the chance to lower the shield he erected over us, the shield that was sucking out our very lives. Because of her, I was able to destroy the Shield Tree and save our people. If not for her, there would be no elves in the streets of Sil-vanost, only corpses.”

“I am aware of that, Your Majesty,” Kiryn said. “Yet I ask myself why? What are her motives?”

“I might ask the same of you, Cousin,” Silvanoshei said coolly. “What are you motives?”

“I don’t know what you mean,” Kiryn said.

“Don’t you? It has been brought to my attention that you are plotting behind my back. You have been seen meeting with members of the kirath.”

“What of that, Cousin?” Kiryn asked mildly. “They are your loyal subjects.”

“They are not my loyal subjects!” Silvanoshei said angrily. “They conspire against me!”

“They conspire against our enemies, the Dark Knights—”

“Mina, you mean. They conspire against Mina. That is the same as conspiring against me.”

Kiryn sighed softly and said, “There is someone waiting to speak to Your Majesty.”

“I will see no one,” Silvanoshei said.

“I think you should see him,” Kiryn continued. “He comes from your mother.”

Silvanoshei turned away from the window and stared at Kiryn. “What are you saying? My mother is dead. She died the night the ogres raided our camp. The night I fell through the shield . . .”

“No, Cousin,” said Kiryn. “Your mother, Alhana, lives. She and her forces have crossed the border. She has been in contact with the kirath. That is why . . . They tried to see you, Cousin, but were denied. They came to me.”

Silvanoshei sank down into a chair. He lowered his head to his shaking hand to hide his sudden tears.

“Forgive me, Cousin,” Kiryn said. “I should have found some better way to tell you—”

“No! You could have brought me no happier news!” Silvanoshei cried, lifting his face. “My mother’s messenger is here?” He rose to his feet, walked impatiently toward the door. “Bring him in.”

“He is not in the antechamber. He would be in danger here in the palace. I took the liberty—”

“Of course. I had forgotten. My mother is a dark elf,” Silvanoshei said bitterly. “She is under penalty of death, as are those who follow her.”

“Your Majesty now has the power to set that right,” said Kiryn.

“By law, perhaps,” said Silvanoshei. “But laws cannot erase years of hatred. Go and fetch him, then, wherever you have hidden him.”

Kiryn left the room. Silvanoshei returned to the window, his thoughts a confused and joyous muddle. His mother alive. Mina returned to him. The two of them must meet. They would like each other. Well, perhaps not at first. . . .

He heard a scraping sound behind him, turned to see movement behind one of the heavy curtains. The curtain was drawn aside, revealing an opening in the wall, a secret passageway. Silvanoshei had heard stories from his mother about these passageways. As a lark, Silvanoshei had searched for the passages, but had found only this one. The passage led to the hidden garden, a garden now lifeless, its flowers having been killed by the blight of the shield.

Kiryn stepped out from behind the curtain. Another elf, cloaked and hooded, followed after him.

“Samar!” exclaimed Silvanoshei in a recognition that was both pleasurable and filled with pain.

His first impulse was to run forward, grasp Samar by the hand or perhaps even embrace him, so glad was he to see him and know he was alive and that his mother was alive. Kiryn was hoping for just such a reunion. He hoped that the news that his mother was near, that she and her forces had crossed the border would wrench Silvanoshei’s mind away from Mina.

Kiryn’s hopes were doomed to failure.

Samar did not see Silvanoshei the king. He saw Silvanoshei the spoiled child, dressed in fine clothes and glittering jewels, while his mother wore clothes she made of homespun and adorned herself in the cold metal of chain mail. He saw Silvanoshei residing in a grand palace with every comfort he could wish for, saw his mother shivering in a barren cave. Samar saw a vast bed with a thick down mattress and blankets of angora wool and sheets of silk, and he saw Alhana sleeping on the cold ground with her tattered cloak wrapped around her.

Anger pounded in Samar’s veins, dimmed his vision, blurred his thinking. He blotted out Silvanoshei completely and saw only Alhana, who had been overcome with joy and emotion on hearing that Silvanoshei, whom she had believed to be dead, was alive. Not only alive but crowned king of Silvanesti—her dearest wish for him.

She had wanted to come immediately to see him, an act that would have placed in jeopardy not only her life but the lives of her people. Samar had pleaded long and hard to dissuade her from this course of action, and only the knowledge that she risked imperiling all for which she had labored so long had at last convinced her that he should go in her stead. He would take her love to her son, but he would not fawn or dote on the boy. Samar would remind Silvanoshei of a son’s duty to a mother, be he king or commoner. Duty to his mother, duty to his people.

Samar’s cold look halted Silvanoshei in midstep.

“Prince Silvanoshei,” said Samar, with a very slight bow. “I trust I find you well. I certainly find you well-fed.” He cast a scathing glance at the laden table. “That much food would feed your mother’s army for a year!”

Silvanoshei’s warm affection froze to solid ice in an instant. He forgot how much he owed Samar, remembered instead only that the man had never approved of him, perhaps never even liked him. Silvanoshei drew himself up to his full height.

“Undoubtedly you have not heard the news, Samar,” Silvanoshei said with quiet dignity, “and so I forgive you. I am king of the Silvanesti, and you will address me as such.”

“I will address you as what you are,” Samar said, his voice shaking, “a spoiled brat!”

“How dare you—” Silvanoshei began hotly.

“Stop it! Both of you.” Kiryn stared at them, aghast. “What are you two doing? Have you forgotten the terrible crisis that is at hand? Cousin Silvanoshei, you have known this man from childhood. You have told me many times that you admired and respected him as a second father. Samar risked his life to come to you. Is this how you repay him?”

Silvanoshei said nothing. He pressed his lips together, regarded Samar with an expression of injured dignity.

“And you, Samar,” said Kiryn, turning to the elven warrior. “You are in the wrong. Silvanoshei is the crowned and anointed king of the Silvanesti people. You are Qualinesti. Perhaps the ways of your people are different. We Silvanesti revere our king. When you demean him, you demean us all.”

Samar and the King were silent long moments, staring at each other—not as two friends who have been quick to quarrel and are glad to make up, but as two duelists who are sizing each other up even as they are forced to shake hands before the final contest. Kiryn was grieved to the heart.

“We have started out all wrong,” he said. “Let us begin again.”

“How is my mother, Samar?” Silvanoshei asked abruptly.

“Your mother is well. . . Your Majesty,” Samar replied. He left a deliberate pause before the title, but he spoke it. “She sends her love.”

Silvanoshei nodded. He was keeping a tight grip on himself. “The night of the storm. I thought. . . It seemed impossible that you could survive.”

“As it turned out, the Legion of Steel had been keeping watch on the movements of the ogres, and so they came to our aid. It seems,” Samar added, his voice gruff, “that you and your mother have been grieving together. When you did not return, we searched for you for days. We could only conclude that you had been captured by the ogres and dragged off to torment and death. When the shield fell and your mother crossed over into her homeland, we were met by the kirath. Her joy was boundless when she heard that not only were you alive, but that you were now king, Silvanoshei.”

His tone hardened. “Then the reports of you and this human female—”

Silvanoshei flashed Kiryn an angry glance. “Now I understand the reason you brought him here, Cousin. To lecture me.” He turned back to the window.

“Silvanoshei—” Kiryn began.

Samar strode forward, grabbed hold of Silvanoshei by the shoulder. “Yes, I am going to lecture you. You are behaving like a spoiled brat. Your honored mother did not believe the rumors. She told the kirath who spoke of this that they lied. What happens? I overhear you speaking of this human. I hear from your own lips that the rumors are true! You mope and whine for her, while a massive army of Dark Knights crosses the border. An army that was waiting at the border, prepared to cross when the shield came down.

“And, lo and behold, the shield fell! How did this army come to be there, Silvanoshei? Was it coincidence? Did the Dark Knights happen to arrive at the precise moment the shield happened to fall? No, Silvanoshei, the Dark Knights were there on the border because they knew the shield was going to fall. Now they march on Silvanost, five thousand strong, and you have opened the gates of the city to the female who brought them here.”

“That is not true!” Silvanoshei returned heatedly, ignoring Kiryn’s attempts to placate him. “Mina came to save us. She knew the truth about Cyan Bloodbane. She knew the dragon was the one responsible for raising the shield. She knew the shield was killing us. When I died at the hands of the dragon, she restored me to life. She—” Silvanoshei halted, his tongue cleaving to his palate.

“She told you to lower the shield,” Samar said. “She told you how to lower the shield.”

“Yes, I lowered the shield!” Silvanoshei returned defiantly. “I did what my mother has been striving to do for years! You know that to be true, Samar. My mother saw the shield for what it was. She knew it was not raised to protect us, and she was right. It was put in place to kill us. What would you have had me do, Samar? Leave the shield in place? Watch it suck the lives from my people?”

“You might have left it in place long enough to check to see if your enemy was massing on your border,” Samar said caustically. “The kirath could have warned you, if you had taken time to listen to them, but no, you chose to listen to a human female, the leader of those who would see you and your people destroyed.”

“The decision was mine alone to make,” said Silvanoshei with dignity. “I acted on my own. I did what my mother would have done in my place. You know that, Samar. She herself told me of the time she flew on griffon-back straight into the shield in her efforts to shatter it. Time and again she tried and was flung back—”

“Enough!” Samar interrupted impatiently. “What’s done is done.” He had lost this round, and he knew it. He was quiet a moment, pondering. When he spoke again, there was a change in his voice, a note of apology in his tone. “You are young, Silvanoshei, and it is the province of youth to make mistakes, although this, I fear, may well prove fatal to our cause. However, we have not given up. We may yet be able to undo the damage you have—however well-meaning—caused.”

Reaching beneath his cloak, Samar drew out another cloak and hood. “Dark Knights ride into our sacred city with impunity. I watched them enter. I saw this female. I saw our people, especially our young people, bewitched by her. They are blind to the truth. It will be our task to make them see again. Conceal yourself with this cloak, Silvanoshei. We will leave by the secret passage through which I entered, escape the city in the confusion.”

“Leave?” Silvanoshei stared at Samar in astonishment. “Why should I leave?”

Samar would have spoken, but Kiryn interrupted, hoping to salvage his plan.

“Because you are in danger, Cousin,” said Kiryn. “Do you think the Dark Knights will allow you to remain king? If they do, you will be no more than a puppet, like your cousin Gilthas. But, as king in exile, you will be a force to rally the people—”

Go? I cannot go, Silvanoshei said to himself. She is coming back to me. She draws closer every moment. This very night perhaps I will fold her in my arms. I would not leave though I knew death itself had come for me.

He looked at Kiryn and he looked at Samar and he saw not friends, but strangers, conspiring against him. He could not trust them. He could trust no one.

“You say that my people are in danger,” said Silvanoshei. He turned his back, turned his gaze out the window, as if he were looking over the city below. In truth, he searched for her. “My people are in danger, and you would have me flee to safety and leave them to face the threat alone. What poor sort of king is that, Samar?”

“A live king, Your Majesty,” Samar said dryly. “A king who thinks enough of his people to live for them instead of for himself. They will understand and honor you for your decision.”

Silvanoshei glanced coolly over his shoulder. “You are wrong, Samar. My mother fled, and the people did not honor her for it. They despised her. I will not make the same mistake. I thank you for coming, Samar. You are dismissed.”

Trembling, amazed at his own temerity, he turned back to the window, stared out unseeing.

“You ungrateful whelp!” Samar was half-choked with the gall of his rage, could barely speak. “You will come with me if I have to drag you!”

Kiryn stepped between Samar and the king.

“I think you had better leave, sir,” Kiryn said, his voice calm, eyes level. He was angry with both of them, angry and disappointed. “Or I will be forced to summon the guards. His Majesty has made his decision.”

Samar ignored Kiryn, glowered balefully at Silvanoshei. “I will leave. I will tell your mother that her son has made a noble, heroic sacrifice in the name of the people. I will not tell her the truth: that he stays for love of a human witch. I will not tell her, but others will. She will know, and her heart will break.”

He tossed the cloak on the floor at Silvanoshei’s feet. “You are a fool, young man. I would not mind if by your folly you brought ruin only on yourself, Silvanoshei, but you will bring ruin upon us all.”

Samar left, stalking across the room to the secret passage. He flung the curtain aside with a violence that almost ripped it from its rings.

Silvanoshei cast a scathing glance at Kiryn. “Don’t think I don’t know what you were after. Remove me, and you ascend the throne!”

“You don’t think that of me, Cousin,” Kiryn said quietly, gently. “You can’t think that.”

Silvanoshei tried very hard to think it, but he failed. Of all the people he knew, Kiryn was the only one who seemed to have a true affection for him. For him alone. Not for the king. For Sil-vanoshei.

Leaving the window, he walked over, took Kiryn by the hand, pressed it warmly. “I’m sorry, Cousin. Forgive me. He makes me so angry, I don’t know what I’m saying. I know you meant well.” Silvanoshei looked after Samar. “I know that he means well, but he doesn’t understand. No one understands.”

Silvanoshei felt a great weariness come over him. He had not slept in a long time. He couldn’t remember how long. Whenever he closed his eyes, he saw her face, heard her voice, felt the touch of her lips on his, and his heart leaped, his blood thrilled, and he lay awake, staring into the darkness, waiting for her to return to him.

“Go after Samar, Kiryn. Make certain he leaves the palace safely. I would not want any harm to come to him.”

Kiryn gave his king a helpless glance, sighed, shook his head, and did as he was told.

Silvanoshei went back to the window.

 


 

7

The River Of The Dead

 

It is a sad truism that the misfortunes of others, no matter how terrible, always pale in comparison to our own. At this moment in his life, if someone had told Conundrum that armies of goblins and hobgoblins, draconians, hired thugs, and murderers were marching on the elves, the gnome would have laughed in derision and rolled his eyes.

“They think they have trouble?” he would have said. “Hah! They should be down beneath the ocean in a leaky submersible with a crazed human woman who keeps insisting that I follow a bunch of dead people. Now that is trouble.”

If Conundrum had been told that his friend the kender, who had provided him with the means to finally be able to achieve his life quest and map the Hedge Maze, was being held prisoner by the most powerful mage in all the world in the Tower of High Sorcery, Conundrum would have sneered.

“The kender thinks he has trouble! Hah! He should try to operate the submersible all by himself when it requires a crew of twenty. There is trouble for you!”

In fact, the submersible worked far better with a crew of one, since the other nineteen simply added to the weight and got in the way and used up the air. The original voyage that left Mt. Nevermind and headed to the citadel had started with a crew of twenty, but the others had become lost, mislaid, or seriously burned along the way, leaving at last only Conundrum, who had been but a lowly passenger, in sole control. He knew nothing whatsoever about the complicated system of mechanics designed to power the MNS Indestructible, undoubtedly the reason the vessel had remained afloat as long as it had.

The vessel was designed in the shape of a large fish. It was made of wood, which made it light enough to float, and then covered with iron, which made it heavy enough to sink. Conundrum knew that there was a crank he had to crank in order to keep the vessel moving forward, another crank that made the vessel move up, and a third that made the vessel go down. He was somewhat vague on what the cranks actually did, although he recalled a gnome (perhaps the late captain) telling him that the rear crank caused the fins at the rear of the vessel to whirl about in a frenzied manner, stirring up the water and thus propelling the vessel forward. The crank at the bottom caused fins at the bottom to whirl, sending the vessel upward, while fins on the top reversed that process.

Conundrum knew that along with the cranking there were a good many gears that had to be constantly oiled. He knew this because all gnomes everywhere know that gears must be constantly oiled. He had been told that there were bellows that pumped air into the submersible, but he was unable to figure out how these worked and so concluded that it would be wisest, if less scientific, to bring the Indestructible up to the surface for air every few hours. Since the bellows did not work and had never worked, this proved to be sound reasoning on his part.

At the start of his enforced journey, Conundrum asked Gold-moon why she had stolen his submersible, where she planned to go with it, and what she intended to do once they got there. It was then she made the startling pronouncement that she was following the dead, that the dead guided her and protected her, and the dead were leading her across New Sea to where she must go. When he asked, quite logically, why the dead had seen fit to tell her to steal his boat, she had said that diving underwater was the only means by which they could escape the dragon.

Conundrum tried to interest Goldmoon in the workings of the submersible and to elicit her help in the cranking—which was wearing on the arms—or at least the help of the dead, since they appeared to be the ones in charge of this trip. She paid no attention to him. Conundrum found his passenger exasperating, and he would have turned the Indestructible around on the spot and sailed back to his Hedge Maze, dragon or no dragon, but for the lamentable fact that he did not have the faintest idea how to make the boat go in any direction other than up, down, and forward.

Nor, as it turned out, did the gnome know how to make the boat stop, thus giving a new and unfortunate meaning to the term “landfall.”

Due to either fate or the guidance of the dead, the Indestructible did not smash headlong into a cliff or run aground on a reef. Instead it plowed into a sandy beach, its fins still flapping, sending up great spumes of sand and seawater, mangling jellyfish, and terrorizing the sea birds.

The final mad plunge up onto the beach was jouncing and uncomfortable but not fatal to the passengers. Goldmoon and Conundrum escaped with only minor cuts and bruises. The same could not be said of the Indestructible.

Goldmoon stood on the deserted beach and breathed the fresh sea air deeply. She paid no attention to the cuts on her arms or the bruise on her forehead. This strange new body of hers had the capacity to heal itself. Within moments, the blood would dry, the flesh close together, the bruises fade away. She would continue to feel the pain of the injuries, but only on her true body, the body that was the weak and frail body of an elderly human.

She did not like this new body that had been miraculously bestowed on her—an unwilling recipient—the night of the terrible storm, but she had come to realize that its strength and health were essential in order to take her to wherever it was the dead wanted her to go. The old body would not have made it this far. It was near death. The spirit that resided in the old body neared death as well. Perhaps that was the reason Goldmoon could see the dead when others could not. She was closer now to the dead than to the living.

The pale river of spirits flowed over the windswept dunes, heading north. The long greenish-brown grass that grew on the dunes rippled with the wind of their passing. Gathering up the hem of her long white robes, the robes that marked her a Mystic of the Citadel of Light, Goldmoon made ready to follow.

“Wait!” cried Conundrum, who had been staring open-mouthed at the destruction of the Indestructible. “What are you doing? Where are you going?”

Goldmoon did not reply but continued on. Walking was difficult. She sank into the soft sand with every step. Her robes hampered her movements.

“You can’t leave me,” Conundrum stated. He waved an oil-covered hand. “I’ve lost an immense amount of time ferrying you across the sea, and now you have broken my boat. How am I going to return to my life quest—mapping the Hedge Maze?”

Goldmoon halted and turned to look back at the gnome. He was not a savory sight, with his scraggly hair and untidy beard, his face flushed with righteous indignation and smeared with oil and blood.

“I thank you for bringing me,” she said, raising her voice to be heard above the freshening wind and the crashing waves. “I am sorry for your loss, but I can do nothing to help you.” She shifted her head, gazed northward. “I have a journey I must make. I cannot linger here or anywhere.” Looking back at the gnome, she added, kindly, “I would not leave you stranded. You may come with me, if you choose.”

Conundrum looked at her, then back at the Indestructible, which had certainly not lived up to its name. Even he, a passenger, could see that repairs were going to be long and costly, to say nothing of the fact that since he’d never understood how the contraption worked in the first place, making it work again would present certain problems.

“Besides,” he said to himself, more brightly, “I’m certain the owner has it insured, and he will no doubt be compensated for the loss.”

This was taking an optimistic view of the matter. One might say an optimistic and completely unrealistic view, since it was a well known fact that the Guild of InsurersEquityUnderandOver-writersCollisionAccidentalDismembermentFireFloodNotLiable-forActsofGod had never paid out a single copper piece, although there were, following the Chaos War, innumerable lawsuits pending, contending that ActsofGod no longer counted, since there were no longer any gods. Due to the fact that the lawsuits had to go through the gnomish legal system, it was not expected that they would be settled during the litigants’ lifetimes but would be handed down to the generations coming afterward, all of whom would be financially ruined by the accruing legal fees.

Conundrum had few belongings to retrieve from the wreckage. He had run off from the citadel so fast that he had left behind his most important belonging—the map of the Hedge Maze. The gnome was confident that the map would be found and, considering that it was a Marvel to end all Marvels, would naturally be placed in a most safe and secure part of the Citadel of Light.

The only thing salvaged from the wreckage was a knife that had belonged to the late captain. The knife was remarkable, for it had all sorts of tools attached to it and could do just about everything. It could open a bottle of wine, tell you which direction was north, and crack the shells of recalcitrant oysters. Its one drawback was that you couldn’t cut anything with it, since it lacked a blade, the inventor having run out of room, but that was a minor inconvenience compared to the fact that you could use it to trim your nose hairs.

Thrusting the remarkable knife in the pocket of his ink-stained and oily robes, Conundrum floundered, sliding and stumbling along the beach. He paused once to turn and look back at the Indestructible. The submersible had the forlorn appearance of a beached whale and was already being covered over by drifting sand.

Conundrum set out after Goldmoon, who was following the river of the dead.

 


 

8

Balancing Accounts

 

Five days after Beryl’s attack on the Citadel of Light, five days after the fall of the shield in Silvanesti and five days after the first ranks of Beryl’s army crossed the border into the realm of Qualinesti, Lord Targonne sat at his desk going over the reports that had been flooding in from various parts of the continent of Ansalon.

Targonne found the report from Malys pleasing, at first. The enormous red dragon Malystryx, the dragon whom everyone acknowledged to be the true ruler of Ansalon, had taken the news of her cousin Beryl’s aggression far better than Targonne had dared hope. Malys had ranted and raved, to be sure, but in the end she had stated that any move by Beryl to annex lands beyond Qualinesti would be viewed as a most serious affront to Malys and would be dealt with summarily.

The more Targonne thought about it, however, the more he began to have second thoughts. Malystryx had been too accommodating. She had received the news too calmly. He had the feeling that the giant red was plotting something and that whatever she was plotting would be catastrophic. For the moment, however, she was keeping to her lair, apparently content to let him deal with the situation. That, he fully intended to do.

According to reports, Beryl had demolished the Citadel of Light, crushing the crystal domes in a fit of pique because, according to his agents, who had been on the scene and who had witnessed the destruction firsthand, she had not been able to locate the magical artifact that had been the reason for this misguided attack. The loss of life on the island might have been incalculable but for the fact that before she razed the buildings, Beryl had sent down squadrons of draconians to search for the artifact and the wizard who wielded it.

The delay provided time for the inhabitants to flee to safety inland. Targonne’s agents, who had been attending the citadel in disguise, hoping to discover why their healing spells were going awry, had been among those who had fled to safety and were thus able to send back their reports. Beryl had departed early on in the battle, leaving her reds to finish the destruction for her. The draconians had gone after the refugees but had been fought off by the forces of the Solamnic Knights and some fierce tribal warriors who dwelt in the island’s interior. The draconians had sustained heavy casualties.

Targonne, who did not like draconians, counted this as no great loss.

“Next report,” he said to his aide.

The aide drew out a sheet of vellum. “A message from Marshal Medan, my lord. The Marshal apologizes for the delay in responding to your orders but says that your messenger met with a most unfortunate accident. He was flying to Qualinost when the griffon on which he was riding suddenly went berserk and attacked him. He was able to deliver his message, but he died of his injuries shortly thereafter. The Marshal states that he will comply fully with your orders and hand over the elven city of Qualinost to the dragon Beryl, along with the Queen Mother, both of whom he holds prisoner. The Marshal has disbanded the elven Senate, arrested the senators and the Heads of House. He was going to arrest the elven king, Gilthas, but the young man was smuggled out of the city and is now in hiding. The Marshal reports that Beryl’s army is encountering attacks from elven forces and that these are slowing the army’s march but otherwise doing little damage.”

“That is good news, if it’s true,” Targonne said, frowning. “I have never quite trusted Medan. He was one of Ariakan’s favorites, the main reason he was put in charge of Qualinesti. There were those stories Beryl put out that he had grown more elf than human, raising flowers and playing the lute.”

“Thus far, he appears to have the situation under control, my lord,” said the aide, glancing back over the neatly written page.

Targonne grunted. “We will see. Send a message to the great green bitch that she can have Qualinost and that I trust she will leave it intact and unspoiled. Include an account of the revenues we collected from Qualinost last year. That should convince her.”

“Yes, my lord,” said the aide, making a note.

“Anything new to report from Sanction?” Targonne asked in a resigned tone that indicated he would be shocked if there were.

The walled city of Sanction, located on the western shores of New Sea, controlled the only ports on New Sea for that part of Ansalon. During the War of the Lance, the city had been a stronghold of the dragon highlords, but it was now controlled by a mysterious and powerful wizard known as Hogan Bight. Thought to be acting independently, Bight had been wooed by the Dark Knights of Neraka, in hopes that he would ally with them and make the ports of Sanction available to them. Knowing that Bight was also being wooed by the Solamnics, the Dark Knights had laid siege to Sanction in order to hasten Bight’s decision-making process. The siege had dragged on for long months now. The Solamnics had attempted to break it, but they had been routed by this very Mina who had now taken Silvanesti. Targonne supposed he should be grateful to Mina for having saved the day for him. He would have been a damn sight more grateful to her if he’d actually ordered her to do it.

“Sanction is still under siege, my lord,” said the aide, after a moment’s shuffle to the bottom of the pile. “The commanders complain they do not have enough men to take the city. They maintain that if General Dogah’s forces had been allowed to march to Sanction instead of being diverted to Silvanesti, the city would now be in their hands.”

“And I’m a gully dwarf,” Targonne said with a snort. “Once Silvanesti is secure, we will deal with Sanction.”

“Regarding Silvanesti, my lord.” The aide returned to the top of the pile and extracted a sheet of paper. “I have here the report from the interrogation of the elven prisoners. The three—two males and a female—are members of what is known as the ‘kirath’, a sort of border patrol, I believe.”

He handed over the report. Immediately after hearing of the fall of Silvanesti, Targonne had ordered Dogah’s troops to capture several elves alive and have them transported back to Jelek for interrogation. Targonne scanned the report briefly. His eyebrows lifted in astonishment, then came together in a frown. He could not believe what he was reading and started over at the beginning to see if he’d missed something.

Lifting his head, Targonne stared at his aide. “Have you read this?” he demanded.

“Yes, my lord,” said the aide.

“The Mina girl is mad! Absolutely mad! Worse than that, I don’t think she’s even on our side! Healing the elves! She is healing the bloody elves!”

“So it would appear, my lord,” said the aide.

Targonne picked up the paper to read aloud, “ ‘She has now a cult of young elven followers, who stand outside the palace where she has taken up residence, chanting her name.’ And this. ‘She has seduced the elven king Silvanoshei, who was publicly heard to say he is going to marry her. This news reportedly has greatly angered his mother, Alhana Starbreeze, who attempted to persuade her son to flee Silvanesti in advance of the arrival of the Dark Knights. Silvanoshei is said to be besotted with this Mina and refuses to leave her side.’ “

Targonne threw down the report in anger. “This cannot go on. Mina is a threat, a danger. She must be stopped.”

“That may prove difficult, my lord,” said his aide. “You will see in Dogah’s report that he approves and admires everything she does. He is infatuated by her. His men are loyal to her, as are her own. You will note that Dogah now signs his report, ‘In the name of the One God.’ “

“This Mina has bewitched them. Once she is gone and her spell is broken, they will return to their senses. But how to get rid of her? That is the problem. I don’t want Dogah’s forces turning on me. . . .”

Targonne picked up the report again, reread it. This time, he began to smile. He laid the report down, sat back, went over the plan in his mind. The numbers, he thought, added up nicely.

“Are the elven prisoners still alive?” he asked abruptly.

“Yes, my lord. It was thought you might have further need of them.”

“You said there was a female among them?”

“One, my lord.”

“Excellent. I have no further use for the males. Dispatch them in whatever way the executioner finds amusing. Have the female brought here to me. I will need a quill and ink—see to it that it’s squeezed from berries or however the elves make it. And a scroll-case of elven design and manufacture.”

“I believe there are some in the treasury room, my lord.”

“Bring the least valuable. Finally, I want this.” Targonne drew a diagram, handed it to the aide.

“Yes, my lord,” the aide said, after a moment’s perusal. “It will have to be specially made.”

“Of course. Elven design. Emphasize that. And,” Targonne added, “keep the cost to a minimum.”

“Of course, my lord,” said the aide.

“Once I have planted my instructions in the elf’s mind, she is to be returned to Silvanesti and dropped off near the city of Sil-vanost. Have one of the messengers ready to depart this night.”

“I understand, my lord,” said the aide.

“One more thing,” Targonne added, “I will be making a trip to Silvanesti myself sometime within the fortnight. I’m not sure when, so see to it that arrangements are made for me to leave whenever I have to.”

“Why would you go there, my lord?” his aide asked, startled.

“Protocol will require my attendance at the funeral,” Targonne replied.

 


 

9

Ring Of Tears

 

Silvanesti was an occupied land, Silvanost an occupied capital. The worst fears of the elves had been realized. It was to protect against this very disaster that they had authorized the creation of the magical shield. The embodiment of their fear and their distrust of the world, the shield had slowly drained them, drawing upon that fear to give itself unwholesome life. When the shield fell, the world, represented by the soldiers of the Dark Knights, marched into Silvanost, and sick and exhausted, the elves capitulated. They surrendered the city to their most feared foe.

The kirath predicted the worst. They spoke of slave camps, of looting and burning, of torment and torture. They urged the elves to fight until death had taken every one of them. Better to die free, said the kirath, than live as slaves.

A week passed and not a single elf male was dragged from his house and tortured. No elf babies were spitted on the ends of spears. No elf women were raped and left to die on dung heaps. The Dark Knights did not even enter the city of Silvanost. They camped outside the city on the battlefield where Mina’s troops had fought and lost and Mina herself had been made prisoner. The first order given to the soldiers of the Dark Knights was not to set fire to Silvanost but to burn the carcass of the green dragon, Cyan Bloodbane. A detachment even fought and defeated a band of ogres who had been elated to discover the shield had fallen and attempted an invasion of their own. Many among the younger elves were calling the Dark Knights saviors.

Elven babies were healed and played upon the grass that grew green in the fierce bright sunlight. Elven women strolled in their gardens, finding joy in the flowers that had withered beneath the shield, but which were now starting to bloom. Elven men walked the streets free and unfettered. The elven king, Sil-vanoshei, remained the ruler. The Heads of House were consulted on all matters. A confused observer might have said it was the Dark Knights who had capitulated to the Silvanesti.

To say that the kirath were disappointed would be unfair. They were loyal to their people, and they were glad—and most were thankful—that thus far the bloodbath they had expected had not occurred. Some of the older members of the kirath claimed that what was happening to the elves was far worse. They did not like this talk of a One God. They mistrusted the Dark Knights, who, they suspected, were not as peace-loving as they appeared. The kirath had heard rumors of comrades ambushed and spirited away on the backs of blue dragons. Those who disappeared were never heard of again.

Alhana Starbreeze and her forces had crossed the border when the shield fell. They now occupied territory to the north of the capital, about halfway between Silvanost and the border. They never remained in one location long but shifted from camp to camp, covering their movements, blending into the forests that many of them, including Alhana herself, had once known and loved. Alhana did not have much fear that she and her troops would be discovered. The five thousand troops of Dark Knights would have all they could do to hold Silvanost. The commander would be a fool to divide his forces and send them into unfamiliar territory, searching for elves who had been born and bred to the forests. Nonetheless Alhana had survived this long by never taking chances, and so the elves remained on the move.

Not a day passed, but that Alhana did not long to see her son. She lay awake nights making plans to sneak into the city, where her life was forfeit, not only from the Dark Knights, but from her very own people. She knew Silvanost, she knew the palace, for it had been her home. In the night the plans seemed sound, and she was determined to follow through with them. In the morning she would tell Samar, and he would bring up every difficulty, present her with every opportunity for disaster. He always won the argument, not so much because she feared what might happen to her if she were caught, but because she feared what might happen to Silvanoshei. She kept in touch with what was happening in Silvanost through the kirath. She watched and waited and agonized, and like all the other elves, she wondered what the Knights of Neraka were plotting.

It appeared to the kirath, to men and women such as Rolan, Alhana Starbreeze, and Samar and their meager resistance forces, that their people had once more fallen under the spell of a dream such as had been cast on the land during the War of the Lance. Except that this dream was a waking dream and none of them could battle it, for to do so would be to battle the dreamers. The kirath and Alhana made what plans they could for the day when the dream must end and the dreamer wake to a nightmare reality.

General Dogah’s troops camped outside Silvanesti. Mina and her knights had moved into the Tower of the Stars. They had taken over one wing of the building, that which had previously belonged to the late Governor General Konnal. All the elves knew that their young king was enamored of Mina. The story of how she had brought Silvanoshei back from death had been made into a song sung by the young people throughout Silvanesti.

Never before would the elves have countenanced a marriage between one of their own and a human. Alhana Starbreeze had been declared a dark elf for having married “outside her kind” by marrying a Qualinesti. Yet the young people—those who were near the same age as their king—had come to adore Mina. She could not walk the streets but that she was mobbed. The palace was surrounded, day and night, by young elves who sought to catch a glimpse of her. They were pleased and flattered to think that she loved their king, and they confidently expected to hear news of the marriage any day.

Silvanoshei expected it, too. He dreamed of her walking into the palace, being led to his throne room, where he would be seated in regal state. In his dreams, she flung herself eagerly, adoringly into his arms. That had been five days ago. She had not yet asked to see him. On her arrival, she had gone straight to her quarters and remained there.

Five days had passed, and he had neither seen nor spoken to her. He made excuses for her. She feared to see him, feared her troops might not understand. She would come to him at night and declare her love for him, then swear him to secrecy. He lay awake nights in anticipation, but she did not come, and Sil-vanoshei’s dream began to wither, as did the bouquet of roses and violets he had handpicked from the royal garden to present to her.

Outside the Tower of the Stars, the young elves chanted “Mina! Mina!” The words that had been so sweet to his ears only days before now stabbed him like knives. Standing at the window, hearing that name echo in the bitter emptiness of his heart, he made his decision.

“I am going to her,” he said.

“Cousin—” Kiryn began.

“No!” Silvanoshei said, cutting off the reprimand he knew was coming. “I have listened to you and those fools of advisers long enough! ‘She should come to you,’ they say. ‘It would be undignified for you to go to her, Your Majesty.’ ‘It is you who do her the honor.’ ‘You put yourself in a false position.’ You are wrong. All of you. I have thought this over. I believe that I know the problem. Mina wants to come to me, but her officers will not let her. That great, hulking minotaur and the rest. Who knows but that they are holding her against her will?”

“Cousin,” said Kiryn gently, “she walks the streets of Sil-vanost, she comes and goes freely from the palace. She meets with her officers and, from what I have heard, even the highest ranking defer to her in all things. You must face it, Cousin, if she wanted to see you, she would.”

Silvanoshei was dressing himself in his very finest garments, and either he was pretending not to hear, or he had truly not heard. Kiryn’s heart ached for his cousin. He had witnessed with alarm Silvanoshei’s obsession with this girl. He had guessed from the beginning that she was using Silvanoshei to her own ends, though what those ends might be, Kiryn could not tell. Part of the reason he had hoped Silvanoshei would seek safety in the forest with the resistance movement was to take him away from Mina, break the hold she had over him. Kiryn’s plans had failed, and he was at his wit’s end.

Silvanoshei had no appetite. He had lost weight. He could not sleep but roamed around his room at night, leaping out of bed at every sound, thinking it was her coming to him. His long hair had lost its sheen and hung limp and ragged. His nails were bitten almost to the quick. Mina was healing the elven people. She was bringing them back to life. Yet she was killing their king.

Dressed in his royal robes that hung from his wasted frame, Silvanoshei enveloped himself in his cloth of gold and made ready to leave his chambers.

Kiryn, greatly daring, knowing that he risked rebuke, made one last attempt to stop him.

“Cousin,” he said, his voice soft with the affection he truly felt, “do not do this. Do not demean yourself. Try to forget about her.”

“Forget her,” Silvanoshei said with a hollow laugh. “I might as well try to forget to breathe!”

Thrusting aside his cousin’s hand, Silvanoshei swept out the door, the cloth of gold fluttering behind him.

Kiryn followed him, heartsick. Elven courtiers bowed as the king passed, many attempting to catch his eye. He paid them no heed. He wended his way through the palace until he reached the wing occupied by Mina and her Knights. In contrast to his chambers that were filled with people, the part of the tower where Mina had set up her command post was quiet and empty. Two of her Knights stood guard outside a closed door. At the sight of Silvanoshei, the Knights came to respectful attention, but they did not stand aside.

Silvanoshei gave them a baleful look. “Open the door,” he commanded.

The Knights made no move to comply.

“I gave you an order,” said Silvanoshei, flushing, the red staining the unhealthy pallor of his skin as if he were cut and bleeding.

“I am sorry, Your Majesty,” said one of the Knights, “but our orders are to admit no one.”

“I am not no one!” Silvanoshei’s voice shook. “I am king. This is my palace. All doors open to me. Do as I tell you!”

“Cousin,” Kiryn urged softly, “please come away!”

The door opened at that moment, not from without. It opened from within. The huge minotaur stood in the door, his head level with the top of the gilded frame. He had to stoop to pass through.

“What is this commotion?” the minotaur demanded in his rumbling voice. “You disturb the commander.”

“His Majesty begs an audience with Mina, Galdar,” said one of the Knights.

“I do not beg!” said Silvanoshei angrily. He glowered at the minotaur blocking the door. “Stand aside. I will speak to Mina. You cannot keep her locked away from me!”

Kiryn was watching the minotaur closely, saw the monster’s lips twitch in what might have been the beginning of a derisive smile, but at the last moment, the minotaur rearranged his expression to one of somber gravity. Bowing his horned head, he stood aside.

“Mina,” he said, turning on his heel, “His Majesty, the king of Silvanesti, is here to see you.”

Silvanoshei swept into the room.

“Mina!” he cried, his heart in his voice, on his lips, in his outstretched hands, in his eyes. “Mina, why have you not come to me?”

The girl sat behind a desk covered with what looked to be map rolls. One map was spread out upon the desk, the curling edges held down with a sword at one corner, a morning star on the other. Kiryn had last seen Mina the day of the battle with Cyan Bloodbane. He had seen her dressed in the coarse robes of a prisoner, he had seen her being led to her execution.

She had changed since then. Her head had been shaved to only a fine down of red. The hair had grown back some, was thick and curly and flamed in the sunlight streaming through the crystal panes of the window behind her. She wore the black tunic of a Knight of Neraka over black chain mail. The amber eyes that gazed at Silvanoshei were cool, preoccupied, held the markings of the map, held roads and cities, hills and mountains, rivers and valleys. The eyes did not hold him.

“Silvanoshei,” Mina said after a moment, during which the roads and cities caught in the golden amber were slowly overlaid by the image of the young elf. “Forgive me for not coming to pay my respects sooner, Your Majesty, but I have been extremely busy.”

Caught in the amber, Silvanoshei struggled. “Mina! Respect! How can you use such a word to me? I love you, Mina. I thought . . . I thought you loved me.”

“I do love you, Silvanoshei,” said Mina gently, as one speaks to a fretful child. “The One God loves you.”

Silvanoshei’s struggles availed him nothing. The amber absorbed him, hardened, held him fast.

“Mina!” he cried in agony and lurched toward her.

The minotaur sprang in front of her, drew his sword.

“Silvan!” Kiryn shouted in alarm, catching hold of him.

Silvanoshei’s strength gave way. The shock was too much. He crumpled and fell to the floor, clutching Kiryn’s arm, nearly dragging his cousin down with him.

“His Majesty is unwell. Take him back to his room,” said Mina, adding in a voice soft with pity, “Tell him I will pray for him.”

Kiryn, with the help of the servants, managed to assist Silvanoshei to his chambers. They took secret hallways and stairs, for it would never do for the courtiers to see their king in such a pitiable condition. Once in his chambers, Silvanoshei flung himself on his bed and refused to speak to anyone. Kiryn stayed with him, worried until he was almost ill himself. He waited until, finally, he saw with relief that Silvanoshei slept, his exhaustion eventually overcoming his grief.

Thinking Silvanoshei was likely to sleep for hours, Kiryn went to his own rest. He gave orders to the servants that His Majesty was unwell and that he was not to be disturbed. The curtains over the windows were closed and drawn, the room darkened. The servants stole out, softly shutting the door behind them. Musicians sat outside the king’s bedchamber, playing soft music to soothe his slumbers.

Silvanoshei slept heavily, as though drugged, and when he woke some hours later, he was stupefied and groggy. He lay staring into the shadows, hearing Mina’s voice. I was busy, too busy to come to you. . . . I will pray for you. . . . Her words were sharp steel and inflicted a fresh wound every time he repeated them. He repeated them over and over. The sharp blade struck his heart and struck his pride. He knew she had once loved him, but now no one would believe that. All believed that she had used him, and they pitied him, just as she pitied him.

Angry, restless, he threw off the silken sheets and the embroidered down coverlet and left his bed. A thousand plans came to mind so that his brain was fevered with them. Plans to win her back, plans to humiliate her, noble plans to do grand things in spite of her, degrading plans to cast himself at her feet and plead with her to love him again. He found that none of the plans spread soothing salve over the terrible wounds. None of them eased this horrible pain.

He walked the length of his room and back many times, passing by his writing desk, but he was so preoccupied that he did not notice the strange scrollcase until the twentieth or twenty-first turn, when a shaft of dusty sunlight filtered through a chink in the velvet curtains, struck the scrollcase, and illuminated it, bringing it to his attention.

He paused, stared at the case, wondering. The scrollcase had not been there this morning. Of that, he was certain. It did not belong to him. It did not bear upon it the royal crest, nor was it as richly decorated as those that bore his messages. The case had a battered appearance, as if it had been often used.

The wild thought came to him that the scrollcase belonged to Mina. This notion was completely irrational, but when one is in love, all things are possible. He reached out his hand to snatch it up, then paused.

Silvanoshei was a young man who felt desperately in love, but he was not deranged enough to have forgotten the lessons in caution learned from spending most of his life running from those who sought to take his life. He had heard tales of scrollcases that harbored venomous snakes or were magically enchanted and spewed forth poisonous gas. He should summon a guard and have the case removed.

“Yet, after all, what does it matter?” he asked himself bitterly.

“If I die, I die. That at least would end this torment. And . . . it might be from her!”

Recklessly, he caught up the scrollcase. He did take time to examine the seal, but the wax impression was smudged, and he couldn’t make it out. Breaking the seal, he tugged impatiently at the lid with trembling fingers and finally pulled it off with such force that an object flew out and landed on the carpet, where it lay sparkling in the single shaft of sunlight.

He bent down to stare at it in wonder, then picked it up. He held between his thumb and forefinger a small ring, a circlet of rubies that had all been cut in a teardrop shape—or perhaps blood drop would better describe them. The ring was of exquisite workmanship. Only elves do such fine work.

His heart beat fast. The ring came from Mina. He knew it! Looking back inside the scrollcase, he saw a rolled missive. Dropping the ring on the desk, he drew out the letter. The first words quenched the flicker of hope that had so briefly warmed his heart. My cherished son . . . the letter began. But as he read, hope returned, a ravening flame, all-consuming.

 

My cherished son,

This letter will be brief as I have been very ill. I am recovered, but I am still very weak, too weak to write. One of my ladies acts as my scribe. The rumors that you are in love with a human girl have reached my ears. At first I was angry, but my illness carried me so close to death that it has taught me to think differently. I want only your happiness, Silvanoshei. This ring has magical properties. If you give it to one who loves you, it will ensure that her love for you will endure forever. If you give it to one who does not love you, the ring will cause her to love you with a passion equal to your own.

Take the ring with a mother’s blessing, my beloved son, and give it to the woman you love with a kiss from me.

 

The letter was signed with his mother’s name, though it was not her signature. The letter must have been written by one of the elven women who had once been Alhana’s ladies-in-waiting but were now her friends, having chosen to share with her the harsh life of an outcast. He did not recognize the handwriting, but there was no reason he should. He felt a pang of worry over his mother’s ill health, but was reassured to hear that she was better. His joy, as he looked at the ring and read once more of the ring’s magical properties, was overwhelming. Joy overwhelmed reason, overwhelmed logic.

Cradling the precious ring in the palm of his hand, he brought it to his lips and kissed it. He began to make plans for a great banquet. Plans to show to all the world that Mina loved him and him alone.

 


 

10

The Betrothal Banquet

 

The Tower of the Stars was in a bustle of excitement and frantic preparation. His Majesty, the Speaker of the Stars, I was giving a grand banquet in honor of Mina, the savior of the Silvanesti. Ordinarily, among the elves, such a banquet would have required months of preparation, days spent agonizing over guest lists, weeks of consultation with the cooks over the menu, more weeks spent arranging the table and deciding on the perfect choice for flowers. It was a mark of the king’s youth, some said, and his impetuosity, that he had announced that the banquet would be held within twenty-four hours.

His minister of protocol wasted two of those twenty-four by attempting to remonstrate with His Majesty that such a feat was beyond the realm of possibility. His Majesty had been adamant, and so the minister had been forced to give way in despair and rush forth to marshal his forces.

The king’s invitation was presented to Mina. She accepted in the name of herself and her officers. The minister was horrified. The elves had not intended to invite the officers of the Dark Knights of Neraka. So far as the longest lived among the elves could remember, no Silvanesti elf had ever shared a meal with a human on Silvanesti soil. Mina was different. The elves had begun to consider Mina as one of themselves. Rumors were circulating among her followers that she had elven blood in her; the fact that she was a commander in the army of the Dark Knights of Neraka having conveniently slipped their minds. Mina helped foster this belief, never appearing in public in her black armor, but always dressing in silvery white.

At this point, an argument arose. The aide to the minister of protocol maintained that during the War of the Lance, when the daughter of Lome (who was Alhana Starbreeze, but since she was a dark elf and her name could not be mentioned, she was referred to in this manner) had returned to Silvanost, she had brought with her several human companions. There was no record of whether or not they had dined while on Silvanesti soil, but it was to be presumed they had. Thus a precedent had been set. The minister of protocol observed that they might have dined, but, if so, the dining was informal, due to the unfortunate circumstances of the time. Thus, such a dinner did not count.

As for the notion of the minotaur dining with elves, that was simply out of the question.

Flustered, the minister hinted to Mina that her officers would be bored with the proceedings, which they would find long and tedious, particularly since none of them spoke Elvish. They would not like the food, they would not like the wine. The minister was certain that her officers would be much happier dining as they were accustomed to dine in their camp outside of the walls of Silvanost. His Majesty would send food, wine, and so forth.

“My officers will attend me,” Mina said to him, “or I will not come.”

At the thought of delivering this message to His Majesty, the minister decided that eating dinner with humans would be less traumatic. General Dogah, Captain Samuval, the minotaur Galdar, and Mina’s Knights would all attend. The minister could only hope fervently that the minotaur would not slurp his soup.

His Majesty was in a festive mood, and his gaiety affected the palace staff. Silvanoshei was a favorite among the servants and staff members, and all had noted his wan appearance and were anxious about him. The staff was pleased at the change in him and did not question it. If a banquet would lift him from the doldrums, they would throw the most lavish banquet that had ever been seen in Silvanesti.

Kiryn was less pleased at the change, viewed it with unease. He alone noted that Silvanoshei’s gaiety had a frantic quality to it, that the color in his cheeks was not the rosy color of health but seemed to have been burned into the pale flesh. He could not question the king, for Silvanoshei was immersed in preparations for the grand event, overseeing everything to make certain all was perfect, down to personally selecting the flowers that were to grace the table. He claimed he had no time to talk.

“You will see, Cousin,” Silvanoshei said, pausing a moment in his headlong rush to grasp Kiryn’s hand and squeeze it. “She does love me. You will see.”

Kiryn could only conclude that Silvanoshei and Mina had been in contact and that she had somehow reassured him. This was the only explanation for Silvanoshei’s erratic behavior, although Kiryn, thinking over again all that Mina had said the day before, found it difficult to believe that those cruel words of hers had been an act. But she was human, and the ways of humans were never to be understood.

Elven royal banquets are always held outdoors, at midnight, beneath the stars. In the old days, before the War of the Lance, before the coming of Cyan Bloodbane and the casting of the dream, rows and rows of tables would have been set up in the tower’s garden to accommodate all the elves of House Royal. Many nobles had died fighting the dream. Many more had died of the wasting sickness brought on them by the shield. Of those who had survived, most refused the invitation—a terrible affront to the young king. Rather it would have been an affront, if Silvanoshei had paid any heed to it. He said only, with a laugh, that the old fools would not be missed. As it was, only two long tables were required now, and the elder elves of House Servitor, who remembered the past glory of Silvanesti, let fall tears as they polished the delicate silver and set the fragile, eggshell-thin porcelain dishes upon the cobweb-fine lace table coverings.

Silvanoshei was dressed and ready long before midnight. The hours until the banquet appeared to him to have been mounted on the backs of snails, they crawled so slowly. He worried that all might not be right, although he had been to check the laying of the tables eight times already and was with difficulty dissuaded from going down a ninth. The discordant sound of the musicians tuning their instruments was sweetest music to him, for it meant that there was only a single hour remaining. He threatened to backhand the minister of protocol, who said that the king could not possibly make his regal appearance until all the guests had entered. Silvanoshei was the first to arrive and charmed and bewildered all his guests by greeting them personally.

He carried the ruby ring in a jeweled box in a velvet pouch inside his blue velvet doublet and beneath his silken shirt. He checked continuously to make certain the box was still there, pressing his hand over his breast so often that some of the guests took note and wondered uneasily if their young king suffered from some heart complaint. They had not seen His Majesty so joyful since his coronation, however, and they were soon caught up in his merriment and forgot their fears.

Mina came with the midnight, and Silvanoshei’s joy was complete. She wore a gown of white silk, simple, with no ornamentation. Her only jewelry was the pendant that she always wore, a pendant round and plain with no decoration or design. She herself was in high spirits. Those elves she knew, she greeted by name, graciously accepting their blessings and their thanks for the miracles she had performed. She was as slender as any elf maid and almost as beautiful said the young elves, which was, for them, a high compliment, one rarely paid to any human.

“I thank you for the honor you do me this night, Your Majesty,” said Mina when she came to make her bow to Silvanoshei.

He would not let her bow but took her hand and raised her up. “I wish I had time to do more,” he said. “Someday you will see a true elven celebration.” Our wedding, his heart sang to him.

“I do not mean this honor,” she said, dismissing with a glance the beautifully decorated tables, the fragrant flowers and the myriad candles that illuminated the night. “I thank you for the honor you do me this night. The gift you intend to give me is one I have long wanted, one for which I have long prepared. I hope I may be worthy of it,” she added quietly, almost reverently.

Silvanoshei was astonished and for a moment felt the pleasure in his gift—that was to have been a marvelous surprise— diminished. Then the import of her words struck him. The honor he would do her. The gift she had long wanted. She hoped she may be worthy. What could that mean except that she spoke of the gift of his love?

Ecstatic, he kissed fervently the hand she offered him. He promised himself that within hours he would kiss her lips.

The musicians ceased playing. Silver chimes rang out, announcing dinner. Silvanoshei took his place at the head table, leading Mina by the hand and seating her on his right. The other elves and the human officers took their places, or at least so Silvanoshei presumed. He could not have sworn to that, or the fact that there was anyone else present or that the stars were in the sky, or that the grass was beneath his feet.

He was aware of nothing except Mina. Kiryn, seated opposite Silvanoshei, tried to speak to his cousin, but Silvanoshei never heard a word. He did not drink wine, he drank Mina. He did not eat fruit or cake, he devoured Mina. The pale moon did not light the night. Mina lit the night. The music was harsh compared to Mina’s voice. The amber of her eyes surrounded him. He existed in a golden stupor of happiness, and as if drunk on honey wine, he did not question anything. As for Mina, she spoke to her neighbors, enchanting them with her fluent Elvish and her talk of the One God and the miracles this god performed. She rarely spoke to Silvanoshei, but her amber gaze was often on him, and that gaze was not warm and loving but cool, expectant.

Silvanoshei might have been uneasy at this, but he touched the box over his heart for reassurance, brought to mind Mina’s words to him, and his unease vanished.

Maidenly confusion, he told himself, and gazed at her as she talked of this One God, proud to watch her hold her own among the elven wise and scholars such as his cousin, Kiryn.

“You will forgive me if I ask a question about this One God, Mina,” said Kiryn deferentially.

“I not only forgive you,” Mina answered with a slight smile. “I encourage you. I do not fear questions, though some might fear the answers.”

“You are an officer in the Dark Knights of Takhisis—”

“Neraka,” Mina corrected. “We are the Dark Knights of Neraka.”

“Yes, I heard your organization had made that change, Takhisis having departed—”

“As did the god of the elves, Paladine.”

“True.” Kiryn was grave. “Although the circumstances of their departures are known to be different. Still, that is not relevant to my question. In their brief history, the Dark Knights of whatever allegiance have held that the elves are their sworn and bitter enemies. They have never made secret their manifesto that they plan to purge the world of elves and seize their lands for their own.”

“Kiryn,” Silvanoshei intervened angrily, “this is hardly suitable—”

Mina rested her hand on his. Her touch was like fire licking his flesh. The flames both seared and cauterized.

“Let your cousin speak, Your Majesty,” said Mina. “Please continue, sir.”

“I do not understand, therefore, why now you conquer our lands and . . .” He paused, looked stern.

“And let you live,” Mina finished for him.

“Not only that,” said Kiryn, “but you heal our sick in the name of this One God. What care can this One God—a god of our enemies—have for elves?”

Mina sat back. Lifting a wineglass, she revolved the fragile crystal goblet in her hand, watching as the candles seemed to burn in the wine. “Let us say that I am the ruler of a large city. Inside the city’s walls are thousands of people who look to me for protection. Now, within this city are two strong and powerful families. They hate and detest each other. They have sworn each other’s destruction. They fight among themselves whenever they meet, creating strife and enmity in my city. Now, let us say that my city is suddenly threatened. It is under attack from powerful forces from the outside. What happens? If these two families continue to quarrel, the city will surely fall. But if the families agree to unite and battle this foe together, we have a chance to defeat our common enemy.”

“That common enemy would be what—the ogres?” asked Kiryn. “They were once your allies, but I have heard since that they have turned on you—”

Mina was shaking her head. “The ogres will come to know the One God. They will come to join the battle. Be blunt, sir,” she said, smiling with encouragement. “You elves are always so polite. You need not be fearful of hurting my feelings. You will not anger me. Ask the question that is in your heart.”

“Very well,” said Kiryn. “You are responsible for revealing the dragon to us. You are responsible for the dragon’s death. You led us to know the truth about the shield. You have given us our lives when you could have taken them. Nothing for nothing, they say. Tit for tat. What do you expect us to give you in return? What is the price we must pay for all this?”

“Serve the One God,” Mina said. “That is all that is required of you.”

“And if we do not choose to serve this One God?” Kiryn said, frowning and grave. “What then?”

“The One God chooses us, Kiryn,” said Mina, gazing at the wavering drop of flame flickering in the wine. “We do not choose the One. The living serve the One God. So do the dead. Especially the dead,” she added in a voice so low and soft and wistful that only Silvanoshei heard her.

Her tone and her strange look frightened him.

“Come, Cousin,” Silvanoshei said, flashing Kiryn a warning, irate glance. “Let us make an end to these philosophical discussions. They give me a headache.” He gestured to the servants. “Pour more wine. Bring on the fruit and cake. Tell the musicians to resume playing. That we may drown him out,” he said with a laugh to Mina.

Kiryn said no more, but sat regarding Silvanoshei with a troubled and worried expression.

Mina did not hear Silvanoshei. Her gaze was sifting through the crowd. Jealous of anyone who stole her attention from himself, Silvanoshei was quick to notice that she was searching for someone. He marked where her gaze roamed and saw that she was locating every one of her officers. One by one, her gaze touched each of them and one by one, each of them responded, either by a conscious look of understanding or, with the minotaur, a slight nod of the horned head.

“You need not worry, Mina,” Silvanoshei said, an edge to his voice, to show he was displeased, “your men are behaving themselves well. Much better than I had hoped. The minotaur has only broken his wineglass, shattered a plate, torn a hole in the tablecloth, and belched loudly enough to be heard in Thorbardin. All in all, a most highly successful evening.”

“Trivialities,” she murmured. “So trivial. So meaningless.”

Mina clasped Silvanoshei’s hand suddenly, her grip tightening around his heart. She looked at him with the amber eyes. “I prepare them for what is to come, Your Majesty. You imagine that the danger has passed, but you are mistaken. Danger surrounds us. There are those who fear us. Those who seek our destruction. We must not be lulled into complacency by gentle music and fine wine. So I remind my officers of their duty.”

“What danger?” asked Silvanoshei, now thoroughly alarmed. “Where?”

“Close,” said Mina, drawing him into the amber. “Very close.”

“Mina,” said Silvanoshei, “I was going to wait to give this to you. I had a speech all prepared            “He shook his head. “I’ve forgotten every word of it. Not that it matters. The words I truly want to say to you are in my heart, and you know them. You’ve heard them in my voice. You’ve seen them every time you see me.”

Thrusting his trembling hand into the breast of his doublet, he drew forth the velvet bag. He reached inside, brought out the silver box and placed it on the table in front of Mina.

“Open it,” he urged her. “It’s for you.”

Mina regarded the box for long moments. Her face was very pale. He heard her give a small, soft sigh.

“Don’t worry,” he said wretchedly. “I’m not going to ask anything of you in return. Not now. I hope that someday you might come to love me or at least think fondly of me. I think you might someday, if you will wear this ring.”

Seeing that she made no move to touch the box, Silvanoshei seized hold of it and opened it.

The rubies in the ring glittered in the candlelight, each shining like a drop of blood—Silvanoshei’s heart’s blood.

“Will you take it, Mina?” he asked eagerly, desperately. “Will you take this ring and wear it for my sake?”

Mina reached out her hand, a hand that was cold and steady. “I will take the ring and I will wear it,” she said. “For the sake of the One God.”

She slipped the ring onto the index finger of her left hand.

Silvanoshei’s joy was boundless. He was annoyed at first that she had dragged this god of hers into the matter, but perhaps she was merely asking the One God’s blessing. Silvanoshei would be willing to ask that, too. He would be willing to fall onto his knees before this One God, if that would gain him Mina.

He watched her expectantly, waiting for the ring’s magic to work on her, waiting for her to look at him with adoration.

She looked at the ring, twisted it on her finger to see the rubies sparkle. For Silvanoshei, no one else was present. No one except the two of them. The other people at the table, the other people at the banquet, the other people in the world were a blur of candlelight and music and the fragrance of gardenia and rose, and all of it was Mina.

“Now, Mina,” he said, ecstatic. “You must kiss me.”

She leaned near him. The magic of the ring was working. He could feel her love. His arms encircled her. But before their lips could touch, her lips parted in a gasp. Her body stiffened in his arms. Her eyes widened in shock.

“Mina!” he cried, terrified, “what is wrong?”

She screamed in agony. Her lips formed a word. She tried to speak it, but her throat closed, and she gagged. Frantic, she clutched at the ring and tried to drag it off her finger, but her body convulsed, painful spasms wracking her slender frame. She pitched forward onto the table, her arms thrust out, knocking over glasses, scattering the plates. She made an inarticulate, animal sound, terrible to hear. Her life rattled in her throat. Then she was still. Horribly still. Her eyes fixed in her head. Their amber gaze stared accusingly at Silvanoshei.

Kiryn rose to his feet. His action was involuntary. He had no immediate plan. His thoughts were a confusion. His first thought was for Silvanoshei, that he should try to somehow engineer his escape, but he immediately abandoned that idea. Impossible with all the Dark Knights around. At that moment, although he did not consciously know it, Kiryn abandoned Silvanoshei. The Sil-vanesti people were now Kiryn’s, his care and his responsibility. He could do nothing to save his cousin. Kiryn had tried, and he had failed. But he might be able to save his people. The kirath must hear of this. They must be warned so they could be prepared to take whatever actions might be necessary.

The other elves who sat around them were rigid with shock, too stunned to move, unable to comprehend what had just occurred. Time slowed and stopped altogether. No one drew breath, no eye blinked, no heart beat—all were frozen in disbelief.

“Mina!” Silvanoshei cried in desperation and reached out to hold her.

Suddenly, all was turmoil. Mina’s officers, crying out in rage, surged through the crowd, smashing chairs, overturning tables, knocking down anyone who impeded their progress. Elves cried out, screamed. Some of the more astute grabbed husband or wife and fled in haste. Among these was Kiryn. As the Dark Knights surrounded the table where Mina lay still and unmoving, Kiryn cast one last, aching glance at his unfortunate cousin and, with a heavy heart and deep foreboding, slipped away into the night.

An enormous hand, a hand covered in brown fur, seized the king’s shoulder in a bone-crushing grasp. The minotaur, his hideous face monstrous with fury and with grief, lifted Sil-vanoshei from his chair and, snarling a curse, flung the young elf aside, as he might have flung away a piece of refuse.

Silvanoshei smashed through an ornamental trellis and tumbled backward into the hole where the Shield Tree had once stood. He lay dazed, breathless, then faces, grim, human faces, contorted in murderous rage, surrounded him. Rough hands seized him and hauled him from the pit. Pain shot through his body, and he moaned. The pain might have come from broken bones. Perhaps every bone in his body was broken. The true pain came from his shattered heart.

The knights hauled Silvanoshei to the banquet table. The minotaur had his hand on Mina’s neck.

“The lifebeat is gone. She is dead,” he said, his lips flecked with foam. Turning, he jabbed a shaking finger at Silvanoshei. “There is her murderer!”

“No!” Silvanoshei cried. “I loved her! I gave her my ring—”

The minotaur seized hold of Mina’s lifeless hand. He gave the circlet of rubies a vicious tug, dragged it off her finger. Thrusting the ring under Silvanoshei’s nose, the minotaur shook it.

“Yes, you gave her a ring. A poisoned ring! You gave her the ring that killed her!”

Jutting from one of the rubies was a tiny needle. On that needle glistened a drop of blood.

“The needle is operated by a spring,” the minotaur announced, now holding the ring high for all to see. “When the victim touches the ring or turns it upon her finger, the needle activates and pierces the flesh, sending its deadly poison into the bloodstream. I’ll wager,” he added grimly, “that we discover the poison is a kind whose use is well known to elves.”

“I didn’t. . .” Silvanoshei cried from the agony of his grief. “It wasn’t the ring. . . . It couldn’t. . .”

His tongue cleaved to the roof of his mouth. He saw again Samar standing in his chambers. Samar, who knew all the secret passages in the palace. Samar, who had tried to force Silvanoshei to flee, who had made no secret of his hatred and distrust of Mina. Yet, the note had been written in a woman’s hand. His mother. . .

A blow sent Silvanoshei reeling. The blow came from the minotaur’s fist, but, in truth, Silvanoshei did not feel it, though it broke his jaw. The true blow was the knowledge of his guilt. He loved Mina, and he had slain her.

The minotaur’s next blow brought darkness.

 


 

11

The Wake

 

he stars faded slowly with the coming of dawn, each bright, glittering pinprick of flame quenched by the brighter fire of Krynn’s sun. Dawn brought no hope to the people of Sil-vanost. A day and a night had passed since the death of Mina. By orders of General Dogah, the city had been sealed off, the gates shut. The inhabitants were told to remain in their houses for their own safety, and the elves had no thought of doing otherwise. Patrols marched the streets. The only sounds that could be heard were the rhythmic tramp of booted feet and the occasional sharp command of an officer.

Outside Silvanost, in the encampment of the Dark Knights of Neraka, the three top officers came together in front of what had once been Mina’s command tent. They had arranged a meeting for sunrise, and it was almost time. They arrived simultaneously and stood staring at one another uneasily, irresolutely. None wanted to enter that empty tent. Her spirit lingered there. She was present in every object, and that presence only made her absence more acutely felt. At last, Dogah, his face grim, thrust aside the tent flap and marched in. Samuval followed, and Galdar came, last of all.

Inside the tent, Captain Samuval lit an oil lamp, for night’s shadows still held residence. The three looked bleakly about. Although Mina had taken quarters in the palace, she preferred to live and work among her troops. The original command tent and a few pieces of furniture had been lost to the ogres. This tent was elven in make, gaily colored. The humans considered that it looked more like a tent for harlequins than for military men, but they were grudgingly impressed by the fact that it was lightweight, easy to pack and to assemble, and kept out the elements far better than the tents supplied by the Dark Knights.

The tent was furnished with a table, borrowed from the palace, several chairs, and a cot, for Mina sometimes slept here if she worked late into the night. No one had been inside this tent since the banquet. Her belongings had not been touched. A map, marked in her handwriting, remained spread out upon the table. Small blocks and arrows indicated troop movements. Galdar glanced at it without interest, thinking it was a map of Silvanesti. When he saw that it wasn’t, he sighed and shook his horned head. A battered tin cup, half-filled with cold tarbean tea, held down the eastern corner of the world. A guttered candle stood on the northwest. She had worked up until the time of departure for the banquet. A flow of melted wax had run down the side of the candle, streamed into the New Sea. A rumble sounded deep in Galdar’s chest. He rubbed the side of his snout, looked away.

“What’s that?” Samuval asked, moving closer to stare at the map. “I’ll be damned,” he said, after a moment. “Solamnia. Looks like we have a long march ahead of us.”

The minotaur scowled. “March! Bah! Mina is dead. I felt for her lifebeat. It is not there. I think something went wrong!”

“Hush, the guards,” Samuval warned, with a glance at the tent flap. He had closed and tied shut the opening, but two soldiers stood outside.

“Dismiss them,” said Dogah.

Samuval stalked over to the tent flap, poked his head out. “Report to the mess tent. Return in an hour.”

He paused briefly to look at a tent that stood beside the command tent. That tent had been the tent where Mina slept, and it was now where her body lay in state. They had placed her upon her cot. Dressed in her white robes, she lay with her hands at her sides. Her armor and weapons had been piled at her feet. The tent flaps had been rolled up, so that all could see her and come to pay her homage. The soldiers and Knights had not only come, they had stayed. Those who were not on duty had kept vigil throughout the day after her death and into the long night. When they had to go on duty, others took their places. The soldiers were silent. No one spoke.

The silence was not only the silence of grief but of anger. Elves had killed their Mina, and they wanted the elves to pay. They would have destroyed Silvanost the night when they first heard, but their officers had not permitted it. Dogah, Samuval, and Galdar had endured many bad hours following Mina’s death trying to keep the troops in line. Only by repeating over and over the words, “By Mina’s command,” had they at last brought the enraged soldiers under control.

Dogah had put them to work, ordering them to cut down trees to make a funeral pyre. The soldiers, many with tears streaming down their faces, had performed their grim task with a fierce will, cutting down the trees of the Silvanesti forest with as much delight as if they were cutting down elves. The elves in Silvanost heard the death cries of their trees—the woods of Silvanesti had never before felt the blade of an axe—and they grieved deeply, even as they shuddered in fear. The soldiers had worked all day yesterday and all through the night. The pyre was now almost ready. But ready for what? Her three officers were not quite certain.

They took their seats around the table. Outside the tent, the camp was noisy with the thud of the axes and the crews hauling the giant logs to the growing pyre that stood in the center of the field where the elven army had defeated Mina’s troops and had yet, in the end, fallen to her might. The noise had a strangely quiet quality to it. There was no laughing or bantering, no singing of work songs. The men carried out their duties in grim silence.

Dogah rolled up the map, stowed it away. General Dogah was a grim-faced, heavily bearded human of around forty. A short man, he appeared to be as wide as he was tall. He was not corpulent but stocky, with massive shoulders and a bull neck. His black beard was as thick and curly as a dwarf’s, and this and his short stature gave him the nickname among his troops of Dwarf Dogah. He was not related to dwarves in any way, shape or form, as he was quick to emphasize with his fists if anyone dared suggest such a thing. He was most decidedly human, and he had been a member of the Dark Knights of Neraka for twenty of his forty years.

He was technically the highest-ranking officer among them, but, being the newest member of Mina’s command group, he was at somewhat of a disadvantage in that her officers and troops did not know him and had been immediately distrustful of him. Dogah had been suspicious of them and, in particular, of this upstart wench who had, he discovered to his immense shock and outrage, sent him forged orders, had brought him to Silvanesti on what had appeared at first to be a kender’s errand.

He had arrived at the border with several thousand troops, only to find that shield was up and they could not enter. Scouts reported that a huge ogre army was massing, ready to deal a death blow to the Dark Knights who had stolen their land. Dogah and his forces were trapped. They could not retreat, for to do so would have meant a march back through ogre lands. They could not advance. Dogah had cursed Mina’s name loudly and viciously, and then the shield had fallen.

Dogah had received the report with astonishment. He had gone himself to look in disbelief. He had been loath to cross, fearing that elven warriors would suddenly spring up, as thick as the dust of the dead vegetation that coated the ground. But there on the other side, waving to him from horseback, was one of Mina’s Knights.

“Mina bids you cross in safety, General Dogah!” the Knight had called. “The elven army is in Silvanost, and they have been considerably weakened both by their battle with the dragon, Cyan Bloodbane, and by the wasting effects of the shield. They do not pose a threat to you. You may proceed in safety.”

Dogah had been dubious, but he had crossed the border, his hand on his sword, expecting at any moment to be ambushed by a thousand pointy-ears. His army had met with no resistance, none at all. Those elves they had encountered had been easily captured and were at first killed, but then they had been sent to Lord Targonne, as his lordship ordered.

Dogah had remained wary, however, his troops nervous and on alert. There was still the city of Silvanost. Then came the astonishing report that the city had fallen to a handful of soldiers. Mina had entered in triumph and was now ensconced in the Tower of the Stars. She awaited Dogah’s arrival with impatience, and she bade him make haste.

It was not until Dogah had entered the city and strode its streets with impunity did he come finally to believe that the Dark Knights of Neraka had captured the elven nation of Silvanesti. The enormity of this feat overwhelmed him. The Dark Knights had accomplished what no other force in history had been able to do, not even the grand armies of Queen Takhisis during the War of the Lance. He had looked forward with intense curiosity to meeting this Mina. He had, in truth, not really believed that she could be the person responsible. He had guessed that perhaps it was some older, wiser officer who was truly in command, using the girl as a front to keep the troops happy.

Dogah had discovered his mistake immediately on first meeting her. Watching carefully, he had seen how every single officer deferred to her. Not only that, they regarded her with a respect that was close to worship. Her lightest word was a command. Her commands were obeyed instantly and without question. Dogah had been prepared to respect her, but after a few moments in her presence, he was both charmed and awed. He had joined wholeheartedly the ranks of those who adored her. When he had looked into Mina’s amber eyes, he had been proud and pleased to see a tiny image of himself.

Those eyes were closed now, the warm fire that lit the amber quenched.

Galdar leaned across the table to hiss, “I say again, something has gone wrong.” He sat back, scowling. The fur that covered his face was streaked with two dark furrows. “She looks dead. She feels dead. Her skin is cold. She does not breathe.”

“She told us the potion would have that effect,” said Samuval irritably. The fact that he was irritable was a certain sign of his nervousness.

“Keep your voices down,” Dogah ordered.

“No one can hear us over that infernal racket,” Samuval returned, referring to the erratic staccato of the axes.

“Still, it is best not to take chances. We are the only three who know Mina’s secret, and we must guard the secret as we promised. If word got out, the news would spread like a grass fire in the dry season and that would ruin everything. The soldiers’ grief must appear to be real.”

“Perhaps they are wiser than we are,” Galdar muttered. “Perhaps they know the truth, and we are the ones who have been deluded.”

“What would you have us do, minotaur?” Dogah demanded, his black brows forming a solid bar across his thick nose. “Would you disobey her?”

“Even if she is . . .” Samuval paused, not wanting to speak aloud the ill-omened word. “Even if something did go wrong,” he amended, “those commands she gave us would be her last commands. I, for one, will obey them.”

“I also,” said Dogah.

“I will not disobey her,” said Galdar, choosing his words carefully, “but let us face it, her commands are contingent upon one thing happening, and thus far her prediction has not yet come to pass.”

“She foretold an attempt on her life,” argued Captain Samuval. “She foretold that the foolish elf would be the cat’s paw. Both came true.”

“Yet, she did not foretell the use of the poison ring,” Galdar said, his voice harsh. “You saw the needle. You saw that it punctured her skin.”

He drummed his fingers on the table, glanced at his comrades from beneath narrowed eyes. He had something on his mind, something unpleasant to judge by the frown, but he seemed uncertain whether to speak his thought or not.

“Come, Galdar,” said Samuval finally. “Out with it.”

“Very well.” Galdar looked from one to the other. “You have both heard her say that even the dead serve the One God.”

Dogah shifted his bulk in the chair that creaked beneath his weight. Samuval picked at the wax from the guttered candle. Neither made any response.

“She promised the One God would confound her enemies,” Galdar continued, his tone heavy. “She never promised we should see her again alive—”

“Hail the command tent,” a voice shouted. “I have a message from Lord Targonne. Permission to enter?”

The three officers exchanged glances. Dogah rose hastily to his feet and hurriedly untied the flaps. The messenger entered. He wore the armor of a dragonrider, and he was wind-blown and dust-covered. Saluting, he handed Dogah a scrollcase.

“No reply is expected, my lord,” the messenger said.

“Very well. You are dismissed.” Dogah eyed the seal on the scrollcase and again exchanged glances with his comrades.

When the messenger had gone, Dogah cracked the seal with a sharp rap on the table. The other two looked on expectantly as he opened the case and withdrew the scroll. He unfurled it, cast his gaze over it, and lifted his eyes, glittering black with triumph.

“He is coming,” he said. “Mina was right.”

“Praise the One God,” said Captain Samuval, sighing with relief. He nudged Galdar. “What do you say now, friend?”

Galdar shrugged, nodded, said nothing aloud. When the others had gone, shouting for their aides, giving orders to make ready for his lordship’s arrival, Galdar remained alone in the tent where Mina’s spirit lingered.

“When I touch your hand and feel your flesh warm again, then I will praise the One God,” he whispered to her. “Not before.”

 

Lord Targonne arrived about an hour after sunrise, accompanied by six outriders. His lordship rode a blue dragon, as did the others. Unlike many high-ranking Knights of Neraka, Targonne did not keep a personal dragon but preferred to use one from the stables. This cut down on his own out-of-pocket expenditures, or so he always claimed. In truth, if he had wanted to keep his own dragon, he would have done so and charged the care and feeding to the Knighthood. As it was, Targonne did not keep a dragon because he neither liked nor trusted dragons. Perhaps this was because as a mentalist, Targonne knew perfectly well that dragons neither liked nor trusted him.

He took no pleasure in dragon flight and avoided it when possible, preferring to make his journeys on horseback. In this instance, however, the sooner this annoying girl went up in flames the better, as far as Targonne was concerned, and he was willing to sacrifice his own personal comfort to see this accomplished. He brought other dragonriders with him not so much because he wished to make a show or that he feared attack, but that he was convinced his dragon was going to do something to imperil him— either take it into its head to plummet from the skies or be struck by lightning or dump him off deliberately. He wanted additional riders around him so that they could rescue him.

His officers knew all this about Targonne. In fact, Dogah was laughing about this to Galdar and Captain Samuval as they watched the blue dragons fly in tight circles to a landing. Mina’s army was drawn up in formation on the battlefield, with the exception of the few who were still at work on the pyre. Mina’s funeral would be held at noon, the hour she herself had chosen.

“Do you think any of them would really risk their necks to save the mercenary old buzzard?” Samuval asked, watching the circling blues. “From what I’ve heard, most of his staff would just as soon see him bounce several times off sharp rocks while falling into a bottomless chasm.”

Dogah grunted. “Targonne makes certain he will be saved. He takes along as escort only those officers to whom he owes large sums of money.”

The blue dragons settled to the ground, their wings stirring up great clouds of dust. The dragonriders emerged from the cloud. Sighting the waiting honor guard, they headed in that direction. Mina’s cadre of officers approached to greet his lordship.

 

“Which one is he?” asked Captain Samuval, who had never met the leader of the Knights of Neraka. The captain’s curious gaze ranged over the tall, well-built, grim-faced Knights who were moving with rapid stride toward him.

“The little runt in the middle,” said Galdar.

Thinking the minotaur was making sport of him, Captain Samuval chuckled in disbelief and looked to Dogah for the truth. Captain Samuval saw Dogah’s gaze focus tensely on the short man who was almost bent double from coughing in the dust, waving his hand to clear the air. Galdar was also keeping close watch on the little man. The minotaur’s hands clenched and unclenched.

Targonne did not cut a very prepossessing figure. He was short, squat and somewhat bowlegged. He did not like wearing full armor, for he found it chafed him, and he made concession to his rank by wearing only a breastplate. Expensive, hand-tooled, it was made of the finest steel, embossed in gold, and suited his exalted station. Due to the fact that Lord Targonne was stoop-shouldered, with a caved-in chest and slightly curved back, the breastplate did not fit well, but hung forward, giving the unfortunate impression of a bib tied around the neck of a child, rather than the armor of a valiant Knight.

Samuval was not impressed with Targonne’s appearance, but nonetheless, he had heard stories about Targonne’s ruthless and cold-blooded nature and thus did not find it at all strange that these two officers were so apprehensive of this meeting. All knew that Targonne had been responsible for the untimely death of the former leader of the Knights, Mirielle Abrena, and a great many of her followers, though no one ever mentioned such a thing aloud.

“Targonne is sly, cunning, and subtle, with an amazing ability to probe deeply into the minds of those he encounters,” warned Dogah. “Some even claim that he uses this ability to infiltrate the minds of enemies and bend them to his will.”

Small wonder, thought Samuval, that the mighty Galdar, who could have lifted Targonne and tossed him around like a child, was panting with nervousness. The rank bovine odor was so strong that Samuval edged upwind to keep from gagging.

“Be prepared,” Galdar warned in a low rumble.

“Let him look into our minds. He will be surprised by what he finds there,” Dogah said dryly, moving forward, saluting his superior.

 

“So, Galdar, it is good to see you again,” Targonne said, speaking pleasantly. The last time Targonne had seen the minotaur, he had lost his right arm in battle. Unable to fight, Galdar had hung around Neraka, hoping for employment. Targonne might have rid himself of the useless creature, but he considered the minotaur a curiosity.

“You have come by a new arm. That bit of healing must have cost you a pretty steel piece or two. I wasn’t aware that our officers were so highly paid. Or perhaps you found your own private stash. I suppose you are aware, Galdar, of the rule that states all treasure discovered by those in the service of the Knighthood is to be turned over to the Knighthood?”

“The arm was a gift, my lord,” said Galdar, staring straight over Targonne’s head. “A gift of the One God.”

“The One God.” Targonne marveled. “I see. Look at me, Galdar. I like eyes at a level.”

Reluctantly, Galdar lowered his gaze to meet Targonne’s. Immediately Targonne entered the minotaur’s mind. He had a glimpse of roiling storm clouds, fierce winds, driving rain. A figure emerged from the storm and began to walk toward him. The figure was a girl with a shaved head and amber eyes. The eyes looked into Targonne’s, and a bolt of lightning struck the ground in front of him. Dazzling, shattering white light flared. He could see nothing for long seconds and stood blinking his eyes to clear them. When he was able to see once more, Targonne saw the empty valley of Neraka, the rain-slick black monoliths, and the storm clouds vanishing over the mountains. Probe and pierce as he might, Targonne could not get past these mountains. He could not take himself out of the accursed valley. He withdrew his thought from Galdar’s mind.

“How did you do that?” Targonne demanded, eyeing the minotaur and frowning.

“Do what, my lord?” Galdar protested, clearly astonished. The astonishment was real, he wasn’t feigning. “I didn’t do anything, sir. I’ve just been standing here.”

Targonne grunted. The minotaur had always been a freak. He would gain more from a human. He turned to Captain Samuval. Targonne was not pleased to find this man among the officers greeting him. Samuval had once been a Knight, but he had either quit or been drummed out; Targonne couldn’t remember the details. Most likely drummed out. Samuval was nothing but a draggle-tail mercenary leading his own company of archers.

“Captain Samuval,” said Lord Targonne, laying nasty emphasis on the low rank. He sent his gaze into Samuval’s brain.

Flight after flight of arrows arched through the air with the vicious whir of a thousand wasps. The arrows found their marks, piercing black armor and black chain mail. Black-fletched arrows struck through men’s throats and brought down their horses. The dying screamed, horrible to hear, and still the arrows flew and the bodies began to mount, blocking the pass so that those behind were forced to turn and fight the enemy who had almost made it through the pass, almost ridden to glory.

An arrow was fired at him, at Targonne. It flew straight and true, aiming for his eye. He tried to duck, to flee, to escape, but he was held fast. The arrow pierced his eye, glanced through to the brain. Pain exploded so that he clutched at his head, fearing his skull might split apart. Blood poured down over his vision. He could see nothing except blood, no matter where he looked.

The pain ended swiftly, so swiftly that Targonne wondered if he had imagined it. Finding himself clutching at his head, he made as if to brush back his hair from his face and made another attempt to look into the mind of Captain Samuval. He saw only blood.

He tried to stanch the flow, to clear his vision, but the blood continued to pour down around him, and eventually he gave it up. Blinking, having the strange feeling that his eyelids were gummed together, he glared frowningly at this annoying captain, searching for some signs that the man was not what he appeared to be—not a bluff and ordinary soldier, but a wizard of high intelligence and cunning, a rogue Gray Robe or mystic in disguise. The captain’s eyes were eyes that followed the arrow’s flight until it hit its target. Nothing more.

Targonne was vastly puzzled and starting to grow frustrated and angry. Some force was at work here, thwarting him, and he was determined to ferret it out. He left the captain. Who cared about a blasted sell-sword anyway? Next to him stood Dogah, and Targonne relaxed. Dogah was Targonne’s man. Dogah was to be trusted. Targonne had walked the length and breadth of Dogah’s mind on previous occasions. Targonne knew all the dark secrets tucked away in shadowed corners, knew that he could count on Dogah’s loyalty. Targonne had deliberately saved Dogah for last, knowing that if he had questions, Dogah would answer them.

“My lord,” said General Dogah before Targonne could open his mouth, “let me first state for the record that I believed the orders I received telling me to march to Silvanesti came from you. I had no idea they had been forged by Mina.”

Since the orders commanding Dogah to march to Silvanesti had provided the Dark Knights of Neraka with one of the greatest victories ever in the history of the Knighthood, Targonne did not like to be reminded of the fact that he was not the one who had given them.

“Well, well,” he said, highly displeased, “perhaps I had more to do with those than you imagine, Dogah. The Knight Officer who issued those orders may have indicated that she was acting on her own, but the truth was that she was obeying my commands.”

The girl was dead. Targonne could afford to play fast and loose with the truth. She was certainly not going to contradict him.

He continued blandly, “She and I agreed between us to keep this secret. The mission was so risky, so hazardous, so fraught with possibilities of failure, that I feared to mention it to anyone, lest word leak out to the elves and put them on their guard. And then, there is the dragon Malys to be considered. I did not want to raise her hopes, to give her expectations that might not come to pass. As it is, Malystryx is astonished at our great triumph and holds us in even higher regard than before.”

All the while he was speaking, Targonne was attempting to probe Dogah’s brain. Targonne could not manage it, however. A shield rose before his eyes, a shield that shimmered eerily in the light of a blazing sun. He could see beyond the shield, see dying trees and a land covered with gray ash, but he could not enter the shield nor cause it to be lifted.

Targonne grew increasingly angry, and thus he became more bland, more friendly. Those who knew him well were most terrified of him whenever he linked arms with them and spoke to them as chums.

Targonne linked arms with General Dogah.

“Our Mina was a gallant officer,” he said in mournful tones. “Now the accursed elves have assassinated her. I am not surprised. That is like them. Skulking, sneaking, belly-crawling worms. They are too cowardly to attack face to face, and so they resort to this.”

“Indeed, my lord,” said Dogah, his voice grating, “it is a coward’s act.”

“They will pay for it, though,” Targonne continued. “By my head, they will pay! So that’s her funeral pyre, is it?”

He and Dogah had walked slowly, arm in arm, across the field of battle. The minotaur and the captain of archers followed slowly after.

“It’s massive,” said Targonne. “A bit too massive, don’t you think? She was a gallant officer but only a junior officer. This pyre”—he indicated the immense stack of trees with a wave of his hand—”could well be the pyre of a leader of the Knighthood. A leader such as myself.”

“Indeed it could, my lord,” agreed Dogah quietly.

The base of the pyre was formed of six enormous trees. The work crews had wrapped chains around the logs, then dragged them into position in the center of the battlefield. The logs were soaked with any sort of inflammable liquid the men had been able find. The place reeked of oils, resins and spirits, and the fresh green blood of the trees. Atop this pile of logs, the men had thrown more logs, huge amounts of brush, and dead wood they had scavenged from the forest. The stack was now almost eight feet in height and ten feet in length. Climbing on ladders, they laid willow branches across the top, weaving them into a latticework of leaves. On this platform they would lay Mina’s body.

“Where is the body? I would like to pay my last respects,” said Targonne in dirgelike tones.

He was led to the tent where Mina lay in state, guarded by a group of silent soldiers, who parted to allow him to pass. Targonne stuck a mental needle in several as he walked among them, and their thoughts were only too clear, only too easy to read: loss, grief, sorrow, white-hot anger, vengeance. He was pleased. He could turn such thoughts as these to his own purposes.

He looked down at the corpse and was not in the least moved or touched beyond an annoyed wonder that this hoyden should have managed to garner such a loyal—one might say fanatical— following. He played to his audience, however, and saluted her and spoke the proper words. Perhaps the men noted some lack of sincerity in his voice, for they did not cheer him, as he considered he had the right to expect. They seemed to pay very little attention to him at all. They were Mina’s men, and if they could have followed her into death to bring her back, they would have done so.

“Now, Dogah,” said Targonne, when they were alone inside the command tent, “relate to me the circumstances of this tragic business. It was the elf king who murdered her, or so I understand. What have you done with him?”

Dogah related laconically the events of the previous night. “We questioned the young elf—his name is Silvanoshei. He is a sly one. He pretends to be almost mad with grief. A cunning actor, my lord. The ring came from his mother, the witch Starbreeze. We know from spies in the king’s household that one of her agents, an elf named Samar, paid a secret visit to the king not long ago. We have no doubt that, between them, they plotted this murder. The elf made a show of being in love with Mina. She took pity on him and accepted the ring from his hand. The ring was poisoned, my lord. She died almost instantly.

“As to the elf king, we have him in chains. Galdar broke his jaw, and so it has been difficult to get much out of him, but we managed.” Dogah smiled grimly. “Would your lordship like to see him?”

“Hanged, perhaps,” said Targonne and gave a small, dry chuckle at his little pleasantry. “Drawn and quartered. No, no, I have no interest in the wretch. Do what you please with him. Give him to the men, if you like. His screams will help assuage their grief.”

“Yes, my lord.” General Dogah rose to his feet. “Now, I must attend to preparations for the funeral. Permission to withdraw?”

Targonne waved his hand. “Certainly. Let me know when all is made ready. I will make a speech. The men will like that, I know.”

Dogah saluted and withdrew, leaving Targonne alone in the command tent. He rifled through Mina’s papers, read her personal correspondence, and kept those that appeared to implicate various officers in plots against him. He perused the map of Solamnia and shook his head derisively. What he found only proved that she had been a traitor, a dangerous traitor and a fool. Priding himself on the brilliance of his plan and its success, he settled back in his chair to take a short nap and recover from the rigors of the journey.

Outside the tent, the three officers conferred.

“What’s he doing in there, do you suppose?” Samuval asked.

“Rummaging through Mina’s things,” Galdar said with a baleful glare back at the command tent.

“Much good may it do him,” said Dogah.

The three eyed each other, ill at ease.

“This is not going as planned. What do we do now?” Galdar demanded.

“We do what we promised her we would do,” Dogah replied gruffly. “We prepare for the funeral.”

“But it wasn’t supposed to happen like this!” Galdar growled, insistent. “It is time she ended it.”

“I know, I know,” Dogah muttered with a dark, sidelong glance at the tent where Mina lay, pale and still. “But she hasn’t, and we have no choice to but to carry on.”

“We could stall,” suggested Captain Samuval, gnawing on his lower lip. “We could make some excuse—”

“Gentlemen.” Lord Targonne appeared at the entrance to the tent. “I thought I heard you out here. I believe you have duties to attend to in regard to this funeral. This is no time to be standing around talking. I fly only in daylight, never at night. I must depart this afternoon. I cannot stay lollygagging around here. I expect the funeral to be held at noon as planned. Oh, by the way,” he added, having ducked into the tent and then popped his head back out again, “if you think you might have trouble lighting the pyre, I would remind you that I have seven blue dragons at my command who will be most pleased to offer their assistance.”

He withdrew, leaving the three to stare uneasily at one another.

“Go fetch her, Galdar,” said Dogah.

“You don’t mean to put her on that pyre?” Galdar hissed through clenched teeth. “No! I refuse!”

“You heard Targonne, Galdar,” Samuval said grimly. “That was a threat, in case you misunderstood him. If we don’t obey him, her funeral pyre won’t be the only thing those blasted dragons set ablaze!”

“Listen to me, Galdar,” Dogah added, “if we don’t go through with this, Targonne will order his own officers to do so. I don’t know what’s gone wrong, but we have to play this out. Mina would want us to. You are second in command. It is your place to bring her to the pyre. Do you want one of us to take over?”

“No!” Galdar said with a vicious snap of his teeth. “I will carry her. No one else! I will do this!” He blinked, his eyes were red-rimmed. “But I do so only because she commanded it. Otherwise, I would let his dragons set fire to all the world and myself with it. If she is dead, I see no reason to go on living.”

Inside the command tent, Targonne overheard this statement. He made a mental note to get rid of the minotaur at the first opportunity.

 


 

12

The Funeral

 

Pacing slowly and solemnly, Galdar carried Mina’s body in his arms to the funeral bier. Tears ran in rivulets down the minotaur’s grief-ravaged face. He could not speak, his throat was choked with his sorrow. He held her cradled in his arms, her head resting on the right arm she had given to him. Her body was cold, her skin a ghastly white. Her lips were blue, her eyelids closed, the eyes behind them fixed and unmoving.

When he had arrived at the tent where her body lay, he had attempted, surreptitiously, to find some sign of life in her. He had held his steel bracer up to her lips, hoping to see the slight rnoistness of breath on the metal. He had hoped, when he picked her up in his arms, to be able to feel the faint beating of her heart.

No breath stirred. Her heart was still.

I will seem to be as one dead, she had told him. Yet I live. The One God performs this deception that I may strike out at our enemies.

She had said that, but she had also said that she would wake to accuse her murderer and call him to justice, and here she lay, in Galdar’s arms, as cold and pale as a cut lily frozen in the snow.

He was about to place that fragile lily on the top of a pile of wood that would blaze into a raging inferno with a single spark.

Mina’s Knights formed a guard of honor, marching behind Galdar in the funeral procession. They wore their armor, polished to a black sheen, and kept their visors lowered, each hiding his own grief behind a mask of steel. Unbidden by their commanders, the troops formed a double line leading from the tent to the bier. Soldiers who had followed her for weeks stood side by side with those who had just newly arrived but who had already come to adore her. Galdar walked slowly between the rows of soldiers, never pausing as their hands reached out to touch her chill flesh for one last blessing. Young soldiers wept unashamedly. Scarred and grizzled veterans looked grim and stern and brushed hastily at their eyes.

Walking behind Galdar, Captain Samuval led Mina’s horse, Foxfire. As was customary, her boots were reversed in the stirrups. Foxfire was edgy and restless, perhaps due to the proximity of the minotaur—the two had formed a grudging alliance, but neither truly liked the other—or perhaps the raw emotions of the soldiers affected the animal, or perhaps the horse, too, felt Mina’s loss. Captain Samuval had his hands full controlling the beast, who snorted and shivered, bared his teeth, rolled his eyes until the whites showed, and made dangerous and unexpected lunges into the crowd.

The sun was near its zenith. The sky was a strange, cobalt blue, a winter sky in summer, with a winter sun that burned bright but gave no warmth, a sun that seemed lost in the empty blue vastness. The line of men came to an end. Galdar stood before the huge pyre. A litter wound round with ropes rested on the ground at the minotaur’s feet. Men with tear-grimed faces stood atop the pyre, waiting to receive their Mina.

Galdar looked to his right. Lord Targonne stood at attention. He wore his grief mask, probably the same one he’d worn at the funeral of Mirielle Abrena. He was impatient for the end of the ceremony, however, and he permitted his gaze to shift often to watch the progress of the sun—a not-so-subtle reminder to Galdar to speed matters along.

General Dogah stood at Galdar’s left. The minotaur shot the commander a speaking glance.

We have to stall! Galdar pleaded.

Dogah lifted his gaze to the sun that was almost directly overhead. Galdar looked up to see seven blue dragons circling, taking an unusual interest in the proceedings. As a rule, dragons find such ceremonies boring in the extreme. Humans are like bugs. They lead short and frantic lives, and like bugs, humans are constantly dying. Unless the human and the dragon have formed a particular bond, dragons little care what becomes of them. Yet, now Galdar watched them fly above Mina’s funeral pyre. The shadows of their wings slid repeatedly over her still face.

If Targonne meant the dragons to intimidate, he was succeeding. Dogah felt the cringe of dragonfear twist his heart, already wrung by grief. He lowered his gaze in defeat. There was nothing to be done.

“Carry on, Galdar,” Dogah said quietly.

Galdar knelt from his great height and with uncommon gentleness placed Mina’s body on the litter. Somewhere someone had found a fine woven silk cloth of gold and of purple. Probably stolen from the elves. Galdar arranged Mina’s body on the litter, her hands folded over her breast. He drew the cloth over her, as a father might lovingly cover a slumbering child.

“Good-bye, Mina,” Galdar whispered.

Half-blinded by his tears that were rolling unchecked down his snout, he rose to his feet and made a fierce gesture. The soldiers atop the pyre pulled on the ropes. The ropes tightened, went taut, and the litter bearing Mina’s body rose slowly to the top of the pyre. The soldiers settled the litter, rearranged the cloth over her. Each one stooped to kiss her cold forehead or kiss her chill hands. Then they climbed down from the top of the pyre.

Mina remained there, alone.

Captain Samuval brought Foxfire to a halt at the foot of the pyre. The horse, now seemingly aware that he was on show, stood quiet with dignity and pride.

Mina’s Knights gathered around the pyre. Each held in his hand a lighted torch. The flames did not waver or flicker, but burned steadily. The smoke rose straight into the air.

“Let us get on with it,” said Lord Targonne in annoyed tones. “What do you wait for?”

“A moment longer, my lord,” said Dogah. Raising his voice, he shouted, “Bring the prisoner.”

Targonne cast Dogah a baleful glance. “What do we need him for?”

Because it was Mina’s command, Dogah might have said. He offered the first explanation that came into his mind.

“We plan to throw him onto the pyre, my lord,” said Dogah.

“Ah,” said Targonne, “a burnt offering.” He chuckled at his little jest and was annoyed when no one else did.

Two guards led forth the elf king who had been responsible for Mina’s death. The young man was festooned in chains— fetters on his wrists and ankles were attached to an iron belt around his waist, an iron collar had been locked around his neck. He could scarcely walk for the weight and had to be assisted by his captors. His face was bruised practically beyond recognition, one eye swollen shut. His fine clothes were covered with blood.

His guards brought him to a halt at the foot of the pyre. The young man lifted his head. He saw Mina’s body resting atop the pyre. The elf went so pale that he was paler than the corpse. He let out a low, wretched cry and lurched suddenly forward. His guards, thinking he was trying to escape, seized hold of him roughly.

Silvanoshei had no thought of escape, however. He heard them cursing him and talking of throwing him onto the fire. He didn’t care. He hoped they would, that he might die and be with her. He stood with his head bowed, his long hair falling over his battered face.

“Now that we are finished with the histrionics,” said Lord Targonne snappishly, “may we proceed?”

Galdar’s lips curled back from his teeth. His huge fist clenched.

“By my beard, here come the elves,” Dogah exclaimed in disbelief.

It had been Mina’s command that all elves who wanted to attend the ceremony were to be permitted to do so, and they were not to be harassed or threatened or harmed, but welcomed in the name of the One God. Mina’s officers had not expected any elves would come. Fearing retribution, most elves had locked themselves in their houses, preparing to defend their homes and families or, in some cases, making plans to flee into the wilderness.

Yet now out of the city gates came pouring a vast gathering of Silvanesti elves, mostly the young, who had been Mina’s followers. They bore flowers in their hands—those flowers that had survived the ravaging touch of the shield—and they walked with slow and measured tread to the tune of the mournful music of muted harp and somber flute. The human soldiers had good reason to resent this appearance of their enemy, those they held responsible for their beloved commander’s death. A muttering arose among the troops, hardening into a growl of anger and a warning to the elves to keep their distance.

Galdar took heart. Here was the perfect way to stall! If the men would decide to ignore their orders and take out their fury on these elves, Galdar and the other officers could not be expected to stop them. He glanced skyward. Blue dragons would not interfere with the slaughter of elves. After such an unseemly disruption, the funeral would certainly have to be postponed.

The elves proceeded toward the pyre. The shadows of the dragons’ wings flowed over them. Many blanched and shuddered. The dragonfear that touched even Galdar must be horrible for these elves. For all they knew, they would be brutally attacked by the human soldiers who had good reason to hate them. Yet still they came to pay homage to the girl who had touched them and healed them.

Galdar could not help but pay grudging homage to their courage. So, too, did the men. Perhaps because Mina had touched them all, human and elf felt a bond that day. The growls of anger and muttered threats died away. The elves took their places a respectful distance from the pyre, as if they were aware they had no right to come closer. They lifted their hands. A soft breeze sprang up from the east, caught the flowers they bore, and carried them in a cloud of fragrance to the pyre, where the white petals floated down around Mina’s body.

The chill sunlight illuminated the pyre, illuminated Mina’s face, shimmered in the golden cloth so that it seemed to burn with its own fire.

“Are we expecting anyone else?” Targonne demanded sarcastically. “Dwarves, perhaps? A contingent of kender? If not, then get this over with, Dogah!”

“Certainly, my lord. First, you said you intended to speak her eulogy. As you said, my lord, the troops would appreciate hearing from you.”

Targonne glowered. He was growing increasingly nervous, and he could not explain why. Perhaps it was the strange way these three officers stared at him, with hatred in their eyes. Not that this was particularly unusual. There were many people on Ansalon who had good reason to hate and fear the Lord of the Night. What made Targonne uneasy was the fact that he could not enter their minds to discover what they were thinking, what they were plotting.

Targonne felt suddenly threatened, and he could not understand why that should make him nervous. He was surrounded by his own bodyguard, Knights who had good reason to make certain that he remained alive. He had seven dragons at his command, dragons who would make short work of humans and elves alike, if the Lord of the Night ordered. Still he could not argue away the feeling of imminent peril.

The feeling made him irritated, annoyed, and sorry he had ever come. This hadn’t turned out as he had planned. He had come to flaunt this victory as his own, to bask in the renewed adulation of the troops and their officers. Instead, he found himself overshadowed by a dead girl.

Clearing his throat, Targonne straightened. In a voice that was cold and flat, he said, “She did her duty.”

The officers and men regarded him expectantly, waited for him to go on.

“That is her eulogy,” Targonne said coldly. “A fitting eulogy for any soldier. Dogah, give the command to light the pyre.”

Dogah said no word, but cast a helpless look at the other two officers. Captain Samuval was bleak, defeated. Galdar gazed with his soul in his eyes to the top of the pyre, where Mina lay still, unmoving.

Or did she move? Galdar saw a quiver in the cloth of gold that covered her. He saw color return to her wan cheek, and his heart leaped with hope. He stared enthralled, waiting for her to rise. She did not, and he came to the bitter realization that the stirring of the cloth was caused by the gentle breeze and the mockery of warmth was the pale light of the sun.

Lifting his voice in a ragged howl of grief and rage, Galdar snatched a torch from the hand of one of Mina’s Knights and hurled it with all the might of his strong right arm onto the top of Mina’s funeral pyre.

The flaming torch landed at Mina’s feet, set the cloth that covered her ablaze.

Raising their own voices in hollow cries, the Knights under Mina’s command flung their own torches onto the pyre. The oil-soaked wood burst into flame. The fires spread rapidly, flames reaching out like eager hands to join together and encircle the pyre. Galdar kept watch. He stared at the top to keep sight of her, blinking painfully as smoke stung his eyes and cinders landed in his fur. At last the heat was so intense that he was forced to retreat, but he did not do so until he lost sight of Mina’s dear body in the thick smoke coiling around her.

Lord Targonne, coughing and flapping his hands at the smoke, backed away immediately. He waited long enough to make certain that the fire was blazing merrily, then turned to Dogah.

“Well,” said his lordship, “I’ll be off—”

A shadow blotted out the sun. Bright day darkened to night in the pause between one heartbeat and the next. Thinking it might be an eclipse—albeit a strange and sudden one—Galdar lifted amazed eyes, still stinging from the smoke, to the heavens.

A shadow blotted out the sun, but it was not the round shadow of the single moon. Silhouetted against tendrils of fire was a sinuous body, a curved tail, a dragon’s head. Seen against the sun, the dragon appeared as black as time’s ending. When it spread its massive wings, the sun vanished completely, only to reappear as a burst of flame in the dragon’s eye.

Darkness deep and impenetrable fell upon Silvanost and, in that instant, the flames that consumed the pyre were doused by a breath that was neither heard nor felt.

Galdar gave a roar of triumph. Samuval dropped to his knees, his hands covering his face. Dogah gazed at the dragon with wonder. Mina’s Knights stared upward in awe.

The darkness grew deeper, until Targonne could barely see those standing next to him.

“Get me out of here! Quick!” he ordered tersely.

No one obeyed his commands. His Knight escorts stared at the strange, immense dragon that had blotted out the sun, and they seemed, one and all, to have been changed to stone by the sight.

Now thoroughly frightened, feeling the darkness closing in around him, Targonne kicked at his Knights and swore at them. Fear shook him and shredded him and turned his bowels to water. One moment he threatened his officers he would see them flayed alive, the next he was promising them a fortune in steel to save him.

The darkness grew yet deeper. White lightning flared, splitting the unnatural night. Thunder crashed, shaking the ground. Targonne started to yell for his dragons to come rescue him.

The yell died in this throat.

The white lightning illuminated a figure standing atop the pyre, a figure wearing shining black armor and shrouded in a cloth of gold that was charred and burnt. The blue dragons flew above her, the lightning crackled around her. Swooping low over the ash-laden pyre, each blue dragon bowed its head to her.

“Mina!” The blue dragons sounded the paean. “Mina!”

“Mina!” Galdar sobbed and fell to his knees.

“Mina!” whispered General Dogah in relief.

“Mina!” Captain Samuval shouted in vindication.

Behind them, in the darkness, the elves took the word and made of it a song. “Mina . . . Mina . . .” The soldiers joined in, chanting, “Mina . . . Mina!”

The darkness lifted. The sun shone, and it was warm and dazzling to the eye. The strange dragon descended through the ethers. Such was the terror and the awe of its coming that few in the crowd could lift their shuddering gazes to look at it. Those who managed, and Galdar was one of them, saw a dragon such as they had never before beheld on Krynn. They were not able to look on it long, for the sight made their eyes water and burn, as if they stared into the sun.

The dragon was white, but not the white of those dragons who live in the lands of perpetual snow and frost. This dragon was the white of the flame of the forger’s hottest fire. The white that is in direct opposition to black. The white that is not the absence of color but the blending together of all colors of the spectrum.

As the strange looking dragon drifted lower to the ground, its wings did not stir the air, nor did the ground shake from the impact when it landed. The blue dragons, all seven of them, lowered their heads and spread their wings in homage.

“Death!” they cried together in a single voice, fell and terrible. “The dead return!”

Now they could see that the dragon was not a living dragon. It was a ghostly dragon, a dragon formed of the souls of the chromatic dragons who had died during the Age of Mortals, killed by their own kind.

The death dragon lifted its front clawed foot and, turning it uppward, placed that foot upon the top of the pyre. Mina stepped upon the upturned claw. The death dragon lowered her reverently to the charred, blackened, and ash-covered ground.

“Mina! Mina!” The soldiers were stamping their feet, clashing sword on shield, yelling until they were hoarse, and still the chant rang out. The elven voices had made of her name a madrigal whose beauty enchanted even the most obdurate and hardened human heart.

Mina gazed at them all in pleasure that warmed the amber eyes so that they shone purest gold. Overwhelmed by the love and the adoration, she seemed at a loss as to how to respond. At length, she acknowledged the tribute with an almost shy wave of her hand and a grateful smile.

She reached out and clasped the hands of Dogah and Captain Samuval, who could not speak for their joy. Then Mina walked over to stand in front of Galdar.

The minotaur fell on his knees, his head bent so low that the horns brushed the ground.

“Galdar,” said Mina gently.

He lifted his head.

Mina held out her hand. “Take it, Galdar,” she said.

He took hold of her hand, felt the flesh warm to the touch.

“Praise the One God, Galdar,” Mina told him. “As you promised.”

“Praise the One God!” Galdar whispered, choking.

“Will you always doubt, Galdar?” Mina asked him.

He looked at her fearfully, afraid of her anger, but he saw that her smile was fond and caring.

“Forgive me, Mina,” he faltered. “I won’t doubt anymore. I promise.”

“Yes, you will, Galdar,” Mina said, “but I am not angry. Without doubters, there would be no miracles.”

He pressed her hand to his lips.

“Now arise, Galdar,” said Mina, her voice hardening as the amber in her eyes hardened. “Arise and lay hands on the one who sought to kill me.”

Mina pointed to the assassin.

She did not point at the wretched Silvanoshei, who was staring at her with dumb amazement and disbelief.

She pointed at Targonne.

 


 

13

Avenging The Dead

 

Morham Targonne had no use for miracles. He had seen them all in his time, seen the smoke and seen the mirrors. I Like everything else in this world, miracles could be bought and sold on the open market like fish and yesterday’s fish at that, for most of them stunk to the heavens. He had to admit that the show he’d just witnessed was good, better than most. He couldn’t explain it, but he was convinced that the explanation was there. He had to find it. He would find it in this girl’s mind.

He sent a mental probe into Mina’s red-crowned head, launched it as swift and straight as a steel-tipped arrow. When he found out the truth, he would denounce her to her addlepated believers. He would reveal to them how truly dangerous she was. They would thank him. . . .

In her mind, he saw eternity, that which no mortal is ever meant to see.

No mortal mind can encompass the smallness that holds the vastness.

No mortal eye can see that blinding light for the illuminating darkness.

Mortal flesh withers in the cooling fire of the burning ice.

Mortal ears cannot bear to hear the roaring silence of the thundering quiet.

Mortal spirits cannot comprehend the life that begins in death and the death that lives in life.

Certainly not a mortal mind like Targonne’s. A mind that divides honor by ambition and multiplies gain by greed. The numbers that were the sum of his life were halved and halved again and halved again after that, and he was, in the end, a fraction.

The great are humbled by even a glimpse of eternity. The mean tremble in fear. Targonne was horrified. He was a rat in that immense vastness, a cornered rat who could not find a corner.

Yet, even at the end, the cornered rat is a cunning rat. Cunning was all Targonne had left to him. Looking about, he saw that he had no friends, no allies. All he had were those who served him out of fear or ambition or need, and every one of these petty concerns were so much dust swept away by an immortal hand. His guilt was plain for even the stupidest to see. He could deny it or embrace it.

Awkwardly, the bib of his ill-fitting breastplate thumping and banging against his bony knees, Targonne knelt before Mina in an attitude of the most abject humility.

“Yes, it is true,” he blubbered, squeezing out a meager tear or two. “I sought to have you killed. I had no choice. I was ordered to do it.” He kept his head humbly lowered, but managed to steal a glance to see how his speech was being received. “Malystryx ordered your death. She fears you, and with good reason!”

Now he thought it was time he could lift his head, and he arranged his face to match his words. “I was wrong. I admit it. I feared Malystryx. Now I see my fear is unfounded. This god of yours, this One God—a most wonderful and magnificent and powerful god.” He clasped his hands. “Forgive me. Let me serve you, Mina. Let me serve your god!”

He looked into the amber eyes and saw himself, a tiny vermin, scurrying frantically until the amber flowed over him and held him immobile.

“I foretold that someday you would kneel before me,” said Mina, and her tone was not smug, but gentle. “I forgive you. More important, the One God forgives you and accepts your service.”

Targonne, grinning inside, started to rise.

“Galdar,” Mina continued, “your sword.”

Galdar drew a huge, curved-bladed sword, lifted it. He held it poised a moment over Targonne’s head, long enough to allow the coward a moment to fully comprehend what was going to happen. Targonne’s shriek of terror, the squeal of the dying rat, was cut off by the sweep of the blade that severed the man’s head from his neck. Blood spattered on Mina. The head rolled to Mina’s feet and lay there in a gruesome pool, facedown in the mud and the ash.

“Hail, Mina! Lord of the Night!” General Dogah shouted.

“Hail, Mina! Lord of the Night!” The soldiers picked up the cheer, and their voices carried it to heaven.

Amazed by what they had seen and heard, the elves were horrified by the brutal murder, even of one who had so richly deserved punishment. Their hymns of praise petered out discordantly. They stared to see that Mina did not even bother to wipe away the blood.

“What are your orders, Mina?” Dogah asked, saluting.

“You and the men under your command will remain here to hold the land of Silvanesti in the name of the Dark Knights of Neraka,” Mina said. “You will send rich tribute to Dragon Overlord Malystryx in my name. That should placate her and keep her eye turned inward.”

Dogah stroked his beard. “Where are we to find this rich tribute, Mina?”

She motioned Captain Samuval to release Foxfire. The horse danced up to her, nuzzled her. Mina stroked the horse’s neck affectionately and began to remove the saddlebags.

“Where do you suppose you will find it, Dogah?” she asked. “In the Royal Treasury in the Tower of the Stars. In the homes of the members of House Royal and in the storerooms of the elven merchants. Even the poorest of these elves,” she continued, tossing the saddlebags onto the ground, “have family heirlooms hidden away.”

Dogah chuckled. “What of the elves themselves?”

Mina cast a glance at the headless corpse that was being rolled unceremoniously onto the base of the funeral pyre.

“They promised to serve the One God, and the One God needs them now,” Mina said. “Let those who have pledged themselves to the One God fulfill that pledge by working with us to maintain control over the land.”

“They won’t do that, Mina,” Dogah said grimly. “Their service won’t extend that far.”

“You will be surprised, Galdar,” said Mina. “Like all of us, the elves have sought something beyond themselves, something in which to believe. The One God has given that to them, and many will come to the service of the One God. The Silvanesti who are faithful to the One will erect a Temple to the One in the heart of Silvanost. Elven priests of the One will be granted the power of healing and given the means to perform other miracles.

“First, though, Dogah, the One will expect them to prove that loyalty. They should be the first to hand over their riches, and they should be the ones who take the riches from those who prove recalcitrant. The elves who claim to be loyal to the One God will be expected to reveal to us all those who are enemies of the One God, even if those enemies are their own lovers, wives, fathers, or children. All this you will ask of them, and those who are truly faithful will make the sacrifice. If they do not, they may serve the One God dead as well as alive.”

“I understand,” said Dogah.

Mina knelt to unbuckle the straps of the saddle that encircled Foxfire’s belly. Her Knights would have leaped to do this for her, but the moment one made a move toward the horse, Foxfire curled back his lip and halted the man with a jealous eye.

“I leave you in charge, Dogah. I ride this day with those under my command for Solamnia. We must be there in two days.”

“Two days!” Galdar protested. “Mina, Solamnia is at the other end of the continent! A thousand miles away, across the New Sea. Such a feat is impossible—”

Mina straightened, looked the minotaur full in the eye.

Galdar gulped, swallowed. “Such a feat would be impossible,” he amended contritely, “for anyone but you.”

“The One God, Galdar,” Mina corrected him. “The One God.”

Removing the saddle from Foxfire, she placed it on the ground. Last, she took off the bridle and tossed it down next to the saddle. “Pack that with the rest of my things,” she commanded.

Putting her arms around the horse’s neck, Mina spoke softly to the animal. Foxfire listened attentively, head bowed, ears forward to catch the slightest whisper. At length Foxfire nodded his head. Mina kissed the horse and stroked him lovingly. “You are in the hands of the One God,” she said. “The One God bring you safe to me at my need.”

Foxfire lifted his head, shook his mane proudly, then wheeled and galloped off, heading for the forest. Those in his path were forced to jump and scramble to get out of his way, for he cared not whom he trampled.

Mina watched him depart, then, as if by accident, she noticed Silvanoshei.

The elf had witnessed all that had passed with the dazed look of one who walks in a dream and cannot wake. He watched the fire blaze in grief that approached madness. He witnessed Mina’s triumphant return to life with disbelief that flared into joy. So convinced was Silvanoshei of his own guilt, that when he heard her accuse her assassin, he waited to die. Even now he could not comprehend what had happened. Silvanoshei knew only that his love was alive. He gazed at her in wonder and in despair, in hope and in dejection, seeing all, understanding nothing.

She walked over to him. He tried to rise, but the chains weighed him down and hobbled him so he found it difficult to move.

“Mina . . .” He tried to speak, but he could only mumble through the swelling and the pain of his broken jaw.

Mina touched his forehead, and the pain vanished, the jaw healed. The bruises disappeared, the swelling subsided. Seizing her hands, he pressed them passionately to his lips.

“I love you, Mina!”

“I am not worthy of your love,” she said.

“You are, Mina! You are!” he gabbled. “I may be a king, but you are queen—”

“You misunderstand me, Silvanoshei,” Mina said softly. “Your love should not be for me but for the One God who guides and directs me.”

She withdrew her hands from his grasp.

“Mina!” he cried in despair.

“Let your love for me lead you to the One God, Silvanoshei,” Mina said to him. “The hand of the One God brought us together. The hand of the One God forces us to separate now, but if you allow the One God to guide you, we will be together again. You are the Chosen of the One God, Silvanoshei. Take this and keep it in faith.”

She took from her finger the ruby ring, the poison ring. Dropping the ring in his trembling palm, she turned and walked away without a glance.

“Mina!” Silvanoshei cried, but she did not heed him.

His manacled hands hung listlessly before him. He paid no attention to anything going on around him. He continued to kneel on the bloody ground, clutching the ring, staring at Mina, his heart and his soul in his eyes.

“Why did you tell him that, Mina?” Galdar asked in a low voice as he hurried to accompany her. “You care nothing for the elf, that is obvious. Why lead him on? Why bother?”

“Because he could be a danger to us, Galdar,” Mina replied. “I leave behind a small force of men to rule over a large nation. If the elves ever find a strong leader, they could unite and overthrow us. He has it within him to be such a leader.”

Galdar glanced back, saw the elf groveling on the ground. “That sniveling wretch? Let me slay him.” Galdar placed his hand on the hilt of his sword that was stained with Targonne’s blood.

“And make of him a martyr?” Mina shook her head. “No, far better for us if he is seen to worship the One God, seen to ignore the cries of his people. For those cries will change to curses.

“Have no fear, Galdar,” she added, drawing on a pair of soft leather riding gloves. “The One God has seen to it that Silvanoshei is no longer a threat.”

“Do you mean the One God did this to him?” Galdar asked.

Mina flashed him a glance of amber. “Of course, Galdar. The One God guides all our destinies. His destiny. Yours. Mine.”

She looked at him long, then said softly, almost to herself, “I know what you are feeling. I had difficulty accepting the will of the One as opposed to my own. I fought and struggled against it for a long time. Let me tell you a story, and perhaps you will understand.

“Once, when I was a little girl, a bird flew inside the place where I lived. The walls were made of crystal, and the bird could see outside, see the sun and the blue sky and freedom. The bird hurled itself at the crystal, trying frantically to escape back into the sunshine. We tried to catch it, but it would not let us near. At last, wounded and exhausted, the bird fell to the floor and lay there quivering. Goldmoon picked up the bird, smoothed its feathers with her hand, and healed its wounds. She carried it out into the sunlight and set it free.

“I was like that bird, Galdar. I flung myself against the crystal walls of my creation, and when I was battered and bruised, the One God lifted me and healed me and now guides me and carries me, as the One God guides and carries us all. Do you understand, Galdar?”

He was not sure he did. He was not sure he wanted to, but he said, “Yes, Mina,” because he wanted to please her, to smooth the frown from her forehead and bring the light back to her amber eyes.

She looked at him long, then she turned away, saying briskly, “Summon the men. Have them collect their gear and make ready to depart for Solamnia.”

“Yes, Mina,” said Galdar.

She paused, looked back at him. A corner of her mouth twitched. “You do not ask how we will get there, Galdar,” she said.

“No, Mina,” he said. “If you tell me to fly, I trust that I will sprout wings.”

Mina laughed gaily. She was in excellent spirits, sparkling and ebullient. She pointed to the horizon.

“There, Galdar,” she said. “There is how a minotaur will fly.”

The sun was falling toward night, sinking into a pool of blood and fire. Galdar saw a spectacle thrilling in its terrible beauty. Dragons filled the sky. The sun gleamed on red wings and blue, shining through them like fire glowing through stained glass. The scales of the black dragons shimmered with dark iridescence, the scales of the green dragons were emeralds scattered against cobalt.

Red dragons—powerful and enormous, blue dragons—small and swift, black dragons—vicious and cruel, white dragons— cold and beautiful, green dragons—noxious and deadly. Dragons of all colors, male and female, old and young, they came at Mina’s call. Many of these dragons had been hiding deep in their lairs, terrified of Malys and of Beryl, of Khellendros, one of their own who had turned on them. They had hidden away, afraid they would find their skulls upon one of the totems of the dragon overlords.

Then had come the great storm. Above the fearsome winds, blasting lightning, and booming thunder, these dragons had heard a voice telling them to prepare, to make ready, to come when summoned.

Tired of living in fear, longing for revenge for the deaths of their mates, their children, their comrades, they answered the call, and now they flew to Silvanesti, their many-colored scales forming a terrible rainbow over the ancient homeland of the elves.

The dragons’ scales glittered in the sunshine so that each might have been encrusted with a wealth of jewels. The shadows of their passing rippled along the ground beneath them, flowing over hillock and farmhouse, lake and forest.

The swift-flying blues took the lead, wing tip to wing tip, keeping time with matching strokes, taking pride in their precision. The ponderous reds brought up the rear, their enormous wings moving a single sweeping flap to every four of the faster blues. Blacks and greens were scattered throughout.

The elves felt the terror of their coming. Many collapsed, senseless, and others fled in the madness of their fear. Dogah sent his men after them, bidding them to make certain no elf escaped into the wilderness.

Mina’s men ran to collect their gear and any supplies that could be carried on dragonback. They brought Mina’s maps to her, she said she needed nothing else. They were ready and waiting to mount by the time the first of the dragons began to circle down and land upon the battlefield. Galdar mounted a gigantic red. Captain Samuval chose a blue. Mina rode the strange dragon, the dragon she termed the “death dragon.”

“We travel by darkness,” said Mina. “The light of neither moon nor star will shine this night so our journey may remain secret.”

“What is our destination?” Galdar asked.

“A place where the dead gather,” she said. “A place called Nightlund.”

Her dragon spread its ghastly wings and soared into the air effortlessly, as if it weighed no more than the ashes that drifted up from the pyre, where they were burning Targonne’s body. The other dragons, bearing the soldiers of Mina’s army upon their backs, took to the skies. Clouds foamed up from the west, blotting out the sun, gathering thick around the multitude of dragons.

Dogah returned to the command tent. He had work to do: comandeering storehouses to hold the loot, establishing slave-labor camps, interrogation centers and prisons, brothels to keep the men entertained. He had noted, when in Silvanost, a temple dedicated to an old god, Mishakal. He would establish the worship of the One God there, he decided. An appropriate place.

As he made his plans, he could hear the screams of elves who were probably, even now, being dispatched into the One God’s service.

Out on the battlefield, Silvanoshei remained where Mina had left him. He had been unable to take his eyes from her. In despair, he had watched her depart, clinging to the rag of hope she had left him as a child clings to the tattered blanket he clutches to keep away the terrors of the night. He did not hear the cries of his people. He heard only Mina’s voice.

The One God. Embrace the One God, and we will be together again.

 


 

14

The Chosen Of The One God

 

Ten members of the kirath and ten elves of Alhana’s army were hiding in the forests outside Silvanost to watch the I funeral. They were hiding there when the dragons came. Wearing the magical cloaks of the kirath that made them invisible to any who might be watching for them, the elves were able to creep within close proximity of the funeral pyre. They saw everything that happened but were helpless to intervene. They could do nothing to save their people. Their numbers were too small. Help would come later. These elves were here with one mission, one purpose, and that was to rescue their young king.

The elves heard death all around them. The stumps of dying trees cried out in agony. The ghost of Cyan Bloodbane hissed and howled in the wind. These elves had fought the dream with courage. They had fought ogres without blanching. Forced to listen to the song of death, they felt their palms sweat and their stomachs clench.

The elves hiding in the forest were reminded of the dream, yet this was worse, for the dream had been a dream of death, and this was real. They watched their brethren mourn the death of the strange human girl child, Mina. As the Knights cast their torches onto the pyre, the elves did not cheer, even in their hearts. They watched in wary silence.

Crouched among the boughs severed from a living aspen that had been left to wither and die, Alhana Starbreeze saw flames crackle on the pyre and smoke begin to rise to the heavens. She kept her gaze on her son, Silvanoshei, who had been dragged in chains and now appeared on the verge of collapse. Beside her, Samar muttered something. He had not wanted her to come, he had argued against it, but this time she insisted on having her way.

“What did you say, Commander?” Kiryn whispered.

“Nothing,” Samar returned, with a glance at Alhana.

He would not speak ill of Alhana’s son to anyone but himself, especially not to Kiryn, who never ceased to defend Silvanoshei, to maintain that the king was in the grip of some strange power.

Samar liked Kiryn. He admired the young man for having had the wit, resourcefulness, and foresight to escape the calamitous banquet, to seek out the kirath, and alert them to what had happened. But Kiryn was a Silvanesti, and although he claimed he had remained loyal all these years to Alhana, Samar did not trust him.

A hand touched his arm, and in spite of himself, Samar started, unable to repress a shudder. He looked around, half-angry, though if he had heard the sounds of the elven scout approaching, he would have severely reprimanded such carelessness.

“Well,” he growled, “what did you find out?”

“It is true, what we heard,” the woman said, her voice softer than the ghostly whispers. “Silvanoshei was responsible for the human girl’s death. He gave her a ring, a ring he told people came from his mother. The ring was poisoned. The human died almost instantly.”

“I sent no such ring!” Alhana said, seeing the cold stares of the kirath. For years, they had been told Alhana Starbreeze was a dark elf. Perhaps some had even believed it. “I fight my enemies face to face. I do not poison them, especially when I know that it is my people who will suffer the consequences!”

“This smacks of treachery,” Samar said. “Human treachery. This Lord Targonne is known to have made his way to the top by climbing a ladder of the corpses of his enemies. This girl was just one more rung—”

“Commander! Look!” The scout pointed.

The elves hiding amid the shadows of the death-singing forest watched in amazement to see the human girl rise whole and alive from the blazing pyre. The humans were proclaiming it a miracle. The elves were skeptical.

“Ah, I thought there would be some trick in this,” Samar said.

Then came the strange death dragon, and the elves turned dark and shadowed eyes to each other.

“What is this?” Alhana wondered aloud. “What does it portend?”

Samar had no answer. In his hundreds of years, he had roamed almost every portion of Ansalon and had encountered nothing like this horrible creature.

The elves heard the girl accuse Targonne, and although many could not understand her language, they were able to guess the import of her words by the expression on the doomed human’s face. They watched his headless corpse topple to the ground without comment or surprise. Such barbarous behavior was only to be expected of humans.

As the flight of many colored dragons formed a hideous rainbow in the skies above Silvanesti, the song of death rose to a shrieking paean. The elves shrank among the shadows and shivered as the dragonfear swept over them. They flattened themselves among the dead trees. They were able to do nothing but think of death, to see nothing but the image of their own dying.

The dragons departed, bearing the strange girl away with them. The Dark Knights of Neraka swept down upon the Silvanesti people, carrying salvation in one hand, death in the other.

Alhana’s heart hurt almost to breaking at the sound of the screams of those first to fall victim to the wrath of the Dark Knights. Smoke was already starting to rise from the beautiful city. Yet she reached out a hand to detain Rolan of the kirath, who was on his feet, sword in hand.

“Where do you think you are going?” Alhana demanded.

“To save them,” Rolan said grimly. “To save them or die with them.”

“A witless act. Would you throw away your life for nothing?”

“We must do something!” Rolan cried, his face livid. “We must help them!”

“We are thirty,” Alhana answered. “The humans outnumber us dozens to one.” She looked back grimly, pointed to the fleeing Silvanesti. “If our people would stand and fight, we might be able to help them, but—look at that! Look at them! Some flee in confusion and panic. Others stand and sing praises to this false god!”

“The human is clever,” Samar said quietly. “With her trickery and her promises, she seduced your people as surely as she seduced that poor besotted boy out there. We can do nothing to help them. Not now—not until reason prevails. But we might be able to help him.”

Tears streamed down Rolan’s cheeks. Every elven death cry seemed to strike him, for his body shuddered at each. He stood irresolute, blinking his eyes and watching the gray tendrils of smoke rising from Silvanost. Alhana did not weep. She had no more tears left.

“Samar, look!” Kiryn pointed. “Silvanoshei. They are taking him away. If we’re going to do something, we’d better do it fast, before they reach the city and lock him up in some dungeon.”

The young man stood on the battlefield in the shadow of Mina’s pyre and appeared stunned to the point of insensibility. He did not look to see what was happening to his people. He did not make any move at all. He stared as if transfixed at where she had stood. Four humans—soldiers, not Knights—had been left to guard him. Seizing hold of him, two began to drag him off. The other two followed along, swords drawn, keeping careful watch.

Only four of them. The rest of the Knights and soldiers had raced off to effect the subjugation and looting of Silvanost, about a mile distant. Their camp was empty, abandoned except for these four and the prince.

“We do what we came to do,” Alhana said. “We rescue the prince. Now is our chance.”

Samar rose up from his hiding place. He gave a piercing cry, that of a hawk, and the woods were alive with elven warriors, emerging from the shadows.

Samar motioned his warriors forward. Alhana rose too, but she remained behind a moment, placed her hand upon Rolan’s shoulder.

“Forgive me, Rolan of the Kirath,” Alhana said. “I know your pain, and I share it. I spoke in haste. There is something we can do.”

Rolan looked at her, the tears still glimmering in his eyes.

“We can vow to return and avenge the dead,” she said.

Rolan gave a fierce nod.

Gripping her weapon, Alhana caught up with Samar, and they soon joined the main body of the elven warriors, who ran silently, unseen, from out the whispering shadows.

Silvanoshei’s captors hauled him back toward Silvanost. The four men were put out, grumbling that they were missing the fun of looting and burning the elven city.

Silvanoshei stumbled over the uneven ground, blind, deaf, oblivious to everything. He could not hear the cries, he could not smell the smoke of destruction nor see it rising from his city. He saw only Mina. He smelled only the smoke of her pyre. He heard only her voice chanting the litany of the One God. The god she worshiped. The god who had brought them together. You are the Chosen.

He remembered the night of the storm, the night the ogres had attacked their camp. He remembered how the storm had made his blood burn. He had likened it to a lover. He remembered the desperate run to try to save his people, and the lightning bolt that had sent him tumbling down the ravine and into the shield.

The Chosen.

How had he been able to pass through the shield, when no others could do so?

That same lightning bolt blazed through his mind.

Mina had passed through the shield.

The Chosen. The hand of the One God. An immortal hand that had touched him with a lover’s caress. The same hand had thrown the bolt to block his path and raised the shield to let him enter. The immortal hand had pointed his way to Mina on the battlefield, had guided the arrows that felled Cyan Bloodbane. The hand had rested against his own hand and given him the strength to uproot the lethal Shield Tree.

The immortal hand cupped around him, held him, healed him, and he was comforted as he had been in his mother’s arms the night the assassins had tried to slay him. He was the Chosen. Mina had told him so. He would give himself to the One God. He would allow that comforting hand to guide him along the chosen path. Mina would be there waiting for him at the end.

What did the One God want of him now? What was the plan for him? He was a prisoner, chained and manacled.

Silvanoshei had never prayed to any god. After the Chaos War, there had been no gods to answer prayers. His parents had told him that mortals were on their own. They had to make do in this world, rely on themselves. It seemed to him, looking back, that mortals had made a hash of things.

Perhaps Mina had been right when she told him that he did not love her, he loved the god in her. She was so confident, so certain, so self-possessed. She never doubted. She was never afraid. In a world of darkness where everyone else was stumbling blindly, she alone was granted the gift of sight.

Silvanoshei did not even know how to pray to a god. His parents had never spoken of the old religion. The subject was a painful one for them. They were hurt, but they were also angry. The gods, with their departure, had betrayed those who had put their faith in them.

But how did he know for certain that the One God cared for him? How did he know that he was truly the Chosen?

He determined to test the One God, a test to reassure himself, as a child assures himself by small tests that his parents really do love him.

Silvanoshei prayed, humbly, “If there is something you want me to do, I cannot do it if I am prisoner. Set me free, and I will obey your will.”

“Sir!” shouted one of the soldiers who had been guarding the rear. “Behind—” Whatever he had been about to say ended in a shriek. The tip of a sword protruded from his gut. He had been stabbed in the back, the blow so fierce that it had pierced the chain mail shirt he wore. He fell forward and was trampled under a rush of elven warriors.

The guards holding Silvanoshei let loose as they turned to fight. One managed actually to draw his sword, but he could make no use of it, for Rolan sliced off his arm. Rolan’s next cut was to the throat. The guard fell in a pool of his own gore. The other guard was dead before he could reach his weapon. Samar’s blade swept the head from the man’s neck. The fourth man was dispatched handily by Alhana Starbreeze, who thrust her sword in his throat.

So lost was he in religious fervor that Silvanoshei was barely aware of what was happening, of grunts of pain and stifled cries, the thud of bodies falling to the ground. First he was being hauled away by soldiers, then, looking up, he saw the face of his mother.

“My son!” Alhana cried softly. Dropping her bloody sword, she gathered Silvanoshei into her embrace and held him close.

“Mother?” Silvanoshei said dazedly. He could not understand, for at first, when the arms wrapped around him in maternal love, he had seen another face. “Mother . . .” he repeated, bewildered. “Where— How—”

“My Queen,” said Samar warningly.

“Yes, I know,” said Alhana. She reluctantly released her son. Wiping away her tears, she said, “I will tell you everything, my son. We will have a long talk, but now is not the time. Samar, can you remove his chains?”

“Keep watch,” Samar ordered an elf. “Let me know if anyone has spotted us.”

“Not likely, Commander,” was the grim return. “They are too busy with their butchery.”

Samar examined the manacles and the chains and shook his head. “There is no time to remove these, Silvanoshei, not until we are far from Silvanost and pursuit. We will do what we can to help you along the way, but you must be strong, Your Highness, and bear this burden awhile longer.”

Samar looked and spoke doubtfully. He had seen Silvanoshei a sodden mess on the battlefield. He was prepared to find the young elf shattered, demoralized, uncaring whether he lived or died, unwilling to make an effort to do either.

Silvanoshei stood upright. He had been confused at first. His rescue had come too quickly. The sight of his mother had shaken him, but now that he had time to think, he saw with elation that the One God had been responsible. The One God had answered his prayer. He was the Chosen. The manacles cut his flesh so that it bled, but he bore the pain gladly as a testament to his love for Mina and his newfound faith in the One God.

“I do not need you or anyone to help me, Samar,” Silvanoshei said with quiet calm. “I can bear this burden for as long and as far as necessary. Now, as you say, we must make haste. My mother is in danger.”

Enjoying Samar’s look of astonishment, Silvanoshei shoved past the startled warrior and began to hobble clumsily toward the forest.

“Help him, Samar,” Alhana ordered, retrieving her sword. She watched her son with fondness and pride—and faint unease. He had changed, and although she told herself that his ordeal would have changed anyone, she found this change disturbing. It wasn’t so much that he had grown from a boy to a man. It was that he had grown from her boy into a man she did not know.

Silvanoshei felt imbued with strength. The chains weighed nothing, were gossamer and silk. He began to run, awkwardly, occasionally tripping and stumbling, but he was doing as well for himself as he might have done with assistance. The elven war­riors surrounded him, guarding him, but no one was there to stop them. The Knights of Neraka were acting swiftly to seize Sil-vanost and wrap the city in its own chains, forged of iron and fire and blood.

The elves and their freed captive traveled north for a short distance, far enough that they could not smell the smoke of destruction. They turned east and, under Rolan’s guidance, came to the river, where the kirath had boats ready to carry the prince upstream, north to the camp of Alhana’s forces. Here they would rest for a short time. They lit no fires, set careful watch.

Silvanoshei had managed to keep up with the rest, although by the end of the journey his breath was coming in painful gasps, his muscles burned, and his hands were covered with the blood that ran from his chafed wrists. He fell more than once, and at last, because his mother pleaded with him, he permitted the other elves to assist him. No word of complaint passed his lips. He held on with a grim determination that won even Samar’s approval.

Once they reached the riverbank and relative safety, the elves hacked at his fetters with axes. Silvanoshei sat still, unflinching, though the axe blades sometimes came perilously close to cutting off a foot or slicing into his leg. Sparks flew, but the chains would not break, and eventually, after all the axe blades were notched, the elves were forced to give up. Without a key they could not remove the iron manacles round Silvanoshei’s ankles and his wrists.

Alhana assured her son that once they arrived at his mother’s camp, the blacksmith would be able to make a key that would fit the locks and so remove them.

“Until then, we travel by boat the rest of the way. The journey will not be nearly so difficult for you, my son.”

Silvanoshei shrugged, unconcerned. He bore the pain and discomfort with quiet fortitude. Chains clanking, he wrapped himself in a blanket and lay down on the ground, again without complaint.

Alhana sat beside her son. The night was hushed, as if all living things held their breath in fear. Only the river continued to speak, the swift-flowing water rushing past them, talking to itself in a deep, sorrowful murmur, knowing what terrible sights it would see downstream, loath to continue on its journey, yet unable to halt the flow.

“You must be exhausted, my son,” Alhana said, her own voice low, “and I will not keep you from your sleep long, but I want to tell you that I understand. You have lived through a difficult time. You have experienced events that might have overwhelmed the best and wisest of men, and you are only a youth. I must confess that I feared to find you crushed by what happened this day. I was afraid that you were so entangled in the snares of the human witch that you would never be free of her. Her tricks are impressive, but you must not be fooled by them. She is a witch and a charlatan and makes people see what they want to see. The power of the gods is gone in this world. I see no evidence that it has returned.”

Alhana paused to allow Silvanoshei to comment. The young man was silent. His eyes, glittering with starlight, were wide open and gazing into the darkness.

“I know that you must grieve over what is now happening in Silvanost,” Alhana continued, disappointed that he did not respond. “I promise you as I promised Rolan of the kirath that we will come back in strength to free the people and drive the legions of darkness from that fair city. You will be restored as king. That is my dearest wish. You have proven by the courage and strength I see in you this night that you are worthy to hold that holy trust, assume that great responsibility.”

A pale smile flickered over Silvanoshei’s lips. “So I have proven myself to you, have I, Mother? You think that at last I am worthy of my heritage?”

“You did not need to prove yourself to me, Silvanoshei,” said Alhana, regretting her words the moment she had spoken them. She faltered, tried to explain. “If I gave you that impression, I never meant to. I love you, my son. I am proud of you. I think that the strange and terrible events of which you have been a part have forced you to grow up rapidly. You have grown, when you might have been crushed by them.”

“I am glad to have earned your good opinion, Mother,” Silvanoshei said.

Alhana was bewildered and hurt by his cool and detached demeanor. She did not understand but, after some thought, put it down to the fact that he had endured much and must be worn out. Silvanoshei’s face was smooth and placid. His eyes were fixed on the night sky with such intensity that he might have been counting every single pinpoint of bright, white light.

“My father used to tell a story, Mother,” said Silvanoshei, just as she was about to rise. The prince rolled over on his side, his chains clanking and rattling, a discordant sound in the still night. “A story of a human woman—I can’t recall her name. She came to the Qualinesti elves during another time of turmoil and danger, bearing a blue crystal staff, saying that she was sent to them by the gods. Do you recall this story, Mother?”

“Her name was Goldmoon,” said Alhana. “The story is a true one.”

“Did the elves believe her when she said that she came bearing a gift of the gods?”

“No, they did not,” Alhana said, troubled.

“She was termed a witch and a charlatan by many elves, among them my own father. Yet she did bring a gift from the gods, didn’t she?”

“My son,” Alhana began, “there is a difference—”

“I am very tired, Mother.” Silvanoshei drew his blanket up over his shoulders and rolled over, so that his back was to her. “May your rest be blessed,” he added.

“Peaceful rest, my son,” said Alhana, bending down to kiss his cheek. “We will speak of this more in the morning, but I would remind you that the Dark Knights are killing elves in the name of this so-called One God.”

There came no sound from the prince except the bitter music of the chains. Either he stirred in discomfort, or he was settling himself for sleep. Alhana had no way of telling, for Silvanoshei’s face was hidden from her.

Alhana made the rounds of the camp, checking to see that those who stood guard duty were at their posts. Assured that all were watchful and alert, she sat down at the river’s edge and thought with despair and anger of the terror that reigned in Sil-vanost this night.

The river mourned and lamented with her until she imagined that she began to hear words in its murmurings.

Sleep, love; forever sleep Your soul the night will keep Embrace the darkness deep Sleep, love; forever sleep.

The river left its banks. Dark water overflowed, rose up, and drowned her.

Alhana woke with a start to find it was morning. The sun had lifted above the treetops. Drifting clouds raced past, hiding the sun from sight, then restoring it to view, so that it seemed as if the orb were winking at some shared joke.

Angry that she had been so undisciplined as to let herself slumber when danger was all around them, she jumped to her feet. To her dismay, she found that she was not the only one who had slept at her post. Those on guard duty slumbered standing up, their chins on their chests, their eyes closed, their weapons lying on the ground at their feet.

Samar lay beside her. His hand was outstretched, as if he had been about to speak to her. Sleep had felled him before he could say a word.

“Samar!” she said, shaking him. “Samar! Something strange has happened to us.”

Samar woke immediately, flushed in shame to find that he had failed in his duty. He gave an angry roar that roused every elf.

“I am at fault,” he said, bitterly chagrined. It is a wonder to me that our enemies did not take advantage of our weakness to slit our throats! I had intended to leave with the dawn. We have a long journey, and we have lost at least two hours of travel. We must make—”