A starship flashed through space.
It was not a thing of gleaming metal and thundering atomic jets. No steel hull, bristling with instruments, was exposed to the vacuum of the interstellar void. It was not a ship of science or computer-aided engineering. Sleek and graceful though it was, no machine shop ever turned out such a vessel.
Einstein would have hated it.
For one thing, it was made out of wood.
All fools aren’t young nor all young fools, but it’s a smart wager.
– The Proverbs of Shedey’uwr
Elric Ickär drummed his fingers impatiently on the long, heavy table that dominated Zorn’s workshop, its surface scarred from years of spills, gouges, nicks, and burns. Acid had eaten a deep hole on one side years ago. Once it had been a fine table, suitable for a king. Now it looked like everything else in Zorn’s home-combination-workshop – old, worn and battered.
He ran a weary eye around the room, noting the layers of dust that coated everything. Vials and retorts of varying shapes, sizes, and colors crowded the shelves, along with books, boxes, bones, herbs, and all the assorted bric-à-brac associated with spell weaving. It was, he thought despairingly, the very picture of the arch-typical wizard’s study straight out of the storybooks. He sometimes wondered if Zorn kept it that way on purpose to impress his infrequent visitors. It was the kind of thing small men did to puff up their image of themselves. Brandon, a wizard across town, certainly didn’t keep his workshop in this kind of disarray. Of course, Brandon was a far better wizard than Zorn could ever hope to be, and he had the King’s ear as well. Zorn was merely a functionary in the Lord Magistrate’s office – and a minor one at that.
He shook his head at the clutter and went back to drumming his fingers on the table. Would midday ever get here? After weeks of planning, he and his friends were finally ready to go adventuring around the world, and the minutes until noon were crawling past at a snail’s pace. He’d thought several times to head down to the tavern where they were to meet and wait there, but his friends had advised against it. Zorn knew the Smiling Waif was their gathering place. If he came back before noon to discover his only apprentice was gone, he’d head straight for the tavern to find him. Then, Elric would have to endure an extended argument with the old crank about duties and obligations until his friends arrived.
It wasn’t worth it.
So he stayed put, whiling away the hours until the noon bells tolled his freedom, his mind drifting back over the years.
In the Old Tongue, his family name, Ickär, meant one who farms, and his family certainly fit that description. They were all heavy-boned and meaty with solid, uncompromising features. They weren’t fat or ugly, but no one had ever accused them of possessing great beauty either. Even his sisters were plain-faced, verging on homely.
He was the odd one in the family; slender and quick of wit. Where their hair and eyes were black, his were brown and hazel. He was more interested in why crops prospered or withered than actually growing them. His concordant fascination with books had been the subject of many agonizing conversations with his parents.
“What good are books when weeds need to be pulled?” his father demanded. “We’ve got crops to harvest, the fence behind the south field needs mending and so does the barn roof. The scythes still haven’t been sharpened. We’ve got four cords of wood to cut before winter and the axe needs a new handle. How are books going to help with all of that?”
“But they’re interesting,” he’d protested. “I’m learning all kinds of things . . .”
“We can teach everything you need to know about farming,” his mother interrupted sharply. “You don’t need books for that.”
“I’m not learning about farming,” he’d tried to explain. “There are other things in them.”
“Then you’re filling your head with useless fluff,” his father said flatly. “I’ll hear no more about it.”
It wasn’t that they were harsh or unkind, he reflected, just unimaginative. Their name fit them well; they were born as farmers, they were going to live as farmers, and they were going to die as farmers. Farming was their whole world. Nothing else mattered.
They’d tried everything they knew to turn him into one of them. They stuffed food down his throat until he puked and made him wear weights on his wrists and ankles to build him up. They worked him from sunup to sundown, 7 days a week. His books were confiscated and he was forbidden to go to school. The only numbering they allowed was for counting bushels of grain.
None of it worked.
He remained painfully thin, his bones protruding from his sides like a skeleton. His fascination with the printed word continued unabated despite, or perhaps in spite of, their displeasure. He snuck books into his bed and read them by the moonlight coming in through the window, his hazel eyes drinking in the precious words as if they were water to a man dying of thirst. He forgot his chores or left them half-done. He slept late, exhausted from reading into the wee hours of the night.
His parents found his new books and confiscated them.
He got more.
When those were discovered, they were taken too.
He had more within days.
They took him to the local priest to exorcise the “evil demons” from him and return him to normal. Normal, of course, as they defined it. The Freedman examined him with all the holy power the Lord of Light bequeathed him but found nothing of note. “There aren’t any demonic forces controlling your son,” he told them. “There is nothing unnatural about him at all.”
“Nothing unnatural!” his father exploded. “Look at him! He reads books instead of harvesting the crops! If we were all like him we’d starve to death! Of course, it’s unnatural.”
The cycle went around and around for many long years. Finally, his parents admitted defeat. If they couldn’t mold him into a farmer then they decided to apprentice him into the only endeavor they knew of that required reading – magic.
They took him to the Twin Cities, Thorginbelt and Gryreflex, on opposite sides of the mighty Nimhes River in the Fleynirian Kingdom. There, on one of their trips to sell their grain, they tried to apprentice him to one of the mages in the court of Prince Abend, heir to the throne. No one would take a slender, bony youth of 10 from the farms so they lowered their sights, and kept on lowering them until they finally found someone who would take him, Zorn.
Elric sighed in frustration.
Zorn seemed to have a positive talent for saying just the right thing to make him feel completely unworthy. Elric was forced to admit Zorn had taught him the basics of spell weaving. But no matter how much he tried to obey Zorn’s instructions and lessons, the old crank was never pleased. There was always something that wasn’t done right, something to be criticized and belittled, something to complain about. At first, it motivated Elric to try again, harder, and harder. But as the years past, as he visibly improved, and the biting criticisms continued unabated, he dropped into a black pit of despair and hopelessness.
The only saving grace in the whole situation had been his friends. During the first weeks when Zorn was showing him around the city (so he could run errands and not get lost) he’d met some children his age in the open market down by the docks. Elric managed to slip away while Zorn was involved in a long and boring argument with a fellow wizard. While wandering through the gaily colored stalls he’d encountered a band of shrieking children racing through the crowd. In the way of playing children everywhere, he was soon involved in their game and enjoying himself for the first time in weeks. By the end of the afternoon, they’d become fast friends.
During the years since, they’d had great fun together. This, in spite of the fact the six of them were as different from one another as it was possible to be. Their differences seemed to strengthen their friendship rather than weaken it. When Zorn would become unusually demanding, Elric could complain to his friends and be sure they would listen and commiserate. Likewise, when life was tough for them, he would sit and listen. It made life bearable.
But only just.
It took months for his friends to pull him out of his dark depression and when at last they succeeded, he gave up trying to please Zorn and merely tried to stay out of his way as much as possible.
In recent months even that had become impossible. Zorn was pulling him into the intrigues at the palace and dropping duties of state on his shoulders. Elric viewed this turn of events with growing alarm. His apprenticeship should have been drawing to a close yet Zorn appeared completely oblivious to it. It was obvious if he didn’t act soon, he’d be trapped in the capital city of Thorginbelt for the rest of his life as an assistant to a minor functionary in the Magistar’s office.
That was when he’d begun making plans to leave, with or without Zorn’s approval.
He told his friends what he was up to of course, and discovered that they were also eager to get out of the city. Each of them had different reasons, but they were all in agreement that it was time to take charge of their own lives. When it became obvious they were all in agreement, it hadn’t taken much longer before they decided to declare themselves “The Knights of Gaia” and become an adventuring party. They even found a job guarding a caravan heading up through the Mügard Pass to Taeljurm on the edge of the Northern Kingdoms.
Everything was set and ready to go. The only thing left was to meet his friends at noon down at the Smiling Waif, a dilapidated bar that had once seen better days as a blacksmith’s shop. So he waited, drumming his fingers restlessly as the slow minutes crept by. Finally, he could stand it no more. The sun was almost directly overhead and a few minutes, either way, wouldn’t make any difference. He threw off the official robes Zorn made him wear and grabbed his backpack. He cinched it down tight. His spellbook slid into its pouch and he took up his staff from the corner.
Just as he approached the door, it swung open and Zorn marched in, muttering angrily to himself as he usually did. With his head down, he didn’t see Elric until he almost ran into him.
“There you are! We have to get over to the –” He paused, taking in Elric’s pack. “What? Where are your robes? Why are you wearing that? What’s the meaning of this?” His peremptory tones grated on Elric’s last nerve.
He gave Zorn a hard look “Even you’re not that blind. I’m leaving.” He stepped around the startled wizard and nearly made it to the door before Zorn’s hand grabbed his shoulder.
“How dare you! You get back here you ungrateful whelp!”
Enough was enough. Elric let Zorn’s hand pull him around, using the momentum to jam his staff between Zorn’s legs and twist, sending him stumbling backward to stay on his feet.
“You can’t do that to me,” Zorn blustered. “I’m your master, your teacher, and besides that,” his voice grew firmer, “if you don’t apologize right now, I have the power to make you wish you’d never been born.” A late growth spurt had driven Elric’s height to just shy of 4 cubits, and Zorn found himself looking up to meet his eyes.
Elric’s eyes narrowed contemptuously as he glowered down at him. He knew from long experience that the weakness of Zorn’s magic was the major reason for his lack of promotion at court. “Try it!”
Zorn’s eyes flew wide in shock. Flustered at Elric’s lack of concern with his threat, he groped for a plausible alternative to carrying it out.
Elric didn’t give him time to decide. Before the shocked mage could recover his wits, he turned and flew through the door. He bounded down the stairs, all but running down the hall to the door. Zorn’s voice echoed behind him but he ignored it, bursting onto the street.
The noise and dust of the city were less intense around the city chambers than in other parts of the city, but the growing heat of Tevrei, the last month of winter, driven by hot winds from the Midbar Desert just 200 leagues south, was inescapable throughout the entire kingdom. Blinding light struck him like a physical blow after the cool shadiness of the wizard’s study. Shielding his eyes from the brightness, he turned and headed toward the docks and the Smiling Waif.
He turned down a side street and lost sight of Prince Abend’s palace. The swirling crowds drew him along and he finally realized he’d done it, he’d really, actually done it! He was free
No more waiting for hours for Zorn to finish with some idiotic experiment or running around town fetching this and that. That was all over! If he fetched anything anymore, it would be for himself. He laughed aloud and did a shuffling, little dance, ignoring the strange looks he got. Look out world, he thought, ‘cause here I come!
Jon “Fast Hand” Mitsvah dropped his pack on a corner table, claiming it and earning a black look from the pair he’d beaten to it. He sank into one of the chairs with his back to the wall, mainly out of habit.
“Beer!” he shouted to the waitress.
The woman nodded and disappeared behind the long bar. The Smiling Waif had seen better days but it was still clean and well lit because of its many windows. The tables scattered about were scarred from carved initials and crude drawings, warped from countless evenings of use and spilled beer. The ancient stone on the floor was stained black with age and strewn with sawdust. The best feature of the place was its high beamed ceiling, a remnant from its days as a blacksmith’s shop when good ventilation was a must.
The waitress set down his beer. “That’ll be a copper,” she told him. He dug out a small coin and tossed it to her.
Jon was intimately familiar with taverns. He’d spent many an evening in taverns and bars around the Twin Cities, gambling and whoring, hatching plots which the city guard would have given much to learn about. In fact, they had given a lot. Not as much as he’d presumed when he first started working for them, but not bad either. Working for the guard was like any other job, he reasoned; it had its good points and its bad points. Some of his erstwhile companions, moldering in the city dungeon, might disagree with him, of course. Still, better them than him.
The guard had caught him at the tender age of ten, stealing a loaf of bread from the Fat Man. They’d thrown him in jail overnight. For a child, the experience had been terrifying; a black eternity of rats, dank straw, and freezing cold. When they’d come for him the next morning he’d wept and pleaded for mercy, swearing he’d never do it again.
The promise turned out to be unnecessary.
He was offered a chance to work for the city guard as a double agent, pretending to be a thief and brigand while passing information to his superiors. He was young, headstrong, and foolish; the idea appealed to him with the lure of adventure, hairbreadth escapes, intrigue, and danger.
It was nothing of the kind.
Oh, there was the occasional tense moment, but nothing to really challenge him. The guard arraigned “heists” for him to pull to keep up his credentials among the underworld, but he knew that he wouldn’t get caught so there was no thrill of danger. There was in fact, very little challenge to it at all.
He left the city orphanage and got his own place, little more than a converted closet. There was a bed, a battered trunk for his clothes, and a mirrored desk with his make-up kit. He spent as little time there as possible. Most of the time he was out on the streets, picking up tidbits of gossip, lending a hand to his “friends”, or reporting to the guard.
Working for the guard had taught him to read and write he conceded, but what good that was, he didn’t know. He sighed and ran a hand through his short brown hair. He took a swig of his beer and moodily considered his lot in life, brown eyes staring off into the distance.
About the only worthwhile thing in his whole life were his friends, he thought. Aside from that, there wasn’t much that he considered either valuable or important. They weren’t his “friends”, they were his friends; people he’d known since before he’d been arrested that time so long ago. They used to play hide-and-seek in the market not too far from here, ducking in and out among the gaily colored stalls, laughing and shrieking at each other with careless abandon.
As the years went by some of them dropped by the wayside or moved away or grew apart, but a few had stuck close together. In recent times they’d taken to meeting at the Smiling Waif once or twice a week for no particular reason except to spend time with each other. They’d found genuine respect for each other’s growing skills and abilities, and a sympathetic ear when they were in trouble. He wasn’t the only orphan in the group, but he was the only one who had no one to look after him – the group had become his family.
When had that happened, he mused? There wasn’t any hard and fast line that could be drawn, where one could say on this side they were just friends, and on this side, they were his family. There was just this large gray area, where one emotion shaded over into another. It bothered him there wasn’t a line, that it wasn’t black and white. The law was black and white, why wasn’t everything else?
Of all his friends, he was the only one who saw things that way. The others thought it quite acceptable for life to be uncertain, shot through with shades of gray and lines that were fuzzy instead of clear and sharp. He couldn’t accept that. Most of it came from his time with the city guard, of course. They tended to think in straight forward terms, goals, time tables, projected costs, strategy, and tactics. But still, there was a certain rightness to it that touched a responsive chord within him. The ordered goals and ideals of the guard had appealed to him from the very first and he’d found himself quite at home there. Despite his growing urge to move on to greener pastures, he still felt that way. It was an attitude that earned him his new “family” name, Mitsvah. In the Old Tongue, it meant law or rules.
When his friends first suggested they form an adventuring company he’d tried to stay out of it, it sounded a little too chaotic and uncertain to him. To hear the rest of them talk, it was going to be one big party from one end of Gaia to the other. It was only when Elric had finally talked him into going along with it that the group had gotten organized, mainly because the somber, almost dour, rogue insisted. Their idea of adventuring was to go “barging around and see what attacks us”, a plan he viewed with horror. By dint of much argument, he’d gotten them to agree to a travel plan with definite stops and checkpoints along the way. As far as he was concerned, it was the only way to make sure they actually got somewhere, rather than just floundering around aimlessly.
They’d agreed to head north out of Thorginbelt through the Mügard Pass to Taeljurm. From there they would turn east along the northern side of the Akhu Plains, around the tip of the Sorgo mountains to Sairaw, the City of the Winds, then still further east across the vastness of the Biqah Prairie to the Marilas Federation on the shores of the Overdark Ocean. From there they would turn south along the coast until they reached the T’thalian Empire, west across the Plains of Aroon and the mountainous Kingdom of Ingold, then follow the famous Cliff Mountains road until they reached Namak Lake. From there they would continue west to Lake Mound then keep going back to Fleyniria, and the Twin Cities. He’d thought that was still rather vague, but it was the best that he could get them to agree to. He’d had to put the brakes on them when Horace broached the idea of visiting the Blood Lands then striking southeast through the Bitstsah Swamp to Culth-Syker. The first two were treacherous enough but visiting Culth-Syker was the last thing they needed. The ruins of that ancient god-city were an abomination where the Dark Ones of the First Age were said to still hold sway. Yet his friends thought it might be “kinda fun” to go see it.
He shook his head at the memory. He was going to have his hands full keeping this gang on track, he had seen that from the very first. Still, it was better than staying here, getting rusty and bored. And now that all the arraignments had been made, he found himself looking forward to their departure with growing eagerness. He glanced out the window at the front of the tavern, hoping to see his friends marching down the street.
The last lingering notes died away and the scattered patrons pounded heir beer mugs on the tables cheering loudly. Katrina Swansong flung her mane of flame-red hair back out of her eyes and smiled brightly at them. She lowered her lute into its case and closed the lid. It was the last set of her last day playing at the Bent Goblin and she was ready to go.
She stepped down off the low stage and headed for the back of the tavern. Pushing through the leather curtain hanging in the doorway, she set her lute down and plopped into the chair in front of Oren’s desk. He shook his head tiredly.
“Hmph,” he snorted. “Don’t bother to knock or anything, just come on in and make yourself at home.”
Katrina fixed her mysterious, green eyes on him in a manner that had paralyzed countless men in the past. “Now, now Oren, watch your temper. You know it’s not good for your heart.” Her voice was low and sultry, conditioned by her long years of singing practice.
He snorted again and ran a handkerchief over his bald pate. “Don’t try your green gaze on me girl; I’m six times your age and been had by the best.” He shifted his massive bulk in the chair and sighed, “How much do I owe you?”
Now it was her turn to snort at him. She reached over and picked a sheet of paper out of the mess on his desk, running a finger down the row until she came to her real name, Katrina Shiyr, instead of her stage name, then across to today’s date. The figure was already filled in, in his handwriting. “You know exactly how much you owe me,” she told him.
“Ah well, it was worth a try.” He pried himself out of his chair and shuffled to the wall safe behind him. Twirling the little knob, he asked her, “Are you sure I can’t talk you out of this? We’re going to miss you around here.”
Katrina shook her head quietly. “No, it’s time for me to move on. There’s nothing here for me anymore.” The old man sucked his breath in sharply and she realized too late she’d hurt him with her careless words. She sprang out of her chair and came around the desk to throw her arms around him. “I’m sorry, Oren. I wasn’t thinking when I said that. Please don’t be angry.”
He looked down, regarding her somberly. “I know you didn’t mean it, girl, but you’ve got to start paying more attention to what you say. Most people will simply take you at face value and not try to see beneath that beautiful exterior of yours. You’ve got a good head on your shoulders, but you rarely use it.” He pulled away from her and turned back to the safe.
Katrina paused uncertainly, not sure of what to say. Oren had taken her in three years ago when her parents died in a fire. He’d been her voice instructor for several years before that and felt an obligation to his young student when she was left homeless and orphaned by the fire.
Her parents had been traveling entertainers until shortly after Katrina was born. They’d mesmerized audiences across Gaia from the island of La-Dan to the Overdark Ocean. When their daughter was a year old they’d settled in Thorginbelt and purchased a store with their savings. During their years on the road, they had collected scores of souvenirs; tiny spice holders from Zul, crystal dolphins from the city-states on the shores of the Tagil Sea, a four-leaf clover from the island of Pellin, a piece of grass plucked from the base of the Gates of Eternity; the house had been filled with hundreds of such items, and each one had its own story behind it. She had listened raptly for hours as her parents told her stories about all of the faraway places they had been and the sights they’d seen. They’d told her about the strange customs and manner of dress of the desert kingdoms to the south, the pirates on the open seas, and the beauty of ancient mountains half a continent away. And they taught her the songs of those places.
The stories fired her imagination, but it was the songs that gave her the resolve to go and see those wondrous places and write her own songs about them. All of her life it had been her music rather than her swordplay that gave her courage. Oh, she was good enough with a sword and a fair hand at dagger throwing, but it was at music that she excelled; music and carefree lyrics that often stung more than she intended. Oren was right, if she was to go adventuring around the world she needed to be more circumspect in her choice of words.
“I’m sorry, Oren. I’ll try to be more careful,” she said slowly.
“Don’t be sorry,” he told her brusquely, “just don’t do it anymore. All the music in the world won’t undo the damage of thoughtless words. I understand and can make allowances, but others may not.”
She nodded. “Once we’re on the road I’ll let Mira or Aaren do all the talking.”
“Aye, now that’s a wise decision. Those two could talk a dragon out of his hoard,” he laughed. “Here’s your money,” he added, pressing a handful of coins on her.
She counted it silently and her eyes widened. “This is twice what you owe me. I can’t take this.”
“Take it,” he insisted. “It’s my money and I’ll spend it how I see fit.”
“But . . .”
“Take it.” He glared at her. “Are you trying to insult me again?”
“No,” she said, somewhat subdued.
He reached out and closed her fist over the money. “Then take it and let’s hear no more about it.”
Ducking her head to hide quick tears, she slid the coins into her belt pouch and busied herself with the tie. After a moment she had it under control again and looked around. “Where are my leathers?” she asked, changing to a safer subject.
“In the backroom,” he said, waving a careless hand, his gaze averted.
She mumbled her thanks and darted through the door to put on her studded, leather armor. It took her several minutes; by the time she’d come back into Oren’s office he’d regained his composure. The sudden display of emotion embarrassed both of them and they were glad it was over. Both had been hurt by the slings and arrows of fate and were shy of letting others get close.
“Your pack is under that pile of tablecloths over there,” he said, indicating a tangled heap by the entrance to the office.
“Thanks.” She strapped on her sword and slid a dagger into each boot top. Two easy strides took her to the pile of cloth and she tossed it aside and swung the pack up onto her shoulders. A quick jerk tightened the straps. She carefully slid her lute into its accustomed place and swung around to confront him. “Well, how do I look?” she asked, arms akimbo.
Oren nodded slowly. “Not bad. Not bad at all.”
“Thanks. Well,” she hesitated, searching for words, “I guess I’ll see you in a few months when we get back.”
He settled further into his chair with a faint creak. “Until roads come ’round then.”
She laughed gaily. “Until roads come ’round,” she replied brightly and bounced out of the room.
He waited until he heard the faint slam of the front door of the tavern before he pried himself up out of his chair and walked over to a small cabinet and opened it carefully. Inside was a tiny shrine dedicated to the Lord of Light. Katrina didn’t pray that he knew of, the Shiyr family were given to song rather than prayer, but he had long looked to the god some called The Healer. Now he lit incense and offered his most heartfelt prayer in many a year.
Murray Karash stepped back from his son and ran a critical eye over his armor. “Swing your arms around like this,” he told him, demonstrating.
Horace Karash, called the Smithson, nodded from behind his visor and windmilled his arms obediently. His armor moved easily and silently, without any telltale squeaks or groans. It didn’t catch or rub despite his vigorous movements. Murray would have been surprised if it had, he was the best smith in Thorginbelt, maybe in all Fleyniria.
“Good. Now, bend over at the waist as far as you can.” He watched carefully, nodding thoughtfully to himself.
For most of the morning, they had been going through this, testing the armor, making sure that it fit and functioned perfectly. Murray was determined to give his son the absolute best suit of armor possible for his adventures around Gaia with his friends and had spared no expense.
Horace finally straightened up and threw back his visor with an armored hand. “Whew! Hot in here,” he laughed happily.
Murray nodded. “Aye, that it is, and well I remember. But I’d rather be hot than dead.”
“Naturally,” his son said reasonably. “I wasn’t complaining, just commenting.”
The fires from the nearby forge glinted off the polished metal, sending bright flashes of light in every direction when Horace moved or shifted position. The flashes had attracted the attention of several passing children and they now sat huddled in the door, eyeing the armored figure worshipfully. Horace, well aware of his audience, missed no opportunity to strut and pose for them. The sound of their ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ was music to his ears.
“Let’s see how well you can fight in it,” his father said.
Horace grinned broadly. “I can fight like a fiend,” he boasted loudly. He winked at his miniature fans and slammed the visor down with a clang. He whipped his two-handed sword from its sheath and took a fighting stance.
Murray nodded quietly to himself at the ease of Horace’s movements. “Good, good.” He picked up his own two-handed sword, shouted, “Defend yourself!” and leapt to the attack.
Both men were huge, verging on the gigantic. Muscles were layered upon muscles on both of them and the family resemblance was obvious even to the most casual observer. Murray’s snapping black eyes and midnight hair were duplicated in Horace. Both sported bushy beards, a royal nose, and stood well over four cubits. Their weight was unknown, but strong chairs creaked and groaned when they sat in them.
Murray was wearing several pieces of plate over a suit of chain, in contrast to his son’s solid covering. But his greater skill and experience made up for the difference in armor and the battle was equal. The two of them came together with a horrendous crash, steel on steel. A lesser man would have been knocked senseless by that impact, but they merely grunted and surged harder against each other. Their swords glittered in the sunlight, almost invisible so fast were they swung to and fro.
The sounds of their battle attracted people from every direction and within moments a huge crowd surrounded the two men, cheering and laughing. As the fight continued, a ferret-faced man began taking bets on the outcome and the crowd grew louder and more boisterous, urging their favorites on to greater and greater exertions. The ring of steel mixed with human shrieks grew louder until a patrol of guardsmen, alerted by the noise, came to see what was going on. They relaxed when they saw the reason for the crowd and the noise, a few even placed bets of their own.
Almost before anyone realized what was happening, the fight was over. A blur of motion, a ring of steel, and Horace’s sword clattered to the ground. Murray’s sword was at his throat and he froze. The tableau held for a moment, then Murray’s sword tip dropped and he stepped back, straightening up.
“There’s more to fighting than just strength, lad. A lesson you’d do well to remember.”
Horace picked up his sword and sheathed it smoothly. “Have I ever failed to heed your teachings, father?” He threw back his visor, revealing a sweat streaked face.
Murray grinned at him. “Only when it comes to girls.”
“Those lessons I prefer to learn on my own,” Horace laughed.
“As did I when I was your age.”
They grinned broadly at each other, threw their arms around each other’s shoulders, and turning toward the crowd, bowed deeply together. The crowd cheered them roundly then began breaking up, some collecting their winnings, others shaking their heads over their losses.
“Come, your mother will want you washed and cleaned up for lunch. And we haven’t much time.”
“I’ll be done before you know it.”
Suiting actions to words he threw off his armor and raced to the washroom. There was a huge wooden tub with a spigot over it. He twisted the knob and steaming water began filling up the tub from the cistern over his father’s forge. They were one of the few families in the city to have an almost endless supply of hot water and his mother insisted they make use of it.
True to his word, he was done washing in short order. He dried himself off and threw on a clean tunic and pants. He slid on a pair of sandals and let the dirty water out of the tub. It gurgled behind him as he left the room and bounded down the stairs, taking them two at a time.
His family, although not exactly noble, was better off than most of the people in Gryreflex or the capital, Thorginbelt, for that matter. His grandfather had been part of a party of adventurers that had driven a tribe of giants out of the Blue Mountains along the Tagil Sea. His part of the giant’s hoard had made him wealthy overnight. He’d planned ahead and bought several hundred acres of prime farmland then hired people to farm it for him.
Murray had added to the family holdings when he’d gone adventuring himself. He’d spent several years with some of his dwarven friends and learned more about metalworking in that short time than most people learned in a lifetime. He’d brought back a dwarven forge and built his shop in the better part of town, eventually earning a reputation as the best armorer in Fleyniria. Even the King paid handsomely for his services. Now it was time for Horace to add to the family honor and fortune.
He was ready. His friends and he had already formed an adventuring group and Mira had lined up a job for them as guards on a trade caravan. It was somewhat below his station but his fighting prowess ensured he was ready for it. Horace’s father had trained him well in the noble art of war and chivalry, as evidenced by their recent match. His mother had taught him his letters, etiquette, manners, and an appreciation of the finer arts. Oh yes, he was ready for any and all situations that might arise on the road.
The only irritant was his father’s insistence that he venture forth with only a handful of gold pieces, a totally unreasonable position. What was he supposed to do for lodging at night? Sleep on the ground? And what about other expenses? What was he supposed to do about that? It was quite a problem and he resolved to speak to his father about it again before he left. It was just too preposterous.
He pushed open the door and stepped into the cool, marbled hall. Lana, the maid, curtsied quickly and went on with her dusting. He smiled briefly at her and strode down the hall toward the dining room where his parents would be waiting for him. He heard them talking in low murmurs before he got there.
“Are you quite sure, dear? What about emergencies?”
“Suzan, the boy has to learn how to take care of himself sooner or later. If he’s able to buy his way out of every situation he’ll never learn,” his father rumbled.
“I didn’t say enough money for every situation," his mother replied testily. “Just enough for emergencies.”
“But how much is that?”
There was a long moment of silence. Horace hung back, just outside the door, listening intently. Apparently, his mother realized how unreasonable his father was being on this subject as well as he did. He hadn’t known that before.
His mother finally spoke up again. “A hundred gold pieces would be about right,” she said slowly.
A hundred? Why not give him nothing and be done with it? A hundred wouldn’t last any time at all.
“Hmm. Well, maybe,” he heard his father say. “We’ll see about it. Right now, where is he anyway? He should have been here by now.”
Whoops! That was his cue. He silently backed away from the door then walked noisily into the room. He leaned over and kissed his mother on the cheek. “Hmmmm. What smells so good?” he asked brightly, giving no indication that he’d overheard them talking.
“Andrea cooked fresh rock cod with chestnuts for you,” Suzan told him. “Remember to thank her for it before you leave.”
“Yes, mother,” he said dutifully, sitting down at the table.
Murray offered a perfunctory prayer to the gods and they dug into their food. Horace munched away with particular relish, savoring his last home-cooked meal for the next – who knew how long. While they ate there was little discussion, the silence being broken only by the clink of silverware.
Afterward, they moved to the sitting room, Horace and his father lighting up their pipes, and his mother nursing a small glass of wine imported from distant Munros. There was a lengthy silence that was finally broken by Murray.
“Have you decided what route you’re going to take?” he asked.
Horace nodded. “Jon laid it all out for us several weeks ago. We’re going to make a big circuit of Gaia and eventually wind up right back here,” he answered, telling them about the various stops and checkpoints that Jon had set up for them along their route.
Murray puffed thoughtfully on his pipe for a minute. “I see. And what will you be doing to earn your way?”
Horace hesitated briefly and then plunged in. If they didn’t like the job they’d found, maybe that would induce his father to cough up more cash. “Mira says that she got get us hired on with the Seven Thumbs Trading Company as caravan guards, as far as the Northern Kingdoms anyway.”
Almost immediately he knew that was the wrong thing to say. His father’s face lit up like a lantern at harvest time. “Fantastic! That’s the same kind of job I first had when I went adventuring too. You’ll love it!” he beamed enthusiastically. “You tell Mira I’m as happy as can be. She really came through again.”
His father had been a caravan guard? Horace felt his heart sink like a rock. Now there was no chance at all of getting more money out of him. He cursed inwardly, trying to smile back at his parents. Boy, just wait until I get my hands on Mira, he thought grimly. I’m going to give her a piece of my mind for sure. Every time she turns around she does something ‘wonderful’ Dad approves of, and I’m getting sick of it. Just wait until I get my hands on her, just wait.
Mira Highmoon wasn’t the least bit concerned with Horace’s opinion of her or his threats. On more than one occasion in the past he’d threatened her with various indignities, but only once had he been able to make good on it. Mira was incredibly strong for a woman, and every bit as agile as Jon. She was only two fingers shy of 4 cubits tall, and her long legs enabled her to outdistance Horace with ease when he came bellowing and pounding after her. Although she and Jon disagreed on many things, one thing they both thoroughly enjoyed was needling Horace to the point of red-faced fury then eeling away before he could catch them.
Almost from the day she was born, Mira was a beauty. Her piercing blue eyes and flowing, chestnut hair had brought her more than her fair share of attention from the young boys when she was growing up, and an even larger amount of attention from the men now. She was lean and firm from her years in the forests and mountains, scouting for the army or leading hunting expeditions. Although her father’s logging business took him into town often, bringing her with him, she was far more comfortable in the great outdoors than she was in the cramped closeness of the city. Although she disliked cities, she didn’t hate them. She didn’t hate anything, except lizard men.
The hideous, scaled creatures had swum up the Blackwater River to her father’s logging camp when she was five years old. It had been early evening when they attacked, some of the lanterns and fires were already lit, and the dancing flames cast an eerie light over the battle. She could still see her father and his men fighting desperately with little more than their timber axes for weapons. The huge black shadows of man and beast, surging back and forth under the trees, blood splattering the ground, was a vision she’d never been able to forget. Then, that high pitched scream that she could still hear in her mind, turning around – the whole world moving in slow motion – seeing her mother, slumped on the ground, the monster’s dripping claws ripping her body to shreds until she nothing but a pile of meat.
In that frozen moment Mira had conceived a hatred she had never known was possible. It raged through her like a living thing, and she’d sworn on her mother’s grave she’d never suffer one of those scaled monsters to live whenever she encountered one.
To that end, she had learned to wield a sword and pull ever heavier bows as she grew to womanhood. She ran through the woods, eyes sharp for the slightest indication of what had passed before, learning what every bent twig and twisted blade of grass meant until she was the finest tracker of anyone her age. She learned to read the moods of the animals, to watch where they stepped and did not, to drink only where they did, and to take note of any unnatural silence in the woods. She became adept at moving like a shadow through the trees and she taught herself to swim like a fish to be better prepared to meet her hated enemies on their own territory.
But her childhood was not all given to vengeance and training.
She also had time to make friends during her many visits to the city with her father and some of those friendships had lasted a lifetime. She’d become closer to them than her father in some ways. Since her mother’s death, he’d become a cold and distant man, all but unapproachable. Now and then he would offer her a brief smile, but such attentions were few and far between.
Therefore it was her little group of friends that she came to depend on when things were tough when she needed advice or just wanted someone to talk to. When she heard a new joke, it was her friends that she thought of first. When her heart was captured, it was one of them, though she had yet to tell him. When the madness came on her and she screamed vengeance at the moon, it was her friends who sat and comforted her until it was over.
So it wasn’t surprising when one of them suggested they form an adventuring company and see the world, she was the first to agree. The idea held an immediate appeal for her. She was tired of her father’s sullen moods and increasing bouts of drunkenness. Logging had lost what little interest it had ever had and she was ready to try something new. But she didn’t know what she wanted to do. The idea of working for the army on a full-time basis was unappealing, but her skills didn’t seem to be suited for anything else. She could tutor noble’s children in their letters she supposed – reading and writing had been essential for running her father’s business – but that sounded more like a jail sentence than a life.
Adventuring was the perfect answer. Her woodland skills would be useful and needed, her sword arm and bow would be equally necessary. It would keep her out of the cities and towns, and let her see some of the places that she’d heard about and despaired of ever seeing. But most important of all, she’d be with her friends on a full-time basis, especially Aaren – her idea of heaven.
It had fallen to her to find them a job. After long discussions, they’d concluded their best bet was to try to hire on to one of the trade caravans that had their headquarters in the Twin Cities. Since many of those caravans passed by or through the forests where she lived, it was up to her to make the contact. She hadn’t felt like telling them it would be an effortless task. Many of the caravan masters often stopped at her father’s logging camp to pick up fresh lumber for repairing their wagons, and she’d met just about all of them at one time or another. All she’d had to do was decide which trading company she felt like working for then ask them for a job.
The Seven Thumbs had been her favorite and Old Tom, one of the caravan masters, had been more than happy to give her and her friends a chance to prove themselves. She finished tightening the straps on her studded, leather armor and reflected that part of his attitude was based on his appreciation of beautiful woman. Both she and Katrina definitely fit that description, she thought without vanity, and Old Tom knew it. Looking is free, she chuckled to herself, but anything else – she fingered her sword’s razor edge – is out of the question.
With a light heart, she tossed on her backpack, sauntered out of her rented room, and headed for the Smiling Waif.
The Towers of Kicce´, as the temple to the Lord of Light, was known, was just east of Prince Abend’s palace. It was a stately affair, yet there was a hint of whimsy about it as well, almost as if it had been built without the benefit of an architect’s plans. At least that’s how it had always looked to Aaren. He loved the old place but never could get rid of the feeling it was unfinished somehow. He paused at the bottom of the steps, as he had done so many times before, and tried to find the flaw, the cornice or spire, maybe the window out of place, that gave him that impression and as always, was unable to put his finger on it. He shook his head in mild amusement at the picture he was making of himself and hurried on up the steps into the temple that had been his home and sanctuary since he was a newborn child.
He’d been found on the steps of the temple when he was no more than two or three days old, wrapped in tattered rags, a note pinned to him. The note said his name was Aaren and would the clerics please find him a good home where he would be loved. Aaren was a name from the Old Tongue that meant lofty or inspired, so his mother must have had high hopes for him. There was no one to take the child or claim him so they named him Aaren Valed. Valed was also from the Old Tongue and meant child or offspring.
There were many who felt the name no longer suited him for he had grown into a blond and blue-eyed man, tall and pleasing to behold, his short beard only adding to his good looks. He was given to frequent laughter and mischievous pranks that endeared him to others rather than irritating them. As the years went past it became obvious that he was a natural leader, able to motivate others with a word or gesture. He was also the ringleader in class when trouble was afoot and his teachers all said that he’d go far in the world – if they didn’t hang him first, and his winning personality made that eventuality unlikely.
Because he was raised by the clerics of the Lord of Light, it was a foregone conclusion he would also become a cleric there. Indeed, it almost seemed to be his natural calling; he learned everything they shoved at him with astonishing speed. They had but to explain an esoteric point of theology once and he comprehended it as well as his teachers. He learned to read and write so quickly it was as if he was simply remembering what he had once known rather than truly learning it for the first time. Even the battle lessons with hammer and mace, he picked up with little apparent effort. Among his teachers and in the halls of the temple it was whispered that he was a future candidate for the position of High Priest, and even his childhood friends believed that to be his destiny. Of all those that lived, only Rymorn, the current High Priest, knew different.
On the day Aaren was found on the temple steps, Rymorn, acting on a hunch, cast an augury and learned some of the truth about Aaren’s future, a future that would take him far afield from the haunts of civilized men.
Aaren, ignorant of Rymorn’s concern for his future, hurried through the main temple and the sanctuary beyond. Coming into the inner, private areas of the complex he cut across the gardens and flung open the door to his quarters with a bang. The tiny room was immaculate from his final preparations and cleaning. His pack, bulging with supplies, lay on the cot along with his war hammer and mace. He tightened the straps back down and slung the pack on. Picking up his weapons, he slid them into the holders on his hips. Turning, he surveyed the room for a moment then left, pulling the door gently closed behind him.
No longer in a hurry, he strolled slowly through the corridors, nodding to passing clerics and exchanging final partings with them as he went. They had thrown a huge farewell party for him the night before so most of the partings were perfunctory.
Coming down the steps of the temple he saw Horace, clad in shining armor, stalking down the street from the Raven Bridge, one of the nine bridges that spanned the Nimhes River between Gryreflex and Thorginbelt, his face set in a stormy expression. Not the best omen for a successful start, Aaren thought, wondering if Horace and his father had been arguing about money again. He hurried to intercept his friend.
A sack hit him in the chest, clinking against the chain mail under his shirt. He grabbed it before it fell.
“A hundred gold pieces!” Horace shouted. “A measly hundred! Can you believe it?”
Aaren’s heart sank, they had been arguing about money. “You’ve got something caught on your heel,” he said, trying to distract his angry friend.
But Horace wasn’t having any. “What am I supposed to do with that? Buy a pony? I need a horse, a charger! And what about lances, and a squire and tents and silverware and cots and blankets and clothes and wine and food and . . . ummph!”
His tirade was suddenly cut short as Aaren shoved the sack of coins in his mouth.
“Oh, shut up.”
Horace’s face turned several shades of red before he managed to cough up the sack with a strangled gasp. “What was that for?” he finally spluttered.
“Sometimes you can be a real pain in the neck,” Aaren told him sourly. “If I didn’t like you so much I’d never put up with your pompous attitudes about money. A hundred gold pieces is more than most people make in ten years and they seem to get along just fine.”
“I’m not most people.”
Horace eyed him suspiciously. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Most people are thankful for what they’ve got, but all you ever do is complain about what you don’t have. And the rest of us are getting tired of hearing it.”
“Nobody says you have to come along. I can go by myself,” Horace told him stiffly.
Aaren stopped and grabbed him by the shoulder, swinging him around. “Come with you? I don’t think you get the picture, my friend. It’s you coming with us that’s the question. Mira got us – the Knights of Gaia – the job, not you.” He snorted in disgust and strode away.
Horace simply stood staring after him in shock for a moment. Just before Aaren rounded the corner he took off after him. “Hey! Wait a minute! Aaren! Wait for me!” he bellowed.
Aaren wiped a quiet smirk off his lips before turning around. “Yes?” he purred innocently.
His armored friend clanked to a halt in front of him. “You guys wouldn’t really leave me out would you?”
“You were ready to leave us out.”
“Yeah, well, I wasn’t really serious or anything. I was just, you know . . . talking.”
“No! Really, I didn’t mean it.”
Aaren fought to keep a straight face. Horace could be so dense sometimes it was just unbelievable. “Sounded like you meant it to me,” he replied.
“I was just mad,” he said defensively. His eyes suddenly refused to meet Aaren’s. “You know how I am when I’m mad, sometimes I say things I don’t really mean. My mouth just runs by itself,” he finished lamely.
“Put a leash on it.”
“Uh, yeah, I will.” He looked up shyly, “You’re not gonna kick me out then?”
Aaren wanted to prolong it but the hurt expression on Horace’s face finally caused him to relent. “Okay, we won’t kick you out, BUT” – he thundered as Horace’s face lit up – “keep your mouth shut when we’re on the trail. Townsfolk might let you get away with things that people out there won’t.”
“Oh, absolutely,” Horace nodded eagerly. “No problem. I won’t say a word unless you give me the sign. Not a sound. Mum’s the word. You won’t even know I’m there. I’ll –”
Horace clamped his mouth shut and nodded. Aaren watched him for a minute. “Come on,” he sighed. “The others will be expecting us.” He turned and led the way through the twisting streets and alleys toward the docks – and freedom.
“I don’t have to listen to this any longer!”
Chairs crashed to the floor as the two mages leapt to their feet, faces suffused with anger. Sudden tension crackled in the air between them, heavy with menace. Startled shouts rang out in the room as those nearby strove to back away from the combatants.
Fingers moving like snakes, Klee Blanrus cast his spell an instant before his opponent did. Hissing bolts of power sprang from his hands and slammed into the unfortunate mage, hurling him back with a scream of agony. Not giving him a chance to recover, Blanrus quickly incanted again. An arrow of magical energy struck the enemy mage, dissolving into a flood of acid as it penetrated.
Pounding footsteps echoed the sounds of combat as Blanrus’ hired fighters ran out of the room, wanting no part of a magical duel.
The mage, withering on the stone floor, gurgled horribly. His eyes bulged and he struggled up, crooking his fingers. Lightning flared in the room, throwing stark shadows against the walls. Blanrus gritted his teeth in pain as the bolt struck him. His enemies’ casting was less than it could have been and he survived the blast.
Surviving another was out of the question though, he thought.
Grimly he fought to keep his feet, cudgeling his brain for another spell. Throwing caution to the winds he hurled a sheet of flame at the other man. The room was too small for the size of the spell and his fire rebounded off the walls striking him as well. He gasped at the searing pain and dropped to the ground, rolling to put out the fires burning on his robes.
Fearing an attack from behind he scuttled under the table, dignity forgotten in the drive to live. He lurched to his feet, head spinning. He groped for a chair to lean on and searched for his enemy. He found him and let out a trembling sigh of relief.
His knees gave out and he collapsed into the chair. Weakly he tugged at the special container on his belt. The catch gave, revealing a tiny compartment holding a stoppered vial. He pried the stopper out and drank the contents in a single swallow. Instantly he felt the soothing, tingling power rushing throughout his body, healing and repairing his wounds and burns. Within moments he was almost completely healed.
He surveyed himself. A single healing potion could take up to two days to prepare and enchant, but it was worth every minute of it. The potion had healed all but two of the worst burns, and even they were partially healed. One more potion would take care of that, he thought with grim satisfaction as he stood up. He walked over to the dead mage and knelt down, rummaging through the man’s robes.
“You should have listened to me, Jamison,” he told the corpse. “Now it’s too late, and I win anyway.” He found what he was looking for and stood up with a chuckle. He turned away to the door and jerked it open. The hall was carved out of the living rock, finished and polished by dozens, perhaps hundreds of pairs of hands over the years. Huddled at the other end of the short passageway were the men who’d bolted from the room when the battle started. They started violently when he opened the door, then laughed nervously.
“Way to go, Boss,” one of them called in uncertain tones. “You really thrashed him good.”
“And just what makes you think I thrashed him?” Blanrus asked in a silken, menacing voice. “Can you see through walls now?”
Fear leapt in the man’s eyes and the others tried to edge away from him. “No! No, I didn’t mean, I mean I was only, I, I. . .”
The man’s babbling stopped instantly. For a long moment, the only sound was his harsh breathing.
It was times like this he enjoyed the most, Blanrus thought to himself; when these worms crawled before him like whipped dogs, whining and placating, begging to be petted. The power was intoxicating! He let a slow smile surface on his face.
“As it turns out Roget, I did thrash him as you so quaintly put it. Now get up, and get that body out of there before it stinks the place up!”
“Yes Sir! Right away!”
Roget and the others scrambled to obey, rushing past him into the room, eager to be out of his sight. The sounds of busy activity floated out of the room. Blanrus turned away and walked further down the hall. He stopped at the end and reached up over his head. A faint ‘click’ sounded and a small panel slid silently aside. Reaching in he removed another vial identical to the one he’d had in his belt compartment. He quickly drained it and put the empty vial back. He slid the panel shut and leaned back against the wall as the potion completed the healing of his wounds. His steel-gray eyes regained their customary, flinty expression. He straightened up and ran a hand through his hair, then examined his robes.
He opened a door at the end of the hall into his bedroom and pawed through his clothes. He found a fresh robe and pulled it on. The old one could be used for rags or something. He never did pay much attention to what his servants did with his cast-off clothes. Probably sold them for the value of the gold thread. For some reason, the thought amused him and he chuckled lightly as he headed back for the scene of the battle, his disposition much improved.
His men had already removed Jamison’s body by the time he got there and the only sign of the battle was a blackened spot on the far wall where his flame had rebounded. A door next to it opened and a tall man in the red and black robes of a cleric of Ashima entered the room. The man ran a casual hand over the sooty wall and smiled faintly.
Blanrus sat down and opened a bottle of wine that had somehow survived the battle and poured himself a drink. “What is it that you find amusing, Bashaak?”
“So much sound and fury just to kill one man.”
“There are better ways I suppose?”
Bottomless black eyes meet his gray ones. “There are.”
Blanrus drained his glass. “Don’t tell me, let me guess; you know all of them.”
Bashaak smiled sardonically, “Naturally.” The smile didn’t reach his eyes. They remained still and flat, like the eyes of a Gila monster. He clasped his hands together in front of him. “So, do we have a bargain?”
Blanrus opened his hand and the object he’d taken from Jamison’s body dropped onto the table. For the first time since he’d known the icily controlled cleric, he saw a flicker of reaction in the depths of those smoldering, fathomless eyes. He smiled to himself. “But first our needs, then you get it.”
Bashaak’s lips compressed momentarily in anger, then the expression was gone as if it had never existed.
Blanrus pulled a sheaf of papers out of his robes and handed them to the cleric. Bashaak took them and sat down absently, looking through them intently. Except for the occasional rustle of paper, silence reigned for a time in the battle-scarred room.
At last, Bashaak looked up. “It will be most difficult to find a woman that meets all these requirements. Are you sure it has to be a woman? Would a male sacrifice do instead?”
Blanrus made a show of considering the question then shook his head. “No, the sacrifice must be female.”
Bashaak nodded without expression.
Like negotiating with a moneylender, Blanrus thought sourly. He didn’t give anything away. He didn’t know whether to admire the cleric for that or not.
Bashaak folded the papers and slid them into his own robes. He stood and opened the door then paused halfway through. “We will deliver the goods exactly as you require.” His eyes flickered to the object still on the table. “Make sure you do the same.” The door closed behind him with a soft click.
Blanrus relaxed with a sigh. He’d never been able to feel totally comfortable around Bashaak. The man was just too dangerous and unpredictable, especially since the assassination of the High Priest two months ago. But, he reached out and picked up the smooth, oval object on the table and smiled. With the right lever, anyone could be moved or bought.
Adventure is the delight of fools and recounting it the
delight of drunks. The challenge is discerning the difference.
– The Proverbs of Shedey’uwr
“Ye gods that’s cold!”
Mira laughed gaily at Horace’s pained expression. “Not like the warm baths you got at Mummy and Daddy’s is it?”
After less than a week with the caravan it was becoming obvious it was Horace who was having the most trouble adjusting to life on the road. For all of his considerable strength, the slightest bit of cold set his teeth to chattering. He’d spent years helping his father at the forge, growing accustomed to the baking heat and it had left him ill-prepared to deal with the cooler temperatures in the open fields and forests. Even though hot southern winds blew in from the Midbar Desert, he complained bitterly about the cold at night and bundled himself up in layer after layer of thick, woolen blankets.
Cooking was also foreign to him. The family cook had taken care of all his meals as far back as he could remember, including washing the pots and pans afterward. After one particularly intense session of questioning, his friends concluded he’d never even held a cooking pot, let alone used one. Life in the caravan demanded everyone take their turn at mess duty. Even Old Tom took a turn at it.
The first time Horace had attempted to do his part, he’d almost chopped off his own thumb, and he hated dishpan hands. He didn’t like sleeping on the ground either. The rocks and pebbles dug into his back and sides no matter how he twisted and turned. A dozen times a night he would be up, sweeping the ground under his blankets, swearing that somebody was sticking rocks under his bedroll when his back was turned.
He complained incessantly about the trail dust. The horse he been assigned to ride was a nag. His armor was getting rusty and nobody cared. Mosquitoes were eating him alive. The food was awful. The water tasted funny. The sun got in his eyes and everything smelled.
But his worst tirades were saved for his nightly bath.
After sweating all day over the hot forge with his father, the two of them had stunk to high heaven and his mother wouldn’t let them in the house until after they’d washed up. Years of daily washing had ingrained the habit into him until he felt filthy if so much as a single day went by without a bath.
A hot bath.
His father’s forge had provided all the hot water he had ever wanted. But heating a tub full of water on the trail was a completely different proposition altogether. He’d nearly come to blows with the cook the first night out when he’d appropriated the campfire and the largest metal tub available – which happened to be filled with ingredients for that night’s stew. Old Tom stopped them before they came to blows and ordered Horace to get his own washbasin and leave other people’s property alone.
In the town of Wolpern, he’d purchased a small tub to heat water in, but it was too small to hold enough for him and his nightly battles with grime were a source of endless amusement to everyone. Mira and Jon especially enjoyed tormenting him.
Horace glared daggers at her. “Go away,” he grated. “Let me die in peace.”
Mira glanced past Horace’s shoulder then brought her gaze back to his face. “Die?” she inquired sweetly. “What makes you think you’re going to die?”
Jon, a bucket of icy stream water in his hands, crept closer.
“Because I’m freezing to death!” Horace shouted at her. “That’s why. Now leave me alo. . . Yieeeeeeeeeee!”
His chest arched and he sprang straight up as Jon flung the bucket of water full on his naked back. He staggered from the shock and tripped over his washtub. It tipped over and he fell heavily into an instant sea of mud.
Jon dropped the bucket and doubled up with laughter. “What a moron,” he howled. “He fell for it again!”
Mira nodded gleefully. “Worked like a charm,” she giggled.
Horace’s eyes bugged out at them and he clambered slowly to his feet. “Moron? Worked like a charm?” he growled. “I’ll show you what works like a charm.” He flung his arms wide and dove for them. Mira let out a strangled yelp and wiggled away. Jon ducked under Horace’s reaching arms and darted after her, the bellowing, mud smeared fighter charging after them.
Aaren danced out the way as the three of them thundered past. “Run faster,” he shouted helpfully.
Katrina threw herself down on her bedroll to watch the chase. “Who are you shouting to? Them or Horace?”
“All of them,” he said magnanimously.
“Oh, isn’t that sweet of you?”
He grinned wickedly at her. “I try.”
“I’ll bet you do.” She turned back to follow the progress of their friends as they completed their first lap around the camp.
Aaren looked around. “Where’s Elric?”
“Oh. Right.” He sank down beside her. Elric had discovered that stirring the evening stew gave him time to study his spells and kept him from having to do the dishes afterward. Unlike clerical magic, the art used by wizards was strange and alien to human thinking. Unless they were reinforced by continual study, the spells soon faded from the mind. So every evening he appropriated the big ladle and went to work, spellbook in hand.
Whistles and raucous cheers followed the race as various members of the caravan took bets on the outcome. Aaren watched them contentedly. Just four days ago the Knights of Gaia had been at the bottom of the heap in the caravan, ridiculed and tormented. Now they were accepted as regular members. Amazing, he thought, the difference a single battle could make.
The first two days had been awful.
After meeting at the Smiling Waif they’d left the city and headed north. Two miles outside the city walls was the place where they were supposed to wait for the caravan. They’d received many odd looks from passers-by as they waited. Adventuring groups such as they obviously were, didn’t hang around at road stops for nothing – people wondered what they were up to.
Eventually, the caravan arrived and Old Tom assigned each of them a horse and position. The moment they were in place the caravan took off again. It wasn’t until evening they’d had a chance to examine their new companions or talk to them.
It started badly and went downhill from there.
The name of their group was the first thing to be questioned by the other guards. “The Knights of Gaia?” growled Iggy, a grizzled Daleman, from the Dale lands far to the east. “What in blazes kinda name is that?”
“Yeah,” added another. “How come you name yerselves after the whole world? ‘At don’t make no sense.”
“It’s a goal. We decided we wanted a name that would challenge us,” Elric volunteered. “A name that will–”
“What do you mean a goal?” demanded yet another, interrupting him. “How can a name be a goal?”
“Earl’s right. A name is just a name.”
Elric melted before the onslaught. “Well, yeah I know, but . . .”
“Then why’d ya say it was a goal?” Earl pressed him.
Jon stepped in. “It’s a goal because we need to become worthy of that grand of a name. That’s what he meant.”
Elric sighed with relief and faded into the background.
Iggy glowered thoughtfully at him. “To become worthy of?”
Jon nodded proudly. “That’s right. And to become worthy of that kind of name means that we’ll have to stretch ourselves, take risks, and push it to the limit.”
“Then ya admit ya ain’t worthy of it now?” inquired one of the guards.
“Well, not now, no, but –”
“Then ya shouldn’t use it,” he spat.
Jon struggled to get through to them. “No, it’s a goal, something to strive for.”
“Ya got it all wrong kiddies, staying alive is something to strive for.”
Coarse laughter greeted this remark.
Horace whipped out his sword. “Take that back,” he snarled.
“Whoa! Look out, Earl. The puppy has teeth,” one of them laughed.
Horace reddened. “I’ll show you teeth,” he muttered and lunged for the speaker. He swung his sword up and then felt something around his ankles. Before he could look to see what it was, his feet went out from under him and he went down with a crash.
Two guardsmen threw their weight on the noose around his feet and drug him around in a great circle, the plates in his armor digging up huge clods of dirt and fouling the joints. The other guards broke up in gales of laughter.
Jon’s hand flew to his boot and yanked out the dagger it found there. He drew back to throw it – and froze.
The guardsman whose sword was at his neck plucked the dagger from his hand with a snicker. “Better luck next time,” he chortled.
The rest of the little group started forward to rescue their friends. Weapons came out and grim expressions settled on their features.
Old Tom stepped out from behind the chuck wagon and joined them. “Put your weapons away,” he ordered everyone. “We’ve things to do and no time for this. Iggy, get the horses unhitched. Earl, you have first watch tonight so get some sleep. Marin, show the newbies how to set up my tent. The rest of you, get to work!” he finished with a shout.
He’d been as fair about it as anyone could reasonably ask, Aaren reflected. Bodily injuries were out of the question, but little indignities were a different matter. There were literally thousands of opportunities for the experienced guardsmen to torment them. Dust in their food, ropes that accidentally let their bedrolls spill out all over the road, dozens of little tricks that made their lives miserable.
But Elric suffered the worst.
Even Horace, for all of his complaining, had tremendous confidence in himself, as did the rest of them. But confidence was Elric’s weakest point. His parents had made it clear they considered him a failure when they kicked him off the farm by apprenticing him to Zorn. In turn, that worthy had done nothing for years except criticize and belittle him. The end result was that he was easily humiliated and tormented. The guards, in the way of bullies everywhere, had zeroed in on him almost immediately and he’d gotten the brunt of their attentions.
The rest of them did the best they could to shield him, but twice they caught him just as he was getting ready to sneak out of camp and never come back. Both times it had taken several hours to talk him into staying.
It wasn’t until noon of the third day, in the Mügard Pass, that things changed.
They were riding in their usual place at the rear of the caravan, eating dust, when it happened. One minute the air hung heavy with dust, heat, and the creaking of the wagon wheels, the next there were screams and shouts from all directions. A ripping sound in the air alerted them to an incoming flight of arrows and they threw themselves flat on their horse’s necks.
They looked up to see a wave of bandits riding down on them from a steep hill by the road. Another flight of arrows arched over the bandit’s heads and fell on the hapless caravan. Confusion reigned amid shouted commands. A horse’s scream split the air, followed a moment later by hoarse shouts.
Aaren cast a glance at the front of the caravan and caught a glimpse of tangled horses and men. Movement caught his eye and he swung around.
“Close with them!” yelled Horace, waving his sword. “Get close so the archers can’t pick us off!” He wheeled his horse around, bumping Elric’s horse, and charged up the hill. Elric’s horse saw the running rump of the horse before him and followed blindly, bearing Elric helplessly along with him.
Aaren saw two of their members suddenly committed to a suicidal charge and swore violently. He unlimbered his war hammer, kicked his horse savagely, and pounded after them, praying fervently for help. The others hesitated for a moment, then shrugged and charged after him.
A cry of surprise went up from the bandits as they saw the six friends charging up the hill toward them, and they slowed their horses uncertainly. What kind of idiots would attack when they were outnumbered five to one? Uphill at that? The obvious implication was that they were more powerful than they looked. The bandit charge slowed even more.
Elric’s horse, not having to contend with the weight of a fully armored rider, drew ahead of the rest. Realizing his predicament Elric struggled to ready his staff but it got caught awkwardly in front of the saddle horn, leaving half of it sticking out on either side of him as his horse plunged into the bandit ranks at full speed. There was a solid, double “thunk” as the bandits on either side of him took the end of the staff right in their stomachs. The impact lifted both bandits out of their saddles, dumping them backward on the ground.
The staff sprang out from under the saddle horn and Elric grabbed desperately to keep from losing it. He caught it with an unintended flourish that made the whole maneuver look deliberate. His horse snorted, took the bit in his teeth, and kept going. Startled bandits sheared away from this “demon fighter” and he plunged on up the hill toward the line of archers.
Horace let out a whoop of joy at this and brought his greatsword around in a vast, two-handed sweep, the sheer power of his mighty thews cleaving one of the bandits nearly in half. The force of the blow hurled the corpse out the saddle directly into the path of another bandit. His horse stumbled on the body, screamed shrilly, and went down with a sickening crunch.
Mira tore into the bandits, her sword a glittering arc in the air. From the corner of her eye, she saw one of Jon’s daggers spinning through the air to bury itself in a bandit’s throat. Katrina and Aaren hurled themselves into the breach with a ringing crash of steel. A wild melee was joined.
There was a timeless moment of dusty, blood-soaked chaos, rent with screams of pain and victory. Steel rang against steel under the blazing heat of the sun. From somewhere above them a sheet of flame rolled across the hill and the stench of burnt hair filled the air.
Then. . .
Caravan guards were arriving, joining the battle.
And. . .
Bandits were dying in all directions, their ambush ruined, their archers slapping frantically at the flames on their clothes. A bugle sounded and abruptly the bandits were in full retreat.
The Knights pulled up, breathing heavily, and watched their enemies stumbling away.
“Think we should follow them?” Katrina wondered aloud, slapping the blood-soaked blade of her sword against her leg.
Jon shook his head numbly. “Why bother?” He waved a hand around at the pile of corpses at their feet. “I think we’ve earned our keep for the day.”
A murmur of agreement escaped from the guardsmen around them. “Boy if that ain’t the truth,” one of them muttered. “Ain’t never seen anyone charge up a hill before.”
Elric reined in beside them. “Ain’t never wanted to charge up a hill before,” he quipped.
There was a general round of weary laughter.
“What about the bodies?” Aaren asked vaguely.
Old Tom slid his sword back into its sheath. “The Knights of Gaia have the first pick of the loot,” he said, using their chosen name for the first time.
Horace’s eyes lit up. “Loot?” he asked eagerly.
“Yeah. Coins, gems, weapons, or whatever.”
“Alright!” He threw himself off his horse and began searching through the pockets of the dead bandits. After a moment the rest of the Knights joined him with mounting enthusiasm. After all, to the victors go the spoils.
The take was meager. About fifty gold pieces and a small ruby worth maybe ten. Still, it was more than they’d all earned so far. They danced a small victory jig.
“Ouch!” Jon winced as he tried to swing Katrina around. He looked down and saw a rent in his sleeve, blood running down his arm. “Whoa! I got stabbed! I didn’t even know it until just now.”
Aaren left off celebrating and came over to take a look. He pushed the sleeve up and leaned over the wound, probing gently. “Hmm, not too bad. Somebody get me some water.”
“You ought to try it from my end.”
“No thanks.” Horace handed him an open canteen and he poured water over the wound, washing it out. He stoppered the canteen and set it aside. He held up his holy symbol in the sun. “Hold still.”
There was a moment of silence. The cleric muttered something indistinct and then gripped Jon’s arm, covering the wound with his hand. Golden light flared softly under his palm. He moved his hand and stood up. “There you are.”
“There I’m what?” Jon asked in confusion.
“All healed up, as good as new,” Aaren told him patiently as if explaining to a child.
They all looked at Jon’s arm. Except for the blood on his sleeve, it didn’t look as if he’d ever been wounded at all.
Katrina whistled softly. “He healed the hurtin’ man, with a touch of his han’.”
Elric winced. “That was awful,” he protested. “Couldn’t you have come up with something a little–”
“Hey, Aaren! You gonna eat or not?”
Startled out of his reverie, Aaren looked up at Horace and smiled warmly. “Sure. I was just waiting for you guys to finish your race.” He bounded to his feet. “Who won?”
Horace glowered at him. “Never mind, but just wait,” he glanced around conspiratorially, “until you see what I’ve got planned for tomorrow!”
“The early bird got the worm, Sir.”
Blanrus glanced cautiously around the bar. “Not so loud!” he hissed furiously.
Macazecaha’s was crowded and noisy tonight, more so than usual. No one appeared to have overheard them so he grabbed Roget’s arm and pulled him down into the booth. He debated for a moment whether or not to draw the curtains, then decided against it. Drawing those curtains would be an instant signal to anyone in the bar that something was up. Better to risk being overheard than to start rumors that could find their way to the city guard.
“Where is he?” he asked.
Roget lowered his voice to match the mages. “Merc-Town,” he answered, referring to a part of the city known for the mercenaries that frequented it.
“And the woman?”
“Nothing. Maybe still on the ship, but Kasrah doesn’t think so.”
“Kasrah doesn’t think so,” Blanrus sneered. “Who told Kasrah he could think?” He drummed his fingers impatiently on the table, thinking furiously. Contrary to his harsh words, Kasrah Toe Feathers was one of his best spies. The halfling wouldn’t have speculated about the woman without a reason. But that raised more questions than it answered. Why was Bashaak back so soon? And what about the woman he was supposed to have found? Where was she? If he didn’t have her, why was he back? He shook his head, something didn’t feel right about this.
“Are you sure you got the message right? So help me Roget, if you got it wrong . . .”
“No, Master!” Roget’s eyes widened in fear. “I swear! Kasrah told me he saw him with his own eyes. Bashaak is here!”
“Watch your mouth, Roget,” Blanrus told him dangerously. “You’re not even supposed to know that name. If Bashaak finds out you know who he is, he’ll feed you to one of Macazecaha’s groundling cousins.” He inclined his head at the round shape floating in the center of the room.
Roget’s face went pasty and he nodded silently.
Blanrus considered his options in silence. He wanted to meet Bashaak and find out out about the girl, but he also wanted to be sure he wasn’t walking into a trap of some kind. Finally, he pulled out a small writing box and opened it up. He took out a sheet of paper, uncapped the ink well, and wrote swiftly. He paused several times to make sure of his wording then finally ended the note with his personal mark. He folded the paper and sealed it with wax.
“Find Unzar. Give this to him to give to our Carrzulman friend. Tell Unzar I used red ink.”
Roget gaped at the ink well that clearly showed black ink. “Red?”
“Just do it!”
“Yes, Master.” Roget took the envelope and slid out of the booth. He tossed a coin on the table for appearances and strode out.
Blanrus closed up his writing box and smiled to himself. “Red ink” was a code phrase telling Unzar he had used ink which could be seen through the paper in the right kind of light. If Bashaak used any spells to determine if the envelope had been opened before he got it, the results would come up negative. The wording in the note would tell Unzar exactly where to go and what to do; they’d used this method before.
He smiled again and started to slide out of the booth; a hand shoved him back suddenly and Bashaak sat down across from him. “What an excellent meeting place you’ve found for us,” the cleric said softly. “I wholeheartedly approve.”
Blanrus’ heart nearly leapt out of his chest. Blast Roget’s clumsiness, he swore inwardly, he must have been followed. With a massive effort, he kept his face bland and nodded slowly. “Glad you like it, it’s one of my favorite places,” he replied evenly.
“Yes, I can see why,” Bashaak said meaningfully. For a split second his eyes deliberately rested on the rotund form of the barkeep.
It struck Blanrus like a bolt of lightning. That’s how he found me! And he’s so smug he wants me to know it too. The struggle to maintain his composure made him want to scream in fury but he merely said, “I’m gratified you’ve returned from your mission so quickly. Am I to assume that everything went well?” He was proud that his voice betrayed not the slightest hint of nervousness.
Surprisingly, however, it was Bashaak who now appeared uncomfortable. “Yes and no,” he said evasively. “I found a woman who matches your requirements perfectly, but I didn’t obtain her.”
“Why not?” Blanrus pressed him, sensing a sudden advantage despite not getting the sacrifice.
Bashaak visibly reddened. “The woman’s father is an official of the empire. I know him rather well, and he knows me.”
“You balked because of friendship?” Blanrus ejaculated incredulously.
Bashaak’s embarrassment vanished like ice on a hot day and his eyes darkened. “There is no love lost between Marak and me,” he grated. “He is a spy and a toady for Lord Gragan. He hasn’t the slightest respect for Ashima or his true worship.”
The mage was baffled. “Then what’s the problem?”
Bashaak steepled his fingers and peered thoughtfully over them. After a long moment, he asked, “What do you know about the current political situation in Xythia?” Xythia was the capital of one of the southern provinces of the Carrzulman Empire and a hotbed of political intrigue.
“Nothing,” Blanrus shrugged, seeing no reason to deny it.
“Then I won’t bore you with a detailed background,” Bashaak replied smoothly. “Suffice it to say that politics there, always tricky, have become fatally dangerous and unpredictable since the assassination of the High Priest. The current situation makes it impossible for anyone to move against Gragan and his men, including Marak, without triggering a civil war . . . a war whose outcome is far from certain.”
“So don’t leave any witnesses,” Blanrus snapped impatiently.
Bashaak was already shaking his head. “Marak’s cover as a spy is as a caravan master. As such he has dozens of guards who know nothing of his true loyalties. And his daughter, Illene, is constantly surrounded by her warrior maids. Add to that the assorted cooks and other workers on a large caravan, and you have far too many people to kill. In an encounter of that size, there are always survivors to carry tales to the wrong ears. As I said, those tales could start a war.” The cleric shrugged slightly. “That is a chance I simply cannot take.”
Blanrus was thinking hard. He wasn’t about to let some ridiculous, groundling politics interfere with his own ambitions here. There had to be some way around it, some other answer. And there had to be some way to take advantage of Bashaak’s failure to fulfill his contract as well. Was there some way to accomplish both objectives – get the girl and pry more concessions out of the dour cleric?
Across the crowded room, someone threw open a window to toss an unconscious drunk out into the street. The bright flash of daylight streaming in was an alien thing in the close, smokey confines of the bar, and a chorus of hisses and groans rose in protest. The window was slammed shut almost immediately, but not before Blanrus caught a brief glimpse of a ship pulling away from the far-away city docks. A sudden thought occurred to him and he turned back to Bashaak with an evil grin. “That’s alright my friend, I think perhaps we can arrange something else. Listen to this . . .”
“We’re past the border now, lads. Look sharp,” Marin announced.
The Knights looked questioningly at him. “What are you talking about?” Katrina asked him. “We just left the Mügard Pass, we’re still a long way from the border.”
Marin laughed kindly at her. “Aye, the official border. But every guardsman knows the King’s patrols are few and far between this far from Thorginbelt. We’re on our own, so for all practical purposes, we’re past the border.”
Horace looked around at the rocky terrain the caravan was passing through as they dropped down from the Mügard Pass. “I thought the King had extended the borders as far north as Taeljurm.”
Iggy rode his horse closer to them. “Mebbe he did and mebbe he didn’t, but Taeljurm don’t know it.”
“What’s it like?” Jon asked him.
Iggy spat in the dust at his horse’s feet. “Pretty much like any other place really.”
“The Upper city,” Marin pointed out. “The what?” asked Jon.
Iggy shrugged. “The Upper city is the rich section. Taeljurm is built on two different levels see, and the upper level is for the nobles and such.”
“Does that mean we can’t go up there?” Elric wanted to know.
More guardsmen were drifting near to listen to the conversation.
Several of them laughed at Elric’s question. “Sure,” one of them said, “you can go up there if ya got the money.”
Horace frowned at him. “How much?”
“Figure about ten times more than normal, and that’s for the cheap places.”
Katrina whistled silently. Marin saw her and nodded agreement, “It’s steep alright. But I’ve seen prices go as high as ten gold pieces per room.”
Katrina stared at him in shock. “You mean for a single night?”
“Maybe, maybe not. It depends on how much money you’re lugging around. If you’ve only got a few coppers, it’s crazy. If you’ve got a dragon’s hoard on your back . . .” He shrugged. “It’s a different story.”
Horace grinned hugely at her. “If you don’t believe him, just ask my grandfather. He had part of a giant’s hoard.”
Mira slapped him playfully. “Yeah, we know. That’s why we put up with you. We keep hoping the old man will kick off and leave it all to you. Then we’ll all sponge off you for the rest of our lives.”
“The only sponge you’ll get is for scrubbing,” Horace told her.
“Just for that, you get a double helping of ice water at bath time tonight.”
“You wouldn’t dare!”
They glared at each other for a moment then broke into laughter, but Horace’s sounded a bit strained. The ice water threat had really gotten to him.
Aaren drifted over to ride beside Old Tom in the lead wagon. He gestured at the plains ahead of them. “What can we expect out there?”
The old man’s piercing eyes threw a sharp glance at him. “I thought the Lord of Light looked after his servants in battle?” The question was plain to hear in his voice.
Aaren shrugged. “He does, but that doesn’t mean we have to be stupid about it.”
The answer seemed to satisfy him. “Well, let’s see,” he pursed his lips for a moment, “mostly there’s bandits like the ones we fought a few days ago. Now and then we’ve run into some goblins or kobolds. And I remember once when we fought some hill giants. During the winter there’s wolves.”
“Just the ordinary stuff, eh?” Aaren grinned at him.
“Being ordinary don’t mean it ain’t dangerous. The Akhu Plains are a beautiful place, but you can git yourself killed in a big hurry if ya ain’t careful,” Tom cautioned him.
Aaren nodded and started to say something when he was interrupted.
“Riders Ho!” Tom dismissed him with a flick of his hand and stood up on the wagon seat. “Where?” he shouted.
The left flanker pointed off towards his normal position. “I spotted ‘em about ten minutes ago. They ain’t coming closer or going away and they ain’t flying no colors.”
The guardsmen shifted uncomfortably in their saddles and eyed the distant shapes. Riders who refused to identify themselves were either afraid or malevolent. But were they intent on looting the caravan or merely on their way somewhere else? There was a general loosening of weapons in their sheaths, and several who had bows quietly strung them.
Aaren quickly re-joined his friends.
“Another chance for battle,” Horace was gloating. “Just what we need to start building a reputation for ourselves.” He gingerly tested his sword on the ball of his thumb in eager anticipation.
Elric swallowed hard. “Well, I’m glad somebody’s happy because I’m not!”
“Nonsense,” Horace exclaimed, slapping him on the back so hard he almost knocked him out of the saddle. “A man who can take out two bandits at a single stroke doesn’t have anything to fear.”
“That was pure luck and you know it.”
“Sure it was,” Horace agreed. “Lady Luck was looking out for you.”
“There’s no such thing as Lady Luck,” Elric protested.
“Don’t sneer at luck, young mage,” Iggy added. “Sometimes it’s all you’ve got.” “But I pray to the Lord of Light,” Elric protested again.
“And I pray to the woman in the mirror,” Katrina told him. “So what? If Lady Luck decides to smile on me I’m not going to spurn her favor. Certainly not in battle!”
Elric started to reply but a shout from the flanker interrupted him.
“Ho! They come!” The guard pointed at the distant shapes, now growing rapidly closer.
“Behind the wagons!”
“Look sharp, lads!”
A flurry of orders flew as the guards hurriedly readied themselves for the onslaught. The flanker wheeled his horse and spurred for the greater safety of the circling wagons. Behind him, one of the distant riders leaned forward and waggled his fingers purposefully. Three slender, glowing, arrow-like shapes sprang out and flew hissing to slam into the retreating flanker’s back. He screamed shrilly and tumbled to the ground accompanied by the sharp crack of breaking bone. He came to rest, his head at an unnatural angle.
Jon sucked in his breath at the sight. “A wizard!” he said sharply.
“And more powerful than I am,” Elric added, his brow creased in a worried frown.
Horace glanced sideways at him. “How do you know?”
Elric shook his head, “I’ll explain later.” He turned to Mira. “Can you hit him at this distance?” he asked, gesturing at her bow.
Mira shook her head but began stringing her bow anyway. “I need to wait until they’re closer.”
A murmur of agreement from the bowmen among the guards sounded behind her. “The young lass has the right of it, I’ll warrant,” one them said.
The thunder of pounding hooves began to rattle the wagons.
Aaren glanced around at their location. They were out in the middle of a flat, empty plain that stretched away to the north for miles. Protective cover was nil. He shook his head. Elric was right; the so-called Goddess of Luck was a myth. They needed real protection. He began a quick chant, calling down the blessing of the Lord of Light on them.
No sooner had he finished his prayer than the twang of bowstrings sounded all around him. A flight of arrows arched toward the enemy mage. Most fell short or off to the side but three almost struck him when they suddenly bounced aside as if they had struck an invisible shield.
“Uh oh,” Elric shook his head. “I was afraid of that. We’re in trouble.”
Now the enemy was almost on top of them.
Mira dropped her bow and pulled out her sword. “Well let’s give them some trouble!” she cried fiercely.
“Starting now!” Jon yelled and brought his arm forward with a quick jerk, his sling releasing a small, iron ball that whistled through the air.
Then the bandits were upon them.
The onslaught was sudden and fierce. Horace rose with a glad roar, his armored figure shining in the sun, laying about him with great, sweeping blows. Mira sprang up as well, putting her back to his. Jon crouched low, darting out with a well-timed dagger blow at the enemy’s legs or rolling under a horse to lay open their unprotected belly. When he had the chance, he unleashed a vicious strike with his sling at anyone in range.
Aaren planted himself in front of Elric, trying to protect him while he readied his spells to do combat with the enemy mage. Katrina stood next to him, her sword finishing those that Aaren’s hammer only wounded.
Kneeling between the cleric and the bard, Elric frantically searched for the bandit mage. There was no way he could win a magical duel, but perhaps he could use his magic to defeat the enemy in a physical duel. All he had to do was find him in the dusty swirl of violence ringing around him. He peered this way and that. Where was he? He had to be here someplac . . .
Aaren and Katrina gasped involuntarily at the huge ball of flame that erupted at the head of the caravan, the lead wagon turning into a raging inferno. They shrank back from the waves of heat rolling over them. Before they could fully comprehend what had happened they saw Elric spring out from between them and hurtle through the air. He slammed into the enemy spell caster and they fell heavily to the ground.
An indistinct shout sounded and was repeated around them several times but there was no time to pay attention to it.
Katrina goggled at the sixty-foot leap Elric had made. What in the world? A sword glittered in front of her and she barely parried in time. She’d find out later, she thought, fighting her new opponent grimly.
Mira slashed at the bandit in front of her, breathing heavily. She was bleeding from half a dozen small wounds; it was starting to tell on her. The bandit sensed her condition and pressed the attack, grinning with anticipation. She parried his sword with hers and the shock nearly tore the hilt from her hand. She stumbled backward into Horace. He braced himself without looking and heaved backward, throwing her toward the bandit. She twisted to avoid his reaching sword and suddenly she was behind him for a split second. Before he could turn she spun on her heel, swinging her sword with eye blurring speed at his side. It bit deep and he fell with a despairing shriek. Another bandit approached and she lifted her sword woodenly, waiting for his attack.
The fireball had startled Horace for a moment, but he recovered quickly. He saw Elric flying through the air to bear the enemy down to the ground. He laughed wildly and swung around to find another enemy to kill. Already the ground at his feet was littered with bodies and he was eager to add to the pile. Thundering hooves caught his attention and he saw a mounted bandit bearing down on him, a spear held out like a lance. He braced himself and swung his sword up and to the side, slicing the spear in half. Something crashed into him from behind and he shrugged it off, lunged for the rider, and missed. He cursed and started after him, then staggered as a mace slammed into him from the side. He bellowed in pain and swung viciously at his tormentor. His sword skittered across mail links and they were joined in battle.
Jon saw Elric hit the enemy mage and drive him into the ground with a heart-stopping thud. Horace and Mira were suddenly gone and he darted across the battlefield to Elric’s side. Elric was wheezing painfully, tangled up with the other mage. Jon’s dagger flashed in the sun, burying itself in the man’s throat.
Elric nodded weakly at him. “Thanks,” he croaked. “I wasn’t sure if I had any strength left to fight him with.”
Jon pulled him out from under the body. “Are you alright? What happened?”
“That spell is great for jumping, but not so great for landing,” Elric laughed. “I just had the wind knocked out of me . . . watch it!” he suddenly shouted across the battlefield to Mira.
She heard his bellow just in time and ducked as Horace’s sword swept over her.
“Sheeesh!” Jon muttered. “He’s almost as dangerous as the enemy.”
Elric looked around. “Hmm. Speaking of which, there don’t seem to be quite as many of them anymore.” He struggled to his feet.
Jon stood up beside him. “I think you’re right.”
They stood and watched the fighting around them for a moment more then Jon clapped his companion on the shoulder, “You wait here. I’ll be back in a minute.” He turned and sprinted towards the man fighting Horace and leapt full on his back. They went down in a noisy heap.
Elric smiled and shook his head. He seemed to be in the eye of the storm right at the moment so he took the opportunity to search the dead mage’s body. He found a ring, a small sack of coins, a book, and a dagger. He’d just finished putting his finds in his pockets when movement in the corner of his eye caught his attention. He jerked up and spun around. A bandit in leather armor was advancing, sword at the ready. He gripped the dead man’s dagger and backed away slowly.
“Where are you going mageling?” the man sneered. “Think you can just kill Rimon like that and get away with it? Unh uh, not a chance.”
Elric glanced around frantically. All of his companions were busy with their own fights, he was on his own. He’d used up the only spell he’d had prepared and now all he had was a dagger against a sword. He swallowed hard. The bandit swung suddenly and he brought the dagger up clumsily to parry. It turned in his hand and his clumsy move became graceful. The bandit’s sword rang against the dagger and fell back. An eerie blue light seemed to dance around the blade of the dagger for a moment, then it disappeared. Elric’s heart leapt; a magic dagger! Maybe he had a chance after all! He crouched in a fighting stance and brought the blade up in front of him, waiting for the bandit’s next attack.
Aaren’s foe slumped to the ground and he peered around the battle. Dozens of bodies lay scattered on the ground and some of the bandits were beginning to retreat. Katrina finished her opponent and came to stand beside him. Her breath was ragged. “Are we winning?” she asked.
“I think so,” he replied. “But I see a lot of our people on the ground. It doesn’t look so good.”
“That looks even worse,” she said, pointing to where Elric stood facing a swordsman with only a dagger to defend himself.
“What say we help him?”
“Took the words right out of my mouth.”
But before they could move, the bandit lunged at their friend. Elric slipped aside with unexpected grace, turned, and drove the dagger into the bandit’s side. The man stiffened, tottered, and fell. The two of them exchanged a surprised look.
“Well, well, well.” Katrina lifted a delicate eyebrow. “Elric’s turning into quite the fighter these days.” Without waiting for a reply she trotted over to brush him off carefully.
Aaren lifted a quizzical eyebrow at her show of affection and turned his attention back to the battle. It seemed to be ending. There was no sudden retreat like the last time; it was a slow, ebbing sort of thing. Here and there some bandits were still fighting, but they were being overwhelmed. The rest were slowly backing away, weapons at the ready.
He joined Horace and Jon. “Not quite the same as the last one is it?” he asked them.
Horace shook his head. “We’d better keep an eye on them,” he said warily, pointing at the retreating enemy. “They know we’ve been hurt pretty bad. They might be back during the night.”
Jon looked up at him in surprise. “What do you mean we’ve been hurt? We’re doing great!”
“Not the six of us,” Horace corrected him, “them!” He pointed at the rest of the guards.
Aaren and Jon turned, then gasped as they saw what he was talking about.
The lead wagon had been reduced to smoking ruins, a blackened skeleton propped against the remains. The second wagon was partially burned and its horses were dead on the ground. Around the two wagons were several more burned bodies. Next to them were the bodies of those hacked and stabbed to death during the moments of confusion following the initial blast. Scattered around the small battlefield were more bodies. Most of the dead were bandits but far too many of them were caravan guards. As they looked closer they realized almost half of the bodies were guards. Several of them had been stabbed in the back.
Jon gaped at the sight. “What happened? The bandits weren’t that tough.”
“It’s not their toughness, but the guard’s morale,” Horace replied. He pointed at the charred skeleton by the lead wagon. “When Old Tom bought the farm, all the fight went out of them.”
“Didn’t you hear them shouting about it right after the fireball went off?”
“I heard something,” Aaren said for both of them, “but I didn’t really pay much attention.”
Their other friends joined them. “Did you hear the bad news?” Mira asked them. “Tom was killed.”
They nodded. “Horace was just telling us,” Jon replied.
Katrina eyed the guards nervously. “I wonder what they’ll do now?” she muttered. They were gathered around the blackened skeleton arguing and gesturing.
“We bury him and go on,” Jon told her. “What else?”
Mira shook her head. “If there was a chain of command that might work, but most of these caravans have one master and that’s it. If he gets killed there’s no one designated to step in and take over.”
Mira returned his disbelieving look blandly. “You heard me.” She shrugged. “My father and I had plenty of time over the years to talk to caravan masters who bought wood from us. We picked up all kinds of things.”
“Maybe, but that’s the way it is.”
“So what’s our next move?” Elric asked, ignoring Jon’s shock.
Horace shook his head. “I don’t know but we can’t just stand around forever. Those bandits haven’t pulled back all that far, they could attack again at any moment.”
As one the little group turned and eyed the bandits grouped less than a hundred yards away. There was a long moment of silence. Aaren finally broke it. “You’re right,” he said. “Something has to be done, but first things first; anyone need healing?” He looked around.
Mira nodded painfully. “I got hit several times,” she said ruefully. “It hurts like blazes.”
“Right.” He held up his holy symbol and a moment later her pain-filled expression eased under his healing arts.
“Ahhh. That’s better,” she sighed.
Everyone shook their heads. “OK, follow me, and let me do the talking.”
They nodded quietly. Satisfied, he led them to the group of guards huddled around Tom’s body. They were arguing volubly but fell silent at their approach.
Aaren wondered what the right thing to say was. They’d been arguing about whether to go on to Taeljurm or head back. Some of them seemed in favor of heading off cross-country. In a few more minutes they’d all be breaking up to head in different directions, something he had to stop. A sudden thought occurred to him.
“Who’s in charge of the burial detail?” he asked respectfully.
Startled looks answered him. “Burial detail?” somebody muttered. “We didn’t even think about that.”
“Yeah, we can’t leave until we give ‘em a decent burial.”
“Ground is too hard to be digging graves–”
“What are we gonna use for coffins–”
“Maybe a pyre or something–”
“But they didn’t all worship the same gods or–”
A flurry of confused babbling broke out. Some of them poked at experimentally at the hard ground while others broke out blankets and threw them over the bodies.
Aaren winked at his friends over his shoulder. Get them worried about accomplishing some little, intermediate goal, he thought, and pretty soon they’re so caught up in it they don’t realize they’re still heading for the larger goal. If he could keep them busy with the funeral detail until nightfall they’d have to stay and camp for the night.
Which meant setting watches, which meant working together.
Which meant teamwork. Which meant pulling together. Which meant . . . going on to Taeljurm.
He grinned inwardly. Sometimes the right words didn’t have to be all that long.
“Going somewhere, puppies?”
While the Knights had been debating their course of action, the argument among the guardsmen had drawn to a close. Most had scattered to the four winds, but ten remained. They were drawn together in a tight, hostile bunch, swords unsheathed and held at the ready. They edged forward threateningly.
“Go on! Get out of here! These wagons are ours, not yours,” one of them, apparently, the leader, said gruffly.
The Knights looked at each other uncertainly. They hadn’t planned on this.
Aaren took a step forward and spread his hands in what he hoped was a placating manner. “Surely there’s enough here for all of us,” he said smoothly. “After all, there’s more wagons tha –”
“Shut up!” the leader interrupted loudly. “These wagons are ours!”
Aaren plastered his most winning smile on his face. “We’ve fought side-by-side up until now. Is this any way to act?”
The leader glowered at him. “Alright. Tell ya what, if ya leave now we’ll let ya live.” Coarse laughter sounded behind him.
Behind Aaren, the Knights slowly loosened their weapons in their sheaths. Elric grinned wickedly and flexed his fingers; the spellbook he’d taken from the dead mage had contained some new spells and he was eager to try them out.
Aaren cast a quick look over his shoulder at his friends. They nodded encouragement to him and he turned back to the former guardsmen. “And if we don’t leave?” he asked politely.
“Then we give you a decent burial!”
Aaren smiled thinly. “I see. Well in that case I guess we have no choice.” He half-turned to leave, his eyes flickered at his friends and he nodded slightly.
The guardsmen hadn’t been fooled by his conciliatory manner. Their faces hardened and they surged forward.
Elric’s voice suddenly rang out behind the Knights. “Look out,” he called warningly. A sphere of glowing power shot from his hand at the charging guardsmen as he incanted quickly. It exploded in a billowing mass of horrible green and yellow vapors, swallowing them instantly.
The Knights halted their charge in amazement. They could hear the guardsmen coughing and choking from inside the billowing, sickly-looking cloud.
Horace caught a faint whiff and jerked his head back with a snap. “What is that?” he gagged, backpedaling furiously.
Elric bounced up and down on his toes, a grin splitting his face from one ear to another. “A spell I copied out of the spellbook I captured,” he chortled. “It creates a cloud of the worst smelling gas you ever came across.”
Horace was still backing away from the cloud. “I could have told you that myself,” he growled. “That stuff is awful!”
One of the guardsmen staggered blindly out of the cloud, coughing and gagging, snot and tears running down his face. Jon trotted over, took the man’s sword from his unresisting fingers, and sat him down upwind of the cloud. Katrina pulled a length of rope out of one of the wagons and helped him tie the man up. Another one crawled out of the cloud and they tied him up next to his companion. As the wind slowly dispersed the sickening cloud, the Knights captured it’s luckless victims as easily as scooping fish out of a barrel. One or two attempted to resist but their swings were wild and weak. Elric stopped one man’s sword swing with a single finger.
Soon all ten were snugly tied together, all their bluster and bravado gone. The leader looked up at them through tearing eyes. “What are you going to do with us?” he coughed.
The six friends exchanged an uneasy look. It was a good question; what were they going to do with their captives?
“Put ‘em to the sword,” Katrina opined carelessly. “That’s the same kind of treatment they were going to give us.”
The captives shrank back fearfully.
“That’s barbaric,” Elric snapped at her. “We can’t kill unarmed men. Then we’d be as bad as they are.”
“So what do you suggest? We can’t let them go,” she rejoined.
“Hand them over to the authorities,” Jon interjected. “And they can hang them.”
Katrina laughed shortly and twirled around, her arms spread wide. “Sorry, Jon, but I don’t see any authorities around here.”
“In Taeljurm,” he said tersely.
“Are you going to guard them all the way there? Morning, noon, and night?”
Mira shook her head. “Will you two knock it off? We can’t kill them, but I don’t feel like hauling them into Taeljurm either. I’m not one of the King’s guards.” She cocked her head thoughtfully. “Why don’t we set it up so that they can get loose after we’ve been gone for several hours?”
“Let them go?” Jon cried in shock. “Never!”
Mira shook her head again. “You know Jon, for a man who is supposed to be a thief, a rogue, you’re the most uptight, law and order, black and white man I’ve ever met in my life. Can’t you think like an adventurer? Or at least try?”
Horace snickered at Jon’s wounded expression. “I think you got him good there, Mira."
She grinned wickedly.
“Here,” a voice broke in.
“Hunh?” She looked down at the dagger that Elric was holding out to her. “What’s that for?”
“It’s rusty and dull,” he said. “If we give it to one of them, it’ll take them a while to saw through the ropes after we leave. That’s what you wanted isn’t it?”
Aaren grinned at her from over Elric’s shoulder, his eyes dancing.
“Perfect.” She took the dagger. “Thanks.”
Jon watched with a dubious expression. “Are you sure about this?” he muttered. “It doesn’t feel right, letting them go.”
Mira nodded confidently. “I’m positive.”
Katrina draped a friendly arm around the troubled thief. “Look at it this way Jon, if they get loose and do follow us, we get to kill them then,” she said brightly.
His eyes lit up. “And it would be self-defense,” he said thoughtfully. “Cut and dried in any court.” He smiled grimly. “I like it.”
Aaren caught Mira’s attention again and rolled his eyes heavenward. “How did those two get so bloodthirsty all of the sudden?”
“Beats me,” she shrugged.
“If you are done with them, how about searching the wagons?” Horace interrupted impatiently. “Time’s wasting, and maybe some money too.”
His friends chuckled at his eager expression. “Lead on, O Greedy One!” Elric bowed low and waved him on ahead.
The take was both good and bad; good in that the value was high, bad in that the bulk was equally high.
“More clothes,” Horace growled in disgust. He slammed the carton closed with a bang and clambered down out of the last wagon. “I don’t believe this.”
Katrina was having fits of the giggles. “But they’re really expensive clothes,” she said gaily.
Elric was also having trouble restraining a grin. “I thought you liked fancy stuff,” he said, eyes dancing.
Horace snarled at them and stalked away. They watched him for a minute then burst out laughing. His back stiffened even more and his fists clenched. The rest of them joined in until finally he relaxed and began laughing somewhat painfully himself.
“Okay, okay. The joke is on me,” he admitted ruefully. “But now what?”
Aaren shrugged slightly. “We go on,” he said. “What else? We’re only a few days from Taeljurm. We can find some way to make money there. After all, we’re adventurers. We’re supposed to be footloose and fancy-free. Right, gang?” He looked around at the others for support.
“Right,” Elric said quickly. “Maybe we can find some monsters to kill.”
“Or damsels to rescue,” Mira added.
“Or a grand quest in the face of hopeless odds,” Jon ventured.
“Or something else altogether,” Katrina finished. “The possibilities are endless.”
“Then what are we standing around for?” Horace asked. He swung up into the saddle with sudden eagerness. “Let’s go!”
The others were quick to follow suit. Within moments they were mounted and ready to ride. After double-checking the prisoners, they wheeled their horses and spurred them away with loud whoops and yells, thundering across the plains towards the distant city.
Freed from the plodding pace of the caravan they made excellent time through the wild countryside. They saw no more bandits, or the bandits left them alone, it was hard to say which. They rode from sunup to sundown and within two days they were riding through the wide gates of Taeljurm, watching the people and gawking at the sights as if they’d never seen a city before.
Out of a lingering feeling of responsibility to the Seven Thumbs, they swung by the company office in the business section of the city to tell them about the loss of the caravan. The clerk listened to their story with a tired expression then thanked them listlessly. His only visible reaction was surprise that they had reported in at all. Feeling somewhat let down they left the office and ventured back out onto the crowded streets.
“You see?” Katrina said disdainfully once they were outside. “The guard was right, the bean counters are covered no matter what.”
“I’ll say,” Jon agreed. “That guy like acted they expected to lose the caravan. He couldn’t have cared less.” He made an angry gesture.
Katrina shrugged. “That’s life in the big city. No one cares about anything.”
“Come on you two,” Horace rumbled. “Forget that guy. We’re here in Taeljurm. We’ve got some money in our pockets, not much, but some. We can do anything we want, go anywhere we want, stay as long as we want, leave when we want – let’s live it up! Let’s have some fun!” He looked imploringly at them.
Aaren laughed. “The big lunk is right. Let’s have some fun, maybe tear up a bar. What do you say?”
They grumbled for few more minutes then allowed themselves to be cheered up so they could go off in search of fun and adventure.
The fun and adventure didn’t last very long they discovered.
Just one night in fact.
Before midnight they were in the city jail for disturbing the peace, fighting, and destruction of private property. Standing in court the next morning, they had no money for the heavy fines the judge handed them and for a scary moment, they thought that they’d be seeing the inside of the city dungeons. But a rich nobleman clad in expensive silks ventured up to the bench to have a word with the magistrate. After a few, tension-filled minutes he backed away and the judge announced that Sir Owen Halburn had offered to pay their fines in exchange for three months’ service. What was the guilty party’s pleasure – jail or servitude?
They chose servitude.
“‘Have fun’, he said. ‘Tear up a bar’, he said. ‘Adventure’, he said. Phooey!” Jon grumbled for the fourth time.
Aaren shot him a sour glance. “Alright, enough already! Kick me and let me up. How was I supposed to know they took such a dim view of brawling?”
They were riding north behind Sir Halburn toward his ranch outside of Taeljurm. He’d told them he was having trouble with rustlers and poachers, so they would be guarding his herds for him. The thin, haughty man had succeeded in antagonizing all of them within the first half hour and they were riding as far behind him as possible.
“How were you supposed to know?” Jon yelped. “You took us to one of the most expensive bars in town! Of course, they objected to our behavior. I objected to our behavior and I’m one of us!”
Aaren’s face reddened and he sought to avoid his companion’s eyes. Horace, seeing his embarrassment, rode to his rescue. “Ah, come on, we weren’t that bad. If those idiots hadn’t cheated none of this would have happened.”
Jon sighed as one much put upon. “I told you they were card sharks, but would you guys listen? Oh no, you had to try it for yourselves.” He shook his head. “Wonderful.”
Mira gave up listening to the argument as Horace and Aaren tried to defend their actions. She’d heard it all before and besides, it wasn’t going to do them any good now. What was done, was done. Better to concentrate on where their unpleasant benefactor was taking them. As they crested a low hill she saw their destination.
It was a typical cattle ranch for this part of the world. Nestled at the base of the Blue Mountains, the ranch consisted of a low, rambling main building, along with several barns, bunkhouses, and assorted buildings. There were two large corrals, one behind the main house and one off to the side surrounded by three of the bunkhouses. Several dozen horses stood in each corral along with an equal number of mules. There were four large buildings that looked to be granaries and the biggest water tank she’d ever seen.
What wasn’t so typical was the wall around the place. Or rather, the wall that was being built around it.
It was or would be, a twenty-foot wall with strong battlements and easy access from the inside. There was plenty of room on top of for siege weapons of every kind. In fact, there were several ballistae already mounted on the wall near the main gate. She could also see construction underway on a number of the buildings. They were being reinforced on the rooftops. Their straw roofs were being replaced with wood and stone to protect them from any bombardment. The more she stared, the more she was convinced she was seeing preparations for war. She drew her companion’s attention to the constructions.
After a few minutes, they all agreed with her assessment. Sir Halburn was preparing for a siege. A long one.
As they rode down through the main gate, the war preparations became even more apparent. Huge cauldrons of oil were being pulled into place over clay-lined fire pits, ready for heating. Arrows, spears, and javelins were being made by the hundreds, bundled up and taken to the top of the completed portions of the wall. Behind the wall, the ground had already been scrapped clear of any combustible material and cobblestones were being laid for extra protection. Everywhere they looked they saw frantic, almost panicked, labor at a tremendous pace.
“By the gods,” Horace breathed heavily, “what have we gotten ourselves into?”
“Beats me, big guy,” Mira answered in low tones, “But it doesn’t look good does it?”
Horace ran a soldier’s eye over the fortifications. “Looks downright awful if you want to know the truth. They’re getting ready for some heavy-duty action here.”
The rest of them glanced around nervously. “It’s pretty obvious we’re going to be doing more than just guarding some cattle,” Jon said bitterly. “I wonder what other little surprises Sir Halburn has for us?”
Unmindful of their suspicions the nobleman led them up to the main house and swung his lanky form down from the saddle. He waved them after him as he entered the house and led them down a long hall into a large sitting room. There were tall windows along one wall, letting brilliant, morning sunlight into the room and lighting it cheerfully. At one end of the room was a fireplace and several chairs, at the other was a large, round table covered by maps. He led them over to the table and gestured at the maps on it.
“Take a good look,” he said in his nasal voice. “This is my estate and the borders I share with my neighbors.” His voice took on a sarcastic lilt at the last word.
Behind his back, Aaren pulled out a scroll and read several arcane words in a low voice.
“These lines indicate the lawful boundaries of my estates,” Halburn continued, unaware of Aaren’s activities. “I have forty thousand head of cattle and as you can clearly see, my property is only just big enough to properly feed my herds. If I lose any range land to outsiders, my cattle will starve and I’ll lose enormous amounts of money. I simply can not allow that to happen.”
He glanced around to make sure he had their attention. “My neighbor,” again the sarcastic tone, “to the west claims the boundary line is four leagues further this way than it should be. Clearly, that would take in a great deal of my property as well as the stream you see there.” He pointed to a thin, blue line that meandered down one side of the map. “He began moving the boundary markers! The fat pig!” Halburn’s nostrils flared in anger and he had to pause for a moment to regain his composure. When he calmed down, he continued. “Naturally I couldn’t let him get away with that, so I began moving them back. He retaliated by setting armed guards around the markers. I had them killed of course and he began raiding my herds. I exercised my lawful rights and took them back as you can imagine. Would you believe he had the audacity to accuse me of stealing? Then he began attacking my home! He won’t get away with it!” he shouted. “I swear it!”
Halburn paused to calm himself again then continued in a more rational voice. “That’s where you come in. You and these fortifications you see around you. You will go out to act as guards for one of my herds between here and the boundary line. He and his men will have to come by you on their way here to attack me. But my defenses won’t be done for another month, so you will keep them from getting here.”
“Harass them whenever you see them. Harry them. Hit and run in the dark of the night. Those cowards always attack at night, make it work against them. Lead them on a wild goose chase through the hills and back to their side of the boundary. They mustn’t know what I’ve accomplished here, they mustn’t suspect. That way, when I finally let them through, well, that fat son of a whore will be in for a rude shock,” he finished with a vicious laugh.
“Uh, Sir Halburn?” Elric held up a questioning hand. “Who is your neighbor?"
“Morgrim the Mad,” he told him sharply. “Can’t you read?” He pointed at the map. There, tucked away in one corner was the inscription ‘Morgrim Leers’.
Elric shrank back from Halburn’s bullying tones. “Sorry,” he muttered.
“I’m glad you mentioned the fortifications, Sir Halburn,” Horace said respectfully. “I’ve been meaning to ask you about that.”
His watery eyes rested on Horace suspiciously. “What do you mean?” he snapped.
Horace shrugged. “It looks like you’re getting ready for a lot more than just a cattle raiding party.”
“Morgrim isn’t called Mad for nothing,” he said evasively. “I want to be ready for anything. Besides, we’ve been having problems with goblins lately. I’d feel much better with a proper wall around my estates.”
“Yes, I see. But isn’t it a bit much?” Horace argued.
“Enough! Prepare to ride out once,” Halburn told them abruptly. “The foreman, Ivan, will take you to your post near the boundary. Be ready when he comes for you.”
He waved them out of the house with a dismissive hand and turned back to his maps before they were even out of the room, their presence forgotten.
Mira tugged on Aaren’s sleeve as they were trouping back outside. “What was that you were doing?” she asked him.
“A spell to see if he was telling the truth.”
They left the house and settled down on the porch to wait for the foreman. “Yes and no,” Aaren said in a troubled voice. “But it was hard to tell where the truth ended and the lies began. One thing came through loud and clear though, he believes everything he told us. That’s what made it so hard to tell when he was lying and when he wasn’t.”
Katrina looked at him with a worried frown. “So part of what he was telling us was false and part was true but he’s such a nut case your spell couldn’t tell which was which?”
Aaren nodded heavily. “Pretty much.”
“It could be the boundary line, it could be who’s attacking who, it could be anything, couldn’t it?” she pressed him.
He nodded reluctantly. “I’m afraid so.”
Jon’s eye’s crinkled with concern. “Then we could wind up breaking the law again, and not even know it.”
Horace nodded grimly. “Sounds like it to me.”
“We gotta get out of this!”
“Calm down,” the burly fighter told him. “Morgrim and his men may not even come during the next month. We may not have to do anything.”
Sivrei, the first month of summer,
has long been the time when kings go to war.
– The Proverbs of Shedey’uwr
Ivan was a dull, taciturn man who spoke little and answered questions not at all. The only thing they could get out of him was an inarticulate grunt now and then. He led them out of Halburn’s growing defenses and up into the foothills around the estate. After two hours of hard riding, they arrived at a small pass in the hills. In the middle of the tiny cut was a squat, stone pillar about four feet high, one of the boundary markers Halburn had mentioned. Grazing around it was a small herd of twenty head of cattle. On close inspection, all of them turned out to be ancient bulls, no longer any use to anyone and too tough to eat. They were the perfect decoys.
Ivan indicated a small hollow where they could dig in and wait for the onslaught from Morgrim, then turned and left.
“Thanks so much for everything,” Jon called after him. “Don’t forget to write.”
“Forget it,” Elric told him. “You’re wasting your breath.”
They turned to survey their new home for the next month and let out a sigh of disappointment. The hollow was barely fifteen feet long by ten feet wide. There was just enough space for them but none for their horses. They’d have to find somewhere else to hide the horses, which meant a long hike each day to take care of them. The hills beyond their post climbed upwards like a staircase into the mountains.
They finally found a place for the horses in a nearby ravine. It wasn’t quite as far away as they’d feared, but it was still a good distance.
After settling the horses in, they turned their attention to the hollow, trying to make it as home-like as possible. They carved little seats into the hard, dirt walls and used branches to form arm and backrests. They scraped stones and branches aside to make room for their bedrolls, using the stones to build a low wall around the top of the hollow for additional protection from both incoming arrows and the incessant, chill wind blowing through the little pass. The hot winds from the Midbar rarely made it this far north and the chill in the air reminded them that Tevrei was still the last month of winter, not the beginning of summer.
There weren’t any trees in the pass and the wind moaned through the branches of the shrubs and around the numerous rocks. It was as bleak and desolate a place as any of them had ever seen.
Horace clambered up out of the hollow and surveyed the scene, shivering and pulling his cloak around him. “Now I know what Hell looks like,” he grumbled. A gust of wind blew down his back and he shivered violently. “And feels like,” he added miserably.
Jon climbed up to stand beside him. “Now you know why I didn’t want to go adventuring,” he told him. “It’s nothing but pain and misery and discomfort and hunger and a thousand other things. And all of it a long way from home.”
“You didn’t want to come because it was too disorganized,” Elric snapped at him. “You never said anything about discomfort!”
Jon’s face turned red with anger. “Look who’s talking! The boy who tried to run away in the middle of the night.”
Elric’s fists clenched and he leapt to his feet. His recent growth spurt gave him nearly a span’s height over Jon. “Take that back!” he cried.
Mira jumped between them. “Whoa! Whoa! Knock it off, you guys! What is–”
They didn’t give her a chance to finish. Both launched an instant verbal attack on her. Within moments, all three were in a yelling match. Tempers flared and they almost came to blows before they settled down.
Horace continued to complain about the cold and when Katrina tried to practice a new tune on her lute, the others began bickering about sour notes. She defended her playing staunchly then played even louder, now and then deliberately hitting a false note.
Aaren sat and watched his friends wearily. Getting arrested for brawling their first night in town, having to suffer three months of servitude to an idiot like Halburn, the desolation of the pass, and the prospect of spending a month there, guarding against an invasion by an unknown number of hostile soldiers was taking its toll already. The friends had never really endured this kind of hardship together before and this, their first time, was especially difficult considering the circumstances. A discordant note twanged loudly and the bickering increased as he watched. He shook his head, it was going to be a long month.
Halfway through their month on watch, the six of them were heartily sick of each other. Tevrei was gone and they were more than a week into the month of Adrei. They’d done nothing but gripe, complain, and argue the whole time. The never-ending wind whipped the fire around, blowing smoke and ash in every direction, stinging their eyes and nostrils. No sooner would they move to avoid the smoke than the wind would shift and blow it at them again from another direction. Their eyes grew red, their lips became chapped and raw. The cold never ceased and even huddled close to the fire they couldn’t get warm.
They began discussing the possibilities of abandoning their post and getting as far away as possible before anyone discovered they were gone. Even Jon, a stickler for the rules, was intrigued by the idea. But before they could implement anything, the decision was taken out of their hands.
He didn’t come at night. He didn’t sneak in with a raiding party. He didn’t try to approach unnoticed. He came with an army in broad daylight.
Jon heard it first. “Hey! Listen, what’s that?” He held up a hand and cocked his head warily.
The rest stopped their ongoing argument and paused. The thin wail of the wind was the only sound for a long moment, then they heard a faint clip-clop of hooves.
Several sets of hooves. Dozens of sets of hooves. Dozens and dozens of sets of hooves.
They scrambled out of the hollow and raced for the west side of the pass, their bickering forgotten. They skidded to a halt at the lip of the pass and looked up at the foothills descending from the Blue Mountains that separated them from the Tagil Sea.
Trees grew thickly on the western slopes of the Blue Mountains, but rain and fog from the sea easily swept over the top of the mountains, bringing abundant moisture to their eastern slopes as well. The result was a thick forest of mighty trees and underbrush. The tops of the trees swayed gently in the breeze and the sssssh’ing sound almost covered the noise from the horses approaching through them.
There were perhaps ten riders at first, lightly armored and carrying the short, horned bow favored by mounted archers. They were winding their way through the trees without any apparent attempt at secrecy.
“Which one is Morgrim?” Katrina wondered aloud.
Jon shrugged. “I don’t know,” he started to say, then noticed that Horace and Mira were already shaking their heads. “What’s wrong?”
Mira spoke first. “That doesn’t look like a raiding party,” she said. “It looks like a scouting party.”
Aaren gave her a pained look, suspecting the worst. “Which means?”
“It means,” Horace answered him, “that it’s a scouting party as in ‘a scouting party for the army’ scouting party.”
Aaren sighed deeply. “I was afraid of that. Sivrei, the first month of summer, has long been the time when kings go to war,” he quoted sourly.
Jon looked askance at him. “The proverbs of Shedey’uwr?”
“Well, in case you hadn’t noticed, this isn’t Sivrei, it’s Adrei, the first month of spring.”
Mira gestured angrily. “Never mind that. Don’t you realize what this means? It means Halburn lied to us!”
Elric looked from her to the riders picking their way down the mountainside. “Lied how?” he asked uncertainly.
“He evaded Horace’s questions about the fortifications and didn’t mention Morgrim had an army. He lied by omission!” she snapped.
Horace was nodding agreement. “Mira has the right of it,” he rumbled, grinding his teeth. “And he’s such a nutcase Aaren’s spell couldn’t tell when he was lying and when he wasn’t.” He paused, breathing heavily. “We’d better decide what we’re going to do. If we’re going to get out of here before the army arrives, we need to do it soon. And if we’re going to harass the army or attack the scouting party, we need to do that soon too. Staying here is no good either way. We need to be on the move.” The sound of more horses back in the trees added emphasis to his words.
Katrina arched a delicate eyebrow. “That’s the most I’ve ever heard you say at one time in my life,” she said. “I guess danger brings out the chatterbox in you.”
Horace started to reply but Aaren cut him off. “Save it. We do need to get moving,” he told the little group. “The big guy is right about that. Which means either attack or run for the hills.” He paused and looked around at them. “All in favor of attacking?”
No one moved or spoke.
“Running for the hills?”
Six hands silently went up.
Aaren threw a quizzical glance at Jon. “No objections from our prize law-and-order advocate?”
Jon shook his head. “Halburn lied. That frees us from any obligation to him.”
“Okay then. Let’s get out of here!”
Suiting actions to words they were packed and saddled up within minutes. Dirt was hastily thrown over their tiny campfire. Jon and Elric grabbed some leafy branches and brushed them over the earth where they had left footprints, tracks, and indications of habitation. By the time they were ready to leave, the scouting party was less than two hundred cubits from the bottom of the hill, and the unmistakable sounds of hundreds of men, wagons, and horses were making themselves heard in the forest behind them.
They mounted quickly. “Which way?” Elric asked, reining his horse around.
Katrina thought quickly. “We can’t go south,” she said. “That would put us back in Taeljurm. Our servitude isn’t over yet, they’d just throw us back in jail again. West is toward Morgrim, east is Halburn. That leaves north,” she finished.
Elric shrugged. “Sounds good to me.”
The rest of them nodded agreement.
“Okay,” Aaren said, “north it is. Horace, take point. The rest of you, follow me!”
Riding at a slow canter to keep from raising a cloud of dust, they headed north just below the ridge of the hills. They had to fight the urge to spur their horses to full speed. If Morgrim’s men spotted them it was even money whether they would pursue or not. There was no point in taking chances.
Jon had made a mental note of the location of other outposts on the map Halburn had shown them, and was able to direct the Knights around those guards without attracting attention. But having to backtrack and circle around them slowed their progress to a crawl. By sunset, they’d only made ten leagues. They made a cold camp that night then rode out at first light. Their morning was filled with more circling and backtracking but by early afternoon they had passed beyond the last of Halburn’s outposts and were dropping back down into Akhu Plains again.
The plains were a rough, rocky land between Taeljurm, the Rampart Mountains, and the Western Ocean. Vegetation was scarce, and water even scarcer. There were only a few scattered villages throughout the land and only one road large enough to be shown on any maps. Cold winds blew in from the icy waters of the Western Ocean but the arid weather from the Akhu counterbalanced them, so for two days, they rode under the blinding glare of the sun until the horses were stumbling along, heads drooping. The Knights sagged in the saddles, their eyes fixed vacantly on the ground before them, paying scant attention to the world around them.
So, it came as a complete surprise when they encountered the ruined caravan, its wagons still burning fiercely.
They ground to a confused halt, billowing smoke obscuring then revealing the shattered caravan, the blood-soaked ground, the still bodies, and overturned wagons. Several of the wagons were blazing brightly, the snapping and popping of the flames the main sound in the scene before them, but behind that was the sound of weeping and faint cries of pain.
“God’s mercy,” Aaren whispered as they slowly rode forward.
Mira nodded mutely at his side. The sight brought back memories of the day her mother died, and the horrible aftermath in the camp.
“What happened?” she asked, her voice as low as Aaren’s.
Horace surveyed the devastation with a soldier’s critical eye. “Bandits,” he muttered, “but more successful than the ones who attacked us.”
“Bandits with magic backing them up,” Elric added, pointing to a body that looked as though it had been struck by lightning.
They wound their way through the wagons, gazing mutely at the destruction around them. By common assent, they headed for the sounds of weeping. Emerging out of the smoke they beheld a terrible sight.
Here, in a circle of wagons, the caravan guards had made their last stand. Bodies lay everywhere in bloody confusion. Many of them were warrior maidens, their bodies twisted and torn by magic. Wounded guards were tending to those more seriously wounded than themselves, limping and cursing feebly as they moved about. A large-framed man in battered chain mail was sitting morosely on a broken chair, sword in hand, staring vacantly into space. His strong features were slack and dull as though he’d seen more than a mortal should. The appearance of the little group didn’t faze him or even seem to register. They dismounted stiffly and stood before him.
Jon knelt down by him and gently removed the sword from his hand.
“Hey,” he shook him slightly, “what happened here?”
The man twitched but gave no other sign.
Jon shook him harder. “Hey! Snap out of it!”
The man’s eyes darkened, he turned slowly to look at Jon.
“Leave me alone,” he finally managed. “Leave me alone and let me die.”
The six of them exchanged worried looks. None of the other people even seemed to notice them so they turned their attention back to the man in the chair.
Katrina knelt down by him and turned his head toward her with soft hands. “What’s your name?” she asked him.
He frowned at her in faint puzzlement.
“Your name,” she repeated gently. “What’s your name?”
“Who is in charge here?”
The question brought a bitter laugh. “I was. Until they attacked us and took my daughter.” He sobbed suddenly and buried his face in his hands. “Illene! My poor little Illene!” He rocked back and forth, crying loudly.
Katrina hesitated uncertainly then got up, leaving him to mourn alone. Jon got up too and they moved a little aside, huddling together with their friends.
Aaren was grim. “It’s pretty clear what happened here. Bandits killed almost everyone, stole whatever cargo they could carry then took the women back to their hideout.”
Jon shook his head. “I don’t think so.”
“What are you talking about?” Mira demanded. “Look at this place!” She waved an arm at the destruction around them.
Jon nodded. “I see it. But I can also see about a dozen necklaces from right here; diamond necklaces, just laying on the ground in plain sight.” He pointed to a nearby wagon that was laying on its side. Spilling out of the ripped canvas was an ornate box that had broken open, spilling a glittering pile of necklaces on the ground. Identical boxes lay scattered around it and more could be seen inside the wagon.
“What in the world?” Horace said in a puzzled voice.
The rest of them echoed his sentiments.
Jon shrugged. “It’s hard to say,” he admitted, “but it looks like whoever attacked wasn’t interested in the cargo. And since Marak said they took his daughter, maybe it was the women they were after.” He pointed at a trail of hoof prints leading west.
“But why?” Katrina demanded.
“I don’t know.”
“It wasn’t the women, it was only my daughter,” Marak’s voice said from behind them.
They turned and stared at the beefy caravan master. He had gotten to his feet and joined them unobtrusively. He was built much like Horace but carried more fat. “Only my daughter,” he repeated.
“How do you know that?” Aaren asked respectfully.
“Because they slaughtered all her warrior-maids getting to her!” Marak thundered. He turned and pointed at a pile of bodies on the other side of the circled wagons.
Mira crossed over to the bodies and knelt beside them. After a brief examination, she rose and rejoined her friends, her eyes steely. “He’s right,” she said tightly. “Everyone of them was pierced through the heart after they fell.” Her voice softened as she turned to Marak. “Why did they want Illene? What was so special about her over the warrior-maids?”
His features sagged and he rubbed his face absently. “I’m not entirely sure.” He started to say more then hesitated.
“Go on,” she urged.
“Well, she was a virgin,” he finally said. “Twenty summers old. She was born on Midsummer at exactly mid-day. The sage said it was a mighty portent.”
Aaren exchanged a knowing glance with Elric. “A twenty-year-old virgin who was born on Midsummer at noon.” He shook his head slowly. “There can’t be more than one or two people like that in the whole world.”
Elric nodded agreement. “A person like that, male or female, would release tremendous amounts of power if they were sacrificed properly.”
Marak paled at his words, swaying like a man in a high wind. He clutched at them. “Please, please get her back for me! I’ll pay you anything you ask, anything!” He straightened and strode over to the spilled jewelry that Jon had noticed earlier. He ripped open another box, it too was stuffed with glittering gems. He thrust it out. “One of these boxes for each of you, two boxes, three if you want. But please get her back, please,” he begged them.
The six of them looked at each other silently, then as one, they mounted their horses. Aaren looked down at Marak and spoke for all of them. “Rest easy good Marak, your daughter will be returned to you alive and well – so say the Knights of Gaia!”
They turned and thundered away.
The bandit’s trail was easy for Mira’s trained eyes to follow. The outlaws hadn’t made any attempts to cover their tracks and they didn’t seem to be in a hurry either. Mira told her companions they were gaining fast and urged them to greater speed. They bent low over their horse’s necks and pounded after her. The minutes and leagues flew by under their flashing hooves. The trail got warmer and warmer to Mira’s keen eyes and soon she was unsheathing her sword for combat. The others followed her example and prepared for war.
They came around a bend and saw the bandits half a league ahead, heading for a millpond outside a small village. There was a two-masted galleon, its sails tightly furled, floating on the pond, a ship far too large for such a small body of water. Huddled on the shore were several villagers being guarded by six or seven heavily armed bandits. Behind them were several rowboats drawn up on the bank of the pond.
The bandits they were pursuing were heading straight for the strange assemblage on the bank.
When the Knights rounded the bend the bandits were plodding along just as Mira had prophesied, but the ones guarding the villagers saw them and began yelling to their companions. The bandits took one look behind them at their pursuers then spurred their horses to a gallop.
Mira yelled in dismay. “They've seen us! Faster, ride faster!”
She flogged her horse to even greater efforts and her friends followed close behind, their weapons at the ready. The distance between them and the pond disappeared at a furious rate. The bandits reached the pond first and threw themselves off their horses. One of them, a mage by his robes, pulled a struggling woman off her horse, dragging her toward one of the rowboats. The others slapped their horses away from them and yelled something indistinct at the huddled villagers who sprang to their feet and bolted for safety.
The bandits turned toward the waiting rowboats but before they had taken three steps the Knights of Gaia were on them.
Mira plowed into them like a juggernaut gone mad. One of the bandits fell beneath the savage hooves of her horse and another dropped to the ground like an unstrung puppet, his head spinning through the air from her sword stroke. Sheer speed and weight sufficed to carry her through the first three ranks but the fourth turned with a spear aimed directly at her horse’s heart. He died as the horse trampled over him but not before the spear had done its deadly work. The horse shrieked and fell, pitching Mira heavily to the ground where she lay stunned.
Aaren was right behind her and when she went down he leapt from the saddle, standing guard over her, swinging his hammer like a man possessed. Three times the bandits tried to overwhelm him, and three times they pulled back leaving dead comrades behind. A wall of bodies had grown up around him by the time Mira recovered enough to stand again.
The rest of the Knights hadn’t been idle. They too attacked the bandits with a vengeance. Elric took the lead fighting the enemy mage, hissing bolts of brilliant power leaping from his fingers to slam unerringly into him. The man staggered and lost his grip on the woman. She sprang away from him but he dove after her, both of them falling to the ground. The surging bodies of the bandits and the Knights came between them and he lost sight of them.
Horace and Katrina drove a wedge all the way through the bandit ranks, turned, and drove back through again, Jon hot on their heels. Twice more they crossed the bandit line, each time leaving a trail of death behind.
Elric wheeled his horse around to the side of the fight, searching for the enemy mage, standing up in the stirrups for a better vantage point. He saw the mage and they locked eyes across the battlefield. Steel gray eyes flickered with triumph and he cast a quick spell. Elric gasped in fear and fell back hopelessly then gasped again, this time in relief. A luckless bandit had stumbled between them at precisely that moment and the lightning bolt veered toward the man’s metal armor. He danced a sudden, furious jig then dropped to the ground in smoldering ruins, portions of his armor fused to his flesh.
Blanrus cursed at Colins’ interference, ignoring the fact the man’s clumsiness had already cost him his life. He grabbed the girl and pulled her toward the waiting rowboats. He had to get out of here! He’d already used most of his power fighting the caravan and had nothing left for another battle so soon. Illene struggled furiously, her clawing fingernails almost putting his eyes out. Where had these blasted interlopers come from, he wondered furiously? This wasn’t supposed to happen. Curse Bashaak anyway! This was his job! He spun Illene around and threw a solid punch to her jaw. She sagged and he tossed her into the boat, uncaring if she were hurt or not.
Elric saw Blanrus getting away and spurred his horse through the middle of the battle, parrying stray thrusts with his enchanted dagger. He broke through just as Blanrus was pulling away from the bank. He stood up in the stirrups again and incanted quickly before the boat was out of range. A sheet of flame jetted out from his hands catching the fleeing mage full in the face.
Blanrus fell backward in the boat screaming in agony, clawing at his face. He scrambled awkwardly, tripping on Illene’s body and getting tangled in the oars. Finally, he succeeded in plunging his head over the side of the boat into the water. He raised his head a moment later, his face a blackened ruin, one eye melted and oozing. Bone white with pain he groped for the oars and pulled like a madman.
Elric yelled in despair, “He’s getting away with the girl! Somebody give me a hand!” He flung himself from his horse and shoved one of the other rowboats into the pond. Behind him, he heard a sudden, deadly thud and a bandit’s body toppled into the pond with a mighty splash. Aaren dropped his hammer into the boat and shoved with him.
Mira sprang past them into the little boat and grabbed the oars. “Get in!” she shouted.
They gave the boat a final shove and leapt in. Mira braced her feet and put her back into it, pulling on the oars until they fairly flew through the water. Over Aaren and Elric's shoulders, she could see the final two bandits surrendering. Jon threw them to the ground and stood guard over them, waving Horace and Katrina after the rest of the Knights. They leapt into the remaining boat and sped after them.
Elric pointed ahead. “That way! He's almost there!”
‘There’ was the ship on the millpond. It was a short galleon, around 86 or 87 cubits long, with sails made of a strange shimmering material. The material seemed to be every color of the rainbow, and none of them, changing its hue depending on what angle it was seen from. There were strips of the same shimmering material, each about a span and a half wide, attached to the hull of the ship starting at the railing then going down under the hull and up to the railing on the other side. They were spaced about 4 cubits apart, from the bow to the stern.
There were a fore and aft, castle decks above the main deck, each accessible by short flights of stairs. The forecastle deck had two ballistae mounted on it and two catapults were mounted on the aft castle deck behind the ship’s wheel. The bow was sheathed in steel for use as a ram. It was painted bright red and had the name ‘The Claw’ painted across the bow just behind the ram.
It was completely out of place on the tiny millpond.
Elric saw the enemy mage reach the ship and begin clambering aboard with the help of two crewmen on the main deck. Together they pulled the unconscious woman aboard. Elric incanted and two more hissing bolts leapt from his fingers. They hit the wizard. The mage rocked backward from the impact, staggered, and nearly fell. He kept his feet though and lurched away from the side of the ship, out of Elric’s line of sight. The two crewmen turned fearful eyes on the approaching Knights and began backing away from the railing. The wizard was yelling something at them, but Elric couldn't tell what it was.
Their boat touched the side of the ship. Aaren leapt up and grabbed the railing. A moment later he gained the deck and threw a rope over the side to his friends. A shadow fell across him and he wheeled just in time to parry a vicious blow. The ring of steel echoed over the water and Mira and Elric hurried to scramble up the rope onto the ship. Horace and Katrina were right behind them a few moments later.
The enemy wizard was standing on the far side of the ship, next to a canoe with a shiny metal chair in it. Illene was slumped over the side of the canoe. He was digging frantically in his robes but as soon as he saw the Knights he gave up looking for whatever he was after and leapt into the canoe, roughly pulling Illene after him.
Mira and Katrina sprang to Aaren’s side, attacking the two bandits. Horace dove past them to close with the wizard, yelling, “The Knights of Gaia,” as a battle cry. The wizard saw him and flung himself into the metal seat. Without warning, the tiny canoe soared up into the air.
There was a moment of stunned silence. Before any of them could recover their wits or try to grab it, it accelerated swiftly into the skies above. In less than a minute it was out of sight.
They stared after it, dumbfounded, looking toward the sky in blank confusion.
Finally, Katrina broke the silence. “What was that?”
“Weird?” Mira ventured.
Katrina gave her a withering look. “Come on.”
“How about really weird?” Horace gasped painfully, suddenly aware one of the bandits had managed to wound him.
Aaren shot him a concerned look and knelt to heal him. “Don’t talk for the next couple of minutes while I work,” he ordered him gently.
Katrina ignored them. “I want to know what that was,” she insisted. “Did you see the way that canoe took off and flew away?”
“Of course we saw it,” Mira told her. “We were right here. But we don’t know any more than you do. What about you, Elric?” she asked the slender mage. “You’re our resident expert on magic. Have you got any idea what that was all about?”
He gave her a troubled look. “Maybe. But it’s not something that Zorn was interested in, so I’m not sure how accurate my information is.”
“If you know anything at all, it’s more than the rest of us know. Out with it,” she urged.
“In a few minutes. But first, somebody help Jon bring those two prisoners out here. There are some questions I want to ask them before I make any comments one way or the other.”
Mira and Katrina protested but he was adamant. “I’m not saying anything until I have some more information,” he insisted. “And the sooner you get the prisoners here, the sooner I’ll have it.”
They finally gave in and rowed back to shore to collect Jon and his prisoners. They tied their hands securely behind their backs and put a noose around their necks to prevent any escape attempts. But the two men were thoroughly subdued and offered no resistance. The moment they were on board the strange ship Elric descended on them with a barrage of questions.
While Elric was interrogating the prisoners, Jon told the rest of them that a couple of the braver villagers had ventured out after the battle was over. From them, he had garnered the information that the galleon had simply appeared overnight on the millpond and the bandits had stolen some horses to use while raiding the caravan. According to their story, they had also overheard the guards talking about leaving once Blanrus got back with the girl.
“Stranger all the time,” Aaren commented thoughtfully. “It’s obvious they were only after the girl, they don’t have any horses, Blanrus runs away in some kind of bizarre, flying canoe and this ship just appears out of nowhere on a tiny pond. I don’t understand it.”
“It must all tie together,” Katrina added, “but how?"
Aaren shook his head mutely. He started to say something when Elric’s voice interrupted him excitedly.
“I can explain it. I can explain everything!”
They turned and saw him running his eyes over the ship they were on in fascinated awe. He tore himself away with difficulty and addressed his friends. “This,” he stomped his foot on the deck, “is a starship!”
“A what?” Jon asked him.
“A starship! A flying ship for going to the moon and the planets and the stars!” he exclaimed. “Zorn only had one short scroll on them in his study, he didn’t think they were any use. That’s why I had to question the prisoners to make sure before I went and spouted off at the mouth. Imagine it,” he breathed in wonder. “A ship that can go to the stars!”
An excited babble broke out among them. Finally, Aaren shouted them down. After a moment they quieted down and Aaren turned a reproving eye on Elric. “Now why don’t you take it from the beginning and tell us what’s going on,” he suggested.
Elric nodded. “I only know a little. Starships are made from skyships. Skyships are flying ships that have sails made from lacewing silk. They sail through the air on magical currents, just like a ship at sea, only in the air. It takes a bunch of wizards all working together to cast the spell to make it work, but even then it has to have some kind of reactor or something to provide enough magical power to get off the ground.” He looked puzzled. “We’ll have to look around and find it. This ship has to have one.” He waved it off.
“But a skyship can’t fly in space because there’s no air or gravity. So they have to add something called a life chest.” He glanced at the prisoners for confirmation and they nodded quietly. “It creates air and gravity for the ship. Then you add another reactor or whatever to make the ship jump between the stars.”
“Jump?” Mira asked.
“The way I understand it, it’s like a teleportation spell for a whole ship instead of just one person. One minute you’re here, the next, you’re somewhere else around a whole different star. And the reactor can make the ship fly really fast between planets. Or something like that,” he trailed off uncertainly.
Horace was examining the ship with a soldier’s eye. “You know,” he said meditatively, “this ship is rigged up pretty good for fighting; lots of armor plating on the hull, crew-served weapons fore and aft, plenty of cover for bowmen and spear throwers, it’s even got a ram on the front, but what is that crazy wing for?”
Elric was confused. “What wing?”
Horace led them over to the rail and pointed toward the stern. There, just above the waterline was a short stubby wing. The trailing edge of it looked like it was on hinges so it could move up and down.
Jon hurried to the other side of the ship and peered over the edge toward the stern. “There’s another one on this side too,” he called. “What are they for?” he asked, rejoining them.
“How should I know?” Elric shrugged. “Zorn only had the one scroll.” He turned to the prisoners. “What are those wings for?”
After a moment, one of them ventured an answer. “They make the bow of the ship go up and down. Blanrus called them ailerons.”
“Are you sure about all this?” Mira asked doubtfully. “I mean, what if the scroll left something out or didn’t cover something fully? What then?”
“I’m as sure as I can be,” Elric answered. “And our prisoners confirmed everything I’ve told you so far. They’ve been to the moon and the Pebbles many times. The Pebbles are where Blanrus is taking the girl.”
His friends turned to eye their captives with new interest. The Pebbles were a group of asteroids that orbited Gaia in a loose cluster. They had been torn away from the moon during the Chaos Wars at the end of the First Age. They appeared in the night sky as dozens of bright spots of light and were sometimes visible in the early dusk.
Jon stretched and pulled the prisoners up to their feet. “This is all very interesting,” he said, “but right now I feel like stashing these guys somewhere safe and finding the kitchen, I’m starving.”
Katrina slapped at him playfully. “On a ship, it’s called a galley,” she teased.
He stuck his tongue out at her. “That’s the dining room dummy, not the kitchen.”
They found a safe place to keep the prisoners in the brig on the steerage deck on the starboard side aft of the mainmast. After securing the prisoners they explored the ship. It was both fascinating and humdrum.
In many respects, it was an ordinary galleon, but of a type that was shorter than a normal galleon, a two-masted version called a short galleon. The bottom deck, called the steerage deck, contained the brig, a storage area at the stern of the ship, and the steerage hold. The storage area, 14 cubits wide by 7 cubits deep, was separated from the rest of the deck by wooden bars and a regular shipboard door. It held foodstuffs, clothes, ropes, spare sails, barrels of water, tools, and sundry other items. Cargo doors in the ceiling allowed large items to be lowered into the main part of the steerage hold.
Just in front of the mainmast were three intricate chests, made of platinum. The one in the middle, Elric said was called the skengine. It provided the magical power that lifted skyships off the ground.
The chest or reactor to the left of it was the life chest that provided air and gravity and the one on the right, according to the prisoners, was called the star engine. All of them were connected by platinum rods and emitted a constant low hum of power. Each had a hatch on the front but when they were opened, the Knights found themselves staring into an inky blackness, broken only by a tiny white light in the center of the chest, like a miniature star. Over each hatch was a row of 10 glowing diamonds, indicating how much power each of the reactors had remaining. The star engine had a second row of 10 diamonds below the hatch, all lit.
The next deck up was the cargo deck. Fore and aft were the crew’s quarters. There was room for eight in the forward quarters and room for six in the aft compartment. Behind the mainmast, was a short companionway. On either side of it was the galley or kitchen – Jon and Katrina were still having their argument about it – on the other side was the pantry. There were big cargo doors in the ceiling that allowed large loads to be lowered to the deck. Directly below them were another set of big doors to allow cargo to be lowered further down to the steerage hold.
The main deck had an open area 30 cubits long and 20 cubits wide. Forward, there two flights of stairs, one on either side of the ship, going up to the forecastle. In the middle of them was a stairwell going down to the cargo deck. Between all the stairs were two doors, one each on the port side and the starboard side. Behind each door was a large cabin. Each cabin could sleep two people but one of them was stuffed with shelves holding star charts and other navigation equipment, leaving only enough room for one bunk.
Aft of the mainmast were four sets of stairs, two going up to the aft castle deck, or sterncastle deck, and two going down to the cargo deck. In the middle was a door leading to a short companionway. There were three doors, one at the far end leading to the Captain’s quarters, and a door on either side, leading to two large cabins. At random intervals throughout the ship were small storage closets, shoe-horned into whatever space was available.
All in all, they concluded, it was a remarkable ship, and in excellent condition at that. It took them several hours to fully explore it and by the time they were done, it was getting dark. Elric had discovered several books and maps in the Captain’s quarters. He and Aaren were huddled together over them intently. The only other item of note was a great, two-handed sword of unusual quality they found under the bed in the Captain’s quarters. Aaren cast a spell to see if it was magic and announced that not only was it magic, it was very magic, a true sword of power. Its presence there was a mystery but Horace laid claim to it at once.
After drawing lots, kitchen duty fell to Jon and Katrina, who were still continuing their galley argument. The pantry on board was well stocked and they were able to put together a veritable feast. Just as they were preparing to eat the ship was hailed from shore. They tumbled out to the main deck and peered through the evening gloom.
Standing on the bank was Marak and his remaining guards. They had put together a team of unwounded, or lightly wounded horses and followed the Knights. They were forced to move at a crawl and were just now completing a journey the Knights had covered in less than half an hour.
Marak saw them and waved. “What in blazes is that thing?” he bellowed across to them.
“A ship,” Horace shouted back.
Even in the gathering darkness, they could see Marak’s disapproving look. “I can see that,” he returned. “What’s it doing here?”
Mira felt an insane desire to yell back, ‘Floating!’ but she stifled it with a mighty effort.
Horace shrugged, “It’s kinda hard to explain. Why don’t you come aboard?”
Marak cocked his head. “I’d like to, but there’s one problem.”
“I can’t swim!”
Horace looked down at the rowboats tied up by the ship. “Oh,” he said sheepishly. “Uh, we’ll be right over.”
By the time everyone had been ferried to the ship, there turned out to be more of them than the Knights had anticipated. Including the wounded guards, there were twenty people on the ship, not counting the two prisoners. Jon and Katrina had to pull another shift in the kitchen to ensure there was enough food on hand to feed everyone.
After dinner, all of them pitched in washing dishes and cleaning up. After that they retired to Captain’s quarters, the biggest room on the ship, inviting Marak and his chief guard, Taanen, for drinks. Taanen was a whipcord thin man with pale, blue eyes and weathered skin.
It took almost an hour to bring Marak up to date on the events of the day. The Knights recounted the chase and the battle on the shore, the fight on board the ship, and Blanrus’ astounding escape.
“But there weren’t any sails on the canoe?” Marak asked.
Aaren shook his head. “None.”
“I thought you said these ships required sails,” he pressed.
Elric nodded. “That’s right. But there’s still a lot I don’t know so right now I don’t have an answer for you.”
“The point is, he got away,” Aaren concluded. “We have to assume he made it to his destination in the Pebbles.”
Marak sighed deeply. “And my daughter?”
They exchanged guilty looks and then stared intently at the floor. Mira finally met his eyes. “He took her with him,” she admitted. “We couldn’t stop him.”
“Aye,” he said heavily. “I thought so.” He slumped back in his chair despondently.
A long moment passed. The oil lamps on the wall flickered fitfully and the shadows danced over them. Aaren finally leaned over and whispered to Mira. She listened, shook her head, listened some more then finally nodded hesitantly.
Taanen noticed and nudged Marak, drawing his attention to their whispered conversation. “Do you have an idea?” he asked.
Aaren straightened up and nodded. “Yes, but I’m not sure how much you’re going to like it. I’m not even sure how much we’re going to like it.”
“Somewhat ominous,” Marak replied. “But then whatever Blanrus has planned for Illene is probably worse. Go on.”
Aaren nodded to him and stood up to address the whole group. “Mira and I were discussing the possibility of using this ship to pursue Blanrus and your daughter, with the goal of rescuing Illene and putting his head on a pike. Bear in mind, however, that none of us have ever seen a ship like this one before, let alone flown one. The planets are separated by incredible distances with very few landmarks to guide the journeyer, so getting lost is not only easy but very likely. On the other hand, the ship’s pantry is reasonably well-stocked so we wouldn’t be in any danger of starving for several months. Elric and I have been going over Blanrus’ journals and books; we’ve have learned a lot from them and we’re willing to take a stab at it if you are.” He paused to look around the room at his companions. “Well?”
There was a moment of silence, broken only by the distant creak of a rope rubbing against something. Horace finally spoke up in measured tones. “We said we wanted adventure,” he began slowly. “Well, this would be an adventure on a scale few of us ever dreamed of, not to mention the reward Marak offered us. If it still stands?” He looked questioningly at the ex-caravan master. Marak nodded emphatically. “In that case, I say yes!”
Katrina strummed her lute idly. “I haven’t had much time to practice my music,” she mused. “Onboard, I’d have plenty of time, plus I might even write a new song or two. Sure, why not? Let’s do it.”
Jon shook his head in mock despair at her illogical reasoning. “I’ll go along with it on one condition; I don’t care who the Captain is but I’m going to be the First Officer, First Mate, whatever you call it.” He gazed defiantly around the room.
Mira shrugged in confusion. “I don’t see why anyone would object to that but, why?”
“The First Mate is in charge of keeping things shipshape,” he replied quickly. “He sets the watch and makes sure that everything runs on time.”
“Ah,” she breathed understandingly. “Rules, regulations, law and order. I should have guessed. Sure, go ahead.”
He nodded his satisfaction. “In that case, count me in.”
Aaren’s voice caught the young mage by surprise and he jerked up from the book he was reading. He looked around the room in faint surprise. “Of course, I’m going. A chance to try out a ship like this? I wouldn’t miss it for the world!”
Aaren smiled at his eager expression. “Fine. I’m in favor of going and so is Mira.” He turned to Marak and Taanen. “What about you? Will you go with us or wait here for our return?”
Taanen shrugged complacently. “I go where Marak goes.”
They all turned to him. He cocked an eyebrow at them and rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “My caravan is destroyed,” he said slowly. “We salvaged most of the cargo though. On the other hand, I don’t feel like waiting around this village if I can help it; there’s not much here.” The others nodded their agreement. The village consisted of little more than a few houses and the mill. “Going with you could mean death or worse, but not going would leave me too much time to worry.” He thought about it for another few moments then came to an abrupt decision. “I’ll come with you.”
Horace sat forward. “What about your men? Will they come too?”
“I don’t see why not,” Marak returned. “Part of the cargo we salvaged was the pay box. As long as they’re getting their wages I don’t see any reason for them to refuse.”
Aaren smiled. “Well then, it looks like we’re heading for the stars.”
Everyone clapped and cheered his pronouncement, toasting each other.
“Fine,” Aaren said. “Since we’re all decided, there’s something else that needs to be discussed.” When he saw he had their attention again, he continued. “Jon has already laid claim to the First Officer’s position, but we need a Captain. During any kind of emergency, there has to be one person who’s in charge, otherwise, everything goes to pieces.”
“What do you have in mind?” Jon asked.
“Well, Horace has the military training and background for taking over as sergeant of the guard,” the big fighter nodded eagerly, “so that leaves either me, Katrina, or Mira, and frankly, I just can’t see Katrina giving orders while strumming on a lute.”
Katrina smiled and struck a loud chord. “I’m the entertainment staff,” she agreed lightly.
Mira smiled at Aaren. “So it comes down to you and me?”
“You’ve been leading us so far,” she said. “Keep going.”
“Commanding a ship is different than leading a group of adventurers,” he said quietly. “Especially when we get into port. I don’t want to make any assumptions. Whoever is Captain will have the legal authority to do all kinds of things. This has to be an official decision by all of us.”
Jon cleared his throat. “And here I thought I was the only law-and-order type around here.” Faint laughter circled the room. “Alright, I officially nominate Aaren Valed as our Captain.”
“Second the motion.” Horace was prompt and official-sounding.
Aaren lifted an eyebrow. “Any other nominations?” No one said anything. He shrugged. “Alright then, all in favor?” Every hand went up, including Marak and Taanen. “Opposed?”
He gave her a pained smile. “Alright then, by a unanimous vote, I’ve been elected as the Captain.”
Katrina did a rim shot on the edge of the table and everyone laughed.
Aaren grinned briefly then assumed a more serious tone. “Alright then, first thing in the morning I want Jon to take a complete inventory of everything on the ship. I want to know exactly what we have and how much. I’ll do what I can do for the wounded.” Marak nodded his appreciation. “Horace, you and Mira go over our weapons, defenses, things like that. I want to know what we have available if we have to go into combat. Katrina, you help out where ever you can. If anyone needs an extra pair of hands, you’re it. Elric, dig into those journals and books. Learn everything about starships that you can then teach the rest of us what you picked up. I want all of us to be able to run this thing.”
Mira noted there was suddenly a business-like air about the room. Everyone was paying strict attention and nodding agreement with Aaren’s off-the-cuff decisions. Even Elric had laid aside his book and was sitting forward attentively, something he hadn't done previously. Perhaps Aaren was right, electing a Captain changed things.
Aaren wasn’t done yet. “Marak,” the man started with surprise, “I want you to gather your men on the main deck tomorrow at noon. I’ll want to talk to them as a group and let them know what we're planning on doing and give each of them a chance to stay or leave. I know they’re your men but this wasn’t something they signed up for. We should give them an opportunity to leave if they want to.
Marak scowled but nodded.
“Also, bring me a list of their names and occupations; what skills they have, weapon proficiency, special abilities, that kind of thing. And, if any of them have any experience with sailing ships I’ll want to know that too.”
“That information is more along Taanen’s line,” Marak said. “He’s been my assistant for quite some time and I trust his judgment in hiring men for me.”
“Fine,” he nodded. “Do it however you want, just get me the list.”
He paused, thinking. “Is there anything I’ve missed? Comments? Questions? Objections? Now’s the time for it.”
They all shook their heads.
“In that case let’s hit the sack, tomorrow is going to be a long day,” he told them.
They stood up and started filing out, chattering among themselves brightly. He smiled to himself then suddenly snapped his fingers as a thought occurred to him. “Jon,” he called, “remember to set the watch tonight.”
He smiled reprovingly at him to let him know he hadn’t forgotten and ducked out with the others.
He turned away and started picking up the cups and saucers that had been left behind. He stacked them on one of the tables and made a mental note to start a rotating cleanup duty roster. He blew out several of the lamps and turned with an armload of dishes then halted in surprise when he saw Mira leaning against the doorjamb watching him, arms folded across her chest.
“Oh,” he said, “I didn’t see you.”
“I saw you,” she said in a warm voice, Aaren had never heard before. A tingle ran down his back and he shifted nervously in the now dimly lit room. His long-standing attraction to Mira surged to the fore and he suddenly became aware of the Captain’s bed behind him. “Did,” he stopped to clear his throat. “Did you want something?”
Mira ran her eyes slowly over the tall cleric’s chiseled form before answering. “Yes. As a matter of fact, I did. And do.” She blushed furiously at her own words and the pounding of her heart but kept her eyes on his. “We don’t know what’s going to happen out there and I wanted to know, wanted you to know how I felt.”
He set down the dishes and came over to stand directly in front of her. He looked down at her seriously. “I hope it’s the same way I feel.”
She bit her lip, feeling her confidence building even as she became more nervous. The Captain’s bed was looming large in her mind but she was still young enough to be untouched. She wanted his arms around her but wasn’t ready to open her body to him just yet.
Her trembling was obvious as his strong fingers came up to rest on her shoulders, massaging them gently. “Now is not the time, my lady,” he whispered, “but, as a token of my feelings–” He leaned over and kissed her long and deep. Her eyes closed and she swayed under his touch. Then, abruptly he was gone, taking the dishes with him.
She opened her eyes to the empty room then sagged against the wall, her knees wobbly and her heart pounding as she stared at the Captain’s bed. She felt flushed and hot. She wasn’t sure whether to be glad he hadn’t pressed the issue or not. The future wasn’t guaranteed, and now that their feelings for each other were finally out in the open, she found she ached for him to a degree she hadn’t anticipated.
She pushed herself away from the wall and blew out all the lamps but one. She had to get out of here before he returned, otherwise she’d succumb to the temptation he presented and the whole ship would hear their passion. She hesitated at the door, fighting her own conflicting needs and desires, then left quickly before she could change her mind.
Over the next few days, the captured bandits proved to be a gold mine of information, once the Knights persuaded them to talk. Torture was a little more than they felt comfortable with, but threatening to turn the luckless bandits over to the irate villagers had worked faster and better than any amount of torture ever could have. Through a combination of threats, cajoling, wheedling, and flattery they dug out of them the reasons behind Illene’s capture, then let them go, much to Jon’s obvious disgust.
It seemed that one of the Pebbles was heavily populated (Elric went into raptures over the very idea) and was under the nominal control of a certain, Prince Urdan Harpel. A military brotherhood called The Sword had discovered a little-known spell that could give them instant control of Harpel (the asteroid was named after the ruling family) without having to fight a single battle. The difficulty was that the spell had to be cast on the day of the Prince’s birthday and required the sacrifice of a special kind of virgin.
The Sword had hired Blanrus to conduct the spell since their membership was limited to fighters, not wizards. Blanrus in turn had contracted with an unknown cleric to find the particular kind of virgin the spell required. The cleric had directed him to Illene and so a raiding party was put together to abduct her before she took a lover and spoiled her usefulness.
Marak’s relief at this information was profound. “Then she’s in no danger for more than two months,” he breathed. “We’ve got a fighting chance after all!” Prince Urdan’s birthday was two and a half months away according to the captives.
“Looks like it,” Mira agreed.
“There’s still the difficulty of getting to Harpel,” Jon reminded them. “Navigating this ship isn’t as easy as we thought. The journals Aaren and Elric had been looking through didn’t have much information on that aspect of flying a starship.
“That doesn’t bother me as much as the idea of a military brotherhood being behind this, Horace told them seriously. “We’re talking about professional warriors here. Rescuing Illene from a group like that could get us all killed in a big hurry.”
“Scared?” Katrina teased him.
“Yes!” he replied emphatically. “Bandits are one thing, but professionals are in a whole different league.”
“But you must rescue my daughter,” Marak exclaimed in alarm. “You can’t leave her there!”
“Calm down,” Jon placated him. “Nobody said anything about leaving her, did they, Horace?” He shot a quick glance at the big fighter, warning him with his eyes.
“Oh, we’ll get her,” Horace conceded grudgingly, “but it’s not going to be easy.” He turned away and went to see to the testing of the aft catapults with Mira on his heels. “Not even close,” he muttered to himself. Mira heard him but wisely kept her opinion to herself.
Aaren, the rest of the Knights, and Marak gathered the caravan guards together on the main deck the first thing that morning to inform them what kind of ship they were on and what the Knights planned on doing with it. After an initial wave of alarm, the men had calmed down when Taanen reminded them the pay box had been salvaged. One of them finally relented and agreed to stay. Another agreed to stay as well and that triggered an avalanche of acceptance. Soon all of them had agreed to remain. One of them, Garrick, had some previous experience with regular sailing ships and was appointed as boatswain. Aaren ordered him to drill the men on using the rigging to raise and lower the ship’s sails.
After that, he and Elric spent most of each morning closeted in the Captain’s quarters with Blanrus’ captured books trying to discern as much as they could about the operations of a starship. Alternately, they spent time poring over the navigational charts.
Jon corralled Katrina to help him inventory the ship and write down everything they had, how much, where it was stored, and what condition it was in. It was slow going and they had only just finished with the steerage deck and were moving on to the cargo deck.
After lunch the fourth day, Taanen needed all the men below decks so he could finish arranging the men in their permanent quarters. The short little man had already proven his worth several times, and the Knights could see why Marak placed so much trust in him. Even though he was somewhat cold and distant, he was slow to anger, and what few words he spoke always made sense.
“Today is payday for the men,” Marak told them. “So I’d better get the pay box down to the crew’s galley to pay them unless anyone needs me for something else?” His tone made it obvious he hoped no one would.
Aaren spoke for all of them and waved him on. “Go ahead,” he said. “We’re all busy with our own affairs. We’ll manage.” He turned on his heel and followed Elric forward to the port cabin under the forecastle deck. It was the navigator’s cabin and Elric had immediately appropriated it for his own. The two of them hoped to find more information on the actual mechanics of navigating a starship hidden among all the charts.
Marak bobbed his head at the rest of them and strode away briskly. The news about Illene’s fate had cheered him immensely and he was a different man than the one the Knights had first encountered. He was quick, decisive, alert, and business-like. He also left Mira with a deep feeling of coiled menace. There was something way down inside him that was frighteningly dangerous. She watched him disappear aft with the heavy, iron-bound box under his arm, his men following close behind. She resolved to speak to Aaren about it as soon as possible.
Jon and Katrina also headed down to the cargo deck to resume their slow, methodical survey of the ship’s equipment and inventory. They waved cheerfully to Mira and disappeared below. The sails overhead, still open the way Garrick and the men had left them during their practice sessions, flapped idly in the soft breeze.
Horace joined her on the aft castle where she was playfully spinning the ship’s wheel back and forth. “The men all deserted me when they saw Marak come out with the pay box,” he complained cheerfully. “Left me without so much as a ‘please’ or ‘thank you’.” He didn’t sound particularly upset about it.
Mira briefly considered asking him if he felt the same sense of danger around Marak she did. What stopped her was that she had nothing to go on, just a vague feeling that the man could be a deadly foe, but then, the same thing could be said about all of them. She decided to wait until she could talk to Aaren. This was the kind of thing clerics were supposed to be good at.
“Just as well,” she said outwardly, forcing her disquiet aside. “We can finish writing down what we’ve learned about the ship’s armaments and what she’s capable of in combat. Now’s as good a time as any. Besides,” she cast a jaundiced eye through the flapping sails at the threatening clouds overhead, “I think we’re due for some rain and I’d just as soon be inside.”
“There’s not much to cover but sure, why not?” he nodded. “You think Aaren will mind if we use that table in his quarters?”
“If he does, that’s just too bad,” she grinned, waving him on.
He grinned back and led her down the companionway into the Captain’s quarters, leaving all the upper decks totally deserted. Neither of them noticed when the hilt of her sword bumped the pink sapphire in the middle of the ship’s wheel as they left the aft castle. It lit up quietly.
As they disappeared below, all the upper decks were left completely deserted.
Magic can lift us to the heights of Heaven
or damn us to the Pits of Hell. Choose wisely.
– The Proverbs of Shedey’uwr
Aaren and Elric had managed to discover some interesting things about starships, chief of which was that all three of the reactors on the steerage deck were required for the ship to operate correctly. The middle reactor, the one called a skengine, provided magical energy to lift the ship off the ground. The fuel for it was copper coins. Each coin fed into it through the hatch was enough fuel for it to run for one day, and it took 10 copper coins to light up each of the ten diamonds over the hatch.
The reactor on the left, the life chest, provided air and gravity to the ship and it used gold coins, called crowns, for fuel. Once again, one coin provided enough fuel for one day and it took 10 gold coins to light each of the ten diamonds.
The reactor on the right, however, was different. It used platinum coins, often called thrones or tri-crowns, for fuel but each coin only provided enough power for one hour. It still required 10 coins to light each of the ten diamonds above the hatch. It was the second row of ten diamonds, this time below the hatch where the real differences came to the fore. Each diamond that lit up, requiring 10 platinum coins, indicated enough power for only one star jump.
The controls for the ship, aside from the sails, were on the ship’s wheel, the levers on either side of it, and the control panel in front of it, up on the aft castle desk.
That was the easy part. After that, they ran into problems with the navigational aspects of running a ship. They had been arguing, off and on, ever since they captured the ship and both of them were getting frustrated. A minor point concerning stellar navigation was explained poorly, at best, in the captured books, and each of them had reached a different conclusion from what little information there was. From there, a tiny difference of opinion had mushroomed into a full-blown argument, complete with red faces and clenched fists.
Elric finally threw up his hands in exasperation. “Have it your way!” he shouted furiously. “I give up!”
They stood there breathing heavily, eyeballing each other for a moment. Aaren let out his breath with a noisy explosion and turned away, trying to keep from punching his friend right in the nose. He hadn’t been this angry in years. He struggled to get himself under control. A violent slam told him the slender mage had stormed out of the cabin.
Elric leaned back against the door, staring up at the starry skies above, grinding his teeth in anger. How could Aaren be so mule-headed? Did he expect Elric to simply bow down because he’d been elected Captain? Well, he had another thing coming if he thought he could get away with that nonsense! He clenched his fists, surprisingly feeling once more the same boiling frustration he’d felt after an argument with Zorn. He needed a drink, only there was no Smiling Waif to turn to. Maybe there was something down in the galley. The stairs down to the cargo deck were right beside him. He turned abruptly and headed down, so angry and upset that he didn’t notice how far down on the horizon the stars came or stop to reflect that it was too early for the stars to come out.
Aaren listened to Elric’s footsteps on the stairs. They’d been cooped up in the navigator’s cabin for over an hour since lunch, rehashing their navigation argument for what felt like the hundredth time. Elric was probably headed down to the galley to snag a bottle of something. He wished he’d thought of it first but now, if he went down himself he’d run into Elric again so he stayed where he was, stewing and chewing his lip. How could someone so brilliant be so absolutely stupid when it came to navigating a ship? He shook his head.
He pushed himself away from the door and began scooping up the books and charts that were strewn around. While studying them they hadn’t tried to keep the room in order and now it was a huge mess. Trying to work off some of his anger, he found he’d cleaned up the entire chamber in less than half an hour. He put the last chart back in place then paused to survey the room. It was the forward port stateroom under the forecastle, about 10 cubits long and 10 cubits wide at the back where the door was. The outside port wall followed the curve of the ship’s hull, gradually narrowing until the room was only 8 cubits wide at the forward end. The other forward stateroom on the starboard side was a mirror-image of it.
Along the curve was the navigator’s workbench. Over it was hundreds of pigeonholed charts and maps, carefully rolled up and placed in their individual slots. Each was clearly marked and the whole arrangement was placed so a man sitting at the navigator’s position could reach any one of them merely by stretching out his hand. The navigator’s chair sat on rails so the occupant could slide from one end of the workbench to the other, quickly and easily. An arrangement of voice tubes provided communication to the ship’s wheel on the aft castle deck. A parallel arrangement of mirrors provided visual communication as well. He slumped down in the navigator’s chair, staring unseeingly at the stars in the mirror.
How could he get Elric to see his mistake, he wondered? Their continual arguing wasn’t accomplishing anything. There had to be some way to get through to him.
Wait . . . stars?
He shook his head in confusion and peered through the mirror. It was angled so it looked slightly up to where the pilot would be standing behind the ship’s wheel. It should have been showing blue skies and maybe a few puffy clouds. Why was it showing stars? It had only been an hour since lunch, maybe a little more. It shouldn’t be nighttime yet.
He frowned and got up. Three steps took him to the door and he yanked it open. He peered up at the night sky. He blinked owlishly. What? How could it be nighttime already?
He walked out slowly, craning his head back in disbelief. The unfurled sails obscured his vision and he made a mental note to remind Garrick to always furl them again after he and the men finished their practice sessions. He stopped and stared at the shimmering iridescent sails.
Usually, they just hung limply from the masts. He couldn’t feel any air movement and the little village was at the bottom of a shallow bowl-like valley that was notable mainly for its lack of good breezes, so why were they billowed out like they were full of wind? He shook his head in bewilderment. What was going on?
Mira leaned back from the table, stretching her back. “Agh,” she groaned. “Paperwork is why I got away from my father’s business. I hate sitting hunched over a table like this.”
Horace nodded sympathetically, stretching his own back as he pushed himself to his feet. “I hear you.” He sniffed the air and looked around with a puzzled expression on his face. “Is there a window open in here someplace?”
Mira was rotating her head on her neck. “I don’t know. Why?”
“It smells like fresh mountain flowers in here.”
“Oh come on, it doesn’t . . .” She paused, sniffing the air. “Hmm. You’re right. It must be coming from outside.” She stood up, strode over to the shutters that covered the glass panes, and threw them open. She fell back with a gasp of pure horror, vertigo threatening to overwhelm her.
Horace leapt to catch her. “Mira! What's wrong . . .” He stuttered to a halt as he saw the view outside. “By all the gods,” he whispered. “What happened?”
She pushed away from him and reached out cautiously to close the shutters. They breathed a sigh of relief as the insane view was blocked out.
Shouts of alarm echoed suddenly from the main deck outside. The sounds of running feet thundered through the ship along with Marak’s voice bellowing orders. There was a clash of steel then Aaren’s alarmed voice yelling at someone to leave something alone. Something happened and they felt a surge of acceleration beneath their feet.
“What?” Mira shoved Horace aside and sprang for the door. She jerked it open and dashed up the companionway for the open part of the main deck. She flung the door open and emerged outside. She took three steps then ground to a halt, trying vainly to understand what was going on.
Instead of a sunny afternoon, midnight stars surrounded the ship. But the stars were spinning wildly as if the ship was turning on a spit over a fire. Every few seconds they would also move side-to-side or worse, up-and-down. She gasped in dizziness, staggering forward to hang onto the main mast for dear life. Up and behind her, she heard the sounds of men struggling. She turned, still hanging onto the mast, and saw Marak and his men clustered around the ship’s wheel, fighting over it. Their struggles were causing the wheel to spin wildly. The column the wheel was on, tilted on gimbals at the bottom. Their fight was moving the entire column in every direction, back and forward as well as side to side. She tasted bile as her stomach tried to revolt against the moving sky.
She saw Aaren struggling to get through the knot of men surrounding the wheel. He was bellowing something about hitting the black onyx. Finally, he made it, shoving all the men away, and slapping at something on the hub of the wheel. The stars quit whirling around as the wheel stopped moving.
Mira pushed herself away from the mast and started up the stairs to the aft castle desk, trying to ignore the impossible sight of stars under the ship, fighting her way through the men still clustered around the wheel. She got there just in time to hear Aaren say, “We’re in space. Somehow or another, we’ve been launched into space!”