Kindred Spirit (2003)

I

Night crept along the floor of the Valley of Shadow toward the low, window pierced walls of the Kindred Spirit. Alsain, first of the moons, rose above the encircling peaks of the Carpé Mountains throwing his silvery light upon the freshly fallen snow. The mountains themselves stood like silent sentinels watching over the shimmering hollow. In the light of the moon, both valley and monastery appeared to be clad in diaphanous vestments of glittering diamonds.

This effect was marred by only one dark spot. A short distance from the Kindred Spirit, a massive man lay clad in fur cloak upon the ground. His tangled blonde hair spread in a halo over the snow as his gold flecked black eyes reflected the marginal light of the stars.

Running a callused hand over his face to brush aside from snow, Ograc Cingriffon smiled broadly as a stray breeze tickled his slightly pointed ear. In his head he thanked and praised Alsain in the lilting fluid tongue of his mother’s people. Then he placated the Night in the guttural harsh language of his father’s. Even if he had dedicated himself to Kersal, it was best not to offend any deities, just on general principles. That need fulfilled, Ograc leaned back once more to stare as the stars made themselves seen. Each picture they painted he named in both tongues.

There was Tynealisthialin the Hunter, also called Grask the Render. And to the north was Marshok, Hound of the Underworld, known to some as Flasial, Master of the Hunt. For years the monks and priests of the Spirit had taught Ograc to embrace both halves of his lineage. And he still strove to do so, although it was difficult to enfold his sire’s violent heritage among the life of peace the monks lived and taught. His mother’s ancient, peaceful, nature loving people were easier to embrace. Yet, tempted as he was to forget, he felt the monks spoke truth when they told him that to deny his father’s people would be to deny part of what made him, Ograc, unique.

So Ograc meditated with his spiritual brothers when he could, gently embracing the love of the world that his mother’s people held. And he let his instinctual understanding of his father’s flow with guidance while he led trains of pilgrims safely through the mountain passes. The latter was probably his most important job and service for the Spirit. The Carpés were filled with bands of Orcs and Ogres that would think nothing of waylaying pilgrims. And then there were “rogue” cohorts of the Republican Army raiding anyone they thought might support Thrahir. Last, but not least, were the thrill-seekers and brigands of that southern kingdom who were all too willing to try for the bounty their bigoted king had set for the ears and heads of most non-Humans. According to the elder monks, the roads were safer before Thrahir had seceded from the Archentheyic Republic. But even they only guessed that from old records as the break had occurred a few generations in the past.

Traffic in pilgrims would be nothing but the merest trickle for at least another week though. Few felt the need to visit Kersal’s holy place badly enough to brave the passes this early in the spring. But in another week or two the bad snows should stop and the passes should be cleared. With Kersal’s blessing, he added.

A wistful sigh escaped his lips. Until then, Ograc would have a few more nights to do nothing but stare up at the sky and a couple days of splitting wood and helping in the kitchens before the valley became busy once more.

Lying in the snow, Ograc let such thoughts fade from his mind. As they slipped off into the darkness, he let his consciousness drift into the quiet peaceful glade the monks had shown him. Within a score or two breaths, Ograc’s body was settled in a state halfway between sleep and trance. Only a small voice in the back of his head, triggered by his slip, kept the big man from drifting off totally into the realm of Dreams.

As usual when he entered this glade of his mind, Ograc found himself siting comfortably on the warm spring grass. The gently waving trees mimicked a forest clearing he had not seen since his youth, long before coming to the Kindred Spirit. And as it always was, the weather fit exactly into his favourite time of the year. The sky was a clear blue, the light breeze invigorating, and the air carried the faintest scent of inclement showers. While Ograc sat taking the place in, he watched a few small creatures; a chipmunk and some birds flitting through the trees as an amiable badger trundled along beneath them.

The huge man relaxed and sighed in contentment. Everything was as it should be. As Ograc was settling back, a form flashed through the trees . . . a Human form. Just as he was getting up to investigate, a strange woman stepped into the glade.

She was obviously fey, as Ograc could instantly tell from her willowy form and the almond-oval shape of her face. And she was clad in a loose approximation of hunters’ garb. All of this he absorbed over the few heartbeats it took to stand and move back a step. Despite having faced down dozens of bandits in the past, Ograc felt a nervous sweat drip down his brow. And there was a little shiver at the base of his spine.

The only creatures that were supposed to be able to invade a meditation glade were all either unfriendly or divine. And neither were things Ograc wanted to tangle with in the physical world, much less this one.

But it looked like he would have little choice in the matter as the woman was slowly approaching him. Long experience told Ograc that she was still moving too fast for him to safely withdraw from this pocket realm. If he tried to go fast it could work, or it could send his spirit hurling out into the void leaving his body to waste away in the winter’s last snow. The latter had happened before to monks much more skilled and experienced than he was. Ograc shuddered at the thought of poor Brother Andrilyr.

The woman was exceptionally close now. She started to reach a hand out toward Ograc. He scrambled back a few steps and her hand paused. Her brow furrowed and eyes clouded in a look that managed to mingle confusion with concern. The woman’s face cleared and turned swiftly to a questioning look. She stopped moving and held her hand out palm up.

Seeing that the woman appeared willing to wait, Ograc sat a few feet away from her. He stared at the fey and considered his situation. The being was silent and seemed non-threatening for the moment, he thought. But that would probably change if he tried to move away or draw himself out of the trance. Something in the back of his mind was certain of this. Even in this mindscape, where he was bereft of a physical body, Ograc felt a cold sweat work its way in a slow trickle down his neck and back.

He sat and pondered the situation for a while. Ograc was able to come up with three options. He could remain still and let his body waste away over a few weeks. Or he could try to return to his body swiftly, hope to “outrun” the being, and hope Fortune was on his side. Finally, he could risk touching the being, which seemed to be what it wanted, and take the chance that he would still be sane and able to return afterwards. None of them were especially wonderful choices, but the third offered the best hope of survival, in some form at least.

With a course of action decided, Ograc tentatively stretched out a hand toward the entity. When it did not move, he rose and came closer so their hands could meet. An armlength away, Ograc stopped moving and reached forward again. He extended his arm, hand, and fingers to the fullest.

A burst of color flashed in Ograc’s mind as his fingertips brushed the being’s. Of its own volition his hand jerked back. Slowly, carefully, Ograc forced his arm to reach out to the being once more. He was nearly exhausted by the time their limbs could almost touch.

With one remaining effort of will he forced his fingers into contact with the entity’s. Mentally he cringed the whole way, recalling the last moment.

This time, Ograc’s head was flooded with images. At first they came so fast that they all blurred into one indistinguishable mix of color. Almost as if some mad painter had dashed his entire palette upon the canvas.

Gradually the myriad pictures became clearer and separated from each other. Ograc could sense that they were still moving faster than any mortal eye could note them, but in this place everything could be absorbed more rapidly. Even so, Ograc could make no sense of them. Each seemed totally random and unconnected to the one before it.

            First came a simple granite fortress, more of a tower, he thought. Then a herd of stocky black sheep. Next came a crashing waterfall, Ograc could almost hear the mass of water thundering along. This was followed by a brilliantly emerald serpent of phenomenal size which somehow lead to a blindingly white field of virgin snow. The light faded into a dingy grey and bustling cityscape which in turn melted into a stately and massive mountain, the likes of which Ograc had never seen. Abruptly the scene vanished to be replaced by a palomino charger barely confined in a stable. The horse melted into an image of a truly horrific mask that grossly exaggerated Human features. As Ograc decided that the face must represent a demon-god of some sort, the image vanished. It was replaced by a ruddy, black bearded visage that Ograc took to be Dwarven.

As the face gradually faded from his vision it was replaced bit by bit with a bare expanse of snow. As his eyes adjusted, the giant man discovered that the field ended on two sides in cliffs. The other sides butted up against a familiar copse of evergreens and a thin stone wall. A faint groan came from somewhere nearby. It took a few heartbeats to realize that the noise came from him.

When he tried to get up, Ograc groaned again. Every joint in his body seemed to protest. They all cracked as he forced them into motion. Another moan escaped his lips as the morning sun hit him full force in the eyes. As he began to drag himself back to the Spirit, Ograc decided the whole night must have crept by while he was meditating.

II

When dawn inched over the Carpés and into his cell’s tiny slit window, it lanced into the giant’s eyes. He stretched and yawned, surprised to find that he was well rested and in bed. He found that he could recall nothing of his trip back to the Spirit. The morning light usually came to the monastery late, nestled as it was against the eastern peaks, but even so, he could not have beaten it, could he? But the only other options were that he had slept for a whole day or more, or, that his whole walk to gaze upon the stars and disrupted mediation had all been part of a dream. The first seemed unlikely. The monks would not have allowed him to sleep through their times of prayer, communal meals, and meditation unless he was suffering from an incapacitating injury or illness. The idea of last night’s events all being a dream was at once easier and harder to deal with. On the one hand he could discount a dream as an effect of last night’s dinner or something related to being cooped up in the valley all winter. Both had happened before. Still, the images of the woman and what she related were strong enough in his memory that, if he was willing to call it a dream, it cold have been one sent by some person or some thing. And the idea that something, from Kersal or not, could plant such an experience in him sent a chill down Ograc’s spine.

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Another Night, Another Job (2000)

It was the first night of the feast of Arbrio the Drunk, god of cooks, wine, and entertainers and Solaris, the third moon of Yaerte, was just rising, throwing its feeble light over the unscalable walls of the miniature fortresses that made up the upper class part of town. One of these fortresses stood out as the light of Solaris struck it. Suddenly a crossbow bolt sped through the night air trailing a long, thin, silk cord like the tail of a child’s kite. With a muffled “thump” the bolt came to a stop with its head embedded in the trunk of a tree. After testing the cord two black clad figures inched their way along the rope. As they passed over the wall, a stray bit of moonlight glinted off of an opal set in the pommel of a leather wrapped sword hilt, which was hastily covered by the second, and larger, figure. The figures continued on to the tree and after they both dropped silently to the ground the taller one pulled the bolt free of the tree, tugged sharply on the cord, and rapidly wound it up. Scanning the area carefully he replaced the bolt in its quiver and the cord in his pack as his partner returned from scouting the immediate area.

In a hushed, slightly feminine whisper the returning figure said, “Just as we thought, there aren’t any guards in this part of the complex.”

They then melted into the shadows. As they flitted from tree to tree, the only sounds were those of the few night birds singing softly.

The pair came to a halt at the edge of a well-kept gravel path and while the larger of the two unslung and loaded his crossbow the shorter drew a large dark bladed knife and loaded her sling to stand watch. The bowman dropped smoothly to one knee, leveled the crossbow, and fired.

With its characteristic muffled “thump” the bolt stuck into a tree at a point about seven feet off the ground. The shorter sheathed her knife and sling and tied off a cord, which had been attached to the quarrel. The two of them then suspended themselves, by both hands and feet, from the cord and set off across the path to another small wooded area.

A few feet later the taller figure stopped and listened intently. He slowly drew a dark bladed knife and motioned his companion to their left. She drew out a small axe and twisted it around so the edge faced her. They both crept off in that direction and gradually were able to make out the shapes of two other figures crouched a few arrow shots from the clearing.

 Coming up behind them the larger hit the one on his side with the pommel of his knife and caught the figure as it crumpled. His companion simultaneously hit the other figure in the back of the neck with her reversed axe. They quickly and silently drew out lengths of rope, bound and gagged the now unconscious figures, and hid them under some bushes.

Creeping cautiously through the rest of the woods the two proceeded to the edge closest to the only building in the compound. Both were thinking that so far everything had gone to smoothly. Everything was just as their employer had said, few guards and no magical defenses. In fact the only obstacle left before the house itself was the nearly fifty yards of open ground with two guards patrolling it.

Off in the distance the sounds of bells, drums, shouting, and laughter filled the air as an impromptu parade wound its way through the city. As the sounds drew nearer, the guards made their way to the south wall to watch the revelers as they passed by. At that moment, if anyone had been watching they might have seen two shadows detach themselves from the trees and glide swiftly and silently across the yard to the wall of the house.

The two made their way around to the rear door of the house and the shorter drew forth a set of lockpicks and started working. After a few tense timeless moments there was a slight click and the short figure stood up with a proud gleam in her eye. The man nudged open the door and with a small flourish and a slight bow motioned her in. After checking to be sure no one had seen or heard them he silently closed and locked the door.

The two looked around and found themselves in the manor’s kitchen. There were numerous pots and pans of various sizes on racks and shelves as well as hundreds of plates, bowls, cups, forks, and other cooking utensils. Directly across the room from them, on the south side of the room, was a swinging door which probably lead to the main hall. To their left was another door which lead to the servants’ quarters.

After a moment of silent debate the pair headed stealthily to the swinging door and slowly opened it. The door swung open about an inch on well oiled hinges and Alfric peered through the crack into the main hall.

The main hall was dominated by a massive oak table that supported five golden candelabra. The table could seat twenty but only three places were set. At the far end of the hall was a huge double door. Along the two side walls were huge fireplaces flanked by tapestries depicting scenes from ancient legends. In each of the other three corners were statues of famous philosophers and statesmen. Behind the head seat of the table was a brilliant tapestry showing a battle between two armies of dragons. As Alfric examined the room Kiyah carefully wrapped two of the silver place settings and a candelabra up and placed them carefully in a small sack along with one of the smaller tapestries.

Exiting the main double doors, Alfric and Kiyah entered the entrance hall of the manor. The hall was filled with statues and paintings as well as a hat rack, a large mirror, and a set of pegs for cloaks. At the far end were the main doors into the manor as they turned right toward the doors they noticed a smaller door at the far end of the right-hand wall. They also noticed two more figures.

These two already had weapons out and came at Alfric and Kiyah. The one on Alfric had a pair of knives in his hands and was weaving them menacingly. Alfric quickly ducked under his assailant’s first two strikes and caught his left arm, twisted, and broke it. He then grabbed the man’s right arm, twisted it around behind his back, and encircled his neck with his other arm. Alfric tightened his hold until a few minutes after the man stopped struggling.

Meanwhile Kiyah’s assailant came at her with a short stabbing sword. After backpedaling to dodge her opponent’s first attack Kiyah managed to get her axe out and caught the next blow on the wooden haft. She then swept her opponent’s legs out from underneath him and, while he was down, hit him over the head with her reversed axe.

They again made sure that the two other intruders were well tied up and left in a fairly easy to spot place.

Before continuing on into the house the two stopped for a moment to appraise the statues and paintings but, after discovering that the first few were just well made reproductions, left them alone.

Most rooms in the manor were lit dimly with candles in an attempt to deter thievery but in reality making it easier for thieves to conceal themselves. The sitting room that Alfric and Kiyah entered was no exception. From the dim light of the candles and the still glowing coals in the fireplace they could make out the furnishings of the room. There were seven or eight plush chairs and a number of end tables arranged around the room as well as a few low divans. The few bookcases in the room seemed to be relatively well stocked, but of little use to the two since, like most people in Yaerte, they couldn’t read. The pair passed quickly through the room to the door at the far end.

The door lead to a small storage room containing buckets, rags, and other cleaning implements as well as an unconcealed door into the main hall and a staircase to their left.

Alfric drew his saber and Kiyah a pair of dark bladed knives as they ascended the stairs. At the top they found themselves in a small hallway. The only entrance was a small locked door at the other end. Kiyah picked the lock a few seconds after disarming the small poisoned dart trap in it. Inching the door open the pair found themselves entering a large room. By the light of the three moons still in the sky they saw shelves stacked with rows and rows of books, scrolls, and parchments as well as a few tables, desks, and chairs.

Before using the south door the two searched the east and south walls, the two inner walls, for secret doors. As the second moon, Mendamis, was setting, leaving only Solaris and Keellis to light the night sky, Alfric suddenly discovered that when he moved a certain scroll the bookcase he was searching on the east wall moved. The case pivoted on a pole that went through its center. Moving the scroll had released the pin which held the door closed. The slight creak of the door was masked by the now distant sounds of the revelers’ shouts, music, and fireworks.

They entered the private chambers of the manor’s owner using all the stealth their training and practice conferred. To their left were four statues depicting the Old Gods. On their right was a cage containing a good sized, and sleeping, chimpanzee. In front of them the extremely tall, well over six feet, lanky master of the manor asleep in a huge four poster bed near him was a disembodied right hand that looked to be a human’s. Against the inside of the other door, beyond the cage, slept a giant guard with a scimitar.

Alfric cautiously drew a small slender bladed knife from its concealed sheath at the small of his back. A stray bit of light from Kedgellis glinted momentarily off the razor edged silvery blade. As he neared the bed the knife started giving off a very faint bluish light, announcing the presence of a very weak magical barrier around the bed. Kiyah then crept forward and producing a small black wand proceeded to wave it left to right about a foot off the ground and a few inches from the bed. The gem at the end of the wand flashed briefly and dimly indicating that the barrier had been dispelled.

Assured that nothing else stood between him and completion of his job Alfric calmly and quietly plunged his stiletto into the sleeping man’s chest puncturing his lung and impaling his heart. As he withdrew and cleaned the blade, he and Kiyah, who had been watching the guard, retreated back into the library. From there they took the south door into the master’s study. There they found yet another shadowy figure.

Without conscious thought Kiyah drew and threw one of her knives in one fluid motion. The figure caught the knife in its throat, and dropped to the floor right next to the window. Kiyah shrugged to Alfric’s questioning glance and quickly retrieved her knife.

They then climbed out the window and down the rough wall of the building and crept toward the rear door of the complex.

Upon reaching the rear door of the complex the two took off their outer layer of black clothing.

Alfric’s shoulder length brown hair was freed as he pulled his dark mask off. He quickly, and without a wasted motion, tied it back. His well-tanned face still appeared dark in the lack of light. As he pulled off the rest, a tan beaded tunic and dark wool pants were revealed. Both fit his lanky body fairly loosely concealing his lithe musculature. He then hung a slim gold chain, with a small dragon pendant, around his neck. Finally he put on a silver studded sword belt upon which his opal pommeled sword hung.

Meanwhile Kiyah had changed to a loose red blouse and black doeskin pants. Her small axe hung from her wide belt and two cunningly made silver porpoises adorned her ears. She let her slightly longer, but also brown, hair cascade down her back. Her deep brown soulful eyes were as deep wells in her otherwise slightly pale complexioned face. A knife embossed gold coin, a symbol holy to Darius, hung from a silver chain around her neck.

Alfric’s hazel eyes passed over her once slowly as he whispered, “Beautiful, as always.”

She acknowledged his compliment with a quick smile.

Hearing the sounds of the approaching revelers the two quickly picked the lock, exited the compound, and melded unnoticed into the crowd.

A Night at the Dancing Dolphin (pt. 4) (2000)

Well, the two Nomads listened quite happily to that tale, then the woman leaned forward in her chair, apparently to ask for another drink. Instantly good Lena came over and refilled our mugs.

Then evening’s regulars began to drift in along with some odd and diverse travelers. But, as the other patrons came in, I detected some grumblings of derision towards my companions. I understood well enough. Many were dockhands and sailors for the families that live in the area and had had poor dealings with the Nomads in the past.

Eian’s hand dropped to rest casually on the hilt of his sword though Ailea raised a hand to restrain any further action on his part. Meanwhile, many of the incoming patrons glared daggers at my companions. But, luckily, no violence erupted, perhaps partially because the Nomads were with me, but also because I like to think that all of the Dolphin’s patrons have some measure of respect for Mistress Seastar as well as myself – an esteem which in turn extends to our guests.

In any case, soon the very astute Lady Ailea launched into another tale with a mind to lessening the tension in the room.

“This may seem strange to you, Taran, but some of my people, although rarely, tire of our water-going way of life and seek to settle in one place. This indeed happened once, a generation ago, to a woman of my clan. Her name was Laiea, and she was the third ranking member of our clan’s Religious caste. At the time, the clan was plying the trade routes in the Inner Sea, near Altalia and the western lands of your country, trading leathers and cloths from the far west for south Hinterlands wood, while also netting the fish of the Inner Sea that are such a delicacy for the Dwarves of Zargonin.

It was as the five clan ships were coming to the end of their time in the Inner Sea that Laiea—whose duties involved leading sacrifices of fish and goods and other rites to bring favor from Anei, the Trade goddess, on behalf of the clan – was struck with a sleep so profound that she could neither awake nor even respond to the familiar voices of her caste-mates. She was on my family’s ship, so my grandfather moved her off the deck to the sanctuary of our gods – our ship’s Shrine to the Divine Quintet. He felt it best to move the woman closer to a representation of her calling.

The shrine is a small place below decks near the front of every Cuaha ship which houses a small table dedicated to each of our five deities. Everyday the Religious Caste makes small sacrifices to the deities in order to garner their favor on behalf of the clan. The caste also tries to aid those who are in need of supplicating the Divine Quintet and those who need the return of a clear mind and strong body.

But her brethren’s supplications did not seem to help. Laiea remained in her sleep for the whole of a pair of eight-days; then, suddenly, staring at some point far beyond the starboard wall of the shrine, she awoke babbling about sights that no one else had ever seen. She described strange colors and the expanse of sea in each direction and the open sky above, and spoke about tall brown-greenish points topped in rose and white and gold that looked like a giant’s crown with smoke floating upward, about water the same color as the clan’s crimson and purple sails and the yellow shade of her family’s head coverings. But, most unusual of all, Laiea kept going on and on about a woman with flowing hair longer than that of any Cuaha, a woman clad in a beautiful raiment of silver and sea-green.

The other four members of the Religious caste sat at Laiea’s feet until she slowly calmed down, and began to speak coherently. Laiea then described the woman further, saying he woman stood taller than any Cuaha she had met, yet not tall enough that Laiea felt dwarfed by her size. Furthermore, the woman’s skin looked to be fashioned of worn copper and stout mahogany while her hair, which fell down below her waist, was as gold as a new coin. The clothing meanwhile was of silver while her head was covered by a cloth of scarlet and tourmaline, depicting emerald gulls with brilliant silver crowns.

Immediately Laiea’s fellows moved to the tables of their respective deities and made appropriate ablations and petitions for the Divine Quintet’s aid. Then the priest devoted to Einal rose and ushered all the other priests from the shrine. None were allowed in, not even to feed Laiea. The priests then spent the next pair of days in the shrine fasting and discussing Laeia’s visions. When the second day ended, they came forth and declared that they could not completely interpret the dreams yet, but that they were convinced our goddess Anei had visited Laiea in order to deliver a message to us.

The ships halted, anchoring close together. The news of Anei’s visit to Laiea was then passed along, and a large feast was soon being planned, under the guidance of the Religious caste, by the Fishers and Workers. My people have always been close to our deities, but even so, visitations, even in dreams, are rare enough that we must immediately celebrate them.

The feast was a grand affair. All sorts of foods were taken from the stores and prepared in as many ways as there are nations and peoples in the world. There was Grralti mutton and Altalian perch, Hinterlander stew and platters of Zargonin mushrooms and tubers. There were even many of the leaf and reptile dishes from lands much further to the west than Grralt, lands whose names would be quite unfamiliar to you, Friend Taran. Contests of skill were held as well; knife and dart throwing among the Warriors, juggling and acrobatics among the Workers, feats of listening among the Fishers, star-naming and astrological reckoning and prediction by the Navigators and, above all, the relation of our tales of the gods by the Religious caste. For the entire day and evening of the feast, clan members roamed from ship to ship, sampling and judging the marvelous cooking and diverse entertainments. Many great feats were lauded, while those of considerably less note were met with jestful ridicule. The feast and related festivities lasted well into the night before the celebrants succumbed to their heavy eyelids.

When dawn came, it found the clan resting, recovering and blissful in Anei’s favor, except for Laiea and a small cadre of the Religious caste. All through the feast, Laiea had continued to stare toward the west, ignoring everything around her.

In truth, many days had to pass and the clan’s ships to leave the Inner Sea for the Outer Oceans before the cadre believed they had discovered the answer to Laeia’s trance. The dreams, they believed, were a message from Anei that the clan should go to a different land, off the normal route, where through the favor of Anei great profits and prosperity would meet them. Furthermore, they said that Laiea’s staring meant that the land lay to the west, not the east.

So, for the first time in the clan’s history, they left their normal trade routes – from the western lands, into the Inner Sea along Altalia and Grralt, then into Zargonin, Colcul, and the Elven Nations and struck out toward the land of Anei’s favor. There was much discussion and grumbling. But all dispute was muted. Who can argue with the gods?

It was not the season for winds from the east, so the going was hard and the waves were no less of a friend. The voyage went on for many eight-days. Every so often the clan would stop at a settlement, in lands far to the west of Grralt and Altalia, to refill their stores of food and trade goods. Mother even told me that a brace of powerful storms came and nearly swamped all of the ships. But those whose duties were to interpret the will of the gods pronounced reassuringly that the storms were only Anei’s siblings, Iean the Wind and Einia of the Seas, testing the will of Clan Irquea. But that was of little comfort for the members of the clan; that all five ships remained afloat with no one overboard was in itself a cause for rejoicing.

And Laiea still sat, turning as the ships turned, continuing to stare at a point to the west.

Meanwhile, the stars shifted in the night sky, as they are wont to do in the course of the seasons. Still the clan ships sailed on to the setting sun. Already weeks had passed since our final stop at the westernmost town of this landmass. The locals deemed the humble port a town, though it was really only about as large as your Wharfs. There we has stocked our last supplies, for the clan was truly going off the Sailed Routes. None were sure where the ships were going, or how long the journey would last.

It was almost a half score of days since the clan had left the Sailed Routes when the children on the main masts spotted a haze on the horizon that usually indicated the presence of some bit of land. But another day had to pass before the new shore could be seen clearly from the decks. Then a shiver ran along the crews as it does moments before a thunderstorm. Each top deck and the oar-deck below bustled with activity. Men and women grabbed ropes and shifted sails while children shouted directions from the rigging. Then oars sprouted from the sides as the rowers below deck added their muscle to the strength of Iean’s Breath. Everyone was consumed by their tasks. Even the infirm below the oar deck gave their aid by voicing prayers to the Divine Quintet.

But even with the extra speed the sun was dipping into the sea in front of the clan ships before they reached the land. Then, as dawn rose, the mountains that the Cuaha could just barely make out the day before came even more clearly into view. Not just the members of the Religious caste but everyone on ship who could see all inhaled in wonder. The mountains seemed to be the brown-green crown of Laiea’s dream.

The clan’s whaling boats hit the water and slid toward the shore. Laiea even joined the crew of the lead boat while those left behind on the ships watched in awe at the tail of many colors that appeared behind her boat. Meanwhile, although Laiea still seemed dazed, she was nonetheless moving on her own and seemed more aware of her surroundings than previously. Those who had aided her in her disembarking were even surprised when she walked to the rail on her own and had even climbed down the ropes to the waiting boat without any more aid than they usually gave one of their companions.

The landing party scouted the island for most of the day before returning to our ships. They bore no news of people, at least none that they could see, but that the place was rich with raw wood and other goods so plentiful as to fill the clan ships many many times over. Meanwhile, the member of the landing party assigned to watch Laiea informed Laiea’s religious brethren that she had seemed less distracted than she had previously been. Many times she seemed to take interest in some of the natural features of the new-discovered land and asked questions about different spots: a waterfall, a couple stands of trees, and the like . ‘In fact,’ he said, ‘she seemed to have completely recovered from her condition.’ But, it wasn’t until after the evening meal that the Cuaha discovered why.

It was then, after the sun had set and the fires onboard were of a safe height, that Laiea asked to borrow a glass from the family head. Since this was the first time she had spoken in almost a whole season, the eldest of our family gladly offered up her own glass to Laiea. Then, as everyone looked on in anticipation, Laiea took the glass in both hands and carefully set it on the floor.

After first filling the glass with drinking water from one of the tables, Laiea then touched the water with one finger and closed her eyes. Then, before the gaze of all present, a glint of light suddenly appeared within the glass. Many thought it a trick of the flames of the fires, but soon the glass was filled with the red of the Filenta family’s banner, mixed with the green of the Valantan, along with the azure of the Karnen. Then as the family watched some more, an image of the peaks and woods of the newly discovered land slowly took form in the center of the water, completely realistic except for the waviness that comes from seeing through water.

Laiea stood and handed the glass, which still retained the perfect image of the isle, to the eldest member of the family. She said it was to remember her by, for Anei had told her that in the morning she was to go to the shore and remain there, practicing this new art of water-sculpting and painting.

And so it came to pass that at dawn a boat took Laiea to the beach and she stepped off a boat for the last time. The clan left her gifts of food and other supplies; then, after five days of rest and restocking the holds of the ships, the clan sailed back east to the known markets of our normal trade routes.

That was many years ago, but ever since then the Isle of Laiea has been on the clan’s trading route. Laiea herself lived on that small island for many scores – I believe that is your term for four fives – of cycles. Our clan’s ships stopped to see her every fifth season. I was actually able to meet her once when I was a young child before she passed on to Iean’s windy realm. And Anei’s favor has indeed looked upon us; for, at that time, each family in the clan had only a small ship of three fives of Cuaha aboard. But, already within a year, each ship had been added to in size and bore five fives of Cuaha. It has been thus ever since. And land traders of course have been offering greater and greater prices for our fish and wood, for our cloths from Altalia and horse trappings from Grralt. But, no matter the price, we have never sold any of the sacred pieces of Laiea’s water-sculpting to a non-Cuaha. They have passed into the hands of land-walkers only as a gift, as a rare sign of friendship to those with who have done great services to our people.”

So ended Lady Ailea’s second telling of her people and their way of life. But, never fear, I shall assuage your curiosity about the tension between my Cuaha friends and the crews of our own ships first. Lady Ailea and her companion even met some muted applause at the close of that tale, and might have even been treated to a few rounds and asked to tell another tale by a few of Lord Rafeh’s captains, yet unfortunately they could not stay longer because they were needed to help unload their ships. But, my friends, they still come to our city every spring or two and invariably come to this inn after their deals are concluded, so you may see them yet.

Now, to those who have been here all night, I beg your forgiveness, but I see a sizable group of newcomers have arrived, so I feel I should reintroduce myself . . .

. . . Greetings good gentles, and welcome to the warmth of the Dancing Dolphin on this chill, windy night. Mistress Seastar, whom I am certain you have all seen this evening, welcomes you to the light of her fire. And, I am Taran, a humble weaver of words, teller of tales, describer of deeds, orator of . . .

Well, you understand.

After the past serious tales, I think it time for a tale of some levity. Would you not agree? Very good, then. I have just the perfect tale for such wants. It concerns a young friend of mine who serves in the court of Baron Calirmorn. His name is Brondun and he waits upon the Baron’s table at feasts and the like. The particular feast he told me about, and which I in turn shall pass on to you, is the Feast of Isstark, held in the latter part of the time of snows to ensure that the fish and other sea creatures are plentiful and come to our good fishers’ nets. This was an important occasion for my friend Brondun because it was the first time he had served the Baron during this important feast. That evening the Baron would be hosting every noble for days around as well as many of the local guildmasters and fishermen.

Brondun rose early that morning. He was to aid his fellow servants and the master cook in preparing the feast and getting the main hall prepared for Isstark’s pleasure. For, if Isstark was not pleased with the ceremonies and feast, then not even Lady Tya’s greatest efforts could completely save the city’s livelihood.

So it was that the young lad – before Weila herself had risen to shine light upon the city – was already in the main hall, steadying a ladder as his friend Jharie affixed the decorative and ceremonial tridents to the walls. Meanwhile, other servants on the palace staff strung lines of mock fish and crabs along the hall as well as banners of blue and green bearing Isstark’s golden fish and silver trident. Then they set out to hang the banners of the Baron and those of his noble guests.

Meanwhile, in the kitchens, pans clanged, spoons stirred, cleavers thunked, the master cook overlooking the orchestrated chaos with her stern gaze. Her harsh voice shouted at the kitchen boys to put more wood on the fires or at a slow apprentice whom she felt was not chopping fast enough. The air was pungent with the smells of garlic, pepper, and scallions, many of the servants weeping from the chopped onions. The aromas of baking bread and roasting hog mixed with the scent of the ginger and beer that was being basted over the skins of the pigs. Other cooks were busily scaling and cutting the various fish that had been brought in from the store houses.

After a break at midday for food, Brondun and his companions swarmed the main hall again. This time they set the five long tables as instructed. Silver settings and plates of brightly glazed stoneware graced not just the head table, but the two tables for the guildmasters and other dignitaries that ran parallel to each other in a U shape out from the head table. Situated at the foot of the guildmasters were the two tables for the fishermen, which also had fine settings and plates, though consisting of the Baron’s less ornate silver and stoneware.

In the kitchens began the making of fruit and cheese pies. Barrels of apples, peaches, and ysíls from the Elven Nations were brought in and chopped up. Wheel upon wheel of cheese was sliced as the many loaves of bread were removed from the ovens.

As soon as the main hall was done, Brondun and some of his fellows reported to the Baron’s steward and were assigned the task of bringing casks of wine and barrels of beer up from the palace’s extensive cellar. Others were sent to aid the stableboys in stocking hay, water, and oats for the guests’ horses or to help the maids clean the rooms in which the visiting lords and ladies and their retinues would reside.

Moments after the last cask and barrel had been brought up from the cellars, Brondun and his cadre of servants were ordered to clean up quickly so they could help serve the first course of the feast. As they rushed through the hall straightening their tunics, they could hear sounds of guests being welcomed and then standing around the main hall speaking amongst themselves.

Then the Baron and his entourage entered and a hush fell over the crowd. Brondun waited in the wings with a large pitcher of beer in hand. Then the Baron and his wife and children all took their places and sat down, followed immediately by the dark blue and green clad nobility. The guildmasters were also decked out in vibrant blues and greens, but had also mixed in bright reds and yellow as well as overly ostentatious amounts of gold jewelry, each wearing enough to feed the whole of the kingdom for a year. And then came the fishermen in their best clothes – rough homespun for the most part, though Brondun glimpsed some softer fabrics – in the traditional sea-green and blue of the festival. Then a heartbeat after everyone had settled, Brondun sped forward with the other serving boys. His job was to wait upon the guildmasters, or rather their cups, and if they needed no more drink then to go directly on to the fisherfolk.

The very instant that Brondun began pouring for the corpulent master of the brewers guild, the first course was brought from the kitchens.

And that was only the first of many scores of delights. The list of foods that were prepared for that feast would stretch well into the morning, my friends. So, I shall just say that many cows, sheep, fish, deer, and hogs died to provide for the august personages on the occasion of Isstark, as did many ducks, geese, chickens, and birds of the field. And many barrels of barley and wheat, corn and apples, onions and potatoes, carrots and beets.

Instead, I shall attempt to do justice to the honored entertainers who passed into the Baron’s great hall to perform. First, during the middle of the meal, the brightly clad music makers came in troupe by troupe, each variously arrayed with pipes or drums, lutes or lyres, or even outfitted with all four. They played many a gay and bright tune as well as many more soothing ones, all created especially for the feast – and all without singers – so as not to distract their patrons from their meals. Brondun said many were very competent musicians, as one might well assume considering their audience, but, of them all, Brondun claimed only a meager handful stood out. These few, he told me, included the master of melodious music, Master Hasbarc the famous lyrist from the north, and Demelldivan’s very own piper of some renown, Sahaen of the Silvertounge.

While Brondun’s coworkers began serving the final course – small bowls of shrimps soaked in a sauce of honey and apple wine – and while Brondun busily poured drink after drink for the guildmasters, the next entertainers appeared in the hall. They were a motley group of fools, according to him. Foppish caps and clashing suits of bright orange and lavender made up their outfits. They made their best attempt at one of Jacinth’s comedies, but Brondun said the audience gained more amusement from the bungling and untimely slips of the would-be-actors than they did from the poorly delivered lines. Then these supposed actors were hurried out of the room and a much more promising group was led in. Some were dressed as the wondrous creatures of the sea – dolphins, great fish, and sea horses among them – while others more closely resembled pirates and knights. There in the center of the great fallen arch created by the tables they set forth to reenact the adventures of the Knights of the Deep. There was much swordplay and many mock deaths, many rescues and punished villains; but, even this was nothing to compare to some of the later entertainers whom Baron Calirmorn hired for that night.

For, you see, next to take the scene, once the actors had left to not a little applause from the Baron’s guests, was a troop of a half score and three jongleurs in many colored patchwork trousers and shirts who had just arrived from a pair of eight-days entertaining the King. These men so amazed Brondun, my friends, that at one point he very nearly overfilled the cup of a lord. The jongleurs started off harmlessly enough, juggling children’s balls in the air as they slowly walked around to each table. Then, they started to throw sticks back and forth to a single partner as they continued circling around through the room. Afterwards, they began not only throwing to one partner as they circulated, but to two and then three and then four partners until all three and ten were tossing sticks at one another. Then, my friends, came the part which took the gathered guests’ collective breath away. Slowly the jugglers began replacing the sticks with knives, daggers, cleavers, and swords until the room was filled with a full score and a half pieces of sharp flying steel. And, most amazing of all friends, Brondun told me that many times when it appeared a man had already lost his arm to a cleaver or his life to a dagger, his hand – in the exact fraction of a heartbeat needed – would catch the handle and redirect the blade toward one of his fellow jongleurs.

After a time the jugglers grew weary, however, as you can well imagine, so they gave their place to musicians and singers before anyone was seriously injured. There then appeared a group of Vethiani singers, with voices to rival the late Indrisial’s, rising in praise of the dolphins and seals as well as the other playful creatures of Isstark. The Vethiani were then followed by a line of local music makers, singing songs of heroes who had given their lives for the sea and for Lord Isstark – many of their odes concerned famous, if not legendary, fishermen and women who had given of themselves so that Isstark’s children and creatures could be saved. After each of these songs there was much applause, as well as many tears, deriving from the lower tables. Then came a group of Arapas from the Elven Nations chanting to Isstark’s cousin Weila, whom they know as the Spirit of the Sun and worship with song at the beginning and end of each day. A group of Dwarves from Zargonin followed the Arapa and presented a chant to Isstark’s brother Granthen Rockshaper, their Lord of the Earth. Finally, at least in terms of the musical part of the feast, some more local minstrels came forth to present new songs written specially for Isstark’s feast.

By the time the singing was done, the meal itself was over and Brondun and his companions were rushing back and forth from the table to the kitchens for beer and wine, as many toasts to Isstark were being made as well as much chatter, backslapping and shouts for good drink and entertainment. It was now time for a bit of magic to enter the hall. My young friend got to see Baron Calirmorn’s court wizard and her two apprentices put on a rather controversial show. It turns out the Vethiani mistress of the Green, Lady Flamesling, disdains the theatrical use of magic. But, that is of no matter when the Baron wanted a performance. So his pet mage and her devotees obliged him with tongues of flame leaping from their hands, birds and other animals appearing out of nothingness, and coins hiding behind people’s ears. They even made one of the tables disappear while the place settings remained unmoved, floating in the air. This last worried and impressed Brondun most, because at that very moment he was pouring for Master Olen, the Dwarven co-head of the Guild of Merchants – and Master Olen’s table suddenly was not there. Fortunately, however, the young Master was a jolly sort and did not mind that my young friend had nearly upended a pitcher of libations on him in surprise.

Then suddenly the whole of the gathering moved forward in their seats as a dozen men and women entered the hall. It was time for the Baron’s tournament. The contestants – three groups in all – were evenly divided between wearing the leather and sea-green tabards of the Knights of the Deep, the plate and black tabard with the King’s silver hawk, scroll, and lily of the Fellowship of the Crown, and the sword broach and tabard the color of ripe apples of the Silver Sword. This was a common sight at the Baron’s feasts. The four best of each of the three orders of warriors in Demelldivan would compete for the honor of bearing the Baron’s chain of recognition until the next holy feast. Of course, all used blunted arms so that no serious injury might occur and thus cause a feud to arise.

There were a great many displays of extreme skill that evening, but nothing compared to the final bout when Sir Arnis Kraken, a swarthy leather clad man possessed of a devilish skill with his trident and short blade met Sir Illyania Covenethialis, a well reputed young Vethianai lady whom rumor says will be Sir Marinden’s replacement upon her grace’s passing. The Silver Sword’s champion, Cornis Fillensen, a great advocate of the small axe and long knife, had just been eliminated by Sir Kraken, but by only a narrow call, the tournament judges deciding that Sir Kraken’s death blow had connected just before Master Fillensen’s.

So it came down to the Crown Knight, unstoppable in her suit of steel plates and the spry, slippery sea knight with his quick trident and flashing short sword. The two knights began by circling each other, Sir Kraken’s trident darting forth toward his opponent’s shield, while her sword cut through the air about her, each feeling out the other’s defenses before the bout truly began.

Sir Covenethialis was to strike first. The ring of steel on steel mixed with the dull thunk of wood on leather. Then the knights disengaged to think about their next moves, both warriors gauging each other’s movements through narrowed eyes before coming together once more. As with all the Baron’s tournaments, each would now receive the opportunity to strike one blow while the other defended, then the combatants would switch and the former defendant would get a chance to strike. And thus the bout would go, each opponent trading off one blow at a time. Victory would go to the first hit to the body, or to the best in either placement or skillful dodging of the other’s defense in the case of each combatant scoring a hit in the same round. The last such contest at one of the Baron’s feasts had lasted nearly until dawn.

Then – eventually – due to a cunning twist of her wrist at the last possible moment in her eleventh strike that sent the tip of her sword around Sir Kraken’s parry with his trident, Sir Covenethialis stood alone before the Baron’s table, sweat streaming down her face with her helm under her arm, to be named victor while her lord, Sir Marinden of the Knights of the Crown radiated a subdued pride. The gathered lords and ladies then burst into wave upon wave of applause for Sir Covenethialis had shown great skill and a cunning wit in her final maneuver, which was exceedingly difficult, as the eighth bell of the night rang in the Market District.

Well, friends, Brondun’s tale is concluded there. The bouts of drinking and merrymaking continued for some time before many of the noblemen and women retired to their chambers, while most of the rest collapsed right there at the table into a drunken yet peaceful slumber. At some point Brondun dragged himself to the rooms he shared with the other serving boys and slumped down on to his bed, asleep before he even touched the straw mattress.

And now, pardon me friends, but it is late for us as well. Many of you have caravans to catch come dawn or homes to return to. Even I grow weary. So, my friends, I must bid you goodnight. Be certain to return here tomorrow, though, for it shall be an evening you will not want to miss. The cook is revealing a new dish which he has been busily concocting and kept secret for many eight-days now, while I shall have many tales to tell you that have been brought to me by the plethora of travelers who have come to our city to worship divine Tya, including one which I call “The Beggar of Olta and The Grralti Stranger” and another which I was told is known as “Everinaliethiani” by the Arapa Elves. But, until then, my friends, I bid you goodnight, good dreams, and hope that Ladies Tya, Einal, and Nolminat bless you in the days to come.

(But, perhaps I shall wait, for who might you be? I have seen you here before, yes, I have seen you coming in alone in the early evenings as the sun lowers herself toward the Inner Sea. And you always spy out the darkest table, my friend. Yes, I have seen you before and yet you have never spoken to me. What is your name, stranger? And what, I wonder, is your tale?)

A Night at the Dancing Dolphin (pt. 3) (2000)

Well my friends, I shall not bore you with the mundane details of their trading, though Ailea did indeed ramble on about it. Suffice to say, Ailea and Hasic came to an agreement concerning the disposition of the Cuaha goods. And Eian shadowed her out of the rickety shack. Meanwhile, I happened to be coming back here after trading tales with some grizzled old sailors in the Wharf when I encountered Ailea and Eian outside Hasic’s, a meeting that began rather inauspiciously to say the least.

You see, I was strolling along one of the streets – I shant name which one in order to protect my friend Hasic who perhaps has unfounded fears that openly dealing the Nomads will hurt his business. Anyway, I was planning to pass through the Temple District before coming here to the Dancing Dolphin to prepare for the evening. So, as I strolled along, I allowed my mind to wander along the sea-paths of sea monsters and merfolk, of storms and pirate ships that the sailors in the Craven Cod, a rowdy and dim place I might add, had boasted of seeing. You might say I was wool gathering. With no offense to you, my good shepherd friend!

In any case, the next thing I knew I was lying atop a man, something hard was pressed uncomfortably into my gut, and there were sounds of feet backing away. Then a rough pair of hands were against my shoulders and I was rolled onto my back there on the hard and rough cobble.

But then something inside me took over and my legs kicked up. I rolled back up to my feet and dropped into one of the defensive crouches the Hyranins had taught me long ago. My body waited tensely, in anticipation of a blow. There were two assailants. The man I had run into only came to my eye level, but obviously bore the well-honed muscles of one who had spent his life climbing and hauling on stout ropes. In our collision I had felt the hardness of his frame, while my gaze had also noted with alarm the grimace of determination upon his sun browned chiseled face.

Then my attention slid to the young lady. She was obviously his companion, for they were clad in similar blues, greens and reds, unlike the drab brown and white of most of the inhabitants of this city. Moreover, both had soft red-dyed buskins, loose pants the color of the evening sky, billowy shirts the shade of the robes of Elren’s priesthood, and pale green head coverings. Gold rings glinted from their ears.

I bowed deeply to the young lady, doffing my plumed cap, and turned to the gentleman who was reaching for the dirk whose pommel had dug into my side earlier.

‘My most humble and sincere apologies, my good sir,’ I said choosing quickly to remain tactful rather than antagonistic, since there seemed to be no point in being the cause of a street brawl let alone its primary casualty. ‘I really must watch where I place my feet, mustn’t I?’

Then the man’s grimace turned slowly into a look of mild confusion, while the young lady hid a smile behind her hand. Inwardly I heaved a great sigh of relief. ‘Allow me to make amends good gentles,’ I continued, ‘ I am Taran Red, a teller of tales, singer of stories, magician of myths, learner of – Well, I am certain you get the point. And surely, Lady and Sir, it would far more behoove you to share a drink at my expense rather than sheathe that double hand span of steel in my poor humble unworthy flesh.’

Well, the young lady laughed aloud – quietly, but aloud nonetheless – and placed a hand on the man’s arm. ‘Let us join this man, friend,’ she said whilst still attempting to conceal her amusement. ‘We still have a long period to pass before Hasic can take our goods. And it would make for a good tale later.’

The man shrugged. Meanwhile, the young lady took my arm. ‘I am Ailea Irquea of Clan Vlant, my good Taran the Red,’ she said, ‘My companion is my guard while I am in the city, so you must excuse his behavior. He is assigned with the task of ensuring that I come to no harm.’

My hand waved dismissively. ‘Not at all, Mistress Irquea. The fault is entirely mine. No harm has come of it.’

Then I led them into the Bay District, toward this very establishment. As I am sure all of you know, the distinction between the Wharf and the Bay District does not occur all at once, not, say, as the shift from the Breakers to the Wharf does, where one moment you scurry about your way among the dregs of society and the next moment you start to walk between storehouses, inns, and sailors. Here, the buildings only gradually shift into those of better construction and increased cleanliness, while the rotting fish stench of the Wharf fades to a mere background tingling of the nose. It was certainly a new experience for my companions. I could tell by the way their eyes ran over the homes and taverns of this district that they had never been so far into the city before, that they had no idea such a place even existed.

Soon enough, we came upon the familiar sign of the Dancing Dolphin. I gestured for my guests to enter and look around. As I in turn watched them, I noted that neither appeared to be overly astounded by the decoration so much as they were amazed to see that not all structures in Demelldivan were like those of the Wharf – that is, boxy and stout, weathered by the salty winds off the Bay of Verix, built to withstand the harsh storms of the early planting season.

Lena there, though much younger then of course, took my guests to some very nice seats in the back, where I joined them a short time later after giving Marn our bartender a double handful of coppers; for, alas, though my drinks are free of charge, those of my guests are not! So, I subsequently joined them with three mugs of the finest Zargonin ale to be had in human lands.

When the guard waved his aside, I smiled, acknowledging not just his wisdom in refusing to imbibe (the Hyranins who raised me have a similar prohibition against drink when protecting the person of another) but also because I realized there was all the more for the lady and me.

Thence, after raising a toast in honor of my guests, I suggested a tale for their enjoyment. And, at Ailea’s nod of approval, I began with the Tale of Indrisial Rochonbethreth. This, my friends, is that tale:

“Every artisan, whether they be painter, sculptor, armourer, singer, or weaver of words, puts a part of him or herself into everything they make. A little part of the artist’s being, or soul if you will, comes to inhabit the product of their labor. This of course leaves an empty space in the artist which is refilled by the knowledge that the work will be appreciated and cared for.

But there are a few exceptionally gifted artisans, perhaps but one or two in any given lifetime, who are able to will a larger part of themselves into their work. The artworks these gifted few create are precious beyond measure. In fact, they are loathe to part with their artistic fruits and instead tend to keep such an item to themselves because of the potency of emotion and self they have fed into it. For a piece that one of these gifted few pours his soul into is exceptionally special in one way or another. Indrisial Rochonbethreth – or Indris as many knew her – was one of these gifted people. Indris came to Demelldivan from the Vethiani people of the Elven Nations. By the standards of her people, Indris was more or less of an average appearance, neither too pretty nor too unappealing to the eyes. Moreover, she was no taller or shorter than you or I, though we would seem clumsy and loutish beside her. Her delicately pointed ears peeked out from the sea of her wavy sandy blonde hair, while the quiet dignity of the ancient Elven forest resided within her deep green eyes. But, although to the Elves her appearance seemed normal, all people of all races agreed that she had a voice to rival the very gods. It was said that when she sang in the forest all grew silent, and the trees would stand still even amidst the most raging storm so as not to mar the purity and beauty of her voice. When she sang in the city, people swore the very buildings leaned toward her, and it is even rumored that in order to hear her singing as she walked by all activity in the Market District paused and the priests and priestesses in the Temple District fell silent in mid-prayer.

In fact, she sang in this very inn once, in her later years. When she did, and I gather this was a common occurrence everywhere she sang, everyone in the crowd saw the same image of the legendary heroes Elwyd and Oulna as they brought about the peace between Elves and Dragons many scores of centuries ago. Now, I know, you say it is hardly uncommon to see the images of a song or a story in your head. Everyone does, you say. But the same exact picture? Well, you see my point.

One day, deep in winter, late in Indris’ centuries long life, when the snow lay so deep that a man could stand his sword in the snow point first and be unable to see the pommel, the fair Indris was whiling away the day. She had been humming an Elven work song so ancient that the race of Man had yet to tame beasts and cultivate the fields when it was first sung. In fact, the song – even only hummed – had served its purpose for Indris so well that as the sun reached its greatest height in the sky the songstress looked around her modest dwelling in the Market District (she refused to live amongst her people for reasons of her own, yet could not bear to be overly far away from them) and found that all domestic tasks had been finished. There was plenty of wood inside, the two rooms had been swept, everything was as clean as it could get. She had a small pile of swept up dirt, hair, cobwebs, and that dust that breeds in the dark corners of a room. So, the lovely Indris fixed herself a mug of aleaní – an exceptionally invigorating Elven tea whose contents no non-Vethiani can know for the Elven people keep the secret well hidden – and sat before her fire, reclining peacefully upon a plain divan of fluted Elven design fashioned by our very own Alinelae in the Elven Quarter.

Now, when I say this occurs in Indris’ later days, you mustn’t think of her as appearing aged as humans do. For Elves age, especially the Vethiani, not at all to the eyes of Man. Indeed, to the rest of us mortals, a full blooded Elf in his or her prime appears no different than one who shall slip beyond the worries of life on the morrow. They claim to be able to tell the difference, but, my friends, may Langelr, Lord of Storms, strike me now if I can tell the two apart.

But, to return to the tale, Indris sat before her fire with her leather mug of aleaní, occasionally feeding the flame as its vigor flagged. And the shadows grew ever stronger and asserted their presence over the streets and dwellings of the city. And yet Indris still sat, smiling faintly and humming a tune of her own creation that seemed to rise and fall of its own accord.

Then, when the insolence of the shadows came to know no bounds, spreading their sable cloak of darkness over the whole of the city, Indris’ clear voice finally broke through the night as no mere light could possibly achieve. The song that had been building within her for the whole of that day leapt forth as a startled hart. Somehow her harp, fashioned of the finest aesay wood from the Nations (not the homegrown aesay one sees in the Elven Quarter here) had appeared in her hands and its clear tones now lent even more strength to her eventide song.

And she sang a glorious eventide song, marked with the poignancy of hope. She sang of the various murals of vert that play along the forest floor as the sun tries to pierce the sylvan canopy. She sang of the wild wolf, grey-brown fur rippling in anticipation as his pack tracks the deer. She sang of the squirrels amassing their hoardings and chasing their fellow bushy tailed chatterers up and down the majestic trees, and of the aging bear, a mountain of fur and muscle, rippling through the vast halls of trees.

Then, three tolls of the bell later, all who lived near Indris were weeping uncontrollably. Indris herself had closed her eyes, and her hands slipped from the harp. Yet, the harp seemed to continue to pluck itself to her song.

She sang of the seed in the ground and its struggle to the surface, the shoot stretching to touch the life-giving sun. And she sang of that same tree centuries later as it fought to remain standing, as it battled against the growing hollowness that filled and consumed it, then finally succumbing and falling to the earth. Then, she sang of the hope for new life the dead tree provided as the mosses and mushrooms fed upon it, as other young shoots vied to take the tenacious trunk’s place.

Come the roseate fingers of dawn, those who lived nearest Indris marveled, for it seemed that the snow was slowly melting away. And Indris’ song yet endured, and those near her home were joined by others from other streets in weeping for the song’s beauty.

She sang of the change of the trees from their green silk raiment to flaming red and orange cloaks. She sang of grumbling bears seeking out warm dry caves. She sang of frantic squirrels running through the branches and along the leaf strewn ground. She sang of deer cropping the waxy underbrush for want of other food. She sang the cries of the hunting hawk and the squawk of crows defending their territory murderously.

All through the day Indris sang. And as night fell once more upon the city, the people were in awe for they beheld light and warmth of every imaginable color in Indris’ dwelling. And then through the next evening the song still continued, and still the listeners wept.

Now Indrisial sang of the ice descending upon the land. She sang of the first snowfall, and the second and the third. She sang of the sleeping creatures snug in their holes. She sang of the snowflakes settling on the leaves and on the horns of the proud stag. She sang of the sleeping spirits of the trees settled deep within the trunks. And she sang of the seeds deep beneath the ground, ready to struggle forth.

But as the midnight bell tolled at the Baron’s palace, the song trailed off into silence. The people fell into a deep sleep, such as had never before come to the people of this bustling city.

But as soon as day broke over the Bay of Verix, Haden Smith, who lived next to Indris, trudged out to see her, moving easily through the snow that had returned to falling on the land as the final notes of Indris’ song of many days had finally melted away. Haden knocked loudly on her door, but received no reply, and when he managed to open the door his jaw immediately dropped. The entire front room was awash with greenery. Small trees stood laden with songbirds. Sunlight streamed from on high. A large brown and grey squirrel ran across his feet, its eyes focused intently upon a huge nut the likes of which he hadn’t seen since before his days in Demelldivan when he had passed through the forests of the North which are said to have been ancient even before the days of man. But of Indris he saw no sign. Haden searched both rooms, startling many of the birds and the small furry creatures, even a reddish-orange fox. But even so, he found no sign of the Elven woman, save her harp of the finest aesay wood strung with thin strings that were rumored to never break.

But, in the course of the next few days even the walls of Indris’ dwelling faded, even the fireplace and door disappeared. Some say the trees and brush grew over the divan and table, absorbed the bed and walls. Others claim that the walls and other man-made things just faded over time. The site of Indris’ final song became known to all in Demelldivan as the Garden of Indrisial Rochonbethreth.

Haden took care of Indris’ harp which, after a time, he stood upon a pedestal in the Garden, where it has sat for the past three score and six years. Later Haden had a covering fashioned by a friend to protect Indris’ harp from the elements. Nowadays, this covering and the pedestal it stands above are said to be the only things made of man that the Garden of Indrisial Rochonbethreth suffers to allow within its bounds. And now, many pilgrims make their way from the Elven Nations, from Covince and even Alyinhicé far to the west across the Inner Sea, to view this abiding testament to Indrisial’s song.”

A Night at the Dancing Dolphin (pt. 2) (2000)

I see some more friends have trickled in during that tale, greetings to you newcomers and regulars! Come, warm yourselves by the fire. Lena, throw another log on if you would. Yes, I see a few familiar faces amongst you. Good sirs and ladies, shall I tell another tale? Or perhaps you are tired and long for your beds, to retire for the evening?

Ah, you have no sleep in your eyes! Well, very good! My thanks for your praise, good people. As your humble servant, I shall certainly do my best to entertain and inform you.

Certainly you have heard rumors of the Sea Nomads, or, as they prefer, the Cuaha ti Vanen. Well, so have I, and I assure you those stories about their being nothing but thieves and vagabonds out to swindle the honest working folk of Demelldivan and the other civilized lands are just rumors and nothing more. But, this tale I know for a fact to be true. Part of it was related to me by one of their traders, Ailea by name, while we swapped tales in this very establishment under the lone vigil of her swarthy, goateed guard. But, I see by your incredulous stare that you do not believe that the Nomads should be anything but objects of suspicion – or, perhaps you do not believe they would come this far inland? Well sir, I swear to you by the Harp of Oifa that it is true, there is much more to them, and the lady was quite gracious and well spoken. She sat in that very chair that you now occupy, my good sir, while the lone guard stood, arms crossed and stoic, not half a stone throw away.

They had come to our fair city on their ship’s regular trade route. And do not be surprised that Ailea turned out to be a well taught spinner of stories. The Cuaha are a people fond of tales which they share with each other on the lonely ocean nights far from the cries of the gulls and the lands known to Colculan cartographers. But I shall let you form your own judgements from her words, which she uttered to describe her trusted guard, whom I had just had the pleasure of meeting by the convoluted workings of Nolminat, the Vethiani deity of fortune.

“Eian, for that is my guardian’s name, has been with my family’s ship for many years. He came over from the Cileve family ship in a sort of adoption. You see, the Cileve family births, raises, and teaches the members of the warrior caste of my clan. This has been the way of things among my clan since the great Vanen came to our distant and divided people many generations ago and taught us the Jala ti Falien – or the Law of Five in your language, that law upon which all Cuaha society is built. By this law, Vanen created the five castes – Fisher, Religious, Warrior, Worker, and Navigator – and from this law also comes our family division of – three to five – fives to a family, five families to a Clan, five Clans to a Tribe, and the five Tribes of the Cuaha Nation. It is very important. Even the governance of our families and the building of our ships is built from the Law of Five.

But Eian is especially good at his calling. (Here, I saw what she meant, the man was lean yet well muscled in the manner of many of Demelldivan’s sailors, and his dark eyes never settled for long in one place. I also noted that the hilt of his dagger and his short Cuaha sword were very well worn from frequent use.) We have been to many ports the world over, but rarely have either of us set foot on dry land. Still, this is our eleventh or twelfth time in Demelldivan in as many cycles of the stars.

Every time we come here I can detect the subtle differences between this port and every other, though Eian claims there is nothing to distinguish Demelldivan’s harbor from any other we visit. There is something in the way the scent of your fishermen’s fresh catches of salmon, polin, and aliaen mingles with the stench of their cousins who were caught weeks before. Perhaps it has to do with the closeness of the Elves of Covince or the accents of your sailors as they shout and call to each other.

No matter. I do my bidding willingly. I am my family’s chosen representative to the merchants of your town, and Eian is the warrior assigned to see to my safety on land. Thus, we have set out from our ship, our home, into your land-bound homes. But, it takes time to adapt. Even lithe Eian slipped as he set foot on the rough and wooden dock, catching himself on a pylon, obviously disconcerted by the dock’s lack of motion. Most of my people are. Living our entire lives on the rolling decks of our ships has given my people an instinctive feel for the drop and swell of the sea. We sense this rhythm throughout our entire bodies. On land, we cannot feel this. And, being without this rhythm on land is like what goes through the mind of a child just taken from within its mother. First there is a sense of loss, followed by disconcertion and an overwhelming longing to return to the swell and buoyancy of water. I suppose it is like the first time one of you steps off land and onto a sea-bound ship. But fortunately my caste is taken to the land fairly often in our youth, following our parents in their meetings with your merchants, so the transition is noticeably easier for us, though the longing remains nonetheless.

But after my good Eian quickly recovered his balance and instantly fell in step behind me as I set off along the dock, the sound of sailors boasting of their deeds and cursing their captains enveloped us in a rhythm of its own. That is one thing you never hear on a Cuaha ship. No one curses their captain, for one’s captain is usually one’s parent or grandparent. I could tell from his look of thinly veiled disgust that Eian was unsettled. So I spoke quickly to reassure my companion, ‘We will not be long, my friend. The merchant we want has a stall a short distance from here. I shall tell him of our wares and our prices, and then we can return.’

Eian’s voice came over my shoulder as I could almost feel his eyes begin moving restlessly around the area taking in the dockhands and sailors. ‘I understand,” he intoned in a whisper, ‘Same as every landfall we make. Strike fast, strike true, and withdraw is an adage shared by both our castes.’

Perhaps I should explain my position better. My clan follows the same trade route each year, and my family, Irquea, is Clan Vlant’s source of traders, just as Family Cileve is the Clan’s source of warriors. Each member of my caste develops contacts with particular merchants along our route. I happen to have the most contacts in this city, so, barring illness, I make every landfall here. The same is true of my dealings in Menfillan south of here and my brother Aneul’s dealings in the towns of Roctun and Hillhome in the Dwarven nation of Zargonin where we represent the Clan in the wake of our esteemed parents. My brother lives on another ship of the Clan Vlant with his wife’s family the Falenta, who raise the Religious caste of the Clan. We see each other often, though, for all five ships of the Clan travel together, as is done in every clan of the Cuaha.

As we walked down your streets further into the city I kept glancing back over my shoulder at Eian. The Way of his caste has always fascinated me. His eyes roamed continually, never resting anywhere for longer than necessary for him to detect any looming threat. I guess my eyes do the same when I inspect a merchant’s wares or spear a fish. It was as he had said: ‘Strike fast, strike true, and withdraw.’

Then I looked back in front of me quickly and tripped on a loose cobble. Almost instantly I felt Eian’s rough fingers clasp my upper arm just enough to keep me from falling. (I glanced over and saw the warrior in question leaning back against the wall, eyes half closed, and with a faint smile on his lips. Nonetheless, even in his cat-like rest his narrowed eyes still crept around the room, taking in every movement.) Instantly I caught my balance and ran a hand through my hair, a habit I picked up as a child. ‘Thank you, Eian,’ I said. ‘These roads are treacherous, but I am fine.’

Eian released my arm and resumed his accustomed place a few steps behind me. I heard his voice carry over the noise of the crowded Wharf. ‘True. The Dirt-Walker workers don’t seem to grasp the concept of smoothness as well as our Workers do. Perhaps they do not take the same pride in their work.’

‘But pardon him, my newfound friend, he tends to speak his mind without regard for niceties.’ (As anyone would do for any polite young lady, I assured her that no offense was taken. Besides, I had no desire for conflict and there was still more of her tale to hear.)

I adopted the tone used by my mother when I sat at her knee and she spoke of the land-bound peoples. ‘I believe, my friend, it is more that they do not stake their lives on the quality of their work in shaping the roads. No one would necessarily die if a stone in the road is loose. But many may perish if someone trips on deck during a storm. To lose one’s feet is to come too far into Einia’s embrace.’

Apparently, my words had the desired effect, for Eian chuckled, “Ah, Ailea Irquea, Caste Fisher, speaks now as a Religious caste. What a day this is!’

I grinned. ‘This is no more a surprise than Eian Cileve, Caste Warrior, son of Warmistress Cnulei Cileve philosophizing when he is to be protecting the life of Ailea Irquea!’

Then I heard the uncharacteristic rattle of a stone from beneath Eian’s feet. I knew then that the lack of the sea’s rhythm continued to plague him. For Eian is not one to misplace his feet or to move with anything short of full calm assurance. So, as my caste is taught to do at a young age, I began a tale of the Cuaha lords and ladies of old who had made the northern sea routes through the Dragons’ Teeth safe for our ships just to take his mind off the evident desire to run back to our ship headlong.

We found the stall soon after the tale ended. Eian gave it the same skeptical look of distaste he’d given the first rickety ships we’d come upon in Grralt a few eight-days ago. Indeed, the shack was barely larger than the room my parents share on our family ship the Taijaen. But it wasn’t going to crumble any time soon. I assured Eian that the place had been leaning to starboard since the first time my father had brought me here.

But Eian still eyed the building warily. ‘I don’t mean to question your judgement, my dear Fisher, but, are you sure the owner can pay a good price for our wares?’

I nodded. ‘As good as any we can expect in this city. Few self-respecting landbound merchants will trade with us. But Hasic will pay well enough. He knows people who value our goods.’ Then I led Eian into Hasic’s shack.”

A Night at the Dancing Dolphin (pt. 1) (2000)

The beginning of my senior project for my B.A. It was/is a collection of stories linked by the story of the storytelling narrator (in a sort of meta-narrative).


Greetings one and all. Ladies and gentlemen. Allow me to introduce myself, I am Taran Red. The monks gave me that surname for my hair, which the Hyranins tell me is the color of my mother’s.

Yes, I have a story. I have many stories of wizards and faeries, knights and demons, innkeepers and scholars, weavers and farmers. I am the embodiment of all of the stories of the people of Demelldivan. Everyone here has a story, and I know most of them. Those I do not yet know, I seek to discover. And this city creates more stories every day as new travelers decide to visit or remain and young ones are birthed. And, yes, if you like, I shall begin with my own:

I do not remember much about my birth, I was rather young at the time after all. But a monk told me one day as we were going over the values of grain that my mother was a strikingly beautiful woman with a full mane of fiery hair. He said he knew this because she ran past a torch after setting me on the doorstep and slamming down the bronze knocker just as he had come to open the gate to see who was there. But he only saw her hair and a glimpse of her pointed ear clearly.

The Hyranin monks raised me as one of their own, austere by the standards of Tya’s bejeweled priestesses and acolytes, sumptuous compared to the farmer in the field. The day was ordered according to the times of prayer as well as the business knells of the market. Journeys into the open Market District, guarding the clergy, followed morning prayers to the Lady and were in turn followed by the midday meal. Above all, the monks taught me the correct ways to worship the Lady of Commerce, Tya, as well as the ways of the weights and how to haggle with the best. Knowledge I promptly forgot, obviously, as I am not charging you extra for this story.

They also taught me to defend myself with a staff of stout wood and bare hands, lessons I paid rapt attention to. Reading and skill with the lyre were also taught to me, though they were secondary in the eyes of the monks, whose first loyalty was obviously to Lady Tya with her scales, brocades, silks and jewels. But, I fell in love almost immediately with the works of Oifa, Mother of the Bards, the Font of Books and Song.

So, at the impetuous age of fifteen, I let myself out of the compound and ventured forth into the City itself just in time to see my first sunrise free of the monks and their holy timetables. And, for the first time I fully understood the words of the poets of Oifa’s temples:

For the first time Weila came

over

the peaks

of the massive Covars

shedding the brilliance

of her

life-bequeathing gaze

upon the golden

straw

and pristine

verdancy of

Arevas’ paradise

This sight alone is, to me, the most memorable moment of my life. The light glinted off the gilded temple of Elren Skylord and yet simultaneously appeared to be absorbed by the squat dark temple of Amané. It was certainly an awesome sight of the abodes of the two deities who protect our city whether by filling the sails of our trade ships or by patronizing Demelldivan with divine protection. Thus, I stood staring, as the sunlight touched each spire of the Temple District, completely heedless of my surroundings. Then the first fist connected with the back of my head. Followed by a boot as I hit the ground.

When I came to, I was clad only in my thin, threadbare tunic. And, of course, my money was gone. Fortunately, I learned from that event to always watch my back, even in the City’s better districts.

After stumbling my way through the streets for a few hours I fell flat upon the rear stoop of The Dancing Dolphin – a very fine establishment by the by. It really is a quaint little place, and run by such a lovely lady, too. The owner of the establishment, the incomparable Mistress Kaiura Seastar, found my form prostrate upon her door and kindly nursed me back to health.

And all the generous lady asked in return was a story. So I gave her a rousing telling of the legend of Sir Magrad and the founding of the Knights. The tale is one with which I am quite certain most of you are familiar, since I told it last eve as well. But for those of you visiting our city, let me assure you it is a wonderful tale of bold and brave knights alongside the good creatures of the sea, aboard the vessels of our port battling fierce pirates who preyed upon helpless merchant ships just trying to please the goddess Tya through the humble plying of their trade. In any case, it was the most heartfelt and rousing performance I had ever done. Conversation had stopped in the common room, and I was suddenly aware that the good lady was not my only audience. All of the patrons whom my hunger had caused me to previously ignore were peering at me intently through drink besotted eyes.

Once I had finished the tale, Mistress Seastar requested my own story, the large part of which you have already heard. But the first time through my own story, I can tell you I stuttered and blushed profusely afterwards. For the first time in my life I was aware of more than one pair of eyes focused intently upon me, of a crowd hanging on my every word, of being surrounded completely by the very people the Hyranins had trained me to defend Tya’s priestesses from – the reassuring presence of my former brethren nowhere to be found. It was a little unnerving for a boy of my years, and more than a little exciting.

Ah, you cannot imagine one such as me blushing, can you, sir? Well, at that time I also did not think mine to be much of a story. It seemed hardly fit for the good patrons of this establishment. But, nonetheless, Lady Seastar offered me a job telling stories at her Inn. Well, I will tell you, for a homeless unloved half-breed it was an offer of epic proportions. Two meals a day , a bed in the hayloft and a copper a week! You laugh, but it was quite kind in those days. I was incredibly pleased, and thought Lady Tya must be shining her glory on me then! That much and for doing what I would never have dreamt of being able to do to feed myself.

My only problem was finding new stories. I wanted real tales, not bits and pieces I made up. The real stories about the people everyone sees everyday were the ones with which I wanted to move the crowds.

But, even I cannot express my surprise at finding out that those in the City, even the lowliest street beggar, had stories more interesting than those of the legendary heroes! Take for example, Aiden Elfbane and Haden Smith. Did you know that at one time they were the greatest of friends? Indeed, Aiden was apprenticed to the Smith before he took up the life of the Guardsman. Then they had a falling out over Haden’s most guarded secret. I swore to both I would never tell this tale during their lives, and soon you shall know why.

Ah, but isn’t the drink here better than any other in the city? Is it not so, my friends? And now where was I? Oh, yes, thank you, good lad. Here’s a copper to reward a good deed. Aiden and Haden. Well, here’s the story of the beginning days of their friendship, back in the first days of Baron Calirmorn’s reign, a tale I call “The Meeting of Aiden and Hadin.”

Back in the days of his youth, for he had only seen a half score and three harvests, Aiden Kivyon, later called Elfbane, came down to Demelldivan from northern Colcul. He arrived in the city with a roaming grain merchant from a small unnamed hamlet only one day’s walk from the border of the Elven Nations. Kalot, the merchant, said he had found the boy a short ways out of the village and that he knew not the boy’s name or kin, for the child did not speak. Having no need of another mouth to feed and lacking the means to pay the boy for service, Kalot did his best to relieve himself of his unexpected burden. But, none of the craftsmen or merchants had need of a boy who refused to speak.

So Aiden was set upon the street to fend for himself. Now, I am sure you good people can only imagine the problems faced by a young boy from the north having no kin or master on the streets of our expansive city. So, I shall illuminate you and explicate Aiden’s newfound situation. But, before I do so, for this tale is quite long as it encompasses many years of a young man’s life, I would suggest you all get a new drink.

For the first few days, Aiden huddled beside the buildings of the Tunnel in his well worn homespun with the cruel hawkish talons of Hunger raking at his belly. The Tunnel, for those of you visiting Demelldivan, is a narrow region on the north end of town between the elegance of the Elven Quarter and the shambles of the Breakers. It is an area dedicated to catering to the Elven merchants and the northern farmers and merchants. The whole three street region is comprised of inns, taverns and, on the Breakers side, houses of ill repute disguised as the homes of innkeepers. Most definitely not the place for a copperless lad in need, I can assure you. In many other wards of this city a person on hard times can expect to find succor from good people like yourselves or aid from the servants of Tain or from Kuoli the Altalian Goddess of Merciful Compassion, but not in the Breakers. Nonetheless, this is where Aiden found himself. He never told a soul why he chose to remain in such a state, but some have said he remained thus because he was punishing himself for some unknown transgression.

The boy spent his first days in the city gaining an ever increasing knowledge of the grumblings of his stomach. But he seemed to be too proud to beg, if indeed he could even speak in order to petition Tain of the Healer’s Hand to cure the ravenous growling of his belly. And, as each day passed, Aiden’s homespun cloak lost more and more strands to the hard stones of our streets until only a rough tunic and worn sandals were left.

Then, late one night, when Aiden was almost too weak to crawl to the nearest puddle to drink, two roguish men clad in cloaks of deep ebony and long hoods pulled over their faces approached the young lad. Fearing they were coming to beat him for money, though he had none, Aiden rolled himself against the wall and struggled to move his arms to cover himself.

But, it was not yet Aiden’s day to feast in the halls of Olfunr. One of the figures knelt beside him and whispered harshly, “Call out if the Watch comes, and this’ll be paired with its mate.” Then a coin fell to the ground near Aiden’s hand, a small glint of light across its surface as it clattered to a stop. Even though he could barely move, Aiden nodded. With luck, the boy thought, no noise would be needed. In those days, the Watch rarely left the better districts of Demelldivan for long, much less wandered the Tunnel.

The other details of that night are unknown to me, but I do know that Aiden got his second coin and that he claimed he had had to do nothing for it. It was the will of Nolminat showing itself to us. These two coins kept the boy fed for a few days, and the food gave him the strength of body to gather up a few stray scraps of clothing to augment the rags his farm clothes had become. Then Aiden snatched a couple copper farths from the hands of one of Tya’s priestesses on her way to transact a loan with a merchant on the verge of selling his home to stave off poverty. It was not overly easy, but Aiden managed to keep ahead of the Hyranin chasing him just long enough to reach the Breakers and disappear – for even the Hyranin monks would rather lose some petty coins than enter the Breakers near dark.

Over the next half year, Aiden swiftly progressed from swiping coins from under the hands of merchants to taking coins directly from their money pouches. By the harvest he was even entering their stalls in the Market and running off with their wares. The Watch even went so far as to put a price on Aiden’s head, albeit only a small one.

Now, Aiden’s life of crime would have certainly drawn the attention of the Guild of Thieves – and, yes my friends, I have heard enough tales that I truly suspect they exist. But, his life took a turn before they approached him.

One night, not more than one change of the moons before the chill north winds would turn themselves once again in our direction and signal a full round of seasons since the mysterious lad had arrived in Demelldivan, Aiden decided to try his hand at thieving from a craftsman by night. So Aiden, keeping to the full grown shadows, crept through the streets of the Market. In time, he came to the home-shop he had chosen the day before – a blacksmith’s home, not a poor man, yet not wealthy enough to have private sell-swords or magic wards guarding his possessions.

Aiden slipped up to the smithy, looking around to be certain he was unnoticed. Then he eased the shutter up – how he unlatched it I do not exactly know, though one would imagine it involved a thin rusty knife – and tore a hole in the greased lambskin that filled the side window. A quick jump and a short drop and the boy was in the smith’s workplace. Within, Aiden beheld the common tools of the smith’s craft, the bellows and forge, the tongs and the hammer and anvil as well as many common and uncommon products of the art – horseshoes and broken barrel bands, but also a dragon clawed cloakstand, and, resting on a worktable, a highly polished iron lily as well as an ornate door knocker that bore the crossed hammer and axe of Zargonin.

But something about the iron flower drew the boy’s attention – perhaps it was the stunningly lifelike appearance he noted in the red glow of the forge’s dying embers – and he found himself walking toward its shining bloom. Everything else in the large room seemed to clear a path between him and the lily, as if the other objects knew the boy and the flower were meant to be together.

Then the light of a candle appeared, followed by a deep rumbling voice.

“Who’s that, then?”

Aiden froze as any startled rodent does, his eyes racing furtively across the room, desperately seeking a hiding place. He could not understand how the smith had known he was there. Then Aiden’s eyes fell upon the upended bucket near the forge and he realized from the cool wet feeling of the rags on his legs that he must have accidentally kicked it over in his journey toward the wrought iron flower. His eyes also took in the brawny, nearly bald blacksmith just now entering the room, toting a hammer.

Even as he fled behind a stack of barrels and scrap iron, Aiden felt the smith’s eyes fix on him like a cat on a mouse. Then, a few heartbeats later the boy felt a massive hand grip the back of his tunic and Aiden discovered himself dangling as the smith turned him round and round while Aiden struggled, his hands and legs thrashing in the empty air. The mountain of a man chuckled. “Well, a little rat, eh? My fault for not having a cat, huh? So, little one, what were ye doing here?”

Aiden began shaking his head vigorously, but suddenly the layer of rags that the smith held gave way all at once and he hit the packed dirt floor face first in a cloud of choking dust. The smith shook his head. “Well boy, I suppose ye should pay for waking me and for ruining my window. But, it seems ye have no coin, so get on that bellows and bring the fires up. After ye work off the damage, I probably should turn ye in at morning. But that wouldn’t likely do much, now would it?”

The boy made no sound. He just picked himself and his rags up and started pulling down on the bellows chain. By the next toll of the Baron’s bell, the fire was roaring and the ching-dingdingding of the smith’s steady hammering rang through the stuffy hot air.

Aiden brushed streams of sweat from his eyes and removed a layer or two of rags. He shook his head as it seemed he could find no comfortable place in the world – too cold before, too hot now. Then as he pulled down on the bellows once again, the smith called out to him over the clang of the hammer and roar of the fire, “Ye can call me Haden, as everyone does. But that doesn’t change a thing. I’ll probably give ye to the Watch come morning. Though they’d let ye go in a couple days and ye’d do it again, eh boy?”

Then Haden shook his head despairingly. Aiden said nothing. He just pumped the bellows even harder, the ching-dingdingding continuing as Haden worked on fixing a flattened barrel band. Each ring of the hammer caused the red hot metal to bend outward once again. Within minutes the band was as round as the day it was made. Then Hadin began working on a pile of horseshoes while Aiden continued to stoke the fire.

Two tolls of the bell later, Haden started to mumble aloud as he stirred up the coals. “But the Watch is only a quick fix. And the hastily fixed shoe is always thrown. But can’t put him on the street. And I could use the help with all the jobs piling up.” Then the big man shrugged his shoulders and turned to face Aiden. “So, what do ye say, lad? Ye want to learn a trade that’s not thieving?”

Aiden nodded. Haden said nothing as well. He just shrugged before returning to beating strip after strip of bare iron into useful horseshoes as the ching-dingdingding returned. Anything was better, Aiden must have thought, than wearing old rags and running from the Watch.

And that, my friends, is how they spent the next round of seasons, the silent boy working the bellows and fetching water for the big talkative smith. It was agreeable for both. Haden gained an apprentice, while Aiden received a warm place to sleep, eatable food, and thorough instruction in the art of the smith. Over time, the pair came to be even closer than usual for Master and Apprentice. Then, one day, Hadin heard a voice over the roar of the fire, one he’d never heard before, saying his name. He looked up toward the open front of the smithy, thinking another customer had arrived.

It took the smith a while to realize that for the first time he had heard the voice of his apprentice. Hadin set down his hammer so as to better hear, encouraging the boy with a patient nod.

Aiden, for his part, began his tale in a dry and cracked voice. He told Hadin of his small village of Eldawood up north where the forests of the Elven Nations come south into our kingdom of Colcul. Aiden spoke of how the farmers of his village huddled in their meager dwellings at night, unwilling to believe the stories of the elders about the creatures that roamed the woods by night, yet reluctant to take the chance that the old people might be right. “A farmer who had seen at least four score and eight harvests said that it was the failed creations of Elvish wizardry that ran by night in the woods, luring good common farmers and huntsmen close to their dens, while his older sister said the ghosts of dead children haunted the trees, bemoaning their untimely deaths and wailing for the warmth of their lost lives.” But, despite these rumors all that the farm folk had seen before with their very own eyes were occasional strange lights within the trees or, quite rarely at that, a sheep or goat would go missing – so they felt safe enough by day.

Hadin watched as his apprentice went back toward the forge and picked up hammer and tongs again. Feeling that there was more to this tale, he spoke as quietly as he could, “So what happened to bring ye all the way down here?” Then the big smith immediately began work on a small pile of horseshoes, thinking the work would help his apprentice continue. Indeed, Aiden immediately got up and began pulling on the chain to bring the fire back up.

“Then,” Aiden said over the roar of the fire his voice dry and cracked, “a score of days, maybe, before Kalot brought me into the city, a beast came from the forest and attacked our herds and flocks. The beast had the horns of a deer, the head of a bear, paws the size of ripe pumpkins, hind quarters like a lizard, and a pair of oxtails. At least that’s what one of the older boys, who had been gored, told me before he collapsed into unconsciousness. He died a short time later. I only heard the shouts of the farmers and older boys as they tried to fight the creature off with their scythes and threshing flails. Meanwhile, I was rushed under a woodpile with some of the younger children.

Then the shouts became screams as the beast turned on the adults and older children and began mauling and goring. It was terrible, and I practically dug into the earth in order to better hide myself, all the little kids with me. I did my best to keep them from seeing what was going on. Some of the people were my friends and family.”

Aiden rubbed his eyes and a grim look of determination crept onto his face. “By the time the King’s border patrol arrived, only a half score or less of us were still alive, mostly young boys and girls hiding as best we could. But the patrol, a mere double handful of men, managed to do with their horses and armor and spears and bows what my entire village had failed to do. I watched as best I could from my hiding place. First they unleashed a volley of arrows from afar, which set the beast to howling. It may have charged them finally, but the soldiers were ready with their spears. The beast impaled itself on one spearhead while the others moved in to bury their own blades in the horrible thing. But the fight was far from over. In its thrashing the creature knocked one man off his horse and impaled another horse before one of the men, the one whose horse had been mauled, hit the beast in the head with a large bladed axe that almost split the creature in two. Then all seemed tranquil.

But, as the soldiers recovered their arrows and built something with which to carry off the dead beast, and right when the children ran out into the open, a hunting party of Elves emerged from the woods. I heard the Elves and kept to my hiding place, fortunately. I could not hear clearly, but the Elves seemed to argue with the soldiers. At least I think they were Elves, because grandpa spoke a little Elven and it sounded like that. I heard one say ‘Lord’ and ‘pet’, though he sounded kind of funny. I guess they were meaning the beast.

“The soldiers got angry, then I heard the sounds of bows and swords, so I guess there was a fight. I stayed under the woodpile, wishing I could become part of the ground. When the sun went down I climbed out and looked around. I didn’t see anyone else. I guess the Elves got everyone their beast missed. So, I started walking toward Meet, the nearest big village. Kalot found me on the way and brought me here. The rest of my story you know.”

Haden was on the verge of asking a question but then shrugged. The moment was already a very traumatic one for his young friend. Instead, Haden pulled the bellows chain a few more times and set to work again.

Neither spoke of the incident again for many years. Both the smith and his apprentice fell into a working routine which worked for both of them. At first, Aiden just gathered water, cleaned up, and carried things for Hadin. But as he learned more from the smith, Aiden began to do more and more of the smith’s work. Aiden worked on the easier jobs – such as making and fitting horseshoes and the bands of barrels, while Hadin spent more time with the intricate jobs, door knockers, cloakstands and the like. Then, after two harvests, Hadin began to leave Aiden in charge more and more often. Hadin needed to visit the smiths in nearby hamlets and villages, he said, because he was their liaison with Demelldivan’s Guild of Smiths.

But the matter of the beast came up indirectly in the fourth harvest time after Aiden had worked with the smith. Aiden first broached the subject one chill morning as they were starting up the forge fires; out of the blue, or so it seemed to Hadin, Aiden told the smith he wanted to join the city guard, that he felt the need to do his best to protect people, and that he did not feel the life of a smith was right for him, that in his mind even the service of making things for people was not a great enough service to the community.

Hadin, as you surely know, friends, was and always has been a peaceable man, so he was understandably not fond of the idea of his apprentice going onto the City Watch. But the big smith took to his own heart the same advice he had doled out to his neighbors when they had problems with recalcitrant children. “It be his choice what he becomes, just like the iron; ye can’t make a good fire poker out of iron that wants to be a good horseshoe.” Thus, after thinking on Aiden’s request for a couple of days, Hadin acquiesced – on the sole condition that Aiden assist him with one more job before he left.

All night they worked on a large pillar of iron, carving and beating where they felt it needed shaping. The next day, when both men could not withstand the need for sleep, they took turns at the task so that at no time would the ring of hammer on iron cease from filling the air.

Many days passed, and slowly the piece took form. The trunk of a large black tree grew upwards from an iron disk as wide as a stool and as tall as a dagger’s blade. From the top sprouted many branches, young and old, ending in delicately veined leaves. And, from there the branches flowed even further upward, terminating in yet another disk of iron which was the base’s twin.

Then, as winter drew near, master and apprentice went to work with other metals, bringing color to the pedestal by adding gildings of silver, gold, bronze and brass. Later, as Winter’s white cloak covered the land and its icy breath blew through minuscule holes in even the finest fur cloak, master and apprentice still sweated before the forge, bringing still greater detail to their work with cunning twists and chiselings of the tall metal pillar.

Then the cold season passed and the Children of Spring struggled forth from their places deep in the earth to display their blooms. Then, and only then, did Hadin and Aiden bring forth the results of their labor. The pedestal stood almost as high as Hadin himself. Above the base, the black trunk gave way to leaves of silver and polished steel that glinted in the morning light. Squirrels of burnished brass stood frozen amidst the branches. A troop of golden ants twined around the trunk while silver beaked larks and warblers with plumage of copper and bronze lifted their heads in frozen song.

Hadin slapped Aiden’s back proudly, while Aiden extended his hand to clasp the big smith’s callused paw. But neither man spoke. Then, silently, Aiden went back inside the smithy to gather his few belongings. As he strode away, Hadin handed his former apprentice a small bundle wrapped in moleskin.

Since Aiden’s duties with the Guard kept him in other parts of Demelldivan, the two friends saw each other infrequently over the next cycles of seasons. It is said that for a while Aiden left the city to go north with the border patrols and that it was there he earned his new name. Indeed, rumor says he was given the title Elfbane due to his relentlessness in tracking down Elven bandits who came south from the Nations into Colcul. Also, he gained a reputation for great valor in tracking down and dispatching various unsavory creatures that had escaped from the north.

Be that as it may, my friends, Aiden eventually returned to Demelldivan, where he swiftly rose through the ranks of the City Guard. It was then that he learned of Hadin’s secret and the great rift between them grew.

You see, it had been a long hard winter and the wolf packs in the forests were becoming bolder, attacking the farmers’ herds that were in their pens for the night. One farmer even claimed to have locked his meager flock of sheep in a small cave, only to find mere bones in the morning.

Tales of the problems came to the Baron’s ears, so he had a party of the Guard sent out to contain the predators. Aiden, due to his reputation from the north, led the party. He chose to begin a hunt at dusk with half the guardsmen following him into the forest, while the other half kept watch over the herds and flocks. Because of both the weather and terrain, the guardsmen, Aiden at their head, entered the forest on foot with torches and hounds, creeping through the dense wood and thick fog rolling slowly inland off the sea. After nearly a watch’s worth of searching, the lead dogs, followed quickly by the others, began barking their heads off, then leapt away at a run, dragging their handlers behind them.

Somewhere amidst the howling hounds and fog, Aiden became separated from his party. Cautiously he felt his way through the woods, hoping to rediscover his companions before he encountered any wolf packs, for he had seen their ilk in the north and knew their savagery all too well. In fact, Aiden found himself even thinking of the pointed horns and flashing teeth of the beast that ravaged his village years before. The creature had passed on, and he knew that well, but Aiden had seen a few of the beast’s brethren and cousins in the intervening years.

It was when the fog began to lift that Aiden saw his torchlight reflected all around him in the darkness. Carefully, Aiden knelt, put down his torch, then lay his spear to the side, realizing there were too many adversaries in what could quickly become cramped quarters for the spear to be effective, as he pulled his unadorned sword from its scabbard. The polished blade gleamed red in the torch’s flame. Around him it seemed as if the forest was alive, moving in a silent tight circle around him. He saw shadows slinking along on four legs, gleaming yellow eyes watching him hungrily.

But Aiden was surprised that the pack did not leap. Instead, a large wolf with sparse black fur emerged from of the darkness, ceasing to advance only a few paces beyond the tip of Aiden’s sword. Looking into the wolf’s eyes, Aiden soon found himself thinking that he looked upon an almost human intelligence, though one very near a feral state. There was a certain spark there that one only saw in the eyes of humanoids and certain cats.

Aiden struck. He later said that beyond that first movement everything was a confused blur. He felt his steel bite deep in the wolf’s flesh, but was only aware of swinging wildly after that.

He told me, friends, that he stopped swinging only after he noticed that his blade was no longer connecting with anything. Then, after he lowered his sword, Aiden panted for many heartbeats, looking around in the dying light of the torch to see what had happened, thinking the pack must have run off. Then, quickly lighting another torch, Aiden noticed the many cuts and bruises on his own person that his hauberk had barely protected him from. All around him were carcasses of wolves. And one naked human. The human was large, male, and had a long deep gash in his side, right where Aiden thought he had struck the lead wolf.

The Guardsman’s eyes widened as he recognized Hadin’s callused palms, gigantic frame and bald pate. Aiden knelt beside his friend, his fingers losing their grip on his sword.

The moon began its descent toward the lands of Olfunr. In the distance, Aiden could faintly hear the baying of hounds and shouts from his men. Hadin whispered hurriedly to his former apprentice. “It’s not what ye think, lad. This here’s not my normal form. But, it is the one I’m most comfortable in and the one I can speak to you in.   My people have no name for ourselves, and the names Man and Elf gave us have long been forgotten. Many thousands of summers ago our peoples were friends, lad. Then yours began hunting us, so we secluded ourselves in deep inaccessible places. But some of us were cursed at birth to wear the form of our former friends as well as the form of our birth, that of an animal, some can shift between mammal and bird, others between mammal and mammal, and still others can take the form of other creatures. The best and wisest of my people don’t know why most are spared and some are not. The closest we have to a priesthood claim that it is our deities reminding us of our downfall. I am one of those unfortunate few. We’re outcasts among our people, all people, so we either go off on our own and become hermits or join your people’s communities or gatherings of our other form’s kind. But go now. Leave me, boy. I fear I will not be in this world too much longer.”

But, he did indeed survive, although barely. The rest you likely know, my friends. Neither man saw the other again. Each avoided the other for his own reasons. No one is quite sure why, but one can guess that there was a sense of betrayal on Aiden’s part as he came to consider his former master to be akin to the beast that had his home, although one of a more insidious nature, and knowing Hadin, he probably would rather not see his old friend and apprentice rather than continue an open conflict. In any case, Hadin’s wound never completely healed and he lay on his deathbed a few seasons later. Aiden left the Guard soon after that fateful night and lived as a coppersmith until the fortieth anniversary of Baron Calirmorn’s rule, when he went to join Hadin in Olfunr’s Joyous Hall. To this very day an exquisite iron lily hangs over the front gate of the home of Aiden’s descendants.

Huntress 3 (2000)

In the three and a half weeks since leaving home, Shira made good time across country. She was quite proud that she’d crossed the eastern border of the Free Cities a week ago. Since then, the road began getting more difficult, especially as she often had to make her own road through the mountains. Just after midday, after a long morning hiking atop narrow ledges and overgrown ridges, the half-Elven huntress came upon a valley. The smoke rising over the rocks spoke of a village, probably one like the scores of other farming and mining settlements in the western Marches. She leaned on her spear for a few moments considering the settlement.

It looked safe enough. Moreover, she still had a good month’s hard travel before the first part of her journey, the border of Darkel Forest, was in sight. The prospect of a warm meal and an equally warm bed, not to mention a safe one, was too strong an argument. Before crossing the half mile or so, Shira rearranged her flowing hair a bit and shifted the band that kept it out of her eyes. The change should cover her ears well enough, she thought. This village was near the western edge of the Marches, but there was no sense in taking chances. People here had even more reason to fear and hate Elves than those in her homeland, who were generally bad enough.

Heaving a sigh, the huntress started off. The leather and suede that made most of her gear creaked softly with each step as she followed a switchback trail down to the valley’s floor. Her bow bounced comfortably on her back, a counterpoint to the barely audible thump of her spear that accompanied every other step.

As she drew nearer, Shira counted buildings in an attempt to guess at her welcome. By the time she reached the edge, she’d counted a little over a dozen homes, a temple, and a tavern. The temple, she decided, was likely dedicated to all the gods and goddesses, a common practice back west when a village couldn’t afford multiple temples. Her arrival had also been announced, probably by the local children. At least the four men greeting her held their picks and axes loosely. A good sign that they’d talk first.

“Good day, villagers,” she greeted them, letting her gaze roam until she spotted the archer she’d expected. Behind the village well, with a clear shot. “I am Shira of the Free Cities, traveling east and seeking food and shelter for the night . . . I have some coins and furs to give in exchange.”

The brightest looking for the four asked, “An’ where’re ye goin’ to the east, then? All alone an’ not a trader . . .”

“To Woodgard, with news for my brother, in the service of the Warden.” She’d been preparing the answer for a couple days. Given what she’d heard of the region, Shira decided it was best to connect herself with the Marcher heroes, the ones who kept most of the Elf-kin at bay.

It looked like the little lie worked. The archer lowered his bow and the other four seemed to relax. Their leader almost smiled as he introduced them. “Welcome, then, Shira of the Free Cities. I’m Jotha, tavern keeper. These’re Harek, Tolla, Joyne, and Marken with the bow.” After looking at the others, he added, “An’ if ye have news of the Cities, your meals’re on the house.”

The huntress smiled at the nearly ritualized offer, so similar to the one from her home. “Thank you, Jotha,” she replied with a little bow, “I will do my best to recall all the doings and rumors of the Cities, though my telling may not entertain.”

Two hours later, she had a bed in someone’s hayloft, Shira’d forgotten his name, and was seated in the tavern. Her third mug was drained just before finishing regaling the locals with the rumors about Lord Arthen and his wife for the second time. She gave a sigh of relief as Jotha brought out her dinner. The story had been old when she’d heard bits a month ago. Now, she was afraid of tripping up on her embellishments, since she’d only half-listened when someone told Dhom. After an apologetic smile to her hosts, she gratefully dove into the stew and black bread.

Fortunately, one of the villagers, Marik, she thought his name was, started grumbling about local problems. Apparently, he was a herdsman, not one of the miners. “Damn blasted dragons took off three sheep today,” he announced to the crowded room, everyone having packed in to hear the news, “The farkin’ Elf must be back.”

The room fell into a hush at his pronouncement. Shira could understand the conclusion, this relatively close to the Wilderlands. Still, she’’ seen enough ‘dragons’ to ask, “You’re sure it wasn’t a bear or wolves?”

Everyone stared as Marik’s face grew red and he rose to begin a tirade. After a minute of incoherent ranting, Jotha stepped forward and set a hand on the herder’s shoulder. “That’s enough now, lad. We’ve all heard it before, except our guest,” he said calmly, “and she doesn’t know the story . . . wouldn’t want her thinkin’ we’re used ta explodin’ at travelers what don’t know better.” He winked at Shira, behind Marik’s back.

Joyne took the opportunity to stand near the fire. He coughed lightly and focused on the huntress. “Pardon Marik’s outburst, please. He’s a bit excitable and has been among the hardest hit by our tragedy,” he started, to nods of assent from the others, “You see, for the last . . . fifteen springs, we’ve been periodically plagued by a dragon. Years ago, one of our hunters followed them as it dragged off a cow. He said it eventually came to an Elf, a sorcerer, who treated it like a pet. Since then, we’ve left out a cow, a couple sheep, or a few chickens for the Elf every new moon, to keep the dragon away.”

She’d heard similar stories before. “And does it work?”

“Usually, Joyne admitted, “Sometimes the animals remain, other times not. We think he is in the area only sometimes, but without a pattern. Mostly, he and his dragon leave us alone if we leave out the tribute. If we don’t, then the dragon starts stealing livestock.”

“But this sorcerer never came to your village or demanded tribute,” Shira asked, confused. That would be unusual, and would confirm what she thought the truth to be . . . a dragon clinging to a free meal. The creatures were said to be quite dumb, but they had to be bright enough to make that connection. Even the dullest dog or rat realized where free food could be had with no effort.

“That’s right, only Markan’s father’s ever seen the Elf.”

So, she’d best not question the belief without proof. That last thing she needed right now was an honor duel over calling a local’s father a liar. Instead of taking that path, Shira allowed herself a small sigh of surrender. “Where I come from, I live as a hunter,” she told the villagers, “Like my uncle before me. People called on us when wolves, bears, dragons, sorcerers, ghosts, and demons threatened their homes. And we were always successful.” Well, not always, but close enough. “In return for travel food, I’ll try to solve your dragon problem for you.”

While Markan and a few others looked skeptical, Jotha and Joyne passed a look of hope between them. The half-Elf just managed to catch the brief flare. She’d considered the matter closed for the night and began to turn back to the remains of her meal. However, Marik continued the interruption with a harsh, barking laugh. “You?” he asked on the verge of sneering, “Alone? Where our own hunting parties’ve failed? You can’t farkin’ seriously think you ken beat a farkin’ Elf alone . . .”

Someone else joined in, “Las’ time we had a damn sorcerer, granddad said they had a whole army . . . and still lost the first time. Apparently this was a commonly known story, met with resounded ‘here, heres’ and knowing looks. Shira carefully considered her answer, trying to avoid being run out of town.

“Did the army have an experienced sorcerer hunter?” Or did it bang around making lots of noise,” she replied, and took the silence that followed as confirmation, “The only way to beat a sorcerer is to sneak up on him when he’s not looking. And for that you need a good hunter.”

While Marik and a handful around him didn’t look convinced, most of the others voiced their agreement. Which kept the herdsman quiet. Shira resolved to keep an eye on him just in case, she and Dhom had dealt with his type in the past. There were always a couple who opposed involving outsiders, even well reputed ones. From what she’d seen back home, they tended to be the ones with the most easily bruised egos.

The rest of the evening passed quietly enough, with stories and news being swapped back and forth. In return for Free Cities gossip, the huntress acquired useful news about the road ahead, up to a day’s ride east or south. The whole while she noticed Marken and Marik in a corner with their heads together and a few cronies nearby. However, after a few more mugs of a local brew (from Herik’s wife, she’d heard), Shira left the company and arrived at her hayloft without incident. Within heartbeats, she was fast asleep.

Hours later, as the dawn light crept into her eyes, Shira gave herself a small stretch. Then she opened her eyes to the sight of a pitchfork leveled at her throat and a spear point against her chest. Breathing shallowly, the huntress looked askance at her assailants. She couldn’t attach a name to either man, but the faces were vaguely familiar from the night before.

“We don’t want none of you kind here,” pitchfork said abruptly, causing Shira to wonder if her ears had shown last night, “We don’t need fereign help fer our own problems.”

Spear chimed in then, “So get yerself outta the valley by nightfall, or ye might have an accident . . .”

A small smile turned her lips upward as Shira thought of things Dhom had said in similar positions. Usually made the already tense situation worse. She met pitchfork’s eyes and asked, “I don’t have much choice, then, do I? I suppose I’ll just have to leave.”

Both men looked instantly relieved. That had gone easier than they’d planned. Both relaxed a bit as spear said, “Uh, well, in that case . . . oof!”

The latter came as Shira’s boot connected with his groin. As she kicked, the half-Elf rolled away from pitchfork and made a grab for the curled up farmer’s spear. A row of pointy tines blocked her path, so Shira backed quickly to gain some ground. In the hayloft, Pitchfork had the advantage of reach. She, on the other hand, possessed experience and guile. Crouching low to better defend herself, the huntress drew her belt dagger in a reversed grip.

Shira bobbed and weaved, like an animal, as she sought an opening. Pitchfork kept stabbing at her, short and slow, not in any way professional. A short time later, the opening presented itself. As Pitchfork lunged, she batted the weapon away with her dagger, stepping in, past the tines. Her balled fist led the way once she was in reach. The punch landed in the pit of his stomach, doubling his over. Shira fluidly flipped the dagger and brought the pommel down hard against the base of his spine.

One assailant down, the half-Elf turned back to the first. She scooped up his spear and leveled the tip, one handed, a finger-breadth from his throat. “On second thought, I think I’ll stay a while,” she explained, “At least until my job is done . . . unless you wish to keep disagreeing . . .”

After he shook his head, Shira withdrew and let the farmer up. She nodded toward Pitchfork. “Take his home. You can get your stuff here in an hour, outside the barn.” She’d been tempted to make it the tavern, public humiliation, but general laziness and the effort to juggle two spear and a pitchfork that far dissuaded her from that option. The huntress followed her erstwhile attackers down to the first floor and outside. As she watched them leave, she looked for a water trough to wash off in, and resolved to sleep somewhere else every night she had to stay.

An hour later, Shira strode up to the tavern, clean and well rested. She’d checked her gear, looked over the fletchings, and sharpened her spear, all she could do to prepare. As she approached, a familiar, and small, group of the town’s eldest was already gathered outside the only public building. She glanced at the sky before greeting them.

“Morning, grandfathers . . . a pleasant day to you, though I’d move inside by midday,” she suggested, “looks like rain around then.” After a chorus of nods, half-smiles, and other wordless assent, she continued. “Could one of you point me toward Marik’s stead? I’m sure he’d like me to get started here . . .”

A moment later, directions in mind, Shira headed north of the village. The elders had been most helpful, she thought, pleased that they’d refrained from making any lewd or suggestive comments. Rather than find Marik, the huntress simply began stalking the land around his home on her own. While it would help to know where the loss occurred, Shira still wasn’t fully convinced of the attack. Even if the attack was real, the ground around the area would be too muddled to use. Sheep tracks, from the last couple days, had probably already obscured any clear signs. However, pacing the edges of the fields he apparently used may provide her with some clues. Such as the muddy depression between two low bushes.

She knelt to look at the minor trail. The close inspection revealed some sign of scaling, rows of them, from the looks of things. Possibly a tail. Probably. The other option was a belly, but the scale pattern in the soil looked young. Assuming a dragon, that was. The Marches were known for many bizarre creatures, and reptilians of various sizes. It could be one of those. Even so, the track was worth investigating. If it wasn’t a dragon, it could be a beast the locals mistook for one, she wasn’t sure how common either animal was in the area. Back home, Shira’d lean toward one of the rare dragons left in the west.

Either way, the half-Elf decided to be more careful. She rose from her crouch, held the spear point to the front, and started into the brush along the minimal trail. Until it rested, the creature had the advantage, a couple hours head start and it could make its own way. She took her time following it. If the villagers were right, it wouldn’t go far. And why should it leave? Flocks of easy prey and abundant water weren’t exactly common in the Marches.

About an hour later, she came to a wide swift stream. The trail ended on the bank. Shira knelt to take a quick drink before continuing. Using her spear for stability, she crossed the tributary with only a few minor slips and no serious bruises. A short time later, she picked up the trail again, heading north toward the wall of mountains around the valley.

Eventually, after climbing well into the peaks surrounding the settled land, she picked up tracks that were fairly recent. Thus encouraged, she increased her pace. The huntress made use of all the skills she’d learned from her uncle to keep from startling her prey. After a couple dozen yards, she froze. There’d been a voice, faint, but definitely male. It was too soft to hear clearly over the breeze, trees and other forest sounds, but she’d sworn she’d heard it. Almost straight ahead too. Her Elven ears perked up at a soft growl. that too sounded distant, but not too far off. There was the voice again. Barely audible, but there. By the cadence, the person was safe. Who, or what . . . it came from the direction the tracks were headed. Maybe the villagers were right and there was an Elf working the dragons.

Keeping low, her spear haft clutched tight in both hands, she crept forward. Unfamiliar as she was with the local flora and terrain, Shira managed to find a good pace. As silently as possible, she snuck toward the sound of the voice. That sound, muted, returned from time to time. She couldn’t make out any words, still, but the tone was clear. She’d heard it before in village after village, mothers talking to babies, soothing them. Usually the sound was answered by coos and other meaningless noises. This was answered by low reptilian growls and rumbles.

Four more trees and she began to make out words.

“Good boy . . . treat . . . good dragon . . .”

Shira paused and listened to the snatches of conversation carried by the wind. As she listened, the huntress realized that the words she heard were a common Marches dialect. She’d been hearing it off and on for days. It was a version of her own native eastern Cities tongue. the accent and tone didn’t sound like an Elf, or like she’d imagined an Elf would sound like. It sounded Human, almost identical to the villagers.

She crept closer, realizing that the man, and dragon, could still be very dangerous. With that thought, she stopped abruptly. For that moment she held still. Shira focused on the feel of the breeze against her. Not the feel, the sensation. More the direction it came from. She’d forgotten to be certain she was downwind. The Human wouldn’t sense her, but the dragon might.

An hour’s worth of heartbeats later, she breathed a sigh of relief and looked up toward the sun. Only a minute or so had passed and the breeze was cutting across her path. She wasn’t downwind, but it was close enough.

Shira started working her was forward again, slowly and carefully. The Human sounded non-threatening, so far as she could tell. She didn’t know enough about dragons to gauge them, though. Despite supported sightings, there hadn’t been a confirmed one in the Cities in her lifetime. At least not in her region. The huntress decided to treat it like a dog, for now, wary enough to think of them as particularly nasty wildcats if necessary. As these thoughts ran through her head, she came to a break in the vegetation. It seemed like a good spot to observe without being seen.

She sat on her haunches and peered through the foliage, hoping to spot the dragon or its mysterious handler. A small tremor ran down her spine as she spotted all three of them not more than six steps into a clearing. Yes, she recounted . . . one man, two dragons . . .

That changed everything.

A lone dragon, with surprise, she figured she could bring down with a careful eye shot. Tricky, but possible. Two, though, well, she couldn’t line up and shoot fast enough, while remaining accurate. Shira silently sighed, the veteran of scores of hunts. There was nothing for it, either admit defeat or . . . try to be a people person for once.

At least the spoor implied that this Human was a loner, could be a help or a hindrance. She gathered up a bit of courage, rose, and stepped baldly into the small clearing, her hands out and to the side.

Reading the man’s shocked eyes, Shira fervently hoped and prayed that she looked non-threatening, despite her gear. Both dragons spun and growled that instant she came out. Sweat beaded on her brow as she fought the instinctual urge to grab her bow or run. Her spear was back in the trees. She could feel a line of sweat running down her back even as the Human recovered a little and called both beasts to heel.

Up close, she noticed little details in that moment. For one thing, he looked younger that she’d thought, maybe thirty years at the most. And his left arm hung limp, broken, she thought. He was . . . “I’m sorry, what was that,” she said, realizing she’d missed something.

“I said . . .who are you? You must be from the village, we don’t get wanderers here,” the Human repeated, “but I know all the villagers, at least all the ones your age or older.” His hand, Shira noticed, was barely restraining the dragons. And her hunter’s eye for detail noted that he bore no weapons either, not ever an eating knife.

“I’m a traveler, passing through,” she said quickly, “but the villagers told me about this Elf haunting their valley with his dragon, terrorizing the place. I decided to see if I could help . . . in return for supplies.” No, she wasn’t going to pretend to be charitable. “I’m guessing you’re the ‘Elf’ and the villagers can’t count,” she added, with what she hoped was a disarming smile, forced as it was.

Despite his attempt to be serious, the man actually broke a smile and even chuckled. The dragons both whimpered, whined, but sat down and stopped growling. “I guess I should be happy you didn’t shoot first,” he said softly, his tone picking up volume to add, “Obviously, I’m no Elf. But, I did pick up enough of their language to tame Oric and Lessial here.”

She ignored the fact that he didn’t say where. “Shira, a hunter,” she said, changing the subject, “Why don’t you go down to the village? They probably would welcome two tame dragons . . . from what I hear bandit and wolf raids are common around here.”

“You’d think so . . ., Aidin, hermit,” he said, “But the Marches, well, most everyone around here looks unkindly on anything related to Elves. Too many centuries of raids out of Darkel, even this far west.”

From his tone, Shira gathered he’d had first hand experience with the raids. “Hermit? Where’s a hermit learn to speak Elf?” she asked.

“My old master, before he died,” Aidin explained, “Learned it from his master so he could read the books . . .” He trailed off and grew silent. Even so, she understood. And now she knew why he hadn’t gone to the village. A shaman . . . especially one taught from Elven books . . . he might’ve stood a chance to make a civilized living in the west. “How long have you been here? The villagers said they’d only had five and ten years of trouble,” she said.

Aidin shrugged, “Master died, a quarter mile north of here, over twenty years ago. I moved here, a short time later. The dragons came a little over ten years back . . . they practically wiped out the forest creatures before I found out and calmed them down. They were fine then, until the village started growing.” He almost instantly sagged then, tired she thought. Somewhat at ease, Shira sat on her haunches, silently inviting him to sit too.

He took the invitation with a grateful look, favouring his limp arm, and sighed. “There were lots of people coming from the east too, I think that’s what drove the dragons,” he said, spewing out words, “There were stories about strange things out east, but that’s nothing new.” Shira sat silent, letting the Human continue. She understood. Days, months, without Human contact and she’d talk like a raging river too. “These sounded familiar though,” Aidin continued, “Like something my master’d said. Trees, forests, that had been silent suddenly haunted. Mysterious, invisible beasts in them. An odd sense of fear from the trees.”

The huntress caught her breath, concern for his arm forgotten. Her eyes widened slightly, she leaned forward.

He caught the look and paused. For long moments, Aidin’s eyes played over her, taking in everything. Then he sighed, “You know of them . . . don’t you? You’re not from the east, so they must be appearing in the west now.”

Shira nodded, “Two, three months ago. My uncle and I were hunting a ‘haunted’ forest, for the locals. The exact same thing, feeling, was there.” But Dhom had been affected more than she had. the huntress was still working out why. So far, she’d decided on time or her Elf blood, not that she’d mention the latter here. She certainly wasn’t suicidal.

The sorcerer wrapped an arm around his knees and looked at his dragons for a while. “I don’t imagine you know what’s out there,” he asked, his tone matching the words.

“Only that the feeling seemed to come from a small group in the middle,” she said, “like they were the spring. I don’t think the beast existed either, I think . . . maybe . . . it felt, like the trees in that grove.” Shira refused to voice all of her thoughts and conclusions just yet. They were too strange to be taken as truth.

“That fits,” he said, closing his eyes, “I’ve listened to dozens of stories, bits and pieces. Following the tracks, I guess. All together, they match up with your’s. Not many made it close enough to the center, though. I’ve only heard . . . guesses, about what the source was.” A note entered his voice, Shira thought he might be impressed. Even this far into the Marches, she doubted half-breeds were common. Maybe along the edge of Darkel, if they weren’t slaughtered as babes, she thought. Still, best not to go down that path.

“So. The dragons came west,” she changed the subject, “and you decided to terrorize the village instead of earning your keep?” She knew that wasn’t true. A few sheep each month wouldn’t feed two dragons, much less a man too.

He immediately shook his head indignantly. “No, I . . . the villagers never saw me,” he explained, “a couple years ago they started leaving out food for the dragons.”

Shira smiled, “I know. But a villager saw someone, maybe you. He thought it was an Elf.”

“That would explain the offerings,” Aidin mused, “I guess it could have been me . . . I don’t think anyone else could get close to the dragons, at least not without me.”

“Unless there’s another sorcerer about?”

She was somewhat gratified to see Aidin surprised. “No, not all of us have the same knowledge,” he said, after recovering. His eyes looked askance at her, though.

The huntress shook her head. “A young man, alone, in this region,” she explained, “and unarmed, what else could you be?”

Aidin actually grinned, “I guess so . . . where do we go now?”

Shira shook her head slowly, “Honestly, I’m not sure. I was paid to drive out an Elf sorcerer and a dragon. I’ve never lost a job yet. You . . . will probably get the same response anywhere in the Marches, or so I’d guess.”

“Probably, and I’ll have to find a new home,” he added, “But I’m in a cave now.”

“And I’ll need proof that the dragon’s gone.”

The sorcerer thought for a while. Shira, finding that she liked the young man, tied to help, but even all the tricks and cons she’d seen in the last few decades weren’t working in this situation. There’d been dozens of fake dragons in the Cities, most of these relied on a lack of reliable witnesses. And all were really poorly done, so far as she could remember. Aidin looked up hopefully after she’d rejected her twelfth idea.

“I might be able . . . if I can find the right herbs and can prepare,” he said with a tentative note in his voice, “I might be able to convince a dragon spirit to appear and be ‘killed’ where the villagers can see it.”

Shira looked askance at him, “Really?”

“It could work,” he continued, getting more excited, “If I can convince the spirit, if I can find one, it could work. I could convince it to only appear for a short time . . . enough to be shot.”

“And a body?”

“It would vanish,” he said, “but they don’t know that dragon corpses don’t vanish.”

“Some might,” she shot back, considering the worst possible case, “but I can make up a reason that this one does . . . like a difference between black bears and grizzlies.”

The young man nodded thoughtfully. “Could work than I’ll move north with the dragons,” he said, “try to find an empty valley we can live in, there should be some, somewhere. This area’s not really covered with towns, yet.”

Shira looked up at the sky and gauged the sun. “It’s getting late. Can you be ready by midday tomorrow? I’ll come into the trees and ‘lure’ the dragon into the open, the fields,” she suggested. That should produce a nice public place, easily seen and good for viewing by the villagers. It’s what a fake showman with a ‘dragon’ might do back home.

“I think I can do that, if I can find two or three more components to appease the spirit,” Aidin agreed, “I’d think there should be one around here, but I don’t want to try forcing it to serve . . . I won’t take that path.”

Even though she didn’t understand, the huntress accepted that this was important and nodded. “Agreed. Midday, then, the villagers will be coming in from the fields. Just be sure you aren’t spotted.”

She rose and left him mulling over his task. Rather than meandering, Shira went straight back to the village, easily acting like a hunter weary from a day’s work. Back among people, she refused all contact except to say the day had yielded no game, though she was hopeful. As the huntress ate and listened to a plethora of local stories, she mused over the best way to play out the next day. If it went off right, she thought, she could leave in good conscience, supplies for a week and without harming an innocent man or his pets. The deal, she mused, after all, had been to solve their problem. If Aidin left the area, that definitely solved the problem.

Satisfied that her honor would still be intact, the half-Elf carefully left the tavern to find her residence for the night. She chose a barn belonging to one of Marik’s neighbors, openly determined to pick up the trail near there in the morning. She still didn’t trust the herdsman, though, so wouldn’t stay with him, and set up some noise makers, rocks on a line, near the only ladder to the loft, to avoid a repeat of the last morning.

By midmorning, Shira’d been in the trees for several hours. She found Aidin and discovered that he’d come up short in his preparations. An hour was lost in the fruitless search for an herb that would help but was apparently out of season. Despite the setback, they decided to proceed. At worst, she’d have to flee the village, which the huntress felt she could manage. Better that than staying another day and accidentally revealing her heritage. If that happened, not only would she not get paid, but would probably be run out of town, if she was lucky. Their decision made, Shira walked the woods for another hour while the sorcerer cast his net for an appropriate spirit.

She ran back toward the village once the hour was up. They’d picked a spot where she’d leave the trees, close to the village. She just hoped Aidin was watching . . . she’d never relied on a partner since Dhom broke down.

Forcibly shoving those memories away, Shira glanced over her shoulder. She spotted a dark shape and began yelling, “Dragon!” over and over until a small crowd gathered in the fields. She kept up the yells until it looked like a large enough group of onlookers, seemed enough that she guessed the dragon looked real.

After a good distance, Shira spun and fluidly dropped to a knee while nocking an arrow. A second later, the wooden dart streaked toward the dragon. As she instantly prepared a second shot, the huntress noted a faint unreality around the edges of the beast. Hopefully the villagers were too far away to notice. By then, she’d shot her second and third arrows, all clattered off the creature’s ‘hide.’ It was, she had to admit, an impressive show so far. The dragon reared up, spouting flame from its lips, just barely missing her as she rolled. A couple more of those and some half-hearted shots and it would be time for the finale. She was a bit surprised to actually feel some of her hair shrivel up form the heat. Not only that, but she’d even broken a sweat in the mock fight.

There, about half a dozen good arrows spent, the villagers had gotten a show, their money’s worth. Shira rolled to one knee out of range of the dragon’s breath. She reached back over her shoulder to draw the showstopper. The ancient heirloom of her family came smoothly from the quiver and practically flew to her bow. She was always amazed by its eagerness, projecting her own emotion onto the length of smooth polished wood. The half-Elf drew back the string to her ear as the world seemed to slow down. The voices of the villagers vanished, the dragon’s cry a dull muted roar, its charge slow and awkward.

She sighted along the arrow’s shaft, inhaled, drew the tip in line with the dragon’s eye.

Releasing her breath, she also released the string.

With an elongated twang, the ancient arrow streaked through the air.

Her eyes tracked the bolt as it flew true. The path pushing air out of the way

The dragon charged toward the shaft, breathed at it . . . to no avail.

Shira smiled as the flameproof arrow struck the beast in the eye, piercing its brain.

An instant later, the best vanished and the bolt dropped to the ground.

She sat, watching, breathing, barely hearing the shouts of joy coming from the villagers. Somehow, amidst a series of half-felt claps of congratulations and thanks, Shira found herself surrounded by mugs in the tavern. Absently, she checked, reassuring herself that all seven arrows, especially her favourite, were back.

The next day, to the congratulations of the village, Shira set off on her way once more, with payment on hand. At the pass out of the valley, the half-Elf turned to look back and salute Aidin, wherever he was. With that, she turned her back on the small valley to continue her travels.

A day later, one of the real dragons was caught and killed at the cost of several village men. Lacking recourse to a lord, a few villagers came together to track their supposed liberator, despite her two day head start.