Quayam Srae, his wife Gristel Virage, and their friend Thristen Alomere have worked together on Clarus since 2461. In 2476, they went to the Feras together, as described in The Captive and the Clowns. In 2481, after returning from a long trip that spanned half a dozen Open Worlds along with Thristen's son Travis and Quayam and Gristel's daughter Romayne, they returned to Clarus and started working for the Ursian government.
At that time, Ursia was suffering from an embargo on iron trade across its northern borders, and down the navigable sea corridors to the north. This embargo was placed upon Ursia by Endor, Ursia's large, democratic neighbor. Endor itself consists of two parts, the island of Endromis, and the mainland province of Anon. Thristen travels to Endromis, the seat of the Endan government, as escort to an Ursian Emmissary. There he hears the Endan complaints against Ursian trading practices first-hand. Quayam duels with Anoni rebels, whose cause for rebellion against the Endan government is what they perceive as inadequate representation of Anoni citizens in the Endan congress.
The Ursian government invites Quayam, Gristel, and Thristen to look into building a road across the Western Outlands, so as to bring iron from the Star Mountains into Varay, and so into Ursia without passing through Endor or Endan-controlled waters. They take up the challange. We describe their efforts in the The Green Horn Tavern diary.
They spend a year flying back and forth across the Western Outlands on their hipogriffs, meeting black orcs, giants, elves, gnolls, and a retired hero who runs a tavern in the Borderlands. Thristen acquires an orc girlfriend called Zak, a member of the dancing troop called the Herringbones. Zak turns out to be an unwilling spy for the King of Garaz. They form a partnership with the god Aries, formerly known as So-Mean, Neomas, and Hoi-Sin. Aries acts as their liason with the Princes of Hell on Olympia, whose secret agreement is essential to the success of the Iron Road.
At the end of their year of negotiating and exploring, Aries, Quayam, Gristel, and Thristen reach agreement with the Princes of Hell, the King of Mokul, the King of the Giants, Falmut Grossman of the Green Tavern, and the Elves of Eriba. Their road will pass out of Morden and into the Bordelands, past the Green Horn Tavern and into the Outlands. It will go south across Mokul to the Long Hills. From the base of the long hills, the road will follow the path of an ancient stone highway over the hills to the Long Swamp. At the edge of the Long Swamp, the road will become a ferry route across the swamp, and so bring travellers to the Old Bridge on the border of Varay.
From the Green Horn Tavern to the Old Bridge is roughly 300 km as the hippogriff flies. The road will be about 400 km long. The first 50 km of the road, from the Green Horn Tavern to Mokul City, already exists. While in the Borderlands, the road will be under the protection of Falmut Grossman of the Green Horn Tavern. While in Mokul, the road will be under the protection of Trackandslay, the black-orc King of Mokul. The 100 km from Mokul City to the base of the Old Hills will be made by Mokul. The Giants of the Northern Long Hills will clear the ancient highway, and protect its 150 km from attack. The elves of Eriba will protect the barges that pass over 100 km of swamp to the Old Bridge from the Swamp Monsters and various other dangerous denizens of the swamp. But Quayam, Gristel, and Thristen will organise and pay for the construction of the barges and the clearing of a path for them through the swamp.
All the parties along the road expect to be paid for their labor and police-work. The Reconciliation Treaty orders the Princes of Hell to stop all trade between the inhabitants of the Outlands and the Homelands. So payment to Trackandslay, the Giant King, Falmut Grossman, and Eriba, must either be secret or take the form of services. When the payment is secret, Quayam, Gristel, and Thristen plan to fly sacks of gold coins into the Outlands on their hippogriffs, and so pay secretly in cash.
We resume the story of the road on the sixteenth of November 2482. Quayam, Gristel, and Thristen are staying in Mokul Castle as guests of Trackandslay. They left their hippogriffs in the Loud Lady Lodge in Kiali and rode rented horses from Kiali to the Green Horn Tavern, and then to Mokul. Falmut Grossman has agreed to the road, and Trackandslay also. The night before they celebrated. The next morning finds them in high spirits.
It is the sixteenth of November. The sun rises in to a clear Autumn sky. Quayam, Thristen, and Gristel sit with Trackandslay, the King of Mokul, in a garden of rocks and evergreen shrubs. They sit in carved, hardwood chairs around a brazier of bright coals. The chairs are a little too large for the comfort of Quayam, Gristel, and Thristen, but they do their best to relax and enjoy the bright day, the warmth of the brazier, and their conversation with Trackandslay.
King Trackandslay is a black orc. He is large enough for his chair, but he does not recline against its carved and polished back, nor stretch out his legs. He sits with his hands upon his knees, his back straight, his hed erect.
"We would prefer you to pay us a duty upon goods you transport along the road," Trackandslay says. He looks down at Quayam. He is speaking Latin. It is his first language, as it is Quayam's first language. "I propose that you pay us one kilogram of gold for every ten thousand kilograms of goods you transport."
Trackandslay closes his eyes for a few seconds. The gold caps upon his tusks shine in the sunlight. When he opens his eyes again, he is staring at the brazier. "If one million kilograms of goods pass along the road in one year, you will pay us one hundred kilograms of gold."
Gristel nods. "That is five grams of gold for each of your keshi."
The word keshi is the polite word among black-orcs for what people normally call an orc, or to be more specific, a common orc. Zak is of the keshi. Trackandslay is of the karazi.
Trackandslay stares down at Gristel. "It may be so," he says.
"Your tax must be around fifty grams of gold per keshi," she says, "So you would get ten percent more for the road."
Trackandslay stares at the brazier and closes his eyes again. High up, in the clear blue sky, Quayam sees a wyvern flying west. He does not point out the wyvern to his sapien colleagues, because he knows that they will be unable to tell it from an eagle. He watches the wyvern's black wings beating until it comes too close to the sun to see.
"We will give a share of the gold to Dag and Gutak," Trackandslay says. "We will negotiate a settlement with them myself."
"Thank you," Thristen says.
Trackandslay looks down at Thristen. "The road from Falmut Grossman's village to this city is already laid down. We will make the road from here to the Old Hills. This new road will be one hundred kilometers long. We will clear the path of trees and vegetation. We will bridge the streams and rivers with hardwood. We will fill swamps with sand and gravel. We will dig ditches to keep the rain from pooling upon the road. This we will do for one hundred kilograms of gold."
"What will the road surface be?" Thristen says.
"Packed dirt whenever possible," Trackandslay says. He closes his eyes and turns his head away for a second. "We will use rock when we can, and sand. If there is gravel we can bring to the road, we will bring it. But most of the road will be packed earth."
"When can you start work?"
"We will survey the road in the spring. In the summer, we will fight the summer campaign. If we succeed in ending the campaign before the weather turns cold..." He looks up at the sky and squints at the sun. "Which we did not succeed in this year. But if we succeed next year, we will be able to commence work upon clearing the road in the late summer."
"We wish you luck in the campaign," Thristen says. "If there is anything we can do to help, please let us know."
Trackandslay stares at Thristen. "No, there is nothing you can do."
"Nevertheless," Quayam says, "Let us know if there is something we can do."
A sapien man, one of Trackandslay's slaves, wearing a padded jacket and trousers, sets down a hammered copper tray upon a folding stand. Upon the tray is a silver teapot and four thick-walled glasses. Sugar cubes are piled in a brown glass bowl.
The slave stands beside the tray. Trackandslay looks at the slave and motions with his hand. The slave turns and walks away.
Trackandslay reaches out and pours himself a cup of tea. He sets it upon the arm of his chair. "You can bring us some tea from Pakesh," he says. "Some new flavors would entertain us." He takes three lumps of sugar from the bowl, one after the other, and places them in his tea. "And you can help us by bringing us fifty kilograms of gold in the spring, as an advance payment on the work we will do."
"We will do that," Quayam says.
Thristen stands up and pours himself a cup of tea. "I would like to see your engineers building the road."
"You may come and visit, as my guests," Trackandslay says, "at any time. My engineers will be glad to show you their work. They take pride in it."
Thristen sits down. "Good. I'm sure we will learn something about road-building from them."
"Perhaps," Trackandslay says.
"I'm scared," Zak says. "I know something I am not supposed to know. Something terrible is going to happen. If I tell you about it, you will do something, and Orbelastican will know that I have betrayed him. If I don't do anything, other people will know that I was part of this terrible thing."
Thristen is sitting in his room in the guest quarters of Mokul Castle, listening to Zak through a space bridge. Zak is in Gutak, over two hundred kilometers away by hippogriff, or four hundred kilometers by the track that serves as a road from Mokul to Dag and then Gutak, around the Old Hills. From his previous conversations with Zak, he knows that Orbelastican is the King of Garaz. He also learned from Zak that the king's son is named Scholasticon, whom he, Quayam, and Gristel faced in combat less than two years earlier, far away in the mountains to the south of Ursia.
"If you don't want to tell me, you don't have to."
"I don't know what to do," Zak says. "All I agreed to do was spy for the King. I never wanted to be part of anything else. But I wanted to save my father from exile."
"Why would Orbelastican exile your father?"
"My father killed a man," she says. Her voice comes faintly through the bridge, and Thristen has to breath quietly to hear and understand her. His orcish is fluent, but Zak's rapid, nervous sentences are still hard for him to understand. "It was self-defence, but the karazi said otherwise. Orbelastican has my father's order of exile, but he has not signed it yet. He told me he would not sign it if I did a good job for him, spying on people all over the world."
Despite Thristen's stories about the world outside the Western Outlands, Zak still refers to them as "the entire world".
"Are you there?" Zak says.
"Yes, I'm here."
"I just wanted to have fun with you, Thristen. Now it's all getting serious. I don't like it, and I'm scared. I just want to travel and dance. I don't want to keep secrets. I don't want to..."
"Well," Thristen says.
"I have to go," Zak says. "I'll talk later."
And she's gone.
Thristen, Quayam, and Gristel take turns listening at their bridges all night, in case she calls back. Gristel is sure Zak is in trouble. "She's not one to panic." But it is not until nine the next morning, the 17th November 2482, that she calls back. All three of them are eating breakfast in the Guest Dining Room. They gather around the bridge so that they can all hear.
"Gristel and Quayam are here too," Thristen says.
"If I tell you what I know," Zak says, "My life will certainly be in danger. My father will be in danger. But maybe you will protect me and help my father. If I don't tell you what I know, my life might be in danger. I'm not sure. But I will have no-one to protect me."
"I will protect you," Thristen says.
"I know you can protect me," Zak says. "But I don't want to give up my life. I have a job now. I have money. I send money home to my Dad. What am I going to do if I need you to protect me? What if we don't want to be together any more? And how am I going to earn a living?"
"We can pay you," Thristen says.
"Pay me for what?" Zak says. "I'm a dancer. Are you going to pay me to dance every night?"
Quayam is leaning close to the bridge, his brow furrowed. He is doing his best to understand Zak. Now he smiles and speaks into the bridge. "I will!" he says.
"Quayam will pay you to dance every night," Thristen says.
Zak is quiet for a while. "I need enough money to keep me fed for a year, and I need a safe place to hide."
"Okay," Thristen says, "You can hide at the Green Horn Tavern. Falmut will protect you as long as you are there. I will let it be known that anyone who hurts you will have me to answer to, now and forever, no matter whether you and I are lovers or not."
They wait for a few seconds. Quayam whispers in Gristel's ear, telling her what Zak and Thristen have been saying. She says, "And what about the money?"
Thristen over-hears and says to Zak, "How much money do you need?"
"Can you give me a hundred gold pieces?"
"No problem," Thristen says.
"And I think you will have to come and get me," Zak says.
"I would love to come and get you, baby," Thristen says.
"And what about my father?" Zak says.
"He can come and live in the Green Horn Tavern too. You can pay for him out of the money we give you. One hundred gold pieces will keep you both going for at least a year."
Zak is silent. Quayam whispers to Gristel.
"Okay," Zak says.
"In exchange," Quayam says, "You tell your secret."
Zak is silent. "Do we have a deal?" Thristen says.
"Yes," Zak says.
And she tells them her secret. She speaks quickly and quietly into the space bridge. Thristen interrupts her a few times, because he cannot understand her. Quayam leans close and tries to understand also, but he shakes his head whenever Gristel asks him to translate.
Gristel stands up and walks around the dining table to her seat. She leans over the table and takes the lid off the tureen of breakfast soup. There is a small candle burning under the tureen, so the soup is still hot. She pours a ladel of the soup into her bowl and sits down. The soup contains small, pounded cubes of mutton, dumplings, onions, several herbs, paprika, and plenty of salt and pepper. It's not what Gristel is used to in the morning, but she likes it. Trackandslay's sapien slaves made it, but they tell her that it is the sort of thing orcs like to eat in the morning.
As she is finishing her bowl of soup, she hears Zak say, "That's all, they're waiting. Have to go."
Quayam and Thristen stare at one another. No further sound comes from the bridge.
"Well?" Gristel says.
"I think we're going to need to summon some griffs," Quayam says.
Gristel's hippogriff banks around in a wide bend. Down past the creature's right wing-tip she sees the house where she grew up, set in its lawn and hay fields. The sun in the west flashes off the pond where she and her sisters used to swim and fish.
The wind whistles around her ears. All day, it has been blowing fast from the south-east. It has taken them six hours to fly the 300 km from Mokul to Varay, riding the fastest griffs Three Aces had available at short notice.
Her griff drops sharply. She feels her down-straps holding her in the saddle, and her stomach rises. She has not eaten since breakfast. Her hands are numb, and she feels chilled to the bone from the relentless cold of the high, Autumn air. Her bottom is sore from sitting in the saddle, and her back is stiff from leaning into the wind. Another gust of air forces the griff up. The white and gray feathers all along the front of its wings ruffle and hiss. It straightens its path, but Gristel tugs on the reins and squeezes with her right leg. The great bird banks to the right, turning more shaprly until she releases the reins again.
Behind Gristel are Quayam and Thristen on their own griffs.
Gristel rubs her flying cap on her head and wonders how many minutes she still has to wait before she lowers her cold, aching body into a tub of hot water.
An hour later, Gristel sits at her parent's kitchen table, a green towel wrapped around her body. She holds a cup of hot chocolate in her hands. Quayam is playing cards with her mother. Her father is reading the newspaper. The maid is reading a book and drinking a cup of tea.
"What happened to your nice brown-and-white hippogriff?" Dominican says to Quayam.
Quayam puts a card down on the table. "It's in Kiali. We had to rent some because we were in a hurry."
Dominican picks up the card that Quayam put down. She slides it in among her own and stares at them.
"You have to put down a set with that card in," Quayam says.
"I know, my dear boy," Dominican says, "Be patient."
From behind his paper, Gashley says, "He's twice your age, Darling."
"But he acts like a boy," Dominican says.
Thristen walks in. His hair is wet, but he is dressed. He pulls a chair out form the table and sits down. Gashley lowers his paper and nods.
Thristen puts his hands on the table, looks at Gashley and says, "So, what do you know about a Brotherhood that likes to kill orcs?"
Gashley puts his paper down on the table. "Sounds like the Brotherhood of Light to me."
"Brotherhood of Light?" Gristel says. She laughs.
Gashley looks at Gristel. "What's so funny? Are you so worldly that the battle between Light and Dark is funny to you now?"
Gristel puts her hot chocolate on the table and sits up in her seat. "What battle between light and dark are you talking about Dad? The one between us and the orcs? The one that has been over for five hundred years? Is that the one?"
Gashley stares at the table.
"Sweatheart," Dominican says, "You know I don't like it when you talk to your father like that."
The maid stands up. She holds her book in one hand, with the teacup and saucer balanced on top, and slides her chair under the table. "I'll see to the guest rooms, Maam."
Gashley looks up at her. "Very good, Felicity."
Felicity leaves the kitchen. When the rattling of her teacup on its saucer is inaudible, Gashley looks at Thristen and says, "The Brotherhood of Light is a knightly order founded several centuries ago in Endromis. Twenty-five years ago, they founded a lodge here in Varay."
"A lodge?" Gristel says.
Gashley turns to his daughter. "An estate owned by the Order. This one is not far from here, in Coclea, up in the hills to the north-east."
"What do they do?" Thristen says.
Dominican puts her cards on the table. Quayam is still holding his, but he is not looking at them.
"They train knights, mostly."
"What do you mean, 'mostly'?" Gristel says.
"Where do the knights come from?" Thristen says.
"I think they are mostly Varayan," Gashley says.
"Halbarad Ganning's son joined them," Dominican says, "Nice young man. They hardly see him now. He's up in the hills there, living in with the rest of them."
"They give up their right to vote," Gashley says, "because they quit the Varayan Armed Forces and train only with the knights."
"Who do they fight?" Thristen says.
"It's not so much who they fight now, it's who they are preparing to fight." Gashley picks up his paper, folds it once, and puts it back on the table. "I heard the Master of the Lange speak in Ankle. He argued that the orcs are growing strong in the Outlands, while we are growing weak. One day, they will invade us. It may be years from now, or centuries, but sooner or later, they will attack us again, and they will enslave and slaughter us as they did before."
Gristel puts her hands on the table. "They're getting ready to fight the orcs?"
"They want to be ready, yes," Gashley says.
"So they practice a bit by going across the border and killing women and children?"
Everyone around the table stares at Gashley. He frowns, picks up his paper, puts it down again, and looks at Gristel. "They kill orcs, Gristel. Orcs are hellspawn. They came from hell, and they were bread for war. You may not remember, but Varay does."
Gristel stands up and waves her hand at her father. "Oh come on! You remember? You don't remember, Dad. Nobody remembers. The orcs don't even remember. What do you mean, they're not women and children? Are you saying orcs don't have children, is that what you're saying? How do you think they reproduce? In vats?"
Quayam, Thristen, and Dominican watch Gristel. Gashley pushes his paper back and forth on the table.
"Gristel, if you speak to your father like that again, you won't get any dessert."
Gashley holds up his hand. "It's allright, darling, I can look after myself." He faces Gristel. "They are hellspawn. Read the history books. They came from darkness. I'm not saying they are evil. I'm saying that there are a lot of people who think they're evil, and I can understand why they do."
"I see," Gristel says, "So if this Brotherhood of Assholes goes sneaking across the Borderlands and slits a few baby-orc throats, you would not try to stop them."
"No, I would not."
Gristel takes a deep breath and sits down. "You know, Dad. Thristen has a girlfriend."
Gashley looks up at Thristen. "You do? Congratulations."
"She's an orc, Dad," Gristel says, "Her name is Zak, and she's an orc woman."
There is silence around the table. They hear footsteps approaching the back door. It opens, and in walks an elderly man with muddy boots and over-alls. In his hands are some large, dirt-covered potatoes. "Here you are, Maam," he says, "That's the last of them, but as I always used to says to my missus, the last of em's the bestest."
"What do you have written down there?" Gristel says. She is leaning over Quayam's shoulder in the living room. Thristen is tending the fire. The fire draws the smell of roasting chicken and pototoes from the kitchen.
"The King of Gutak is Earthscorcher," Quayam reads from his notebook. "Zak says he's old. He has two daughters, Daybreak and Leafturner. Daybreak acts as his deputy, and will be Queen when he dies."
"Daybreak and Leafturner," Gristel says, "What's next."
"Earthscorcher has an adviser called Ellana Cavechi. She is a tall sapien woman. Zak does not know how old she is. But she is a spy of Garaz, Gutak's long-standing enemy."
"The name sounds Endan," Gristel says.
"Meanwhile, Zak is a spy of Garaz also," Quayam says, "She delivered a report by space bridge to the King of Garaz on 23rd October, describing what she read in Thristen's Executive Summary of our Iron Road project."
"With our permission," Thristen says. He leaves the fire and spreads a well-used and annotated map on the floor.
"Ellana Cavechi met Zak in Garaz on the night of the 15th November," Quayam says, "after a Herringbones performance. Ellana gave her a letter to deliver to a half-orc wearing a red hat who would be present after the Herringbones performance on the night of the 17th."
"Tonight," Gristel says.
"Yes," Quayam says. "Tonight they are performing at a village called Pitt in southern Gutak, close to the Borderlands."
"But Zak is not supposed to open the letter," Gristel says.
"No," Thristen says, "But she did."
"The letter," Quayam says, "was to an institution called The Brotherhood, which we now believe to be the Brotherhood of Light."
"Zak called them orc-killers," Thristen says, "They have been raiding Gutak and killing orc women and children."
"I remember that bit," Gristel says, "Didn't she tell you the full name of the Brotherhood?"
Quayam puts his notebook on his lap. "She was talking fast. We don't know how much she learned by word of mouth from Ellana Cavechi, and how much she learned from the letter. We don't know how much she knew already. She seemed to know that there were rumors about Earthscorcher trying to have Coldiron killed years ago."
"Okay," Gristel says, "Let's move on."
"The letter tells the Brotherhood that the Sword of Stellan," Quayam looks at Thristen, "Is that right?"
"Stellan, yes," Thristen says.
"The Sword of Whatever, which the Brotherhood wants to have for some reason, is locked in a chest in the mountain villa of a man called Coldiron. The letter gives directions to the villa. It's up in the northern foothills of the Iron Mountains, in the Outlands."
"Did she give us the exact directions?" Gristel says.
"No," Thristen says, and looks up at Gristel. "She was in a hurry, they were about to leave for Pitt. She told us what she could. It will be enough."
"The letter says that in exchange for the location of the Sword of Whatever, the Brotherhood of Orc-Killers must kill Coldiron and bring his head to Pitt, where they will show it to Ellana. After that, they will take Ellana with them back Varay."
"Coldiron, Zak tells us, is no common orc. He is Rackhammer's father."
"Rackhammer is the general of Gutak's army," Gristel says.
"Yes, he commands the armed forces. His father is Coldiron and his mother is Cloudmover. They live in a villa in the mountains. He is crippled from an attempt upon his life almost twenty years ago."
Thristen turns back to the fire and pokes it. "Tonight the Brotherhood will get the message. As early as tomorrow they may set out for Coldiron's villa to kill him."
"And we don't want that," Gristel says.
They ponder this question in silence for a while. In the kitchen, pots are clanking and plates are being put out on the table.
"It would be good for us to serve Rackhammer," Quayam says.
"And good to stop a bunch of self-righteous jerks killing a crippled orc," Gristel says.
"You sound self-righteous yourself," Thristen says.
"But the point is," Thristen says, "If we defend Coldiron, it will be obvious to Orbelastican in Garaz that she has betrayed him by reading the letter and telling us about it. So she will be in danger, and so will her father."
"So we get to the villa as soon as we can," Gristel says, "protect Coldiron, then get Zak out of Gutak."
Gristel looks up. Her mother stands in the kitchen doorway. "Dinner's ready."
Gashley enters the living room from another door. He stands and looks at everyone in the room. They look at him. He turns to Thristen. "Sir," he says, "I apologise for my comments about orcs. I retract them. Whether orcs are our enemies or not, I will do my best to respect them. I will presume they are innocent until they prove themselves guilty."
Thristen nods. "Apology accepted."
Gristel is walking towards her father. He turns to her. "I apologise to you, Gristel, for embarassing you in front of your friends."
She puts her arms around him and hugs him. "Thanks."
Gristel steps back from her father and holds both his hands in hers. "And how would you feel about Thristen's girlfriend spending the night?"
Before Gashley can reply, Dominican says, "Give the poor old general a rest, will you sweetheart? Come and have your supper."
"Do I still get dessert?" Gristel says.
"Yes, you still get dessert."
"Okay, that's good enough for me," Gristels says, "Let's go."
She walks towards the stable. It is mid-afternoon on the 18th of November. The wind has changed, blowing the morning's rain-clouds away to the north. Thristen and Quayam remain standing, staring at the southern horizon.
"I don't see any more clouds coming," Thristen says, "It doesn't feel like a storm wind."
The sun shines upon their faces. Quayam takes a pair of sunglasses out of his flying jacket. He unfolds them and places them over his eyes. He stares at the sky for a few seconds.
"We can run before it if it turns ugly."
Quayam turns and follows Gristel. Dominican walks out of the back of the house, fifty paces away across the lawn. Thristen waves to her and points at the stables. Dominican stands with a kitchen towel in her hand.
Gristel leads her griff out of the stable by its halter. There is a saddle tied across the griff's shoulders. It spreads its wings and squawks. Gristel is wearing a jacket, trousers, and cap, all made of sheepskin. Over her eyes she wears a pair of glass goggles. A leather strap holds the goggles to her cap. On her back is her longsword, longbow, and a quiver of arrows. In a case on the side of the griff are six javelins.
The griff crouches on the ground and raises its head. Gristel pulls down on the reins. It flaps its wings, blowing thousands of Autumn into the air around it. Gristel tugs hard on the reins and shouts.
The griff takes three steps forwards and crouches. Gristel walks around its head, put her foot in a styrrup beside its neck, and vaults into the saddle.
"Up! Up!" she cries.
The griff flexes its two muscular, taloned legs and leaps into the air. It beats its wings. Thristen shields his eyes from a blast of dust and leaves. The griff hovers for a moment, five meters up, beats its wings again, and rises another five meters. Thristen pulls his goggles down off his flying cap and over his eyes. When he looks up again, Gristel is thirty meters in the air, and her griff is starting to move forwards as well as upwards, with its wings beating almost once a second.
"Okay, I guess we're going," Thristen says. He pats his chest. "I have the map. I'll take the lead when we're up."
Quayam nods. There is a small, perforated brass locket around his neck. He lifts it to his mouth and shouts into it. "Quayam to Gristel! Confirm!"
After a few seconds, a faint voice answers out of the locket. "Gristel to Quayam. Acknowledge."
A loud squawk sounds from the stable, then a beating of wings. Dust and a few giant feathers come flying out of the stable door.
"Better get those two separated," Thristen says, "They don't get along."
Half an hour later, all three of them are flying a thousand meters above the hilltops thirty kilometers north of the Virage Estate. The wind blows hard and chill from the south. Thristen estimates the speed of the wind to be roughly seventy kilometers per hour. The griffs are pointed east, flying at about the same speed towards the mountains while the wind sweeps them sideways to the north.
Thristen looks down and sees a wide valley of pastures with a town in the middle. He has his map in his hand. He lifts his brass locket to his mouth.
"That must be Coclea. End!" he says.
Quayam and Gristel are flying off his right wingtip. He follows the valley up to the north-east, looking for a fortification on a hilltop that might be the estate of the Brotherhood of Light. He does not see one. Nor do Quayam and Gristel.
The foothills rise up below them. To the south-east, the Iron Mountains loom up, bare, rocky and snow-capped. The trees grow thinner on the hills below, until there are only occasional gnarled pines. The rocks and glades are covered with heather and brown grass. In the shadows there are traces of white snow.
They fly over a ridge. Its jagged rocky summit is only one hundred meters below the bellies of their griffs. In front of them, the land slopes downwards towards a distant plane. They are looking north from the northern tip of the Iron Mountains.
They fly north, allowing the wind to carry them. A few minutes later, they cross a line of obelisks running east-west. They have entered the Borderlands. The hills drop away below them. The first large trees appear, and soon the hills are covered with conifers.
Thristen takes out his map. He is looking for a river. He steers his griff to the west. Shortly before 5 pm he sees the river he is looking for and steers towards it. Gristel and Quayam follow him. Quayam is looking down into the forest when he sees a bright flash, and then another.
"There's something in the forest," he says, "I'm going to circle back and take another look. End!"
He turns back and steers his griff up-wind. His griff is flying south into the wind, but the wind is blowing it north. The result is that the griff is hovering over the forest, with Quayam looking down.
Quayam sees no sign of metal, but he is confident that the flash must have been metal shining in the sun. No water surface could have reflected the sun at that angle. The was over his left shoulder when he saw the flash, and the flash was before him and to the right.
Gristel, meanwhile, is circling above the forest with Thristen. She sees a weathered obelisk in a clearing. She points at it and Thristen nods. He has seen it too. They have just left the Borderlands and entered the Outlands.
Quayam turns away from his inspection and joins his comrades.
"I'm sure there are soldiers in there," Quayam says, "But they saw me and hid themselves. I should not have turned back. Now they know we are here. End!"
"So what? End!" Girstel says.
Thristen heads to the north-east, looking at his map and at the ground. Quayam and Gristel follow him.
"They might turn back. End!" Quayam says.
"No they won't," Gristel says, "They'll worry more, but they won't turn back. End!"
Thristen points ahead. "There!" he says, "That must be it."
Ahead of them, and two hundred meters below, they see a partially-ruined castle on a hilltop. A four-meter wall circles the hilltop, roughly two hundred meters across at its widest. At the north end of the wall is a ruined tower. The tower is twenty meters in diameter at the base, and still stands twenty meters high. The wall itself is crumbling in many places, but one quarter of it length, on the south side, is intact. Several connected, large buildings adjoin the intact portion of the wall. There are no holes in the roofs, and the shutters that look out to the south have no missing slats. A whisp of smoke rises from a chimney, but is quickly whipped away by the wind.
A lesser wall, three meters high, and only half a meter thick, runs between the ends of the intact section of the outer wall. Within the lesser wall is a lawn and flower beds. Bare rose bushes occupy some of the flower beds, but the others are dark with freshly-turned earth. Beyond the lesser wall is an orchard of two dozen fruit trees. The rest of the hilltop is covered with hay stubble.
There is a gate in the west side of the standing section of the outer wall. The gate leads to the garden. Down from the gate and into the valley runs a road made of stone. The road is in poor repair, but it is wide and even. In the valley is the river Thristen had been looking for.
Thristen points to another a rocky, barren hilltop to the east. "Let's land over there. End!"
Five minutes later, the three griffs are crouched down off the top of the hill out of the wind at the edge of the trees around the summit of the hill. Our three heroes lie upon the rocks at the top and examine the castle through their binoculars. The castle hill is a little higher than their own, so they cannot see into the compound enclosed by the walls.
After a while, Gristel sits up, takes off her flying gloves, and rubs her hands. "My fingers are chilled to the bone. Can we light a fire?"
"No," Quayam says, "The paladins will see it and turn back."
Gristel shakes her head.
Thristen sits up. "I'm confident that this is Coldiron's villa, but I'd like to make sure before the sun sets."
At 5:30 pm, half an hour before sunset, they mount their griffs and fly from their hilltop to the castle. As they fly over the garden, they see two orcs soldiers staring up at them.
They land in the orchard and tie their griffs to separate trees. They hear shouting on the far side of the garden, beyond the lesser wall. There is a gate in the lesser wall, leading to the garden. A clear, deep, voice sounds from beyond the wall, speaking in orcish.
"Bishan, defend the path. The rest of you, go inside and shutter the windows."
"Yes, my Lady," an orc man says.
Quayam, Gristel, and Thristen approach the gate and knock on it.
"We come in peace," Thristen says, "The life of Coldiron is in danger."
There is silence from beyond the wall.
"We are allies of Rackhammer," Thristen says, "We are here to protect Coldiron."
They hear the tramp of heavy boots beyond the door, and the door opens. An orc soldier stands on the other side. He wears banded armor and carries a metal mace in one hand, and a shield in the other. Upon his back is a quiver of bolts and a crossbow.
"Hello," Thristen says, "We come in peace."
Gristel loooks past the orc's shoulder to the house. A black orc woman stands on a patio outside the front door of the house. In front of her, standing upon the ground, is an iron-shod staff three meters long. Four orc soldiers are gathered around her, half a meter shorter than she is. She looks straight back at Gristel.
"Who are you?" the orc soldier says.
"I am Thristen Alomere, this is Gristel Virage, and this is Quayam Srae. We are allies of Trackandslay, and we fought with the armies of Gutak in the summer campaign."
"I am Bishan, hundred-captain of Gutak," the orc says.
"There are sapiens comeing from Varay to kill Coldiron. We are here to protect him."
The orc nods and closes the door in their faces. They hear his footsteps receding and then returning. He opens the door and points at Quayam. "My Lady will speak with you alone. Will you come with me?"
Quayam looks at Thristen and Gristel and says, "Yes, I'll come."
Quayam follows Bishan along the stone path to the door of the house. Bishan leaves the door to the orchard open. Thristen and Gristel watch through the open doorway.
Quayam stands in front of the black-orc woman. Her skin is jet black, and deeply lined around her mouth and eyes. The veins stand out on her hands where they hold the staff in front of her. Her tusks are slightly yellow, with thin veins of brown. She looks down at Quayam and smiles.
"Are you an elf?" she says in Latin.
"Yes," Quayam says. He gives his name, and that of his colleagues.
"Quayamsrae," she says, "I am Cloudmover."
"You are Rackhammer's mother," Quayam says.
"Is your husband here? We believe a party of knights from the Brotherhood of Light is coming here to kill him tonight."
"Why would they want to kill my husband?"
"A woman called Ellana Cavechi made a deal with the Brotherhood. She told them a holy sword was hidden here, and in exchange she asked them to bring her Coldiron's head."
Cloudmover frowns. She looks up at the sky and flexes the hands on her staff. The orcs on either side of her, Bishan included, cannot understand the Latin, but they stiffen when they see the expression on her face, and Bishan puts his hand upon his mace.
"What was the name of this sword?" Cloudmover says.
Quayam looks back at Gristel and Thristen. He frowns. "I can't remember."
"Was it the sword of Tanaki?"
"No," Quayam says.
"The Sword of Pestanik?"
Quayam shakes his head. "No." He points at his comrades. "My friends will know. I could ask them."
She smiles at him. "Was it the Sword of Stellan?"
"Yes," he says. "That was it." He looks down at the patio. "I think."
"I doubt very much," Cloudmover says, "That any member of the Brotherhood of Light would pretend not to know the name of the Sword of Stellan. So I am inclined to trust you."
A chair on wheels emerges from the house. Sitting in the chair is a blac orc man. Like the woman, his skin is jet black but deeply lined, and his tusks are off-white. He smiles at Quayam, and the wrinkles around his smile and his eyes give Quayam the feeling that the the man spends most of his time smiling.
"This is Coldiron, my husband," Cloudmover says, "And father of Rackhammer."
Quayam bows. "It's an honor, sir."
The sun sets at 6 pm on the 18th November. Coldiron, Cloudmover, and the five orc soldiers are in the house, behind locked doors and shuttered windows.
Quayam, Thristen, and Gristel expect the knights to approach the castle by the road, and so try the front gate. They have barred the front gate from within, and they now hide behind a bush in one of the flower beds nearby.
The griffs are stables in the half-ruined tower on the north side of the greater wall. Two gaping holes in the base of the tower are reinforced with wood and the floor is strewn with straw. Up above is a sloping roof of wood planks that keeps most of the rain off the interior. This is where Rackhammer keeps his wyvern when he visits his parents. The three griffs are secured by short ropes to the walls, out of reach of one another, and out of sight of the road.
An hour passes. The night is dark, cold and damp. The wind has slowed, but it still blows with the first chill of winter.
"We'll look pretty silly if they don't show up," Gristel says, hugging her knees and leaning against Quayam.
"I don't mind looking silly," Thristen says.
One of the griffs squawks in the tower.
"Can we tie their beaks shut so they can't make any noise?" Gristel says.
"Try it," Thristen says. "They'll fall asleep soon."
Gristle tries to wipe dew from her sheepskin trousers, but can't see if she is successful or not, because it is too dark behind the bush.
"That road is pretty impressive," Gristel says. "Someone went through a lot of trouble to make it."
The road she is speaking of is the one leading up to the castle. She inspected it from outside the gate for a few minutes just before sunset. The road is paved with wide flagstones. Grass and bushes have grown up between the flagstones, and the road would be difficult to navigate in its current state, but from what Gristel could see, it winds its way up from the valley through several trenches cut through shoulders of the hill.
"It must be five hundred years old or more," she says. "Do you think orcs could have built it?"
"That's a very interesting question," Thristen says, "But we are supposed to be sitting here quietly and listening, not talking."
After a minute, Gristel says, "I'll sit here and freeze to death, will that make you happy? Take me home after the fight and put me in a warm bath. I will defrost in half an hour, and make you a pie."
The moon does not rise until hours after midnight tonight. The only light is that of the stars, where the stars shines through the scattered, drifting clouds. Thristen and Quayam listen to the wind whistling over the wall, and try to catch the sound of soldiers approaching,
Another hour passes. Gristel is cuddled up close to Quayam and wondering if it would be okay for her to fall asleep.
"There," Quayam whispers. "I heard something."
Gristel sits up. Her heart begins to beat faster, and she forgets about the cold and the damp. She holds her breath and listens. The wind whistles. After a few seconds she hears something else. A scraping sound.
"Yes," she says, and breaths out.
A minute later, they hear the gate rattle once, and then again.
Gristel smiles in the darkness and puts her hand upon her sword.
Slow footseps proceed on the other side of the wall to the north. There is a clatter of falling rock, a hushed word of command, and more scraping.
"They're climbing over the breach in the outer wall by the orchard," Thristen says.
A minute later, the door to the orchard rattles. This door is also barred from the inside. They hear a few faint clanks of metal on metal, and a whisper or two. A few minutes go by, and they hear a thump from the flower beds on the far side of the orchard door.
"Someone climbed over the wall," Quayam says.
A dim, steady light shines upon the inside of the orchard door. They see a man in leather armor looking down at the bar across the door. The light goes out. The bar thumps to the ground. The door opens and immediately, shadowy figures walk one after the other through the opening and into the garden. The dim light shines again upon the door to the house. Someone tries the handle of the door, but it too is locked.
"Axel, the light," one man says in Varayan.
A bright light blazes out from a luminous stone mounted upon a staff. Gristel sees a man in leather armor standing by the door to the house. Beside him is a broad man in plate armor. Farther from the door is a man in chain armor, four men carrying large shields, and two men carrying axes. All these men move easily in their armor. A tenth man, presumably the one called Axel, is holding the light staff. His face is in shadow, while all else about him is brightly lit.
"Axes!" the man in plate armor says.
"Yes, Master," the two axe-men say.
Quayam says, "We have to stop that."
"Bows," Thristen says.
Quayam, Gristel, and Thristen stand up behind the bushes, take their bows from their backs, string arrows, and fire at the axe-men. One of the men turns just as the arrows are fired. The other is surprised by the sound in the bushes, and trips. One arrow thuds into the door frame. The other two shatter on the stone wall of the house.
The Master says, "Shield-men! Form a wall."
Our heroes fire three more arrows. The four shield-men rush together and stand side by side, making a wall with their shields four meters long and two meters high. The other remaining knights hide behind the shields. The light pole drops down behind the shields as well. Its bright white light shines against the side of the house, and across the patio.
Our heroes see the narrow cracks between and beneath the shields brightly illuminated from behind. They fire at these cracks. Their arrows penetrate the wall and thud into the grass between the feet of the knights. The shield-men try to close the cracks by moveing closer together, but as they move, they open new cracks, some higher up and more dangerous. More arrows fly through these gaps, and the shield-men move all the more erratically.
"Now!" the Master calls. The shields open, exposing the Master, the man in leather armor, and the man in chain armor charge forward with their swords drawn. They run towards Quayam, Gristel, and Thristen.
Our heroes put their bows on their backs, draw their swords, and force their way through the bushes to meet the knights on the lawn. They attack without hesitation, and immediately the clamour of metal upon metal echoes between the garden walls.
The shield-men move back towards the door of the house and re-form their shield-wall. The light staff rises above the rim of the shields and illuminates the sword-fighters. The axe-men take their places in front of the door of the house. They nod to one another and prepare to swing their axes.
Quayam is fighting the Master in his plate armor. Thristen fights the man in leather armor. Gristel faces the knight in chain armor. They themselves are wearing only their sheepskin flying kit. But they are well-armed with adamantine swords.
The axe-men start chopping at the door. Splinters of wood fly through the air behind the shield-wall.
The faces of the knights are in shadow, so Gristel cannot see their faces clearly. Even in the best light, the Master's face would be hidden within its visor. The knights do not hesitate to attack, nor do they back away in fear when they are attacked. But her opponent is having no luck getting past her guard, while she is pressing him hard. Perhaps he does not realise that she is pressing him hard. Perhaps he thinks the fact that he is still alive means he might be her equal. Who knows what someone who would kill a crippled orc might be thinking? Perhaps he has such faith in his plate-armored Master that he thinks it's impossible that he could be hurt in the Master's company. Or perhaps he believes that if he dies fighting for the Brotherhood of Light, some part of him will live on forever in paradise. Gristel has met plenty of people with such beliefs in the past, some of whom appeared to be quite sane on the surface.
Quayam shouts above the din of the fight. "I'm going to sponge the door!"
He moves along the wall. Thristen and Gristel follow him sideways. The knights move with them, pressing their attack. When they are close to the corner between the outer wall and the wall of the house, Quayam steps back, leaving Gristel and Thristen to do the fighting. He lowers his sword and takes a deep breath. He hums, and feels immediately a sensation in the back of his mind.
The house door is made of hard wood, and bound with metal around the edges, but the two axe-men know their jobs, and they chop alternately without pause. A large hunk of wood falls from the door.
Quayam throws a bridge ring over his comrades, over the sword-fighting knights, and towards the door of the house. One of the shield-men sees the bridge ring coming and stands up. The ring bounces off his shield and into the air above. Quayam says a sharp word in Latin and a hissing sound emminates from the bridge ring, expanding outwards. The man holding the light pole is frozen in place. One of the axe-men struggles with invisible bonds upon his arms. The shield-men tug on their shields. One of them gets his shield free of the sponge and turns to look at the man holding the light pole. The second axe-man puts his axe down and tries to free his comrade.
Quaym is disappointed. He wanted to seal off the door. Instead he made a wall around it, with the axe-men on the inside. But at least the axe-men have stopped chopping at the door. Time to finish off this Master. Quayam raises his sword.
"Coming back in!"
Thristen and Gristel move over and Quayam closes with the Master.
The three knights give way. They find their backs pressed against the sponge. They retreat around the sponge as best they can. The light shines upon the cheek of Gristel's opponent, and she sees the sweat on his face, and the grim set of his mouth.
The shield-men have cut the man carrying the light pole out of the sponge with their swords. Both axe-men are free again, and they heft their axes to continue chopping at the door.
Thristen pushes Leather-Guy, as he has been thinking of his opponent, to the ground. For a moment, he considers chopping Leather-Guy's head off to send a message to the other knights, but decides against it. He knocks the man out with a solid blow to the skull from his sword pommel.
The Master and the man in chain mail retreat quickly. Thristen steps over the prostrate form of the man in leather armor.
"Form up!" the Master shouts, even as he parries a feint from Quayam, and stumbles to avoid a thrust. "Form up to retreat!"
The axe-men stop chopping. The shield-men and the lamp-man come out from behind Quayam's wall of conjured sponge. There is an opening on the east side.
The Master stumbles again. As he falls backwards in his heavy armor, Quayam slaps the side of his helmet with the flat of his sword. The Master lands upon his back, un-moving, with his arms spread wide. His sword clatters on the outer stones of the patio.
The man in chain mail turns and runs. The shield-men start running. The lamp-man bends down and picks up the Master's sword. For a moment, Gristel sees his face. He looks familiar, but she can't place him. He is young, no more than eighteen.
Thristen rushes after the shield-men. He forces one to turn and knocks him down. The knights flee through the door to the orchard. Thristen follows them. Gristel runs after the lamp-boy, but he is fast on his feet. She brings down one of the axe-men instead, just inside the orchard. Quayam is right behind her.
The knights scramble over the breach in the wall. The lamp-boy jumps down the other side and runs along the road, holding the lamp high. The five remaining knights follow him. From the other side of the breach, Quayam, Gristel, and Thristen fire two volleys of arrows, but they don't bring any more of the knights down.
The lamp passes around the first bend in the road. Gristel watches it flickering through the trees. After a minute, it disappears.
"Let's gather up the wounded before they crawl away and hide," Thristen says.
They drag the shield man, the axe-man, Leather-Guy, and the Master to the patio and lay them side by side. Gristel takes the Master's helmet off. His head is bleeding.
Thristen stands over the man in leather armor. "This guy fought well. They had him doing the creeping around, and then they put him out in the front line, him in leather armor while they were in metal."
Bishan's voice booms from a window above them. "How goes the fight?"
"All clear," Thristen says. "Four prisoners."
"I'm sure I know the boy carrying the lamp," Gristel says. She looks up at the stars. "Can't remember who he is. They called him Axel."
"We'll ask these guys all about it when they wake up," Thristen says.
"If I had sponged the door to the orchard," Quayam says, "We would have trapped them all at once, lamp-boy included."
Thristen nods. "We did fine."
Gristel looks up. "Do you think we can ransom them?"
Gowachin Solafrax opened his eyes. The sky above him was black. He was lying on his back. The right side of his head throbbed with pain. Three people stood to his left. They talked quietly in a language he could not understand. Two of them held luminous stones whose light flickered back and forth as they moved.
He smiled. He was still alive.
He looked to his left. There was the woman, the big man, and the slender man. Their lights were pointed downwards, and their faces were in darkness. They had taken off their sheepskin caps. He listened to their voices and watched them.
The big man was talking. The woman put her hand on the slender man's shoulder and leaned against him. When the big man stopped talking, she stood up straight and answered. The slender man walked a few steps into the darkness on his own and stared at the wall Gowachin himself had climbed over to enter the black orc's garden.
The surface he was was lying on was hard and flat. It was the stone patio outside the door they had been trying to smash down. A man lay upon the patio to his left. Another man sitting up against the wall of the house with his head in his hands. That was Grotnik, one of the two axe-men. He could not tell who the other man was, but he guessed it was one of his comrades.
On his right lay a man in plate armor. It was the Master. The others must have escaped. The woman and the big man talked to one another. He listened. They were speaking Ursian. He had heard it spoken many times in the caravanseries on his way to Varay. He could not speak or understand the language.
Gowachin closed his eyes. The three Ursians had been hiding in the bushes, waiting for them when they arrived. The Brotherhood had been betrayed. So far as Gowachin could tell, the Ursians had not killed him or any of his comrades. Why not? Did they plan to torture him for information? What did they plan to do with their prisoners? He listened to the tone of their voices. They did not sound angry.
The big man spoke to the other two. They nodded. They pointed their light upon their prisoners. Gowachin opened his eyes when the light shone upon his face. The big man knelt beside him. He was smiling.
"How are you feeling?" the big man spoke in Varayan. Gowachin did not speak a word of Varayan eight weeks ago, but he has been working hard to learn it.
Gowachin said nothing.
The big man held up a rope. He said something that Gowachin did not quite understand, helped Gowachin sit up, felt Gowachin's head. He moved his arms and legs while looking at Gowachin's face. Then he tied Gowachin's hands behind his back, helped him to his feet, and walked him awy from the patio, around the shed to a a corner of the garden surrounded on three sides by walls.
The big man pointed to the ground. Gowachin sat down. The woman walked around the shed and stood in front of him. The big man went back to the patio. The woman pointed a light in his face, then on the grass in front of him.
"You fought well," Gristel said.
Gowachin said nothing. He took a deep breath.
The big man brought the other prisoners one by one to sit on the grass beside him, each with their hands tied behind their back. First came Grotnik. He sat down next to Gowachin.
"Do you know who they are?" Grotnik whispered.
Gowachin shook his head.
Randall, shield-man in the fight, sits down on the far side of Grotnik. He is frowning. He has a bloody lip.
"Do you know who..." Grotnik says.
"Shut up Grotnik," Randall says, "Don't say anything."
Gowachin looks up at the woman. For a moment, her light shines upon her head. She has red hair and pale skin. She is smiling at Grotnik and Randall.
The big man and the slender man lead the Master around the shed. He sits down in his plate armor next to Randall.
The three Ursians start talking. He and his comrades stare at the grass. They say nothing. It is cold and damp on the grass. Gowachin's wrists start to hurt. He stretches out his legs.
The big man knelt down beside Gowachin. "I'm going to search you. I'm going to untie you so I can look through your armor. You can try to escape if you want. If you do, I'll knock you out and search you while you're unconcious." He smiled. "Do you understand?"
Gowachin stared at the big man's face. He believed the big man when he said that he could and would knock him out. What he really wanted to know is whether or not the big man was planning to torture him or kill him. He understood the importance of the Journey of Enlightenment, and he had embarked upon it with an open mind. But if he was going to die, he would rather not die while fighting for The Brotherhood of Light.
Gowachin nodded. "I understand," he said, in his accented Varayan.
The big man untied his Gowachin's hands. He did so gently, and rubbed Gowachin's wrists. "I tied you too tight. I'll do better next time."
Gowachin had seven diamonds sewn into the lining of his armor, and a bridge to Alamasius, God of Diamantis, in a locket around his neck. This man would probably find the bridge, but not the diamonds. His comrades in the Brotherhood of Light did not know about the diamonds or the locket. There was no rule forbidding him to possess his own money. Some of the brothers were wealthy in their own right. But the bridge to a god other than Emmanuel of the Brotherhood might put him in a difficult position. He had sworn to follow Emmanuel, but the bridge to Alamasius would be contrary to his oath. The Master might conclude from the locket that Gowachin was a spy.
Grotnik sat watching the three people who had surprised them. He was certain they were Gristel Virage, Thristen Alomere, and Quayam Srae. They talked in Ursian instead of Varayan, but he could hear them saying one another's names occasionally. Or at least he thought he could. One was a woman with red hair, one was an elf, one was a big man with long black hair. They came out of nowhere, they had no trouble defeating the ten Brothers, including the Master.
Grotnik had read Gristel's book, The Captive and the Clowns a few years ago. So far as he could tell, they did not kill anyone unless they had to. He doubted very much that they would kill him. Axel Ganning was the son of Halbarad Ganning, who was a friend of Gristel Virage's father Gashley. Axel had met Gristel a couple of times when he was young.
Grotnik was sure he was not going to die. He wanted like to speak to Gristel. But the Master had forbidden them to speak. He wondered what the three adventurers were going to do with him. Why were they on the side of the orcs? He believed in the Brotherhood. He knew that the orcs were the enemy, and that they had to be slaughtered before they invaded Varay and slaughtered and enslaved the entire nation. But Gristel was on the other side. Maybe he could change her mind.
He doubted he could change her mind. She was Gristel Virage. He was just a young man. Why was she protecting the orc? He would like to know why she was doing what she was doing.
Right now, Gristel, Quayam, and Thristen were squatting and kneeling on the grass nearby with looking through a pile of things they had taken from the Master, Grotnik himself, Randall and Gowachin. Thristen had searched them all first, and made them remove their metal armor. The metal armor made up most of the pile of stuff, along with their swords, shields, Grotnik's axe, and their helmets.
But it was not the armor they were discussing, picking up, and examining one by one. It was the small things and papers they had found upon their prisoners. Grotnik's money pouch, his map of Varay, his letters from his family, and his diary were all in the pile. Grotnik doubted that any of these would be much use to Thristen. From the Master, Thristen had taken the map they had followed along the Path of Stones, and a letter. The Master scowled when Thristen took the letter.
Thristen had taken Gowachin's locket, opened it, looked inside it, closed it, and said to Gowachin, "Who is the bridge to?"
Gowachin did not answer.
Thristen found seven clear gems somewhere in Gowachin's shirt. Thristen cut them out of the shirt with a knife. He held each gem up in front of Gowachin's face before he put it in his pocket. Gowachin showed no expression.
Were they diamonds? If so, how much were they worth?
Quayam and Gristel returned to the patio for a while, and when they came back, Gristel searched the prisoners herself. She found a ring in an inside pocket of the Master's jacket. She unscrewed the top of the ring and found something inside it. She showed it to the others. They were looking at the ring now. Grotnik knew the ring. It had the Master's initials on the face: VIP, but in mirror image, so it could be used in a seal.
Thristen screwed the top of the ring back on.
Quayam stood up. He held the letter in his hand. He said something and turned and walked to the patio. Grotnik heard doors and windows opening and closing. Gristel left for a while and returned with blankets for each of the prisoners. Grotnik heard a deep female voice that was not Gristel's talkingn from the direction of the patio. He heard a gruff male voice also. There was a clattering of metal on stone, and soon a flickering light. There was a fire on the patio.
Gristel returned with Quayam and the letter. She stood in front of the Grotnik and his comrades.
"I'm going to read this letter, just so everyone here knows what it says."
She looked down at the letter.
"Vespian Igor Parlay: Greetings."
She looked up. "I'm betting that's you, the Master, am I correct?"
The Master stared at the ground.
She looked down at the letter. "The Sword of Stellan is hidden in the remains of the Castle Hydroma, home of a black-orc male named Coldiron. Kill him."
Gristel looked at the four of them. "You came here to kill the owner of this house and rob him."
She continued reading. "The castle is 20 km due north of the bridge over the Gutak River on the Path of Stones. Send your half-orc to Pitt on the evening of the nineteenth of November to fetch me to Varay. I will be in the Bird Garden at sunset. Yours, EC"
"That's Ellana Cavechi, am I right?" Gristel said. She looked at the Master. He said nothing. "We're going to talk to each of you separately. We'll start with you." She pointed at Randall. They took Randall to the patio. He does not say much, because they brought him back soon after. Next it was Grotnik's turn.
He sat on a stool with his blanket wrapped around him. In front of him were Gristel and Thristen.
"You're them, aren't you?" Grotnik said. "You're Gristel and Thristen."
"Yes," Gristel said.
"I read your book about Feras."
Gristel smiled. "You did? How did you like it?"
"I liked it very much."
"Good. Now tell me: were you planning on killing Coldiron?"
"I'm sorry," Grotnik said, "I'm not allowed to talk about our mission."
Thristen knelt in front of Grotnik. "Are you a member of the Brotherhood of Light?" His Varayan had an accent, but Grotnik could understand him.
"And your Master is Vespian Igor Parlay?"
Grotnik looked at Thristen and then past the shed towards the place he knows the Master is sitting. But the Master is out of sight. He nodded.
"What is the name of the god of the Brotherhood?"
"Emmanuel," Grotnik said.
"Thank you," Thristen said, "You can go."
Quayam and Gristel stand on the patio. Thristen keeps watch over the prisoners. It is two hours since they ambushed the kinights. Thristen has searched the prisoners and taken a locket containing a space bridge from Leather-Guy. Quayam has the locket now. He opens it. The bridge is one and a half centimeters in diameter, which is typical of a bridge to Olympia. He shines a light through it for ten seconds and then holds it to his ear.
A calm, female voice comes through the bridge, speaking in Latin. "To whome do you pray?"
Quayam covers the bridge with his hand and whispers to Gristel. He repeats the question and asks Gristel, "What shall I say?"
They discuss the matter for a few seconds. Quayam decides to pick a god he knows.
He listens at the bridge. Gristel presses her ear close to his. It is ten seconds before he hears the female voice again. "What is your prayer?"
He looks at Gristel. She is mouth is open and smiling.
"We have to talk, QTG," Quayam says, "That's Q as quo, T as in turbidus, and G as in grassor."
He closes the locket.
"Nice," Gristel says.
They walk around the shed to Thristen and tell him what happened, whispering in Ursian in front of the prisoners.
"Is it really him?" Thristen says.
"We'll see," Quayam says.
Thristen crouches down in front of the pile of armor, weapons, letters, and other personal effects they have taken from the prisoners. "The seven diamonds are probably worth about seventy thousand dollars. The map is interesting, and the letter of course. I wonder why the master doesn't have his own bridge to whoever his god is." He looks up at Gristel. "Maybe I didn't find it."
"I'll look," Gristel says. She searches all the prisoners, and finds the Masters's sealing ring. The top unscrews, and there is a small bridge inside.
"I don't see any point in trying it," Gristel says.
She screws the top back on.
"The prisoners are cold," Thristen says.
Quayam arranges for Bishan to bring out blankets, and to set up a brazier on the patio. He talks to Cloudmover through the kitchen window. He reads her the letter to Vespian Parlay from Ellana Cavechi.
"Why would Ellana order your husband's death?"
"I believe she would do it only on behalf of someone else," Cloudmover says. "From what you tell us, she is a spy of Orbelastican's. She could have done it for him, or for Earthscorcher, or for both."
"Why would Orbelastican want Coldiron dead?"
"I don't know. I can't think of any way in which Coldiron could pose a threat to Garaz."
"Why would Earthscorcher want Coldiron dead?"
After a while, Cloudmover says, "Earthscorcher does not like my husband's beliefs. He considers them to be dangerous blasphemy. But I don't see how he would benefit from Coldiron's death. Coldiron has many admirers in Gutak.""What are your husband's beliefs?"
Cloudmover leans closer to the window. Her face is only centimeters from the iron bars that secure the kitchen from the outside. "He believes we black orcs would all be better off if we aged naturally, if we did not take drugs to keep us youthful."
"Neither of you take the drugs yourselves," Quayam says.
"You noticed." Cloudmover laughs quietly. "No, we don't."
"I see," Quayam says. He remembers the book by Axegrinder that he read in Trackandslay's castle. "And if you don't take the drugs, you don't have to obey orders from the Princes of Hell."Cloudmover moves back into the kitchen and sits down. Quayam cannot see her. She says quietly, "You are well-informed, Quayamsrae." She drinks from a cup. "Yes, we would be free of the Princes of Hell, as you call them, or more particularly in Gutak, of Our Lord Lucifer."
"Which is blasphemy," Quayam says.
Thristen and Gristel question each of the prisoners separately. They learn a few things, but not much. The Master and Leather-Guy say nothing at all. They wonder why Leather-Guy is carrying so much cash, while the others have only a hundred gold pieces between them. They suspect the Master did not know of Leather-Guy's bridge or his diamonds.
"What shall we do with them?"
They consider marching the four prisoners down to Gutak and handing them over to Earthscorcher's police. But they decide that would be absurd: two sapiens and an elf marching four other sapiens into an orc nation and asking that the four sapiens be thrown in jail. If Earthscorcher is involved in the plot, their position would be delicate.
They consider killing the prisoners, but reject doing so because it is distasteful, and would not do them credit. Some of these guys are Varayan citizens, even if they are orc-murderers.
The moon rises at three hours after midnight. Thristen, Gristel, and Quayam stand before the prisoners. Two of them have to be woken up.
"Here's what we're going to do," Gristel says in Varayan. "We're going to offer you a choice. Either we keep you in custody here until we can hand you over to Coldiron's son, General Rackhammer, or we'll give you back your belongings in exchange for word upon the honor of the Brotherhood of Light that you will never to return to this place again, nor to take up arms against Coldiron or Cloudmover."
The prisoners stare at him.
"And understand this: the Sword of Stellan will no longer be here if any of your brothers come back. There will be no point in coming back."
Thristen holds up the Master's map of the Path of Stones and the letter from Ellana. "We give you back everything except these. We keep the letter and the map."
"Which do you choose?" Gristel says.
"Ask him," the master says, and points to Leather-Guy.
Leather-Guy looks at the Master and then at Gristel. "I swear upon the honor of the Brotherhood never to return to this place."
The Master nods and frowns.
"I will do as the Master does," the shield-man says.
"And me too," the axe-man says.
Gristel looks at the Master.
"Give me time to think," the Master says.
He huddles with his blanket in the light of Thristen's luminous stone. After fifteen minutes, he looks up and says, "We will take your oath."
And so they do, each in turn, swear never to come back. Thristen returns their belongings to them, including the diamonds, bridges, and swords. The knights put on their armor. Leather-Guy puts the diamonds in his pocket.
"Now you are free to go," Girstel says.
The knights move off together in the moonlight. As the shield-man walks past Gristel, he says, "Thank you."
They leave by the same door they entered the garden, and climb over the wall. Gristel, Quayam, and Thristen watch them until they disappear down the road.
"Good luck to them finding a way in the dark," Thristen says.
From Gristel's diary, 19th November 2478.
Quayam talked some more with Cloudmover, and finally persuaded the old man to come down too, that's Coldiron, Rackhammer's father. He doesn't want to implicate Earthscorcher. Thristen gave Coldiron his bridge to Olympia and Coldiron sent a message through the Druidic Pantheon to Rackhammer. Apparantly Rackhammer has a bridge to Olympia. It sounds like the son is not following in his father's rebellious footsteps.
We still don't know why anyone would want to kill Coldiron.
Rackhammer should be back in a few days. Coldiron says they will keep the doors locked, and they have tunnels under the house that lead out of the hill in secret places. The three of us joked, out of hearing of the orcs, that a monster with a tunnel is more scary than a monster in the open. But if the tunnel is wheelchair-accessible, it's not as intimidating. We assume the tunnel must be accessible to Coldiron's wheelchair.
So we felt that the orcs were safe locked up. We summoned some food for our griffs, waited an hour or two for them to settle, and took off at 9 am. The wind was about 25 kph out of the west. We followed the borderlands, and caught sight of this Path of Stones, which appears to be a road following the Borderland marker stones. The knights used it to get from Varay to a point near Coldiron's villa.
There's a crossroads marked on the map, just south of Pitt. We flew over the crossroads and saw what looked like an old greenhouse, but double-storied, with all its windows fallen out. Quayam said it might have had conjured wood windows that decayed. We figured, rightly as it turns out, that this was the Bird Garden in which Ellana was planning to meet Vespian Parlay, Master of the Varayan Lodge of the Brotherhood of Light, and his Merry Men.
We landed outside Pitt, called Zak, and met her next to a quarry. The Herringbones all came out carrying her luggage and wearing sunglasses. They all looked well and we hugged one another and a few of them licked my face and the mens' faces. The baby is growing fast.
Zak jumped on board Thristen's griff. I don't know what she told the rest of them, but they all seemed to know she had to leave. We took off at about 12:30 pm.
We took off. Thristen's griff jumped off the edge of the quarry, dropped about ten meters, then pulled up and away with both him and Zak on board. Flew south over the borderlands and landed in a farmer's field. The farmer was a sly one. He knew who I was, I think, although he would not admit it. Maybe he didn't. But he wasn't afraid. He got fifty gold pieces out of us for the privelidge of parking our griffs on his land. He made me proud to be Varayan.
We walked north into the Borderlands with Zak. Our idea was to spy on the meeting, should it take place, between Ellana and Vespian. We're about half an hour past the first line of stones when Thristen says were going to be ambushed at the next bend. There are humans hiding in the bushes on either side of the road. We figure it will be simpler just to walk into the ambush, but we're a bit worried about Zak getting shot, so we turn off into the forest and disturb the ambush from the rear. They run away down to the road and we chase after them. Their leader comes out of the woods on the other side and attacks us. Quayam steps up to take her on. Thristen and I complete a triangle around Zak.
I figure Zak must be glad: she's always trying to get Thristen to fight for her. So here we are. The leader is a woman. Her name's Flasheen. The rest of the party is all men, so far as I could make out, a dozen sapiens and half a dozen orcs. They go at us with pretty well at first, but it's not long before they start to see the way the wind is going to blow if they keep going. Only six of them can get in on the fight, so the rest of them are watching Quayam dueling with their beloved leader. I think they were figuring that if he can hold her off, they must be in trouble.
Quayam tells me he didn't touch the guy fighting next to Flasheen. He figured he should just wear down the leader and the rest would give in. I think he figured right. She backed away and held up her hands. By that time, I had knocked out two sapiens to Thristen's two sapiens plus one orc.
The men back away as soon as their leader does. She takes off her helmet and waves out a cloud of bright red hair. She has pale skin and freckles. She looks a bit like me, actually, only twenty years younger and I always kept my hair short, and she's a taller and not as stocky. Quayam said later that fighting her was kind of like he imagined fighting me would be. I think I was already feeling a bit touchy. Flasheen (silly name if you ask me) was all-together too pretty for my liking. So I pestered him about what he meant, and never did understand it.
Anyway, the first thing Quayam says is, "Can we go now?"
Flasheen comes from Mordon. She speaks Varayan with her men. She said she protects the roads for ten kilometers or more on either side of the crossroads. She knew where the bird garden was. She asked if we needed any help. We said no, we just wanted to be on our way. She said that she would provide us with information if we paid her a 100 gp fee.
We kept walking. A few of them followed us. The path is dirt, but used by carts every day it would seem. There's traffic with Gutak, or along the borderlands. We get to the bird garden thing and hide. Sure enough, an hour before sunset, along comes Vespian and the knights, including Leather Guy and all the rest of them, with horses. They're looking tired and beaten up.
A little later, ten orcs in heavy armor show up, marching, with a woman and a pack horse. The woman is tall and erect in her saddle. She has black hair. She has a dagger, but is not wearing armor. She orders the orcs to leave her with the pack horse. The pack horse is loaded with luggage. The orcs protest. Thristen and Zak can understand the orcs. I can understand a little. None of them see us. There are some of Flasheen's men hiding nearby too, so it's crouded in the woods.
The orcs leave. Ellana and the knights set off south along the path. It's dark now, with clouds over head. We follow. They stop ahead of us and we hear them talking. We think they're talking to Flasheen.
"She ratting on us," Quayam says. "Because we didn't pay her fee."
The knights have their lamp with them to light the way. I remember who the lamp-guy is now. It's Axel Ganning, friend of family. The knights keep going. They are nearing the border with Varay and we figure it's time we stopped them. We shoot a few arrows at the guys in the rear. The Master comes back and urges the men on. We shoot him off his horse and he falls to the path with a clang in his armor.
We grab him and demand that Ellana come back and talk to us. We were thinking fast and not very clearly, I suppose. She comes back around the corner and talks. We ask her where she's going, why she ordered the death of Coldiron and so on. All she will say is she is leaving Gutak, she's had enough of orcs, and she's going home to Endromis. If we want to know why Earthscorcher wants Coldiron dead, we should go ask him.
After that we had to let them go. We were not about to take them captive. We crept into the forest. Zak could see perfetly well, and she led us by the hand through the trees. But Flasheen has orcs of her own, and one of them led her to us in the darkness. She offered again to help us in future if we pay her fee. We said we were fine on our own, but you never know, perhaps we'd work with her one day. We said goodnight.
I think she has a crush on my husband. But then I'm prejudiced. But Zak agrees with me.
We got back to the farm before the knights came by on the path. They passed by on their horses, no doubt heading for their Lodge. Quayam made a shelter of conjured wood and we slept in that. He made it small, and kept the door small too, covered with a blanket. Our body heat is keeping us warm in here as I write. I can't seem to get to sleep. I'll just lie down and rest.
It is an hour after dawn on the twentieth of November, 2482. The sky is overcast and the air is cold and damp. Thristen and Zak stand beside a gray-feathered hippogriff in a field. Thristen is wearing his sheepskin flying kit. Zak is wearing many layers of wool and leather, with a wolf-skin jacket over the top. Together, they strap one of Zak's suitcases to the griff's back. Two other griffs sit on the hay stubble nearby. At the edge of the field, beneath an over-hanging tree, is a hut made of an un-natural and irregular brown and black material. Gristel steps out of the hut and walks across the soft ground to Thristen.
"I need some of those pain-relief pills of yours," she says. "I have cramps." She speaks in Ursian, which Zak does not understand.
Thristen pulls a strap tight on the griff's saddle. He nods without looking at her. "I'll get some."
Gristel holds one hand to her tummy. "I don't think I can stand sitting on a griff in the cold all day with cramps."
Zak steps up to Gristel and puts her hand on Gristel's tummy. "Your stomach hurts?"
"Yes," Gristel says in Latin, "It is my time of the month."
Zak steps back and frowns, but says nothing. Perhaps she does not understand. Thristen picks up another suitcase. "If you'd stop taking longevity drugs, you could go through menopause and be rid of those cramps for ever."
Quayam walks towards them from the center of the field, where he has been staring up at the clouds.
Gristel smiles at him. "What's the verdict, Mr. Weather-Man?"
"Twenty kilometers per hour out of the north-west," he says, "Clouds at a thousand meters. I think we should fly south-west to the Ramada Inn and spend the night there. We can go north-west tomorrow to Lake Zakh and Zak's father's vinyard." He unfolds a map and holds it in front of them. "See?"
Thristen looks at the map and nods. Zak takes the corner of the map and holds it. She points to something. "What is that?"
Thristen starts walking towards the hut. "I'll get my pack so I can give you some medicine," he says to Gristel.
Gristel follows him. "How do you plan to divide the weight among the griffs?""I think we should keep Quayam and Zak together on his griff. He weighs seventy kilograms and she weighs about sixty, so that's one-thirty. With armor and weapons that comes to around one-forty." He stops outside the hut and points to the gray griff. "My griff will take me, my pack, and half of Zak's luggage. I weigh a hundred, and I think the luggage and my pack come to another forty."
Gristel looks at the suitcases strapped to the griff. "She has a lot of luggage."
"It's everything she has in the world," Thristen says, "It's not that much, really. I'm not going to ask her to leave any of it behind. My griff will be carrying around one-fourty, which is the same as Quayam's."
"So I get what's left, which is me, seventy kilograms, plus Quayam's pack, my pack, and the other half of Zak's luggage."
"Yes, which I think comes to around one-thirty."
Gristel nods. "Sounds good to me." She watches Quayam and Zak holding the map between them. "I'm not happy about her sitting with Quayam all day on a griff."
"I know," Thristen says, "Tomorrow we'll have her ride with you. I figured you would be crampy today, so I put her with Quayam."
Gristel looks at him. "How did you know I would be crampy today?"
Thristen laughs. "I'm a medic. I'm supposed to know these things. And anyway, it's been a month since you last asked me for pills."
Gristel shakes her head. "I get no privacy."
Thristen points to the farm-house at the far side of the field. "Look. The kids are watching us."
Gristel waves to them. They hide behind a bush. "They'll have a great time playing in the hut after we're gone."
"I bet they will," Thristen says, "They will be the most popular kids in the village."
Gristel steps into the hut. "They'll be heart-broken when it starts to decay."
Ten minutes later, Gristel's griff rises into the air and climbs after the others, heading off across the trees. The children come out from behind the bush and run towards the hut.
Gristel takes off her flying cap and runs her fingers through her hair. It is an hour before sunset. She and her companions have been flying all day. She feels cold to the bone and her stomach still hurts. Her legs are stiff and her fingers are numb. She wants a hot bath and a good dinner, followed by a night sleeping in a soft bed with her husband.
Gristel and her companions are walking from the hippogriff stable to the entrance of the Ramada Inn. They carry most of their luggage themselves, leaving a few of Zak's suitcases for the porters. Gristel walks up the entrance steps and into the reception. She smiles at the young man behind the counter, puts her flying cap on the reception counter, and takes off her pack. Quayam, Thristen, and Zak put their bags down behind her.
"Two double rooms, please, with baths," Gristel says.
The young man does not answer. He stares at Zak. She bares her teeth at him in the orcish smile. Her teeth are white and her tonge and lips are black. Her eyes are brown, but the irises are vertical slits like a cat's. Her hair is long and black and shiny. Her skin is smooth and white.
Gristel puts her arm around Zak. "This is Zak. She is an orc. She will be sharing a room with Thristen."
The young man looks at Gristel. He nods.
A middle-aged woman walks behind the counter and stands beside the young man. "Good afternoon, Mrs. Virage, Mr. Srae, Mr. Alomere. Welcome to the Ramada Inn."
"Thank you," Gristel says. "It's good to be here. I forgot your name, I'm sorry."
"Sarah," the woman says.
The woman clasps her hands together and takes a deep breath. "I'm sorry to say that we cannot provide accommodation in the hotel for orcs."
Gristel frowns. Zak is still smiling. She cannot understand what is being said, because the conversation is going on in Varayan.
The woman smiles. "I am most dreadfully sorry. I hope it's not too great an inconvenience for you?"
Gristel's face is red. She opens her mouth. Quayam puts his hand upon the counter-top. "It's fine," he says, and looks at Gristel. "We'll go somewhere else."
Gristel stares at him, her mouth still open.
Thristen picks up his pack. "I wanted to go hunting anyway." Zak tilts her head to one side and watches him. He points to her suitcase. She picks it up. He begins to walk towards the entrance.
Gristel looks at the woman behind the counter. "What if we pay extra?"
"I'm dreadfully sorry, Madame, we simply cannot compromise on this matter."
"I'm leaving," Quayam says, "You can stay here if you like, we'll meet you in the morning." He walks away from the counter. Two porters come through the entrance with Zak's suitcases. Thristen tells them to turn around, and he and Zak and Quayam walk out of the hotel and down the steps.
Gristel leans on the counter. "Sarah, do you honestly think that refusing to serve our orc friend is going to be good for business in the long-run."
Sarah is still clasping her hands. She stares Gristel straight in the eye. "Our policy is nothing to do with good business. It's a matter of principle, hygene, and security."
Gristel stands up. "Hygene?"
Sarah nods. "And security."
Gristel picks up her pack.
Sarah leans forward. "But you are most welcome to stay, Mrs. Virage. By way of an apology for the inconvenience and disappointment we have caused you, we will be happy to give you a complimentary room for the night."
Gristel shakes her head. "No thank you." She looks at the young man. She frowns at Sarah. "You make me ashamed."
She turns and leaves the hotel. She stands up straight as she walks to the stables. She tightens the left strap on her pack. Thristen will catch something before sunset. We can camp on a hill nearby. Quayam will make a shelter. It will be just the four of us. Zak will feel bad if I complain, so I won't. But I'll make sure I put this scene in the Adventurer's Gazette. That will be the end of the Ramada's status as Hacker's Inn, I'll warrent. I hope so, anyway. She looks back at the inn. Darn it! Such a good hotel, too.
The sky is clear on the morning of 22nd November, 2482. Half an hour after dawn, the rising sun shines brightly in the blue Autumn sky. A steady, cold, breeze blows out of the south-west, and there is frost upon the grass. Gristel, Quayam, Thristen, and Zak are camped upon a grassy hill looking north over a lake so large that they cannot see its far side. The water is clear and blue, with sandy beaches on the shore at the bottom of the hill.
Zak stands in front of the camp fire, staring at the lake with a cup of tea in one hand. The sun shines on her right shoulder. Thristen puts another three logs on the fire and wipes his hands upon his trousers. He steps down-hill from the flames and stands beside Zak.
"Lake Zakh," he says in orcish. "You are close to home."
Zak points to the lake. "I used to go in a long, thin boat on that lake, pushing the water with a flat stick." She puts her cup down on the ground and moves her hands like someone paddling a canoe. Her cup falls over and spills tea upon the grass. But Zak does not notice. "I am the only person in my village who can go in a boat without being sick. Me and one other person."
She stands still and stares into the distance. She squints with her right eye as the sun shines upon her face.
Thristen picks up her cup and shakes out the last of the tea. "You will get to drink some of your father's wine today."
Zak does not answer for a while. She turns and looks at Thristen. She stands up on her tip-toes and hugs him. "You will meet my father. His wine is the best in the world. Do you know why he is not in the army?"
"My Lord Sebiskitus said he did not have to fight because it was better for the county that he make wine."
"Who is Lord Sebiskitus?" Thristen says.
Zak steps away from Thristen and hops up and down, hugging herself. She does not have her coat on. "He is karazi. His family protects us. His wife is very beautiful. She came from Mokul. Her name is Streamweaver." She stops jumping and looks up into Thirsten's eyes. "Isn't that a beautiful name?" She moves her hand slowly from side to side and downwards. "Streamweaver."
"It's a lovely name. But not as lovely as Zak."
Zak jumps up and wraps her legs and arms around Thristen so her weight is upon his shoulders and his waist. "Zak is my name." She lets go of him with one hand and points to the lake. "I am named after the lake because I am the girl of the lake."
"Oh," Thristen says. He wraps his arms around her, still holding her cup. "Who is the boy of the lake?"
Zak tilts her head to one side and looks at Thristen's shoulder. "There was a boy of the lake."
"Oh? What was his name? What happened to him?"
Zak scratches the leather of his sheepskin jacket with a short, black claw. "His name was Miga. He was the other person in our village who does not get sick in a boat. We paddled together on the lake when we were children." She looks up into Thristen's eyes. Her tusks press against his cheek. "And when we were not children too."
Thristen looks into Zak's brown eyes and slitted pupils. They do not seem strange to him any more. He is used to the feel of her tusks on his skin, and the look of her black lips and her long, black tongue. He likes the smell of her skin.
"Miga was a lucky boy."
Zak pulls her head back to look at his face. "Are you jealous?"
Thristen laughs. "I would be jealous if you went for a boat ride with him now, but I'm happy for you that you had a friend when you were young."
Zak pushes her lips up the base of her tusks. She is frowning. "I had a better friend. My brother was my best friend. But he could not go on the water."
"You have a brother?" Thristen said. "You never told me."
Zak puts her head on Thristen's shoulder. She squeezes him tightly with her strong legs and arms. "My brother is dead." She starts to cry. Tears drip down Thristens neck and under his jacket.
"I'm sorry," He says. "How did he die?"
Zak sits up. "He died fighting in the war. He died like a hero."
Zak stares at him for a while. "I don't know. He is buried in the Old Hills to the north of my country. I have not been to his grave, but my father has. My father does not talk to me about it. He says my brother should not be dead. But I know my brother was the bravest soldier in the army, and he died like a hero."
The wind rises for a moment, and blows chill in Thristen's face. One of the griffs sitting on the hillside nearby cries out and flaps its wings.
Gristel steps out of the black, conjured shelter above the fire. She waves at Thristen. "We've got Aries on the horn, here. Come in if you want to."
Thristen tries to push Zak away from him. She does not want to let go. He pushes harder. She squeezes him. He raises his arms, forcing hers off his neck, pins her hands on her sides and squeezes her body.
"Ah!" she says, and lets go with her legs. She stands on the ground. "You are so big and strong. I will take you in my canoe when we get to my home, and show you what I used to do with Miga."
Thristen nods slowly. "Sounds good." He walks around the fire to the shelter, shaking his head.
When he reaches the door, Zak calls out, "You are jealous, aren't you!"
Thristen turns around. She is smiling at him and jumping up and down, her arms folded.
"Yes," Thristen says, "I'm jealous. Will you keep a look-out while we're talking?"
Zak squints in the sunlight and nods. "Yes."
Thristen ducks into the hut. His shoulders are so broad, he has to turn sideways as well. Quayam made the door narrower than usual last night. Inside the hut, he turns immediately to the right, because there is a dividing wall just inside the door. The wall separates the hut into two rooms. Thristen enters Quayam and Gristel's room. Light comes through the ceiling, where Quayam left some of the conjured matter clear for the purpose. Quayam and Gristel are sitting on the floor, their packs in the corner and their breakfast plates beside them. A space bridge trumpet is on the floor between them.
Thristen sits down. "Hello Aries," he says in Latin. He speaks towards the trumpet. "How is the weather on Olympia?"
A resonant, woman's voice comes faintly through the trumpet. "Hello Thristen. It is hot here, which is good, because I am on a sandy island, staying with a friend of mine. We are planning to go swimming and spear-fishing later."
"It's cold here," Thristen says, "But pretty."
Gristel lowers her coffee cup from her lips. "Aries, we would like very much to know about your man in the Brotherhood of Light."
"He may not remain a member of The Brotherhood for long," Aries says, "You compromised his position there by showing the Master of the Lodge his space bridge to my pantheon. The Master has not spoken to him about the bridge, but my man is not sure if this is because the Master is waiting to accuse him of breaking his oath, or because the Master did not understand what it was he saw on that fateful morning on the hill beside Castle Hyrda."
"I think that's Castle Hydroma," Quayam says.
Gristel leans towards the trumpet. "What is your man's name."
"Gowachin Solafrax," Aries says, "He shows great promise. I moved him and two others from Diamantis on the Satian Sea, where I have a small but dedicated following recently restored to me. The other two are in the northern theatre. I won't give you their names. You are unlikely to encounter them in the immediate future. I did not expect you to encounter Gowachin either, but you did. And you guessed his allegiance somehow, or were you were lucky?"
"Why did you put a man in the Brotherhood of Light?" Gristel says.
"You did not answer my question, Gristel."
Quayam smiles. "I guessed. I was lucky."
"You were," Aries says. "I asked Gowaching to enter the Brotherhood of Light because I was interested in them. They are well-organised, well-armed, far-reaching, and wealthy. They are also fanatics, or so it seemed to me. These things together make them dangerous. It is hard to negotiate with a fanatic. They will die for their beliefs."
"What did Gowachin find out?" Gristel says.
"They raid the orc nations. They move up and down the borderlands on some kind of road hidden in the trees. They have contact with spies in the orc nations. They go on raids into Gutak, during which they kill any orcs they encouter, whether armed or not, adults, women or children. Their objective is to de-stabilize Gutak. Their plan is to cripple the orc nations by causing turmoil between them. They have lodges in almost every nation around the Western Outlands working towards the same objective, operating against the various orc nations. They believe that the orcs are held back from battling one another to the death only by the black orcs. So they want to start by destroying the equillibrium of the black-orc community."
Gristel, Quayam, and Thristen look at one another. After a while, Aries says, "Are you still there?"
"Yes," Quayam says. "We're thinking about what you said."
"Are you glad I have a man on the inside?"
"Yes," Gristel says, "Very glad. Well done."
"If his cover is compromised," Aries says, "I think you will find it worth your while to extract him safely. He is a good man."
"We'll consider it," Quayam says. "But we are still dealing with the consequences of our most recent extraction. We're on our way to visit Zak's father. He has a vineyard on the north-west shore of Lake Zakh in Garaz. Zak believes King Orbelastican of Garaz will send his secret police to capture and torture her father in retribution for her betrayal."
"How barbaric," Aries says.
"He hasn't actually done it yet," Gristel says, "It's what he said he would do if Zak betrayed him. Maybe he was just bluffing."
"In that case," Aries says, "How devious of him."
"We figure he already knows that we took Zak away, and that Zak betrayed him."
"He may be waiting for you," Aries says, "At the vineyard."
"That may be," Thristen says, "But we're going anyway. We promised Zak."
There is silence in the little conjured room. Zak is hitting two sticks together in a rhythm outside.
"Very well," Aries says, "Call me tomorrow, if you can. I will be eager to know if you have avoided imprisonment in Orbelastican's dungeons. If I don't hear from you, I'll do what I can to affect your release, but it won't be much."
"Don't worry," Quayam says, "We'll be fine."
Miga paddles his canoe along the border of Lake Zakh. The sun is setting behind him. The shadow of the hills to the west falls across the water. He sits in the back of the canoe, pushing it through the water with firm strokes that twist a little at the end. There is sweat upon his forehead. Twenty meters across the water to his left is a pebble beach. Trees lean out over the beach, their branches bare. The autumn leaves lie rotting around their trunks. On his right, the water stretches into the distance, not forever, but for a long way. Last summer, Miga paddled his canoe all the way around the lake, and so proved that the story his mother had told him could not be true. But the lake is large. It took him thirty-two days to paddle all the way around its shore. Half of that time was spent hunting and resting from a sickness, but even if he could paddle all day, it would take him ten days.
Small waves make their way out of the deep water and rock the canoe. A breeze blows in Miga's face. But he appears to notice neither the breeze nor the waves. He stares through the bare tree branches along the shore. After another twenty strokes, he stops paddling and turns his head to listen. He hears laughter. He puts his paddle in the water and pushes the canoe forwards.
Miga reaches the tip of a rocky point and sees before him the vines of Noc's Vinyard. The vine stems are bare of leaves and grapes, but they ascend the slope of the vinyard in orderly rows. The soil beneath them is brown with white flecks, and the vines are held up by sticks tied together in squares and triangles.
This is where Zak lived when they were young.
Miga sees Noc's barn and his house. Three huge birds, man-high at their shoulders, crouch on the ground near the shore of the lake. The birds are half in the shadow of the hill and half in the light of the setting sun. Miga pushes his paddle forward through the water and stops his canoe. What are they? The birds are resting upon the ground like roosting chickens. One is gray, one is nearly white, and the third is brown. All three sit close together and within a circle of rope supported by sticks. Men and women stand outside the rope, staring at the birds. Miga recognises all of them. They are the people of his village. Some he has lived with all his life, in his commune. Their children stare from behind their legs. He knows the children also. The birds hold their heads up and cock their eyes at the men and women, but they do not get to their feet or make any noise.
Miga starts paddling again. Several of the people near the giant birds see him on the water and wave to him.
More men and women press about the door of Noc's house. Some are laughing, some are arguing. Several are starting a fire with wood from a pile beside Noc's barn. Two men are wrestling on the ground with two women clapping and cheering them on. They bump into one of the vine supports and a big man standing nearby shouts and drags both of them out of the field. The big man is Bek. Miga can tell by the iron tips on his tusks and the size of his shoulders.
Behind the barn is a wyvern. Miga stares at it, but he can see only half of its body. It's probably Algalan, the wyvern of Lady Streamweaver, because he is lying down with his head tucked beneath his wings. Algalan is old, and sleeps whenever he can. Miga hears a short piping call from behind the house. The call is loud and clear. Miga has heard this call many times before, in battle, with his ten men around him. It is the call of Shrika, the wyvern of Lord Sebiskitus. Shrika watched when Lord Sebiskitus gave Miga the rank of decurion.
Before him is a wooden dock with a row-boat at the end of it. The row-boat and the dock are in good condition. Dragged up on the shore is a canoe. Leaves and dirt have settled upon its underside. There is a crack along one wall, but the crack has been filled with tar. The tar is still shiny. The canoe belongs to Zak. Her grandfather carved it from the trunk of a giant fir tree in the year that he died.
Miga spent many Summer days in that canoe with Zak.
He steers his canoe to the dock. He picks up a rope from the bottom of the canoe. A man walks down to the dock. He waves to Miga. "What's up, Miga?"
Miga ties his canoe to the dock and steps out. "Hi Crok."
The man stands face to face with Miga and speaks quietly. "You're here to see Zak?"
Miga pushes his lips up the base of his tusks. He looks down at the dock and folds his arms. The sleave of his leather jacket pulls up to reveal a tattoo of a snake head, roughly depicted in blue ink. He steps forward quickly and pushes Crok hard on the chest. Crok falls backwards off the dock and into the shallow water, landing upon his back.
Miga walks along the dock and up the path that leads to Noc's front door. He pushes his way through the crowd. When he reaches the big, brown door, he pulls a woman and an old man out of the way so that he can grasp the door latch. He pushes upon the door. It opens a little, but presses against someone inside. He pushes harder and the door opens enough for him to squeeze through.
In front of him people are crowded around a table. They whisper and jostle one another, but there is no shouting or wrestling. Sitting on the far side of the table are Lord Sebiskitus and Lady Streamweaver. Their black skin shines in the firelight. The Lord's arms rest upon the table. Even though the Lord is sitting down, his head is as high as Miga's. The Lady Streamweaver laughs. Miga listens to her laughter, and when she stops, he waits for a few seconds, hoping she will laugh again.
Sitting on the near side of the table, with their backs to Miga, are five people. The woman in the middle is Zak. Even though he can see only the back of her head, Miga can tell it is her by the way she nods when the Lord Sebiskitus speaks. He can tell by the way she leans upon the large man sitting next to her that he is her lover. On the other side from her is Noc, her father, the wine-maker.
Miga moves through the press of people until he stands near the end of the table. He can see the three strangers sitting with Zak and Noc. They are sapiens. Their flat, un-protected faces give them the look of over-grown infants. One man has pointed ears. The woman has red hair. Her mouth curves up at the ends when she talks to Lord Sebiskitus. Her teeth are small and white. The second man is huge. Miga has seen sapiens before, but this one is the broadest he has ever seen. He is not as tall as the Lord, but his arms appear to be as broad.
This is the man against whom Zak is leaning.
Zak's black hair is tied behind her in a pony-tail. Her skin is soft and white. She talks to the Lord now. It is her voice he hears over the whispering of the crowd, but the words she speaks he cannot understand. Her father speaks now, also with words Miga cannot understand. But the Lord understands them, and the sapiens also. They are speaking the High Speach of the Karazi. Zak has learned it, and she speaks is easily.
The big man talks. His lips are red. His eyes are set deep in his face. They hide in the shadows cast by the fire on the opposite side of Noc's big-room. Zak looks up at the man's face. She smiles. Her smile is crooked, just as Miga remembers it. She has smiled at Miga like that many times, before laughing at him, or making fun of him. Whenever he was angry or worried, she would hold him and laugh at him. Zak was always sure that everything would turn out well. Or maybe the thought of things turning out badly did not worry her.
That was how she was until her brother died.
There is a shout at the door. Someone is trying to get in. The door opens. The crowd moves aside. An old man with one tusk comes in carrying a pair of small drums. It is Yat, Miga's great uncle. Yat is followed by Gart carrying the the wide drum, and three others of the village's most respected group of drummers. Zak looks over her shoulder and calls out to the old man and his group. Two young women jump up and down by the fire and squeal. The two young woman are Ditz and Minx. They start to dance, as if the drummers were already playing. The old man nods and puts his drums down by the fire.
Miga frowns. Such behavior by Ditz and Minx is disrespectful to the Lord. Ditz and Minx are twelve and thirteen years old. They are old enough to know not to act like that in the Lord's company. But they have been living with Noc as his wives for the past two years, and they have never grown up properly. He is rich, and gives them everything they want.
Miga looks across the table. Zak has stood up. She is looking at him and moving around the table towards him. The big man looks up at Miga and makes the up-curving shape with his mouth and shows his teeth. The big man knows that Zak was once Miga's lover, and he is angry. Miga may have to fight the big man. If he has to fight the big man he will smash his nose with his tusks. But he does not want to fight Zak's lover. Such behavior is for boys, not men, and certainly not a decurian in the Lord's Battalion.
Miga moves towards the door. Zak meet him in the crowd and hugs him. "Miga, how have you been? You look so well and handsome. My father tells me you have done well in the campaigns. You are a decurion now, aren't you?"
Miga is holding Zak in his arms. He does not know if he should talk into her ear or pull away and speak to her. The people around him have turned to watch he and Zak embrace. He pulls back from her.
Zak tilts her head and smiles at him. "I bet the ladies are chasing you." She puts a claw upon his collar and pulls on the brown leather.
Miga stares into her eyes for a few seconds. He coughs. "I built a cabin on the island."
Zak hops up and down. "Oh! I'd love to see it." She frowns. "But I can't. I have to go tomorrow, and I have to stay with them." She points to the sapiens at the table, "or else I won't be safe. I can't tell you why, but that's the way it is. I hope to be back one day."
The door of Noc's house is still open. Some people are moving in and others are moving out. Zak and Miga are jostled out through the door and into the cool night air. Wood smoke stings their eyes.
Zak hugs Miga again. "Miga, are you happy?"
Miga can smell Zak's skin. She still smells the same. Is he happy? He is happy now. Has he been happy? There have been some happy times. Fighting with his men has been good.
An arm slides between Zak's neck and his own, and pulls back on his throat. Crok's voice speaks loudly in his ear. "Gotcha, cranky boy."
Crok pulls Miga backwards and away from Zak. Miga tries to stay upright, but Crok trips him and they fall to the ground. He cannot see Zak any more. The crowd comes between them. But he hears her laughing. Miga reaches over his own head and puts his fingers in Crok's eyes. Crok turns away, but his grip on Miga's neck loosens. Miga pushes one hand between Crok's arm and neck and with the other, he grabs Crok's testicles.
"Ah!" Crok says, "You frisky fellow!"
Miga turns and raises himself on his arms. He sits down on Crok's chest and stares down at his face. Crok smiles. "I'm wet. Now you'll have a wet butt you love-starved idiot!"
Miga shakes his head and stands up. He looks for Zak. She is not in the crowd. She must have gone back inside. The drummers start playing. The orcs inside start shouting. Whatever conversation was going on between the Lord and the sapiens must now be over. Perhaps the Lord and his wife will dance. He would like to see that. He stares at the door. Crok stands up and puts his hand on Miga's shoulder.
"What are you getting so worked up about? She wasn't that good a lover anyway."
Before Miga can hit him, Crok jumps aside and moves away through the crowd, laughing. Miga walks away from the house, down the path, to the dock. He hears footsteps behind him.
"Miga," a woman's voice says.
He turns. Clinn is standing there, her little son on her hip. She walks up to him and stands close, but does not touch him.
"Tonk would like to see your island." She looks down at her son's face. "Wouldn't you Tonk?"
Tonk holds his mother and stares at Miga. Miga stares back.
"I would like to see it too," Clinn says. "I hear you built your own house there. That sounds wonderful. Why don't you take us with you tonight. We're not in the mood for a party. Maybe you would like our company?"
Miga stares at Clinn. She smiles. Her tusks are a bit crooked, but she has large red eyes and long, curly brown hair. Her son is healthy and strong.
"You will feel sick in the boat."
"I was sick when I was pregnant, but it was worth it."
Miga looks at Zak's canoe and at the house. "I was cold last night sleeping there on my own."
"I'll keep you warm."
Miga looks at Clinn. "You are a good woman, Clinn."
Clinn takes his hand. "Take us to the island."
Miga walks with Clinn to the canoe.
Telegrams are messages dictated into a space bridge and repeated over space bridge, or transcribed and delivered on paper. Gashley Virage receives his telegrams from the local post office and sends them back again by messenger. He does not have his own net bridge. When a client dictates a telegram, she can use the word "comma" to mean "comma" and "stop" to mean "full stop". These are transcribed correctly into print, but when the message is spoken to the recipient, the recipient hears "comma" and "stop". We have transcribed the telegrams as if they were delivered by the post office. Please note that Gristel and Romayne talk almost every day on their bridges. They send telegrams only when their efforts to get to their bridges at the same time are unsuccessful.
From Rackhammer of Lucifer's Pantheon to Thristen Alomere at the Druidic Pantheon, 1 pm on 23rd November. Received by Thristen at 2 pm on the same day.
Thristen, Received father's message. Will fly gutak. Where are you? Thank You. Rackhammer.
From Thristen to Rackhammer at 2 pm on 23rd November.
Rackhammer, We are in Garaz. Leaving soon for Kiali. Would like to meet with you, Thristen with Quayam and Gristel.
From Gristel Virage Net Bridge to Romayne Srae Net Bridge at 2 pm on 23rd November.
Darling, of course we would love to have you and Travis come here and work with us. There will be plenty to do. I miss you very much. You don't have to be so brief in your telegrams. I am paying the bill. We are staying with Zak's father on his vinyard. We are about to leave. Zak is crying. She does not want to leave her father. Do you feel like that too? How long will it take you to come back? Why not summon some griffs on my account an fly out here? You'll need them when you are working here anyway. We have some summoned griffs right now. They are well-behaved and easy to ride. Love Mother and Father.
From Gristel Virage to Gashley Virage at the Local Post Office, 2 pm on 23rd November.
Dad, We have Zak with us now. She has to leave her father behind. Our plan is to leave her at a tavern in the borderlands with a formidable friend of ours. She will be safe ther. But I'm not sure we will really leave her without family or friends. If we keep her with us, will she be welcome in your home? Please know that I will understand whatever you decide, and that I love you very much. Gristel.
From Rackhammer to Thristen 4 pm 23rd November.
Am near Garaz, on Lake Zakh. Can meet you at the Ankh Bridge at noon tomorrow.
From Thristen to Rackhammer 6 pm 23rd November.
Rackhammer, Cannot meet you so soon. Must go Kiali. Can meet at Castle Hydroma on 30th November at noon.
From Rackhammer to Thristen 9 am 24th November.
Agreed. 30th November at noon at castle.
From Romayne to Gristel at 10 am on 24th November
Dear Mom, We just received a job offer. We are both excited. We are negotiating the price. We are supposed to help rescue a sapien slave from a calipanti desert tribe. We got the job because the client knew your name and knew I was your daughter. Thanks Mom. After that, we'd like to come back. We'll see about flying back. Of course, we may get more work. Hope you're well. Travis and I are getting along okay. Had a fight yesterday about some stupid thing. I think the excitement of the job will cheer him up. Love, R
From Gristel to Romayne at 12 pm on 24th November.
Darling, Congratulations upon the new job. I'm glad my reputation was of help to you. We are grounded today. The griffs are outside getting wet. We're sitting inside a shelter, all four of us, napping and talking. It's cold unless we stay close together. Thristen is talking about lighting a fire and Quayam wants to make a chimney. Wish you were here to hear them debating the best way to do it. Zak says she's going to give me a massage because my neck hurts.
From Gristel to Gashley, 8 am on 27th November.
Dad, We're not leaving Zak behind. She's coming with us wherever we go until further notice. What's your decision? We're coming south now. Love, Gristel.
From Gristel to Romayne at 9 am on 29th November.
Dad just got done talking to a spooky old elf called Bashila. She's a woman and she's beautiful but sad. She lives in the woods around a hill-top in the Long Hills, pining for her lost husband who, you guessed it, looks like Dad. So I was pretty jealous when he was talking to her. But he made me laugh when he came back exhausted from trying to persuade the old lady to come out of exile and rejoin society.
From Thristen to Rackhammer at 8 am on 30th November.
Rackhammer, Cannot fly today. Tomorrow weather permitting. Thristen
From Gashley to Gristel at 10 am on 30th November.
Dear Gristel, Zak is welcome here. Love, Mother and Father.
From Gristel to Gashley, 12 pm on 30th November.
Dad, Thank you so much! And Mom too, thank you! We're stuck in the fog on the slopes of the Iron Mountains. We may be here for another day or two. After that, we'll be home.
From Gashley to Gristel at 5 pm on 30th November.
Dear Daughter, Mother forgot to tell you my condition for accepting your friend: you must tell us what you are up to flying around all the time. Love, Father
Gristel, Quayam, Thristen, and Zak stand near their griffs on the hay stubble outside the walls of Castle Hydroma. A black orc comes through the orchard door and walks towards them. He has an iron rod strapped to his back and he's wearing armor. A wyvern is curled in the half-ruined tower in front of them. The sky above is clear. The sun shines brightly, but the air is cool and there are still signs of frost in some of the shadows.
They wait for the black orc to reach them.
Gristel watches the orc's boots leaving prints in the grass. His breath is warm, and leaves a vanishing trail behind him. When he stops before them, Gristel smiles. Here is a black-orc that fulfills her expectations. He is hugely muscular and tall. His skin is absolutely black. There is a likeness between him and his mother. She smiles. She is delighted that she has acquainted herself enough with black-orc faces to notice similarities between them.
She smiles. "Rackhammer, I assume."
Rackhammer bows his head briefly. "Gristelvirage?"
Her companions introduce themselves. Rackhammer stares down at Zak.
"You are the woman who betrayed your Lord to save my father and my mother?"
Zak opens her mouth to speak, but no words come out. She stares up at the black orc.
"Your name is Zak?"
Zak nods. "Yes."
Rackhammer looks at Thristen. "I thank you. I understand that you want to meet with me and make some kind of bargain with me."
"Yes," Thristen said, "We are planning to build a road from−"
Rackhammer holds up his hand. "I do not wish to hear the details now. I want to find out more about you before I negotiate with you. By all accounts you are resourceful and intelligent. I must be careful."
"Okay," Thristen says.
"Will it be possible for you to come back here on the sixth of December? Or may I come and visit you wherever you are?"
"We can come back," Quayam says.
Rackhammer nods. He looks at the griffs for a few seconds. He faces the travelers. "Until then."
He turns and walks away. Our heroes remain standing. They watch him pass through the door in the garden wall.
"That went well," Gristel says.
"Is he angry?" Zak says.
Gristel puts her arm over Zak's shoulder. "No. Not angry. Stiff, maybe. But not angry."
Zak leans against Gristel and hugs her.
"So the Lord Sebiskitus and Lady Streamweaver get off their wyverns," Gristel says, "and walk towards us. You should see the Lady walk. I couldn't do it if I tried. The head doesn't go up and down at all, just glides. They stop in front of us and−"
Gristel laughs and leans back on the couch in her parents' living room. The sun shines through the many-paned glass bay windows behind the couch. On her right is her father, and on the other side of her father is Zak. In front of the three of them is a low table with a tray, tea-cups, saucers, and cookies. Dominican, Quayam, and Thristen sit on chairs around the opposite side of the table. Zak has so far stayed three nights in the Virage household. Since then, Gristel and Thristen and Quayam have been describing their adventures to her parents.
Gashley frowns. "Who says?"
Gristel stops talking and looks at her father for a moment. "Oh. Thristen says, in Orcish, which he speaks really well, doesn't he Zak?"
Zak is dipping a sugar cube in her tea and licks it. She nods.
"So he says, 'Greetings fellow dwellers of Clarus.' Ha!"
Dominican laughs. She holds her hand over her mouth and watches Thristen. He shakes his head at Gristel. "I showed them that I could speak their language."
A small sandy-brown head pokes up from between the couch and the windows. Its wings flap and blow air upon Gashley's sparse head of gray hair. It is Sid the demon. Zak lunges forwards and tries to grab the little creature. It flies up in the air, striking Gashley and Gristel with its wings. Zak has hold of one of its legs.
"Gotcha!" Zak says in orcish.
Her leg kicks out and knocks a cup of tea off the table and onto the carpet.
"Let go of him!" Gristel says.
When Zak hears the cup hit the carpet, she lets go of the demon and sits down. Sid flaps to Quayam and lands on his lap, staring back at Zak. Gashley shakes his head.
"That's an antique carpet."
Zak stares at the black tea on the carpet. She touches it with her finger. She sits up and looks at Gashley. She bares her teeth, shifts across the couch towards him, puts her arms around him from the side and presses herself against his arm. "Oh Gash, I'm really, really, really sorry. Do you stil like me?"
Gashley's frown deepens for a moment. He pushes her gently away from him. "Yes, I still like you."
Zak sits back. "Thanks Gash-Man." She holds up one thumb. "You're the best." She stands up, bends over, and picks up the tea-cup.
Dominican is smiling into her tea. Gashley picks up a little bell and rings it.
Thristen half-stands in his seat and reaches over the table to stab a boiled potato with a large silver fork. He puts the potato on his plate next to a slice of warm bread, a spoon-full of sauerkraut, a piece of cold roast lamb, and a rolled filet of pickled herring. When he sits down, the table-top is the hight of his chest. He cuts the potato with a knife. The knife handle is silver, but the blade is steel. The plate is white with a pattern of crossing blue lines.
"Please have some butter with your potato," a woman's voice says. Thristen looks up. The voice is deep, but still sounds like the voice of a woman. It is the voice of Rackhammer's mother, Dame Cloudmover. Her husband is not a lord of orcs, so she is not a Lady. She is a Dame.
Thristen looks at the fist-sized pat of butter on a plate in front of Quayam, who sits upon his right. "Don't mind if I do." He nudges Quayam. "Pass me the butter."
Cloudmover looks across the room to the wall behind her. Two male orcs stand there at attention. They wear chain armor and hold halberds upright beside them. Thristen squints for the second time at the halberd blades. He cannot tell in the dim light whether the blades are old, well-used, ornamental, steel or adamantine. Beside the two orc men stands an orc woman in an apron. Cloudmover points at the woman. "Pip has been making butter for us, and she does a very good job." She smiles. "I think you'll like it. Plenty of salt. We like it that way."
Quayam slides the butter across the table. Thristen takes a good-sized chunk an smears it on his potato. He looks up when he hears a metallic creak at the end of the table to his left. Squire Coldiron is moving his iron wheel-chair closer to the table.
"You must have our guests try your beer, Beloved," Coldiron says, "They can tell us how well you are doing." He looks at Gristel. "She has taken up brewing as a hobby. I think her beer is excellent, but she does not believe me."
"I will be glad to try it," Gristel says.
She looks across the table. Rackhammer stares back at her. He has a fork in one hand and a knife in the other and chews a piece of meat slowly. His head is a full thirty centimeters above her own. She shifts in her seat. When she stretches with her toes, she can touch the stone floor.
Cloudmover looks over her shoulder. "Bring a jug of my beer and a few cups," she says in orcish. She holds up her index finger and puts her thumb half-way along it. "Small cups."
Pip taps her chest with one hand. "Yes, Maam."
Pip turns and leaves through the door. Thristen puts a slice of potato in his mouth. He takes care to taste the butter. It is salty. He likes it.
"Good butter," he says, with his mouth half-full of food.
Gristel clenches her teeth and puts her hand upon Thristen's knee. She whispers in his ear. He nods and swallows.
Quayam cuts a piece of butter and holds it up in front of his eyes. "Where do you get cow's milk to make butter?"
"The wagon brings it from the city once a week," Cloudmover says, "It does not last long, so we have been trying to make things out of it, like butter and cheese."
Quayam nods. He puts the butter in his mouth and closes his eyes. He swallows. "Very good."
"When you travel," Cloudmover says, "have you ever been to a country where you don't like any of the food?"
"No," Quayam says. "We always find something we like."
Cloudmover nods. "When you come to a new city, do you always have a guide to take you to good restaurants and hotels, or do you sometimes choose them yourself?"
Gristel looks at Cloudmover. They never use guides, or hardly ever. The only time she can remember them using a guide was on Solomon Island in Feras.
Thristen smiles at Quayam. "That's a good question. You know, we sleep outside a lot. Quayam makes shelters for us, and I like to hunt." He turns to Cloudmover. He opens his mouth, but then closes it and swallows his meat. "When we stay in hotels, they are usually ones our friends have recommended. Or they are famous hotels, or we choose them because they have stables for the griffs."
Gristel looks at Rackhammer. He is still chewing. Now he is staring at Thristen. Cloudmover has been asking questions about traveling ever since they sat down and Rackhammer has been watching them answer her questions. Gristel has kept her answers brief. But Thristen has been talking freely, with his mouth full of food for much of the time.
"Why are you living up here on a hill when you could be living in the city?" Gristel says.
The three black orcs look at Gristel. None of them answer. Thristen nods beside her and smiles. Quayam chews a piece of pickled herring. He squints a little.
Cloudmover turns to her son. "Why indeed?"
Coldiron puts his hands upon the arms of his wheelchair and watches his son. Rackhammer's lower lip moves just a little up the base of his white tusks. He cuts a piece of lamb. "I believe it is we who will ask the questions today." He pierces a piece of meat with his fork and raises it half-way to his mouth. His red, slitted eyes look into Gristel's. "You want my agreement in a project of yours, I believe. So we will ask the questions."
Cloudmover folds her arms. Coldiron looks up at the ceiling. Thristen looks up also, thinking that Coldiron might be staring at something interesting. The ceiling is four meters high, with stained rafters. There are a few cobwebs in the corners, but no animals or painting to look at. The only light comes from two windows whose shutters are closed. The sun shines upon them outside.
Coldiron puts one hand on the table. He picks up his fork. "I am an outcast."
Cloudmover takes a deep breath. "By your own choice."
"And a cripple," Coldiron says.
"Also by your own choice."
Coldiron sits up. He tilts his head to one side. "I would hardly call it my own choice."
It appears that Cloudmover is about to answer him, but Rackhammer puts his fork down. It clatters against his plate. Cloudmover stares at the table.
The orc woman called Pip returns with a tray. Upon the tray are six half-liter mugs and a jug. She puts the tray on the table.
"Ah," Cloudmover says. "The beer. Allow me."
She pours a mug of beer for each of them. Gristel raises hers. "Cheers."
She drinks. The beer is bitter and flat. It's warm too. She puts the mug down.
"Not bad," she says.
Cloudmover swallows a mouthful of beer and puts her mug down. "Well, that's high enough praise from such wordly travelers as yourselves. You must have drunk some of the best beer in the world, or on any world."
Thristen wipes his mouth with a blue napkin. "We have had some good brews in our time. This one is, um," he looks at his mug. "Passable." He looks up. "Keep working on it."
Gristel sits back in her chair. "What makes you think we ever use guides to choose restaurants?"
Cloudmover bares her teeth. She is smiling. Her teeth are yellow, and marked by hair-thin lines. In the dim light, Gristel cannot see the lines in Cloudmovers skin. Cloudmover's face is a jet-black oval with yellow teeth, two yellow tusks, and red eyes.
Coldiron reaches into a leather satchle on the side of his wheelchair and takes out a green book. He puts a book on the table and pushes it towards Gristel. She picks it up. It is a volume bound in wood with green stained leather on the outside. The pages inside are thick an irregularly cut. On the cover is the title and auther. The title is The Captive and the Clouns. The author is Gristel Virage.
Gristel looks up. "I see you have been doing your homework."
"We enjoyed reading it," Coldiron says.
Cloudmover swallows another mouthful of beer. "We read it out loud. It was most enjoyable." She looks at her son. "The three of us in a room listening to my husband read. It was like old times."
Rackhammer nods. He wipes his tusks with his red napkin. "Yes. Very good. I grant you that we enjoyed the book." He leans back in his chair and looks at Gristel. "You are a fine author, and if your story is true, an honorable business partner and a loyal friend and patient wife." He puts his napkin upon his lap. "Now, let's talk about the Brotherhood of Light."
"Yes," Quayam says. "Let's do that. Tell us about the Sword of Stellan."
"Ha!" Cloudmover says.
Gristel peers at Cloudmover's face. After a while, she decides that Cloudmover is laughing.
Rackhammer picks up his napkin and wraps it around one hand. "What is so amusing, Mother? Perhaps we can all laugh at the joke."
Cloudmover shakes her head. "Oh, my dear boy, I'm just an old woman who brews bad beer. Ignore me."
Rackhammer nods his head slowly. "I shall endeavor to do so." He looks at Quayam. "I have an ultimatum for you to deliver."
"Oh yes?" Gristel says, "To whom?"
"To the government of Varay."
Gashley Virage hits a white ball across the green felt surface of his billiard table with a long, tapering, polished stick. The white ball clacks against a red ball and sends the red ball sliding across the table to the far corner, where it bounces between the edges of a pocket and rolls to one side. He stands the stick on the ground with the narrow point up. Quayam Srae, his son-in-law, and Thristen Alomere, his daughter's long-time colleague, stand in the doorway.
"Come in," he says. "Are the women in bed?"
"No," Thristen says. "We left them wondering if the Varayan school system would accept my half-orc children, and how cute they would look in Gristel's baby outfits."
"Ha!" Gashley says. He picks up his stick, moves around the table and takes another shot.
"You're skeptical?" Quayam says.
Gashley watches a red ball fall into a pocket. He smiles. "Why this talk of children all of a sudden?"
Thristen crosses the room and puts a log on the small fire. He stands up. "We paid Zak the money we owed her today. Now she can afford fertility. She poured the thousand gold coins out on our bed and lay in the middle of them and told me what she wanted to do." He shakes his head and smiles.
Quayam takes a stick from the wall and looks down the length of it. "She's a good woman."
"Never a dull moment with her around," Gashley says, "I'll give her that."
Quayam puts the stick back on the rack. Gashley watches him. "Don't want to play?"
"We have news," Quayam says.
"Rackhammer has an ultimatum."
"Oh yes? For whom?"
"For the parliament. Either they stop the Brotherhood of Light from raiding Gutak or he will invade and deal with them himself."
Gashley leans on the table. He stands his stick on its end and turns it in the fingers of one hand. "I see."
"He can field ten battalions," Thristen says. "That's around twenty thousand men."
Gashley looks up. "He told you that?"
"We figured it out. We know from Olympia that the population of Gutak is fifty thousand. That's ten counties, each with a black-orc lord. Each county can field around two thousand."
Gashley lifts his cue and shoots. A red ball falls into a pocket. He takes it out and places it in the center of the table. He shoots again. He misses. "We have a standing army of around the same number. We can call up ten times that number if we have to."
Thristen puts his arms behind his back. Quayam stands beside the table. Zak laughs in the living room down the corridor.
Gashley shakes his head. He stares at the white ball. "He's not serious is he?"
"I would be, if I were him," Quayam says. "They're killing women and children. What's he supposed to do? Let them keep doing it?"
"He can afford to lose a few women and children," Gashley says. "This a black-orc general. He's a pragmatist. How many is he losing each year?"
Thristen moves away from the fire. He sits in a leather armchair against the wall. "He didn't say. A few hundred?"
Gashley shoots again. He frowns at the table. Thristen and Quayam watch him. He is thinking.
"A hundred would be more than enough," Gashley says, "You tell me he takes his army into the field on the other side of the Long Hills in the summer. His men would not want to leave their families exposed behind them. He would have to leave half of them behind. It would compromise his military objectives. That's why he's worried. He's ambitious and he can't achieve his aims with the Brotherhood of Light at his back."
Quayam smiles. Gashley took it for granted that orcs worry about their women and children in the same way sapiens do. He doubts Gashley would have made such an assmuption before Zak came to stay in his house.
"How does Rackhammer intend to deliver his ultimatum to the parliament?"
"He asked us to deliver it," Quayam says. "We said we'd ask you to do it."
Gashley leans on his stick. He stares at the curtains on the wall opposite him. Quayam reaches out and picks up one of the red balls. It is heavy and cool. "It's time for you to come out of retirement."
Gashley smiles at him. "Why do I feel as if I'm being played?"
Quayam puts the ball down and opens his eyes wide. "Played?"
"First there's my daughter objecting to my tolerance of the Brotherhood of Light. Then there's a beautiful young orc woman staying in my house. Now there's the offer of limelight."
Quayam stares at him. Thristen laughs. "You make it sound bad."
Gashley looks at Thristen. Thristen looks back at him. Gashely looks at Quayam. "You're forcing me to pick sides."
"How so?" Quayam says.
"I'm a soldier. Soldier's don't stay neutral. Not good ones, anyway. And I may have many faults, but I'm a good soldier."
Gashley walks to the wall and puts his stick in the rack. He turns to Quayam. "I'll need a letter. From Rackhammer, or maybe the king, what's-his-name."
"Earthscorcher," Thristen says.
"Yes, that gentlman. A letter. I'll take it to the Foreign Office in Ankle."
"Have you picked a side?" Thristen says.
"Don't mock me in my own house, young man."
Quayam folds his arms. "We'll get you a letter."
Gashley nods. "Okay. I'm going to bed."
"Goodnight," Quayam and Thristen say.
From Thristen to Rackhammer 9 am 7th December.
Rackhammer, Need letter for Varayam Foreign Office to make our statement credible. When and where shall we meet?
From Rackhammer to Thristen 9 pm 7th December.
Thristen, What do you mean by a letter? Yes can meed at the quarry at sunrise tomorrow.
"This is Orbelastican." The voice is faint but deep. It emerges from a bridge trumpet on the floor of Zak and Thristen's room in the Virage house. It is 9:30 am on the 8th of December. This is the time of day that Zak was accustomed to reporting to the Minister of Information in the Court of Orbelastican, King of Garaz. She took the bridge out for the first time yesterday and asked for an audience with Orbelastican. The Minister of Information objected, but Zak insisted.
Quayam, Gristel, Thristen, and Zak sit around the trumpet with their backs to a hot fire. Thristen sits near the fire and tends it with an iron poker. Their flying hats and jackets lie upon the floor among them. Quayam's notebook is on his lap.
"This is X7. I'm here with Thristen Alomere, Quayam Srae, and Gristel Virage."
"Where are you?"
"I'm not going to answer that question."
She looks at Thristen. He smiles and holds his thumb up.
The four of them took off an hour before dawn this morning. They flew on three griffs through clear skies to the quarry outside Pitt in Gutak. There they met Rackhammer and explained their need for a letter stating his ultimatum to the Varayan Government. Rackhammer had some news for them about Ellana Cavechi. She withdrew two thousand gold pieces from the Gutak treasury on the 15th of November. She took it with her to Pitt. She made the withdrawal with a written order signed by Earthscorcher. The purpose of the withdrawal was given as "security of the state". The orcs who accompanied Ellana to the Birdcage in the Borderlands on the 19th of November are certain that there were bags of gold in Ellana's suitcases. Their decurion reported to his Lord as soon as he returned from the Borderlands, and complained of Ellana's actions.
There was no mention of financial payment in Ellana's letter to Vespian Parlay of the Brotherhood of Light. The only payment she mentioned was knowledge of the location of the Sword of Stellan. Why did she take the money? Thristen thinks Ellan betrayed Orbelastican and Earthscorcher at the same time, and left with the cash for herself.
"Zak," Orbelastican says, "I understand that you visited your father at his vinyard."
"He is getting old. It's a pity for you to be so far away from him."
Zak is about to answer, but Gristel holds her finger to her mouth. She points to Quayam.
"King Orbelastican, this is Quayam Srae," Quayam says. "We'd like to know why you want Coldiron dead."
Orbelastican laughs. "What makes you think I want that poor cripple dead? He's suffered enough already, and not at my hands. He's harmless. If pity him."
"Ellana Cavechi was your spy. She arranged the attempt on Coldiron's life. She was acting for you."
Orbelastican laughs again. This time, he takes his time over it, and his laugh sounds more like a rumble. "For someone who works with a traitor, I find it amusing that you don't suspect treachery in others. What makes you think Ellana was acting for me and not for herself? For that matter, how do you know that Zak is acting for you now, and not for me?"
Quayam looks at Gristel and Thristen. Gristel reaches out and covers the trumpet with her hand.
"There's no point in arguing with him," she whispers.
She takes her hand off the trumpet.
Quayam nods. "Perhaps you're right."
"Right about what, Quayamsrae?"
Quayam frowns. Gristel leans towards the trumpet. "You're right that the people you choose to work for you are untrustworthy."
They hear Orbelastican's rumbling laugh. "Be that as it may, Gristelvirage, Rackhammer's abstemious father is still alive, thanks to you. I'm sure the general is appropriately grateful to you, is he not?"
"He did thank us for saving the lives of his Mother and Father, yes."
"So now you can gain his approval of the road you plan to build across the Outlands. How convenient for you. In fact, the entire affair seems to have worked out rather well for the three of you, doesn't it? An observer less trusting than myself might conclude that you planned it yourselves, with the help of your new friend Zak."
Gristel does not answer. Quayam looks at Thristen. Thristen moves away from the fire to speak into the trumpet. "It's just as well you're so trusting then, isn't it?"
"Yes, it is. I'm glad you saved Rackhammer's father. You'll have to trust me on that count. I have my own reasons to be glad, but they are none of your business, so I won't tell you about them. What is my business, however, is your plan to make a road across Orc Territory."
"We don't mean it to be your business," Thristen says. "It won't pass through Garaz."
"That's right. It won't pass through Garaz because I would not allow such a thing. It's in violation of the Treaty of Reconcilliation, which I am pledged to obey, whether I like it or not."
Zak leans towards Thristen and whispers in his ear. "I don't understand." Orbelastican's Latin makes full use of Latin verb tenses. Even Thristen, who has been speaking Latin for seven years, must concentrate to follow Orbelastican's sentences.
"I'll explain later," Thristen says.
"The road will not violate the treaty," Quayam says, "No goods will pass from sapiens to orcs. They will merely pass through the Outlands from one sapien nation to another."
"That is a technicality. You insult my intelligence, and my understanding of the treaty. Do you suppose I or any other observer will believe that Mokul and Gutak are permitting the road without payment? Your payment will be made in secret, and that payment will be a violation of the Treaty."
Quayam is writing in his notebook. He finishes his sentence and draws a circle. He puts a cross in the circle. He draws two lines and a square. He looks up at Gristel and frowns. The four of them agreed before they set up the trumpet that they would speak only if they were certain that everything they said upheld their dignity, was honest, and yet did not reveal new information to Orbelastican. Under these constraints, he is not sure how to answer.
Thristen leans forward. "And I suppose luring gullible adventurers into the Old Hills, killing them, taking thier armor and weapons, and selling them to merchants in Kiali is perfectly in keeping with the Treaty, is it?"
A few seconds pass. Orbelastican does not answer. Gristel smiles at Thristen and mouths the words, "Well said." He nods. Zak taps him with her finger and he whispers in her ear. Quayam writes in his notebook.
Orbelastican speaks. "If sapien marauders raid our territory, we have the right to defend ourselves. If they die while attempting to rob us, their possessions rightfully belong to us. My armed forces make every effort to prevent the belongings of these marauders from passing across the Borderlands. I lose many brave soldiers each year trying to stop such trade, but the trade persists all the same. When a man wants to sell something, it is hard to stop him. All we can do is raise the price. So, yes, that trade is contrary to the Treaty, but we are making every effort to stop it. If sapien nations would stop glorifying these marauders, and instead vilify them, I'm sure the whole system would collaps. But what hope is there of sapiens showing even the slightest respect for the happiness of orcs, let alone their property?"
Thristen looks at Gristel. She nods and speaks into the trumpet. "We have nothing against your operation in the Old Hills. But we don't put the Treaty above the good of orcs and sapiens."
Quayam grimaces and shakes his head. Gristel looks at him and whispers, "What?"
"That's admirable of you," Orbelastican says, "But the day I look to sapiens for help protecting my people has not yet come. And you will be breaking the Treaty with your road. In the end, you will be brought to justice. Those who enforce the Treaty have a long reach, and a strong arm."
Gristel and Quayam look at one another. They mouth words without speaking. Thristen clears his throat. They look at him. He holds up his hands. They nod. He leans towards the trumpet.
"Your highness," he says, "I think we understand eachother. We have to go now. I look forward to our next conversation."
"As do I," Orbelastican says. "Goodbye. And goodbye to you, Zak, I will tell your father that you are well."
Gristel takes the bridge out of the trumpet and locks it in a metal box. "Okay. That was tense. He's a clever bastard, isn't he?"
"I don't like him," Quayam says.
"What did he say about my father?" Zak says.
Noon, 9th December, 2482
Quayam, Gristel, Zak, and Thristen land at the quarry and meet Rackhammer. He gives them a folded letter on heavy paper, sealed with wax. He gives them two copies of the letter, hand-written, both signed by Daybreak, Earthscorcher's daughter. Rackhammer assures them that all three copies are the same. Daybreak wishes the master copy to be opened by an official of the Varayan Government. The Royal Decree is in Latin, and reads as follows.
To the Parilment of Varay, The Brotherhood of Light has been attacking our people for several years. We give you this opportunity to stop these attacks permanently. If they raid our territory again, we are resolved to invade Varay, raize the Lodge of the Brotherhood of Light, and thereafter dispose our troops so as to protect our borders. Daybreak, Stuard of Gutak, on Behalf of King Earthscorcher.
Gristel's sister Sandra, brings her husband and three children to stay in the Virage home on the 8th of December. They stay until the morning of the 11th. Dominican draws a family tree for Zak, which we show below.
The grandchildren get along well with Zak. She teaches them acrobatics, or tries to. But Sandy and Charles make sure one of them is always watching Zak when she is with their children. When they depart on the 11th of December, Sandy and her family leave. Gashley retires to his study and begins to write his letters to the Foreign Office. He has the Royal Decree in his iron safe. Thristen, Gristel, and Quayam go into town to buy armor and mail a letter to the Brotherhood of Light. Zak remains behind. Quayam orders studded leather, Gristel scale mail, and Thristen plate armor. Here is their letter to the Brotherhood. They send the letter to Vespian Parlay at the Lodge.
To All Members of the Brotherhood of Light, We intend to defend the Outlands against incursions by the Brotherhood of Light. We will bring to justice any member of the Brotherhood we find in the Borderlands or the Outlands. Yours Sincereley, Quayam Srae, Gristel Virage, Thristen Alomere.
Morning, 12th December, 2482
Quayam receives a telegram from Aries.
Quayam, My man on the inside tells me that the Brotherhood of Light is planning a raid with thunder-eggs upon the first commune on the road north from the Borderlands. It is isolated in a field. They plan to attack soon after dawn and slaughter every orc in the commune, women and children included. He thinks they will pick the night of the new moon for the assault. A.
The night of the new moon will be the night of the 18th December.
From Thristen to Rackhammer 11 am 12th December.
Rackhammer, Must talk about upcoming raid by Brotherhood of Light. Thristen
From Rackhammer to Thristen 5 pm 12th December.
Thristen, Tomorrow at noon, usual place, R.
While Quayam, Gristel, Thristen, and Rackhammer are sitting in a conjured shelter of Quayam's making beside the quarry the next afternoon, Quayam draws a map of Pitt, showing its several communes, the borderlands, and other locations of interest. It is cold outside, but their bodies keep the enclosed space warm. Rackhammer sits stiffly against one wall. He touches the material frequently and peers at it. The walls are invisible. Three hippogriffs sit under the trees nearby, and a wyvern sits beside the quarry.
An hour later, Rackhammer steps out of the shelter. "Very well. We are agreed. I will order the evacuation of the commune. You will endeavor to protect it from damage. You will deal with the knights as you see fit."
Thristen says, "Thank you General. We are agreed."
On the 14th of December, Gashley goes into town. He returns with a letter from Vespian Parlay.
Thank you for your honorable warning. But we consider your alliance with Hellspawn to be unholy, and that justice is on our side. Vespian Parlay.
"I mailed my letters to the Foreign Office," Gashley says.
"Excellent," Gristel says.
"And I went to see the Mayor also. Don't mention it to Zak, because she'll be offended, but I obtained a license to keep an orc on my property. So it's perfectly legal now, her staying here. She has the status of a dangerous animal."
"Nice," Thristen says.
In the morning on 17th of December, Aries tells them that twenty mounted knights left the Lodge of the Brotherhood of Light, bound for the Borderlands. Gowachin Solafrax is among them, as is Vespian Parlay. Thristen sends a telegram to Rackhammer, warning him of their arrival at dawn the next day. Gristel, Quayam, and Thristen mount their hippogriffs. They tell Zak, Gashley, and Dominican they are going to stop a raid by the Brotherhood.
"Very well," Gashley says. "If you must."
"It's what we have to do, Dad," Gristel says.
The clouds are at 2000 m. They fly West so they will not be seen by the knights on their ride North. They land upon a hill a hundred kilometers to the West of Pitt and wait for sunset. They watch the clouds lowering and the light of day fading.
"We were foolish to rely upon this flight to the quarry in the dark," Quayam says.
"We'll make it," Thristen says.
The flight is an anxious one. But they find the quarry by following the river North to Pitt. They land near Rackhammer's wyvern. Soon after, another wyvern lands, and a black orc dismounts. He is tall, even for a black-orc, and slender.
"This is Prince Steelquencher, son of Daybreak, Stuard of Gutak."
"It's an honor to meet you," Gristel says.
"Our desire is to prevent the people of Pitt finding you here in the forest tonight," Rackhammer says, "Their habit is to hunt at night. Steelquencher will keep watch over you and make sure no hunters come near your shelter and your hippogriffs."
"Why not tell the people there's a mountain lion on the other side of town?" Thristen says, "Then they'll all go and hunt over there."
Rackhammer laughs. Steelquencher does not. "That would be a deception."
"I was joking," Thristen sasy.
"Good fortune tomorrow," Rackhammer says. "I will see to the evacuation of the commune now."
Rackhammer leaves. Quayam, Gristel, and Thristen set up camp. Gristel talks to Romayne. Shortly before midnight, Steelquencher leaves. They hear his wyvern take off. But in his place are ten orcs. They stomp around in the woods.
"What's going on?" Gristel says.
Quayam peers into the darkness. "They must be keeping watch instead of the Prince. Perhaps he got bored."Gristel lies down. "Well, I'm going to get some sleep. Big day tomorrow."
Dawn, 18th December, 2482
Steelquencher sits on a log with Rackhammer behind a bush. Through the trees in front of him to the South he has a clear view of the Commune the sapiens claim will soon be attacked by knights from the Brotherhood of Light.
Steelquencher looks into the forest to the West. He sees several orcs crouched behind trees and bushes. "General, will they see our men in the forest?"
"Perhaps," Rackhammer says. "They are well-hidden in the shadows. I believe that sapiens do not see well in dark places. But even if they do see our men, what difference will it make?"
"I don't know, General."
They sit in silence. It is another cloudy, winter day. Steelquencher is dressed warmly in his flying kit. The first light of day begins to penetrate the clouds.
"I hear them," Rackhammer says.
From the West comes a whistling sound on the wind. Steelquencher looks up through the forest. Through the bare branches, he sees three hippogriffs flying low over the tree-tops. They land a hundred meters away in the fields. The three adventurers dismount and lead the giant birds into the shadow of the forest.
"Do we have men there?"
"No, my Prince," Rackhammer says, "All our men are East of us. It was agreed that they should land in the field to our West."
The adventurers emerge from the trees. They cross the field to the commune. It is a large building made of logs. It is thirty meters long, ten meters wide, and five meters high with a sloping roof. The walls and roof are all logs, with the gaps between them filled by pitch. Steelquencher has not been inside this particular commune, but he has entered many others. Inside is one large space, usually partitioned with curtains at one end into ten or fifteen sleeping spaces. But most of the commune will be one connected space for eating and gathering.
It takes a hundred orcs several months to cut the logs for such a structure and erect it under the direction of their Lord and the King's Builders. Twenty knights of the Brotherhood of Light intend to destroy this one with sorcerous fire. The adventurers intend to protect it.
But how will they protect it? By standing in front of it? There are two doors to the commune, one at each end. How will three people hold the doors against twenty?
The sapiens stand at the West door of the commune. Steelquencher raises his binoculars to his eyes. The elf, whose name is Quayamsrae, is speaking. No, he is singing. Now he throws something small and shiny high in the air above the roof of the commune. It stops in mid-air, above the center of the roof.
It seems to Steelquencher that a wind blows over the commune. The air around it hisses.
"What is doing?"
The general does not answer. He is watching the adventurers through his own binoculars.
The elf walks closer to the commune. He reaches out and touches something, or appears to touch something by his movements, but Steelquencher sees nothing that might be touched.
"They have covered the commune with conjured matter," Rackhammer says. "The elf is a sorcerer. His wife calls him a Wind Lord."
The adventurers walk to the East side of the commune. They stand upon the track that leads to the main road two kilometers to the East. A bridge made of logs crosses a stream. The track runs a hundred meters across a field before it enters the forest.
The adventurers cross the bridge. The big man stares into the forest near where Steelquencher and Rackhammer are concealed. He speaks to his comrades. They look into the forest also, but not for long. On the south side of the track is a shed. Steelquencher watches the woman try to open the shed door. It appears to be locked.
"General, why do they want to open the shed?" He speaks quietly because the adventurers are less than a hundred meters away across the field. He does not know how well they hear in the daylight, but he remembers reading that they hear very well in bright light, although he cannot understand how light can make a difference to hearing.
The general does not answer. Instead he puts one hand to his left ear. "Hark."
Steelquencher listens. He hears the sound of horses on the track in the forest. The sound stops. The adventurers turn from the shed door and stare along the track towards the sound. They move around the shed to the bushes between it and the river. They crouch down in the bushes, but Steelquencher can still see them.
There is movement on the track. Sapien knights appear around the bend and walk out into the open. They are wear heavy armor. The one in front wears armor of solid metal plates. Some carry shields. All carry swords.
Rackhammer looks down at his pocket chronometer. "They are early."
The knights walk towards the commune. Steelquencher counts eighteen of them. It takes them half a minute to cross the field. The adventurers duck down into their bushes. The knights cross the bridge. When they near the commune they stop. They reach out with their hands. The leader and two others talk to one another. They are loud enough that Steelquencher can hear their voices, but he cannot make out the words. It does not sound to him as if they are speaking Latin.
Several knights look back towards the shed. When they do so, they see the adventurers hiding in the bushes. They point and shout. The leader in plate armor turns and moves towards the bridge.
The adventurers rush from their hiding place. They draw their swords and charge onto the bridge. They meet the leader of the knights on the other side. The remaining knights rush to their leader's side. Some push others out of the way so that they can join the fight. The sound of steel clashing against steel rings out in the cold morning air.
There are so many knights crowded around the bridge that Steelquencher catches only occasional glimpes of the three adventurers at the center of the battle. But as he watches, he sees that the large sapien in plate armor, who is called Thristenalmoere, stands with the woman on his left and the elf upon his right. Each is fighting at least two knights.
Twenty horses emerge from the forest on the track. Two knights are leading them by the reigns. The horses are tied together in four columns of five each.
A knight falls back, away from the elf. He lies upon his back for a moment and gets up, his sword in hand. But another knight has taken his place in front of the elf, and even now the fresh knight swings a two-handed sword in a great downward arc.
A voice shouts an order. Steelquencher thinks the voice is that of the leader of the knights, but he is not certain. Half a dozen knights wade into the stream. Another knight falls backwards, but then rises again, and another. But each time one falls, another takes his place. Steelquencher examines the knights. None of them have yet been injured. The face of the leader is hidden beneath his visor, but the way he pushes towards the big man, steps back, and pushes again suggests to Steelquencher that he is confident of victory.
A knight attempts to climb up onto the bridge. The woman kicks him back into the water. She and the elf move back until the woman and the elf stand side by side on the bridge with the big sapien at the and. The woman and the elf turn and face four knights who step onto the bridge from the East side. They are husband and wife, fighting side by side. The big sapien remains on the West end, facing the leader and two other knights alone.
The woman kicks another knight and he falls off the bridge. Another knight trips backwards away from the elf. More knights take their places. The one in the water gets up and climbs out of the stream again.
The clash of weapons continues unabated. One knight after another falls, but rises again. Steelquencher lowers his binoculars.
"General. The knights' armor makes them invulnerable, or do they have some kind of sorcery to protect them?"
"What makes you say that, my Prince?"
"There are none of them injured. They have been fighting these past three minutes or more. They have not slayn even the lowliest of the knights, and some of them fight clumsily. I fear for the lives of our allies."
"Keep watching," Rackhammer says.
Steelquencher raises his binoculars to his eyes. Another knight falls. He shakes his head and rises to his knees.
"What type of fight is this?" Steelquencher says.
"Look there, on the far side of the bridge," Rackhammer says, "There is one who holds back from the fight, in leather armor."
"I see him. He is afraid."
"No. He is their spy."
A knight falls on his back in the stream.
"General, surely we must come to their aid. They cannot keep this pace up any longer. They are out-numbered twenty to three."
"They knew what they were getting into. If they are foolish enough to − there! One dies!"
The big man pulls his sword out from the waist of one of the knights. The knight's body is nearly cut through. He crumples to the ground. Another jumps over his body and attacks the big man. A second later, another knight falls from the bridge, blood spraying from his kneck, and another falls on the bridge. His sword drops to the ground and he holds his kneck for a moment before he collapses.
The knights press their attack, despite their three fallen comrades. The big man cuts down another of his opponents. Blood sprays into the air on the bridge. A knight turns on one leg and falls into the stream. Another falls at the woman's feet. She jumps over him. Her husband steps forward.Steelquencher's stomach tightens. He feels nausious.
The leader of the knights drops to one knee in front of the big man. The big man's body twists with a thrust from his legs. His sword cleaves throught the leader's armor and passes entirely through his neck. The leader's head topples to the ground. Blood sprays hight into the air in spurts. The decapitated corps topples to one side.
Steelquencher lowers his binoculars. "In the name of Lucifer." Beside him, the general's face is set in a grimace, but he holds his binoculars to his eyes.
Steelquencher looks across the field. The knights are running from the big man, but he chases after them. He cuts one down from behind, and another. The knights on the bridge run towards the horses. The woman runs after them. She cuts one down and another. The elf moves along the stream. Three knights are trying to cross, but he meets them as they clamber up the bank and kills them. He kills them each with a single stroke of his sword.
One knight remains on the near side of the stream. The big man hits him on the side of his head with the flat of his sword. The knight crumples, lying half in the stream with his head below the water. Before the knight's body has settled in the water, the big man sheaths his sword, covered with blood, and takes his bow from his back. He strings an arrow. Three knights remain alive. Two are mounting horses. Another is running for the horses. The big man shoots the running knight in the back. He falls face down and does not move.
The knight in leather armor mounts his horse, cuts its reins where they are tied to those of another animal, and spurs the horse away across the field. Another surviving knight does the same, but he twenty paces behind. The woman strings her bow and shoots him at fifty meters. Her arrow hits his right leg and penetrates his armor. He slumps forward, grabbing his leg. The knight in leather armor slows down, takes the reins of his comrade's horse, and leads it at a canter along the track.
The woman lowers her bow and looks at her husband. He approaches her from the stream. He nods and stands next to her. They watch the two horses retreating along the track through the trees. The big man crosses the bridge and stands with them.
Rackhammer lowers his binoculars. "Diabolical," he says. He looks at Steelquencher and smiles. "I warned you that you may not like what you saw."
Steelquencher nods. "Yes general."
Morning, 18th December, 2482
Gristel, Quayam, and Thristen watch Gowachin Solafrax and one injured knight ride away. The horses and their riders enter the forest. They are still visible through the trees. The morning light is growing brighter above the gray sky.
Gristel bends and leans upon one knee. She is breathing deeply, as are Thristen and Quayam. Their breath makes clouds in front of them that are blown off across the open ground to their right by this morning's chill northerly breeze.
"I'm getting too old for this," she says.
Her companions are breathing too deeply to reply. Quayam wipes his brow with the back of his gauntlet. He smears his sweat across his face. Thristen squints and spits. Quayam looks at him.
"My friend," he says, "you look as if someone took a bucket of blood and dumped it on top of your head."
Thristen spits again. He draws his sword and looks at it. Blood is smeared up and down its length.
"They had a lot of blood in them," he says.
"Yes, but how did you manage to get it all over you like that?"
Thristen looks down at his armor. There are no body parts or entrails stuck to him. Just blood. He tries to remember the last time he saw so much blood. It was years ago, on Feras, when they fought with Aries and his bandits. He looks back at the stream. The water babbles around the corpses of several nights lying with their limbs bent and unmoving in the stream bed.
"I'm going to clean up."
Gristel stands. "Let's check to see if any of them are still alive."
Thristen is walking away. "Mine are all dead, or will be soon."
Gristel looks at Quayam. "How about yours?"
"Well I'm checking," Gristel says.
She walks away from the stream to the man Thristen shot in the back. He is lying on his face in his chain armor. Thristen's arrow protrudes from his back. It penetrated the chain mid-way up his back. Thristen may be sure it entered the man's heart, but she is not. If he's still alive, she'll do what she can to help him.
She nudges him with her foot. He does no move. She rolls him over. His eyes stare up at the gray clouds.
Quayam walks with Thristen over the bridge. They step over the bodies of the slayn, but neither of them look down until they come to the corpse of Vespian Parlay, Master of the Brotherhood of Light, Varay Lodge.
The corpse has no head. The head lies upon the ground nearby, face up, its mouth and eyes open.
"May he rest in peace," Quayam says.
Thristen looks at the stream. Its water is stained with blood on the north side of the bridge. He steps over the body of a man cut almost in half at the waist, and walks towards a tree growing on the bank upstream of the bridge. He kneels beside the roots and immerses his sword in the chilly, clear water.
Quayam moves to follow Thristen, but as he steps around the body of the man cut at the waist, he sees the man move. He stops and looks down. The man is lying with his cheek on the ground. His eyes are open. His fingers twitch. His mouth moves. Quayam stares at him. His entrails are flowing out onto the ground. Blood soaks the bare earth. His face is pale, almost white.
Is that how he will die one day?
He turns and walks down the stream bank. Not a bad way to go, if you have to go. Better than dying in bed with aching joints. He crouches beside Thristen and rinses his gauntlets and sword in the water.
"There's nothing we can do for him," Thristen says.
"There's nothing I want to do for him," Quayam says.
Thristen sets his sword against the tree and takes his helmet off. His hair is wet and stuck to his scalp. He watches Quayam as Quayam washes his face. Quayam's face looks pale. His hands are shaking a little. Gristel steps up onto the bridge from the downstream side. She must have been checking the bodies on the bank. She crosses the bridge, looking at each of the bodies and nudging them with her foot. Behind her, in the trees, Thristen sees movement. He stands up.
"Look who's here," he says.
Two black orcs stride out of the forest on the East side of the river. They walk towards the bridge. Gristel does not appear to notice them. She is kneeling next to a corpse. She is still panting. Whisps of mist rise from her back and legs.
Quayam stands and watches the black orcs. They are Rackhammer and the new one they met the night before, Prince Steelquencher. Thristen crouches and empties a helmet full of water over his head.
Gristel sees the black orcs. She walks down the bank, ignoring the few corpses she has not yet inspected. "Yours were still bleeding to death from their jugulars," she says to Quayam. "Two of mine are still alive but in shock. I don't think there's any hope for them. Since those guys are here, I suggest we leave this mess for them to clean up. I want to go home and have a bath." She kneels beside the stream and cleans her gauntlets and her face.
Quayam and Thristen crouch also, and watch the black orcs while they rinse the blood from their armor and faces. Thristen sees several orcs in the forest, hiding in bushes and beside trees. But none of the orcs follow their generals.
Rackhammer walks slowly across the bridge. He does not look down at the corpses. He approaches the commune and touches the conjured sponge that surrounds it. Steelquencher stops on the bridge and looks down at the bodies. He stares at the blood and entrails. Rackhammer walks down towards the tree. Gristel, Thristen, and Quayam stand up. They sheath their weapons and walk a little up the bank.
They stand before the black orc. He stares at them. They stare at him. They are still breathing hard. Steelquencher joins Rackhammer and stands beside him.
Rackhammer takes a deep breath. "Are any of you hurt?"
Thristen looks at his companions. "No, I think we're okay."
"Tired," Gristel says, "and dirty."
Rackhammer looks around at the scene of the battle. His breath comes out in slow, dense, clouds of mist. Steelquencher stares at the three sapiens. He smiles when Gristel nods to him.
Rackhammer folds his arms. On his back is a huge sword. Quayam looks at the carved handle and the jewel at the end of the pommel. What sword is that? Is it the sword of Stellan?
"What do you intend to do now?" Rackhammer says.
"That's a good question," Gristel says. "Will you excuse us talking privately?"
She turns to her companions and speaks to them in Ursian. They answer. After a minute, she turns to Rackhammer.
"Do you feel that we have fulfilled our part of the bargain?"
Rackhammer looks across the field behind them for a moment. He nods. "Yes."
"Very well. Goodbye. We are going to leave now. We'll talk to you soon."
And with that, the three companions walk away from the black orcs and head for their griffs.
Afternoon, 18th December, 2482
Gristel and Quayam lie upon their bed, naked. The fire has settled and the windows are steamed up. Quayam closes his eyes. He sees himself standing on the bridge with Gristel. The sky above is gray. The faces of the knights in front of them are twisted into sapien expressions of agression and determinations.
He opens his eyes. "We fought side by side on the bridge. I will remember that forever."
Gristel rubs her hip. At some point in the battle, she bruised it. "From now on we can say, 'Remember Pitt', and it will mean solidarity of man and wife, and the sudden death of their enemies."
"Remember Pitt," Quayam says.
Gristel turns upon her side smiles. "A couple that kills together, stays together."
Down the hall outside their room, the bathroom door opens. Thristen and Zak's voices come through the door as they pass by on their way to their own room.
"What did she say to him when he got down off his griff?" Gristel says.
"She said her man had returned from battle to his lady."
Gristel sits up. "My dad noticed the blood."
"He's not blind."
"I said I'd tell him what we did."
Quayam nods. "Of course."
"He's not going to like it."
Before lunch, Quayam, Thristen, Gristel, and Zak sit around their space bridge talking to Aries.
"We killed them all," Quayam says, "Except Gowachin and one other. I don't know which one it was we allowed to live. It was not one of the senior ones."
"Well done," Aries says, "I've seen you at work before, so I'm sure you were thorough."
"I was thinking that this morning," Thristen says, "The last time I was soaked in blood was in that cave."
"Not such a fond memory for me, I am afraid."
"Well," Thristen says, "Sorry about that."
Aries has not heard from Gowachin Solafrax, nor does he expect word for a day or two. It will take Gowachin a full day to return to the Lodge. Quayam says Gowachin may face difficulty getting through the borderlands safely. None of them is sure if Rackhammer will allow the two of them to escape.
"I think we mentioned that we wanted two to escape," Gristle says, "But I don't recall him agreeing to it."
"Gowachin a resourceful fellow. I'm sure he'll make it through. Isn't that woman Flasheen an ally of the Brotherhood? She'll let him through."
"When he makes it back, is he going to leave the Brotherhood?" Thristen says. "We'd like to talk to him."
"He might." Aries's voice is husky this morning, but clear. She (or he as Thristen thinks of him) must be sitting next to the bridge. "If he feels that his Journey of Discovery is coming to an end, he is likely to leave. But if he feels that he needs to experience the life of a Knight of the Brotherhood for a little while longer, he'll stay."
"Surely you can tell him to leave if you want to."
"I suppose I could, but that's not quite how it works. I advise him on his spiritual development. I don't give him orders."
"Well, please tell him we'd like to meet him."
"Can you offer him some incentive for meeting him?"
Gristel and Thristen look at one another. Gristel shrugs. Thristen speaks towards the trumpet. "He'll be more involved in the strategy of the Iron Road, and all the work that is to come."
"I'm not sure he'll be interested in that," Aries says, "If his Journey of Discovery is over, he'll probably want to go home to Diamantis, which is a long way away on the Satian Sea."
"Well," Gristel says, "Tell him we'll sign his copy of Adventurer's Gazette for him."
Aries laughs. "Okay. I'll tell him that."
"We can give him a copy of The Captive and the Clowns," Quayam says, "I'm sure there are a few spares lying around here. He can learn a bit more about his Spiritual Advisor that way."
"Ha ha," Aries says, "I think you'll find that your view of the world and the gods will be too strange for him. He'll certainly go home if you try to force your sordid opinions of his spiritual guide down his throat. If you want to work with him, you'll have to know how to handle him. He's not quite like you three."
"Too bad," Quayam says.
"Not at all," Aries says, "Three is quite enough."
That night, the fire burns brightly in the living-room fireplace. Snow is falling outside and there is frost on the kitchen window-panes. Gashley stares into his tea for a long time. Dominican holds her knitting in her hands, but she stopped knitting long ago. Zak is sitting on Thristen's lap, nibbling his ear. Gristel is sitting on the floor in front of the fire, watching her father. Quayam is sitting behind her on a chair.
"I wish you had discussed it with me before you had done it," Gashley says.
"We didn't have much time," Gristel says.
"You had time enough."
"Are you upset because our lives were in danger, or because the knights are dead?"
"A father always worries about his daughter. But I'm distressed for the latter reason. I strongly suspect that some of the dead will be sons or cousins of people I know, soldiers I know. The fact that my daughter and her friends killed them will, I can only asssume, put a strain upon our friendship and my cordial relations with my fellows in the army."
Thristen pushes Zak's mouth away from his ear. She sits up and pretends to frown. Thristen leans forward. "We could not allow them to go on killing women and children."
"Of course you could have," Gashley said. "You chose not to. I'm not saying I would have done otherwise in your shoes, but I would have appreciated a warning so I could prepare myself."
Gristel runs her fingers through her hair. "But Dad, how could you have prepared yourself? Would you go and tell them not to run the mission? We could not afford to put ourselves at risk."
"You don't trust me?"
"I trust you," Quayam says. "But you have not yet picked sides. When you pick sides, we'll talk about things with you. Until then, you might be with the Brotherhood, you might be with us. But you can't be both."
"Yes, I had figured that out already," Gashley says.
"Perhaps," Thristen says, "We can repay the debts of the past with the debased currency of the present."
Gashley frowns at the fire. "You may end up having to defend me in my own house." He stands up. "I'm going to bed." He looks at his wife. "Darling, will you stay up?"
She puts down her knitting. "No, I'll come with you."
After Gashley and Dominican say goodnight, the others sit silently. Zak nibbles Thristen's ear. After a while, Thristen stands up. "I'm taking this woman to bed."
Quayam and Gristel are left by the fire. They watch the flames. Gristel puts another log on.
"I wonder what kind of horse Rackhammer rides," Quayam says. "Didn't he say he had a horse? I bet it's a big one. Maybe a destrier."
"No roads for destriers, are there?"
"They don't need roads. Only when they pull a carriage do they need a road."
"I suppose you're right. They have them in the army. My father had one when he was a scout on active duty."
"I'd like to go with him on one of his weekend exercises," Quayam says. "Do you think he'd take me?"
Gristel looks up and pokes Quayam's leg. "No, of course not. You're not in the army."
"Maybe I could get some kind of observer pass."
Gristel shrugs. "Maybe. He's going the weekend after next. Ask him."
"Was your mother ever in the army?"
"So she never voted."
Quayam nods. The two of them stare at the fire.
After a while, Quayam says, "Would you like to go for a walk in the snow?"
Gristel thinks. "No. I'm tired. I'll have a snowball fight with you tomorrow morning."
Quayam nods again. "Well, lets go to bed then."
Morning, 20th December
Gristel and Zak walk across the snow-covered garden of the Gumption Arms in Ankle, capital city of Varay. Zak is almost running, but she stops and waits for Gristel. She hops up and down. Gristel puts her arm around Zak and they walk together towards a large wooden building.
They enter the building through a door at the end. They stamp the snow off their boots and close the door behind them. The light is dim inside. The windows are shuttered against the cold. But a window at either end of the high, sloped, roof let in enough light for the two women to see stalls running along both sides of the building. The stalls on the right are for horses. There are twenty horse stalls, most of them occupied. Along the left are a dozen larger stalls. Ten of them are occupied by hippogriffs.
Zak skips along the stone floor between the rows of stalls until she comes to the third on the left. She waves through a set of iron bars at the giant bird sitting in the stall. The bird raises its head and stares down its orange beak. It breaths out.
"Oh, he's so beautiful," Zak says.
Gristel stands beside her. "It's a she."
"It is?" Zak says. She frowns. "All day I thought of him as a he. How can you tell?"
"A few things," Gristel says. "The skin on her legs is not as bright as a male's. A male's beak usually hase some red in it. Her feathers are almost all white. Almost all the white ones are female. And there's the shape of her face, too. The female heads are not as broad. The eyes don't stare at you in the same way as a male's. The females are not as..." she does not know any word in orcish for "intense". She's not even sure orcish has words like that. "Not as angry."
Zak stares at the griff. "I can go in, can't I?"
Gristel nods. "Go in."
Zak enters the stable and approaches the bird. It reaches its beak forward and breaths upon her again. Zak puts her hand over her nose and laughs. "Oh my, you have some bad breath." She reaches out and strokes the side of the bird's beak. She puts her face near its eye. The beak is nearly as long as her arm.
"Did you like the meat I fed you last night?" Zak says, "Do remember me?"
"She remembers you," Gristel says.
Zak looks back at Gristel. "Can we keep her? I like this one."
"I think we'll keep both of them: yours and Dad's. There's no point in summoning them every time. It cost us five hundreds of pieces-gold for getting two of them. But we can buy them and keep them for four thousand pieces-gold."
"I can keep him?"
"Yes. But she will belong to Quayam, Thristen, and I. We will pay for her. You will use her."
Twenty minutes later, the two women leave the stable and walk back towards the limestone walls of the Gumption Arms. Zak holds Gristel's arm and leans against her. "I'm a bit scared to go to Pakesh. What if Thristen's friends think I'm ugly."
"You're not ugly," Gristel says. She squeezes Zak around the shoulders. "Don't worry about it."
"I think if maybe it keeps snowing we won't go. We'll stay here with you and Gashley and that will be okay."
Gristel laughs. "Yes, that would be okay too."
"What are you and Gashley going to do here?"
"We will show the chiefs of Varay the letter we have from Rackhammer. We will tell them that there will be war with Gutak if the Brotherhood of Light attacks Gutak again."
Zak kicks snow with her boots as she walks. "You'll tell them what you did to the last bunch of men who went over there."
"My father will do the talking, not me. But yes, I think he'll have to tell them, even if it makes his daughter look bad to some of the chiefs. What I'm afraid of is that one of the people we meet has a son who I killed a few days ago. If I killed someone's child, it will be hard for them to listen to what we have to say."
Zak stops a few steps from the door of the hotel. "Do you want children, Gristel?"
"I have a daughter."
"Oh yes, I remember. But more?"
"Yes. But it's not easy for Quayam and I."
"Oh. I am sorry." She frowns. "But you like to share your bed."
Gristel stares at Zak. She laughs. "No, you don't understand. It is hard for me to get a baby with Quayam. It is not hard for us to..." Gristel hesitates to say the orcish word for having sex.
Zak says it for her.
"Right," Gristel says. "We're very good at doing that. But I have been pregnant only three times, and twice the baby came out too soon. So I have only one child."
Zak hugs Gristel. "Maybe one more?"
"Maybe," Gristel says.
"I will have some for you. Do you know that they will look like sapiens and not orcs?"
Gristel nods. "We have a saying in Varay. When a couple gets married and we think their marriage is going to cause trouble, we say they are going to have orc children. Once or twice a year an orc child is borne here in Varay. Their parents look like sapiens, but they are really part orc and part sapien. One in a hundred of our people are like that, but you can't tell until they have a child and it's an orc."
"They look like sapiens but they have orc children?"
"What happens to them? Do their parents love them?"
"Of course. All parents love their children. But it's hard for sapiens to raise an orc. Most of them go to a special soldier school. When they grow up they go into the army. There is a small company of orcs in the Varayan army. They are some of the best soldiers we have. We call them the Night Fighters. My father spent some time working with them. That's why he's afraid of orcs. He knows how well orcs can fight."
Zak nods. "Orcs are the greatest soldiers."
"If you have children with Thristen they will look like sapiens. They will live a long time. They will take sixteen years to become grown-ups. Is that what you want? Why not have orc children that will grow up fast and you will have grandchildren too?"
Zak stares at the wall of the hotel. She wipes snow from her eyes. She looks at Gristel. "I'll have both!" She takes Gristel's hand and pulls her towards the hotel. "Come on, I will buy you hot chocolate and we can look at the men in the big room."
Early morning, 23rd December, 2482
Gristel and Gashley sit in the lounge of the Gumption Arms. They are both reading newspapers. Gashley holds the freshly-printed Ankle Informer folded in one hand. In his other hand is a white cup half-full of black coffee. Gristel holds the broad sheets of last night's Varay Observer. Occasionally she moves the paper aside and picks up her coffee cup.
"Well," Gashleys says.
Gristel lowers her paper and looks at her father. "What?"
Gashley frowns at his paper. He clears his throat and reads from the page.
Retired general Gashley Virage and his daughter Gristel Virage appeared again before the Foreign Office yesterday, following their presentation of a letter from the Stuard of Gutak on the twenty-first. Lea Breakwater, Spokeswoman for the Foreign Office, said, "We are convinced that the letter we received from Princess Daybreak of Gutak is genuine. We are taking at face value the Princess's threat to invade Varay if the Brotherhood of Light raids her territory again." Ten members of the Foreign Office took part in the meeting yesterday. In the meeting's morning session, Gristel Virage revealed that she and her two comrades-in-arms, Quayam Srae and Thristen Alomere, encountered and engaged a raiding party from the Brotherhood of Light within Gutak on the eighteenth of December.
"Gristel Virage and her companions encountered the raiding party at dawn," Ms. Breakwater said, "According to Gristel Virage, the raiding party consisted of nineteen knights in heavy armor whose intent was to destroy an orc commune, killing as many men, women, and children in the commune as they could. We have not yet confirmed with the Brotherhood of Light that they did indeed send out such a raiding party, nor can we confirm Ms. Virage's claims about the party's intentions. According to Gristel Virage, all but two of the knights died in the conflict. Two survivors made off on horseback. We do not know if they managed to return to Varay."
Ms. Breakwater went on to say that Gristel Virage had made a personal protest to the Foreign Office, stating that the slaughter of women and children, be they orc or sapien, was beneath the dignity of the Varayan people, and should be banned. Gashley Virage stated as he left the Foreign Office that although he did have strong opinions about the morality of killing orc children, his role was to present the facts as they pertain to Varayan security, not to discuss morality. "Make no mistake," he said, "General Rackhammer can and will invade this nation. Only a national call-up of the army can stop him, and even then we will have a serious fight on our hands. And for what? To defend the right of a foreign-led religious cult to use our nation as a base for raids upon our neighbors?"
Gashley shakes his head.
"What's wrong with that?" Gristel says.
"I never said, 'make no mistake'. That's not the sort of thing I would say."
Gristel laughs. "Don't worry about it Dad."
Gashley looks up. "I'm not worried about it. It's just that in my day, journalists were more careful. They didn't go making up dialog to put in people's mouths just to make their stories read better."
Gristel nods. A waiter puts a plate of bacon and eggs in front of her. "Thank you," she says. "Well, Dad, the world is going to hell, make no mistake."
The waiter puts Gashley's plate in front of him. Gashley continues reading.
Gashley Virage confirmed that he himself is the legal guardian of a nineteen-year-old orc woman, the same orc woman who arrived at the Gumption Arms with him on the nineteenth of December. He declined to give the orc woman's name or details of her association with him.
Gashley Virage declined to comment upon the suggestion that he might be chosen as Envoy to Gutak, but Ms. Breakwater said that the Foreign Office would consider Gashley Virage well-qualified for the job. Grantis Trimble of the Opposition disputed Gashley Virage's qualifications. "There's a clear conflict of interest here. I have great respect for the man. Nobody can doubt his patriotic spirit. But in this case he has a daughter who has taken sides with our potential enemy, and he has an orc dependent himself." The Opposing Foreign Secretary later added, "If it comes to fighting a war with the orcs, I'd be glad to see him come out of retirement."
The afternoon session of the meeting centered upon how Varay should respond to Gutak's ultimatum. With the New Year Holiday arriving in a few days, it's not clear that the Foreign Office can draft any sort of reply to the satisfaction of the Parliament, nor do they have Emergency Powers to negotiate a treaty. "The first step will be a face-to face meeting between envoys of the two nations." When pressed to say whether any action would be taken against the Brotherhood of Light before the New Year, she said, "At this time we have no plans to take action against the Brotherhood of Light. So far as we know, they have broken no laws. We have no extradition treaty with Gutak. Even if it is true that they went to Gutak with the intention of killing children, we have no grounds to arrest anyone or order them to desist from anything. Nevertheless, we want to make it absolutely clear that we will not tolerate any organisation within our borders acting in a way that compromises our national security."
If the letter from Princess Daybreak is to be taken seriously, then any raid upon Gutak by the Brotherhood of Light will provoke war with the orc nation. Ms. Breakwater gave assurances that the government was well aware of this danger. "We are seeking an Executive Order from the Prime Minister that will outlaw any act of agression against Gutak." When asked if there were plans to move troops to the border or summon the reserves, she said, "We have no such plans at this time, but we have considered such actions."
Gashley puts the paper down next to his plate and picks up his knife and fork. "Not bad, I suppose."
"Would you accept the envoy job?" Gristel says.
Gashley chews for a while and smiles. "Of course I would. You know I like to have my name in the papers."
On the evening of the 28th December 2482, Gristel reads the following article in the Varay Observer to Thristen and Quayam through a space bridge. Gristel is in Ankle. Quayam and Thristen are in Pakesh.
At dawn this morning, Gowachin Solafrax and Eldan Bizini dueled with short-swords. Gowachin Solafrax's nationality is unknown. Eldan is Endan. Until recently, Gowachin Solafrax was a knight in the Brotherhood of Light. Eldan remains a knight of the order. On the morning of the eighteenth of December, Gowachin was with the party of nineteen knights who attempted to destroy an orc commune fifty kilometers from the Varayan border. Gristel Virage, Thristen Alomere, and Quayam Srae attacked the knights and killed all but two of them. Among the dead were Vespian Parlay, Master of the Varayan Lodge. Percival Nonetuit escaped with severe wounds. Gowachin escaped unscathed. But he did escort Percival to Heel, just inside Varay, where he presented the wounded knight to the Vicar. Percival wrote to the Brotherhood of Light from his sick bed, informing them of what had occurred. The Brotherhood of Light received Percival's letter on the twenty-third and immediately sent a party of six knights to Akle to protest the slaughter of their members at the hands of a Varayan citizen and her comrades. These six arrived in Ankle on the twenty-sixth of December. On the night of the twenty-seventh, Eldan encountered Gowachin in Bootlegger's Tavern on Doonwodey Street, Ankle City.
Eldan accused Gowachin of betraying the Brotherhood of Light to Gristel Virage and her compainions. According to those present in Bootlegger's Tavern at the time, Gowachin did not answer Eldan's accusation. Eldan challanged Gowachin to a duel. Gowachin accepted. At dawn this morning the two met with the frost still stiffening the grass and the sun barely above the horizon.
Despite the frost on the grass and the early hour, there were two dozen people present in Hound Park on the Fencing Green. In accordance with the dueling laws of the city, neither combatant wore armor, and the person challanged had first choice of the two swords. So far as we could tell, none of the onlookers had ever seen either man fight before, but there was a rumor that Gowachin had been up drinking until late the night before, and as a result, Eldan was favored to win the contest. The knights of the Brotherhood of Light are well-respected for their dignified behavior and aesthetic lifestyle. Gowachin, having recently resigned from the order, might well be expected to indulge himself.
But when it came time to fighting, Gowachin showed no trace of drunkeness or sloth. Eldan assailed the alleged traitor with a grim determination to slay his man. For several minutes they dueled, often circling one another with their sword tips touching. But in the end Gowachin prevailed. Eldan fell backwards upon the ground, disarmed and helpless. Gowachin stood over him and demanded that he submit. But Eldan's eyes were still ablaze with righteous fury, and he lunged for his sword where it lay half a meter from his hand. Gowachin stabbed him in the chest and stepped back.
Physicians at the scene of the duel agreed that Eldan, with proper medical attention, will survive. When we approached Gowachin at Bootlegger's Tavern later that day, we asked him if he had betrayed the Brotherhood. "I have no comment to make on any event at or relating to the Brotherhood, my former employer," he said. We attempted to ask Gristel Virage the same question when she emerged from the Gumption Arms at lunch time. "Was Gowachin acting as a spy on your behalf?" She smiled and said, "If he were, and I told you, I'd have to kill you afterwards. So why ask?"
Gowachin plans to relax for a while in Ankle. "I have no designs beyond that," he said.
When Gristel has finished the piece, Thristen says, "Can't you go and see him in that tavern?"
"If I did, wouldn't that convince everyone that he was our spy?"
Four hundred kilometers away, the sun has already set over the desert. Thristen and Zak sit in Quayam's living room. Zak is reading one of Romayne's comic books. Quayam places two black lumps on a charcoal fire that burns in a metal bowl nearby. There is no chimney above the bowl. The charcoal burns without smoke. Sid sits on a shelf, absolutely still. Beside him on the wall is an iron trident. In places it is rusty, but its points are sharp and shiney.
"So, enough about this business here," Gristel says, "What have you been up to?"
Thristen leans over the space bridge trumpet. "We bought night vision goggles. They were a hundred thousand dollars each. But these ones come with a special invisible kind of light that the goggles can see."
Quayam strokes Sid's head. "It's called an infra-red illuminator."
"That's great. I look forward to trying them. But didn't you meet with Mohsin a few days ago?"
"On the twenty-sixth," Thristen says, "We met with him and Bahram Hamidi from the Foreign Trade Office. He's secretary to the sectretary of the senator of foreign trade. His office wants to get involved with the iron road."
"I thought the road was a secret within the Foreign Policy Office."
Quayam sits down next Thristen. "As you know, Endan navy has been blockading Karadan for the past two weeks. It turns out that their ships have sails made of spirit cloth. Our thunder-eggs can't disable them. The trade office is worried that Susa will be next, and then we'll be able to trade only over-land. We agreed to let the trade office join in because they will bring more money to the table. And anyway, Bahram has a new way of making the road using the same machines they have to lay down the conjured-rubber destrier highways."
"Yeah," Thristen says, "Magic road-building machines, which would be really cool."
Quayam and Thristen explain Hamid's proposal to use a class of magical device, officially called an amplifier, together with the expert assisstance of a travel-hardened wizard called Larak Moodmender and his team of road-makers to create a road surface and bridges from Varay to Morden.
"I like that plan," Gristel says. "What has Zak been up to?"
Gristel is speaking in Ursian, which Zak does not understand. Earlier, the article she was reading was in Varayan, which Zak has been learning, but she could not keep us with the article's long words. At the mention of her name, however, Zak looks up. Thristen answers in Latin.
"She's been buying clothes. The day before yesterady we were interviewed by the Adventurer's Gazette."
"You and Zak?"
"Yes. The interview should appear in the next issue."
"What kind of questions?"
"Personal ones. Nothing about the mission."
Zak closes the comic book. "Thristen takes me out to restaurants. I have seen the shows in Ghotba's Arn. They were great. I want to come here with the Herringbones and dance for them. The girls would have a wild time here. Everybody here is nice to me."
"Good," Gristel says, "We like Pakesh for the same reasons."
Mid-Morning, 5 January, 2483
Brock Stockton pulls a chair out from his dining table and sits down. He leans back and folds his arms. His cheeks and chin are covered with a new beard. The beard shows traces of white hair. The skin of his forhead and around his eyes is tanned and weathered.
Opposite him, Quayam, Gristel, and Thristen seat themselves and smile.
"Thank you for inviting us in," Gristel says.
Brock stares at Gristel.
A fire is burning brightly in the hearth. Mrs. Elizabeth Stockton swings the kettle away from the heat and pours steaming cider into five cups on a tray. She carries the tray to the table and places it in front of Brock. She leans over the table to place one cup in front of each of her guests.
"You're very welcome to come in on such a cold day. This will warm you up. The cider's good this year."
Elizabeth puts a cup in front of Brock, takes the last one for herself, and sits on the chair at the end of the table. Four children huddle in the corner of the room, near the fire. The oldest is a boy of about fifteen. The youngest is a girl of around six. They pour cider for themselves until the kettle is empty, and sip it from small clay mugs.
Thristen blows on his cider. It is still too hot to drink.
Gristel puts her sheepskin gloves on the table and holds her cider cup with both hands. "We have a favor to ask you. On the morning of the eighteenth of January we'd like to erect a tent in the field out behind your house and host a meeting between a few representatives of the Varayan government and a few representatives of the orcs from across the Borderlands."
Brock frowns at Gristel but says nothing.
Thristen puts his cider down. "Varay and the orc nation, which is called Gutak, want to sign a treaty. They need a place to meet. We could have picked a place in Heel, but it's ten kilometers farther into Varay than here. We don't want to pick a place in the Borderlands because it's harder to protect the space. This is important to Varay and to Gutak, that's the orc nation, and you have been welcoming to us in the past, so−"
"Ahem," Quayam says, and jestures with his hand.
Thristen raises his eyebrows at Quayam.
Gristel smiles. "My colleague is correct. We thought you'd be interested in hosting the event yourself, on the eighteenth of January."
Brock stares at Gristel. One of the middle children makes his way to the back of Elizabeth's chair and looks over her shoulder at Quayam.
Brock picks up his cup and sips some of the hot liquid without blowing on it first. He puts the cider down and looks at his wife. She has been watching him, and when he looks at her, she turns to Gristel.
"That's very interesting. What type of people are these orcs? Are they dangerous?"
"Well," Thristen says, and he smiles and shakes his head. "No, they are not dangerous to you or your children." He looks at the child behind Elizabeth's shoulder. "I guarantee you that the orcs that come here will be no danger to your children. In fact, they would do whatever they could to protect your children from danger if there was any danger. I don't know how many orcs will come, but I think it will just be two or three black orcs. They are tall and old and kind to children."
Elizabeth smiles and nods. She blows on her cider. "How can you be sure that they are not dangerous?"
"We have met with them ourselves. One of them, Rackhammer the General of Gutak, we have had lunch with. We met his parents. I'd like to think of him as a friend. We have done him several favors, so I think he−"
"We trust them," Gristel says, "And we guarantee your safety and that of your family and your property during the event."
Elizabeth smiles. Brock watches her. She nods to him. He turns and stares at Gristel. She says nothing. Thristen opens his mouth, but Quayam leans close to him and whispers. Thristen frowns. He whispers back. They are talking in Ursian, which they assume the Stocktons cannot understand.
Thristen and Quayam sit back. They smile at Brock. He stares at them. He takes a sip of his cider. Another child crosses in front of the fire to stand behind Elizabeth. Brock takes a pipe out of his pocket and packs some tobacco into the bowl. He strikes a match on the sole of his shoe and lights the pipe.
Gristel stares at the match. Matches are expensive. A box of one hundred is around ten dollars. Brock could easily have lit his pipe from the fireplace.
Brock puffs on his pipe. He looks at his wife. "I was thinking of sowing that field early this year."
"Oh," his wife says, "So you were. Yes, early this year to get the extra crop. We would not be able to do that if the event were taking place early in the season."
Thristen leans forward. "We won't damage the field. We'll just put up a tent and light a fire in a clay fireplace or something. We won't leave any marks. You will be able to sow the field right away afterwards."
"Oh yes," Elizabeth says. "But not before."
Thristen frowns. "Before?" He sits back in his chair with his hands on the table. "No, not before, I suppose."
Quayam slides one hand out across the table in front of him, past his cider cup, and looks at Brock. "Wait a minute. What do you mean, sow the field? You can't sow the field in January, the ground is frozen."
Brock raises his eyebrows for a moment and stares at Quayam. He puffs on his pipe and blows smoke in the air.
"Are you a farmer, sir?" he says.
Quayam frowns. He sits back in his chair. "No, I'm not a farmer."
Gristel smiles. "How much would you like us to pay you for the use of your field?"
Brock looks at his wife. She smiles at Gristel. "Well, we would have to give up the extra crop, so we'd miss the income from that crop." She turns to her husband. "And that's a particularly good field, isn't it Mr. Stockton."
Brock takes his pipe from his mouth. "That is is, Mrs. Stockton."
Thristen slurps his cider. He looks from the farmer to his wife. "We'd be happy to pay−"
Quayam raises his hand off the table. Thristen stops talking.
Elizabeth watches Thristen, but he remains silent. "We stand to lose oh, five thousand dollars, I'd say, give or take a thousand."
"Well," Gristel says to Brock, "How about we pay you five thousand in cash right now, and that will settle the matter. We rent the field for five days: the four days before and the day itself. Does that sound good?"
Brock looks at his wife. She nods slightly. He turns to Gristel. "Yes, I agree to that." He reaches his hand across the table and Gristel shakes it.
12 January, 2483
"Our troll has disappeared," Rackhammer says.
Quayam, Gristel, and Thristen are seated once again around Coldiron and Cloudmover's dining table, eating lunch. This time, Zak sits with them. Sid the demon is outside, watching over the hippogriffs.
"Disappeared?" Quayam says.
"Yes. A few hours before dawn the day before yesterday."
Today is the 12th of January. On the 5th of January, our heroes met with Rackhammer at the Pit Quarry and agreed with Rackhammer that the Stockton's field would be the place where he should meet with the Varayan embassy. They also discussed the use of Gutak's only troll to clear the path of a road through the Long Hills to Mokul. On the 10th of January, they received from Rackhammer a telegram asking that they come to Castle Hydroma the next day at noon. An unfavorable wind delayed their arrival until today.
Thristen hands his plate to an orc servant without looking at her. "Gosh. Was he stolen?"
"I assume so," Rackhammer says. "And I recall that we discussed the use of our troll, and how valuable the creature was to our nation, only a few days before. I don't believe I told of the troll's whereabouts, but you may have divined it by some means unknown to me. You may have a spy in our engineering corps. But I trust you. I believe you have nothing to do with the disapperance."
"That's gracious of you," Thristen says.
Rackhammer folds his big arms. "I need your help. The troll disappeared on the Varayan border. I fear he has been taken into Varay, or removed by magical means. I'd like you to try to find him and bring him back. We need him to build your road, so I think it's in your interest to help us."
"Sounds like fun," Gristel says.
Rackhammer pushes his chair back and stands up. He nods to his parents. "Thank you for lunch, Mother and Father." He turns to our heroes. "Come, I will take you to the site now. We can fly there. It's not far."
At mid-afternoon, Gristel stands beside a tree at the base of the Iron Mountains south-west of Castle Hydroma. A few hundred meters to the south is the line of standing stones that marks the edge of the Borderlands. On the other side of the stones is territory claimed by the dwarves of Isengard. She holds a space bridge in front of her mouth with one hand. The hand is protected from the winter cold by a sheepskin glove. The ground beneath the sparse forest is covered with a few centimeters of snow. The sun shines through a clear blue sky and glares off the snow beneath the trees.
Gristel speaks into the space bridge. "No, we havn't seen the troll. He's disappeared. He was clearing a path through the forest, we think for Gutak's army to cross into Isengard and then assault the Brotherhood of Light from the east."
She listens to the bridge for a few seconds and answers.
"He must be pretty big. He made a house for himself out of trees he pulled out of the ground. He piled them up into a circular shelter with a pointed top, and ripped all the branches off on the inside. It's about ten meters high. The trees are ten meters high. Mostly pine trees. All the leaves at the top make a roof. It's pretty amazing really. Apparantly he just rips the trees out of the ground and fills in the holes with a shovel. He's cleared a five-meter-wide path all the way up from a damn across the river two kilometers down the hill from here."
Gristel listens again to the bridge and watches her husband talking to Rackhammer beside the troll's tepee. Zak stands beside Quayam and listens to them. A dozen orcs stand behind him.
"All we know is that he− I should say it, because Rackhammer says trolls are neither male or female. It was in the shelter a few hours before dawn and not there when the sun came up. Thristen is looking all over for tracks in the forest right now."
Beneath the trees a hundred meters away, Thristen is examining the ground for tracks. Gristel watches him kneel and touch a footprint int he snow.
"Quayam is interviewing the six orcs who stood guard on the night of the disapperance. Apparantly there was something going on with their hooch. They drank it and passed out for a couple of hours. When they woke up, the troll was gone."
A voice comes through the bridge. "What's hooch?"
"That's what orcs call their hot-water drinks. They put herbs in the hot water, and spices too, and sometimes salt and sugar and other wierd things that are supposed to make them stronger and more virile. I suppose you could call it tea."
The faint voice says, "Let me look at Zak."
Gristel holds the bridge so that it points to Quayam, Rackhammer, and Zak. Quayam is talking to an orc with long, curly, black hair and a particularly big nose. Zak turns and looks through the trees at Thristen. She starts to walk towards him. Gristel listens at the bridge and answers.
"She's cheerful most of the time. Good company, really. But she does get angry. Yesterday she shouted at Thristen when he wouldn't have a nap with her. This morning she wouldn't get out of bed, but when we started to leave without her, she came running out scowling and telling us we don't care about her and don't want her to be part of the group and she might as well go back home, and so on. It's like having a twelve-year-old with us sometimes. I don't know how long it's going to last between her and Thristen, but for now he seems happy."
That evening, Thristen, Quayam, Gristel, Zak, and Rackhammer sit on the floor of one of Quayam's conjured shelters. A fire burns in one corner. Air enters the room through a hole in the wall next to the fireplace and leaves with the fire smoke up a chimney in the conjured wood. Quayam's conjured wood can resist the hot coals of a wood fire for many hours before it starts to pit and crack. It is a fine material for a fireplace.
"Here's what we have so far," Quayam says. He has his notebook on his folded knees. He reads from a list.
The next morning, Thristen, Gristel, and Quayam are up early. Zak sleeps in, and so does Rackhammer. Four hippogriffs sit under the trees nearby. They are huddled together against the cold. A white wall and roof of conjured wood protect them from the westerly breeze. Zak is in the conjured shelter, which Quayam has dyed white to match the snow. Rackhammer is in a tent in the orc camp a few hundred yards down the path. His wyvern is visible from the conjured shelter, sitting in the trees, covered with blankets and furs.
Quayam, Gristel, and Thristen search the forest for troll tracks. Sid the demon perches on Quayam's shoulder, or flies from tree to tree. He ignores Quayam's suggestion that he look for troll tracks from the air. After an hour, Thristen finds three troll prints in the snow, heading south, but no others. The troll footprints are over a meter long and aslmost as wide. They end with five broad, clawed toes. After another hour of searching, he finds a troll trail four hundred meters from the tepee. The trail continues, and is accompanied by the tracks of two humans. One has heavy leather boots with treads, the other softer boots with flat soles. By this time, Zak is up. She, Quayam and Gristel joins Thristen beside the tracks.
"Both are men," Thristen says. "One is short and lean. The other is a taller and also lean. They were both walking in front of the troll."
Quayam examines the ground near the start of the trail. "They made a path of conjured rubber. They walked along the path with the troll." He looks up. "In the morning, the path was gone."
"Almost gone," Gristel says. "That's why some of the orc tracks disappear too."
"Of course," Thristen says, "And one of the sentries could not get up. He was covered with the material of the path. He was the one nearest their path."
Gristel nods. "So one of the sapiens drugged the hooch."
"A thief," Thristen says. He points to the smooth-soled tracks. "Those are climbing shoes. One of them is a thief."
"Like me," Gristels says.
Thristen stares at the tracks leading up the hill to the south. "I'll follow with Gristel." He turns to Zak. "I don't want you to come. I don't know what we're going to come up against."
Zak frowns. "No! That's no fun for me."
Quayam shakes his head. "I'll get a griff and follow you two in the air. Someone has to stay behind to watch the other three griffs. That's you, Zak."
"No, I don't want to."
Gristel folds her arms. "I agree with Quayam and Thristen. That's three saying you stay behind and one saying you come with us. So it's decided."
"We'll see you later," Thristen says. He sets off along the trail with Gristel beside him.
Zak stares after them.
Quayam puts his hand on her shoulder. "Come on. I know it's boring. But we do need someone to stay behind and tell Rackhammer what we have done when he wakes up."
Zak turns and walks back to the camp without speaking. When she gets to the shelter, she goes inside. Quayam follows her and opens Gristel's pack. He takes out her box of thunder-eggs. Zak does not look at him.
"See you later," Quayam says. He leaves the shelter and saddles his griff. He puts Sid in his backpack. Sid can't keep up with a griff in the air, and sometimes he can't hang on to Quayam with is little clawed arms and legs, so Quayam has taken to putting him in his pack, with his head sticking out.
The griff protests at being roused from sleep and the warmth of its companions. But Quayam is firm with the giant bird, mounts it, and urges it up. Its wing-beats send snow gusting into the crisp air.
13 January, 2483
Quayam soon overtakes Thristen and Gristel. He follows the troll tracks from the air. The land rises as it approaches the base of huge cliffs and a massive shoulder of the Iron Mountains. At the base of the cliffs is a dense forest of evergreen trees. The tracks disappear into the forest.
Quayam flies over the forest. He finds a clearing at the cliff base and lands. The clearing is covered with troll tracks. A few dozen trees have been pulled out of the ground to make the clearing. The trunks have been stripped of their branches and hidden beneath the trees of a steep gorge on the south side of the clearing. At the base of the cliff is a tall, wide, shallow cave.
Gristel and Thristen follow the troll tracks on foot. After five kilometers, they enter the forest at the base of the cliffs. The tracks lead to a cave entrance cut with straight sides in the base of the cliff. Runes are carved around the entrance, but neither Thristen nor Gristel recognise the alphabet. Beyond the entrance is a twenty-meter long tunnel and then a cavern whose size they cannot gauge from the outside. Gristel searches the entrance. She finds some contraption made of invisible conjured material and a space bridge in a bridge ring. The contraption is fastened to the roof of the entrance.
"It's a magical trap of some sort. I expect we can set it off with a stick and jump out of the way."
Thristen breaks a dead stick off a pine tree. "I'll do it. Show me where the thing is."
Thristen throws the stick at the trap. Nothing happens for a few seconds, then they hear a hissing sound. They advance towards the entrance and find it blocked with invisible material.
"Feels like conjured sponge," Gristel says.
"What's the idea?" Thristen says. "They trap us in sponge after we enter the cave?"
"I guess so," Gristel says. A voice comes from a leather pouch sown to her flying jacket.
"Quayam calling," the voice says.
When Quayam tells them of the troll tracks in his clearing, Gristel and Thristen search beneath the trees to the south of the blocked cave. They find the troll and sapien tracks a hundred meters from the cave.
"They did the same trick again," Thristen says. "They went in with the troll and came out again."
Gristel looks back the way they came. "The sponge was supposed to trap us in the cave so we could not follow."
Less than an hour later, Thristen and Gristel arrive at the new clearing at the base of the cliff. Quayam's griff sits on the ground. Quayam is in the shallow cave. When they approach him walks out to meet them.
"The back of the cave is conjured wood. There's someone in there. I have not seen the troll."
Thristen searches the clearing and surrounding forest for tracks. Gristel and Quayam listen at the conjured wood and wander around the clearing. Quayam shows her where boulders up to a meter across have been thrown down into the ravine beside the trunks of the uprooted trees.
Thristen returns from the forest. "The troll did not leave the clearing. I think he's in the cave. I see his prints going in and out. He has been clearing boulders out of the cave, that's my guess, as well as clearing trees."
Quayam nods. "Let's blast the conjured wood with a thunder-egg. It will go up with the explosion, won't it?"
"I think so," Gristel says. "I think the thunder-egg works by annihilating conjured sponge, and that same annihilation will attack the conjured wood."
Thristen inspects the conjured wood at the back of the shallow cave. "They have a wizard or a sourcerer like you, Quayam. This is good work. It looks like stone." He stabs it with the tip of his dagger. He twists the dagger and pulls it out. "Go ahead and blast it. But tie up the griff first so he doesn't fly away when he hears the explosion."
Sid the demon is struggling in Quayam's pack. Quayam lets Sid out and Sid flies to the base of the conjured wood. He sits on the floor.
"Come away from there," Quayam says. "We're going to blast it."
Sid does not move.
Quayam walks over and tries to pick him up. Sid flies up above his head and settles on a ledge in the cave. Quayam walks back to the cave entrance. Sid lands at the base of the conjured wood.
"You're going to get hurt if you stay there," Quayam says.
Sid does nothing.
"Do you know what's inside the cave?" Quayam says.
Sid shakes his head.
"Are you trying to stop us from going in?"
"Why? Is it dangerous for us?"
Sid frowns. His frown is making his mouth into a straight line and pushing the corners down.
Gristel takes a step closer to Quayam. "What does that mean?"
"It means he doesn't know the answer." Quayam stares at Sid and folds his arms. "Okay, if we go in there, are we going to break something? Are we going to kill the troll?"
"Is the troll in there?"
Quayam shakes his head. "I don't know what's gotten into him." He rushes forwards and tries to grab Sid again, but Sid is too quick and flies up to his ledge.
"Come down!" Quayam says. "Right now."
Sid does not come down. Quayam walks away from the conjured wood. He keeps his back to Sid and takes out a bridge ring. He sings quietly for a few seconds, turns, and throws the ring at Sid. Sid sees it coming and leaps into the air, but the bridge comes close to him and stops with a hiss. Sid's wings are frozen in mid-beat and he turns and settles to a height of a meter above the cave floor.
"I sponged you, Sid," Quayam says, "I had to do it." He walks to Sid and takes out his sword. He cuts the sponge away from around the little winged demon until he can grab Sid by his neck. He stuffs Sid into his backpack and tightens the straps.
"Okay," Quayam says. "Whatever he was worried about, I'm sure we'll soon find out."
A few minutes later, a clap of thunder echoes between the cliffs. Our three heroes emerge from their hiding place off to the side of the cave. There is a passage seven meters wide and five meters high, leading into the cliff. They walk towards it slowly. They hear a clink of metal against stone in the passage. They see something bounce off the stone floor. A moment later, the passage is blocked by a mass of gray, conjured matter. They walk up to it and touch it. It is conjured wood.
"Rats," Thristen says.
"Let's do it again and run in after the explosion," Gristel says, "They won't have time to block the passage."
Another clap of thunder echoes from the hills. Our heroes run into the passage immediately after a blinding flash of light. There are a dozen boulders lined up along the sides of the passage. A metallic ring flies towards them. Quayam and Gristel keep running. Thristen leaps towards the ring and steps on it as it strikes the ground. He grinds it into the stone with the heel of his boot. He scrapes it across the floor. No conjured matter bursts from the ring.
Quayam and Gristel run fouty meters into the cliff and enter a cavern thirty meters in diameter. Its domed ceiling is ten meters high. There is a bowl in the center of the floor about two meters deep and ten meters wide. There is a black hole in the bottom of the bowl. Their eyes adjust to the darkness. They shine their flashlights around the walls. There is a huge creature standing on the right side of the bowl. As they shine their lights upon it, it bellows. The noise is deafening in the cavern. The creature is six meters tall. On the opposite side of the bowl from Quayam and Gristel are two sapiens. The shorter one wears a jacket and trousers. The taller one wears a thick, heavy robe. Both have fur hats. The taller one is biting his lip. The shorter one is smiling.
Gristel runs around the bowl, taking the opposite side from the troll. The troll is still bellowing with the same breath. Quayam starts to sing. Gristel comes to a wall of conjured wood. It is invisible, but it stands between her and the two sapiens. She stands with her sword drawn. Behind the two men are two doorways leading to darkened rooms. Thristen joins Quayam and watches Quayam throw a bridge at the troll. There is a hissing sound.
Quayam and Thristen hurry around the bowl to Gristel.
"I like your style," says the short man in Latin. "I do like your style. Decisive. Quick. Daring."
The troll's bellow was cut short by Quayam's sponge. Now the massive, gray creature stretches out its arms. The conjured sponge rips and the troll bellows again. When it has finished its bellow, it starts to move around the bowl towards the passage. The sponge crunches as he goes, but it is invisible. Quayam cannot see the sponge fragments floating to the roof of the cavern, but that is what he assumes they must be doing. Each step the troll takes carries it three meters. But it takes a step only every two seconds. Quayam smiles.
"That's about as fast as he can go, you know," the short man says.
Quayam turns to the two men. He looks up, trying to guess the height of the invisible wall, but he can't see the wall at all.
"If you don't stop him," the short man says, "He'll be off into the forest smashing down trees, and it will take a long time to bring him back."
"What are your names?" Quayam says.
"You can call me Feedle-Dee." The short man points to his companion. "And him Feedle-Dum."
"I see," Quayam says.
The two men who stole the troll run with Quayam, Thristen, and Gristel across the clearing and catch up with the troll. It is walking towards the forest at what the short man tells them is his top speed.
"He's terrified by the explosion. Two in a row."
"I'll stop him with a ball of conjured rubber," Quayam says. He figures one of these two is a wizard and will understand what he's talking about.
"Don't bother," the short man says, "We've tried that. It doesn't work. He's far too strong."
The short man, who calls himself Feedle-Dee, catches up with the troll and speaks to it in Latin. "Arg Gasola! Arg Gasola! Listen! Stop going! Stop Going! I'll get you roast lamb now. Right now. You stop! Go back to the cave. You can eat roast lamb right now. Extra meal."
The short man continues pleading with the troll in this way until the creature slows down and stops. It looks down at the short man. Quayam stands beside the short man and looks up at the troll. It towers above him like an oak tree. Its arms are as thick his own torso. It holds its hands in fists, each of which is is half a meter in diameter. Its eyes, which are deep-set in its round head, blink once. It does not move.
"Roast lamb now," the short man says. He points back up towards the cave. "Come on Arg Gasola. No more loud noises. No more flashes."
Arg turns and makes his way back to the cave. He sits down with his back to the cave wall. His legs stretch our three meters in front of him.
"Okay," the short man says. "We'll just enter the cavern and summon some roast lamb for him with lots of mint sauce and some beer. It's his favorite."
The troll thieves walk into the passage. Quayam follows them. The boulders in the passage look like the ones in the ravine.
"The toll has been clearing the bolders," Quayam says.
"Yes," the short man says. "As you can see, he's almost done. If you let him finish, which will take a few hours, we'll help you lead him back to the orcs."
Quayam nods. "So you said."
Quayam checks the back rooms. There are some packs in one of them and some bedrolls spread out on conjured matter mattresses. He leaves the troll thieves alone to perform their summoning. He examines the cavern. He returns to the entrance, where Thristen and Gristel are watching the troll. The troll watches them back.
"I'm sure it's a dragon cavern," Quayam says. "The bowl is for the dragon's supply of gold." He points to the clearing. "This clearing is so the dragon can land." He smiles at his companions. "Someone's moving back in. A dragon." He opens his pack and releases Sid. Sid flies around and lands on his ledge. "And Sid works for the dragons. Someone must have told him that he should try to stop us getting into the cavern. The dragons don't want us to stop the troll from clearing the passage."
"That sounds reasonable," Gristel says.
They discuss the dragons and Sid and the troll. The troll-thieves come out of the passage carrying two huge platters of roast lamb. They put the platters down beside the troll. The troll picks up a piece of lamb and puts it in his mouth. He chews. The men return with an opened barrel of beer. The troll makes a noise.
"What did he say?" Thristen says.
"He said 'beer'," the short man says.
They watch the troll eat.
13 January, 2483
A wyvern with two riders lands with a cry and a rush of wind and snow and dirt. Rackhammer jumps from the saddle and lands upon the ground between two pits in the earth. The pits mark the places where two trees of the mountain forest once grew, until Arg the Troll uprooted them. The gnarled and twisted ends of great roots thrust up out of the dirt. The second wyvern rider climbs down off the wyvern more slowly. The wyvern snarles at this second rider, and the rider hastens away from the black, scaley beast to stand behind his general.
There is a hippogriff already on the ground nearby. Quayam is climbing down from its saddle with a frown on his face. He has been suffering from too much time in the air. He stands upon the ground and straightens his back. A hundred meters up the slope is the entrance to the dragon's cave. Even now, Arg the troll is emerging from the shadows of the cave with a one-meter boulder in his arms. He moves in his slow and irresistable way to the top of the ravine beside the clearing.
Quayam shields his eyes as another griff lands beside him. This griff has a tail of red feathers, and brown wing-tips. The red tail feathers are dyed, although Zak, the rider, refuses to believe them so, saying her griff is related to the red-tailed hawks that hunt over Lake Zakh, where she was borne.
Thristen jogs down the hill and holds the griff's reins while Zak dismounts. She puts her arm around him and whispers. Quayam suspects she is whispering about his conversation with her at the orc's camp twenty minutes before. She had wanted some kind of reassurance from him, but he had failed to give it, or so it seems to him.
"May I go to him, general?" the orc who arrived with Rackhammer says.
"Wait a moment, Captain Glag."
Standing beside the cave entrance are Gristel and the two men who stole the troll. Gristel waves. Quayam waves back. Rackhammer raises one hand. The shorter of the two troll-thieves shakes his hand in the air in what Quayam assumes to be a wave, but an incompetent one.
Rackhammer reaches up and touches the jeweled pommel of the Sword of Stellan, which hangs upon his back. "These are the two men who call themselves Tweedledum and Tweedledee?"
"Yes," Quayam says, "I told them you would be coming. They are nervous because they think you will stop the troll from clearing the cave. I gave them my word that we would let them finish if they stopped Arg running into the forest earlier, when we scared him off with the explosions we used to break into the cave."
A low rumble, and the snapping of a tree branch, mark the rolling of Arg's boulder down the slope of the ravine and into the stream at the bottom.
"How much longer until he is done?"
"An hour or two," Quayam says, "If he keeps going like this."
Rackhammer nods. "Very well. I will wait here. But please take Captain Glad to Arg, so that he can satisfy himself that his charge is in good health."
"I'll do that," Quayam says.
An hour later, Arg the Troll walks down from the cave mouth. His work is done. With him walks Captain Glag, the Troll-Master. It's hard to tell if Arg is happy or sad. His gray, armored face has no expression upon it that Quayam can identify. But Captain Glag is happy. His teeth are bared, and he scampers beside the troll like a child.
Gristel, Quayam, and Thristen follow the troll down the slope. Zak and Rackhammer wait for them. Zak is sitting curled up beside her hippogriff to stay warm. Rackhammer is stroking his wyevern's neck.
"What of the two thieves?" Rackhammer says.
"They're gone," Quayam says. "They said they were going to go back into the cave and get their belongings, but they didn't come back. I went in and had a look around. I found a copper gating frame. They gated themselves away."
Rackhammer says nothing.
Gristel smiles. "Shocking, isn't it? They can get away with that sort of thing because they work for the dragons."
Three hours after noon, Quayam, Thristen, and Gristel are walking through the forest with Arg the Troll and Glag the Troll-Master. Arg's footfalls crunch upon the forest floor in a slow and gentle rhythm, accompanied by splintering wood and falling branches. The trees are large and the spaces between them are wide, but Arg is six meters tall, and he must force his way through their overlapping canopies of leaves.
Up above, Zak rides her griff, with Quayam's brown-and-white griff following behind her. Rackhammer circles higher up on his wyvern.
"We're walking into an ambush," Thristen says.
Gristel and Quayam slow down for a moment, but continue walking when they see that Thristen has not paused in his stride.
"I see," Gristel says, "And this is a good thing because it means we get into a fight."
"Oh," Thristen says, "They're orcs. Do you see them on the left, crouching behind the tree-trunks?"
Gristel and Quayam look closer. "Oh yes. They are orcs." Gristel says, "They must be Rackhammer's. But why didn't he tell us about them?"
"Maybe they are not Rackhammer's," Quayam says. "Maybe they're from Garaz. Maybe they know about the loose troll because Zak told them."
Gristel frowns. "Don't talk nonsense, darling."
"I'm just putting it out there, that's all."
The cliff of the Iron Mountains is on their right. The nearest orcs are now on their left. The line of orcs stretches off to the left ahead of them.
Thristen counts the orcs he can see. "Twenty of them, I'd say."
The orcs come out of their hiding places and walk forwards. They are armed with shields and spears. They have crossbows on their backs, and two swords on their belts. Their shields are painted in dark greens and browns, none of them the same. Their armor is light chain on top and bottom, with a leather jerkin. Gristel recognises the style of light chain. And she recognises the emblem on the orcs' helmets, and the stripes upon their shoulders.
"They're Varayan army." Gristel says.
Thristen, Quayam and Gristel stop walking. Glag orders Arg to stop also.
"What's going on?" Captain Glag says.
"We don't know," Thristen says, "But don't worry. Keep Arg calm.
Twenty orcs approach them and make a semi-circle around them. Their shields overlap, and their spears point fowards. In once place, their wall of shields parts to allow a female orc with three stripes on her shoulder to walk through and stand before the party of travelers.
Arg makes a low groaning noise. Glag speaks to him.
The orc woman puts her hands upon her hips. She has no shield or spear, but she has a sword at her belt. Gristel does not recall the last time she saw an orc wearing a sword. The orc woman speaks in Varayan. Gristel has never heard an orc woman speak Varayan.
"Who are you?" the woman says.
"Well, now, hold on a minute," Quayam says, "Who are you? This is dwarf territory, not orc territory. What are you doing here?"
The woman looks sideways at Quayam. She raises her hand above her head and makes three signs with her fingers. "I asked you a question. I'm expecting an answer. If you don't answer, I'll have to disarm and bind you."
Quayam laughs. "I'd like to see you try that, madame."
Thirty more orcs march out of the forest. The woman raises her hand again and points to the left and right. The orcs move around the the party of adventurers and their troll.
Thristen looks from one side to the other. "They're going to surround us. If we want to break out, now's the time."
"We can't leave the troll," Gristel says.
"Let them do what they want," Quayam says, "This woman is beginning to annoy me."
The orcs form a wall of shields in a full circle around them, with their spears pointed inwards.
"I don't like the look of this," Thristen says.
The troll groans.
"As I was saying," the woman says, "I asked you a question. Who are you?"
"I'm Thristen Alomere, this is Gristel Virage, and that's Quayam Srae over there. And this here is Arg the Troll, and Captain Glag from the Gutak Engineering Corps. We're just taking Glag back to General Rackhammer."
The woman looks up at the towering mass of the troll. "I am Captain Weldin of the Varayan Night Fighters." She looks at Thristen. "I am under orders to take anyone I find in these parts into custody. That includes you and your troll."
"That's rediculus," Quayam says. "Do you know who we are? Have you heard about the Brotherhood of Light? Don't you know we're working with the government and with Gutak to make peace? Well what we're doing now is essential to peace. Two guys came out of Varay or Isengard and stole Rackhammer's troll. We're taking him back. If we don't take him back, and in particular if you take the troll away from us, it will mean war with Gutak."
"I have my orders," Captain Weldin says. She points to her right. "I want the four of you over there, away from the troll."
"Do you want war with Gutak?" Quayam says. "Because that's what's going to happen if you go ahead and obey your orders without thinking about it."
Captain Weldin moves out of the circle. The orcs move swiftly forwards, with half their number dropping behind the others. The wall of shields is only six meters in diameter now, with the spear points only half a meter from the adventurers's chests.
"We'll have to kill some of them to get out," Gristel says. "I'm not prepared to kill a member of the Varayan army."
"Nor am I," Thristen says. "I say we surrender."
"No, I'm not surrendering," Quayam says. He has his hand upon the pommel of his sword. "This woman needs to learn to think for herself."
Gristel grabs Quayam's arm. "It's two to one. Motion carried. We surrender. That's it. Done."
Quayam takes a deep breath. He folds his arms. "Okay, but I'm not moving."
Gristel rolls her eyes.
The shield wall opens on their left. Captain Weldin is standing outside. She waves at them to come out of the circle.
"Captain Glag," Thristen says, "We are going to surrender to these soldiers. Everything will be okay. You must leave Arg in the circle, and go out."
Captain Glag spits on the ground. "Damned if I will."
"You will," Thristen says, "Because I will do it."
Thristen walks out of the circle. Gristel follows him. Captain Glag shouts to Arg. "Don't worry, Arg. You will have your supper. Do as these soldiers want, and it will be okay. No more work today, just walking."
The troll speaks. "Walking," it says.
Glag pats the troll on the leg and follows Gristel. Quayam takes out a space bridge. "I'm making a call. I'm going to call General Gashley Virage. You can explain what you're doing to him."
Two large orcs enter the circle. They advance upon Quayam. He folds his arms again, with the space bridge in one hand. The orcs grab his arms and drag him out of the circle. Quayam's feet leave dirt trails on the ground. When he is outside the circle, Captain Weldin holds out her hand. "Give me that pouch you have in your hand."
"No," Quayam says. "What's the matter with you? Can't you think for yourself? Don't you understand what you're doing?"
Captain Weldin nods at one of the orcs, who forces Quayam's arm out and bends his wrist. Quayam is in considerable pain, so he opens his hand. Captain Weldin takes the pouch. She points to Quayam's companions. The orcs drag Quayam over to Gristel and Thristeon, and drop him on the cold forest floor. He stands up and brushes himself off. "Damn that woman."
Thristen puts his arm around Quayam. "Calm down, old buddy. She's just doing her job."
"I can't stand people like that," Quayam says.
The Captain walks forward. "Give me your word that you will not try to escape, and I will allow you to keep your weapons and I will not bind your hands."
"I give you my word that I will not try to escape," Gristel says.
Thristen does the same.
The Captain looks at Quayam. She tilts her head to one side. "And you, Mr. Srae, will you give me your word?"
Quayam takes off his flying helmet and shakes some leaves from his hair. "Yes. I give you my word."
Captain Weldin holds out Quayam's leather pouch. "You may have this back."
Quayam takes the pouch. "Thank you."
The Captain smiles. Thristen stares at her face. It is lean and creased in places, but her skin is still smooth. Her lips are red, not black. Here eyes are slitted, with blue irises. She stands straight. Now she turns her head and he sees her profile, with her spearmen and the troll in the background. Her tusks curve gracefully up to her cheeks, and show only a few thin, yellow lines. She must be around thirty-five, he decides.
"One and two to me!" she says, in Varayan that shows no sign of accent. "Mack and Aberdash, guard the prisoners."
She moves away. Twenty of her men converge upon her. But they are not all men. Half of them are women. They are orcs. Thristen watches them. These are the sons and daughters of Varayan parents, parents who turned out to be half-orcs. One in four of the children of half-orcs are orcs. None of the children of a sapien and an orc are orcs. And what happens to an orc born to sapien parents in Varay? They enter the army. They end up in this company, the Night Fighters.
He smiles. What a stroke of luck to meet them.
The night fighters force Arg west, away from the cliffs. They walk for an hour, and cover three kilometers until they come to the edge of the forest. There they see Rackhammer standing upon the snow-covered grass with his wyvern behind him.
Captain Weldin orders the Night Fighters to stop. Twenty of them take up position at the forest's edge. Despite the protests of her four senior officers, Weldin walks out on her own towards the black orc. Up above are two griffs circling. One of them has an orc rider. The other has no rider.
The officers give orders to their men as soon as Weldin is out of hearing. Their men, and by men we mean men and women, cock their crossbows and take aim at Rackhammer fifty meters away. Weldin is half-way across the space. She walks without hurrying. She strides forward with her head held high.
She stops in front of Rackhammer. They talk. Nobody in the forest can hear them. Weldin walks back. Rackhammer waits. Two of the Night Fighters have set up a small one-person tent with a chair inside. Weldin enters it. Quayam, Gristel, and Thristen watch. Arg sits down and Glag stands beside him. Even when Arg is sitting down, he is half again as tall as Glag.
"I think she's talking on a bridge to her commanding officer," Gristel says, "We have bridges in the army. In the old days, it was one per regiment of a thousand men. But there may be more of them now, and this is a special company."
"She knew what was in Quayam's pouch," Thristen says.
"She still can't think for herself," Quayam says.
Weldin emerges from the tent and walks out towards Rackhammer. They talk for five minutes. While she is away, Quayam tells Mack he has to poo in the forest. Mack says okay, and Quayam goes off. He pulls his pants down, but nothing comes out. In fact, he has no intention of pooing. The devious fellow takes out his space bridge and sends a telegram to Gashley."Arrested with Rackhammer's troll by Captain Weldin of Night Fighters. Need diplomacy ASAP. Quayam."
He is well pleased with himself when he returns to the others.
Weldin walks back. "Okay men," she says. Everyone looks up, except for the dozen sentries around the permiter of the group, who are crouching in the shadows at the bases of trees. "That black-orc is General Rackhammer of Gutak."
"Rackhammer!" some of the orcs shout.
"I knew it was him," Mack says.
"I told you it was him," Quayam says.
"Well, I didn't believe you, did I?"
"Yes, it's him," Captain Weldin says. Her voice sounds clear through the forest. "He's going to bring back some food for the troll. We'll camp here for the night. Rackhammer says this is his troll, and he wants the troll back. We agreed to wait until the morning to decide what to do."
"And what about the prisoners?" a woman asks.
Captain Weldin laughs and looks at Quayam. "Oh, he's not so worried about them. Thinks they can look after themselves. So I guess we'll see what happens."
Quayam frowns at her.
The orcs make two big fires. They don't pitch tents. But Quayam makes a nice conjured shelter for himself and his companions. After a moment's consideration, he makes another for Captain Weldin. He stands beside it when he is done. Gristel laughs at him.
"What?" Quayam says.
"I'm just waiting for you to go and tell her that you made her a present."
Quayam shakes his head. He walks back to their own shelter and goes inside.
The orcs are cooking over their fires. The smell of roasting meat fills the camp. Arg begins to groan. Glag talks to Weldin.
"Soldiers!" Weldin says. "Stop roasting meat. It's getting the troll upset. He's hungry. Wait until Rackhammer comes back with the food, and then we'll cook and eat."
And that is indeed what they do. Rackhammer returns half an hour later, just before sunset, with two sacks full of roasted meat and potatoes, made for Arg by his team of cooks back in the Engineers Camp. Weldin and two of her men carry it into the forest and Rackhammer flies away. There is no sign of Zak or her griffs.
The troll eats, and the orcs start cooking again. Quayam, Gristel, and Thristen have a fine meal in their shelter, which they summon from Olympia. Gristel, however, would rather be eating with the orcs, but she takes pity upon her husband. They talk to Gashley. He has sent a telegram to the War Office, demanding an explanation. They talk to Romayne also. She and Travis are well.
Later, they are out in the open by the fires. The orcs are laughing and playing dice and some of them are playing the drums on their shields and some other devices made of stretched fabric. Captain Weldin and Quayam exchange a few words. She looks at the shelter he made for her and approaches it. She goes inside and emerges again. "Thank you," she says.
She does not stay in the shelter herself. Instead, she lets the orcs have the shelter. They enter in parties of five or six, and each get one hour during the night to enjoy the privacy it offers them. The orcs don't pitch tents. They just lay out their blankets and make two big fires to sleep around. Behind each of them, they set up their shield, to reflect the heat back onto their bodies. They lie close to one another, and have capes as blankets.
But before they go to sleep, they stay up half the night, as orcs are wont to do anywhere. Quayam challenges Mack to a shirtless boxing match. Mack accepts, and everyone watches with enthusiasm as Quayam knocks his man out in twenty seconds. So then Aberdash, Quayam's other guard, must have a go too, and he lasts for a full minute, much to the applause of his fellows.
Weldin orders a stop to the boxing before Thristen gets a chance to take part. "I don't want fifty beaten-up soldiers in the morning," she says, "We may have serious work to do."
14 January, 2483
In the morning, the orcs sleep until an hour after sunrise. It is the fourteenth of January. The sky is clear, and the temperature is well below freezing. The two fires are still burning well, full of big logs chopped by the orcs the night before. Arg the troll slept with his back against a tree. Captain Glad slept beside the fire with the other orcs. Now that he is awake, Arg stands up.
Captain Weldin emerges from her one-man tent. She approaches her officers and talks to them. They ask a few questions, nod, and move to their men. Weldin approaches Quayam, Gristel, and Thristen.
"We're going to make a gallon of hooch for the troll," she says.
"Good," Thristen says.
"And then what?" Quayam says.
She smiles at him. "Then we will escort you to the Gutak border so that you can return the troll to Rackhammer."
Quayam opens his mouth. She waits for him to speak, but he says nothing.
Thristen puts his hand opon Quayam's shoulder. "Thank you Captain. We greatly appreciate it."
"You're welcome," she says.
"Why are you letting us go?" Gristel says.
"I think it's the best thing to do," Weldin says.
True to her word, Weldin's Night Fighters accompany the troll for three hours to the Gutak border. Early on, Rackhammer and Zak land in front of them and learn of Weldin's decision. After that, they fly away towards the Borderlands.
When the Night Fighters reach the line of standing stones, Weldin says, "This is as far as we go."
"Thank you, Captain Weldin," Gristel says. "It has been an honor."
"The honor is mine," Weldin says.
She turns and orders her men to depart.
"No handshake?" Thristen says.
But Weldin and her men are already thirty meters away. Our heroes lead the troll to the north. When they look back a minute later, there is no sign of the Night Fighters, even with the bright winter sun shining through the trees, and the snow upon the ground.
The troll's team of cooks are glad to see him back. Rackhammer bows before the sapiens. "I am greatly in your debt. Thank you. You will be glad that you brought him back to us, when you see him working on your road."
Our heroes agree that Rackhammer's statement bodes well.Later that afternoon, Rackhammer says, "I would like to see this cave."
"Please do," Gristel says. "We could all fly over there now."
Zak stands up. "And me."
They mount up and fly to the Dragon Cave. Rackhammer stares at the ceiling and runs his hands over the stone of the walls. He climbs down into the bowl at the center and examines the black hole in the bottom. Quayam joins him and watches Rackhammer drop a copper coin into the hole. They do not hear it hit the bottom.
"Intriguing," Rackhammer says. "This hole has some purpose. And it feels dangerous to me also. We should not meddle with it."
Quayam has the same feeling. His heart was beating fast when Rackhammer dropped the coin. "Yes, I agree."
Rackhammer stands up. He points to an envelope on the floor, weighed down with gold pieces. "What is that?"
"We left a note," Thristen says, "and ten gold pieces to start off the dragon's hoard."
Rackhammer stares at the envelope.
Thristen smiles. "The letter says, 'Welcome to the Western Idonius Millieu.'"
"Intriguing," Rackhammer says. "The gold may be stolen."
"Maybe," Thristen says.
Quayam raises a finger. "Or maybe not."
Rackhammer bares his teeth.
Quayam, Thristen, Gristel, and Zak mount their griffs and fly from the dragon's cave back to the Virage estate to tell their story to Gashley and Dominican.
15 January, 2483
In the morning, Gashley receives a telegram from the War Office. He reads it out loud in the kitchen.
15th January, 2483. The matter is resolved. The commanding officer in the field made the decision to release your friends and daughter as well as the captured troll. War Office."
"She didn't make the decision," Quayam says, "They did."
"I think not," Gashley says, "It's a founding principle of the Varayan Army that commanding officers in the field have the final say unless they yield authority to the War Office."
"Then she yielded authority, and they decided."
Gristel smiles and shakes her head. "You should have seen how mad he was, Dad."
"I don't believe it," Dominican says, "I have never seen Quayam angry. I'm sure you're exaggerating."
"No they're not," Quayam says, "I was furious. I can't stand people like that."
"I think you fancy her," Zak says.
"I do not!" Quayam says.
Zak laughs and points at him. "He does. See, he does!"
The house maid enters with yesterday's copy of the Ankle Informer, which Gashley has delivered each morning. "Here you are sir. Big news today, by the looks of it."
Gashley takes the paper "Thank you, Felicity." He opens the paper and examines the headlines. "Well, well. Blockade of Karadan Broken."
Thristen sits up, "Wow."
"What's Karadan?" Zak says.
"It's an Ursian city on the ocean," Gristel says, "Endan ships have been stopping Ursian ships from coming and going."
Thristen leans towards the paper. "What does it say?"
Gashley reads the paper, "After twenty-eight days of blockade, the Ursian Air Force attacked Endan ships with twenty hippogriffs. The attack took place at around mid-day. The hippogriffs flew down out of the sun and immobilized all ten ships ringing the harbor mouth."
Zak is leaning forward and listening to Gashley with her brows drawn together. She is straining to understand the Varayan of the article. "What flew?"
Gashley looks up. "Hippogriffs," he says in Latin. He repeats the Varayan word for hippogriff.
"What is immoobiolized?"
Gashley explains. "Can I read on now?"
"Yes, Dad. Thanks."
Gashley shakes his head. First he had to get used to her calling him "Gash-Man", which he didn't mind too much for some reason, and perhaps it was the fact that he didn't mind that bothered him. Now she's calling him "Dad" because, under Varayan law, every orc must have a guardian and Gashley is Zak's guardian.
He straightens the paper. "Witnesses report that the attacks caused no apparant damage to the Endan ships, although they were accompanied by bright flashes of light and loud booming noises. After the attacks, the Endan ships appeared to be immobilized. Sailors were unable to ascend the rigging, and the sails themselves appeared to be fixed in place. Our staff expert on wizards and thaumaturgy suspects that the weapons deployed were Flash Capsules to create the bright lights, followed by Holding Capsules to bind matter in place. If so, these Holding Capsules must be of extraordinary strength because they were able to immobilize the Endan ships for several hours. The Ursian Air Force reports that they also attacked and immobilized five other Endan ships farther out to sea. The attack was timed with the outgoing tide, and warning was given in secret to the ships in the harbor. All ships that wished to escape the blockade appear to have slipped past the immobilized Endan navy vessels and headed out to sea."
"Fantastic," Gristel says.
"They were immoobiolized," Zak says.
"Quite right, dear," Dominican says.
18 January, 2483
There are scattered clouds in the winter sky. Brock Stockton and his wife Elizabeth stand at the eastern edge of the field behind their house. Their children are gathered around them. It is late morning. Two huge, black, dragon-like creatures squat upon a large orange platform on the north side of the field. At the center of the field is a rounded, brown structure, which the Stocktons refer to as the Treaty Hall. At the end of the Treaty Hall facing the Stocktons, there is an opening in the brown wall, covered by a green curtain. In the adjacent walls there are large, irregular windows. South of the Treaty Hall are twenty knights of the Varayan Cavalry, dismounted and keeping warm around a log fire. Their horses stamp on the stubble of the field, breathing spouts of mist. Standing between the north window and the orange platform are Quayam, Gristel, Thristen, and an orc woman called Zak. These four are guests of Stockton Farm, staying in the field. From what he has seen so far, Brock has deduced that the orc woman and the muscular man called Thristen are lovers.
On the far side of the Treaty Hall is another structure, made of the same magical material. This other structure is a shelter for four giant birds. Beside the shelter is yet another structure, in which the four guests have been staying these past few days, while one of them, the elf called Quayam, erected the Treaty Hall. He made the shelters quickly, but he took his time over the Treaty Hall.
Inside the Treaty Hall, so far as Brock can figure, there are five people. Two are black giants. These arrived on the black dragons. One of them he recognises from two days ago when he (for Brock assumes it is a he) visited the field and spoke for an hour or more to the guests. Now this same giant is back, with a friend, it appears. The friend is not quite as muscular as the first one.
The other three people in the Treaty Hall are Varayan. Chief among them is Gashley Virage, a retired general of the Varayan Army. Brock does not have much to do with the army. He served for a while, but did not like it. He quit after he met Elizabeth. She and he were in the same company. That's not to say that he can't handle himself in a fight, but he's not inclined to take orders he does not agree with. But from what his friends tell him, this retired general is a decent sort, and he's the father of Gristel Virage, one of the guests. The other two people in the Treaty Hall are diplomats he has never heard of, but he wrote their names down anyway. The woman is Margarite Pennix. The man is Denton Bornite. Both are about sixty years old.
These five are discussing a treaty.
Brock clears his throat. "I'm curious as to what they they are discussing, Mrs. Stockton. And I have a mind that you know a thing or two about it."
"General Virage did share a few words with me on the subject, Mr. Stockton."
The eldest son, who just turned sixteen, says, "What, Mom? What did he say?"
Elizabeth looks at her husband. He nods.
"There are four things they are talking about, Alek. The first is the question of where is the border between the orc nation and our own country."
"There is no border," Alek says. He waves his hand at the forest to the north. "There's just the Borderlands."
Elizabeth smiles. "I can only tell you what the general said, if you're willing to listen to it, my son."
Brock grunts. Alek puts his hands in his pockets and scowls at the ground.
"And after that, they were going to talk about an extradition treaty."
Alek opens his mouth but closes it again. Brock nods several times. His wife smiles at him. Alek pokes his sister, a girl of about ten, and mouths something to her.
"What's an extradition treaty, Mommy?" the girl says.
"Well, Clara, I think it's an agreement between our countries about what to do with criminals. Suppose an orc comes here and steals something. Can he run back to the orc country and hide, or will the King of the Orcs capture him and bring him back here to face a trial in our courts?"
Brock nods. "Very useful that would be."
"What's the next thing, Mommy?" Clara says.
"Well, after that, General Virage said it would probably be time for some tea, and maybe something to eat. So I suppose they will cook lunch in there. I offered to help, but he said his daughter had the food all planned out and it would be fine."
Clara puts her head to one side. "Those black giants must eat a lot. I think they will need a whole pig or something."
They watch the field, the knights, the horses, and the two black dragons, which we know as wyverns.
"Is that all they were going to talk about?" Alek says.
"Oh, my goodness no," Elizabeth says.
The youngest two children, Benton is the seven-year-old boy and Treakel is the five-year-old girl, are pretending to fight with two sticks. "You're Vespian Parlay," Benton says.
The girl lowers her stick and shouts. "No! I'm Rackhammer. You're Vespian Parlay."
"Quiet, both of you," Brock says.
"Why am I always Vespian Stupid Parlay?" Treakel says.
"He wasn't stupid," Alek says.
Brock reaches down and takes the sticks away from Benton and Treakel. They put their hands in their pockets.
"The General also wanted to discuss military exercises with the orcs," Elizabeth says.
"What?!" Alek says.
"Our army and their army doing exercises together. The General thinks its a good idea."
Brock nods. "Sounds like peace."
"Precisely, Mr. Stockton. That's what I said to him, I said, that sounds like people and orcs getting along well. And he said that was precisely the point."
They watch the field. Gristel walks around the Treaty Hall. She waves when she sees them watching.
"I'm going to join the army anyway," Alek says.
"You don't like me telling you what to do, boy," Brock says, "We'll see how you like it in army."
"Now, Mr. Stockton," Elizabeth says. She puts her arm in his. "The army's a fine place to find a wife, and well worth it, as I'm sure you would be the first to agree."
Brock stares at the Treaty Hall. His children watch him. After some time, he clears his throat. "Our love was written in the stars, Mrs. Stockton, and we would have been together no matter what we chose to do with our lives."
Mrs. Brockton smiles. The children smile. Alek shakes his head. "That's so corny, Dad."
"When you're a man," Elizabeth says, "You'll know that there is a time to be corny, and at that time, it's not really corny any more."
Elizabeth holds up one gloved hand. "Don't you want to hear the fourth thing they are going to talk about?"
"Embassies," she says.
"Hmm," Brock says. Elizabeth looks up at Brock's weathered face. He looks down at her. "Embassies, you say?"
"Yes, like a building in the orc country, where we have Varayans working and speaking for our government."
"And another one here, in Ankle I suppose?"
"Quite right, Mr. Stockton. In Ankle."
Brock turns to the Treaty Hall. He and his family watch the scene and another minute passes.
"We might do allright out of this, Mrs. Stockton."
"We are doing allright out of it. The Treaty Hall will last a month, accoring to Quayam. Everybody will want to see it for miles around. With sales of food, and entrance tickets, we will do very well."
"Aye," Brock says, "I suspect we will."
Elizabeth looks up at him and waits.
"Something's not right with it, though. We'd best be careful."