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The Mystara Chronicles XVII: "The Gnomes' North Trail"by M. Geneva Gray
(based upon the works of various and sundry authors)
The story was the telling of the flight of the elves from the Sylvan Realm, although if the leader of the troupe had not announced this at the beginning of the performance Boldar would never have known it. Not having heard the tale before, he gathered that it was an important exodus that had taken place many years ago. Boldar grunted. It was just like the elves to be forever wandering. The dwarves had lived in Dengar, the land in which Kagyar had created them, for all of the three thousand years of their history, from Denwarf the First-Born King to the current reign of Everast XV. It made Boldar uncomfortable to think that his own recent peregrinations made him, in this respect at least, more elvish than dwarvish.
I have been long away from my people, he thought. It had been good to visit with his friend Dalmarek while in Stallanford, to feel that special kinship of the Rockborn, but, strangely, the visit did not make him more resolute about returning home, but less so. Boldar had to admit that he felt a stronger desire to stay here with his new human companions than to make the journey back to Rockhome. I have a choice. He took a big gulp of beer. That might be the case, but he reckoned that Kagyar would surely punish him for his decision. Please understand, Master.
Perhaps all of this was weighing on his mind, negatively informing his judgment, but the dwarf intently disliked the performance. First, the troupe consisted purely of elves, Callarii, from some southern forest. Having to be around Thalaric was bad enough, but being forced to sit and politely watch a dozen of them traipse about in front of the high table was almost too much to bear. Boldar squirmed in his seat.
The second thing about the performance was that it was completely mimed. Not a word was spoken after the initial prologue. Which, Boldar thought, was probably added only because they felt that the "lesser" races wouldn't be able to understand it otherwise. He grunted again. They were right, the bastards.
The dwarf took a good look around him. Lady Penhaligon had gone all out. The public square had been turned into a festival ground, with one end tightly cordoned off and reserved for her and her special guests of honour. Low tables surrounded the square, their seats occupied by prominent members of Penhaligon society, which included, for tonight at least, Fyodor's family. Pigs were roasting on huge spits, the wine and mead were flowing generously, and everyone was in good cheer, especially Thalaric. The fire-haired elf was absolutely transfixed by the performance. He had paid some local craftsman to fashion a cloak out of the wolf pelt that he had claimed as part of his share of the loot. Boldar grudgingly admitted that it looked fantastic, even though the effect was undermined by the fact that the elf persisted in wearing that impractical green hose and silly-looking little cap.
Thalaric had excitedly presented gifts to everyone in the party before the feast, thick silver bracelets that he had purchased from a travelling jeweller. Boldar thought that they were of low quality and inferior workmanship, but he had accepted the gift graciously. The elf, at any rate, had been too extraordinarily happy about the bracelets for him to refuse it. Thalaric had said that by these bracelets all the world would be able to identify them as members of the same company. He had cried out something about "the Brotherhood of the Silver Band" before being distracted by a butterfly and running off after it like a child, effectively ending the discussion. Boldar thought that the elf was pushing the intimacy between them a bit too far; after all, they had only known each other for a few weeks. Nevertheless, he wore the bracelet that night, although it made him nostalgic for the dwarvish craftsmanship that he had left behind in Dengar, a reminder that he certainly didn't need right now.
He drained his mug and held it out to the young boy who was attending his side of the table, the son of some high-ranking servant or other. He stared at the boy as he approached quickly but with trembling limbs and poured Boldar a fresh mug of ale from a pewter pitcher. The lad was obviously terrified of the dwarf.
"Boo!" Boldar said suddenly, twisting his face into the visage that had always made his little cousins smile and giggle.
The serving boy stumbled backwards, his face white. Hmmm, Boldar thought. Human children are much more easily frightened than dwarf children. And more prone to wetting themselves, he added as he saw the moist patch on the front of the child's breeches. Boldar shook his head. Why was it that he found himself unwilling to leave this strange land? He sipped again at his drink and turned back to the performance, ignoring the scolding the lad was receiving from a serving woman.
At long last the mimes completed their performance to polite applause from the audience and the high table and enthusiastic cheers from Thalaric. The white-robed elves bowed and took their leave. Boldar wiped gravy from his beard and dug into a second trencher of lamb roasted with onions while the second of the night's entertainment troupes presented themselves before Lady Penhaligon.
To Boldar's surprise, they were gnomes. This race was shorter than the dwarves, though not so small as the halflings. They were slender, with light hair, blonde and red, and full beards. Their eyes were a brilliant blue and their noses long. Many of the gnomes here today wore rings in their noses, a gnomish custom that Boldar found to be ridiculous. They were dressed in assorted motley and carried various implements: clubs, knives, torches. Boldar recognised this group well from his sojourn in Highforge: they were Bulper's Tossers, the finest jugglers that he had ever seen.
The act began and Boldar leaned back in his chair, belching quietly. Now this, he thought, is entertainment. He imagined that Arteris had requested the troupe personally, for she clearly had connections to Highforge. Boldar knew this because after their first meeting she had said a few very polite words to him in the dialect of the dwarvish tongue spoken there by the Stronghollow Clan. He had liked Lady Penhaligon instantly, and his regard for her only increased at the sight of Bulper's Tossers.
The gnomes were a fine people, ever friendly to the dwarves. Both races respected each other's craftsmanship and traditions. Boldar thought them odd, though, for they spoke the language of badgers and moles. He had thought that this was merely a rumour until one day during his stay at Highforge he had come across one of the Hilltopper gnomes squatting on the ground, chirping away at some small burrowing animal. Kagyar knows what they have to talk about, he had thought at the time.
Boldar's nose began to tickle, and he saw with disgust that Sarala, who had been seated next to him despite both of their protests, had a cat in her lap. It was rubbing its nose against her face, and the shapechanger stroked its grey-black fur absent-mindedly. Another cat lay contentedly at her feet. Boldar grumbled. He hated cats with a passion.
The shapechanger wore the same simple outfit that she had been in all day, having refused to go to a dressmaker's shop. In a strange kind of concession to formal attire, she had purchased some colourful makeup and used it to paint whisker-like stripes on her face. It was as if she were taunting everyone, disclosing her secret without revealing it, giving her identity away if only people had the eyes to see. Or maybe it was a cryptic warning, a reminder of her power. Either way, it was an arrogance that was distasteful to the dwarf.
Sarala had refused the bracelet Thalaric had bought for her. True, it was only a trinket, of no good craft whatsoever. True, Thalaric was odd, fey and unpredictable. But he was a boon companion. If she didn't like the bracelet, she didn't have to wear it, but the dwarf thought it very rude of her not even to accept it. Just thinking about this made Boldar want to rat her out very badly, to betray her and her secret to the Penhaligon city guard. But then he thought of the way that she had fought in Haradraith's Keep, of the way that she had leapt to meet those zombies head-on, and he just couldn't.
He had heard talk that she would be leaving tomorrow for the damned realm of Glantri. Good, Boldar thought, kicking a cat that had snuggled up to his boots. Let her go her own way. As for me... The dwarf looked down the table at Varis, who was seated at the left hand of Lady Penhaligon, and at Fyodor who was cheering on the gnomes excitedly. I miss my people, especially my family, he thought. I have a duty to them, and someday I will return. The dwarf found that he was having a difficult time conceptualising his inner struggle. But as much as I am Rockborn, I also share something with these humans. We are not so dissimilar, and they are my friends. Dengar may be calling me, he thought, but I have a choice in the matter. He let loose a punctuative sneeze. There is more that I need to do here. For the time, my destiny lies with the Karameikans.
* * *
Varis was doing his best to be polite, but he wasn't sure of the function of each piece of silverware that was spread out before him. Was this spoon meant for the soup or for the dessert? Was this fork for the meat or for the salad? His parents had never kept a fine table, and the buttery at seminary was suitably informal as well. He was sure that he must have learned all about proper dining at one time, but, even if he had, that information had long since departed, making room for the pearls of theo-philosophical wisdom that he had spent most of the past three years acquiring.
In contrast, Varis saw that Alexander, seated down by the end of the table, seemed completely at ease, flirting with Sarrah and joking with Fyodor while juggling the many forks and spoons, never looking anything but relaxed and elegant. He was magnificent in his gold-clasped, silk-lined cloak. Alexander had pinned the silver and onyx brooch that he had received from the dryad onto his new tunic and looked every bit the gallant adventurer. Why is it that I and not he have been chosen to sit at Arteris' left hand?
Fyodor also had found his way through the perilous maze of the silverware. His solution, unlike Alexander's, consisted in just using his hands for everything, and sipping the soup straight out of the bowl. This brought a smile to Varis' face. Better to make a fool out of yourself than to let a profusion of silverware dampen your spirits, he thought. Fyodor is wiser than he appears.
The philosopher had had a very good day today, ever since his long-overdue purification. His old parish priest Father Ventranius had performed the ritual, and afterwards the philosopher had felt a great weight lifted from his spirit. No need to weigh it down again with anxiety, he thought. He was so buoyed by this that he wasn't even much bothered by the fact that his Aunt Misha and her fat husband Kolya were still ignoring him as if he didn't even exist, even though the entire town was practically showering him in praise. Each chooses his own path, he thought. They will do what they will.
Tomorrow he would leave for Threshold and the court of Baron Halaran. The philosopher was looking forward with pride to being able to present him with Bernal's unholy symbol just as Fyodor presented Arteris with Ilyana's head. Er, maybe with a bit more tact, he thought to himself, smiling at the memory of his friend's faux pas.
Boldar had expressed interest in coming along before the philosopher had even asked him. Varis was very happy about that, but quite surprised. He had thought that Boldar would be wanting to return home to Dengar, to Rockhome. Upon further reflection, he had the thought that the dwarf might want not just to return to his homeland but to return in triumph. Varis thought that he understood that urge, but he wasn't quite so clear as to why Boldar thought that he would be able to obtain this glory travelling with him, a philosopher. No matter: Varis enjoyed his company, and knew that his skill as a warrior would be most welcome.
He was also pleasantly surprised that Fyodor had decided to accompany him as well. His friend's success had been so remarkable that his family had decided that the terms of his Shearing were over; what took most Traladarans years to accomplish he had brought about in a matter of weeks. A real Grygorov now, he could easily have opted to remain at home. Varis knew how much his family meant to Fyodor, but he also knew that his friend dreamed of being a great hero, not a great farmer. In the end, he would go back to his family and till the same soil that his father tilled, and his father before him, and his father before him, but not now. Not while there was still such strength in his bones, such zeal in his spirit.
The gnomes were reaching the climax of their act. Arrayed in a circle, they were tossing a series of lighted torches around so quickly it was as if the spectators were viewing a great wheel. Then, into this fiery circle, other torches came flying, criss-crossing the ring. And just when Varis couldn't take the tension any further, the wheel suddenly came to a halt, each gnome clenching a pair of torches in his small hands. The square erupted in applause. The gnomes bowed deeply to Arteris.
"Did you enjoy the performance?" she asked Varis. She had donned a spectacular gown in her family colours of green and gold with full, flowing sleeves and a long, thin cloak of fine fur, perhaps sable. A narrow coronet adorned her brow, and diamonds glittered from her ears and her fingers. She looked noble, Varis thought, and quite beautiful, especially now that her hair had been combed out and gleamed with oil. Her perfumes were intoxicating. The philosopher was completely ill at ease around her, perhaps because she had the same look of displeasure on her face as she did when he first met her in Kaerin's mansion. He feared saying the wrong thing, or admiring her beauty too obviously. Breathe, Varis, breathe, he thought.
"I did, my lady," he replied as the final performers of the night approached. They were a troupe of brown-skinned women, indecently attired in short, white, tunic-style dresses. The dresses were slit up the side, revealing nearly the entire extent of the women's dark, muscular legs. Buttons made of what appeared to be shells adorned the fronts of their garments, but these were left provocatively unbuttoned, so that the soft swell of their breasts were exposed. The women were barefoot and their dark hair was straight and long. "What is this?" Varis asked as he gulped down more wine, his head swimming.
"They are Makai, from the Kingdom of Ierendi," Arteris replied. "There is a great school of the arts there and these women are a troupe of graduates on their way to perform in Darokin. They are beautiful, are they not? It is lucky for us that we were able to contract them for the evening."
"Lady Penhaligon," Varis answered, trying to keep from ogling the lithe, exotic, dancers, "this is such a luxury. You did not need to do all of this on our behalf." He truly felt like a lord himself, a feeling that made him slightly uncomfortable. Varis did not admire decadence.
Arteris sipped from her wine. "You have done a great service to Penhaligon and to the north," she said matter-of-factly. Varis risked a longer look, wondered if he saw anything in the cast of her face that reminded him of Ilyana. He thought that there might have been something, some shape of the jaw or the eyes, but Arteris caught him staring at her and trained her unflinching gaze on him. "You deserve this, Master Acinavit."
Varis blushed and returned to his meat. The Makai had begun their performance, a strange dance that combined abstract motions of the upper body with rapid gyrations of the hips and quick, almost nervous-looking footwork, all to the accompaniment of some sort of drum that a thick Makai man was beating off to one side of the performance area.
For some reason he thought of Sarrah, and glanced down the length of the table to where she was sitting. When the group had gathered together at Kaerin's mansion to be escorted to the feast, he had been amazed at her appearance. She had purchased a red and black dress and looked absolutely stunning. Although it did not seem that she was used to wearing formal gowns, Varis had to admit that she was quite beautiful; he understood Alexander's obvious attraction to her for the first time.
Sarrah was seated at the end of the table, as far away as possible from Arteris and Kaerin. Earlier that day, Kavorquian's heir had told Varis with pleasure that Erren, Sarrah's old partner, had been found guilty and sentenced to one year of imprisonment and the confiscation of all of her possessions for breaking into his home. The one-armed lord had expressed disbelief when Varis grudgingly told him that although he did not trust her, Sarrah had fought bravely beside them throughout their hardships in the mountains and in Haradraith's Keep. Kaerin made it quite clear that he considered Sarrah an unwelcome guest, and that there was nothing that he could say that would convince him otherwise. Varis did not go out of his way to reason with him.
Later, at the beginning of the feast, Varis had overheard Kaerin whispering to his cousin, complaining about her presence. Arteris had replied sharply, saying that the part that Sarrah had played in helping the companions vanquish Ilyana made her too important not to honour. Kaerin had inclined his head then, in deference to her wishes, his eyes bespeaking his resignation. He had turned his attention instead to Alerena, who seemed to be having a good time and did not appear nearly as nervous as she did when she first met the companions.
His attention snapping back to the present, Varis spoke once more to Lady Penhaligon: "I do not know if you have been informed of this, my lady, but there is still one individual connected to Ilyana who remains at large. His name is Sabinus, and he was the butler to Lord Kavorquian. We suspect that he was in league with Ilyana for he attempted to prevent us from learning about her designs on the north. He fled Lord Kaerin's manor and we have not seen him again."
The philosopher turned to Arteris to explain more and found to his surprise that she had trained her brown eyes directly on him. "I have heard this already from Kaerin. It saddens me, for I know Sabinus well."
Arteris nodded. "He was my father's chief servant for almost thirty years. I grew up with him in the house. When my father died, he began to serve my uncle Kavorquian."
The blood was pounding in Varis' head. It could have been because of the wine or the dancing of the sweat-soaked Makai, but he knew that it was neither of these things: it was because he had proof now, or at least as much proof as he needed in his state. Ilyana was Arturus' bastard, no doubt fathered off of some servant in his employ; for surely it was too much of a coincidence that Sabinus could have come to serve both her and her father. The philosopher realised that he might have sided with Ilyana's cause because he actually felt that she deserved rulership of Penhaligon, not because of any allegiance to Alphaks. It was all starting to make some sort of horrible sense to Varis.
The Makai finished their performance, to shouts of approval and thunderous applause. "Cousin, you've outdone yourself!" Kaerin remarked from his place at Arteris' right hand.
Fyodor was standing up at the table and applauding loudest of all, a huge grin on his face. He had stained his new white tunic with some kind of sauce. Varis sighed. The Traladaran was drunk. And, when the philosopher reached for his wine goblet and nearly knocked it over, he soon realised that he was as well.
* * *
Varis' head was whirling as he changed his clothes, laying aside his embroidered tunic in favour of one of his vests. He had been so nervous at the feast that he had not been careful with his drinking. Things certainly weren't helped by the attentive servers who had kept filling his wine goblet as soon as he had drained it. Varis knew that he needed a good night's rest to sleep it off, an especially pressing concern because they had made plans to be on their way south the next morning.
The most direct route to Threshold, the seat of Sherlane Halaran, was west through the Wufwolde Hills. However, it was a much faster trip, not to mention a safer one, to take the Duke's Road south and west to Kelvin and then the Windrush Road north and west, following the river that gave the road its name to their destination. Varis was looking forward to stopping at Kelvin, and hoped that he would be able to squeeze in a quick visit with Father Cesarius and a few others at the seminary.
Alexander had told him that Sarrah and Sarala were going to be leaving for Glantri tomorrow morning, which suited him just fine. Their departure would lighten the mood of the group considerably, he thought. If they should fall into armed conflict, they would surely miss Sarrah's blades, and the strange shapeshifter had more than proven her own strength, but Varis was prepared to do without them both if it meant that he could be at ease with respect to the motives of the group. When it came right down to it, he did not trust either of the women.
There was a soft rap on his door, tentative, as if unsure that he would be awake. "Enter," Varis called out, quickly lighting a lamp from the single candle that burned by his bedside.
Alexander entered, looking tired and a bit nervous. He had gotten rid of his cloak but he still wore his formal tunic and trousers. "I wasn't sure if you would still be up."
"I was just about to retire. Come in, friend. What's on your mind?" Varis sat down on the edge of the bed.
Alexander closed the door behind him and remained standing. He did not look directly at his friend but kept his gaze on the ground, his nimble fingers twitching nervously. Finally, he looked up at the philosopher and smiled unconvincingly. "I'm not quite sure how to say this..."
"What is it?" Varis said with concern.
Alexander nodded, his lips set in a joyless smile. "I've decided to accompany Sarrah and Sarala to Glantri."
Varis was stunned. "You're...going to Glantri?"
"I've been putting off telling you because I thought that you'd be mad." Alexander was looking anywhere in the room but at Varis.
"Well...I'm at a loss for words. I can't believe that you would do that, Alex, I really can't. I mean, Glantri..."
"I know you don't approve, but I think that it would be exciting."
"Exciting!" Now Varis was becoming angry. "There's nothing exciting about the way they treat the religious. I can't believe you would leave me like this! And Fyodor and Thalaric and Boldar...we've become close, Alex. We're like a family, almost. After everything we've been through..."
"This is nothing personal, Varis. It's not that I don't enjoy, or didn't enjoy, travelling with you and Fyodor and the rest. Look, we've had some pretty amazing adventures these past few weeks, haven't we? But I want to travel, I want to see Brun, and now is my chance to do it. I'm never going to be Sheared again."
"We all want to travel, Alex, but why Glantri? Why Sarala?" Suddenly Varis understood. It was so obvious that he kicked himself for not having thought of it earlier. "It's Sarrah," he said accusingly. "You're going because she's going."
"What of it?" Alexander said, meeting the philosopher's gaze.
"Nothing," Varis said contemptuously. "I just can't believe that you, of all people, would sunder our fellowship for the sake of a woman."
"And just what is that supposed to mean?" Alexander replied angrily.
"Just that. Surely you can tempt others to your bed if you must, Alex?"
"I care about Sarrah, and I do not wish to part with her." He was furious. "What is your problem with her anyway?"
"My problem is not with Sarrah, although she is most disreputable, but rather with you who would forsake your friends and companions for a chance to lay with a thief!"
"I already have, Varis," Alexander said with growing malice in his voice.
"Oh, of course you have. I would never do something like this to you, do you know that? I would never leave you!" Varis felt himself being overwhelmed by inarticulate fury.
"It is not my fault," Alexander said with a measured meanness that he had never used against his friend before, "that you have never known the joy to be found in sleeping with a woman."
"My spirit is clean," Varis shouted angrily, rising to his feet, "and it would do you well to go to church and purify your own!"
"My church is the earth and the sky and the stars!" Alexander shouted in reply. "If the Fourteen cannot meet me there, then I have no need of them. Or of you." He turned on his heel and threw open the door, slamming it behind him.
Varis sat down heavily on the bed, full of rage. For a moment he considered going after him, but he rejected that thought, too angry, too drunk. Let him go, he said to himself. You don't need him.
By the time that Varis was ready to leave the next morning, Alexander and the women were gone.
* * *
For the first time in many months, Varis took the Duke's Road south out of Penhaligon. For the first time ever, he travelled on horseback, bedecked in plate mail, accompanied by an unusual set of companions. It's almost like the beginning of a joke, he thought. A philosopher, a Traladaran, a dwarf, and an elf ride out of town...
Although they were excited to be on their way, all except Varis wondered if they would ever see Alexander again, or Sarrah, or Sarala. The philosopher did not want to even think about these possibilities, because to do so would mean having to confront his feelings of betrayal by Alexander, his oldest and best friend. So I thought, he said to himself.
Thalaric seemed to sense Varis' discomfort, and had said a few words to try to cheer him up. "We are all members of the Brotherhood of the Silver Band," he had remarked as they set out on their journey. "Distance cannot truly separate us." Varis had smiled at that, hoping that the elf would just leave him alone with his thoughts. It worked, for Thalaric pulled his horse out in front of the group, leading the way.
If all went well, they would be in Threshold in four days. Unlike the road to Stallanford, the portion of the Duke's Road that connected Penhaligon and Kelvin was paved with smooth stone. Traffic was heavier, with a steady stream of both caravans and solitary travellers travelling in both directions. They also noticed more visible patrols of Penhaligon guardsmen in green and gold.
Fyodor had overseen the purchase of their steeds, fine local horses from a Traladaran breeder and a sturdy mule for Boldar. Thalaric had snickered at the dwarf's mount but the dwarf had given him such a withering glare that the elf had actually checked himself, the first time that any of the companions could remember him doing so.
All told, they had spent a good amount of coin on their steeds, over a hundred royals each on the horses after all of their tack had been purchased. It was a lot of money, but the companions were rolling in cash after their adventures, and didn't mind the expense. None had ridden in some time, yet they found that the art came back to them soon enough. This evening their bottoms would undoubtedly be bruised and sore, but for the time being they felt like heroes.
Thalaric's saddlebags were weighed down by the pair of spellbooks that the party had looted from Kavorquian's basement. Kaerin had dutifully kept them for the elf during the companions' business with Ilyana, and the elf was happy to have recovered them again. The magics contained in the tomes were far beyond his comprehension, but he was optimistic that one day he would be able to grasp their mysteries. Thalaric had never been a standout magician amongst the Blueleaves, where the practice of magic was as natural as drawing breath, but he was eager to improve.
He was especially protective about the books, jealously denying Fyodor when he had offered to carry them in his magic bag, because it had turned out that the learned tome taken from Merkul's chambers in Haradraith's Keep was nothing less than the spellbook of the witch Tarrayo. The elf had been excited about this find, but Sarala, given first pick of the loot as recompense for her unexpected aid, had claimed it as part of her portion. Smarting from this loss, Thalaric was resolute not to let anyone else have access to Kavorquian's volumes but he; for the first time in his life, he was beginning to feel the earliest pangs of the magic-lust that his spell-master had warned him about.
As for Fyodor, he had spent even more money than the others, having purchased a new sword as a spare that he kept tied to the saddle of his horse. He had given his father's sword back to him before he had left his parents' home, and thought that it was prudent to carry an extra blade as a backup to Bastard-Slayer. Varis thought that he was going a little bit overboard with all of his different weapons, but he had to admit that he looked fearsome, and even a little bit lordly in his shining-new plate mail. Truly, he feared no danger so long as Fyodor preceded him into it.
The young Traladaran had told them that his parents had not been happy about his decision to continue his wanderings, and in the course of the ensuing argument he himself had nearly changed his mind, seeing the pain that they were feeling. But in the end they had relented, and his mother had fashioned for him a scarf from the cloth that he had delivered to them. He wore it proudly about his neck now, the red cloth and gold thread shining brightly in the clear morning light.
His mother had also told him that the increasing pain in his jaw was brought on by a loose tooth and a swollen gum in the back of his mouth. She had concocted a remedy for him consisting of steamed choreize leafs spread with a spicy paste and rolled up tightly. She had given him instructions to place a new one every day for five days in between his gum and his cheek. He was not supposed to chew it but rather to suck on it gently in order to let the healing spirits penetrate the diseased tooth and strengthen the gum. The taste of the medicine was bitter and pointed but it dulled the pain, and Fyodor reckoned that it was a small price to pay for such relief.
It was still morning when the group of four adventurers reached the guard post that marked the southern extent of the Estate of Penhaligon, little more than a small huddle of squat wooden buildings on either side of the road, flying flags of yellow and green. They waved to the disinterested guardsmen and pressed on down the road. The companions passed more and more traffic as the day went on, and the pine-covered Wufwolde Hills soon dwindled in their majesty until they eventually disappeared altogether. The Hillfollow, deprived of her namesake terrain, nevertheless continued to wind its way south, quite near to the road at most points. There was a gradual downwards slope to their progress until, by late afternoon, the companions were travelling through flat farmland with dark, rich soil.
As nightfall approached, they saw in the distance a majestic stone building in between the road and the river, standing out from the more modest farmhouses and roadside inns that they had passed today by its stateliness and architectural grandeur. Smoke trailed lazily from its smokestack and a small caravan had circled its wagons in a nearby fenced-off enclosure obviously designed for just this purpose. From their vantage point they could also see what appeared to be a broad boathouse on the banks of the Hillfollow next to a few simple wooden docks. Something about the place seemed comfortable.
"What is this?" Fyodor asked.
"It is the Gnomes' Ferry," Boldar answered. "Here we will find meat and drink fit for kings."
Varis knew the place, having stopped here once a few years ago with Alexander while making the trip between Penhaligon and Kelvin. The philosopher had found that their prices were too high for a near-impoverished seminarian, and Alexander had lost most of the money that his father had given him as an allowance gambling on a cock fight, so the two had spent the evening in the field that faced the caravanserai, chatting with the drivers and mercenaries who were travelling with a large convoy whose merchants were inside, filling themselves with expensive wine and ale. Varis still had fond memories about that night, and so he forced himself not to linger on them for fear of stirring up thoughts of Alexander.
"What's on the other side of the river?" Fyodor asked. "Why is there a ferry here?"
"Highforge," Boldar answered. "The city of the gnomes."
"Is that where the jugglers were from?"
Boldar nodded his assent. "They have also made good trails through the hills. I hadn't thought of this before, but it may be faster to take that route rather than to go south to Kelvin and then all the way north again up the Windrush."
"Well," Thalaric said, "this is a conversation best had over a good dinner and a glass of wine, so let us see what kind of fare these folk provide."
They handed their steeds off to a dull-eyed stablehand and entered the hostelry, rubbing their sore rear ends. The fires burned low in the large common room. A fairly large group of merchants, animal handlers, and weathered travellers congregated on one side of the room, laughing and enjoying their drinks. A couple of gnomes scampered around the group, carrying pitchers of ale almost as big as they were, collecting gold, haggling with a merchant over prices. The place was well lit from a series of large windows that overlooked the river. The setting sun cast its rays into the room, illuminating everything with a fiery red.
It was a pleasant place all right, but something about it was bothering Thalaric. Then he had it: everyone was sitting on one side of the room. Examining the unused side of the taproom, he realised with a smile that the chairs and tables there were much too small for human or elvish use, but were just right for gnomes and suitable (though a trifle small) for dwarves. Now that Thalaric took a look around more closely, he even saw that one section of the bar was lower than the rest, and that the grizzled gnome manning the taps seemed to be standing on some sort of shelf to stand at eye level with his human patrons.
The party was warmly greeted by a gnome with an extraordinarily long nose even for one of his race. Boldar replied, answering him in what the others presumed to be gnomish rather than the Thyatian that they had been addressed in. The two were soon chatting away in a tongue that managed to be edgy and harsh and rolling and musical all at the same time.
"It is good to meet you," the gnome finally said to all of them. "You are friends here, and you will receive the friends' price!" His bright blue eyes gleamed as he winked. "Come, I will show you to your rooms."
The accommodations were luxurious and the food and drink were of top quality. The manner in the common room, which filled up nicely as night approached, was friendly and the companions found that the strangers were generally good-natured and uninquisitive. No one knew their names here. No one asked about orcs, or Aralic, or Ilyana. They were anonymous, just four travellers from the north, with names not worth remembering. There was something a bit disconcerting about all of this to them, about being feasted in Penhaligon but being completely unknown just a day's ride south. If anything, it filled them with the desire to make greater and greater impressions on the world, so that their names and faces would be known in every tavern in every village. Fyodor especially found himself consumed with dreams of adventure.
"We need to decide on a route," Boldar said, taking a deep drink of ale and disrupting Fyodor's reverie.
"What do you mean?" Varis asked suspiciously.
"I mean we need to decide about the gnomish trail that leads through the hills between here and Threshold."
"What's wrong with going through Kelvin, staying on the Duke's Road?" the philosopher asked.
"It'll add days to our travel," Boldar answered. "If we take the ferry over the river and take the gnomes' north trail, we'll be in Threshold in two days. If we take the road and go around, it will be four days."
"But wouldn't it be safer to spend the night in Kelvin and other towns on the road than to risk the Wufwolde Hills? Didn't Patriarch Sherlane say something about problems with goblins?" Varis argued forcefully, but he should have known that his reasoned responses weren't going to persuade them. The others were convinced that nothing so petty as raiding goblins could ever keep them from their destination. The scary thing was that part of Varis was beginning to agree with them.
* * *
It turned out that the "friends' price" that the gnome had spoken was eighteen royals each for food, drink, the night's lodging, and the ferry ride to the western bank. Varis fixed Boldar with a withering glare as he handed over a handful of Thyatian coins to a smiling gnome. The dwarf seemed to be avoiding his gaze. By Varis' estimation, he still had hundreds of platinum coins left, not to mention copper, silver, electrum, and gold (the majority of which were stashed in the sorcerous no-space of Fyodor's magic bag), but the sheer expense involved chafed with his natural frugality. He apologised to Asterius for his wastefulness.
The raft was a wide one and was manned by five gnomes with paddles and poles. Varis stroked the mane of his horse reassuringly as he led the beast onto the floating platform. Once everyone was on board, the gnomes pushed off with their poles and they were on their way. The day was once again bright and sunny and the Hillfollow was calm. It truly was beautiful out here, with the still-rising sun at their backs, the graceful ululations of the river beneath and all around them, and the familiar pine-covered Wufwolde Hills that waited on the other side.
Boldar seemed least comfortable of all of them, and stood as near to the centre of the large raft as possible, his fingers wrapped tightly around the reins of his mule. Fyodor, in keeping with his character, had taken off his boots and socks and was dangling his feet off the side of the raft. Thalaric, in keeping with his, had joined him, his strange blue bark-made boots resting safely away from the edge.
Varis missed Alexander. He had been trying hard not to think about the fight that they had had because he knew that the anger that he had felt then, the betrayal, even, was still very much with him. He had nothing against his current travelling companions. The dangers that they had faced together had made them a tight-knit group. Varis would trust any of them with his life. But Alexander and he had history together, and history was hard to compensate for.
The philosopher was so lost in his musings that he almost didn't realise that they had reached the other side of the river and the gnomes were tying the raft to a small well-constructed quay. Shaking his head, Varis led his horse off of the platform, nodding his thanks to the gnomes, who bid them fair voyage with unfeigned smiles and low bows. Ahead of them a wide unpaved road led off into the distance, up the hill that began nearly right in front of them. Varis had mounted up and was about to lead the way down it when Boldar spoke up. "No, friend. That is the road to Highforge. Our path is over here." The philosopher turned and saw the trail that the dwarf was speaking of. It led off to their right, to the north, and was much smaller than the Highforge Road.
Since Boldar claimed familiarity with this route, it was he who led. They followed the beaten path up a long slope where they had an excellent view of the river, the Gnomes' Ferry, farms and fields, even a caravan struggling south down the road. The day was clear, the air was crisp, and the companions found themselves invigorated by the fact that they were taking a less-travelled road. They pressed on.
Soon the Wufwolde Hills began in earnest, and the path picked its way through the pine trees that grew thicker the higher that they climbed. The going was a little more difficult, but by late morning they had passed down into a valley of sorts in between several arms of the hills. The beauty of the place nearly made Varis cry, as the sun beat down on plains that had never before been tilled by men. Trees grew sparsely here, and birds chirped enthusiastically as bees buzzed around flowers. It was a perfect piece of Karameikan pastoral beauty, and it was as if it had been hidden away by Ilsundal specifically for the benefit of the group.
"I am glad that we chose this route," Thalaric said, removing his helm and letting a cool breeze run through his fiery hair.
"How would you like to have a farm here someday?" Varis asked Fyodor. The young Traladaran grinned enthusiastically in reply.
"This is a lawless land," Boldar grunted. "Your home would be sacked by bandits or goblins within a week."
Curse you, Boldar, Varis thought. The dwarf had managed to take all of the magic out of the place with only a few words.
"Your words are timely," Thalaric said, squinting off into the distance. "A large host is coming our way."
"What?" Varis shielded his eyes and looked northwest down the path. The elf was right. They were too far away to make out clearly, whatever they were, but there were dozens of them, travelling by foot.
"Are they bandits?" Fyodor asked. Varis hoped that it wasn't enthusiasm that he heard in the young Traladaran's voice.
"I can't tell," Thalaric said. "Maybe we should get off the trail."
Boldar laughed and slapped his thigh. The others turned to look at him, surprised. "I see them now. They are not bandits, my friends. Come, let us ride and meet them." And with that, the dwarf gave a slap to his mule and cantered off towards the strangers.
"Boldar!" Varis cried, but he got no response. Sighing, he looked at the others. Thalaric shrugged. Fyodor took off his helm and wiped the sweat from his brow. "We should probably go after him," he said flatly.
"Hi-yah!" cried the elf and set his steed off after Boldar. Varis and Fyodor could do nothing but follow.
As they drew nearer, they could see that the group of figures was quite large, at least three dozen. Sunlight glinted off of chainmail and weapons. It was also clear to Varis that they were moving into some sort of skirmishing formation. Yet Boldar drove his mule even harder. You better know what you're doing, Boldar. If we die here I swear to Donar my spirit will never forgive yours.
Soon Varis could see that his fears were unfounded, for the group was composed of gnomes. He sighed at that, figuring that this must be some sort of patrol from Highforge. As he pulled his horse up, he saw that his assessment was not completely accurate, for there were a handful of dwarves mixed in with the gnomes as well. The philosopher thought that he surely had never seen a group of this size with such a low average height and with such a profusion of beards. He also had never had quite so many crossbows pointed at him.
Boldar had dismounted and was calling out to the gnomes in friendly tones. One of the gnomes, white-bearded and rather thick-set for one of their race, stepped out from the group and answered Boldar in the gnomish tongue. He wore an extremely well-smithed and -maintained chainmail shirt. A large-for-him warhammer was hung on his belt and a crossbow was slung over his shoulder. The two conversed for a time before bowing deeply to each other and shaking hands amicably. Then, as if some formal obligation had just been discharged, Boldar began shouting what Varis assumed were greetings to the others. Apparently they knew the dwarf, for the stern and suspicious looks they had worn on their faces initially had become friendly, and their eyes flashed as they laughed and joked with Boldar. Varis thought that he had never seen the dwarf quite so happy as he seemed at this moment.
Eventually Boldar turned to the group and obviously began to make introductions, for the companions heard their names being called out in a sea of undecipherable language. Each bowed their heads slightly when it was their turn except Thalaric who merely gazed with what looked like peculiar fascination at the assortment of little folk.
The leader stepped towards the group, his eyes seeming to pierce the companions' skin. "I am Sergeant Torin Digdeeper of Highforge," he said in Thyatian, bowing slightly. "Any friend of Boldar Shieldcracker is a friend of ours. Also, it must be said, any enemy of Gurdrot the Useless is a friend of ours." Varis had to think hard to place the name, but then he remembered: he spoke of the dwarf that Thalaric had killed in Kavorquian's basement.
"Boldar has told us that you are journeying to Threshold," Torin continued. "Be warned that the goblins have been on the move recently. We ourselves have killed many of them on patrol. Stay to the trail, and keep careful watch at night. With the combined might of Highforge and Threshold turned against them, I think the beasts have learned to leave decent folk be and to seek their slaughter elsewhere, but it is always prudent to be cautious, especially in this country."
"Thank you for your advice, Sgt. Digdeeper," Varis said in reply. "We wish you safe passage back home."
The gnome bowed again, this time so deeply that his long white beard nearly scraped the ground. "Thank you Varis Acinavit. Please give my fondest greetings to Dame Aleena, the Administrator of Threshold, should you meet her. May Garal go with you." With that, Torin adjusted his chainmail, turned back to his men and called out a command. The gnome patrol lined up and moved out, the ranks waving to the companions and calling out what seemed like well-wishing's in their native tongue.
"Strange folk," said Varis, watching them go. "I have seen more of their ilk in the past few days than I have in my entire life."
"It is said that the gnomes rule vast kingdoms," Boldar said thoughtfully. "Both across the southern sea and far to the west where the sun sleeps. They are a good people, although prone to...pranks." He rumbled in his throat as if recalling a past insult. "But Torin is a fine and sober man, and they kill goblins with relish." The dwarf mounted his mule. "They said that there is a good camping spot for us to spend the evening, but we must not dally if we are to make it by nightfall. Let us ride."
* * *
Even Varis began to miss Sarrah when the group gathered around their small fire for their evening meal. They had decided to make a stew, and all four of the companions had contributed in some way. However, tasting the result of their labour proved the truth of the old Thyatian adage "Never let a dwarf and an elf flavour your meat", for what they ended up with was over-thick and over-spiced. The party ate it in silence, each secretly blaming the others for the result. "Poor fare, poor fare indeed," Boldar grumbled, drawing a look of mute outrage from Thalaric.
As Torin had promised, they had found a good place to stay for the night: having travelled for many miles through the unblemished valley, the forest grew increasingly thicker, and soon the terrain began to rise steeply once more. By the end of the day, they had found themselves on a high wooded ridge overlooking another vale that gave way on its other side to the Black Peak Mountains. It afforded a good position to see approaching figures from both west and east, and the forest provided good enough cover from the elements and prying eyes.
That night Boldar explained many things about the gnomes to the group. He told them that the gnomes had lived at Highforge for a thousand years, the Stronghollow clan of dwarves almost as long, and that their small kingdom had lasted through many trials. Although they had made formal obeisance to Duke Stefan when he proclaimed the grand duchy to be independent of Thyatis, the residents of Highforge had basically carried on their business as if nothing had happened, much in the same way as they did when they were informed of the Thyatian Annexation in the first place. Relations with Specularum were cooperative and friendly, but the gnomes and dwarves didn't ask the duke for any interference in their private affairs and the duke, in his wisdom, made no demands upon them save that they keep the peace. And because there was no major human outpost in the area nearer than Threshold, it fell to the denizens of Highforge to keep safe the area of the Wufwolde Hills between the Windrush and Hillfollow Rivers, a job that they took very seriously.
Although there weren't enough gnomes and dwarves in the petty kingdom to provide extensive daily patrols, every other day a fresh group of forty soldiers was sent to walk the trails. Such service was mandatory for all able bodies, and Boldar himself had gone out once. The squad had fallen upon a settlement of goblins in the hills and slaughtered them to the man.
"Were they raiding?" Fyodor asked, expecting an exciting story.
Boldar's black eyes flashed. "Not when we caught up with them. They are night prowlers, resting by day so that they can prey upon the defenceless during the evening. The goblins were at rest when our scouts found them. We charged the camp and killed most of them before they could awake. The others fell soon afterwards."
Fyodor and Thalaric nodded sagely at this explanation, but something about it didn't sit well with Varis. "You killed them while they were defenceless?"
"What could we have done?" Boldar asked, an incredulous tone to his voice. "We were outnumbered two to one. If we had not struck, they might have attacked one of our settlements or innocent travellers on the trails. If we had attacked them but given them warning, they would have overcome us with sheer force of numbers. We had no choice."
Varis thought about that. It was a solid bit of reasoning, especially considering that it came from the dwarf, whose decisions seemed to be made from a combination of stringent loyalty to dwarvish custom and a perennial distrust of the unfamiliar. Although now that he thought about it, maybe that was all that there was behind this latest display of Boldar's "reasoning."
"Sometimes your enemies force you to do unpleasant things," Thalaric said, interrupting Varis' thoughts. "Wisdom lies in knowing which acts are necessary though unpleasant and which are to be avoided as the oak shuns the sea."
My companions are sounding more and more like Old Thyatian imperial philosophers, Varis thought. I have had no impact on them whatsoever.
"Aren't the mountains beautiful?" Fyodor said, staring out into the distance, sucking on a choreize leaf. The three-quarter moon shone brightly in the clear night. "And the air here...it's so different from Penhaligon. I wonder what Threshold will be like." It was then that Varis realised that they were alone at night in the Wufwolde Hills, and was afraid.