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8


4 Eleint, the Year of the Banner (1368 DR)


The Greypeak Mountains


Druhallen felt human when he woke up, a sure sign that his companions had let him oversleep. The sky had brightened before he'd abandoned his attempts to re-memorize the spells he'd expended in the dung-beast battle. He had expected to be exhausted as well as empty-headed all this day. One out of two was better than nothing, but he'd rather have had the spells than the sleep. The way things had been going here in the Greypeaks, he felt certain he'd wish he had a full complement of fire in mind before midnight rolled around again.

His body was rested, but Dru's bones ached from sleeping on the stone ledge. Two blankets beneath him wasn't enough any more. He needed a layer of loose dirt, sand, or moss and preferred a horsehair mattress; he was getting old. The thought of settling down in one place had become thinkable for Druhallen. He had enough on account with the Scornubel goldsmiths that he'd never have to return to Sunderath. He could buy himself a small shop in a well-run town and live out his days selling spells to merchants and lovers.

It would be a predictable life. After the last few days, Druhallen had an new appreciation for predictable. Dull and boring wouldn't be bad, either. Maybe he'd marry, have children of his own. The world was ripe with men who hadn't thought about families until they'd plucked a gray hair or two from their beards.

More than gold, Druhallen had the spells to make his daydreams come true. Ansoain's library, carefully preserved and protected back in Scornubel, contained true copies of Luvander's Prime Enchantments and Illusions of the Heart. He'd studied both volumes and there weren't more than three spells between them that he couldn't cast comfortably. Most of them were well within Galimer's range, especially if they weren't fielding surprises.

They'd joked about ittwo wizards in their dotage casting spells on candles and wine cups. That had been before Rozt'a, when neither of them knew the meaning of tired or aching.

Or love.

Or fidelity.

Rozt'a had her back to Dru's blankets. She was talking to Tiep who was looking at his feet instead of her face. The youth was probably in a mood, but Druhallen wouldn't have wanted to be looking into Rozt'a's eyes just then. He'd face ten dung beasts with no fire at all before he'd tell her that he'd caught himself thinking about settling down, marriage, and children.

He wouldn't let himself think about such notions again, at least not until they'd gotten back to Weathercote and pried Galimer from Lady Mantis.

Dru grabbed his blankets with one hand and headed for the horse line, a path which, not coincidentally, took him close to Tiep and Rozt'a. They spotted him and fell silent.

"Problems?" he asked, on the forceful side of polite.

Neither answered. With his head still down, Tiep turned and walked away. He limped a bit, but he'd been in worse shape yesterday, before Rozt'a slathered his blistered feet.

The one who looked like death in the morning was Sheemzher. One of the goblin's red- orange cheeks was a dull, swollen brown and he held his spear close against his flank for balance. No way he'd be able to walk and maintain any sort of pace. They'd have to put him up on one of the horseswhich wasn't so bad, except Dru couldn't remember the otyugh getting a blow in on the goblin.

"There's something strange going on between Tiep and Sheemzher," he said to Rozt'a without looking at her.

"Maybe."

"Is that what you and he were talking about just now?"

"No."

"He seemed sulky"

Rozt'a grimaced and Dru decided not to ask her if she was feeling sulky also. The answer was obvious, and so was the explanation. After yesterday, Rozt'a had to be wondering if she'd ever see her husband again. Without a censoring thought, Dru wound his unencumbered arm over Rozt'a's shoulders and pulled her gently against his chest.

"We're not dealt out of this game, not by a long shot."

Their eyes met and Rozt'a gave Dru a lethal stare before shrugging free of his one-armed embrace. He folded both arms beneath his blankets.

"Let's get moving," he stammered.

Rozt'a nodded and walked away without saying a word.

That pretty much set the tone for another day of trekking up over stone and down through the quaking bogs. From his perch on Hopper's back, Sheemzher urged them to pick up the pace. They panted and sweated but didn't argue, especially when they were crossing rock.

The sky was no bluer than it had been yesterday, but the thick clouds had lifted somewhat. They could see more of the dark gray mountains, and dragons. Druhallen had counted eight dragon sightings, two of them simultaneous, both full-grown and deep red. Even one red dragon was too many for a party of four.

Around noon they arrived at a ledge that was black, rather than dark gray, and glassy, like the sealed entrance to Lady Wyndyfarh's cave. This was no magic cave. A red dragon had fought here and blasted its prey with fire more intense than any Druhallen could summon. The dragon had been killing, not hunting. Whatever had drawn its wrath would have been reduced to powder and ash.

Dru didn't know if his companions read the same story from the scene. No one was talking and he didn't volunteer the information. Ignorance was bliss, so long as one of them knew what they were facing. He had to wonder, though, what Rozt'a saw and kept to herself, or the goblin who swung his feet in the stirrups and was the first away from the ledge.

"Hurry," Sheemzher said, the first word anyone had spoken in hours. "Bad place. Evil place."

They hurried and made palpable progress toward the tallest mountains that formed their horizonuntil the clouds fell again. Not much later, when they were striding carefully through one of the spongier bogs they'd encountered, the clouds opened up. Today's raindrops were smaller than yesterday's, cooler, toobespeaking autumn rather than summerand pushed sideways by gusty winds.

Dru laced himself into his cloak and pulled the hood up. He could see the goblin's back from the waist down and Hopper's from the tail upnot a sight to inspire any man. Hard to believe that only a few days ago he and Galimer had been looking for someone who knew the way to Dekanter. Everything looked differentbetterwhen you were pursuing your own dreams and not trying to appease some over-powered, bug-and-goblin befriending, magic-making woman who'd turned your best friend into a mindless pet.

If there was a lesson to be learned from the last few days, it wasn't about amber. Large chunks of his conversation with Amarandaris lay heavy in Dru's mind. He'd wasted so much of his life learning things the Zhentarim already knew. When they got to Scornubel, Druhallen promised himself that he'd sell the glass disk and let the Zhentarim deal with the Red Wizards however they chose.

The path curved upward, promising another exposed rock gully. Bugs didn't fly in the rain, maybe dragons didn't either. Dru could hope; a man should be careful with his hopes. It wasn't dragon-fire that struck them from above, but fist- and skull-sized stones that fell with the rain. He pinched embers from his sleeveDru had a little fire left in his memorybut looking up he didn't see anything that looked like a target.

"Stay close!" Rozt'a shouted. She gave the orders when they were under attack. "Do something, Dru."

He guessed at the location of their attackers, cast fire in that direction, and for a few moments only cold, hard rain pelted their faces. Then rocks came down again.

"A shield!" she shouted, herding them against the sheer stone at the back of the ledge. "And quick."

The horses shied and whinnied. They were bigger and taking the worst of an attack that smacked of opportunity, not skill.

Druhallen knew a spell to thicken the air and slow an arrow by half, so a quick-thinking man could bat the shafts down with his forearm. If their attackers had been throwing the stones, the spell might have helped his family, but they were dropping them instead. A simple shielding spellthe best he could manage under the circumstancewouldn't stop the falling rain and do less against a falling rock.

Unless

Weather made a difference with magic. Dru's fireball spells burned hotter in the summer and longer when the air was dry. This rain wasn't merely falling, it was driven sideways by the wind. If the wind was affecting the rainthrowing itthen his shielding spell might slow the rain and the ensorcelled rain might slow the stones. Moreover, he could cast the spell on a moving target himself and his party. If it worked at all, it would travel with them, maybe as far as the next bog.

And if the spell slowed either the stones or the rain, neither would it make their situation worse.

At least it shouldn't make their situation worse.

Dru paused, reconsidering his conclusions.

"Now, Dru!"

He reached inside his cloak and clutched the folding box. The box could be opened in any of a dozen ways. Dru found the clasp that revealed the compartment where he kept sprigs of virgin goose-down. With a few of the tiny feathers pinched between his thumb and forefinger, he spoke the words that kindled the shielding spell. The feathers vanished and he drew his next breath in a far-less-gusty wind.

"Let's go!" he shouted to the others.

Rozt'a took the lead, but the path was too treacherous for great haste and rocks continued to fall. One struck the black mare, Ebony. The mare lunged and broke away from Rozt'a distracted grasp. Another step and she'd have been over the edge and into the bog, no better than Cardinal. Tiep intervened; he caught Ebony's rein and, shouting her name, put his full weight against her panic.

Tiep got through to the horse and the attackers got through to him. A stone the size of a baby's skull clipped the youth on the forehead. Blood gushed, as it always did with a head wound. Druhallen allowed himself to believe that the wound wasn't serious, but the lad stood stock-still, making an attractive target of himself after the mare's rein slipped from his hand.

Their unseen overhead attackers responded with stones that were definitely thrown. The shielding spell interfered with their trajectories, but Tiep swayed and staggered whether or not the stones struck him. Druhallen dropped the reins he held and caught the youth's sleeve.

Two more stones struck home, one against Dru's shoulder, the other against Tiep's. Dru acknowledged the blow with a groan, but Tiep seemed not to notice. Dru pulled him close and got a glimpse of vacant eyes in the process.

"Tiep's dumbstruck!" Dru shouted. "He can't walk."

The last was an exaggeration. Tiep kept his feet moving under him as Dru hauled him back to relative safety closer to the rock-face, but there was no sense in his movements. Dru slapped Tiep's wet, bloody cheek and shouted in his ear, each to no avail. The youth blinked without comprehension.

Rozt'a yelped. A stone had gotten her. The goblin had climbed down from Hopper's back and was hidden among the restless horses.

"We can't stay here!" Rozt'a shouted. "Throw him over a saddle."

That was easier said than done, and no safer for Tiep were Dru to succeed at the task. "We've got to stand where we are."

"Impossible!" Rozt'a replied.

Dru was already fumbling with his box. He thumbed a different catch and thrust a rain- dampened forefinger into a compartment filled with ordinary ash. Leaving Tiep to stand alone like a statue, Dru risked the drop-off edge. He thought he had a better idea now where the enemy hid itself, and with his eyes squint-focused on that spot, whispered the Auld Thorassic words for gloom and misery as he rubbed his fingers together.

The stuff of magic flowed away from Dru, confounding time and space. He had a vision of scrawny, misshapen creatures, at least twenty of them, half with tossing stones and the other half shuttling ammunition. The vision faded as the spell completed itself. By design, it worked best on a conscious mind and a mind of conscience. Humans were a good target; elves and dwarves were better. But the mind of a beast, especially a misshapen beast, might not be susceptible at all.

Rozt'a shouted his name and not, by her tone, for the first time. "Are you mad?" The rock fall slowed, then stopped. Keening moans and wails poured down the mountainside instead.

"I don't know how long that will hold them. Let's move quick."

"What about Tiep? The goblin?"

Between the rain and the horses, it was easy to lose track of a head or two. Sheemzher shouted that he was ready for anything. Tiep hadn't snapped out of his vacant-eyed trance. Dru slapped and shook him again. This time the youth whimpered when he blinked and raised a hand to his cheek.

"Walk, lad!" Dru challenged. He gave Tiep a half turn before shoving him forward. "Walk for your life."

He kept one hand knotted in Tiep's shirt, steering and prodding the youth toward such safety as the next bit of trail offered. Around his other hand Dru wound the reins and ropes for three horses, none of which were eager to walk forward. With his arms stretched out and his sleeves hanging like wet sails before the wind, Dru made an easy target, but his spell held and none of the enemy accepted the invitation.

Dru congratulated himself for a job well done; he praised himself too soon. The same scrawny enemy ambushed them in the next bog. Against all expectation, they made Sheemzher their primary target, pulling the bedraggled goblin from Hopper's back. Sheemzher had his decorated spear and put it to good use against the more primitive sticks the enemy wielded, but he was badly outnumbered. Rozt'a and her sword would eventually even the odds, but notto Druhallen's eyein time to save the goblin.

Weighing his options quickly, Dru gave Tiep a shove toward the underbrush.

"Lay low!" he commanded.

The boy had been coming around as they walked. He hadn't said anything yet, but managed to nod his head before secreting himself in a patch of waist-high ferns. Dru judged that Tiep would continue to survive and went for the length of fire-hardened wood jutting out from Bandy's saddle.

Other mages might carry staves, Druhallen of Sunderath preferred an ax-shaft. His fathergods keep him safe in Sunderathhad taught him how to grip and swing the wood. He didn't bother with the axe head; it was too heavy, too much trouble to sharpen, and unnecessary for a man his size. Against their undergrown enemy, the shaft was lethal and faster than a sword. Dru swung into the gut of the nearest misshapen creature. The force of his blow lifted the critterDru couldn't guess its sex or speciesoff its feet and flung it some ten feet across the bog. It wouldn't be getting up soon, maybe never, if the thing that got the dung-beast was looking for a snack. Dru backhanded his next target. The misshapen enemy collapsed face-down in the old leaves and twigs.

It was butchery, not battle, and they didn't stop until every last one of the misshapen lay motionless on the ground.

"When we've finished at Dekanter, we leave by another route," Rozt'a said grimly. "I'd sooner face the Network on the road than this again." She wiped her blade on a corpse's thigh, but decided that wasn't good enough and cleaned it again with leaves before sheathing it.

Between the dung beast and this lot, Sheemzher's spear had taken a beating. Most of its dangling ornaments were gone, but the flaked stone head was still firmly attached to the shaft. The goblin's hat was gone. Rozt'a retrieved it from the bog. Its crown was crushed, the brim, torn. It would never hide his wispy hair again. Sheemzher took it from her gently, his lips a-tremble as though he'd lost his dearest friend. Dru didn't know if goblins could cry, but the rain left credible tracks down the red-orange cheeks.

The Lady Wyndyfarh might have done her servant a favor when she taught him manners and dressed him up in the manner of men, but if Dru were a competent judge of emotion, she hadn't added any happiness to his life.

Tiep emerged from the ferns. His hands were clapped against his temples and his eyes had the look of cheap wine, but that was considerable improvement.

"Remember how you got here?" Dru asked.

"No." He noticed the array of corpses and took a backward stride that nearly unbalanced him. "What? What's happened? Where are we? I remember it starting to rain, then nothing until I was on my knees over there."

Rozt'a slipped her hand under his elbow and guided him toward the horses. There'd been no time to tie them properly, of course, but none of the five liked the bogs and they'd stayed close together.

"We got ambushed," she explained as they walked. "You took a stone on the head. You're bleeding. That's not rainwater coming down the side of your face."

"What about you?" Dru asked Sheemzher when the other two were past.

"Demons no harm Sheemzher." The goblin fumbled with his hat. He tried, and failed, to put it on.

"There'll be other"

Sheemzher cut Dru off with a stream of words that had to be curses in his own language, then he threw his hat onto the ground and stomped it mercilessly. "Demons!" he shouted and stomped the nearest corpse instead. When abusing the corpse with his boots couldn't quell his need for revenge, Sheemzher attacked it with his spear. He stabbed it between the ribs and in the abdomen and took aim at its skull.

Dru had seen enough blood for one day and, grasping the upward end of the spear, put a swift stop to the goblin's mutilating rage.

"Demons!" the goblin turned the word into a song.

"Not demons," Druhallen insisted. "Cousins, maybe. Your cousins. And they took exception to you Sheemzher, in a big way."

Sheemzher struggled to free his spear from Druhallen's grasp. When that came to naught, he nudged the corpse with his foot. Its lifeless hand flopped to the ground. "Count fingers, good sir!" The goblin waved his open hand in front of Dru's face. "Five fingers. People have five fingers. Sheemzher have five fingers. Sheemzher's mother, sisters, brothers all have five fingers. Five. Five. Five!"

The misshapen corpse's exposed hand had seven fingers, all of them cruelly twisted. It couldn't have made a fist or scratched its head without pain. Its other hand had five functional fingers and was, to Druhallen's eyes, identical with Sheemzher's. Dru mentioned this and other similarities, but the goblin remained adamant: demons and goblins had nothing in common but hatred.

Well, they weren't the only blind race under the sun. Dwarves insisted they weren't related to the duergar and more than a few elves disowned the drow. Dwarves and elves, of course, were justly proud of their heritage. It boggled Dru's mind to think that goblins held themselves superior to anyone else that walked on two legs. He recognized a lost cause, though, and left Sheemzher alone with his delusions.

"Something's meddling with the local goblins," he said to Rozt'a when she was repacking the medicine chest.

"That would take some pretty potent sorcery, wouldn't it?"

He shrugged. "Probably, and a twisted mind. You hear about it every so often, someone's trying to make a stronger this, a more docile that. The Thayans do it, mostly with the dead, but they've conjured up some fairly reliable orc changes, a lot of unreliable ones, too. An orc's bigger, harder to control than a goblin, but they're as close as dogs and wolves. A mage who could change one, could change the other."

"So the Red Wizards are back to meddling with Netherese magic?" She concluded her remark with a sigh and shut the chest with more force than was necessary.

"I didn't say that."

"You were thinking it."

Dru hadn't been, but only because it hadn't occurred to him. Now that it had, his mind was alive with connections and possibilities.

"Well, add this to your thoughts. Tiep needs rest. He's blaming himself for what's happenednot that he shouldn't be, but he throws off healing at the best of times and guilt is making everything worse. He's walking and talking, but he's punch-drunk from that rock and feverish from last night's filth. He should bounce back quick enough, but we'll up the odds if we settle in now for the night."

"Up the odds of what? Another attack? We've just piled up enough fresh meat to attract a dragon, not to mention another pack of these misshapen goblins and whatever lives under the bog. If Tiep's patched up, then I say we get moving."

Rozt'a got to her feet and hefted the heavy chest to her shoulder. "Let's not push it, that's all. If we see a good campsite, let's use it. I've done all I can. If he goes into a brain fever, we're going to be stranded for a lot longer than one nightunless you've got some other idea?"

He swallowed hard, not liking her implications. They were going to get out of this with both Galimer and Tiep intact. What they did this winter in Scornubelwhether or not they told Tiep to go his own waywas winter's problem, not today's.

"We'll keep an eye on himput him astride if he gets wobbly. And keep our eyes open for a campsite, preferably one with a roof."

The rain had let up and the wind had died back, but the stone-gray clouds weren't breaking up. Dru expected bad weather to return and wasn't disappointed. He tried to convince himself the wet wind was a good thing. Dragons weren't apt to fly through it and a pack of misshapen goblins might not notice a smartly dressed goblin trespassing through their territory.

Dru recalled his conversation with Amarandaris. Ghistpok's goblins had been making enemies of themselves with the other Greypeak goblins. They'd been stealing males and driving the females to exile around Parnast. Sheemzher claimed ties to Ghistpok. If goblins including misshapen goblinshad some means of identifying their heritage, as moon or gold elves did, then the attack on Sheemzher was understandable, even if not deserved. On the other hand, although Amarandaris had warned Dru that goblins saw demons everywhere, he'd said nothing about misshapen goblins. If Ghistpok's tribe had driven their cousins into exile, then a few odd-armed goblins ought to have shown up in Parnast.

They won't touch a demon, not even to bury it. It's a cult thing, something to do with transformation and deformity. It might be interesting to know why the Greypeaks were home to two goblin races; and what had transformed one but not the other while turning them into blind enemies. Still, both races were goblin-kin and Druhallen had greater worries when thoughts of Amarandaris crossed his mind. A wizard on horseback, riding the Dawn Pass Trail around the Greypeak Mountains, could get to Dekanter faster than they were getting through the bogs and mountains. Dru would sooner face the Beast Lord and a dozen demons before he faced Amarandaris in the shadows of Dekanter.

Early in the afternoon, while they were crossing a bog, Rozt'a spotted what appeared to be a cave in a distant rock formation. She wanted to check it out. Dru said, no, they weren't splitting up and they weren't going off the trail.

"If there's one cave, there's bound to be another, closer to hand."

It was the wrong thing to say. Rozt'a didn't take well to being overruled and daylight was fading before they sighted another.

This time she didn't offer Dru a choice. "I'm going in," she announced, the first words she'd spoken since he'd rejected her suggestion.

They were all rain-chafed by then, weary, and ready to call it a night. Tiep had been astride Ebony since mid-afternoon. He'd slumped over one hip, like a crimped sack of grain. His eyes were closed, his color was lousy, and every so often he'd let out a shiver or a moan. There were herbal powders in the medicine chest that could snuff out a death's-door fever in a single night, but only if they were steeped first and their recipient could rest after taking them.

"I'm coming with you," Dru said, looking about for a place to tie the horses he led.

Rozt'a handed him the reins she'd held instead and stalked into the cave alone. Short of breaking into a wizard's private sanctum, few things were as dangerous as entering an unexplored cave. She needed backup; she needed lightand she'd have Dru's head if he suggested either. Tiep was too far gone to notice, but Sheemzher did. The goblin gripped his spear so tightly its remaining decorations rattled against the shaft.

After the longest quarter hour of his life, Rozt'a returned.

"It'll do. There's a hearth already dug and dry wood stacked high."

"You're sure it's safe?" Druhallen regretted his words immediately, but they were out and there was no unsaying them.

"I know my job, Dru."

"I didn't mean"

"Its got a hearth, not a dragon's lair, for gods' sakes. A cold hearth where a momma mouse or rat has raised a couple of families. I'd rather defend one point of entry than a thousandWhat about you?"

"If you're satisfied, I'm satisfied," Dru snarled back. At that moment, he didn't care if the damned cave were a dragon's lair.

Sheemzher clambered down from Hopper's back. The cave met the goblin's criteria for a place where flames could burn and he had a fire going in the hearth before they had Tiep moved inside. There was a drafty shadow at the rear of the cave. It was big enough for a wolfor a determined goblinbut not a dragon or a man. After they'd unharnessed the horses and stowed their gear for the night, Dru used the jangling bridles to improvise a non-magical warding across the shadow. When he stepped back to contemplate his cleverness, he realized Rozt'a had watched his every move.

She hadn't noticed the second entry. Or she had, but thought he wouldn't. Dru couldn't guess which. He couldn't guess what she was thinking at all before she turned her back on him.

They had food for themselves, fuel for the fire, full water-skins, and enough grain to give the horses a single measure. Lady Wyndyfarh had provisioned them for a ten-day journey. Cardinal was gone; that gave them an extra day or so, but they couldn't afford extravagance. There was enough light left to return to the bog forest and gather up green forage for the animals.

Dru grabbed a pair of loose-knotted nets from the heap of gear and headed out of the cave. He hadn't taken twenty strides down the trail when he heard footsteps behind him. It was Rozt'a with the other nets thrown over her shoulder. They didn't exchange a single word; they didn't need to. The road might change, but not the work. They each knew what needed to be done and did it without getting in the other's way.

Sheemzher had slung a pot over the fire and boiled up some water. He presented them with steaming mugs when they returned. Clover tea, by the smell, and no guessing where he'd gotten it. Maybe it had been in the gear from the start. Maybe, Dru thought, he should exercise his suspicion and pour it out on the ground. Maybe he'd had enough of suspicion for one day.

"Thank you," he said and seared his tongue thoroughly on the first sip.

He'd swear he caught Rozt'a smirking at him, but by the time his eyes stopped watering, she was as sullen as before and busy with Tiep. The youth needed more than clover tea. Rozt'a fussed over him until Dru and Sheemzher, working awkwardly together, had crafted a barley-stew in the pot. She left the youth wrapped in blankets to join them.

"He's not making sense when he talks."

"So, let him sleep it off," Dru advised.

Rozt'a gave him yet another dark look. "There's nothing to sleep off. He's not drunk, he's been hit on the head. We've got to rouse him every little while, else he'll slip away. Promise me you'll waken him during your watch."

"You have my word."

That was all Rozt'a wanted from him. She ate her supper, shook sense into Tiep, then settled in her own blankets, her back toward the fire and, especially, Druhallen. Even Sheemzher noticed.

"Good woman angry with good sir." A statement, not a question.

Dru grunted. He didn't want to talk to a goblin but, the way his luck had been going, conversation was inevitable. The dog-face creature wouldn't hear silence. He asked ques- tions about the Heartland cities, about magic, about love. In desperation, Druhallen took control with questions of his own.

"If you were one of Ghistpok's goblins at Dekanter, how did you wind up with Lady Wyndyfarh in Weathercote Wood?"

"Long story, good sir."

"I'm not going anywhere," Dru gestured at the cave entrance where rain and runoff created a waterfall.

He began: "Sheemzher brave. Sheemzher bold. Sheemzher warrior! Sheemzher make proud mothers, sisters, brothers. Sheemzher make all blood, all people proud."

Dru suppressed a sigh. The goblin's way of speaking would make the tale longer than necessary, but a tale did slowly emerge.

Sheemzher had been born to privilege, such as it was, among Dekanter's goblins. Ghistpok hadn't claimed him as a son, but another elder had. As a child, he'd eaten regularly and learned how to fight. As best as Druhallen could discern, eating and fighting were a male goblin's third and fourth favorite activities. The top two pastimes were acquiring females and children. Sheemzher had done well there, too.

For services rendered, Ghistpok had given Sheemzher a daughter and Sheemzher had begotten himself six youngsters in four years.

"Elva good woman," the goblin said of his wife. "Twins twice. Very good woman. Not clever" he clenched his hands into a single fist, a meaningful gesture, apparently, among goblins, but lost on Druhallen"Elva very good woman. Sheemzher important man when Ghistpok die, Sheemzher elder. Sheemzher help choose Ghistpok. With good woman Elva, Sheemzher someday maybe Ghistpok. Maybe. Sheemzher hope then, not now." He lowered his head, the very image of sadness.

Druhallen asked, "What happened to your wife?"

Sheemzher spat out a word then translated it: "Takers. Take people. Take Elva. Never more seen."

"Your wife was caught by slavers and taken away from Dekanter?" Amarandaris had insisted that Ghistpok sold his own children, though, in Elva's case, the Ghistpok who sold her probably wasn't the one who fathered her.

Sheemzher shook his head vigorously. "Takers ... demons ... from below. Never see, only take. Long ago Ghistpok say: 'Beast Lord protect all people from Takers.' Beast Lord say, 'Each and all people make worship.' Ghistpok promise, 'People make worship.' People worship Beast Lord then, now. Beast Lord protect people. Sometime Beast Lord sleep, not protect people. Takers come. Take people. Take Elva."

Druhallen steepled his hands and stared into the fire. Amarandaris had said, Things started changing about seven years ago. How old was Sheemzher? Goblins weren't long- lived, thirty or forty years, at the most. Had Sheemzher been at Dekanter when the changes came? Had he lost his wife to them?

"Have you ever seen the Beast Lord, Sheemzher?" he asked.

The goblin shook his head. "Ghistpok see Beast Lord. Ghistpok only. People worship Beast Lord. People drink wine, much wine. People not see anything. People happy." Sheemzher's expression contradicted his words. "Sheemzher happy. Sheemzher drink much, much wine. Too much wine. Sheemzher head big." He pressed his palms against his temples. "Bigger inside. Sheemzher think, Sheemzher never more drink wine. Sheemzher dance, yes. Sheemzher sing, yes. Sheemzher keep promise. Sheemzher never more drink wine. Sheemzher pretending drink wine."

Dru clapped the goblin on the shoulder. "Sheemzher is clever. I know too many men who can't keep that promise."

The goblin shook his head sadly. "Sheemzher not clever. Come one time, next time, Sheemzher pretending. All people fall down. Sheemzher pretending fall down. Elva fall down beside Sheemzher; Elva not pretending. Elva stand up. Elva walk away. Sheemzher stand up. Sheemzher follow." He looked up into Druhallen's eyes. "Bad, good sir. Bad. Bad. Bad. Sheemzher remember. Sheemzher not want remember."

With Druhallen's gentle prodding, the goblin described how he followed his wife and several other goblins underground. His wife and the others never recovered their wits. Mindless, they joined a colony of equally unresponsive goblins who served the Takers. Brave and bold warrior that he was, Sheemzher planned to rescue his wife, but before he came up with a plan it was too late. The Takers took Elva again, this time to an underground chamber with an egg in it.

"Egg big" Sheemzher shaped the largest oval his arms could manage in the air between himself and Druhallen. "Elva here." He indicated the bottom portion of the oval. "Mantis here." He indicated the top. "Doors close... bang... bang ... bang! Sheemzher hide. Sheemzher scared. Come lightning under Dekanter. Sheemzher think Sheemzher never more scared then doors open ... bang ... bang . .. bang! Elva gone. Mantis gone. Demon come ... Taker."

"Then I was rightsomeonethe Beast Lordis transforming the Dekanter goblins, changing them into the creatures you've been calling demons. When did this happen, Sheemzher? When did?"

The goblin couldn't contain himself. "No," he insisted. "No. Never. Taker. Taker demon, not Beast Lord. Beast Lord not demon. Takers take Elva. Elva inside egg. Elva gone. Demon comenot Elva. Not. Not. Not! Elva gone. Elva not demon. Beast Lord not Taker."

The truth, which Druhallen could see so clearly, wasn't worth the argument. "How does Lady Wyndyfarh fit in?" he asked, though he was pretty sure he knew.

"Sheemzher find more mantis in box. Many mantis. One mantis say: Take me to Lady Wyndyfarh. Take me to Weathercote Wood. Sheemzher take. Good lady listen Sheemzher. Good lady listen mantis. Good lady say: Stay with me Sheemzher and I will give you vengeance. It is too late to save Elva, but together we will save your children from the Takers."

"And us? My friends and I?"

"Good lady not leave forest very far. Greater lady not allow. Good lady obey greater lady, yes. Dekanter far, too far. Good lady not go Dekanter. Good lady say, good men will come in due time, Sheemzher. You must wait for them in the village and after they come, lead them to me. Sheemzher say, how know good men? Good lady say, you'll know him by what he does. Sheemzher wait six years. Six years too long. Sheemzher children grown. Six years make Sheemzher very much wiser. Sheemzher learn read. Sheemzher learn write. Sheemzher learn listen. Parnast littleall talk, Sheemzher listen. Zhentarim know good sir come. Zhentarim know why. Sheemzher listen. Sheemzher alone. Sheemzher not sure. Good sir save child; Sheemzher sure. Sheemzher very much sure, yes?"

"It couldn't have been planned," Dru muttered, thinking of the chicken coop. "All this because of an accidentthe right place at the right time, or the wrong place and the wrong time."

Sheemzher shook his head solemnly. "Not accident. Good lady say, good men will come. Good lady never wrong."

"Then your lady shouldn't have mind-locked Galimer!" Druhallen said abruptly.

"Sheemzher sorry. Sheemzher very much sorry. Gold-hair man good man. Sheemzher wish gold-hair man here."

"But not Tiep, right? He sees through magic; he saw through you and your lady. What went on between you two in Weathercote after we killed the reaver? I've heard his side. He thinks you've arranged everything. Exactly how much did you set up?" Calling Sheemzher clever was neither a lie nor an exaggeration. Beneath the garbled language was a mind as devious as any man's.

The goblin made his double-fist gesture again. "Dekanter no place for that one. Dekanter bad place for that one. Sheemzher think, that one not come Dekanter. That one stay Weathercote. Good lady help that one, teach that one. Sheemzher make mistake. Gold- haired man come between that one, good lady. Sheemzher very sorry. Sheemzher sorry for gold-hair man. Sheemzher sorry for good sir, good woman. Sheemzher sorry for Sheemzher."

"If you'd been honest" Dru stopped himself. Cut was cut and they were days beyond useful hindsight. "This scroll we're supposed to bring back to Wyndyfarh, where does it fit in?"

"Egg top, good sir."

"What?"

"Egg top, good sir." Sheemzher patted his scalp. "Gold scroll fit egg top. Gold scroll eat Elva, children. Demons come ... Takers."

Dru covered his eyes and swore. He couldn't imagine what part of a wound sheet of Netherese gold might have played in the transformation of Sheemzher's family, but he could imagine the egg. Alchemists used such devices to transmute elements and called the devices athanors. The few Druhallen had seen were small, no bigger than a skull, and required the might of more fire spells than he could cast in a week before they'd kindle. A mage would need to harness the sun or the sea tide to power an athanor large enough to transmute a goblin. The sun, the sea tide, or the forbidden magic of Netheril.

And he, Druhallen of Sunderath, had to pit himself successfully against such a mage if Galimer were going to walk out of Weathercote Wood.

He swore again.

Child-sized fingers touched his. "Sheemzher help. Sheemzher wait six years. Sheemzher plan. Sheemzher ready."

Druhallen successfully resisted the impulse to smash helpful Sheemzher against the cave walls. "Leave me alone now," he said stiffly. "I haven't had six years."

"Sheemzher understand." The goblin made his double-fist gesture as he backed away. "Good sir make plan. Sheemzher keep watch, yes?"

Not a chance. "I'm keeping the watch, Sheemzher. You curl up and get some sleep." The goblin did as told, at least as far as huddling up under a blanket and staying put. Dru opened his folding box. He ran his fingers over the inscribed partitions. So much depended on choosing the right spells to study each night and he hadn't been doing a particularly good job of balancing offense, defense, and maintenance these last few days. Should he assume the worst and commit his mind to fire?

His thoughts wandered away from an answer to Galimer and a huge white egg with a gold scroll rising from it. The rain eased, stopped. Looking through the cave's entrance, Dru thought he saw a star.

Did that make fire more attractive or less?

Dru sat with his box open when Rozt'a cast her blankets aside. She awakened Tiepwith all his worrying about tomorrow's magic, Dru had forgotten to wake the youthand stared hard at the goblin, whose snoring rhythm held steady under observation, before joining Druhallen near the cave's entrance.

"I heard you talking to Sheemzher," she began without the edge and irritation that had marked her earlier conversation. "If this golden scroll is truly surrounded by demons, we're doomed."

"Wyndyfarh wants the golden scroll, not a demon's heart. And she thinks we've got a good chance to grab it."

Rozt'a sat cross-legged on the stone. "Whatever makes you think that?"

"You trusted her. Twice."

"Gods protect us!" Rozt'a snorted. They both looked toward their sleeping companions, lest the impolite sound had awakened them. "I've been wrong many times, and this might really be one of them."

"You're right about people"

"That woman's not people. I don't know what she is, but she's not human."

"She kept Galimer."

Rozt'a retorted, "That's a token in favor of humanity and trustworthiness?"

"In a way. I don't think Wyndyfarh ever intended to keep Tiep. She'd proved he was a thief. She'd looked in our minds, knew how we'd feel about that. She couldn't be sure we'd come back for him after we had the scroll. Think of itbeyond the value of the gold, which is surely greatthere's the value of what's written on the gold. There's a legendI've heard twenty versions if I've heard onethat says the Netheril Empire was born when someone known as the Finder found the twice-fifty scrolls of magicall the magic that ever was or will be."

"Don't tell methe Takers took the scrolls from the Finder who found them."

Druhallen sighed. Rozt'a would never be either a wizard or a poet.

"I don't think there's a connection. The scrolls disappeared long before the Empire fell. What did she sayThe Beast Lord was a nuisance until he found the scroll?" Dru closed his eyes, but concentration couldn't resurrect Wyndyfarh's exact words. "It's something to think about. She had to give her thieves the strongest possible incentive to bring her the scroll rather than keep it for themselves. Though I'm sure she mentioned the Beast Lord and didn't mention Takers or demons Not that it matters who's got the scroll, who we steal it from or how, so long as we bring it to her in Weathercote Wood."

"The price of a man's life measured in gold and magic," Rozt'a mused, staring past Dru at the dying fire. "He'd have to be a special man."

"He is," Dru insisted quickly. Rozt'a said nothing for several moments, leaving Dru to wonder if he'd misread her completely. "You wouldn'tYou don'tYou two, you're still?"

She took a while to draw a breath and sigh before saying, "We're none of us easy- keepers, Dru. He's Galimer Longfingers and nothing's turned out the way he hoped it would, but, yes, I love himif that's the question you're asking. I want him back; I want him back from her. There's not enough gold or magic in the world to make me change my mind about that."

"You're twice the woman Wyndyfarh is, Roz."

It seemed, at last, that he'd said the right thing. Rozt'a leaned back against the cave wall and relaxed. Moments passed. Dru should have gone to his blankets, but he stayed put, savoring peace and quiet with an old friend. His mind was drifting when Rozt'a asked a question.

"Sheemzher said he left Dekanter six years ago. Do you think he's got the count right?"

Druhallen blinked foolishly, his thoughts had wandered a long way from goblins. "Yes," he answered slowly, then repeated himself as his opinions crystallized. 'Yes, six years sounds about right. Amarandaris said things began changing in Dekanter about seven years ago."

"When the Beast Lord stopped being a nuisance and became a problem?"

Sometimes one casual statement brought everything else into line, like stranded pearls. "Exactly!" Dru nodded. "The scroll? Did the Beast Lord always have the scroll or did he find it seven years ago? Tymora's tears! How long has the Beast Lord been Ghistpok's god? How long has he been filling these mountains with misshapen goblins? So many questions and no one to ask!"

"Except Sheemzher."

"Except Sheemzher," Dru agreed. "Tiep had a pointthe way Sheemzher talks, you think you understand what he's said because you think he's simple."

"You've noticed how he repeats things exactly as he hears them? Lady Wyndyfarh told him that together they'd save his children. She didn't say anything about that to us. When you said you'd bring her minions back in a gilded cage, she told you not to bother. She never said a word about goblins."

"And Sheemzher himself said it was too late to save his children." Dru took a deep breath and shook his head. "Goblins live fast, Rozt'a. Most of them are probably dead by the time they're twenty-five. Six years is a long time at that rate."

"That's an excuse? Goblins don't live very long, so just let whoever's running that egg he described hatch out misshapen goblins to his heart's content?"

Rozt'a took Dru by surprise with her vehemence. He thought carefully before answering her

"Galimer comes first. We get the scroll, we get Galimer. Nothing else matters. There's too much going on in Dekanter that we can't begin to understand and shouldn't poke our noses in. I've forgotten about the Red Wizards, Rozt'a; you don't want to start thinking about the goblins. Let Amarandaris, the Red Wizards, and the Beast Lord worry about the goblins."

"I'm not worried about goblins." The tension was back as Rozt'a got to her feet. "I'm worried what our guide's going to do when he realizes that his 'good lady' isn't worried about them, either."



| The Nether Scroll | c







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