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28 Eleasias, the Year of the Banner (1368 DR)

West of the Dawn Pass

Druhallen leaned against a rough-plank wall. Fifteen years after Ansoain's death and the thought of her could still set his wrist aching. Especially in a Zhentarim village like Parnast, on the rump of the Dawn Pass Trail, when the natural heat of a northern summer met the unnatural heat creeping off the nearby Anauroch desert.

The breeze coming through the open window was moving heat. The shade where Dru sat was dark heat. The air burned with the yellow dust of Anauroch. A storm was coming possibly from the desert, certainly in the rented room he shared with his partners.

"I'll lodge a protest. There's law in this town," Galimer fumed as he paced the room's not- considerable width. "They've forfeited their earnest money, that's given."

"Wonderful! I'm sure they cared about their earnest money!" Rozt'a shot back.

Florozt'a had come into Dru and Galimer's lives a few years after Ansoain's death. They were all younger then and she'd been new to the journeying life. She'd sold her sword to a Zhentilar captain who'd only pretended to value her fighting skills. When he'd tried, one too many times, to demonstrate what he did value from women, she'd left him writhing on the ground.

It had been a short-lived victory. Rozt'a had quickly found herself without a contract and stranded on the empty road east of Triel with no more than her sword, the clothes on her back, and a leaking waterskin. The gods knew what might have happened next if Druhallen and Galimer hadn't been riding magic with the next eastbound caravan. They'd both remembered the striking woman and her boorish captain, and judged that he'd deserved whatever damage she'd done to him, maybe more.

Riding double behind Galimer, she'd said that wizards who journeyed the Western Heartlands should hire their own bodyguards and not rely on someone else's muscle to protect them when the going got rough. Dru and Galimer, who scarcely needed words to exchange ideas, then or now, had hired her on the spot, more from pity than need. But Rozt'a fit comfortably between them, and by the end of that season they were a threesome.

Rozt'a's hair was a few shades yellower than Galimer's and cropped ragged just below her ears. She was tall for a woman. In the sun, with her hair standing wild, she was nearly as tall as Druhallen and broader across through shoulders, in any weather, than Galimer. She and Galimer could pass themselves off as siblings. From behind, with her weapons and leathers about her, Rozt'a passed for the brother.

When her temper was blazing as it did in the rented room, a wise man kept his head tucked low.

"What's a bit of earnest to the likes of them?" she ranted. "If they cared about their precious earnest, they'd have waited for us. They were in one damn hurry and we're three full, forsaken days early ourselves! Helm's eyes! One nose-full of trouble and they ran with the first Zhentarim spend-spell who admired the shine in their purses. I tell you, this has nothing to do with Dekanter or the Beast Lordthose dogs meant to betray our faith from the start."

She got Dru's attention with that last remark. Any time Rozt'a uttered the words "love", "betray", and "faith" in close order, she could count on Druhallen's full attention.

It had been nearly nine years since she accepted Galimer's marriage proposal and, despite occasional outbursts, their union endured, butmake no mistake about itthe gold- haired mage hadn't been Rozt'a's first choice.

Dru had missed all the signals. Galimer had been smitten with Rozt'a from the start, and what woman would be interested in a carpenter's burly son when she had the likes of Galimer Longfingers waiting on her every wish? Of course, he'd valued her company. Of course, he would have liked morebut the carpenter's son didn't poach, not on Galimer, not on his true friend.

Then came the night when Rozt'a had ambushed him with a not-at-all-friendly kiss. He'd muttered something about honor and she'd replied that she was in love ... with him. Galimer gallantly proclaimed that he couldn't be happier than to see them together. She began to talk of marriage, of children, and settling down in one place. The problem was that, as attractive as Druhallen found Rozt'a, he didn't love her as she loved him and talk of marriage, children, or rooting himself in the ground like a tree turned his blood to ice.

Druhallen had kept his reservations to himself for over a year. He came up with excuses good excusesto postpone the wedding until they reached Berdusk, on their way home to Scornubel for the winter, when Rozt'a announced that they'd be having a child come spring. The announcement was more of a surprise than it should have been and Dru would go to his grave knowing that he'd reacted poorly.

Very poorly.

They'd had a row that awakened the entire neighborhood. When the guard came to the door, Dru had walked out, leaving Rozt'a in tears and Galimer standing beside her. By spring, when guilt dragged him back, Rozt'a and Gal were married ... and childless. The baby who would have been Dru's daughter had died in Rozt'a's womb and nearly killed her.

Galimer had taken Rozt'a to Berdusk's Chauntean infirmary where priests had kept her alive with prayers and rare medicines. The newlyweds were deep in debt and desperately glad to see Druhallen of Sunderath.

I've lined up enough journeywork that we'll have everything paid come autumn, but it would be a blessing if you rode with us, Dru. I can handle the steady magicwards, scrys, and deceitsbut I'm nervous in the pinch.

Nervous in the pinch! Since his mother's death, Galimer hadn't cast a single spell from horseback and his mind blanked at the least surprise. He could line up the work, but he couldn't deliver it. Dru could, and backing the newlyweds for a season was the least he could do.

We'll ride together, Dru had said to his friend, while Rozt'a stays here and rebuilds her strength. Come autumn, you and she will be ready to start your own family ...

Not at all, Galimer had replied. The Chauntean priests had been explicit: fever had put an end to Rozt'a's dreams of motherhood. Their future lay on the road, as it always had, with him. What had been cut could be made whole again, if he'd consent.

Dru had been speechless; Galimer and Rozt'a heard silence for consent. They'd left Berdusk together and found ways to remain that way.

"I'm telling you that it was a good contract," Galimer continued the dispute with his wife. "Yes, they were strangers. We didn't know them, they didn't know us, and neither they nor us had ridden the Dawn Pass Trail before, but they knew our references and I checked theirs. I made concessionswe're the ones who wanted to stop at Dekanter for three days when the usual layover is one ... was one. None of us knew what was going on up here, but we'd bargained fair andbecause we were strangerswe deposited the earnest money with an Acolyte of Law"

Rozt'a snorted, a clear sign that she was losing control over her anger and disgust. "Unless he was wearing the Network's jewels, my sneezes have more power than your Acolyte has in these parts."

"As a matter of fact, she was"

Dru paid close attention to the wooden planks beneath him and the activity of a spider. The Zhentarim in all their guises were a chronic irritation in the Heartland, but they claimed the Dawn Pass Trail for their own and there was no one who could gainsay them. Honest folkand Dru considered himself, Galimer, and Rozt'a to be honest folkcould survive, even thrive, in the Zhentarim shadow. The Network, itself, preferred to do business with honest folk; it was both cheaper and safer. But when a deal soured on the Dawn Pass Trail, honest folk were vulnerable.

In Parnast, the little village where Galimer had arranged for them to meet a merchant- adventurer coming off the Anauroch desert, the Network was openly and utterly in charge. Zhentarim cant echoed in the charterhouse and Zhentarim trade-marks were burned into every piece of wood, including the one Druhallen stared at after the spider disappeared.

The local Zhentarim lord, a human named Amarandaris, took a tenth of everything that passed through the palisade gate, and his armed cohorts made certain that nothing failed to pass through. The cohorts seldom had to use force. The Zhentarim were notorious for other means of persuasion.

West of the village, the Dawn Pass Trail was a six-day stretch of rock-slides, washouts, and hairpin curves through the Greypeak Mountains to the town of Llorkh. The trail was wide enough for a single sure-footed horse or mule. Merchants provided the goods, the gold, the horses, and whatever magic they thought their goods deserved; the Zhentarim provided all the muscle and pack-mules for a price that was almost fair. Usually there was a thirty-mule train forming in Llorkh, another in Parnast, and one in transit on the trail.

Just east of Parnast, the Dawn Pass trail split into two. A southern branch, wide enough for four-wheeled carts, skirted the foothills of the eastern Greypeaks, including the ruins at Dekanter, and rejoined Heartland trade routes farther south in Yarthrain. From Parnast to Yarthrain, merchants provided the goods, the gold, and the magic while the Zhentarim provided muscle and ox-carts the size of freighters.

The northern branch of the eastbound trail disappeared into Anauroch where the Bedine traded, raided, and steadfastly resisted Network ambition. The Anauroch routes were the fastest between Zhentil Keep on the inland Moonsea and their western dominions. Cross- Anauroch traffic was steady, but woe betided a merchant-adventurer whom the nomads caught depending on Zhentarim protection. Of course, worse befell a merchant-adventurer who arrived in Parnast without Zhentarim camels to exchange for Zhentarim mules and ox- carts.

Dru and his companions had come from Llorkh, keeping underpaid eyes on grain destined for the stomachs of mules, camels, and oxen. They'd planned to meet their Anauroch adventurer and ride magic for his south-bound trade-goods. It had seemed so simple, so clever, so certain, and it had fallen apart a few hours ago when they'd ridden into the village.

"I did what I could, Rozt'a," Galimer defended himself. "I arranged the contract right after we decided that the Year of the Banner would be the year Dru would finally get to Dekanter. We agreed that we should reach the ruins at the end of the season, on our way back to Scornubel. That meant Llorkh to Parnast and Parnast to Dekanter, Yarthrain, and then on to Scornubel for the winter. Mercy, Rozt'a, how was I to knowhow could anyone have known that Amarandaris would chose the Year of the Banner to declare the ruins off-limits and move the whole damn trail a half-league to the east?"

"I'm not blaming you, Gal. I blame those dog merchants who wouldn't wait until the contract date, and the damn Zhentarim. You think the Llorkh Network didn't know what we'd find here before we left their town? But, nobetter to strand us here and make us beg to join one of their caravans south. Demons loose in the Greypeaks! Nonsense! Bloodbaths and murder at Dekanter. War with the Underdark. We've heard it all since we got here. Do these fools take us for fools? Zhentarim driven out of Dekanter? Not damned likely, I tell you. Zhentarim don't let go of anything. They mean to deceive us, each of us: you, me, and you, too, Druhallendon't pretend you're asleep; I know better."

Druhallen looked up but said nothing as Rozt'a continued her tirade.

"I don't give us a morning's journey, if we tried to leave this village right now. There's safety in numbers when you're dealing with the Network. The whole idea of waiting until the end of the season was to link up with the Anauroch traders so we wouldn't be alone with the Zhentarim in Dekanter. The way they've got it set now" a stray thought stopped Rozt'a cold. When she spoke again, her tone was deeper and more anxious. "We could be stuck herestuck in Parnastfor the whole winter!"

Parnast was a typical village in most respects, not unlike Sunderath where Dru had been born. True, it was a bit more isolated ... All right, tucked on the rump side of the Greypeak Mountains with the Anauroch desert for a neighbor, it was hard to imagine a more isolated village. The Dawn Pass Trailthe sole reason for Parnast's existencewas unusable for half the year. As soon as the late summer dust storms ended, the mountain blizzards began and lingered until the spring thaw produced a certainty of mud from Llorkh to Yarthrain.

Winter in Parnast would be winter in prison.

"I don't know," Galimer answered. "I've made a few inquiries. We've only been here an afternoon, and we haven't established our reputations. The problem isn't just that they've moved the trail to the east of Dekanter. Something's seriously wrong at Zhentil Keep. Apparently nothing's come west for months, and traders who usually head east have chosen to go south instead. I've got to wonder when the Network's own trade chooses a Cormyr passage. Amarandaris must be wondering the same thing. Word is that he's Sememmon's hand-picked man"

"You hadn't mentioned that! It just gets worse!" Despite her assurances, Rozt'a was shouting at her husband. "Dru!" She turned her attention to him, as he'd feared she would. "Drutalk to this man! Tell him what to do before he gets us all killed!"

Druhallen took a deep breath. "It's not Galimer's fault. The Zhentarim are as good at keeping secrets as they are at spreading rumors. I'm inclined to think there's something rotten at Zhentil Keep, and at Dekanter as well, though whether they're related ... that I can't begin to guess. If there's blame, put it on me. I'm the one who wanted to be here. I thought a contract to escort myrrh resin into the south was ideal. I would have shaken hands and called it done. Galimer had the sense to insist on earnest and Acolytes. I laughed at him, if you remember. Well, I've stopped laughing. Blame me for this, not him."

Rozt'a wouldn't blame Dru for anything. Her temper would take her to the brink of a confrontation with her onetime lover, but never across it. They talked, as two members of a trio had to talk, and sometimes at great length but when discussion grew heated, Rozt'a became a woman of very few words.

Dru, who was their partnership's nominal leader, took advantage of herand his own unwillingness to confront what hadand had notcontinued to exist between them.

"We're not trapped yet," he continued patiently. "The locals say the dust storms don't usually start until after the Eleint full moon and not always then. Last year the storms were bad, and the year before. The old woman who sold me bread swore there'd never been three bad years in a row. She said, too, that this past spring saw any number of merchant- adventurers head out to trade with the Bedine. Surely some of them will make it back. If they won't hire us as extra magic, then we'll pay our own way. Safety in numbers, Roz, just as you said."

"What about Amarandaris?" she persisted. "What price are we going to have to pay to him? Is this the season when we sell ourselves to the Network?"

There'd been no Zhentarim in Sunderath. Druhallen had grown up without ever seeing a Network trade-mark or cringing in the face of Network brutality. Rozt'a had been less fortunate and harbored a mistrust that bordered on hysteria.

"If Galimer says Amarandaris is a Darkhold man, then I believe him. He and I have dealt with Sememmon and his vassals since we were boys in Ansoain's shadow. They're honorable villains, for what it's worth, and know the value of honest trade. If worse comes to worst, we can go down the new trail with Amarandaris and live to tell the tale."

Rozt'a folded her arms beneath her breasts. "I don't share your faith where Darkhold is concerned. I got a look at this Amarandaris while I was scouting the resident muscle. I've seen warmer eyes on a snake."

"Why not go up the Dawn Pass?" Galimer interrupted. "They've got sixty mules in the stables right now, that's thirty more than they want. There'll be a mule train headed back to Llorkh tomorrow or the day after. We can go with them. I can keep our noses clean with the Zhentarim, but something's got the goblin-kin riled. Sweet Mystradidn't you see them camped outside the palisade as we came in? Something's put real fear into those little beggars. Dwarves, maybe, or Underdark races who'd kill us as soon as they'd kill a goblin. If Amarandaris pulled the Network out of Dekanter, Dru, I'm telling you I'm not eager to get one step closer than I already am."

"Vengeance," Dru countered. "Your mother's vengeance."

"We've gotten vengeance. There were thirteen Red Wizards on that hilltop. We've learned all their names and slain three of them without going to Dekanter. We'll slay the rest when we can, if we can. Going to Dekanter won't get us closer to any of them. All Dekanter gets us gets youis a chance to cast that scrying spell you've been cooking up for years. All rightsuppose you do scry something about the glass disk? Suppose you see a red-robed wizard carry it out of the mines, then what? You've never been able to answer that question for me, Dru. Are you going to start excavating with strangers aroundZhentarim strangers? Sweet Mystra, you've always said, 'Don't let the Network know we think there's a connection between Ansoain's death and the Red Wizards'! If you ask me, it would be easier if we were traveling with Amarandaris. At least then we'd know the thief"

"Strangers! Red Wizards! Zhentarim!" Rozt'a erupted. "Gods! Take your pick and the Pit take them all. We're all born little people and if we're clever well stay little people, beneath the notice of the mighty for good or evil. You find what you're looking for, Druhallen, and our troubles are just starting."

Dru defended himself: "If I'm right and the Red Wizards are kindling their spell circles with Netherese magic and Netherese artifacts, then the rest of Faerun's got to know before the Weave is torn. The Netheril Empire came down in a day because wizards got greedy."

"The Weave's not our responsibility. I've said it before: She was my mother!" Galimer shouted. Galimer never shouted, but the heat and frustration had gotten to them all. "You've spun a yard of conclusions from a single strand of suspicion, Dru. I say, sell that damned disk and be done with it."

Dru opened his folding boxa different one than he'd carried on the Vilhon Reachand removed the disk. He held it up in the summer light.

The disk had not yielded its secrets easily. Ansoain had been dead for two winters before Druhallen knew the inscription was written in the language of the ancient Netheril Empire. Another seven winters passed before he'd taught himself enough of that forgotten language to attempt a translation ... Those who see me see darkness, while he who holds me casts the sun.

In his heart Druhallen believed that the first part of the inscription described the disk's function as a vault where several wizards could pool their potential magic; and the second part described the might a wizard wielded when he unleashed that pooled potential. But other interpretations were possible. There was no definitive concordance of Netherese with any modern language. In other contexts, the word Druhallen had translated as darkness meant death or blindness; and at least one elven authority insisted that casts the sun was a metaphor for insanity.

Galimer and Rozt'a agreed with the elves and so, five years ago, Druhallen had spent the winter at Candlekeep, where for a hefty price in gold a blind seer had plunged into a trance. She'd vindicated a few of Dru's cherished suspicions. Before it fell into the grass on the Vilhon Reach, the disk had belonged to a red-robed necromancer from Thay who commanded the potential magic of twelve other wizards less skilled than himself. But the Candlekeep seer had been unable to determine what precise role the disk had played in casting the spells that slew Ansoain and so many others that day, or how a Netherese artifact had wound up in a Red Wizard's hands.

Go to Dekanter, the seer suggested when her trance had ended. Go to the Mines of Dekanter in the Greypeak Mountains. The Netherese mages congregated there after the metal played out and the dwarves had moved on. They developed their most potent spells and artifacts in those mountains, away from the floating cities. There is a distinct pattern to objects forged at Dekantera taste of darkness, the scents of depth and weight. Go to Dekanter. Your disk was born there, lost there, and found there not so long ago. A century or two, at most. If you can find the chamber where the disk was fired, I can teach you a simple spell that will show you the rest.

The seer's "simple spell" was more subtle than any spell Druhallen had learned before or since. It had taken him three years to collect the reagents necessary to cast it and another yearnot to mention the lion's share of the reagentsto master it. Until this morning, he'd believed he was less than a week's journeying from unraveling a triad of mysteries with a single spell: the history of a polished disk of Netherese glass, the specific role it played in the ambush that led to Ansoain's death, and the more general role it played in Red Wizard spell-casting.

In the Parnast room Dru rotated the disk until it angled sunlight onto the floor between them all. "The Netherese wizards destroyed themselves, their Empire, and very nearly the world." He recited a lesson he'd learned from the Candlekeep seer. "When Great Ao saw the price of their foolishness, He commanded Mystra to thread a new strand through the Weave, the strand of fate that limits the power of our spellcraftbecause the nature of magic is reckless- ness and self-destruction. That thread has held tight against good, evil, and all that lies betweenuntil now. I'm sure the Red Wizards are trying to recreate the forbidden spells that brought the Empire down."

Galimer shook his head. "It doesn't follow, Dru. It hasn't ever followed. Yes, the Thayan circles are dangerous and we don't know how the Red Wizards create them. And, yes, their zulkirs are madmen, worse than the Zhentarim. But madmen fueled with Netherese artifacts? Look at a map, Druthere's half of Faerun between Thay and Dekanter. It's not as if they can just appear and disappear"

The gold-haired mage stopped himself, and Druhallen savored a long-awaited victory.

"That's exactly what they did on the Vilhon Reach," Dru said without gloating. "Why not do it at Dekanter? Everything does follow. I'd just as soon go the rest of the way by ourselves the old trail must still be there and it's not as if we'd be looking for a fight with anyonealthough, have you considered the possibility that this supposed war below Dekanter is actually the Red Wizards establishing themselves above?"

Dru watched Galimer's eyes narrow with thought, and he feigned a philosophical retreat.

"You plot our course, Longfingers. If you say we go to Llorkh, then we head east to Llorkh. Gods willing, I'll get back here some other year."

Galimer, still narrow-eyed and thinking, said nothing.

Rozt'a began her opinion with a groan, followed by, "Spare me! Mystra's got nothing on you, Druhallen, when it comes to weaving mismatched strands. Both of you would like nothing better than to be cooped up for the winter with nothing to do but pore over a spellbook. Gods know, Parnast isn't big enough for real trouble"

It was an afternoon for misstatementsand not about a wizard's capacity for boredom. Their trio was, in fact, a quartet and their fourth partner was loose.

"Speaking of trouble, Roz, where is Tiep?" Dru asked. "Shouldn't he be back by now?"

"I left him grooming the horses. I told him to scrape and rasp their hooves while he's at it. Six horses, twenty-four hoovesI figured it would take him the rest of the afternoon. He's due before sundown; and I reminded him that we hadn't forgotten what happened in Llorkh."

Dru raked his hair anxiously.

"He'll be all right," Galimer interceded. "The problem in Llorkh was that he got lost and asked the wrong people for help. Parnast's smaller. There's only one street, one stable, one tav"

"Tiep's never gotten lost in his life," Dru shot back. "Tiep gets distracted and then Tiep gets in trouble. The boy is nothing but distraction and trouble wrapped up in skin."

Rozt'a looked out the front door as she said, "He's sixteen. He'll grow out of it, the same way we did when we were sixteen."

No mother could cherish a child more than Rozt'a cherished Tiep. The boy had shown up in the Chauntean temple of Berdusk while she was recovering from her fevered pregnancy. Scrawny as a nestling bird and just as hungry, Tiep had been the perfect target for Rozt'a's thwarted instincts. The priests guessed he was about seven, meaning he was about sixteen now. Druhallen suspected that he was closer to twenty; starvation had a way of stunting a child's growth both in body and in conscience.

With his swarthy skin, curling sable hair, and startling blue eyes, Tiep had the look of a foreigner wherever they traveled. Though charming and graceful, he had the defensive nature of someone always under suspicion, but he'd been clever enough to see a better life for himself when he first saw his reflection in Rozt'a's eyes.

From the start, Tiep had tried to earn his keep through chores and charm. He had his bad daysrather more of them lately than there'd been for several yearsbut mostly the boy was good company. Unfortunately, he was also an incorrigible thief.

Together, Dru, Rozt'a, and Galimer had been unable to erase the lessons Tiep had learned in the alleys of Berdusk. They gave him all that he needed and more besides. He repaid their kindness with stolen gifts. Folk who made their living by guarding the wealth of others couldn't safely shelter a thief, but there was no sticking place in Tiep's memory for the moral lessons they tried to teach him.

"He's got to be careful in Parnast," Dru said after a moment's silence. "He's gotten too old for mercy. Amarandaris will hang him if he gets caught stealing here."

"I see him," Rozt'a said from the doorway. "He's walking beside a girl."

"Gods have mercy," Dru swore.

He surged to his feet but Galimer beat him to the doorway.

"It was bound to happen," Rozt'a whispered.

Predictably, Galimer saw the situation in its best light: "At least he won't get caught stealing."

Tiep made a fool of his foster-father as he wrapped the girl in a surprisingly mature embrace and kiss. She ran away the instant he released her. If Tiep was disappointed by his light-o-love's bolt for freedom, he hid it well. When he realized he'd had an audience, he add a swagger to his grin.

"Her name's Manya. Her poppa's a farmer here, and her brother's joined the garrison. She tends the geese every morning, but comes into"

"We're travelers, Tiep." Dru cut the lad short. "And this is a tiny village, a tiny Zhentarim village. The fathers and brothers who live here won't take kindly to travelers paying court to their young women. You'll wake up in a ditch, minus your most valued parts."

"I wasn't doing anything. I wasn't even thinking about doing anything."

"You kissed her." Rozt'a planted her hands on Tiep's shoulders, and he froze beneath her. "Where I come from, that was enough to get you betrothedor run out of town, if she was already spoken for."

Rozt'a didn't often speak about her life before the road. The youth swallowed hard and tucked his chin down so he didn't have to meet her eyes.

"Manya didn't say anything about thatand she was the one who started talking. There was a bunch of goblins out behind the stable, beggin' and all when she was just trying to get to the charterhouse. I saw that she was scared, so I grabbed a pitchfork an' chased 'em off. What was I supposed to do? Turn my back? How would those brothers and fathers feel if I didn't"

"All right!" Dru snarled. He wasn't in the mood for Tiep's logic. "Rozt'a didn't say you'd done anything wrong! What we're all saying is that we're likely to be in Parnast longer than we planned, so you've got to be extra careful. If you see something lying on the ground, just leave it there and don't cross the locals or their daughters. Amarandaris has the first and last word in justice here, and I'm not going to risk our lives or livelihoods to save yours."

"Sheesh! I've got the point. Gods, it was only a kiss, and it was her idea, to thank me for chasing those goblins away."

Rozt'a had closed the door and the room was stifling with raw emotion. Tiep and Galimer exchanged anxious glances. They were alike in important ways: they both valued peace more than victory. Dru wasn't surprised that Galimer broke the tension.

"Other than goblins and girls, how was your afternoon?"

"Did you rasp down their hooves?" Rozt'a added before Tiep could answer.

He knew whose questions came first. "All but Ebony'sshe wasn't having anything to do with me around her feet an' it was too hot to argue with her. I'll get her in the morning when she's still sleepy. I got everybody else: Cardinal, Bandy, Fowler, Star and Hopper. Hopper's cracked his left rear hoof. I was going to say we'd have to find a smith and get him shod, but if we're not going anywhere for a while, maybe we can wait an' see if it'll grow out on its own."

Larceny notwithstanding, Tiep was a conscientious youth. He took good care of their animalsespecially Hopper, the elder statesman among their horsesand was a better cook than the rest of them combined. This past spring, before they left Scornubel and at Druhallen's suggestion, they'd given him a one-tenth share of their profits.

It had been time to make him a partner, but it had taken away the one threat that always worked with Tiep: the threat of leaving him behind.

With a grin Tiep offered Dru a small, rag-wrapped parcel. "I found this for you."

Warily, Dru accepted the parcel which unfurled in his hands. A lump of black, waxy stuff released its scent into the crowded room.

"Myrrh," Dru muttered when enough of the mournful aroma had hit his nostrils. A small fortune in myrrh. "Tiep, tell me you don't expect me to believe that you found this just lying about."

"In the stalls," the lad replied quickly, too quickly for Dru's taste. "Those Zhentarim hostlers, they don't clean the stalls near good enough."

"Tiep!" all three adults spoke as one.

"All right. All right. I won it. I won it fair and square from a hostler. An' he said he did find it in the straw after some merchants left yesterday. I figured it was the bunch that ran out on us, and that they owed us, so I made sure I won the bet"

"You admit you cheated?" Dru challenged. Discipline fell to him. Galimer didn't have the stomach for it, and Rozt'a left bruises when she tried.

"Never!" Tiep replied emphatically. "I don't cheat! The guy said he could throw double- three five times running. I let him make his throw four times, then I dared himmy ring for his myrrhto throw his fifth double-three with my dice."

Of course Tiep had had a pair of dice with him.

Rozt'a reached for his shoulders again. "That ring's not yours to sell or game away."

Before they'd set out from Berdusk, Druhallen had enchanted the ring to help them find the boy, if he'd ever truly gotten lost, and to pass him through the wards Dru routinely set around their rooms and camps. In the process they'd discovered that Tiep had another talent beside thievery: he shed simple magics and was particularly hard on enchantments. His talent wouldn't save him from a fireball, but it had forced Dru to enchant an expensive gemstone ring rather than a plain silver band and it had made it impossible for Tiep to follow in his foster fathers' footsteps.

"There was no way I was losing my ring."

"Then you were cheating," Dru corrected.

"No way! My dice are absolutely pure, honest, all-around square." Tiep placed his hands over his heart for dramatic emphasis. "The hostler was cheating. No way he was going to try to make his throw with square dice. And it wasn't as if the myrrh really belonged to him. He didn't even know what it washe was going to smoke it. Can you imagine how sick he'd be right now if he'd tried smoking myrrh? I saved that hostler from a really bad night."

The worst part of Tiep's tale was that it was probably true. "You should have taken the hostler and the myrrh to the charterhouse."

"Ri-i-i-ight," Tiep sneered. "And gotten him in all kinds of trouble? And Amandis was going to shout 'Quick, saddle my fastest horse and get this lump of very valuable myrrh back to the idiot who dropped it!'?"

Tiep had a point; he usually did. Dru contented himself with a simpler warning: "That's Amarandaris, not Amandis."

"Yeah, him, too."

"Don't take Parnast lightly, Tiep. We're out of the Heartlands. This is Zhentarim territory, and there's nothing they like better than a cocky, young man."

"He's right, Tiep," Galimer added. "Lord Amarandaris might not punish you, if he catches you. He might seduce you into working for him. It's easy to find yourself working for the Network and impossible to stop. There's no 'just this once' with the Zhentarim."

Tiep grimaced. "I'm not stupid. I won that myrrh from a damn-fool hostler. How he got it is no concern of mine."

Tiep could seem so sure of himself, so honest and sincere in his protests, but for an instant, as he'd opened his mouth, Dru thought he'd seen a flash of naked terror in the youth's eyes. Maybe they were finally getting through to him.

A man had to be doubly careful with his integrity when he shared the road with the Black Network, paid their tolls and bribes, and knew that every coin in his purse had passed through their hands at least once before it came to him. That was the first lesson that Ansoain had taught him. Druhallen thought he'd kept the lesson close to his heart all these years, but he kept the myrrh, too, and he believed his foster son.

* * * | The Nether Scroll | c