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Tina Daniell

The Companions

Chapter 1

The Vanishing

Tasslehoff Burrfoot was alone. Having for the moment reached the limit of exploration afforded by a midsize ship like the Venora, the kender had retreated to the cabin he shared with Sturm Brightblade and Caramon Majere. He couldn't help but notice that this somehow pleased the captain, whose shouted oaths and threats had followed him belowdecks. And after Tas had tried so hard to be helpful with the mainsail rigging!

In the cabin, really no more than a narrow room with three bunk beds virtually stacked on top of one another, Tas sat cross-legged on the floor. Topknot bobbing, he poked through his pack and the innumerable pouches he always carried, examining their contents as if he had never laid eyes on them before. His convenient memory assured him they were all 'found' objects, although in most cases, he had quite forgotten how or where they were found.

Spread around him lay all manner of things-a tiny porcelain figurine of a unicorn, a brilliantly-hued feather, sparkling stones and pieces of jewelry, gnarled twine, rolled and beribboned parchment, a wooden flute, yellowed maps, favorite buttons, a ranger's tarnished badge, a scrap of hide with stringy, gray hair that Tas recognized and treasured, for it was, he swore, a souvenir of his fabled encounter with a great and rare woolly mammoth…

One shriveled item particularly drew his attention. Picking it up, Tas examined it in the imperfect light cast by an oil lamp sitting on a rough-hewn shelf screwed into the wall under the cabin's lone porthole. Outside, Tas could glimpse the blue waters of the Schallsea Straits as they rose and fell rhythmically in the late afternoon.

'Huh… I don't remember that!' Tas said ruminatively, peering at the wrinkled possession. 'Looks like an ogre's ear to me, although I don't recall cutting one off-an ogre's ear, that is. Maybe Flint gave it to me, although I don't remember him cutting off an ogre's ear, either. I do remember him cutting off an ogre's foot once, but that's different.' He squinted at the thing, trying to decide. 'No, definitely an ear.'

He shrugged his shoulders, put the object down, and continued sifting through his cherished possessions. His search had started with a definite purpose that was now in obvious peril of being forgotten as this or that glittering bauble diverted the kender's attention. Finally, with a delighted grin, Tas recalled his purpose and reached for an ordinary-looking green glass bottle, small and round, with a long neck.

'Aha!' Tas exclaimed with satisfaction. After a momentary inspection, he placed the bottle on a shelf next to the lamp. In the lamplight, it took on a somewhat more unusual appearance, glistening with iridescent highlights. A quill pen and piece of rough parchment already rested on the shelf, which was low enough and wide enough to double as a desk.

Priding himself on being exceptionally well organized, Tasslehoff proceeded to scoop up his trove of treasures, distributing them among his series of pouches and his rucksack, promising himself that one of these days he would sit down and take a careful inventory of all his precious belongings.

On the deck above, back near the stern, Caramon Majere sat cross-legged amid a small group of rough-and- tumble sailors. Wherever he went, Caramon made friends easily. He, Sturm, and Tas had booked passage several days ago on the sloop. Although the Venora was only two days out to sea on its voyage from Eastport to Abanasinia, Caramon was already on a first name basis with everyone on board, from Captain Murloch-Caramon called him Jhani Murloch-on down. The scruffy group on deck was sharing raucous camaraderie and a jug of mead under the late afternoon sky.

Dusk approached, but the setting sun filled the sky with a bright, orange-red light. No clouds marred the vista. A light wind kept the sloop moving gently. None of the sailors gathered had the impending obligation of night watch. They seemed to flock around Caramon, drawn to his vitality and good humor. They egged the well-muscled young man on as he boasted about his numerous female conquests.

'Caergoth offers the finest females of any port on Krynn,' asserted a burly, whiskered sailor at one point.

'They're portly, all right,' countered one of his cohorts, a squinty-eyed seaman. He drew a round of derisive laughter. 'I likes 'em lean and lively myself, and for that, you can't beat Flotsam.'

'I'll never forget Ravinia,' rhapsodized Caramon, already wistful with drink. The sailors seemed riveted by his words. 'Do you know the barmaid in Eastport?' One of the men grunted recognition. 'She was stingy with her kisses,' Caramon complained, then paused for effect. 'But I was generous with mine!'

A roar of laughter greeted his remark. Caramon tossed back his head and joined in, laughing so hard that tears ran from the corners of his eyes. The jug of mead was passed to him, and he took a long swig before passing it on. The spirits circled the half-dozen others with surprising speed before ending up back in Caramon's hands.

Pleased with the impression he was making, Caramon brushed his golden brown hair from his eyes and took another deep, long draft. He hadn't noticed that for some time now he was the only one drinking from the jug.

Up on the foredeck, the ribald laughter made only the dimmest impression on Sturm Brightblade. Hands clasped, leaning over the ship's side railing, the young man whose ambition it was to become a Solamnic Knight was lost in a mood, staring down into the darkening water. No light was reflected in his limpid brown eyes.

For long minutes, Sturm barely moved. He could have been mistaken for a statue. The least sociable of the three companions aboard the Venora, Sturm kept his thoughts to himself in a manner that could be-and had been, on more than one occasion-construed as arrogant. But this twilight evening, standing in lonely profile, Sturm seemed less arrogant than a man apart, aloof not only from strangers but also from his friends.

The voyage had set him to brooding. Sturm's life had once taken a dramatic turn on a ship. As an infant, he, his mother, and her retinue had fled the family's ancient castle in Solamnia, leaving his father behind to deal with the angry populace that had risen against the knighthood.

Although he had been too young at the time to remember the tale himself, Sturm felt the experience keenly imprinted on his consciousness because his mother had often recounted the story. The image of his father banishing them from their home, though it was for their own safety, was burned into his soul. At an early age, Sturm had learned about the painful price of honor. Few in the world held the Solamnic order in high esteem these days, but Sturm was committed to living up to his father's noble ideals and to following the Oath and the Measure.

As if reflecting his dark thoughts, a canopy of clouds towered on the horizon. A sharp, cool wind came up, rousing Sturm from his contemplation. He noticed the cloud mass immediately but with no particular interest, thinking idly, as a child might, that it appeared to have a shape like some great, flying creature with outspread wings and groping talons. The cloud seemed to roil the waters before it. As he continued to gaze in its direction, Sturm became aware that the cloud mass was building ominously. It was approaching rapidly and would be upon the ship in mere minutes.

Sturm stirred himself, stepped back from the railing, and glanced toward the rear deck, which still echoed with the boisterous laughter of the crew. He ought to find Captain Murloch and make sure the ship was ready for a blow. Then he ought to check on Caramon and Tas.

Back belowdecks, Tas had been very, very busy, carefully phrasing his magic letter to Raistlin Majere, Caramon's twin brother. Wouldn't Raistlin be thrilled! Tas had been eagerly anticipating this occasion for a long time-well, at least since the night they had boarded the Venora, when the contents of one of his pouches had shifted and the magic message bottle had poked him in the side, reminding him of its existence.

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