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Ed Greenwood

Elminster Must Die

PROLOGUE

The Year of the Ageless One had brought early and warm spring to Shadowdale, an endless parade of short but drenching rains with muggy days between. Travel through the Dales was a matter of much sweat, slipping in abundant mud, and a profusion of enthusiastically stinging insects.

Wherefore Gaerond of the Scars was fast running out of oaths, and much of him was numb from his own slappings. Nor were the rest of the grim, veteran adventurers in the Bloodshields Band any happier than he was. If the smooth-talking Sembian hadn’t paid them so much-and promised so much more if they brought back even a scrap of success-they’d have taken other roads long since.

Everyone knew the wizard Elminster was long dead and gone, naught but a long-bearded name in legend. His tower in Shadowdale had been a snake-haunted, rubble-strewn pit for longer than anyone alive could remember.

They checked when at last they came to where it had once stood; aye, a pit still, all long grass overgrowing a scum-cloaked pond.

Yet Sembian gold was … Sembian gold, and they’d been promised good handfuls of it, so they trudged on.

The Old Skull Inn was right where it was supposed to be, too, rising tall and proud beside the road. Newly expanded, ’twas said, two floors with porches; a soaring roof above, dark and splendid with new tiles; and from the wideswept eaves a row of large, ornate hanging metal lanterns hung on stout chains, waiting to be lit at dusk. Not all that far off.

Gaerond grunted his approval as the sharp reek of horngrass smoke greeted him. Any bed-haven that wanted to keep stingflies at bay was a place he wanted to sleep in.

He heard the faint thud of a gong from inside. They’d been seen.

He spun around to catch Malkym’s eye, then Flamdar’s, ere slapping his sword hilt. Then he tied his peace- strings through it, nodded when they started doing the same, and turned back to the inn again, keeping his hands empty and away from his sides. He could snatch and hurl two longsarks in half a breath if he had to-but if the rest of the Bloodshields behaved themselves aright, hopefully he’d not have to. Which should mean a decent meal and beds-mayhap even a bath! — that night.

The tallest, widest man he’d ever seen met him at the door, smiling affably enough. Gaerond matched that smile, keeping his eyes on those of the innkeeper and pretending not to notice the two women at either end of a long serving counter who both had loaded hand crossbows lying ready on the well-worn wood in front of them.

“Rooms and a meal, for … six?”

“We’d like that and will pay ready coin.” Gaerond tried to sound amiable, out of long habit; many folk never saw past the fearsome sword scars. “If our work goes well, that is; we’ve a task that won’t wait. We’re the Bloodshields Band and come in peace. Chartered in Arabel, came afoot from Mistledale-and we’re seeking Elminster.”

The host’s smile held but was somehow a trifle less welcoming than before. “Six chartered adventurers, to seek a dead man? Or are you looking for treasure he might have left behind?”

Gaerond shook his head. “We’ve been paid well to consult with him, not offer him harm. On behalf of a patron too old in legs and back to be traveling anywhere to talk with anyone. Someone who’s met with him before told us to tell all in Shadowdale ‘Old Mage still, upon the hill’ if asked about our intentions.”

The innkeeper’s eyes flickered. Then he nodded gravely, turned, and called, deep but gently, “Thal!”

The rather dirty, barefoot young lad who burst out of the kitchens and raced to a halt just out of reach appeared so swiftly that he must have been listening. Bright eyes surveyed Gaerond for a moment ere looking a question at the hulking innkeeper.

“Guide these charter-helms to the wizard’s abode and back again,” came the grave instruction.

“Lanterns?” Thal chirped.

“Nay, lad,” Gaerond replied quickly, “but we’ll pay fair coin for guiding us. If the way’s not long, nor will our business with the mage be. Our patron has ordered that no one else hear what we say or is said to us, but we’ll be done soon enough and can come right back here at your heels.”

Thal looked at the innkeeper for instruction, as if Gaerond hadn’t said a word, but the innkeeper merely nodded approvingly.

At that, the lad smiled, nodded, and marched past Gaerond, trailing a cheerful, “This way, saers.”

Malkym looked as if he wanted a tankard before walking anywhere else, but followed Gaerond in silence, Flamdar and the others trudging right behind.

The lad led them to the crossroads, which were no larger nor less muddy than Gaerond remembered, and took the road north, past some new steads already sagging into the bog they’d been built on. Beyond them the land rose, crowned by a seemingly impenetrable tangle of thornstar hedge that all manner of vine-choked wild trees had thrust up through. Storm Silverhand’s farm, it had once been … a century back, when there still was a Storm Silverhand.

You’d have thought at least one or two Harpers might have survived to settle the place, to keep bellies full on its profusion of pole-fruit and all, but mayhap folk thereabouts had run them off or run them through, and-

To Gaerond’s grunted surprise, the lad turned off the road down into the ditch near the north end of the wild hedge, well past where the farm gate had been-only to scale the far bank of the ditch and plunge through a dark hole in the hedge that looked like a boar run.

Huh. Smelled like a boar run, too; Gaerond laid one hand on his favorite longsark as he put his head down and shouldered after the lad, through crackling branches, leathery leaves, and the inevitable jabbing thorns.

Right behind him, Malkym remembered one of his curses but kept it under his breath. Mostly.

Beyond the bristling fortress of hedge was a damp, mist-shrouded forest of tall trees-thinner than the great old forest giants ahead and to their left, but already choking brambles and wild shrubs off from the light. Birds whirred away in alarm, and small, unseen beasts scuttled for cover. A few rotten, leaning poles among the soaring tree trunks were all that was left of what must once have been rows and rows of crops.

Gaerond caught sight of what might have been the roofless corner of a farmhouse, far off to the right-but no one was living or farming there anymore; they were striding through deep drifts of wet dead leaves and undisturbed, moss-girt deadfalls, with nary a trail to be seen.

And there in the trees, dusk was coming down fast.

“How far, lad?” he grunted, misliking the thought of being caught in the tangle when night fell.

Thal turned and gave a cheerful, guileless smile. “Just ahead, saer, down this path!”

Gaerond suppressed a snort. “Path” was a wild bard’s fantasy if he’d ever heard one, but the lad was atop a little ridge barely three long strides ahead, and pointing down the far side of it, as if the Old Mage’s abode really wasn’t far.

“There, saers!” Thal told them happily, stopping on the ridge and waving them past, one by one, one slender arm pointing.

Blast all the gods, there was a path that seemed to spring out of the sloping rock falling away from the ridge, and descend, winding through a few trees, down into a dell or mayhap a cave somewhere behind too many trunks to stare through.

Gaerond peered hard at the narrow dirt track where the bare rock ended and it began, in a vain attempt to see what manner of beast had made it, then turned to snap, “Rorn!”

Rornagar Breakblade liked to walk rearguard and was good at it; he spun around without the slightest delay, knowing what Gaerond wanted.

Yet no matter how keen and suspicious Rornagar’s eye, he had turned too late and beheld nothing but leaves

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