The Realms of the Elves
Traitors by Richard Lee Byers
The Staff of Valmaxian by Philip Athans
Necessary Sacrifices by Lisa Smedman
The Greater Treasure by Erik Scott de Bie
Comrades at Odds by R.A. Salvatore
Tears So White by Ed Greenwood
The Bladesinger’s Lesson by Richard Baker
— 250,090 DR
Rhespen Ash brandished his truesilver staff and shouted words of power. The magic cast up shields of wind and light, and hurled bright, crackling thunderbolts at the foes lurking in the green shadows between the trees.
It wasn't enough. The enemy wizards shattered his defenses quick as he could conjure them, volleys of arrows moaned through the air, and Rhespen's troops and their horses died.
If he'd had a chance to prepare, it would likely have been different, but the ambuscade had caught him entirely by surprise. He'd marched a small company of his master's warriors into the forest because some of the inhabitants-elves, his own People! — had sent a message requesting help to repel an incursion of trolls. He'd had no reason to suspect the missive had actually originated with rebels seeking to lure a portion of the royal army into a trap.
He glanced about to see how many of his predominantly human men-at-arms lay dead or crippled and how many remained on their feet. It looked as if the foe had neutralized half of them already.
The battle was lost. For a moment, Rhespen considered using sorcery to whisk himself to safety. But he owed it to his men to attempt a proper surrender and so prevent the destruction of any more lives. He murmured a charm to amplify his voice, the better to cry for quarter, and an enormous shadow swept over his beleaguered force.
His soldiers looked up, and cheered. Rhespen felt the same jubilation. King Orchtrien and his get were busy fighting in the great wars far to the southeast. Yet somehow, one of them had perceived trouble in the supposedly peaceful heart of the realm, whereupon Prince Bexendral had employed a spell of teleportation to rush to his vassal's aid.
Some of the enemy shrieked, bolted, or collapsed cowering at the sight of the gold dragon on the wing. Others shot arrows, or assailed the wyrm with darts of light and blasts of frost. Hovering, leathery wings beating and flashing in the afternoon sunlight, Bexendral didn't even appear to notice the attacks. He growled a spell, and sparks rained from the empty air to the forest floor, where they exploded into prodigious blasts of flame. Twisting the horned, wedge-shaped head at the end of his serpentine neck, the prince spewed a flare of his own burning breath, decimating the rebels and plunging the survivors into disarray.
Rhespen's men, suddenly keen to avenge their fallen comrades, hefted their swords and spears and ran toward the flames. The mad rush had no tactics or order to it, but what did it matter? Bexendral had come and his warriors couldn't lose.
Rhespen used his magically enhanced voice to shout to the rebels: 'Surrender now, or the dragon will kill you all!'
Huge as Bexendral was, his sire dwarfed him, and even though he'd served the king for a century, Rhespen always felt a pang of awe upon entering his presence. His heart beating a little faster, he marched the length of the vast, high-ceilinged hall, kneeled before the intricately carved cylindrical pedestal that served as a sort of throne, and laid his staff at Orchtrien's taloned feet.
Up close, the gold smelled of saffron, and his yellow eyes shined like lamps. 'Rise, Milord,' he rumbled. 'Tell me what you've learned.'
'Yes, Majesty.' Rhespen drew himself to his feet. 'Many of the forest folk are loyal. Only three noble Houses-Vilirith, Starfall, and Duskmere-took part in the treachery.'
Someone snorted. Rhespen turned to see that, as expected, it was Maldur Breakstone. Burly and florid of face, long hair dyed a premature white to create the appearance of wisdom, the human mage gave him a glower.
'Did you wish to comment?' asked Orchtrien, beard of fleshy tendrils dangling beneath his jaw.
Grimacing, Maldur feigned reluctance. Then: 'I don't mean to impugn Lord Rhespen's competence, Majesty, nor, obviously, his loyalty. But if he failed to notice that any of his fellow elves were plotting treason to begin with, are you certain you can trust his findings now?'
Rhespen stifled a surge of anger. 'Do you, Milord, have any concrete reason to doubt them?'
Maldur shrugged. 'Perhaps the truly important question is what to do next.' He shifted his gaze again to Orchtrien, tilting his head back so he could look the reptile in the eye. 'Majesty, I suggest you execute all the dastards implicated in the crime and confiscate their lands and property. If other elves are contemplating treason, perhaps the fate of the rebels will dissuade them. If not, well, the traitors still deserve the harshest punishment you can mete out, and you need wealth to prosecute your wars.'
Rhespen frowned. 'Majesty, I recommend a more merciful approach.'
'Well, you would, wouldn't you,' Maldur said, 'considering that the knaves are your own race, and that it was mainly humans who paid the price for their treachery.'
'I'm a servant of the crown before all else,' Rhespen said, 'and I grieve for the warriors who fell. I advise moderation because severity could sow unrest where none currently exists, and with war raging on our borders, that we can ill afford.'
'You may be right,' Orchtrien said. 'Still, we must do something to deter the rebel lords from further folly. We will hold their children hostage, and you, Rhespen, will supervise their captivity.'
'With respect, Majesty,' Maldur said, 'Lord Rhespen might find it a trial to manage prisoners of his own race. He might start feeling unduly sympathetic. Whereas I-'
'I want a sympathetic jailer,' said the king. 'I want the hostages to enjoy their sojourn with us, and to savor all the pleasures and wonders my court has to offer. That's the way to win their fealty, and when they one day ascend to their parents' estates, to put an end to this insane impulse to anarchy for good and all.'
'Your Majesty is wise,' Rhespen said. 'But I hoped to journey south with you and fight at your side. Surely someone else-'
Orchtrien snorted, the exhalation hot with a hint of the fire forever smoldering inside him. 'All my deputies are argumentative today. You will do as I have commanded.'
Rhespen inclined his head.
Rhespen had friends among the ravens, hawks, and owls, and they kept him apprised of what occurred in the vicinity of the royal city. Thus, it was easy to intercept the hostages before they started the climb up the mountain highway.
To his surprise, the newest arrival had seen fit to travel in a coach with curtains drawn across the windows. Never had he known an elf to employ such a conveyance. It closed one off from the kiss of the wind, from the ever- changing sight and scent of verdure that was as vital to his kind as food and drink. Indeed, the mere thought of riding for days pent up in such a box made him cringe, and he wondered if the Count of Duskmere had sent an