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Barbara Siegel, Scott Siegel

Tanis the shadow years

1

Juggling choices

'Another mug of ale for му friend,' cried the homely dwarf. Tika, the young barmaid, sighed. It was late. Very late. And the red-haired teenager was tired. Even Tanis, who had come back to the Inn of the Last Home after all his friends had gone, looked drained. He sat there alone, save for the exuberant dwarf with the funny nose and drooping ears who had suddenly befriended him. Tanis, almond-shaped eyes thoughtful in his tanned face, shook his head at Tika. 'No more ale,' he said. 'At least not for me.' The barmaid planted her feet sturdily before the dwar- ven stranger and flung the bar rag over one shoulder. The bean-shaped common room in the Solace inn, once the site of hours of storytelling by Tanis and his companions, now stretched emptily behind her to the stonework fireplace. No flames flickered against the stonework to cheer the lonely room, and the dying embers added precious little warmth. All in all, Tanis thought, the atmosphere suited his mood just fine.

Tika, freckles standing out from her skinny face even in this failing light, challenged the stranger. 'And you, sir?' she demanded. 'You're finished for the night, isn't that so7'

The dwarf smiled at the barmaid and gave her a wink. 'I wouldn't dream of drinking alone. Perhaps you'll have one with me?'

'Hmphh.' The skinny teenager raised her chin and pressed her lips into a thin line.

'I guess that means no?'

'HmphhI' Tika's eyes flashed.

'What a vocabulary you have,' the dwarf said, mock- seriously, his ears drooping a notch lower. 'Myself, I love words. May I teach you the phrase, 'I'd be delighted to have a drink with you, Clotnik, you beguiling wretch?'' He grinned in a manner obviously intended to be charming.

She fought it, but just a bit of a smile creased her mouth.

Clotnik crowed. 'I saw that!'

'Hmphh!' Tika ran off to the kitchen.

Tanis's tired eyes sparkled at Clotnik's playfulness, at Tika's shyness-which Tanis now saw would ripen into allure when she reached womanhood. Tanis remembered a time when he had been equally innocent. Laurana. Yes, he had felt the heady pleasure of a girl's meaningful gaze, and had it been possible, he might have answered that look with his heart. More recently there had been Kitiara. He had ended it with the hot-headed swordswoman just hours before, and for his honesty he had received a slap in the face that jarred his teeth loose. But even now he was wondering if he hadn't been a fool. It was too late to do anything about it; Kit had already left on her journey with Sturm. Tanis knew, with a black certainty, that he would not see Kit-or any of any of his companions- for five long years. And maybe not even then.

Tanis unknowingly clenched his hands. Whether from long ago or from mere moments past, his memories stabbed him deeply with a painful sense of loss… and the shine in his eyes vanished.

Clotnik laughed as Tika disappeared into the kitchen, but his expression quickly darkened when Otik, the innkeeper, emerged through those same doors with a tally sheet in his hands.

'I don't know how you managed to drink all that ale,' Otik said with a trace of awe in his voice as he placed the tally sheet down on the table in front of Clotnik. 'Yon must make a good living to build up such a bill,' he added pointedly.

Clotnik squirmed for a moment and then brightened. 'You've had such a busy night,' he exclaimed, grabbing the innkeeper's hand and shaking it. 'You must have made a small fortune. What is money, then, to such a successful businessman?' He hurried on, not giving Otik a chance to utter as much as a syllable. 'Why, you don't need money. Money would be wasted on you!'

The rotund innkeeper glanced warily at Tanis. The half-elf merely shrugged.

'Money you could extract from anyone,' the dwarf rambled on without bothering to draw breath, 'but a demonstration of nearly unimaginable juggling skills… well, only Clotnik can give you that. And for this special performance,' he quickly added in a kindly voice as he pulled a large traveling bag from beneath the table, 'I won't ask for any payment at all except the money to cover this bill, plus two more mugs of ale. No, make that three-one for Tanis, one for me, and one for yourself.'

Otik appeared uncertain, as though he didn't know what to do first: strangle the bamboozling little dwarf or simply tear out his tongue. After a moment's thought, the decision was firmly made. He'd strangle him and then tear out his tongue.

By then, Clotnik had opened his traveling bag and had extracted five intricately detailed, glistening balls, one of gold, one of silver, one of brass, one of iron, and the last one of delicate glass.

'Shall I juggle for you?' Clotnik asked the mesmerized innkeeper.

Otik didn't answer. He just stared at the obviously valuable balls grasped in the juggler's hands. His eyes protruded slightly in his round face.

'I think you've got his attention,' Tanis said dryly. 'In fact, you've got mine, as well. Not to mention young Tika's,' he went on, gesturing toward the kitchen where the barmaid could be spied peeking through the doorway.

Clotnik looked back at the red-haired barmaid. 'I love an audience,' he said with a satisfied smile. 'I live for this.' And then he began to juggle. The balls of gold, silver, and glass shimmered in the candlelight as they flew up and down, creating a stark contrast with the heavy iron and brass balls that cut through the air around them.

'Juggling comes naturally to everyone,' Clotnik said easily as he deftly plucked the glass ball out of the air and then threw it up again, this time from behind his back. 'We juggle our friends, keeping one in the air while we squeeze attention from another. We juggle our work with our pleasure, our needs with our shame, and even our love with our hate. Everyone juggles, all of us trying to keep as many balls in the air as possible, trying to grab at each opportunity before it comes crashing down at our feet.'

Now Clotnik juggled all five balls in a fast, tight circle, the round objects blurring from the speed with which he whipped them through the air.

'Take Tanis, for instance,' the dwarf continued effortlessly. 'Although he says little that is personal-after all, we've only just met-he talks of leaving Solace at dawn. Yet he doesn't sleep. Why? Perhaps he has yet to decide where he will go, come the morning sun. It must be so, because he will not speak of his destination. Ah, what mystery and intrigue! Don't tell me he is not juggling!'

The juggler continued. 'Where are his friends? Scattered to the four corners of Krynn for five years, he tells me. So Tanis tosses up a ball of loneliness'-and Clotnik used a deft movement to single out the gold ball for a heartbeat before returning the glittering orb to the flashing circle.

'Meanwhile,' the juggler commented, 'Tanis tells me he plans to make his journey alone. Ah, toss up a ball of danger, for no one should travel alone in these troubled times. And even as those two balls travel in their circular arc, Tanis must keep the ball of his birth in the air, as well. Because, of course, his ultimate juggling act is between his elven and human halves.'

Otik, arrested in the act of wiping his hands on a streaked white apron, drew a sharp breath and gave a troubled glance at Tanis. He didn't know how the half-elf would react to Clotnik's indelicate remark.

The half-elf, betraying no emotion in his voice, carefully said, 'Tell me, my friend, what do you juggle besides those balls? Do you juggle your life's breath somewhere between impertinence and honesty?' His hand shifted casually to the sword at his left side, although like most creatures of elven blood, he never would have taken a life unnecessarily-and certainly not out of annoyance alone. Still, it might not hurt to caution the young dwarf that not everyone would be so forgiving. 'I wonder how many times you have misjudged your audience and said the wrong thing to the wrong person.' Tanis moved his hand back to the table top.

'Many times,' Clotnik cheerfully conceded, his eyes flashing green in the candlelight. 'I have often been cut

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