Lynn Abbey

The Nether Scroll


12 Flamerule, the Year of the Arch (1353 DR) Along the Vilhon Reach

'Do you think she wants to marry him? I hear he's half snake… the wrong half.'

The question and comments rolled off the tongue of Galimer Longfingers, journeyman and wizard, as he and Druhallen of Sunderath, also a journeyman and wizard, fidgeted in their saddles while watching other men repair a broken cartwheel.

'Which half would be the right half?' Druhallen joked, then turned serious. 'There's no point to wishes. What's cut, stays cut. We've been hired to get her to Hlondeth. What happens afterward is none of our concern.'

Afoot, Druhallen was a handspan shorter than Galimer, though that wasn't obvious when they were astride. Nothing about Druhallen was obvious. His hair was a drab shade of brown that framed his squarish face with a ragged fringe. He had a larger-than-average mouth and nose, and his otherwise attractive hazel eyes were shadowed by heavy brows that were darker than his hair. Dressed in homespun and leather, Druhallen was often mistaken for his friend's varlet.

Galimer Longfingers cut an impressive figure, even in the middle of nowhere or on an empty road across the Vilhon Reach-which was almost the same thing. If the young woman under discussion was looking for a handsome, all-human suitor, she'd certainly cast a measuring glance in Galimer's direction. His wine-colored tunic and gray moleskin breeches had been tailored in the best Scornubel establishments and were as sturdy as they were fashionably expensive. His idly curling hair was the color of Aglarond cider, his eyes were gemstone blue, and his features were delicate without being either elven or feminine. His fingers, sheathed in leather gloves dyed to match his eyes, were elegant and long.

Wizard hands, Ansoain, his mother, labeled them-because long, slender fingers were presumed to be an asset in a profession that relied on gesture and precision. She'd nicknamed him Longfingers when he was a toddler, and fifteen years later Galimer still dreamed of taking his place among the great wizards of Faerun.

A more sober and thoughtful youth, Druhallen never gainsaid his friend's dreams though he-and Ansoain, too-were aware that wizardry required more than elegant hands. Wizardry demanded a sharp mind, a special sort of curiosity, nerves of steel, and-above all else-gods-given talent. Galimer's wits were sharp enough, but he fell short in all the other attributes.

Druhallen had it all, despite his workman's physique and a childhood spent learning carpentry beside his older brothers in his father's shop. He'd captured Ansoain's attention a decade ago when bad weather led her to commission a waterproof box for the rare spices she was chaperoning along the roads to Elversult. When the carpenter's youngest son blithely quieted a squealing hinge with a cantrip of his own devising, Ansoain offered to apprentice the boy in exchange for twenty fresh-minted Cormyr falcons.

Without consulting his son, the old man bit each coin and, approving of their taste, gave Druhallen a swat on the rump and a warning to obey his new master. Druhallen had sworn he'd never bring shame to his father's name and left Sunderath that day with a pocketful of nails. He'd kept his promise and the nails.

They both knew he could have found himself a wealthy patron by now, but he'd taken to the road like an uncaged bird took to the sky. Still, Dru remembered what he'd learned from his father and as far in time and place as he'd come from Sunderath, he could have re-spoked that wheel in half the time it was taking the carters.

The carters would be at it a while longer. Long enough, Druhallen thought, for a nap. He was eyeing an elm tree with moss-padded roots when Galimer interrupted him with another bit of gossip.

'I've heard the bridegroom's forty-five, three times a widower, with neither hair nor heirs to show for his efforts.'

In Scornubel and the other towns where Ansoain plied the journey-trade with Druhallen and her son, Galimer Longfingers was accounted a witty young man. His wordplay usually left Druhallen chuckling, but not when the carters had just managed to break another spoke.

'And I've heard the bride is bugbear ugly,' he grumbled.

In truth, Dru had heard no such thing. He'd been careful not to acquire neither expensive habits nor an ear for gossip. Still, the simple fact was that they were ten days into what would be at least a twenty-day journey and the bride-to-be had yet to emerge from that cart with the jinxed wheels. Speculation ran rampant, and not only between bored wizards who hadn't yet seen the sun rise on their twentieth birthdays.

In addition to Ansoain and her apprentices, there were twelve men-at-arms attached to the dower caravan: the muscle complement to Ansoain's magic. A man would have to have been stone deaf not to hear what the muscle thought of the situation.

A few days back, Dru had lent a hand to one of the handmaids as she'd struggled with a too-full water jug and gotten an insider's version of the sad tale. The bride's family had a lustrous title, generations of honor, a drafty castle, and debts galore. The bridegroom was a dyer and tanner of fine leathers, no better born than Druhallen himself, but blessed with a self-made fortune. He was said to be a human man, but who knew with the Hlondethem? Their queen was a yuan-ti half-breed with iridescent scales on her cheeks and a serpent's tail she kept hidden, except from her lovers… according to the maid.

The match had been based on mutual need: The groom's for a title to match his wealth and sons to inherit it. The bride's to save her father from the ignominy of debtors' court. She stayed in the cart whether it rolled on four wheels or three because nightmares and tears had ruined her complexion… according to the maid.

'I'd like to see what we're guarding just once before we deliver it,' Galimer continued his complaints. 'The way those three dower carts are wrapped up, you'd think we were escorting the lost treasure of Oebelar.'

Druhallen didn't know about Oebelar's legendary wealth, but he knew that three of the five wagons in their caravan were filled with brick and stone in a pathetic effort to maintain appearances for the already mortified bride. Her dowry, other than the name she'd been born with and the pedigreed blood in her veins, fit in a single chest she kept constantly at her feet.

'Leave it be,' Dru advised for the third time. 'We've escorted stranger consignments and been paid less for our troubles, right?'

Notwithstanding his expensive tastes Galimer was the money-man for the trio. He might bungle his reagent proportions or forget his spells in a crisis, but Galimer knew the exchange rates in every city and who was buying what-or so it seemed to Druhallen, who understood hard work but had no notion of profit.

Ansoain appreciated profit, but couldn't calculate risk for love nor money. She'd willingly turned their business affairs over to her son when his true calling manifested itself some five years ago. Their fortunes had improved steadily ever since.

Galimer had signed them up for this jaunt along the Vilhon Reach precisely because the leather-dyeing suitor had been willing to pay double the going rate to hire the same muscle-and-magic escort that had shepherded a bit of glittery tribute from Hlondeth's queen to her counterpart in Cormyr last autumn. The prospect of such good money had inspired them all, muscle and magic alike, to overlook some obvious questions when the contracts were sealed before a priest of trade in a Waukeenar temple.

'It just seems odd,' Galimer persisted. 'Virgins don't melt in sunlight and if there were anything half-so- valuable in those carts as all that warding suggests, then there aren't enough of us to keep it away from anyone who truly wanted it.'

'No argument,' Dru said mildly and ignored Galimer's sour scowl.

He'd voiced the same objections himself when they'd arrived in Elversult to collect the bride and her dowry. Galimer had dismissed Dru's worries out of hand.

The young men were friends, though, the best of friends and brothers combined-however unlikely that had seemed when a rough-mannered carpenter's son had mastered spells as fast as he learned to read them, faster by far than Galimer at his best. Staying on Longfingers's good side had come naturally to a boy with five older brothers, and Galimer had yearned for a friend. A childhood tagging along after Ansoain, who couldn't sleep three nights in

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